“When it’s time to party, we will party hard.” -Andrew W.K.
The Leafs are one game into the Peter Horachek Era, and you could see one substantial change in their game against the Capitals.
A backbreaking loss to a red hot opponent? No; that’s been standard operating procedure for the Leafs for years now.
The Leafs- and I know this sounds strange, so bear with me here- outshot an opponent, and actually deigned to try different line combos. And that outshot opponent? A Washington team that’s ninth in the NHL in CF% close at 52.4%. Not exactly Buffalo.
It’s one game, and maybe it won’t be representative of Horachek’s 42-game body of work, but there was change afoot.
And if there’s one way to eulogize the Randy Carlyle Era, it’s this: unchanging.
Sure, there were minor tweaks here and there. Carlyle did split up the top line and attempt Kadri with Kessel on a couple of occasions, though he would revert back to 21-42-81 so fast, that if you blinked, you might miss it. Carlyle’s overreliance on keeping that line together despite the fact it wasn’t working in two zones was like watching Linus never being able to let go of that damned blanket. Try as he might, Randy would always put his thumb in his mouth and send Bozak over the boards with Kessel.
And yes, Carlyle got rid of the goons. Eventually. After two years. And multiple depth UFA signings. And a new President. And new assistant GMs. And new assistant coaches. And a new analytics department. So many changes surrounding him that it seemed as if it was not him making the decision, or if it was, that he did it kicking and screaming.
Whether Carlyle decided to run a goon-free roster or not, it was too little too late. Orr and McLaren spent two years on the Leafs roster, and it was clear as day to everyone not named Randy Carlyle that it wasn’t working. They simply are not NHL caliber players. Nothing against either player, who by all accounts try hard and are good guys off the ice; the NHL is the cream of the crop and some guys just don’t have it. A coach’s job is to play the 20 guys each night who do have it instead of trying to waste time on those who don’t. Randy Carlyle’s insistence on playing these two consistently over a two year-span handicapped his roster every night.
Of course, despite his lack of desire to change anything, Carlyle remained steadfastly befuddled why the team didn’t magically play better. It was as if “trying the same thing and expecting a different result” wasn’t the definition of insanity. As the losses racked up, Carlyle would do the same old tricks: cling to his goons, put out Jay McClement while down a goal, play his fourth line scant minutes while exhausting his top lines, and never, ever entertain the idea of a new top line for more than a nanosecond. People unfairly thought Carlyle didn’t believe there was a problem. I’ll give Randy that much: he knew there was a wildfire. It was just that his response to fighting it was to continue pouring gasoline on it, then wondering why that didn’t help. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The answer to Carlyle’s coaching was simply that he never had an answer. How many people in the real world could put up continuous substandard performance at work, and when pressed by your boss, confusedly exclaim you had no answer to why it was happening? Exactly how many minutes would you last at said job if you did that? If you’re not in charge of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I’d assume you’d make it ten seconds before security escorted you off the premises.
The numbers don’t lie. Every single player, without exception, has produced better underlying numbers both before and after Carlyle than they did under his coaching. Some with different teams; others under former coach Ron Wilson; many with both. I’ll preface here that I don’t put too much stock in individual possession numbers as a standalone thing, but this is a damning fact. If it were just a few players that were better off without Carlyle, you might be able to chalk it up to coincidence. But when it’s every single player, you just can’t do that. The trend was there: players’ possession numbers sunk like a stone with Randy Carlyle at the helm.
“But it’s the players’ fault!” you say.
Okay, but there’s three problems with this argument:
(1) Players who left got better, players who came in became worse: as stated above, if this roster is just collectively made up of people who don’t try, why is it that every player seems to fare worse under Carlyle? There’s so many variables but only one constant. Occam’s razor says that the fault would almost certainly lie with the constant in that case. If twenty seemingly different keys can all open the same lock, you wouldn’t say those are defective keys. You’d say that’s a shitty lock.
(2) The same thing has happened with Carlyle before: remember Carlyle’s tenure in Anaheim after Chris Pronger left? That’s precisely the point in which the Ducks’ possession began tanking. And continued to tank, until Anaheim finally fired Carlyle. Under new coach Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks’ underlying numbers recovered substantially. On an individual level, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single player who played under both Carlyle and Boudreau that fared worse under the latter than the former. Sound familiar?
For those keeping score at home, since 2009, when Carlyle has not had two Hall of Fame defensemen to rely on, his teams have a grand total of two postseason appearances in four seasons. Remove a 48-game season, and that’s a one-for-three clip. The two postseason appearances? 2010-11, when the Ducks were out of a playoff spot before Corey Perry had an insane second half en route to a 50-goal season. Then, 2013, a 48-game season in which the Leafs goaltending was Vezina-calibre. What did those teams have in common? Both badly outshot and outpossessed.
That’s now two teams with identical problems under the same coach. Every single player, with the exception of Joffrey Lupul, is different on the two rosters. Whose fault does that sound like?
(HINT: It’s not Lupul, you smartass.)
(3) Randy Carlyle presided over significant roster turnover: of the 23 players on the roster on Randy Carlyle’s last day as Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, exactly seven of them were Leafs on his first day: Kessel, Bozak, Phaneuf, Lupul, Franson, Gardiner, and Reimer. Nazem Kadri was in the organization, but since he was still yo-yoing between the AHL and NHL at this point, I won’t count him. Beyond those pieces, the rosters from year-to-year were in constant flux. Each Leafs team from one year to the next looked quite different in some way. Not only that, but the Leafs front office spent the entire 2013 offseason building a roster to suit Carlyle’s coaching style! The greatest irony of the “players aren’t listening” argument is it came from a roster that was very likely designed to meet Carlyle’s specifications!!
