Closing Thoughts

Closing Thoughts

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While most Leafs fans are content to sweep the 2009-10 season aside and look ahead to greener pastures, we’re nevertheless forced to look on in envy as sixteen other fan bases get to watch their teams play meaningful hockey with the sun out. It’s a feeling Leafs Nation hasn’t experienced since pre-lockout times, and as low as expectations may have been coming in, it is unexceptionally a failure not to be in the mix this time of year. Brian Burke will be the first to acknowledge that, and did so in his State of the Union address today.

Burke also voiced his expectations for playoff hockey in Toronto next spring, as he did last summer in a consistently misunderstood iteration. Expecting playoffs is not the same as giving it the Daniel Alfredsson guarantee; it’s simply setting the bar for success.

And while the inability of the 2009-10 edition to reach those standards is well known to everyone in Leafs Nation, there is a certain importance in learning from painful history by re-evaluating it. Burke seemed to emphasize one particular 2009-10 downfall as influencing it’s many others: goaltending, or lack thereof out of the gate.

“You can’t win without goaltending. It has a corrosive, acidic effect on everything you do. Even if you’re a forward, right away you’re leaving the zone early because you’re, like, ‘I’m not giving up an out-numbered attack. I’m getting back because an out-numbered attack is going to end up in the back of the net. So now your offense disappears.

“Your defense won’t try complex passes through the neutral zone that are risky for the same reason. There’s no offense there. There’s no creativity, there’s no inspiration. It’s not only demoralizing, it changes your whole style of play. It takes all the attacking spirit out of your team.’’

The tumult of ToskaLOL’s career in Toronto and his from-bad-to-worse start in 2009-10 needs no further examination. Rather, and Burke may not be the only incumbent guilty of this, the lack of action from above to correct such a team-deflating issue earlier than say, five months later, is telling of just how much undeserving patience Toskala was afforded throughout his stay in Toronto.

Burke was no doubt in an unenviable position with Jonas Gustavsson’s unforeseeable heart troubles as well as with the reality of how difficult it is to make any form of significant change early in the modern NHL calendar, let alone at the goaltending position.

But the problem was obvious, and continued to be obvious. Any change whatsoever, be it via UFA as Bitter Leaf suggests, was justified considering the ongoing alternative. Burke knew the problem and the magnitude of it’s team-wide impact and, while admittedly facing limited options, he watched as any playoff hopes dissipated in the first five months of the campaign. As Bitter Leaf points out, Burke saw reason for concern dating back to game number one of the pre-season, describing on Wednesday the worry in seeing Vesa “smoked like a Cuban cigar” by the Buffalo Sabres.

This isn’t to say the Leafs would’ve made the playoffs with a solidified goaltending situation, or that there were any guarantees that a new hand would’ve righted the lilting ship. But it would’ve represented something, anything, as a response to what was such a black hole in the line-up. Chances are the new guy’s numbers would’ve at least figured into the top 30. And it wouldn’t have negated Burke’s ability to capitalize on the described “internal pressure points” of fellow general managers come the trade deadline, as he did with the simultaneous Giguere pick-up and Blake salary dump.

Where the blame does not lie is in Burke and Wilson’s decision to keep the kids in the minors and stick with his “veteran” core until February-March. You only have to look at the end result of Burke’s re-building work this season to realize why that is. By continuing with the likes of Stajan, Hagman, Ponikarovsky, Stempniak, and Blake, each maintained enough production for suitors to identify some form of value in them to the point where Burke could manipulate internal pressure points and turn a franchise-changing blockbuster like the Phaneuf trade and a major salary-dump in the Blake deal. These deals and major re-building coups were not possible if Wilson and Burke didn’t maximize asset value by overreacting to a dismal start, even forgetting that Bozak was not NHL-ready at the season’s onset. Toskala, on the other hand, at a .874 save percentage, may as well have never played in terms of trade value (there’s a reason he was peddled again one month later).

As it pertains to 2009-10 goaltending, it’s probably all academic. As a believer in Burke, if the familiar problem is leading to dropped points in the early going next season, I certainly expect we’ll see something done about it earlier than past the half-way point. Fortunately, the performance of the Gustavsson and Giguere platoon in the final stretch gives reason to hope it’s strictly a problem of the past.

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PP Woes

The next glaring downfall in the 2009-10 season, unattributable to goaltending (although one may be able to make an argument that in the case of the Leafs‘ 14% powerplay rate, the goaltender has to be your best pp’er), is the powerplay. In his five things learned this past Leaf season, MF37 points to some shocking statistics in suggesting Kessel may not be the solution to the Leafs‘ league-worst powerplay.

“Among forwards that played 20+ NHL games and who were given at least 1 minute of PP time, Phil Kessel had atrocious numbers.

Goals scored/60 5 on 4 158th out of 233 NHL forwards.
Primary Assists/60 5 on 4, 59th
Secondary Assists/60 5 on 4 145th
Points/60 5 on 4, 156th.

His numbers were almost as bad in Boston.

Worse news, Kessel is the best option available for the Leafs. With #81 on the ice, the PP clicked at 4.94 GF/60, without him it clicked at 2.79GF/60.

I think the reason behind his ineffectiveness on the powerplay can be found in his style as a player. Kessel is a north-south forward more than anything else. He thrives in catching teams off the break with speed in transition and a quick release. He’s not a player who can cycle or employ his best game in tight areas – more often than not his shots on the powerplay were getting blocked or were low-percentage. This is not to say that Kessel should be on the bench during man-advantage situations – the last statistic mentioned by MF37 suggests otherwise – rather he can only be relied upon as a portion rather than the focal point of an effective unit. That his Boston numbers weren’t a whole lot better isn’t overly promising, but with more offensive threats outside of Kessel such as Kadri to attract attention elsewhere, Kessel might find increased space to get more shots off in prime territory next season.

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Burke referred to July 1st as his draft day in his address, unveiling that he’s looking for some top six offensive talent and more size up front, with his defense core and goaltending situation to be left untouched.

alecbrownscombe [at] mapleleafshotstove.com