Don’t Give up on Blake Yet

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    So few players seem to ignite the dichotomy of emotions Jason Blake inspires. Undrafted, undersized and inconsistent, Blake rode the wave of a steep and late developmental curve and earned himself a five year $20 million contract at 34. A prototypical throwback to the malaise of JFJ’s overpriced veteran acquisitions, Blake has taken his lumps in the media, demands for his trade by fans and rekindled some of the form that made him a 40 goal scoring all-star on Long Island.

    Yet regardless of his contemporary state of play or his trading value, few have a bad word to say about the Moorhead, Minnesota native.

    Small wonder, with an immovable contract analogous to maligned teammate Jeff Finger, Blake has ebbed and flowed in rhythm with the turbulence of back room upheaval like no other. Dubbed a one season wonder whose goal scoring exploits for the Islanders were anomalous to a side lacking offensive leadership, Blake went from big fish in a shallow pool to floundering in the Toronto fishbowl.

    Pressure then could have been one reason for the collapse of form he experienced in his first year in Toronto, more fundamentally the diagnosis of Chronic myelogenous leukemia helped put the game into perspective. For what it was worth Blake never hid behind the life threatening malady, instead he turned his frustrated ire at former head coach Paul Maurice under whom his zeal for the game waned feeling poorly utilized in a dump and chase system unsuited to his style of play.

    Subsequently one of few players concerned enough to publicly castigate Maurice for his mismatched strategy, Blake continued to struggle until seasons close machine gunning 332 shots, predominantly from the blue line, for a meager 15 goals and 4.5% shot percentage. Had it not been for his career high 37 assists, many from rebounds, 2007-08 would have been nothing short of disastrous.

    Instead Blake was front row and center for Cliff Fletcher’s clear out with many speculating the American would be one of the country clubbers for whom the axe would fall. As it was, Blake survived more because a buyout would prove as ugly as his contract did to prospective GM’s.

    Hardly an inspiring foundation with which to build a new relationship under the incumbent Ron Wilson. With the former San Jose coach demanding greater accountability within a hard hitting, transitional West Coast system, Blake started last season looking bereft of enthusiasm in a team of young, inexperienced guns. Seemingly isolated in the culture of defeat that had insidiously prevailed the year before, Blake lacked the drive many of the less talented youngsters hungry for ice time displayed.

    With Blake’s ennui setting in early despite his excitement concerning the coaching changes pre-season, Ron Wilson decided to make good of his promise that no one player was secure in the lineup and promptly benched the Leafs highest paid forward, first on the 23rd of October and again 19 days later on November 11th. Citing Blake’s lack of work ethic and nonexistent back checking (not to mention just 2 goals in 14 games), Wilson was not only sending a message to Blake, he was establishing a new philosophy of earning over entitlement within the organization.

    For Blake the ignominious exiling to the press box resulted in the very belligerence Wilson sought. Having not been a healthy scratch for 9 seasons, Blake first erupted into a four letter tirade, then channeled his newfound “I’ll show you” attitude on the ice, exploding for 19 goals between the months of December and February.

    Evoking memories of his Long Island days, what Blake continued to lack in consistency he more than made up for in energy and tenacity, stirring up opponents and drawing penalties while utilizing his speed and driving, kamikaze style, to the net. Subsequently maintaining a point a game pace almost to seasons close, Blake transcended the lazy puck handling and preemptive shooting that marred his early season efforts while simultaneously becoming a more rounded team player. Like the Blake of old he was getting involved in scrums as opposed to simply skating away and his two way play demonstrated a renewed hunger for the game and for the Leafs.

    Like a drawn out and scripted love affair Blake’s place within the organization has taken some careful and subtle plotting punctuated by sledgehammer twists. Yet as last season closed out it was becoming apparent Blake was going to play a more significant role than just an offensive leader. With a new era of youth expected to front the revival of Leafs fortunes in years to come, Blake has worked to become a mentor within the franchise in the wake of Fletcher’s veteran exodus.

    Increasingly integral in his new capacity off the ice, Blake’s continued upsurge in form will prove pivotal to the short term aspirations of the Leafs on it. With Burke setting his sights on the schooling grounds of the playoffs, a 36 year old Blake is still likely to be a leading light in an underwhelming crop of forwards backed by a cup competitive defense.

    Crucially Blake will have to draw upon the verve he gained by being benched last season without the lassitude that prompted his removal from the lineup and without Dominic Moore with whom he fostered a strong chemistry. With a hoard of young talent looking to cut their teeth on the top line, another slow start by Blake or a failure to lead from the front could see him demoted once again.

    Still, Blake remains a player for whom most fans have a lot of time, a player people want to see succeed. Throughout his failures few others have been afforded the patience Blake has been. Fundamentally likeable when he plays his intense, bouncy game, Blake still has a lot to prove in Toronto. Where his 40 goal season may be well behind him now, the value of his contract could be more than justified if he is instrumental in bringing the next crop of Leafs stars to the fore.

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