The fact is that Carlyle coached two full seasons and two part seasons with rosters that differed substantially from one another. In spite of this, the style was the same. Either you can blame a half dozen players accounting for 30% of a team for that, or maybe it’s the guy behind the bench who was there all along.
A note on Kessel:
The tired old refrain that Carlyle is a “scapegoat” for the team’s failures has taken a new and exhausting turn of blaming Phil Kessel. All I ask is: WHY?! Phil Kessel was brought to Toronto to do exactly one thing: provide elite offense for a team that, at the time, was in desperate need of it. He has done exactly that. Is he the perfect player? No. But he’s racked up consistent 30-goal seasons, and been top 10 in the entire NHL in scoring for three straight seasons. If you were to map out your expectations of Phil Kessel circa 2009, it’s impossible to say he hasn’t turned out exactly how we hoped he would, if not *better.*
Why is it that the best player on the team who has, by all objective standards, done all that anyone can expect of him is the target of scorn? Why is it not the prized $5.25M/year signing who was touted as the next Wendel Clark? Why is it not the newly-extended 1C who has fallen way short of what any sane person could expect of a 1C? Why is it not the “savvy veteran” defenseman signed until age 40 who has vacillated between looking lost in his own zone and sitting in the pressbox? Why is it not the management that has done nothing to provide Kessel with talent that could take his game to the next level? And, most importantly in this particular case, why is it not the coach originally touted as a defensive “mastermind” who fell so far short of that in Toronto, you’d need a ladder to heaven just to climb from reality to expectation? Why is it the only guy in a Leafs uniform who has done exactly what has been asked of him?
If anything, Kessel is the one who is the scapegoat by those that continue to carry water for an ex-coach who was objectively bad at his job. He is exactly what we thought he was, but he can’t do it all. This isn’t basketball; one great player won’t magically make a team a contender overnight.
This isn’t to say that every single problem with the Toronto Maple Leafs is solved. I doubt anyone actually believes that. It’s not as if firing Carlyle is the magic bullet that will make the Leafs contenders, bring about peace in the Middle East, and cure cancer. This is still a team without a 1C that has a hollower middle than a Kinder Surprise. The defensive personnel is, at best, questionable. Even with improved possession in last night’s game, the team is still prone to giving up some very costly scoring chances. The top scorers on the team often need to stop going for the highlight reel play and just put pucks on the net. These problems will exist under any coach, and should be the next things to be addressed.
But, Carlyle was still a big part of the problem. Virtually every player looks terrible under his tenure. Nobody could even be an even possession player. Every line gets hemmed in their own zone and absolutely shellacked. What this team needs is a thorough evaluation of every player, top to bottom. How can you really evaluate anything when the coaching makes everyone look awful?
Think of it like a PE teacher trying to determine who the fastest runners in his class are. If everyone is running to the best of their abilities, it’s a fairly simple task. But now, imagine that every single runner is wearing a layer of armour. How do you evaluate that? Sure, some kids will be faster than others, and the normally fast kids may well look better than the slow ones, but the results are still heavily tainted by the fact that each kid is trying to run while covered in about 50 pounds of metal. It just doesn’t work like that.
The problems with this team are multifaceted, but coaching was one. Just because problems continue to exist does not mean it wasn’t the right move. If an obese smoker quits smoking, he is still obese. The fact that he is doesn’t mean it was a bad idea to quit smoking. There are more problems to tackle, but this was the right first step.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a work in progress. There’s still lots of work to do, but parting ways with Carlyle *is* progress.
After a couple weeks off for the Holidays, the Weekly Preview returns. But if you’re expecting some kind of comedic gold, you will be sorely disappointed. I doubt I’ll even actually take the time to edit this post.
Because frankly, the Toronto Maple Leafs are just not worth the effort.
What amount of effort should you expend on a team that barely makes an effort to play? That comes into 90% of games- even the ones they win- getting badly outworked, outplayed, outshot, and outcoached? That is coached by a guy who seems to think there’s a problem, but like a guy blowing on a wildfire thinking that’ll put it out, has no idea how to fix it and refuses to make any meaningful change to do so? That, because of all this, has one win since Christmas? And even that win was in a shootout and they even almost blew that in regulation.
Pretty much nothing. Pretty much nothing at all.
It’s hard to really even try to write anything about this team, because it’d all just be a string of curse words. They can’t just consistently *suck*. That’d be easy; I could deal with that. No. They have to go on these insane hot streaks to give you hope that somehow, some way, THIS time the result will be different. And every time- EVERY TIME- they crash to earth harder than expected, and the 18-wheeler goes off the cliff. I’ve seen this movie every year. The Leafs are Lucy, and we’re all Charlie Brown, running full blast at that football in the blind hope that this time it won’t be pulled away.
I’m at the point where if they can’t do something to right the ship, I’m content for them to just blow up the team, tank the season, and suck forever, because frankly, it’d probably give me something to do with my time.
As much as the Winnipeg game pissed me off, I didn’t even bother to watch it until the third. Just didn’t even try to. Didn’t care. Didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all. That’s where we are now with this team. This losing streak has propelled me from love almost all the way past hate into indifference.
