December 06, 2006

It's Been A While...

It's been almost a week since I checked in. A busy week. The world of sports just keeps on turning, as I continue to try and make sense of it all.

These days I find myself walking the streets aimlessly with my head down, wondering where it all went wrong for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The cold winter weather has arrived in the great city of Toronto, and with it, a draft of some god-awful Leafs hockey. The frigid temperatures pack a punch, and I'd love to get a few of the Leafs in a room and do some punching of my own. Ian White, Matt Stajan, or Alex Steen. Preferably Steen, but I'm not picky.

Enough with the melodrama. It's official ladies and gentlemen, the Leafs suck again. The wheels have fallen off. Press the Staples Easy Button - repeatedly. SOS. Hockey team in distress (sort of like PIMP IN DISTRESS!)! Pick your cliche, whichever one works for you. The bottom line is this team can't win a game right now, and oh mylanta it has not been pretty.

The Leafs have lost five in a row, and have one point in their last 10 games. They're well into the losing streak I said they simply couldn't afford to have. They've lost to Boston and Atlanta twice in the past 10 days, along with an overtime loss to the Habs. That's three huge divisional losses, and two conference losses. The Leafs are now clinging to the 8th and final playoff spot, and like the monkey at the start of Ace Ventura 2, they can't be saved. All the teams behind them in the standings have at least two games in hand. It's only a matter of time before the Leafs are on the outside looking in.

The road ahead isn't going to get any easier. Tomorrow night it's another meeting with - who else? - the Boston Bloody Bruins in Beantown, and Saturday the Leafs are in Detroit to face the Red Wings. Seven game losing streak anyone?

Being a Leafs fan, I come standard with a lot of hope. I go into each and every season thinking "this could be the year." But I'm also a realist. And it's time for a reality check, sobering as it is.

And here it is: the Leafs are not a playoff-calibre team.

It's as simple as that my friends.

The statistics don't lie. The way this team blows multiple goal leads on numerous occassions, doesn't lie.

If you think about it, and you look at the facts, not much has changed from last season. The Leafs can score goals, they just can't keep them out of their own net. Think of Jerry Seinfeld at the car rental place - anyone can take reservations, it's the holding part that is most important. Anyone can score goals, it's the saving them part that is so important! The Leafs have given up 97 goals against so far this season in only 29 games. That's third-worst in the Eastern Conference. They're a terrible team 5-on-5, just like they were last year. They've struggled mightily at the ACC and consequently have a losing record on home ice. Only six players on the team are even or plus in the plus/minus department. Darcy Tucker, the teams leading goal scorer, is a team-worst -9. Without the power play, this Leafs team would be where Philadelphia is today.

Do those statistics look like those of a playoff team? Uh-uh.

I thought the Leafs patched up the defense this off-season, but it doesn't look it's working. It's slightly off, wouldn't you say? If you think about it, the Leafs have used a 5-man rotation on defense all year. Belak has dressed as the sixth man on the blue line most nights, and he plays about 6 minutes. It's unheard of, and I can't seem to remember ever seeing a team employ a 5-man defensive rotation. Six is the norm, and some teams even dress seven d-men. But 5?

Speaking of not working, what the hell happened to Ian White? He's taken 3 delay of game penalties in the last 2 games for chucking the puck over the glass. First of all, my SUPER BEEF of the season so far is this penalty. It's got to be one of the dumbest penalties ever thought up. Nineteen times out of twenty when a man shoots it out and over and the glass, it's a mistake. Yet it results in a two minute penalty. Against Montreal, up 3-2 in the third period, White took such penalty, Koivu tied the game on the power play, and the Habs end up winning in a shootout. Against Atlanta, up 2-0 in the third period, weathering a sea of terrible penalties, White chucks the puck over the glass (for the second time in the game), Atlanta finally gets on the board, the floodgates open and it's 5-2 Atlanta while I'm left slapping my forehead numerous times.

I was at the game against the Atlanta Thrashers Tuesday night. Took the woman to her first hockey game. Gold seats. Not too shabby, but a freakin' waste of money thanks to the Leafs' pathetic effort. It was all going so well until the 3rd period, and I wouldn't blame the woman for never wanting to go back to watch the Leafs. They played uninspiring hockey to say the least.

Anywho, it's amazing the way the Leafs somehow manage to squander multiple goal leads in the third period of hockey games. They've done it with astonishing regularity this season, and it's absolutely unacceptable. They dominated Montreal Saturday night, and should have got 2 points plain and simple. To go into the third period against Atlanta up by 2 goals and come out losing 5-2 is, as Mike Peca rightfully called it, "a disgrace."

My neck hurts from all the head-shaking I've been doing recently. I just don't get this team. The team played well while Sundin was out, and since he came back, they've got zero wins and five losses. Sundin clearly doesn't have the step he had before he got injured, and it doesn't even seem like he's at 100%.

It's time to play J.S. Aubin. In the 16 games he's played over the end of last season and this season, he's only lost one game in regulation. I think John Ferguson Jr. has told the coaching staff to stick with Andrew Raycroft, so Raycroft can prove he's a number one goalie and lead this team. That's not how you run a bloody hockey team. I said it at the start of the year, Raycroft doesn't deserve to just be handed the number one job, he should have to fight Aubin for it. Raycroft has been only OK this year. At times he's looked great, but he's also been very beatable, and that's a combination of a team that just doesn't know how to play team defense in front of him. At the end of the day, when the Leafs desperately need a save, Raycroft hasn't been getting it. Right now, the team is not winning with Razor, so Aubin simply needs to play. Come on Maurice, put him in there tomorrow night. Aubs played well against Boston last time, and deserves another shot.

