October 02, 2007

My Maple Leafs Wish List

Finally, October 3rd has arrived - the NHL's opening night. One of the most exciting days of the year, my friends. This could be the only day the Toronto Maple Leafs are in first place. I know, technically they're tied for first place with the rest of the bloody league, but they're in first place nonetheless.

Before I get started, I'd like to wish my blog - SportsAndTheCity.com - a very happy first birthday! In the words of one Dave Chappelle - "It's a celebration, bitches!"

I can't believe it's already been a year. Time flies when you're...blogging. It's been fun sharing with the world the ups and downs in my life as an obsessed Toronto sports fan, and I thank each and every one of you who make it a point to stop here along your travels upon the information highway. Yes, thank you, all two of you. You are appreciated.

Sigh. Blogs, they just grow up so fast.

Last year on the eve of opening night, SportsAndTheCity began, with an open letter to Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. It was a long, rambling letter, full of emotion, heartache, fear and optimism.

This year, on the eve of opening night once again, I bring you my wish list for the 2007/2008 Toronto Maple Leafs season - eight things I want, and desperately need, from the Maple Leafs this year. I'll try to keep it short and sweet, but we all know I'm pretty bad at doing just that. Happy birthday blog, and go Leafs go.

The Wish List:

1) Anything that resembles NHL-calibre goaltending:

For the love of Jesus Christ, Lord Krishna, the Prophet Muhammad, or whomever you prefer to believe in, the Leafs need some God damn goaltending. A part of me feels bad for hating on Andrew Raycroft as much as I do. A part of me wants to give him another chance, but the other half of me is calling myself an idiot. But when I look at his numbers, I just can't help being a hater. He's horrendous. He's the problem, and not any part of the solution.

The Leafs gave up a lot to get Vesa Toskola and although he didn't have a great preseason, he's got to be the man. Coach Paul Maurice has still not announced who's getting the nod in goal but I believe it will be Toskola. There's got to be pressure on Maurice from upper management, especially JFJ, to start Toskola. He is supposed to be the man to fix the Leafs' goaltending woes, not sit and watch the dry-heaves inducing Raycroft.

I've said it repeatedly to anyone who wants to listen - if the Leafs got 91 points with Raycroft in net, they can get 100 with Toskala - a real goaltender who can actually stop 9 out of 10 shots he faces.

This corner is praying, every night, for more Toskola and less Raycroft.

2) Healthy bodies:

Well, lets throw this one out the window. Kyle Wellwood is out at least four weeks with a recurring groin injury and Carlo Colaiacovo has not recovered from off-season knee surgery and won't be back until November at the earliest. Those are two guys who were supposed to contribute significantly to the Leafs' cause this season.

Wellwood's injury really creates a gaping hole down the middle, and is making JFJ look foolish for not resigning Mike Peca. Here's hoping guys like Boyd Devereaux, Andy Wozniewski and Kris Newbury, who filled in admirably last year when injuries struck, can do it again.

For the Leafs to make the playoffs, they've just got to stay relatively healthy. That's a mission, it seems, for any of Toronto's sports teams. You name the team - the Leafs, Raptors, Jays, Toronto FC, Argos - and they've all had do deal with a ridiculous amount of injuries over the past year.

Last season Darcy Tucker, Mats Sundin, Wellwood, Nik Antropov, Pavel Kubina, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Wozniewski all missed significant time due to injury. If the injury bug bites again, the Leafs will once again find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

And if Nik Antropov can play more than 70 games in one season, well, it just might snow in July.

3) 27 goals from Alexei Ponikarovsky:

This one is pretty straight forward, and also pretty selfish. I've got $50 bucks riding on Poni to bag 27 goals. It seems my boy 40 still doesn't have faith in one Alex Ponikarovsky. I'm confident Poni will prove him wrong for the third consecutive season. Oh yes, my friends, the Poni Express is set to ride again, and the ticker at the top of the page has been updated for your viewing pleasure.

Two years ago, the bet hinged on Poni scoring 15 goals. He scored 21. Last year, we raised the bar to 21, and Poni finished with 21 (it was close!). This year we've once again increased the total by six goals, to 27, and I see no reason why, barring any injuries of course, Poni can't do it. He's getting better every year and was the Leafs' fourth-leading scorer last season. And he hit the post about 15 times last year. His hands of stone are surely bound to get a little better. This guy is just coming into his own. He can skate, check and finish, and I see no reason why he can't be a consistent 30 goal man in this league.

4) A dominant Mats Sundin:

I'm not going to pull any punches - Mats Sundin needs to be better. If he's serious about leading the Leafs to the playoffs, and serious about winning the Stanley Cup, Sundin needs to be a man on a mission. For those of you that know me well, you know how much I love Sundin. He holds a special place in my heart. I could stare into his Swedish blue eyes forever.