So that’s about the most I can muster into saying about this team. Here are the game previews. Watch them. Or don’t. I don’t care. I’m not even sure whether I will. If it’s convenient, maybe.
Dec. 7: Washington Capitals, 7:00 PM, SN (National Game):
Huh. The Capitals are in town again.
By the way, Ovechkin really needs to be taken to task for his hits to the head. First Komarov, and now Luongo? When will the league actually punish him for it? He, by all rights, should be a repeat offender headhunter. Maybe if he wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, he would be. I dunno.
Dec. 9: Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 PM, TSN4:
The last time the Leafs played Columbus, it was a completely different (read: injury shattered) roster. I don’t think I had ever heard of about half the roster the last time around. Won’t be so lucky this time.
Enjoy the games blahblahblah whatever.
Previously on Gracepoint……
In news that shocks nobody, the Oilers have fired Dallas Eakins, their coach of 18 months. Yes, 18 months. When you look at their recent history, that’s actually a fairly long-term relationship by Oilers coaching standards. Now Craig MacTavish will take the reigns as the interim guy to the interim guy, while Todd Nelson will be the interim guy.
If this confuses you, just remember that “Edmonton Oilers Head Coach” ranks somewhere below “Prime Minister of Italy” in terms of job stability. Going back to MacTavish’s first tour of duty that ended in 2008-09, Nelson will be the sixth coach in seven seasons. And there’s no guarantee he’ll last longer than this season, meaning there may even be a seventh coach in eight seasons. This of course won’t count MacTavish’s two non-consecutive terms, making a potential eight coaching regimes in eight years. I don’t think they even change the role of Dr. Who this much.
Firing the coach is an easy fix. When a team isn’t performing to expectations, it’s easier to take away one person’s job than to do the same to a 23-man roster. It’s also an easy way for a GM to remove the heat from himself for the fact that his roster may be a little less than optimal.
So was it Eakins’ fault? While he’s probably not a great coach, the answer is probably not. The Oilers’ underlying numbers are improved from last year, but they’ve had a combination of bad luck and terrible goaltending. Also, that roster. Go look at their D right now. Do it. Just do it. Yeesh.
All three of you who read this regularly may recall that, in the summer, I compared Eakins to “the equivalent of someone trying to win Masterchef with ramen noodles on a hot plate.” Whether he’s a legitimate NHL coach or not, he was never given the ingredients to succeed in Edmonton. This is common sense; again, Edmonton will be on its sixth coach in seven years this year. I can’t stress that part enough.
Think of it this way: if I take my car to six mechanics in a fairly short duration, the same car problems persist, and it continues to break down, what’s the real problem: did all six mechanics have no clue what they were doing, or do I just own a crappy car?
The Eakins firing reminds me of a debate Leaf fans had internally last year, especially around 18-wheeler season: was the Leafs collapse the fault of the players, or Carlyle? While nothing is ever 100% absolutely one side’s fault, there was considerable evidence that a lot of the Leafs’ underlying problems plagued any Carlyle-coached team not containing at least two Hall of Fame blueliners. For example, one can either blame Dion Phaneuf for not raising his compete level high enough, or realize that perhaps the system he was playing under consisted of being poked with a stick and being told “C’mooooooon; be Chris Pronger.”
So, to answer the question in the title: usually common sense can help dictate where fault lies. On to the weekly preview:
Dec. 16: vs. Anaheim Ducks (a.k.a. “Patient Zero”), 7:30 PM EST, TSN4:
The Anaheim Ducks are on fire, having won seven straight games. They may also actually be inflamed, presuming that’s a symptom of the mumps. Luckily, the Leafs may have some surgical masks left over from the SARS era.
Both Carlyle and Joffrey Lupul are ex-Ducks, and strangely enough, they have both been undefeated against the Ducks in their time with the Leafs (2-0 for Carlyle; 3-0 for Lupul). Since this is a Tuesday game against a Sun Belt team, expect goals from Francois Beauchemin (token ex-Leaf) and Andrew Cogliano (prominent GTA boy).
The Ducks biggest offensive threats are Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, in that the existence of both of them is literally offensive. Turning to actual scoring, their leader is Ryan Getzlaf, who is bald. Very bald.
Dec. 18: @ Carolina Hurricanes, 7:00 PM EST, TSN4:
A WILD ROAD GAME APPEARS! I realized that the Leafs have had so little of those lately that seeing them in white jerseys almost doesn’t make sense. Anyway, since the Leafs haven’t been past the Mason-Dixon Line all year, here’s a musical interlude:
By the way, for all the talk of the Oilers sucking, the Hurricanes SUCK. Like, they play in the decidedly weaker conference, and are tied in points with the Oilers. Which really SUCKS. Which probably means they’ll feast on the corpses of the Leafs.
Also, I can’t imagine any reason why the Hurricanes would be not goo- WHOAAAAAAA LOOK AT ALL THE MARGINAL EX-LEAFS ON THIS ROSTER. Jay McClement AND Tim Gleason? No wonder they suck so much; this is pretty much Randy Carlyle’s ideal lineup! The good news about being a fourth line/third pairing player on the Leafs is it pretty much guarantees you a contract with the Hurricanes afterward! TWO FOR ONE DEALS! CAN’T BEAT THOSE BARGAINS!
