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Matt Bracken

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While Brian Burke deserves much of the blame for the recent woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s also fair to point out that he didn’t exactly inherit a powerhouse.  The Leafs roster was in terrible shape when the big Irishman accepted the unsavory role of Maple Leafs president and general manager.

Unfair expectations were placed on this current regime and miracles were expected overnight as he was quickly dubbed the ‘saviour of the franchise’.  Unfortunately, in the new cap-era NHL, a quick fix is nearly impossible and instead patience, money management and shrewd decision making is even more imperative.

Is the “Fire Burkie” rhetoric that has been spewed from Leafs Nation coast-to-coast justified?

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Being a Leafs fan is never easy (being a fan born in the early 80s is even worse). Oh, we have had a few shining moments over the past 25 years or so, but for the most part it has been pain, ridicule, frustration and heartbreak.  Even with the spotty track record over the last four decades Leafs Nation continues to grow and grow around Canada, the United States and even the across the globe (thanks to Mislav!).

Having the biggest fan base in hockey is a blessing and a curse. With the great support also comes at times an unappeasable group of fans.  Most wanted Ron Wilson fired for not getting enough out of the team, now that he is gone it has turned into Brian Burke’s fault for not getting enough talent on the team.

In short, Leafs fans are hard to please.

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Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Editor’s Note: Matt drafted this piece before last night’s atrocity.

With a regulation Rangers win over the Capitals this afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs currently sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Despite the demoralizing no show from the Leafs last night, if the season ended today, they would do something the team hasn’t done in many, many years – make the playoffs.  With the trade deadline quickly approaching (February 27, 2012), the speculation as always is running rampant that the Leafs are poised to make a trade to improve the team’s current roster.

While making the playoffs is the goal of every team I have to ask the question – should the Leafs actually be sellers at the deadline?  Now, before you freak out or send me a nasty email, let me first say I am only asking the question, not necessarily recommending it.  But does this idea have merit and make sense for the betterment of the team going forward?

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Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The month of February will be crucial in the Maple Leafs’ quest to solidify their first playoff berth since the lockout.  Although the race won’t necessarily be decided this month, it will certainly go a long way in putting the Leafs in a prime position to compete for the Stanley Cup come April.   The team has definitely been playing better hockey (the last ten minutes of Monday’s debacle versus Pittsburgh notwithstanding), picking up points in five of their last six games.

Here is a look at the Eastern Conference standings as of February 2nd, 2012:

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Photo Credit: sportsnet.ca

In a lacklustre free agent market where a James Wisniewski can get $33 million dollars, it can sometimes be advantageous to be extremely deliberate when it comes to throwing around the dollars.  The only truly worthwhile UFA offensive option was of course Christian Hanson Brad Richards but looking back it almost appears obvious why the Toronto Maple Leafs were among the “final four” teams in the ‘B-Rich’ derby – to drive up the price for the New York Rangers.

Brian Burke in particular has taken a bit of heat for not being physically present during the “pitch” for Brad Richards.  It is hard to fault the man for taking such a noble once in a lifetime trip (along with stud defenseman Luke Schenn) and it appears the writing was on the wall from the jump – Brad Richards was never going to don the blue and white.

Many opinions have already been made on this site and others and I will keep mine relatively short.  To invest six (or more) years in a player who has already won a cup, been through the gruelling battles that take a toll on the professional athlete’s body and who is on the downswing of a fairly impressive career is not prudent.

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It feels great to see the Toronto Maple Leafs add nine fresh new (and young) faces to the organization following a successful 2011 NHL Entry draft this weekend.  The Leafs led by Dave Morrison selected four forwards, four defenseman and one goaltender. On the second day of the draft the Leafs’ draft team appeared to be anticipating that strong finishes to the seasons from LW Josh Leivo and D Tom Nilsson, their third and fourth round selections respectively, will lead to even brighter futures with breakout seasons in 2011-12.

