Finding the Forest in the Trees

Finding the Forest in the Trees

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Photo: Blog TO

Squeak into the playoffs this year or keep building towards a cup?  I’ll take build towards a cup, please and thank you. And they’re closer than you think.

Rick Dudley is widely considered one of the best judges of talent in hockey.

He’s certainly able to provide a balanced view after building championship teams twice this decade, with two different clubs (Tampa Bay, 2004 – Chicago, 2009). Here’s his take on the Leafs, after less than one year on the job.

A précis of the interview can be taken from two fairly potent statements:

“I am one of the people uniquely qualified to comment on it.”

“I think this team becomes an elite team. Simple.”

Whether that’s damage control, or whether that’s his opinion, I’ll let you be the judge.

But let’s get this straight…
3 years and 4 months into his tenure and some want Brian Burke fired? Who are we replacing a Stanley Cup winning GM with exactly? Show me someone with a ring—a prerequisite—that can handle all the media, fan pressure and other responsibilities associated with the position in stride like Brian Burke? This was never clearer than in his opening remarks as GM. He was built for this city and built for this team. His first year of his tenure was spent gutting a team with absolutely no talent whatsoever—they were an AHL team and a bad one at that—turning marginal talent into gold with every trade he’s made (I’ll get to Kessel below).

Granted, his free agent acquisitions and handling of the goaltending situation (partly due to bad luck with Reimer’s injury) have fallen short of expectations—those based on previous history—not expectations heaped upon them by fans and media hoping for unrealistic improvement in their game. They haven’t lived up to the bill for various reasons.

Underperformance on defence has been a hallmark under Wilson. Alec made a good point regarding the Leafs performance during Wilson’s tenure:

“Defensive defencemen with limited mobility have almost always struggled under Ron Wilson during his tenure, with Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, and Luke Schenn being the main examples. Beauchemin is an interesting case in particular. He made his name in the league under Carlyle, struggled under Wilson, and returned to Carlyle’s team and found his niche again. Hopefully, we see Carlyle’s former Norris Trophy winner expertise show through with the struggling Schenn. Conversely, it will be interesting to see how he manages the likes of Jake Gardiner, who had been given a pretty loose leash by Wilson.”

It’s hard to say how far off Toronto’s defence is. Previously, if you weren’t attempting 50-60ft pass on a consistent basis, you’re probably not going to see a lot of ice time. Perhaps, like Alec suggests, Carlyle, with a team not totally devoid of any confidence, can restructure the defence to a point where all of them are able to contribute what they were groomed and drafted for—specifically the shut down defenceman.

Judging by how Brian Burke has transformed this organization and turned it on its head from the training staff, to the Marlies, to the Big club, to the front office—Toronto hasn’t been in as good a shape since they last time they won a cup. It’s hard to see the sun for all the smoke, but two months of bad hockey and everyone is jumping off a cliff and taking one of the best GMs in hockey with them. When has Brian Burke ever dusted his hands and said that this team is ready to compete? He has been stating for the past 2 seasons that this team lacks size up front and admitted recently that the goaltending is suspect (his fault, the main reason for the inconsistency and slide, and his biggest error to date. Period.). If the deal isn’t there to be made, you can’t force the issue. Show me a proper first line center that has been signed under his nose and I’ll eat my shoe. We could not offer what LA wanted (and received) for Mike Richards. And no, Jeff Carter does not count. #1 centers that Toronto is looking for right now don’t just become available. Those that do count include Lecavalier, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Henrik Sedin, Evegni Malkin, Joe Thornton, and now you could say Anze Kopitar is entering the conversation. Leaf fans are familiar how centers North of 6’3 can be dominant and carry a team on their back. Each deal is seemingly longer and more expensive than that next; most with Cups, Cup appearences and Olympic Gold medals to show for it. Those are deals that you have to wait for and it may be years.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle had this to say about Brian Burke before he signed in Toronto, or was even considered for the job:

“I’ve been saying for years that Burke is the best GM in hockey, after watching firsthand how he rebuilt a terrible Canucks team into a contender, but the one caveat coming the other way was always “he doesn’t have a Cup.”

Brian Burke is the best GM in hockey.”

I find it difficult to believe Brian Burke has forgotten how hockey works, how to draft players and how to evaluate talent since he won the cup in Anaheim and since he was hired here in Toronto.

Calder Cup Champions & NHL Club Records

If you want to see how a team is progressing, look no further than their AHL team. The Marlies are 1st in their division, 2nd in their conference and are viewed by many as a Calder Cup contender. The Leafs/Marlies most recent aquisition just added some top-end depth and Carter Ashton will certainly add even more depth (with NHL games under his belt), once his time with the Leafs is over.

AHL Season Result NHL Season Result
04-05 Philadelphia Phantoms Calder Cup 06-07 Philly Stanley Cup finals
05-06 Hersey Bears Calder Cup
06-07 Hamilton Bulldogs Calder Cup 07-08 Montreal Conference finals
07-08 Chicago Wolves Calder Cup 08-09 Vancouver 3rd in Western Conf.
08-09 Hersey Bears Calder Cup 09-10 Washington Presidents Trophy
09-10 Hersey Bears Calder Cup 10-11 Washington 2nd in league

 

In 2010-12, The Binghamton Senators won the Calder Cup and Ottawa Senators have gone on to make the playoffs against all odds. There was much talk before the start of the season about how Ottawa was destined for a bottom 3-5 finish and a lottery pick. My how the tables have turned.