Dec. 20: vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7:00 PM EST, CBC (National Game):
The Leafs host the Flyers for their first matchup of the season and the Leafs’ last home game for a looooong time (until sometime in 2015, guys!). The Flyers have been nothing short of a mess this year, and surprisingly, Steve Mason is not the culprit. He’s been a respectable .918 this year. It’s almost as if replacing Pronger, Timonen, and Carle on D with Luke Schenn, Michael Del Zotto, and Andrew MacDonald is not quite a recipe for instant success. Put simply, their defense is as loose as Del Zotto’s philosophies on dating.
Since the Flyers’ cap situation makes Claude Loiselle seem comparatively like a genius, we now present you the FLYERS AWFUL CONTRACT POWER RANKINGS™:
- Andrew MacDonald; POSITION: Subway Turnstile; CAP HIT: $5,000,000
- Vincent Lecavalier; POSITION: Healthy Scratch; CAP HIT: $4,500,000
- RJ Umberger; POSITION: Not Scott Hartnell; CAP HIT: $4,600,000
- Luke Schenn; POSITION: Definitely Not James van Riemsdyk; CAP HIT: $3,500,000
Dec. 21: @ Chicago Blackhawks, 7:00 PM, City TV (National Game):
Oh hey! A back-to-back on the road against one of the best teams in the league on national TV? How could this possibly go wro- /VOMITS ALL OVER SELF
If only we had someone who has a recent track record of playing that well in tough B2B situations like this one and maybe even against this tough Chicago team. But nope, I can’t think of anyone; can you?
We’ve now reached the now quarter mark of the NHL season!
Okay, actually we reached that about a week ago, but since I have nothing better to write about, I’ve basically decided to review the season thus far by picking a dozen Leafs at random and writing up their performance reviews in haiku form. Hey, when you write something weekly, sometimes you just run out of ideas.
Still better than your best guy
Get away from me
Struggling on the left
Main object of vitriol
Glad he kept the ‘stache
Pride of Mimico
Much improved from last season
Though that isn’t hard
Still stops lots of pucks
His play, as inspired as a
Mandela free throw
Man of mystery returns
Consistency an issue
Don’t blame his wife, ass
Best surprise this year
Special teams and shootout man
Just ignore his D
Solid top six guy
Much improved possession game….
And he’s hurt again
Admit it, Leaf fans
You forgot he existed
Until I wrote this
Our new fourth line stud
Flaunts skill instead of punching
Leads league in bad puns
Still the coach somehow
Better results from changed team
Still can’t make breakfast
Ever the fickle ones
Throw jerseys, expect salute?
*Middle finger* THERE!
(17 syllable fart noise)
Your weekly preview:
DEC. 9: vs. Calgary
PDO Flames, 7:30 PM EST, TSN4:
The Flames have been the pleasant surprise of the season! They’ve skyrocketed up the Western Conference standings thanks largely to unsustainably high shooting percentages and lights out goaltending that can be attributed to only one thing; that’s right:
[buzzing noises, neon lights flash, balloons and streamers fall from the ceiling, Randy Carlyle does a jig]
The Flames boast three players on their roster that used to play for the Leafs: Mason Raymond (which I forgot about until today), Matt Stajan, and Joe Colborne. Luckily for the Leafs, all three have just returned from injury! So, basically, this means the Leafs will need at least four goals to offset the “ex-Leafs burn former team” voodoo. Or three and lose in a shootout. Whatever. I’m not your mother.
Also, they’re a fun team to watch if you haven’t this year. They’ll surely crash and burn, but entertaining and bad can still go together, like….oh, I don’t know…..some other team that Burkie might have run for a few years there?
DEC. 10/DEC. 13: @/vs. Detroit Red Wings, 8:00 PM/7:00 PM EST, SN/CBC (National Games):
Since this is a home-and-home for the Leafs, I’m basically just going to count these two games as one entity for this preview. Kinda like the Sedins. Or that really clingy couple you hate and refuse to hang out with anymore.
Detroit is on fire (no, not literally, although I’m sure the bankruptcy joke you had in mind was HILARIOUS), having gone on a 9-2-0 stretch, tying them points-wise with the Lightning for first in the Atlantic. That’s the bad news. The good news is that one of those two losses was to none other than the Leafs!
Both games are on back-to-backs, Bernier is the confirmed starter for tonight’s game, and there’s no way that he wouldn’t start against his former team on Sunday, so you know what that means: DOUBLE REIM TIME! A WILD JAMES REIMER SET OF BACK-TO-BACK STARTS APPEARS!
DEC. 14: vs. Los Angeles Kings, 5:00 PM EST, SNO:
The defending Cup champions come to Toronto for what appears to be the first Sunday matinee game at home in roughly 368 years or so. This is the first matchup against the Kings of the year; their last game against LA came in what was indisputably the Leafs final game of the regular season last year.
While not much has changed for the Kings roster-wise, their style of play is somewhat different. LA’s possession metrics have been downgraded from “Corsi Gods” to “Just Okay.” The goaltending they’ve been getting from Jonathan Quick has improved from “Laughably Overhyped” to “Now He Actually Matches The Hype So Maybe Y’All Were Just Thinking Ahead To This Season.”
Since it’s been a while, here’s your recap of last year’s season series against the Kings:
- Due to some Freaky Friday-esque moment causing the teams to temporarily switch bodies, the Leafs lost to the Kings while outshooting and outpossessing them.
- Joffrey Lupul gets into a fight with Slava Voynov; HBO picked up Lupul calling him a “fucking piece of shit,” which made him just the first of thousands to say that about Voynov.
- We got to see the Kings purple jerseys!
