What is the old saying, hope springs eternal? A phrase more commonly associated with baseball at the beginning of spring training, the term still has meaning for the beginning of any pro sports league. With that said following the Toronto Maple Leafs tight 1-goal victory over the Montreal Canadiens (god that feels good to say doesn’t it?) it brings me to an ongoing worry as a paranoid and hopeful fan of the ‘Buds – what happens if we actually do win that beautiful Stanley Cup one of these years? Law of averages and basic odds say we can’t continue to defy mathematics like this and the Leafs are simply overdue for a championship season.
However, I wanted to talk about the other end of the spectrum and what really worries me as a dedicated and hardcore Maple Leafs fan. Call it paranoia but this concern has got me thinking about making a list (and checking it twice) and I plan to have that list (whether mental or literally on paper) readily available in the event the Leafs do one day climb that playoff mountain and take home the greatest trophy in sports. The list will contain the known identities of a certain group of degenerate hockey fans.
I’m looking at you Leaf bashers, in all of your forms but not limited to:
- Message board pirates wasting their lives filling cyberspace with nonsensical and hate filled Leaf bashes yet not identifying which team they root for,
- Office and work email junkies with your constant forwarding of sarcastic jokes, bashes, ridiculous superimposed pictures and supposedly clever puns,
- Crazed fans from other teams taunting us with the constant reference to a year we are obviously all familiar with – 1967,
- Even non-sports fans (oh the worst kind) that couldn’t differentiate between a goaltender and a bartender get in on the act and “pile-on”, you know whom I speak of, your great aunt Betsy who hasn’t watched a single sporting event is suddenly a hockey expert when it comes to the Leafs futility over the past 40 odd years
Oh, there are other forms of these vile, time wasting losers out there and some even wait in the wings just to get in a jab or two from time to time without being labelled full out “Leafs Bashers”. We know who you are and enjoy it, soak it all in, relish in it because I want the record to plainly show when the time comes, the glorious time when the Maple Leafs will finally sip from Lord Stanley’s mug exactly who you are.
You might ask why I want all of this, haven’t we had enough of the pain, suffering and misery not to mention the butt of too many jokes? Well I’ll tell you why, because when that day finally comes I don’t want these same despicable people with their years (decades) of countless jokes, barbs, shots and low blows doing something even worse – jumping on the bandwagon.
The city of Toronto and let’s be honest the entire country will be abuzz the same way the city of Boston (and the United States) was when the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees after being down 3-0 and going on to win the World Series after 86 (eighty-six!!) years of playoff futility and heartache not even a Maple Leaf fan can fully comprehend and appreciate.
Don’t kid yourselves, the Leafs will suddenly pick up about a million or so of these ‘fair weather’ fans when this happens, oh they will claim they have been there since day one and they suffered through the same drought as you and I and that is why I encourage you to take notes now so when the unthinkable happens and the Leafs win the Cup we know who the real fans are.
Why? Simply so we aren’t sipping champagne with the same antagonistic, ignorant and annoying Leaf Bashers that have simply decided to hop on what will undoubtedly be the greatest bandwagon in the history of bandwagons.
Take note Leaf Bashers, because we’re taking notes too!
In a game eerily similar to the 2009/10 season opener last season versus the Montreal Canadiens which saw the Toronto Maple Leafs outplay the Habs only to squander a late game lead setting the tone for a terrible 0-7-1 start to the year, this time around the Maple Leafs hung on for a hard fought 3-2 victory. I’d say it was a fair result though I think the Canadiens were the slightly better team overall and probably could have just as easily won this contest. However, a win is a win and this is a superb start for the Toronto Maple Leafs who hung tough and managed to protect a lead, something the team just couldn’t do in the past 2-3 years.
Here are a few musings from the season opener:
-I know it was the season (and home) opener but that pregame ceremony was long and it had me thinking back to last season’s plethora of pregame ceremonies and the Maple Leafs seemingly coming out flat after each of them. The emotion was still running pretty high after this one thankfully, but I hope this isn’t a trend going forward during this season.
-The Leafs came out strong in the first period getting an unlikely goal from checking line centre Tim Brent (assist to Dion Phaneuf) and besides the goal given up it was a great debut period for the team.
