Time for the kids…

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    I must confess, I bought in.  I bought into the mantra of improved team toughness, improved goaltending, improved and revamped defense, and an improved top6 forward unit possessing speed and skill who would be protected and insulated by a tough as nails complimentary group of players.  I watched the pre-season and was salivating at the skill, speed, and determination exhibited by the up and coming Leafs prospects.  But, then something very strange happened, something I cannot comprehend nor understand.  Every single player (with the exception of Stalberg), which had led to such optimism and belief of brighter days ahead – were demoted to the OHL or the AHL.  I sat there shaking my head, and privately and publicly went on and on about how this team could not succeed without the youth.  Ironically enough, I had absolutely no idea how right I was and how bad this could and would get.

    To any of those who may feel I am being an alarmist, or who feel my opinions and beliefs are off the mark, the reality of this situation is right there in front of your faces.  The Leafs defense will surely improve as they gel and find their way.  Their goaltending cannot possibly get any worse, and I would be willing to wager, that come November/December, Toskala will once again return to his career type of numbers (.900 SP and 3.00 or less GAA) – whether that is with the Leafs or elsewhere.  However, by then, it will clearly be too late, and Leafs nation will be crying about the inevitable loss of a top flight draft pick that this club has desperately needed for the last 15 years.

    The mistakes have already been made here.  The failure to resign Antropov to a VERY affordable and reasonable $4M/year contract – and now wondering where your big bodied, top6 offensive zone pressure and cycling are going to come from, the failure to move Thomas Kaberle, garner a return likely to include a good, young, top6 forward, the failure to recognize the importance of building from within and dumping a prospect like Anton Stralman vs inserting him into your lineup in place of Kaberle, the over confidence in what was built and risking 2 1st round picks to acquire a talent like Kessel at this stage of the rebuilding process – are all done and in the past.  I would like nothing more then to write pages about the obviousness of these miscalculations, however, that would not help address what is needed at this point in order to salvage this season, and potentially this franchise, from another decade or more of futility.  Regardless of how good a player Kessel turns out to be.  If even the most optimistic projections come to fruition, this franchise will not overcome the loss of a top 1-3 pick in next years draft.  The loss of another such high pick, almost 20 years ago (Scott Niedermayer and if not for some late season heroics, would have been Eric Lindros) sent this franchise into complete and utter chaos for the next 20 years, as they desperately tried, time and time again to fill the obvious void and lack of a franchise player to shore up their defense or round out their offense – and ultimately, cost the franchise AT LEAST 1 Cup.  Irregardless if the return for the current version of that 1st round pick is Kessel, who, in all probability has a very bright future as compared to the Tom Kurvers trade which cost the Leafs Lindros or Scott Niedermayer.

    The issue with the Leafs right now is 3 fold, and really, is not hard to see.

    1) Goaltending – Toskala has been average, but, not nearly bad enough to deserve the roastings he has been receiving.  Toskalas primary problem is an organization trying to change the style of a 32 year old goalie on an expiring contract and his ability to stay healthy.  Toskala is what he is.  He is a small, aggressive, reflex goalie who has a hard time staying healthy for a prolonged period of time.  He is also a career .900 SP and under a 3.00 GAA goalie.  Because of his style of play, and his reliance on reflexes, he is traditionally a slow starter, and especially when coming off an injury plagued season.  This is his career pattern and this will continue to be his career pattern until such time as his age catches up to his reflexes and he is no longer capable of rebounding from inevitable future injuries and having his reflexes respond at an NHL level.  Why on earth the Leafs would try and turn this goalie into a stand up, positionally sound goal tender, at this point in his career, while on an expiring contract, simply defies all logic.  Work the man back into NHL game form, and hope and pray that their analysis of Gustuvvson is accurate and he is able to adequately play half the games until Toskala finds his game and is moved.  In the interim, they have a pair of AHL goalies which can spot fill duty as required due to injury and various other factors.

    2) lack of offensive pressure – this is simply the most glaring problem with the Leafs this season.  There is simply no other way to look at this.  If the puck is not in the offensive zone, or being controlled in the neutral zone, then it is in your own zone or coming into your own zone.  If you are not creating offense, then you are allowing scoring chances. The old adage used to be, “the best offense is a good defense” – this no longer applies in the modern NHL, and can be clearly witnessed by the teams that have competed for and won the Cup in recent times.  In the modern NHL, the best defense is a good offense.  This is just reality, the rules are structured this way, the game is called this way, the teams that “get this” concept, win the most games.  The Leafs desperately need to create more offensive zone pressure, and although the inevitable injection of Kessel into their lineup will, without a doubt, help their offense, it will not resolve their fundamental problem of creating offensive zone pressure, reducing the chances against, increase the number of times they are on the PP vs the PK and ultimately turn this season around.