- The Leafs hung on for dear life to beat the Kings in LA after both their goalies got either injured or hit in the head, which I’m sure would in no way negatively impact the rest of the Leafs’ season or anything like that.
In November, the Leafs went 7-4-2, which is probably to be expected for a not-great-but-not-awful-either mushy middle team like the Leafs.
In true Leafs fashion, it isn’t what their record was, but how they achieved it. How many games they won and lost was nowhere near as surprising as what games they won or lost and how they did it.
The Leafs followed up a huge win over the Blackhawks with a sloppy loss and shootout loss to the lowly Coyotes and Avalanche, respectively. They manhandled the Bruins 6-1, then get their arses handed to them by Buffalo, a frontrunner in the McDavid Sweepstakes. After allowing 6 goals to the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, and 9 goals to a team that’s middle of the pack, they then hold the highest-scoring team in the NHL in the Lightning to 2 goals in a 5-2 win! The Leafs went on 6-2-1 and 3-0-1 runs that bookended what were two awful, demoralizing losses that made it seem like the world was caving in.
These are the Leafs we’ve come to know and love/hate.
There is maybe only a couple of games in November that didn’t surprise me. The Leafs lost 2-1 to Pittsburgh in a “played well, but better team was better” style of game. They beat Ottawa in a 5-3 game that made us question if anyone on either team knew how to play defense (they don’t). But, other than that, it was a weird month.
And you know what? That’s what this team is.
They’re a mushy middle team that is going to outplay some great teams some nights, and play lousy against bad teams on others. Guaranteed wins and losses do not exist with this franchise. They play the Kings, Ducks, Hurricanes, and Flyers in the space of a week, and I could very well see them go 2-2-0 by beating the former two while losing to the latter two. When the top line is buzzing and the goaltending is going, they can beat anyone. When neither is playing particularly well, it seems like they’ll never win a game again.
I’d like to say December can’t get weirder, but it can and will. Your weekly preview:
Dec. 2: vs. Dallas Stars, 7:30 PM ET, TSN4:
The Stars have been the surprise of the season, and definitely not in a good way. They were expected to be a contender, and look more poised to be a lottery team. Their 992 PDO also seems to indicate that this is not necessarily a spell of bad luck from which they can easily break out. Aside from their top line production, including a breakout year from Tyler Seguin, there’s not much going on here. UFA signing Ales Hemsky has disappeared and, honestly, his family is kinda worried about him so tell them if you know of his whereabouts.
It’s not surprising since their D and goaltending have been ATROCIOUS. The Stars’ top pairing in TOI/G is Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, which is pretty not good. They’re so desperate that they traded for Jason Demers and have been playing a guy who I’m pretty sure is made up. Also, Kari Lehtonen has a .905 SV% and Anders Lindback is exactly as you remembered him in Tampa Bay.
In typical Leafs fashion, this is the kind of struggling team that can only be expected to beat them 4-1 or 5-2 or something.
Dec. 4: vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:00 PM ET, TSN4:
So, the Devils signed Scott Gomez this week! That’s neat! It seems as though they’re going to ride a line of Elias-Gomez-Jagr all the way to winning the 2000 Stanley Cup again!
Beyond that, I have not a whole lot to say about the Devils, so here’s Phil Kessel scoring an amazing goal against them:
I’ve also obtained some stats on Cory Schneider’s usage in net this year:
Dec. 6: vs. Vancouver Canucks, 7:00 PM ET, CBC (National Game):
Oh, won’t this be lovely? Join thinly-veiled Canucks homer Jim Hughson as he attempts (and fails) to call this game impartially in a way that totally won’t be insufferable, I promise. Watch as most of British Columbia have rediscovered that the Canucks and hockey do, in fact, exist after winning a lot of games and have jumped off the Seahawks Super Bowl bandwagon juuuuust long enough to take the mothballs off their jerseys. Remember, this was a team that couldn’t sell season tickets at the beginning of the year. The commercials they aired were reminiscent of an Obama campaign ad in 2008, minus the idealistic optimism. “CHANGE IS COMING! WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT KIND OF CHANGE BUT IT’S CHANGE! JOIN US! WE’RE DIFFERENT THAN LAST YEAR!”
Anyway, the new pieces are working out well for the Canucks. Radim Vrbata is the new hotness because apparently playing with the Sedin Twins makes you look unbelievably good at hockey. Not that Anson Carter, Taylor Pyatt, or Alex Burrows could have told you that or anything. Nick Bonino is WAY BETTER THAN KESLER YOU GUYS even though Bonino’s S% has now come down to a reasonable level and only one goal and one point separate the two now, with Kesler still shooting at 8.8%. And that isn’t something I say lightly, since Ryan Kesler is a monster that was constructed in someone’s basement made up entirely of rat feces, belly button lint, and human tears. Also, Ryan Miller has played lights out and quickly become a fan favourite in Vancouver, which surely means he’s already halfway to being run out of town by fans when this team is a first round exit.
The Canucks are playing well, Miller always kills the Leafs, and the Leafs have beaten the Canucks once since I’ve lived in the province of British Columbia. Might switch from beer to hard bar for this game.
The good news is my original plan to write something about #SaluteGhazi won’t happen and we can finally just let that whole damn thing go. The bad news is this had to happen to make that happen.
Pat Quinn, at the age of 71, has died.
