Monday 25 June 2007

The NHL's Version Of The Yankees

I understand that Leafs-Nation is a place where people take hockey more seriously than breathing. I get that the Maple Leafs is a way of life, and not just a sports passion. The one problem with this view, though, is that no matter how many people follow the Leafs, they're not getting any better. In fact, they're getting worse. The problem isn't with management or the players or the fans or the franchise. No, the problem lies within Leafs-Nation itself. Too many times are good young players jettisoned for an aging superstar. Too often are expensive mistakes made. Too often do the fans cry out for a star to be brought back long after he's been put to pasture. It has finally caught up with the Leafs in this last decade, and it's never been more apparent than what we've seen in the last few years.

First, the goaltending situation of the Maple Leafs has never been on shakier ground. The acquisition of Vesa Toskala has only made things cloudier in TeeDot. Andrew Raycroft is a respectable goaltender who was relied on far too heavily last season to bail out the team in front of him. Management, specifically, John Ferguson Jr., decided the job that Raycroft did wasn't good enough as the Leafs missed the playoffs.

Raycroft posted a 37-25-9 record last season with a 2.99 GAA and a .894 save percentage. His back-up, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, went 3-5-2 with a 3.43 GAA and a .876 save percentage. The Leafs were one point better than they were in 2005-06. In fact, since the 1997-98 season, the Leafs have used 12 goalies over those ten years - not a huge number, but hardly something to take pride in. The New Jersey Devils, by comparison, have used nine goalies, but one name has remained constant through the last decade for the Devils - Martin Brodeur. The Leafs have had Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, and Andrew Raycroft start for them over the same time period. Only Potvin was developed in the Leafs system.

Why bring in Toskala? He's an expensive back-up, and, if he wins the starting role, Raycroft becomes an expensive back-up. Why not promote Justin Pogge? Why not promote Jean-Fran├žois Racine? The Leafs traded away a promising young goalie in Tuukka Rask to get Raycroft, so why are they holding back Pogge?

Look, Toskala is a good goaltender. There's no doubt about that. The problem is that guys like Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy and Ray Emery have toiled in the minor leagues and have emerged as bonafide NHL goaltenders. The Leafs, whose fans demand more than excellence, need to start building from within.

And it doesn't just go for goalies. Their defensemen are slow and prone to boneheaded mistakes. Bryan McCabe, for all the money he's being paid, is the most over-rated defenseman in the NHL today. If he consistantly produced big goals like Sheldon Souray or was as good as Nicklas Lidstrom, he would be worth the money. McCabe is not. He's not that good, nor will he ever be that good.

In fact, Kaberle is the Leafs' best defenseman, and it showed after he was injured by Cam Janssen last season. Colaiacovo is getting better, and will continue to develop as he plays more. Ian White looks solid, and will get better as he matures as well. Staffan Kronwall should also get a long look at training camp this season.

Guys like Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Wade Belak, and the aforementioned McCabe should be sent packing. They are slow and immobile, and that doesn't work in today's NHL. If the Leafs were forced to keep two, I'd stick with Gill and Belak. They are the lesser-talented duo of the four defensemen mentioned, but at least they don't rountinely kill you with bad giveaways and stupid passes. That, and they are cheaper in terms of salary which would allow the Leafs a chance to go after a guy like Scott Hannan.

Up front, the Leafs are a mess. Mats Sundin will not win a Cup with the current group of forwards. Jeff O'Neill may be past his best days at 31 years of age. It's almost like he doesn't have any hands anymore. The Bates Battaglia Project should come to a screeching halt now that Mark Bell is in town. Chad Kilger, for all he's worth, has been a bust since arriving on the NHL scene in Anaheim. Travis Green should be shown the door after posting zero points in 24 games.

Sundin is still worth the cash they are paying him. He produces and makes people around him better. The Leafs can live with Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky on the second and third lines. Darcy Tucker provides grit, and, despite me thinking he's wasting a roster spot, did contribute well last season. Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, and Alexander Steen all had solid seasons, and should be able to build on their latest campaign. Mike Peca, until he was injured, provided excellent penalty-killing, and was a vocal leader for the locker room.

Yanic Perreault should not be brought back under any circumstance. I don't care if he has the highest faceoff winning percentage ever. The guy scored two goals and three assists in 17 games last season. He is not your second-line centerman. Third line? Maybe. But not at his salary.

Alexander Suglobov should stay in the AHL for one more year. He tries far too hard to do too much when he should just worry about playing his role. Yes, he's supposed to be a scoring threat, but when you're triple-teamed coming across the line, you're not going to score many goals.

So what does that leave? A lot of glaring holes. And therein lies the problem. Trading young talent like Brendan Bell and Brad Boyes to get aging stars is a huge part of the problem. Not promoting young role players like Ben Ondrus, Jay Harrison, Jeremy Williams, and Kris Newbury only encourages them to go somewhere where someone will give them a chance.

The Leafs will be bottom-feeders until they learn that draft picks and scouting are essential in today's game. And that might be hard for Leafs-Nation to swallow, but it's the cold, hard truth of the new NHL.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


The Dark Ranger said...

Well thank goodness your analogy wasn't The New York Rangers, but perhaps the 'ole Rangers of post 95 - 2003.

No offense taken on the NYC baseball reference as I am not a fan, but I must agree with you on most counts.

For a historical team that has taken the 2nd or 3rd largest number of Stanley Cups (thanks to inventing the game), they haven't seen final action in years, nor have they seen a cup since 1967? So it is safe to say that a strong number of ticket holders ages 38 and under haven't experienced the Cup on any level.

And...they - Torontonians - are the most loyal, unwaivering group of yahoos I have ever met. I married a Torontonian, so I love the culture, the place, the love of hockey, but...when you want to have any level of critical discussion about hockey - my team or others - there can never be any negative on their dearly beloved Leafs.

Not just hockey fans, crazy mother-fu__er hockey fans - and willing to fork over the highest priced tickets in the entire League. The Garden wouldn't even stand for it.

If you don't mind, I am going to post a link to my site -- as I recently invited a family member to counter-point my Rangers love with his own mis-guided Leafs Love. Hah. There I go again....I sound like a Leafs fan dismissing everyone.


Teebz said...

I'm cool with that, Dark Ranger. In fact, anytime there is a good hockey debate, it's good for the game.

I have to agree with you, though - they are a different breed in Toronto. They will go to the ends of the Earth for the Leafs, just to come up disappointed again.

You gotta love hockey for that reason only! :o)

Jibblescribbits said...

I think some of the biggest problems comes with the rabidness of their fan base. They expect, and demand, greatness every year. That means it really takes someone with some serious cojones to stand up and say "No we're going to do this right and build from within."

Look at the my Avs, they had a great run, but LaCroix (and now Giguere) didn't mortgage the future too bad when going after all those cups. So they have a Statsny, Wolski, and Liles now ready to emerge as top flight players. Part of that worked because avs fans were willing to accept a little mediocrity the last 2 seasons in order to build for the future. I just don't see that as being an acceptable option to fans who demand excellence every season

Teebz said...

Excellent points, Jibble. It's hard to stare down the growing Leafs-Nation and tell them to swallow their pride. Ferguson almost looks afraid sometimes.

As for the Avs, they have proven that success comes from within in recent years, and look poised to be a playoff contender again.

H4NNAH said...