-Phil Kessel continues to impress, one of the best pure goal scorers the Leafs have ever had, maybe THE best.
-The Habs appeared to be the “better coached” team and were more organized it appeared for a lot of the game. I still can’t shake the idea that given the current type of roster the Leafs possess a more defensive minded coach would be a better fit if the Leafs are serious about making the playoffs this season.
-Some pretty terrible penalty calls against the Habs benefited the Leafs in terms of keeping the momentum even though the power-play didn’t look strong on the night.
-I hate to admit it but P.K. Subban is legit, he skates well, handles the puck reasonably well and plays a brash, physical style of play from the backend. The Habs have found a keeper.
-Carl Gunnarsson looked awfully shaky early though he rebounded slightly but not the greatest debut.
-Luke Schenn looked strong for most of the game outside of a few turnovers which I feel the forwards are as much to blame as the Leafs have terrible spacing most of the night.
-Dion Phaneuf played one of his better overall games as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and his first as the captain. He and Francois Beauchemin kept the game simple and were a strong pairing for most of the night.
-As previously discussed JS Giguere was a huge difference maker playing a solid and at times spectacular game making some very timely saves near the end of the third period. This is a huge factor in any potential Leafs playoff berth as we are going to need the steady goaltending all season.
-Clarke MacArthur scored a beautiful goal (the winner) in the third period on a beautiful deke and backhand score on Carey Price. It will be great when either Tyler Bozak hits the second line or the Leafs finally replace Mikael Grabovski who is just not an acceptable top six centre. He is still way too weak on his skates, makes some terrible decisions in the neutral zone and is probably the very bane of Brian Burke’s existence.
-The checking line of Freddy Sjostrom-Tim Brent-Colby Armstrong did their job getting in the grills of the Canadiens top line and trying to establish a fore check and keeping the game simple, kudos on the great effort.
All in all Ron Wilson and the Buds have to be happy with the effort however they were outplayed a good portion of this game and they need to shore up the abundance of turnovers, especially in their own zone if they hope on stringing a few decent win streaks together this season. But you have to give credit where credit is due, the Leafs persevered and they managed to squeak out a win in their first game.
Brian Burke’s legacy with the Toronto Maple Leafs will be forever tied to one player he acquired via a major trade and it’s not the diminutive scoring sensation Phil Kessel, it is the new Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. It’s hard to find anybody that didn’t like the trade (though Ian White outperformed Phaneuf last season) and if Keith Aullie (included in the deal) continues to progress into a top six defenseman it will look even better. When Burke named Phaneuf as his captain he also firmly tied his anchor to the hard hitting defenseman, for better or worse.
If Dion Phaneuf turns out to be a bust, or even slightly disappointing over the next two to three seasons in the blue and white I don’t think Brian Burke will be around much longer after that. The city of Toronto is a cruel one to the beloved boys of winter and will turn on you in a country minute if you fail to live up to expectations, even if you are captain and maybe especially if you are captain in Dion’s case. The list of failed (in the fan’s eyes) players is a long and in some cases illustrious one and who will ever forget Larry Murphy being booed out of town, or Bryan McCabe.
Ahh Brian McCabe, the scary part for me is if you squint your eyes just slightly while watching your television set and watch #3 Dion Phaneuf on the ice, you almost see a little #24 (McCabe) in him don’t you? They almost look similar with their receding spiky haircuts, they both skate a little awkwardly and handle the puck like a grenade at times (does the puck not just seem to bounce on Dion’s stick more than other players?) but both also possess very solid hockey skills with booming shots and a physical edge. While one is being celebrated and touted as a potential franchise saviour with little to no success in his short reign the other was essentially given the boot even after scoring 83 goals, 297 points and was a plus +63 in 7 seasons and 523 games.
Phaneuf is 6’3”, 214 while McCabe is 6’2”, 220 and though they are separated by ten years in age there are definitely some similarities to their respective games. Phaneuf broke into the league in 2005/06 and let’s compare the two over that same time span:
It has to be pointed out that we are comparing the first five years of a defenseman’s career in Dion Phaneuf and more of the middle aged years for McCabe but I think this does show us that the comparison might have some merit.