A lot of hockey figures have passed away, and none have really impacted the way this one did. Even Pat Burns, while sad, was something we knew was coming for years and years. With him, it was a matter of when, and his death brought a sort of finality to a man who appeared to spend his last days in pain and suffering. This was sudden. This was unexpected. This blindsided me like a Darcy Tucker open ice hit.
This is a hard post for me to write, in part because I much prefer being comedic and snarky to writing seriously. But what makes it a really hard post for me to write is the impact Pat Quinn had on my life without even having met him.
The Pat Burns Era was a lot of fun, sure, but I was young. Being a Leaf fan was a thing I did because the kids at school in Grade 1 kept talking about the game last night and Gilmour, Potvin, and Clark. It wasn’t a thing I knew or understood; I just did it. When Burns’ tenure with the Leafs came to a close, I was eight years old. I liked Joe Sakic and the Avalanche because I, like all children, was a snot-nosed bandwagoner. I cared about the Leafs, but not in the way I do now.
Maybe this is the part of the story where I become an Avalanche fan, sit through another Stanley Cup, and write about a distant Denver team under a different pseudonym. I may not have cared about hockey much, but that is the direction things were going.
Pat Quinn changed all that.
In the fall of 1998, I still didn’t really consider myself a Leafs fan. The team was dreadful for two straight seasons, and although there was a lot of change- new conference, new coach, new goalie- it wasn’t expected to change much. The team had 68 points in 1996-97, and 69 points in 1997-98. For reference, that’s at least 15 points worse than even any recent Leafs team, and there have been a lot of bad ones. Again, I didn’t care about the Leafs. It was hard for an apathetic elementary school kid to care.
Pat Quinn’s teams made me care.
The 1998-99 Leafs were good. And not only good, but exciting. They led the NHL in goals. Cujo stopped a lot of pucks. They played tough, firewagon hockey with high-caliber goaltending and it was a hell of a lot of fun. They had exciting young guys like Berezin, Modin, Kaberle, and Markov. They made the Conference Finals.
I went to three playoff games that year, each one a win. There was Game 2 against the Flyers on my 12th birthday. The memorable Game 5 OT winner against the Flyers. Game 2 against the Sabres, their only win in an unfortunate series they could have- nay, should have- won. I thought there was a chance that team could end its then 32-year old Cup drought then and there. It didn’t, but it made a fan of me for life. I was hooked.
What followed next only cemented it.
Quinn assembled the nucleus of the best I have Leaf teams ever seen. They lost to the Devils in 2000, so Quinn signed some sandpaper in Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson, at least half of which worked out okay. They lost to the Devils again in 2001, so Quinn went and signed one of their best players- and the best linemate Sundin ever had- in Alex Mogilny.
Then there was 2001-02. I may have been a Leafs fan by this point, but without this team, I’m probably not passionate enough to sit through hours of games every week and otherwise devote a big chunk of my life to this team. I still watch old game clips of this postseason on YouTube, because that’s how much that year meant to me.
Everything about that year was amazing. Cujo was injured in late February and we abandoned all hope, but backup Corey Schwab briefly turned into magic, and the Leafs comfortably finished 4th in the East, with the 3rd best record overall in the NHL.
The Leafs drew the Islanders in a series that can only be described as murder on ice. Tucker hit Peca, Roberts hit Jonsson, Corson tried to kick Eric Cairns with his skate, Steve Webb tried to kill a bunch of people in blue and white. What you may not remember is that between all the hits and the fights, some good hockey games broke out. That series gave us the Shawn Bates penalty shot GWG in Game 4, an insanely high-scoring Game 5, and still one of the best Leafs Game 7s I can remember. Robert Reichel had to miss Game 5 due to a comical lineup card error. The home team won every single game. To this day, it remains the most entertaining playoff series I have ever watched.
Then there was the Ottawa Senators. If nothing else, Pat Quinn brought us an intraprovincial rivalry akin to the rivalry between the roadrunner and the coyote. 2002 was the year it finally seemed like the coyote was about to pull it off. The Sens had dominated most of the series, led 3-2, and were up 2-0 in Game 6. This appeared to be it for the Le-…..oh wait, Persson just checked Domi into the boards. Then, much like when the coyote finally thinks he has that pesky roadrunner on the ropes, the Acme dynamite blew up in his face. Leafs won 4-3 in large part due to an extended powerplay, then dominated Game 7 in a 3-0 win thanks to based Mogilny.
It’s worth noting at this point that the Leafs didn’t have Sundin for really any of this. Or a lot of other players. They also lost Tucker to that Alfredsson hit/GWG combo in Game 5 of the Sens series. They were beaten up. They dressed AHLers with virtually no NHL experience in games. They continued to prevail, thanks largely to heroics from Gary Roberts and Alyn McCauley, and as always, solid goaltending.
Then came the Hurricanes. Another conference final, another opponent that had no business being there. The Leafs were the 3rd best team in the NHL. They were- and this feels so weird to type now- an Eastern Conference juggernaut. Carolina barely had any business being in the postseason. They rode an always weak Southeast Division to a 3rd seed they didn’t really deserve. In any other division, that was not a playoff team. The Eastern Conference Finals was the Leafs’ to lose.
So you can figure out exactly what happened next.
It’s not just that they lost, but how. Three times, the Hurricanes held a one-goal lead. Three times, the Leafs scored in the last minute to tie it, including what has to be the most memorable goal of Mats Sundin’s career. Each time, the Hurricanes won it in OT. Even one OT goes the other way, and it makes you think what could have been.