What Happened?

This team can play. Somewhere along the line, they lost all their mojo and fell off the tracks. They played well for months and were dominant at times when firing on all cylinders. Ken Hitchcock, Jack Adams shoe-in, went so far as to call them “the best rush-attack team in the league”. Safe to say that, as the youngest team in the league (or 2nd youngest, depending on the lineup), their ability to play on the biggest stage in hockey under extreme turmoil during a big slide, with their coach getting fired and a new coach (with diametrically-opposed coaching styles) coming in—all the while getting raked over the coals by fans and media alike – was not in their makeup to overcome. It’s a team full of kids—relax. Burke should’ve better supported Dion with veteran leaders who didn’t call the press box their second home, but it wasn’t what cost the Leafs the 2012 Stanley Cup.

Firing Burke would be the most asinine thing that anyone in this organization could do.

This takes time. Three years and four months is NOT enough time. In fact, it’s not even close to enough time.

Everyone. Chill. Out.

Trade Phil Kessel!

To all the idiots saying trade Phil Kessel: Who do you suggest that we trade him with exactly? He has been outscored by only Steve Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Evegni Malkin, Marian Gaborik and James Neal this year. That’s it. In all of the NHL. Unless you are getting them back, then there is no point in trading him. He is the best pure goal-scoring right-winger in the game.  While this has little-to-no importance to fans (or so they think), all you have to do is go to a game and hear the volume in the building pick up when Kessel picks up the puck at his own blueline—not the opposing teams—and you have a player that gets fans out of their seats. The last players of that ilk were Sundin and Mogilny and not too many in the last 10 years have come close to his talent level.

If we looked at the past seven years of AHL championships and the following two years of their parent club’s performance, the next two years show that the Leafs are going to see a big upsurge in their place in the standings.  Phil Kessel is 24. By October of next year, he will be 25 and based on this study on NHL players who have scored 500 or more career goals, he’s due to hit his big year next season. All players on this list skated during the current era in which NHL teams played between 78 & 84 regular season games.

Average peak goal scoring age: 25.04

  1. Marcel Dionne (ages 27,29,31)
  2. Guy Lafleur (ages 23,24-25[tied],26)
  3. Mike Bossy (ages 22,24,25)
  4. Gilbert Perreault (ages 25,26,28)
  5. Wayne Gretzky (ages 21,23,24)
  6. Lanny McDonald (ages 23,24,29)
  7. Bryan Trottier (ages 21,22,25)
  8. Mike Gartner (ages 25,28,31)
  9. Michel Goulet (ages 22,23,24)
  10. Jari Kurri (ages 23,24,25)
  11. Dino Ciccarelli (ages 21,26,27)
  12. Mario Lemieux (ages 23,27,30)
  13. Mark Messier (ages 21,22,35)
  14. Steve Yzerman (ages 23,24,27)
  15. Dale Hawerchuk (ages 21,22,23)
  16. Brett Hull (ages 25,26,27)
  17. Joe Mullen (ages 29,31,34)
  18. Dave Andreychuk (ages 26,28,30)
  19. Luc Robitaille (ages 21,23,26)
  20. Pat Verbeek (ages 23,25,26)
  21. Ron Francis (ages 23,25,26)
  22. Brendan Shanahan (ages 24,25,27)
  23. Joe Sakic (ages 23,26,31)
  24. Joe Nieuwendyk (ages 21,22,23-24[tied])
  25. Jaromír Jágr (ages 23,24,27)
  26. Pierre Turgeon (ages 22,23,24)
  27. Mats Sundin (ages 21,25,30)
  28. Teemu Selänne (ages 22,26,27)
  29. Peter Bondra (ages 27,28,29)
  30. Mark Recchi (ages 22,23,24)
  31. Mike Modano (ages 23,25,29)
  32. Jeremy Roenick (ages 22,23,24)
  33. Keith Tkachuk (ages 23,24,25)

Statistical tidbits:

* Despite a history of stars entering the NHL during their teen years, not one modern-era NHL 500+ goal scorer has had a career top-3 goal season before the age of 21.

* Of the 101 best goal scoring seasons listed here, just 17.8% occurred after the age of 27.

* BUT SEGUIN! You know what Seguin would have done for our team? Nothing. Not for a couple more years from now, anyway. And he would have been deemed “a bust” by fans and media alike. He would have been thrust into a role that is designed for a veteran and with no supporting cast. He is on the Stanley Cup champions (of which he had little-to-no contribution on) and, quite possibly, soon to be repeat champions. Of course he looks good. Oh, but his +/-? Don’t start with that. That’s a team stat and very misleading (and antiquated) one at that. They have, debatably, the #1 and the #2 goalie in the league.

There’s Always Next Year

It’s a running joke, but “next year will be our year” may actually mean something now.  Sure, there are needs to address this off-season, but having a peaking Phil Kessel, a team finally growing into themselves, a new and better coach (and one better for younger players), and a deep run or even a championship from the AHL affiliate, are all signs things are on track. The fact that a probably-brief playoff appearance never happened due to a disastrous two months of hockey shouldn’t mean the end of the world as far as the big picture is concerned.

“I watch GMs get up there the first day and say we have a five year plan, I don’t’ respect that. My view was I was hopeful we could do it quicker, we haven’t, but I haven’t changed the plan.”
-Brian Burke

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