December 31, 2007

It's The Goaltending, Stupid!

The Toronto Maple Leafs were a naughty bunch this past year. Santa Claus said so. Thanks to an injury to starting goalie Vesa Toskala, Mr. Claus came down the chimney bearing the worst gift of all - Andrew Raycroft.

Ah, the holiday season. A time of giving, reflection and, in my case, a whole lot of alcohol. And I'm not talking about eggnog. I prefer the hard stuff. Watching Raycroft tend goal makes one reach for the hard stuff. OK, the really hard stuff.

Raycroft's been dusted off the bench, where I almost forgot about his sorry ass, and thrust back into the spotlight since Boxing Day when it was announced that Vesa Toskala is suffering from a good old groin strain. You know, the "day-to-day" groin strain that turns into a month-long stint on the injured reserve. As if losing Bryan McCabe wasn't enough, the MLSE injury plague has now claimed the Leafs' best and most valuable player and, painfully, brought Raycroft off the bench.

It's been three games, and a whole lot of alcoholic beverages, since Raycrap's been back between the pipes and the Leafs have, surprise-surprise, zero wins to show since #1's triumphant return. In typical Raycroft-ian fashion, he has been god-awful. His rebound control is abysmal, he's let in a couple of soft wraparounds and, of course, the standard twine-bulger's high glove side. Nothing has changed. I thought Raycroft was bad last year, but his statistics have actually gotten worse! In 13 games this season he sports a trashy 3.85 goals against average and a raunchy .876 save percentage. That dirty save percentage is one of the worst in the league, and it doesn't show up in a list of the top 41 save percentage's in the entire National Hockey League. To put it in perspective, Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Johan Holmqvist is ranked last in the league, 41st, with a .886 save percentage - a full percentage point better than Raycrap's. Of goalies that have played at least 10 games this season only Tampa Bay's Marc Denis has a save percentage worse than Raycroft - .859 - and Denis was sent down to the minors two days ago.

Raycroft was beaten for four goals by the New York Islanders, four goals by the Philadelphia Flyers and five goals by the New York Rangers. He let in his customary weak goal in all three games and simply does not give the Leafs a chance to win.

I can go on and on for days when it comes to Raycroft and his deficiencies. He gets beat high glove side way too often, he lets pucks come into his crease without making an attempt to deflect them away, he plays too deep in his net, and his reflexes are too damn slow. You'd think that while sitting on the bench for almost a month he'd take some pointers and watch how aggressive Toskala is in the crease. It's all about the angles, and Toskala, although much smaller than Raycroft, is always at the top of his crease not giving the opposition much to shoot at.

It is clear after watching the last three games that the Leafs are a completely different team with Toskala in goal. The boys have lost all confidence in Raycroft. Saturday night instead of watching the New England Patriots complete their perfect season, I chose to watch the opposite of perfection - Raycroft and the Leafs. I knew the Leafs didn't have a prayer in the contest against the New York Rangers, especially after the bogus opening goal Raycroft allowed, but I watched the game in its entirety and saw a team that was deflated by shoddy goaltending and, eventually, a team that left their goalie out to dry. Toronto took penalty after penalty and surrendered five power play goals to the low-scoring Rangers. With Raycroft in net, everything suffers, especially the penalty kill.

Goaltending is all about confidence and the Leafs, as a team, don't have confidence in Raycroft. He doesn't exactly instill it in the squad. You can see it in the body language and in the way the team plays. It's disturbing to watch. The Leafs, to a man, aren't stupid. They know that with Raycroft in net the odds are immediately stacked against them before the game has even started. While riding a hot Vesa Toskala, on top of his game since early December, the Leafs actually looked like a decent hockey team that knew how to play defence, and a team that was turning their season around. Not anymore. With Raycroft back in net, this team is back to looking dazed and confused.

I hate Andrew Raycroft. Can you tell? What bothers me more than his pathetic goaltending is management's and the coaching staff's refusal to get rid of him. Raycroft is goaltending garbage. Accept it. The Leafs made a bad trade in acquiring this guy and signing him to a multi-year contract. They know it, I know it, the entire league knows it. It's time to accept that Raycroft hasn't worked out and that he is not an NHL-calibre goalie, and move on. I'm sick and tired of hearing John Ferguson and Paul Maurice tell the media that the Leafs have the utmost confidence in Raycroft between the pipes. It's complete bullshit. They took a chance on acquiring him for a number one draft pick, it didn't work out, and it's time for everyone to move on with their lives. Stop the god damn insanity.

Any minuscule trade value that did exist for Raycroft before Christmas has certainly been thrown out the window. The Leafs couldn't get a 6-pack of Busch Light for Raycroft and his $2 million-dollar salary right now and that's saying a lot because, well, it's Busch Light. It's time to place Raycroft on waivers, and then demote him to the Toronto Marlies once no one claims him. Please. It's over. Let's not make this any more difficult than it has to be. Scott Clemmensen should get the start in goal January 1. It's a new year, and time for a new beginning.

A part of me feels bad for Raycroft (a very small part) because I know that he knows his career in Toronto, and even the NHL, is hanging by a thread. Toskala's injury was his chance to show the rest of the league that he could still play and have a team possibly trade for him. Now that dream, it seems, is dead. Once again, Raycroft was not able to take advantage of another opportunity handed to him on a silver platter. What a useless bum. He can't even help himself.

The Leafs head into 2008 in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, with 38 points in their first 39 games. The Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers all sit ahead of the Leafs in the standings today. Another statistic that calls for a drink, even some eggnog if that's all you've got. After Saturday's debacle, Damien Cox was on cloud nine and ripping the Leafs yet again. In Cox's opinion, every team not named the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings should tank the season right now because the Stanley Cup is handed out in January, and an 82 game season is decided after 40 games. What a smart guy, that Damien Cox.

There's still time to fix the mess known as the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are better than the Panthers, Islanders, Sabres and Thrashers. I truly believe that. The offence has dried up - the Poni Express is stalled at 11 goals - and the hopes of this team lye squarely on the shoulders of Vesa Toskala. I miss you, Vesa. Get well soon.

There is some good news amidst the wreckage. Carlo Colaiacovo is back! His return in Philadelphia on the 28th saw Andy Wozniewski finally make a visit to the press box. But in typical Leafs fashion, the Wizard of Woz was back on the ice Saturday night against the Rangers, and taking the bonehead penalties for which he has become all too familiar for. I wonder if he and Raycroft room together on the road? They should. They deserve to be united in their pathetic-ness.

More good news - Darcy Tucker, yesterday in practice, nailed Raycroft with a shot off the shoulder that left the goalie writhing in pain on the ice. Accident? I choose not to think so. It's about the only good thing Tucker has done all year, and makes up for the fact that he has scored only four goals in 31 games . Keep up the good work, Darcy.

Happy holidays to everyone out there, especially you. Thanks for stopping by in 2007. I appreciate it. Another year is in the books, and another one is on the way. Here's hoping 2008 is better to the great city of Toronto and its sports teams that I love so deeply.

Cheers, and Happy New Year.


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