2003-04 brought us what has to have been the best Leafs team I have ever seen assembled. And it, like all Quinn teams, was so much fun to watch. Cujo had given way to Belfour in a fairly seamless transition. They had 103 points that year, fifth-best in the NHL, six back of the President’s Trophy-winning Red Wings, and three back of the Cup champion Tampa Bay Lighting. A small handful of wins separated the Leafs and the league’s elite.
Above all else, 2003-04 was the most fun I’ve had watching regular season hockey. That year brought us The Streak, a 14-0-1-1 point streak spanning over a month. Look at these games:
In sixteen games, the Leafs collected 30 of a possible 32 points. They dominated games against the likes of Detroit, Boston, and Tampa Bay. This is something we haven’t seen since, and may not see again for years. It was a very fun time to be a Leaf fan.
The playoffs didn’t go the way we would have hoped that year, but it was still a fun season.
Pat Quinn’s time as coach, like all good things, had to come to an end. The Leafs had an aging roster unprepared to handle a new style of game, and Ed Belfour a shell of his former self. They finished 9th in 2005-06, spelling the end for Quinn.
All we’ve been trying to do ever since is recapture that magic, those teams. Leafs fans just shuffle along, chasing that dragon that Pat Quinn’s teams left in our souls. We may never find it again, or so it feels some days. The team may never have won, but it was something special and memorable to a lot of us.
Thank you for everything, Pat. Rest in peace.
Life, and hockey, continue to march on. Your weekly preview:
Nov. 26: @ Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:30 PM ET, SN (National Game):
Sportsnet is really following in the mold of NBC in trying to sell this as some sort of “rivalry” game. Watching the commercials for this game is pretty depressing: “The Penguins have dominated the Leafs all season! They started this whole jersey-throwing craze! Think they can actually finally win one? TUNE IN AND FIND OUT!”
The Penguins have a +25 goal differential. That’s first in the East by a mile; +8 on Tampa Bay and +14 on the Islanders, who are 2nd and 3rd. The Leafs? +4. That’s actually kind of impressive when you remember they’ve had five bad blowout losses accounting for -20 in goal differential. The Leafs have been +24 in sixteen other games. They’re the Jekyll & Hyde of hockey teams.
David Booth is expected to return to the lineup, which is the first reminder we’ve had this year that David Booth is even a Toronto Maple Leaf. Did you remember that? I honestly forgot. It’s like when you schedule a dentist appointment six months in advance, and completely forget about it until the receptionist sends you one of those passive-aggressive “friendly reminder” cards. That’s what David Booth is to the Leafs: a dental checkup. He’ll probably be gone again for six months in an hour, too.
Nov. 29: vs. Washington Capitals, 7:00 PM ET, CBC (National Game):
Has anyone really heard much about Washington this year? Other than commentators continuing to talk about Ovechkin’s MYSTERIOUS ENIGMA RUSSIAN-NESS, I can’t say that I have. They’re pretty much in the middle of the standings, just kinda there. They do have a 53% CF (5v5 close), which is 7th in the NHL, so I guess there’s that.
The Caps are middle of the pack in goals per game. That’s so weird. Remember when this team was an offensive juggernaut? Like, no defense, barely any goaltending, just all goals, all the time? I miss that Capitals team. I know it’s not a sustainable model, but at least those Capitals were fun to watch. Now they just kinda seem like a neutered puppy. I’m really struggling to find things to say about the Washington Capitals, in case you couldn’t tell.
The Leafs went 1-2-0 against the Capitals last year. That one win was in a shootout. That said, they usually are dominated by the Caps in Washington, and haven’t lost to them at home since February 25, 2012. I really wish that was the other way around. That stupid fire truck siren goal horn is the most annoying thing ever.
CLASSIC LEAF GAME OF THE WEEK:
This is a new feature highlighting a classic Leaf game. In honour of Pat Quinn, here’s that aforementioned Game 7 against the Islanders on April 30, 2002.
-Alexei Yashin scores to make it 1-0 Islanders. Reminder: Alexei Yashin is still counting against the Islanders cap. It is 2014.
-“There’s been some talk around the NHL, and it may not be the kind of talk Darcy Tucker wants to hear” is a thing that sounds about right.
-Gary Roberts ties it! 1-1! And I had forgotten Chris Osgood was the Isles goalie that year until just now.
-As an aside, I’m pretty sure Roberts played about 97.5% of these playoffs with a shiner under his left eye. It really just added to the mystique.
-Mogilny makes it 2-1 Leafs! I really don’t think we appreciated just how good Mogilny was as a Leaf, even in his later years.
-Travis Green scores to make it 3-1. Can we talk, Osgood? When Travis Green of all people snipes you high glove side, it’s time to log off. THE BOOK ON CHRIS OSGOOD IS OUT.
-Isles cut the lead to 3-2 on a Kip Miller goal, which is probably the first time anyone has mentioned Kip Miller in years. Is that even a real name?
-To remind you that Pat Quinn’s victories weren’t always pretty, here’s Yashin on a breakaway during an Islanders powerplay.
-Mogilny empty-netter clinches the series for the Leafs! Two-goal game against the Islanders, and he had another two-goal game against the Sens in that Game 7. Again, I don’t think we appreciated just how good he really was. He outscored Sundin one year, for crying out loud!
What a game. What a team. RIP Pat.