For fun, if these numbers are averaged over an 82 game season:
Phaneuf has been a model of health over his first five pretty successful seasons while McCabe has definitely started to show his age with more than a few injuries mixed in over the years but again this is just to make a comparison. One player was vilified and one of the most hated players at the end of his Leafs career while the other has been celebrated as one of the best defenseman in hockey, something just doesn’t add up in this equation. Bryan McCabe was not without his weaknesses (thank you captain obvious) but this is also a man who once scored 19 goals and tallied 68 points in only 73 games in 2005/06.
I don’t think I am going out on a limb when I say that Dion Phaneuf is a tad overrated.
In the super scientific poll conducted by Sports Illustrated, a player poll ranked him as the Most Overrated Player in the NHL. The magazine asked 272 players in the league to name the player whose reputation exceeds their performance. Phaneuf ran away with the title, capturing 21 per cent of the vote, next was the Rangers’ Wade Redden with 7 per cent followed by Montreal’s Scott Gomez with 6 per cent.
Based on the early returns during Phaneuf extremely limited tenure I can see where some of this noise is coming from. However I also see a talented and physically dominating player who can hopefully turn his game around and lead the blue and white on the backend for more than a few years. Not many will argue against the trade that brought the future captain to the Leafs and I won’t either but that doesn’t mean that a team using a player like Phaneuf as one of its building blocks isn’t playing with just a bit of fire, especially in this market, just ask Bryan McCabe.
What are your expectations for Dion Phaneuf?
WOULD LEAFS CONSIDER SHELDON SOURAY VIA RE-ENTRY WAIVERS?
If the above situation came to fruition and the Edmonton Oilers bit the bullet and put Sheldon Souray on waivers (with no takers) and then placed him on re-entry waivers would the Maple Leafs bite at a half priced Souray (approx 2.7 million hit)?
I know what you are thinking and the Leafs clearly have a glutton of defensemen but at least here me out. Souray when healthy is a step up offensively over all of our defenseman (including Phaneuf) and has been a beast on the power play over his career. In his past two full healthy seasons (2006/07) Souray tallied 26 goals and 64 points with 19 coming on the power play and in 2008/09 he notched 23 goals with 12 via the man advantage.
Obviously not a terrific defensive or all-around player the Leafs could risk this and allow him to build up some trade value while simultaneously helping their horrific power play (he would be a HUGE step up on Tomas Kaberle) and possibly trading him when a team desperate for some backend help comes calling at likely only a prorated portion of his 2.7 million cap hit if moved around the trade deadline. Or they could keep him if he shows an improved game as Tomas Kaberle’scheaper replacement and be able to move Kaberle and a Francois Beauchemin (or Mike Komisarek) if the right deals were presented.
Somebody more familiar with the CBA and salary cap ramifications could enlighten me if the Leafs would be able to first trade Souray and would the team acquiring him only be on the hook for his re-entry waivers price tag and cap hit? Not sure what Brian Burke would think of something like this but I am confident he has at the very least pondered such a scenario.
With Leafs nation all abuzz with the pending preseason cuts and who will and won’t make the club out training camp I wanted to take this time to discuss Nazem Kadri again and basically to say, give the kid a break. I am not going to feel sorry for him (or any pro athlete) as this is the life they chose and it is filled with amazing perks, monetary compensation and unfortunately in Toronto, a bit of additional pressure for a city starving for a hockey winner but I also feel it is time for a little perspective.
We have to face facts that while we wish he was ready for big league action and our supposed 2nd line centre but reality is Nazem Kadri is still a kid, literally. Kadri was raised in a big Arabic household in a tight family oriented environment and as a male being raised in such a situation (coupled with the fact he was a minor hockey star at a young age) he was likely treated like a king from birth all the way through until now. Kadri is more of a kid that a lot of ‘kids’ his age, and I feel he will just take a bit longer to develop both mentally and physically, but the gifts and sheer talent he has been bestowed by the hockey gods are undeniably great.