    3) coaching – I have absolutely ZERO doubt Ron Wilson is a premium NHL coach, however, the way he is handling his assets right now is outright embarrassing. I am not certain if the issue is Brian Burke and the players he is insisting be played in the hopes of recouping draft picks or assets, or if the issue is Wilsons end, or both.  Some very simple and fundamental concepts are missing here, and ultimately, Mr Burke and Mr Wilson need to get together and decide on a strategy and a gameplan here.  Most of the issues demonstrated so far (and yes, early in the season) – are easy – VERY EASY – to remedy.  Line combinations, when to play which players, when to temporarily bench a particular player short term vs when to sit in the pressbox, when to roll out the 4th line and for what purpose, which players should be in the lineup and why – are all simple fundamentals that are clearly being missed here.  For the life of me, I cannot figure out why.

    OK, SO, WHATS THE FIX?

    The fix here is not as difficult as most would believe.  This team will not compete for the cup as it is structured today, however, competing for the playoffs?  now, thats a different story.  As the Leafs are structured now, they have all of the elements required to at least be competitive.  However, as stated previously, their utilization of their assets is their primary problem.  This is at both the GM and the coaching level.  The Leafs do not have a current top6 unit that strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition, and that is not likely to change in the short term.  Their strategy needs to be altered in order to be effective.  They need speed and skill injected into their top6.  They need a 3rd line composed of veterans who are a threat offensively and can carry offensive momentum when required, yet are mandated and forced to be defensively responsible and can halt the other teams momentum when required.  They need to utilize their potentially physically dominant 4th line and defensive corps more intelligently and opportunistically.

    The simplest answer here is to inject youth and create competition in their top3 lines.

    As of right now, their top3 lines should look something like this:

    • Grabovski – Kulemin, Ponikarovsky or Hagman
    • Bozak – Stalberg, Kessel (when healthy) or Hanson or Tlusty
    • Stajan OR Mitchell – Blake, Hagman or Stempniak or Ponikarovsky or Kulemin

    You then have a wide array of players choose from for your 4th line.  It does not matter which ones the team picks, but, they should pick 4 and get rid of the rest by any means necessary.  The list of players includes Primeau, Wallin, Orr, Rosehill, Mitchell OR Stajan, Mayars.  2 of which simply have to go.

    On your top 2 lines, fortunately or unfortunately, the Leafs only have 3 center options within their organization that can potentially fill the top 2 center roles.  And since Kadri has been sent back to junior, and is unavailable, for better or for worse, Grabovski and Bozak are your only options for center for your top2 lines, and the Leafs must absolutely run with these 2 players (again, barring some miraculous trade that will yield an established top2 centerman for unusable pieces on expiring contracts that the Leafs have to offer).

    When Kessel is able to play, it will organically create upwards pressure from kids likely on the farm (Hanson, Tlusty) and will also enable moving players around on the top3 lines based on game to game and shift to shift performance.  Most importantly though, you need to clearly identify roles and expectations for lines 1-2 and line 3.  Players “demoted” to the 3rd line, are responsible for their own end first and take the offense when they can get it.  Players on the top2 lines are expected to push the puck forward and generate offense.  There should be a steady stream of movement between top2 lines and 3rd line for players like Kulemin, Ponikarovsky, Hanson, Tlusty, Hagman, Stempniak and movement to and from the Marlies for players like Kulemin, Stalberg, Tlusty, Hanson – until the ultimate pecking order is decided by consistency of play and overall output.  Most importantly though, and in order for this strategy to be effective, the 4th line needs to be sent over the boards to punish the other team, without taking absurd penalties whenever momentum seems to have been lost, or whenever the opponent is looking to be taking over the physical aspect of the game.  This needs to be supplemented by the defense, who are a very physical and very capable group.  Coaching discretion needs to be made.  If a player receives a “bad” penalty (ie for elbowing Tucker in the head for no apparent reason), that player needs to be sat – not thrown back out there the next shift after ultimately causing a critical PP goal against at a crucial time in the game.  If the player receives a penalty for a “smart” play and an effective gamble that went bad, then they should be rewarded with more ice time, even if it results in a GA.

    The Leafs desperately need to infuse their youth and speed now – for better or for worse.  They absolutely MUST create an environment of accountability based on performance and decisions and they must be ready and willing to execute that strategy, regardless of what name happens to be on the back of the jersey.  As long as Mr Burke is adamant about playing the group as is, and insists on garnering imaginary and inflated returns for 3rd or 4th line players playing with zero current success in more prominent roles, this team is destined to wallow near the bottom of the NHL standings.  Darcy Tucker said it best when asked how and why the Avalanche have been able to get off to the successful start they have – his answer was simple – “youth” – something the Leafs clearly left behind.