Even Minnesota high school standout Tony Cameranesi, who was selected in the fifth round, gives something that Leafs fans can look forward to – blazing speed.  Though diminutive at 5’9” and 162 pounds, many scouts have lauded the youngster as one of the top skaters in the entire draft, something you don’t normally hear for such a late pick.  As their NHL future is almost always in a scoring role, it takes a ton of ability in the skill areas of a diminutive man’s game to make it to the top level… elite speed is certainly chief among those skills. This seemed to be the Leafs brass’ high risk, high reward player of the draft; whether or not this swing for the fences approach was taken enough is up for debate

All in all, Brian Burke and company have to be feeling good about a s solid if unspectacular weekend.  We added a power play quarterback in John-Michael Liles at the cost of a pick the Leafs got as a bonus to an already good return on the Kaberle deal, another experienced sounding board in a deep front office in Rick Dudley and got a guy many had ranked higher in the first round when the team selected bruising power-forward Tyler Biggs.

On to July 1 and the seemingly never ending Brad Richards sweepstakes.

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If the NHL handed out awards for half seasons, would there be any doubt that Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson would be among a handful of candidates for Coach of the Year for the second half of this NHL season?  After suffering a 3-2 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 30th, 2010 the Leafs record sat at an uninspiring 13-19-4.  Much of the blame for that record was placed squarely on the shoulders of our at times moody head coach.

I don’t recall a post game (win or lose) theme that didn’t in some shape or form include vast criticism of our coaching staff and the inevitable “Fire Ron Wilson” mantra.  Some of that critique might have been warranted but when considering the goaltending available to him to that point it is hard to solely blame one man (Ron Wilson) for the first half struggles of an entire team.

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Photo Credit: The Star

Dion Phaneuf has played some of his best hockey as a Toronto Maple Leaf over the past few months and it appears he is finally settling into a bit of a groove in El Toro.  Last Thursday’s loss to the Florida Panthers marked the Leafs Captain’s 82nd game with the team, a full season of games in the blue and white.  Let’s take a look and see how he fared.

Acquired along with potentially the best player in the deal Keith Aulie from the Calgary Flames, the arrival of Phaneuf was met with great fan fare and anticipation as the western Canadian boy was somewhat of a “YouTube” and highlight reel legend.  Massive hits, huge blasts from the point and just an overall swagger to his game and the expectations for Dion were massive, in hindsight, too big.

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Last night’s 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers combined with the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 (OT) victory over the Boston Bruins has nearly sunk the fading playoff hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  In fact, the Maple Leafs are almost in need of a miracle to regain any real chance of actually making the big dance.  According to Sports Club Stats the Leafs current chances of making it are now sitting at an all-time low of 2.3%.

To make the playoffs the Leafs are going to have to nearly run the table to get to the needed 92 or 93 points.  With 14 games remaining in the season the Leafs will have to go 11-1-2 just to get to 92 points, and that might not even be a guaranteed playoff spot.  If I just killed your spirit I apologize but this is just the reality of the extremely bleak situation facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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While the NHL and game of hockey in general is harder to quantify overall player value than an almost purely numbers based game such as baseball, I feel attempting to identify (and measure) the hidden value of intangibles could be a real advantage to a team.  Since the explosion of advanced statistical analysis in baseball there have been a ton of different stats, ratios and metrics come and go and while they can be a bit intimidating and confusing they also all serve a simple purpose for the most part, establishing value in some form or another.

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Photo Credit: Associated Press

According to the good folks at Sports Club Stats the Toronto Maple Leafs have approximately a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs.  Yeah, pretty bleak… five out of one hundred times this Leafs team will make the big dance.  If James Reimer doesn’t continue to play like a Vezina trophy candidate I think we can safely say the Leafs stand no chance at all.

James Reimer (prior to Saturday’s game) has played in 17 games, sports a 10-4-2 record to go along with a sparkling 2.24 GAA and a shiny .930 save percentage.  In short, he has played like one of the top goaltenders in hockey during his short stretch as the Maple Leafs number one option.  His current stats would rank him in sole possession of fifth in the NHL in GAA and second in save percentage (behind only Tim Thomas).

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Abelimages/Getty Images

Phil Kessel has been one of the most polarizing figures in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs during his short tenure with the blue and white.  Kessel will forever be linked with 2010 #2 overall selection Tyler Seguin and the jury might never come to a firm conclusion if that deal was in the best interest of the Leafs short or longer term.

Recently Kessel has come under heavy fire for his pointed comments regarding his lack of recent scoring and suggesting that maybe it “isn’t working here”.  The Toronto media and fans of the team instantly took offense to this comment and basically hung him out to dry.  I’ll admit it made me pause but this is Toronto, one of the largest media hubs in the world where even marginal players have microphones and cameras shoved in their grills, after a practise. 