Like a lot of kids who don’t leave the nest prior to turning 20 years old I doubt Nazem has experienced much in the way of real life experience or hardship and is still very much reliant on his parents for support, both emotionally and mentally. Kadri is still a kid adjusting to a very different (and hectic) lifestyle and is also likely away from home for the first time in his life. He just added approximately 15 lbs of muscle to a very slight frame and likely put his body through an unaccustomed workout regimen that has left him looking slightly slower and less explosive.
If Nazem Kadri were a baseball player (say Kyle Drabek) he would barely be above ‘A’ ball at this point in his career and there would be zero expectations for an immediate and drastic impact in his first year out of junior hockey. Tyler Bozak was a rookie for the Leafs in 2009/10 (at the age of 24) and he showed a lot of improvement during the course of the season last year but there were still some things lacking overall from his game early in the year, and he has four years on Nazem, think about that. Kadri has most of the necessary ingredients to be a solid professional, just needs the time for them to properly simmer and cook.
Only the rarest of rare talents can step out of junior hockey as a boy and play a big time role in a man’s game, although I think we erred when Luke Schenn was not sent back to junior after being drafted 7th overall by the Leafs in 2008, Schenn unlike Kadri was basically a boy in a man’s body. For every Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos there are countless others that are just not ready to step immediately into the world of professional hockey at the NHL level.
Brian Burke will bring Nazem Kadri into his office and explain to him that the Maple Leafs are happy with his progress thus far, he is coming off an exemplary junior career and he should try his hardest to ignore the harsh media onslaught and go to the AHL with his head held high. Work on improving the weakest facets of his game and get accustomed to playing against men and make the necessary adjustments as needed. We’ll continue to monitor you closely and you are only a step or two away from returning to the big club but don’t worry about things you can’t control, just focus on playing hockey, a game you love.
Folks, Nazem Kadri is a fine young prospect I am hopeful that a bright and promising future lay ahead as a #2 playmaking/sparkplug centre but as Axl Rose said (or sang), what we all need right now is “just a little patience”.
BRENT MAKING PLAY FOR 3RD LINE CHECKING ROLE
Tim Brent has made noise in training camp for the Leafs in 2010 and the 26 year old is apparently leading the race for the wide open 3rd line checking line centre role. Brent signed with the Leafs in 2009 and played 33 games for the Toronto Marlies (13 goals, 15 assists in 33 games) and is known as a responsible defensive centre that can win some draws and chip in on the penalty kill.
A career minor leaguer since 2008/09 spanning 97 games Brent (6’0”, 200 lbs) has managed 33 goals and 57 assists, scoring at a 0.92 point per game clip. He likely won’t be a big time scorer in the NHL but a career minor leaguer will absolutely work his tail off each and every night and it is possible that John Mitchell’s (the man who is most likely to be affected) Maple Leafs career is closer to coming to an abrupt end.
Mitchell has shown some promise but seems to lack ‘jam’ or the extra gear that would allow him to be a consistent and productive pro in the NHL. It is possible he is one of the youngsters than Brian Burke and Ron Wilson refer to when they discuss the perceived ‘entitlement’ players sometimes feel because they play in a large market with constant attention from the media 24/7.
KEEP IT TO YOURSELF KRIS!
Among growing, disgusting and annoying trends, players who bite, chew and play with their mouthguards obsessively is something I could just as well go without! I thought when Marco Belinelli (Raptors former swingman) was sent packing we wouldn’t have to endure a high profile player with his mouthguard on display all game, until Kris Versteeg came to town.
One game into a pre-season doesn’t mean a whole lot so I won’t focus on the final result of the game but rather give a few observation and musings from game one for the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Ottawa Senators in game the Leafs lost 5-0 and were booed off the ice at the conclusion, you have got to love Toronto fans!
-I know I have been harsh on him already after a relatively poor rookie tournament but Nazem Kadri appears to have taken a step back in terms of his speed and skating. I know his offseason was focused on adding much needed strength and muscle mass but I think it might have been at the expense of Kadri’s bread and butter speed, agility and quickness.