But the truth is I need more from him. Only once in the past seven seasons has Sundin reached the 80 point mark, and it was back in the 2001/2002 season. He's still produced at a point-per-game over the past few seasons, but he's been forced to deal with some injuries. This year, Sundin has to stay healthy and return to form as one of the dominant players in the NHL.

To all the Sundin haters out there, I know Mats has it in him. He fired a career-high 321 shots on goal last year, and scored 27 times. He finished with a .084 shooting percentage, by far the lowest of his career. He's got a career shooting percentage of .142. Goal scoring wise, last season was on off year for the greatest captain to ever play in Toronto. He only scored six power play goals, his second-lowest power play goal total ever in a Leafs uniform.

He may be getting up there in age - he's 36 now - but I believe last year was just an aberration. I believe in Mats Sundin. I believe, with Jason Blake on his wing, that he's capable of 90 points. The Leafs need him to be that dominant.

The fact he signed a one-year contract in the offseason is already creating a buzz that this is definitely Sundin's final year in Toronto. I don't believe that to be the case - I'm confident he'll retire a Maple Leaf, and statistically the best one at that - but he can help keep the media and the fans off his back by having a huge campaign. He is the Captain and the driver of the bus, and the Leafs need him to lead more than ever right now. Make me proud, Mats. I love you.

5) Improved penalty killing:

This one is pretty simple. Paul Maurice has got to work on the penalty killing in practice until the boys figure it out. They were pathetic with a man down last year and although I blame Raycroft for the majority of the struggles (the goalie is the most important penalty killer, remember?), the Leafs to a man need to be better when they are killing penalties. They need to win more faceoffs, clear more bodies from the front of the net, and clear the puck when they have the chance.

I think Toskola and Jason Blake will markedly improve the penalty killing but, if all else fails, the Leafs need to learn to TAKE LESS FREAKING PENALTIES. A team with a penalty killing rating of 78.5% doesn't deserve to make the playoffs. It must improve.

6) Have guys take responsibility and step up:

Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Pavel Kubina - I'm looking at you. When it comes to Steen and Stajan, the youth excuse isn't going to fly no more. If these guys are serious about becoming solid contributors in the NHL, they've got to make that leap. Now.

I'll give Steen and Stajan, who I'm really trying hard to not be so hard on (it's early in the season so I'm trying this whole "positive attitude" deal), some credit because, while they struggled offensively last season, they made sure they worked on their defensive games. But, with that said, there's no time like the present to step up. The Leafs need these two to contribute, especially now that Wellwood is on the injured list.

As for Pavel Kubina, he's looked good and faster (thank God) in training camp. Word is he spent a lot of time on the stationary bike in the offseason (I'm amazed that thought never entered former Leaf Jeff O'Neill's mind). I'm expecting big things from Kubina in 07/08. He gets the benefit of the doubt because last season was the first time in his career he was limited to fewer than 65 games. An injury at the start of the season really put him behind the 8-ball and he just wasn't able to get his game on track until too late in the season.

However, the Leafs are a much better team with him in the lineup, as he brings down the ice times of both Tomas Kaberle (God bless his heart) and Bryan McCabe. Paired with Tomas Kaberle over a full season, I think Leaf fans will see why Kubina scored a fat contract when he became a free agent. A healthy and hungry Kubina will go a long way in securing a playoff spot for Toronto.

7) Continued excellence:

There seem to be a boatload of Bryan McCabe haters out there in Leafs Nation and in the media, but this corner is a staunch supporter of #24 in the blue and white. McCabe put up 57 points last year and was a +3. Any player who finishes plus on a team with Raycroft in net has had a good season, in my opinion. If McCabe was a -20 like, say, Sheldon Souray, I'd totally understand everyone's beef, but McCabe isn't a pylon like Souray, so I just don't get it. McCabe, just keep doing what you're doing bro.

The people who focus all their attention on hating McCabe need to fuhgeddaboutit and start showing Tomas Kaberle some love. Kabby is the most underrated defenseman in the NHL, straight up. In all my years of watching hockey I've never seen a guy display so much confidence with the puck as Tomas Kaberle. He's a treat to watch, especially when he leads the breakout or makes a beautiful breakout pass. His continued blossom-age into one of the league's elite defenseman will help propel the Leafs to the playoffs.

Once again, welcome to Toronto, Jason Blake. I don't need 40 goals from him, 25 to 30 will be just fine. The Leafs can score goals, I know this already. Blake will add speed, grit, and heart to this Leafs team and he and Darcy Tucker are going to be counted on to provide a significant chunk of offense for this team. I have no doubt they will deliver.

That's it, my friends. Short and sweet, just like I promised. I like this team, I truly do. 100 points is not out of the realm of possibilities. The season begins tonight with another installment of the Battle of Ontario - it never gets old.

As for a prediction, I'm not going to go there. Not yet, at least.

I will, however, leave you with number 8 on my wish list:

8) Make the playoffs...


nitin said...

You need a new pic of our plate. This one is DUTTY