This edition of the Leafs just isn't that good. It's a grim reality. One I'm struggling to come to terms with, but one I'm accepting more and more each day. It hurts because with each passing day, and each passing loss, it's becoming more and more clear that Mats Sundin will never win a Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs. It's simply not going to happen. Not this year, not next year, not for a while. Maybe never, the way things have been going the last, oh, 40 years. It hurts to type that. It's been my dream for a long, long time, to see it happen. As my dream fades away, it only leaves a hole, one that will never be filled. Mats deserves it. He's been a phenomenal Maple Leaf. The best ever. It's a damn shame...

The holes on this team are visible for everyone to see. Like I said, a 5-man defensive rotation, but there's more.

Matt Stajan is the second line centre for the Maple Leafs, and I don't care what anyone tells me, he has no business being a second line centre on the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's far too easy to knock off the puck, he doesn't win a lot of faceoffs, and he's not gifted in any particular part of the game. He's a third line centre or winger at best, and it just disappoints me to see him play the amount of minutes he does, with nothing to show. Even his slapshot is weak. I'm off Stajan huge, and will continue to hate on him until further notice.

Jeff O'Neill and Mike Peca are shadows of their former selves. I thought Poni had trouble finishing, but O'Neill definitely takes the award for least-capable finisher. It's hard to believe O'Neill was one of the more feared snipers in the NHL in the early part of this decade. These days, he can't buy a goal. The last goal O'Neill scored didn't even come off his own stick - it was an own goal by Buffalo Sabres centre Michael Ryan.

Now don't get me wrong, I like what Mike Peca brings to the Leafs. He's a fabulous penalty killer and third line centre, but he's just not the player he used to be. Peca used to be one of, if not the, best two-way players in the NHL. He was tremendous at both ends of the rink, and was a solid 20 goal scorer in this league. He used to throw devastating open-ice bodychecks and cause other teams to be aware of his presence at all times. While he has almost perfected the defensive aspects of the beautiful game of hockey, he's forgotten how to play in the offensive zone. And we're 30 games into this season, and I haven't seen one solid Peca bodycheck, the ones he was known for, and the ones which made me secretly long for him to wear the blue and white. He's the perfect third line centre for this team, and brings so much to the penalty kill and the dressing room, but I long for the Mike Peca of old.

I don't even want to get started on Alex Steen. One goal in 29 games. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Look up Sophomore Jinx in the sports dictionary, and you'll find a picture of Mr. Alexander Steen. I read something absolutely hilarious, yet sad, in the newspaper the other day - Steen has had as many children as goals this season - one. At least he's scoring in the bedroom. On a serious note, it hurts to see him struggle this bad. He was benched for the third period against Montreal. I think the Leafs should seriously send him to the minors and let him try to get his confidence back, because he's running on empty right now. Send him to the freakin' minors JFJ!! Enough is enough. I don't care who he is, he's got to be held accountable for his play.

I talked about Ian White - he's struggling like crazy. Along with Hal Gill. Gill has made a couple of seriously bonehead pinches, and ridiculous crosses in the defensive zone lately. It's like his head is completely out of the game, because they are major mistakes a veteran like him shouldn't be making. Gill, you're slow as hell, don't pinch when Marian Hossa - you know, the NHL's leading scorer - is on the ice. Jesus. And White needs to watch a game from the press box. He's played ok, just really terribly recently, but we have to remember he was thrown into the fire and elevated up the depth chart because of all the injuries to the back end. Carlo Colaiacovo, the most unlucky athlete ever it seems, is almost healthy (is that even possible for him!?!?). Hopefully the injuries are behind him and he can step into the lineup and help out the defense, because it could really use a hand right now.

And guess what? Nik Antropov has injured himself, yet again. He's actually played well this season, and it's shame, although we all knew it was bound to happen. It happened in practice today.

"He rolled his ankle," said head coach Paul Maurice. "There wasn’t anybody around him and down he went."

Classic Antropov.

I think I'm done venting. Reality bites.

Oh wait, one more thing. How BAD has Pavel Kubina looked these last few games? Oh dear. I don't think he's the saviour I thought he was. $5 million a year for this guy? That could be the worst free agent signing in the NHL. That money should have gone to a proven wingman for Mats. It sucks to see him continue to fly solo. I'd like Maurice to put Tucker and Sundin together. He might as well. What more do we have to lose?

As bitter as I am right now, I'm a Leafs fan til I die. The blue and white still runs in my body, and will continue to do so until I leave this world, whether this team ever wins or not. I believe tomorrow could always be the day it all turns around, the stars align, and the hockey gods shine down on Toronto. As bad as the Leafs are, as little hope they show me, I still believe it could happen, and I'll always hope for it to happen. The Toronto Maple Leafs are my team. My bitterness is simply my passion, because there's nothing I want more than for the Maple Leafs to win Lord Stanley's Cup.

I leave you with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, which has absolutely nothing to do with sports, and deals with issues much greater and much more important than sports. I'm absolutely taking it out of context here, but it's a fantastic quote, one I truly believe describes my life as a die-hard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."
-- Martin Luther King

Goodnight, Toronto...