Kadri appeared to be a boy amongst men tonight and didn’t show half the flash and dash that fans have come to expect from the junior hockey standout. He turned the puck over and was basically a non-factor throughout the night other than a nice move in the second period that drew a penalty after he beat the defensemen Matt Carkner and was hauled down. Kadri had ample time on the power play and really didn’t leave much of an impression one way or the other.
My feeling is Kadri begins the year with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, and hopefully Kadri uses that as motivation to improve himself with some hard work in a solid league for a Marlies team that promises to be an interesting and deep group. I do not think Kadri is operating at one hundred percent currently or he really has put on too much weight for his style of play but he hasn’t been himself at first glance. Mikael Grabovski is going to be our second line centre as I feel he is just a better option for the team at this point and has looked solid out of the gate. We gave up a 2nd round pick for Grabo and it’s time we see a return on that investment, this could be the breakout year Grabovski believers have been looking for since his time in Montreal.
-Kris Versteeg had some solid moments in the hockey game, showing some solid speed and hands as he knifed his way into the offensive zone on a few rushes and had a lot of hustle on the night. He should be a solid if unspectacular performer for the season and could potentially be a 25 goal scorer if all things align correctly.
-Colby Armstrong will be a fan favourite early and we finally have a player that can and will hit any and all players on the ice (including stars) which will force the opposing team to engage him in the aftermath of his handy work and hopefully in the process draw some opposing penalties.
-Veterans Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle had horrendous games and made the 2009/10 Maple Leafs powerplay look impressive with a shoddy display of eratic shooting from the point.
-Our best line on the night was easily Jay Rosehill/Christian Hanson/Mike Brown – all three looked strong on the forecheck and were throwing their weight around all night. Hanson and Brown were two players that looked particularly strong and will likely be joined by Colton Orr to form a solid checking/energy line during the season. Brown was a great addition for some much needed secondary toughness and he handled the bigger Simpson from the Senators in a spirited tussle.
Christian Hanson has obviously worked hard on his game in the offseason as he also looked to be in strong form with a strong puck pursuit and physical edge, I think he proves to be a solid 4th line centre with the potential to move into a more prominent 3rd line checking line centre role if he continues to impress. Hanson is up to 230 pounds and kudos for the strong effort in the fight versus Brian Lee, easily winning the decision.
-Marcel Mueller was basically invisible and Jerry D’Amigo didn’t get all that much ice time but showed flashes of speed when he did play, Brayden Irwin has big size but needs to make bigger strides to improve his skating if he intends to be a full time NHLer.
-Matt Lashoff and Simon Gyspers didn’t look overly impressive on the blueline, while Brett Lebda had a couple promising moments and should add some depth on the blue line in case of injury.
-Goaltending was shaky at times with Jonas Gustavsson outplaying rookie Jussi Rynnas with the latter giving up a couple shaky goals.
With five games in five nights we will get a good look at a lot of different Maple Leafs, stay tuned for more updates, observations and musings!
I decided to embark on a new five part series in which we will debate and argue the merits of the top five Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays as well as the top five overall athletes in Toronto sports history and finally as a contrast we will do the top ten athletes currently residing in the ‘Big Smoke’. Feel free to comment and please post your own opinion on any of the top five lists, I am sure there will be seriously differing opinions across the board and people definitely place a different emphasis on things like winning, personal stats and overall impact on the city.
This will be a quick breakdown of the top athletes currently residing in Toronto and it is a down and dirty look at the athlete’s ready to contribute on the Toronto sports scene. This certainly won’t be referred to as the golden era in Toronto’s sports history, but I’d say the scene is definitely on the up-swing and improving almost daily. The Jays are looking to be competitive in the next 1-2 seasons, the Leafs look to be in good hands with Brian Burke and the Raptors aren’t as bad as most think, though they are looking lottery bound in 2010/11 (not such a bad thing though?). Well, here is my list for the top ten current Toronto athletes.
-A hugely talented arm with untapped potential, he might have the most upside of any of the current Blue Jays arms. Putting together a great first season in Toronto, the future is bright and price to acquire him was right.
9) LW Kris Versteeg – Toronto Maple Leafs
-Coming over from the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks (thank you salary cap) in which he was a key third line member and a heart and soul type player described as having a wicked wrist shot. Only 24 years old and coming off back to back 20 goal seasons, I think Toronto fans are going to really like this kid.