At the time I write this, Phil Kessel is fourth in the NHL for points (22) and tied for third in goals (11). For those keeping track at home, Kessel is currently on a 50(!!)-goal pace. He’s been top 10 in NHL scoring each of the last three years. He has put up 30+ goals every season dating back to his final year with the Bruins in 2008-09. Along the way, he’s even become a playmaker, presumably because playing alongside the likes of Lupul and JVR is better than Joey Crabb or whatever bag of wet leaves Ron Wilson decided was worthy of first line duty pre-2011. Of everyone in the 2006 draft class, Kessel is first in goals and second in points. He has more of both, by the way, than recognized Superior Franchise Leader™ Jonathan Toews.
You would think this kind of resume would be more than enough to be beloved in Toronto. Then you remember that the Leafs media is something that just can’t let us have anything nice.
See, it’s not enough that Kessel be a nice guy, try hard, love the game, AND be good at it. He also has to be a savvy media presence. Does anyone remember Kessel when he came into the league? He had the social skills of that IT guy in your office with the unibrow; in fact, that comparison might even be insulting to Bradley (the IT guy’s name is always Bradley, for some reason). He’s come a long way since then, but “great with reporters” was never expected to be a skill set that Kessel brought to the table.
And you know what? That’s fine. Because outside of any accredited member of the Leafs media, literally nobody cares about what he says/does with the media.
Today’s manufactured outrage is that Kessel told the media “get away from me” following a 6-2 loss to the Sabres. That’s it. That’s all. The Leafs had, minutes earlier, completely laid an egg to what is the worst team in the league by a wide margin. They had just been blown out by a team that is actively trying to tank for Connor McDavid. That’s beyond embarrassing and the Leafs should be embarrassed. And I bet they were. And Kessel was. While I don’t profess to understand anything about being a professional athlete, I could imagine after losing to that kind of game to that kind of team, you’re not in the mood to have a reporter get all up in your personal space.
“But it’s about accountability!” they shout. First of all, Phil Kessel is not the captain; Dion Phaneuf is. And Phaneuf held court with the media and made himself “accountable” for the loss. Most importantly, Kessel’s job is not to be media-friendly. It’s to score goals and get points, both of which he does well. He is an employee of the Toronto Maple Leafs, not the Toronto Star. He is accountable only to his teammates, coaches, and the management that signs his paycheques, not to some buzzard waving a microphone two feet in front of his face after a bad loss now acting like a petulant child because he couldn’t get some five second soundbite.
There are a lot of teams in the NHL that would kill to have a Phil Kessel. If they did, they would treat him with respect and dignity, not bellyache about how often he doesn’t talk to the media. I can’t believe we even need to have this conversation anymore.
Speaking of which, it’s fitting on a week I bitch about being a giant media megamarket, the Leafs play two successful small market teams. Your weekly preview:
Nov. 18, vs. Nashville Predators, 7:00 PM ET, TSN4:
Nashville has been one of the more surprising teams this year, putting up an 11-4-2 record and sitting 2nd in the Central Division. Goaltending has been the big difference this season. The Preds have the best team EVSV% in the league, at .948. They’re getting .930 team goaltending compared to .904 last year. Carter Hutton had the highest SV% of any goalie last year, with .910. Nashville is able to stop pucks now is kinda the point I’m getting at here.
The weird thing is that people seem to attribute this to new acquisitions. Despite signing every third line centre within a 50 mile radius as if they were voraciously swiping some Tinder-esque app, and trading for James “People’s Elbow” Neal, they’re scoring less this year. The Preds are currently averaging 2.47 goals per game, which is actually down from 2.61 last season. Goaltending does wonders, doesn’t it?
Here are some other facts about the Preds you may not have known!
-Their nickname is SMASHVILLE (Get it? It rhymes?)
-Their logo is a sabertooth tiger, a prehistoric predator which pays homage to the era in which Mike Fisher’s political views are based.
-Pekka Rinne is in fact not a pasta or seafood dish, but a human goaltender.
-Mike Ribeiro looks like a guy who went to ALL THE RAVES in 1999.
Nov. 20, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:00 PM ET, TSN4:
It should be no surprise that the Lightning are good. I mean, they were everyone’s “dark horse” pick until we realized everyone was making that same pick, and then it no longer really became much of a “dark horse” because how can something be a “dark horse” if everyone- crap, I’m rambling again.
Anyway, what’s surprising is not that they’ve been good, but who has contributed. Tyler Johnson is tied with Stamkos with 19 points in 18 games, which is weird because he’s a sophomore and no one apparently gave him the memo that he is therefore supposed to suck. Nikita Kucherov has 15 in 18. Vlad Namestnikov only has 7? I thought that was higher. SO MUCH ENIGMATIC RUSSIAN ON THIS TEAM.
Also, I don’t care how it’s *supposed* to be spelled; I am only going to refer to him as “Name-Stink-Ov.” Deal with it.
While this is a home game for the Leafs, can we talk about the Lightning arena for a second? It’s now called Amalie Arena. This puts Tampa Bay squarely in the lead for “NHL arena that sounds the most like the name of a porn star.”
Nov. 22, vs. Detroit Red Wings, 7:00 PM ET, CBC (National Game):
The Red Wings, despite being a pinnacle of mediocrity actually quite comparable to the Leafs since joining the Eastern Conference, have pretty much owned the Leafs in their short time here. They’re 5-0-1 against Toronto since last season, with the lone loss being a shootout loss in the Winter Classic. It’s not going to go very well is the general point I’m making here. Your game forecast in GIF form: