Monday, April 12, 2010

5 Things I Learned this Leaf Season

I’m not going to offer a formal season in review.

If you’re a fan of the Leafs you’ve certainly suffered enough and you already know how this season played out.

I’m also not going to offer a prescription as to how the Leafs might turn things around next year. Yes, trades will be made, but no one predicted Kubina for Exelby, the Phaneuf or the Gigeure deal and odds are no one will get the next one remotely right either. It used to be the hallways of the ACC had more holes than Vesa Toskala, but the arrival of Brian Burke has certainly changed that. This new code of silence means the next round of deals will likely go down without any warning – just a wave of info rolling across twitter, blogs and emails with the details.

As for UFA season, good luck figuring that one out. You can post and posit all you want, but the fact remains the UFA talent pool is thin and the league-wide needs are great. That's a bad combination, which will likely result in numerous contracts that many GMs will strain to bury or trade away by 2012.

UFAs are an excellent way to spackle over smaller roster holes or to give a competitive team that much needed final push but the inefficiency of most UFA contracts (ratio of price to performance) makes it a risky way to build a club in a salary capped system.

So what does that leave Leaf fans with? There are still the usual exit interviews where fans can find out that their favourites played hurt all year. Sadly, that's about it.

So, as the Leafs clear out their lockers, I thought I’d offer up five things I’ve learned from yet another losing season in Toronto:

5. For all the talk of Brian Burke learning from and not repeating the Dan Cloutier experience, don’t believe it.

He gave Vesa Toskala a lot of rope – too much rope – and unfortunately, it only turned into the proverbial noose for the Leafs playoff hopes, not for he of the man purse.

Burke told the Toronto Star he got his first Vesa scare in the last pre-season game when the Sabres torched Toskala for seven or eight goals. There were plenty of UFA goaltending options out there the Leafs could have turned to. Toskala’s record low save percentage should have made this a no brainer. Instead, the Leafs watched their season go down in flames and the goaltending situation was not solidified until January 31, nearly five months later.

4. Don’t build a PP around Kessel

Among forwards that played 20+ NHL games and who were given at least 1 minute of PP time, Phil Kessel had atrocious numbers.

Goals scored/60 5 on 4 158th out of 233 NHL forwards.
Primary Assists/60 5 on 4, 59th
Secondary Assists/60 5 on 4 145th
Points/60 5 on 4, 156th.

His numbers were almost as bad in Boston.

Worse news, Kessel is the best option available for the Leafs. With #81 on the ice, the PP clicked at 4.94 GF/60, without him it clicked at 2.79GF/60.

The Leafs desperately need to fix their PP and I don’t think Kessel is the answer.

3. I thought the arrival of Brian Burke might mean the fans would get a break from all the talking heads that are paid to bloviate about the Leafs. Turns out I was wrong.

Leaf fans continued to be blamed for the woeful state of the franchise. Fans were assigned more blame in the Toronto Sun’s series on the Leafs’ losing streak than Harold Ballard.

Think about that one for a minute.

So long as ownership is a nebulous, largely nameless, faceless board and so long as this team struggles on the ice, Leaf fans will continue to be an easy target media in need of an easy place to pin the blame. It's not true, it's lazy, but it's far too ingrained to expect a change any time soon.

2. The #2 man in Toronto may be the most important job with the Leafs.

It was Bob Murray in Anaheim who insisted little known Francois Beauchemin be included in the Fedorov deal. Dave Nonis had the penultimate say on the Phaneuf trade, was the guy that handled the Leafs UFA negotiations last July and apparently put together the Giguere for Toskala and Blake deal (never mind being the guy that pulled off the Bertruzzi for Luongo deal and matching that RFA offer sheet for Kesler).

Nonis has a clause in his contract that allows him to seek a GM job this off-season. The next in line with the Leafs is Dave Poulin, not sure if he’s the guy I want offering sober second thought to Burke.

And, no offence to Burke, but I think he's a guy that thrives with a rational counterbalance like Nonis.

1. An expedited re-build in Toronto looks like it means sacrificing draft picks and development time.

In 2008, Luke Schenn was chosen ahead of likely rookie-of-the-year Tyler Myers because he was deemed “NHL ready.”

In 2009, The Leafs dealt two 1sts, a 2nd and a 3rd round pick for Phil Kessel.

This week, Ron Wilson announced that the Leafs plan to have Nazem Kadri, their first round pick in 2009 and the organization’s last first round pick until 2012, start with the big club in 2011. No development time, no chance to learn the professional game with the Marlies.

Seems to me the message to Kadri shouldn't be bet on starting next season. Rather it should be: "If you want to start in the NHL, you have to earn it."


  1. #4 and #1 scare me the most.

    I wish Nonis well if he gets a gig, but I think you're right that it would be better to have someone with proven credentials talking these things over with Burke. Maybe Poulin would be awesome, who knows, every Scotty Bowman had to get his start somewhere.

    Of course, as Leaf fans are painfully aware, so does every John Ferguson Jr.

  2. Charlie11:05 a.m.

    It was two first and a second for Kessel. No third rounder.

    Feels a little better now, no?

  3. All through the '80s I told people that real change wouldn't happen until Ballard, um, moved on. And that was true, for a year or two...

    And then suddenly Cliff Fletcher was trading the future for things like getting Wendel back, because apparently "the fans wouldn't sit still for rebuilding," a.k.a., ownership was addicted to playoff revenue. The perpetual short-sightedness of generations of management, driven only by immediate bottom-line concerns, is the real curse.

    While I'm not convinced by Kessel, my real fear was the public waffling over whether they were serious about the playoffs this year. If only Burke had pulled a Mike Holmes and said something like, "Forget the playoffs for a couple of years, we're tearing this mother down to the foundation and rebuilding," I think a lot of us would be much more forgiving. Or at least, a hell of a lot less anxious.

  4. Charlie - The Leafs sent Chicago a 2nd and 3rd round pick to re-acquire their own 2nd round pick, which they packaged off to Boston.

    So yes, Boston "only" got two 1sts and a 2nd in the trade, but the total cost to the Leafs is two 1sts, a 2nd and a 3rd.

  5. Paul Steckley10:27 a.m.

    The Leafs obviously weren't the only ones with questions about Myers and his abilities. Buffalo picked him up 12th overall so there were 6 teams after the Leafs that passed on him as well. Hindsight is always perfect, but not always fair. Yes, the Leafs could have picked Myers over Schenn. They also could have picked up Ryan Miller, Sergei Fedorov, and a host of other players that were not picked up until later in the draft. On the flip side, many teams passed on Kaberle before the Leafs picked him in the 8th(!) round. Let's not forget that Joe Sakic, perhaps one of the best players of his generation, went 15th overall. The Nordiques actually took Bryan Fogarty (remember him, didn't think so) 9th overall that same year. Buffalo took Pierre Turgeon number 1. Maybe getting Myers 12th overall in 2009 is history's way of balancing the books.

    The draft is really a lottery. You hope you've picked a winner with your pick but the chances are weighted more towards getting a "sorry play again" message than winning the jackpot. There are no sure things. For every Crosby there are many more Daigles.

    Schenn will be a dependable defenceman for years to come for the Leafs. He rebounded nicely as this season went along and showed signs of returning to the stellar play of his rookie season. Myers may turn out to be a one-year wonder, but even if he doesn't I don't think the Leafs should be chastised for taking a very good player with their pick.

    Wilson's comments are clearly designed to put pressure on Kadri to prepare over the summer because the expectations on him are gong to be high. He hasn't guaranteed him a spot and Burke has said that if he isn't ready he may be sent back to junior for another year to maintain that year on his contract. I have no concerns that Kadri will be rushed into a spot before he's ready or that he'll be handed a spot without earning it.