#8) SP Shaun Marcum – Toronto Blue Jays
-Looks to be completely back after undergoing TJ surgery and has been the Jays best pitcher this season with 151 IPs, 3.70 ERA, 3.83 FIP and an impressive 3.8 K/BB. Marcum will look to score a longer term contract in the next year or so and will hopefully continue to put hitters away with that nasty changeup for many more seasons.
7) SG Demar Derozan – Toronto Raptors
-The 7th overall pick out of Compton, California and USC University, the sky is the limit for Derozan and the ‘Young Gunz’ (along with Sonny Weems and Amir Johnson), fans are hoping for a big breakout year for Demar to give them some (any) hope for a Toronto Raptors eventual resurgence. The kid has all the talent and skills you could want and just needs seasoning and some refinements to certain aspects of the game (mid range jumper and handle) to really take that next step.
6) RF Jose Bautista – Toronto Blue Jays
-Bautista leads the majors in homeruns and has been a total beast for the Blue Jays this season (41 HRs, 607 SLG%, .416 wOBA – 4.9 WAR), he has been so good there is some talk the Jays might be best served dealing their top slugger while the getting is good and his value is at an all-time high. The most debated/discussed Blue Jay player this season, mixed opinions on whether or not he should be around long term.
-What would a Toronto article be without Kaberle, fact remains he is still one of the best defensemen to suit up for the Leafs and if he remains this season will be counted upon to contribute a huge season.
-The smooth, sharp shooting 7-footer was the 1st overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft and has shown steady improvement each season (in scoring) over the past three years scoring 10.2, 15.4 and 17.2 PPG. He still needs to improve his overall game, with more focus on rebounding and weak side help defense, however a big man with the ability to drive and dish the rock who will likely average 20.0+ PPG, shoot around 48-49% from the field, 37-38% from 3-point land and hopefully average 7-8 rebounds and 1.5-2 blocks per game don’t exactly grow on trees. Andrea doesn’t get enough credit for the player he has become, expect that opinion and sentiment to change with a huge 2010/11 season as the Raptors go to guy.
3) SP Ricky Romero – Toronto Blue Jays
-JP Ricciardi envisioned this type of success for his first pick (6th overall) in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft but it took Ricky a few seasons in the minors to finally flourish and make it to the big leagues (too little, too late for our old buddy JP though) but flourish he has. The Jays lefty recently signed a contract extension that will keep in Toronto for the next 5 seasons, hopefully his prime years are still to come. In 2010, Romero has been great, in 172.2 IPS he has a 3.54 ERA, 3.59 FIP, solid ground ball rate and a pretty good 7.7 K/9.
2) D Dion Phaneuf – Toronto Maple Leafs
-When you are the new captain of the most popular team in town, you are going to get some attention and since entering the league Phaneuf has definitely drawn his fair share. The top scoring defensemen since joining the league, the hard hitting Alberta native is being counted upon to lead the Brian Burke era in team history and fans are excited and anxious to see what a full season of a motivated Dion Phaneuf can bring to the team.
1) RW Phil Kessel – Toronto Maple Leafs
-There haven’t been many better skilled Leafs than Phil the Thrill in the team’s long history and the slight forward will again be counted upon to lead the woeful Maple Leafs forward core to the hopeful goal of making the playoffs. Playing with a relatively unknown (and rookie) centre in Tyler Bozak, Kessel still managed 30 goals in 70 games and fans are hoping he can take his game to the next level and become a 40-45 goal scorer with a full season to come in 2010/11.
Drafted in the first round (5th overall) in 2006, he has been called the ‘American’ Sydney Crosby with his unbelievable level of skill and shooting ability. Kessel will only be 23 at the start of the season and though the trade and cost to acquire Kessel is hotly debated, the player we received certainly cannot be, Kessel is legit and one of the most skilled players in the game.
This concludes my five part series looking back at some of the greatest players to ever play for our beloved Toronto sports franchises and also a quick glimpse at who is currently leading the charge for hopeful future success.