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Loy·alty (-tē)

Noun pl. loyalties -·ties

Defined as a quality, state, or instance of being loyal; faithfulness or faithful adherence to a person, government, cause, duty, etc.

In the midst of one of the worst blowout losses (7-0) in the history of the beloved Toronto Maple Leafs I thought I would pose a question, what does loyalty mean to you?  The idea came to me after I simply asked on my twitter account if there was actually a team in the NHL right now that you wouldn’t trade roster for roster with the Leafs? 

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No the Toronto Maple Leafs are not trying to reacquire Jiri Tlusty but they are quickly turning into one of the streakiest teams in the NHL this season.   With their current four game winning streak going strong I thought I’d take a look at just how streaky they have been – Toronto now has 18 wins, 20 losses plus 4 overtime/shootout losses. 

Of the Leafs 18 wins, eight have been garnered on some form of a winning streak as the Leafs started the year on a four game winning streak.  However, the losses have also come in bunches, greatly counteracting the impressive win streaks, and then some. 

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Post Game Notes: Leafs light up Atlanta

One of the more polarizing players on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster, Mikhail Grabovski has been on the tongues of Leafs Nation with his current hot streak in full effect. He suddenly has a lot of new and of course the old diehard “always believed in him” fans on his side with his torrid scoring pace over the past month.  Another game tonight, another two goals… the hot streak is borderline madness.

Just how hot has “Grabo” been?  Think back if you will to last season when enigmatic (for Toronto anyway) scoring winger Lee Stempniak was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes (for nothing) and was almost literally in the news every day for his scoring exploits – 14 goals in 18 games!  Well since December 6, 2010 Grabovski has scored at an even more ridiculous clip with 12 goals in 14 games, the hottest player in the league over that time span.

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Brian Burke has been oft-criticized for various moves since beginning his tenure as the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs but after witnessing the recent Brian Rolston waiver situation I think we should start to also give him at least a tiny bit of credit.  Burke has gone on record as saying he doesn’t believe in the long term contracts that NHL teams are throwing around in recent years and he won’t be giving any Leafs player this type of deal anytime soon – though hard to say if any of the current Leafs are worthy.

When asked about the Kovalchuck circumvention case he was quoted as saying “The risk a team assumes with a long-term deal is a different issue [than] whether it’s permitted under the CBA. So that’s a different issue.”  It’s clear he doesn’t believe this is a prudent way to do business and although I wish we actually had a Jeff Carter to lock-up, maybe he is right.

“We’re two years away from expiration of the CBA. My mindset hasn’t changed. The league sets the rules here, they’ve given us the rules and now we’ll go forward under those rules. I’m not going to rule out anything that’s permissible under the league bylaws or under the CBA.”

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So the Toronto Maple Leafs did the inevitable and sent down there 2009 1st round selection Nazem Kadri to the AHL (Toronto Marlies).  Whether it is longer term or just to get his 2-game suspension off the books remains to be seen but I for one hope he is firmly entrenched down there, for his own good.  I still have hope that Kadri can develop into a serviceable and possibly even productive second line centre but for now he is not even close to being NHL ready.

To really drive home that point let’s head to Alberta and take a look at Jordan Eberle. 

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    In the absence of any game analysis or waffle throwing evaluations, I thought I would simply share an odd dream I recently had….

    I awoke last night in a cold sweat with cloudy thoughts of a Jeremy Roenick game winner, Dominik Hasek and Arturs Irbe standing on their heads and an unusual amount of players screaming at NHL referees.  Ok, so I had a strange dream, our old GM Pat Quinn had actually taken over Brian Burke’s mind and body and was in actuality our current GM in the form of Burkie.  Now that I have lost most of you, to the remaining readers let me at least explain further.

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    Jonas Gustavsson

    You can never give up hope especially with 51 games remaining in the NHL schedule but with the Toronto Maple Leafs currently eight points out of a playoff spot with four teams also ahead of them to get there the odds are pretty stacked against them.  Last season I believe only one team made the playoffs that weren’t already officially among the top eight seeds as of December 1/2009 and that was the Philadelphia Flyers and we all remember how they managed to squeak in. 

    One could argue that they [Flyers] probably should have been in the race from the first game of the season given the roster of talent they possess and eventual trip all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.  Nobody would make that same argument for this year’s version of the Leafs and while there is always a chance, I am not overly optimistic. 

    So if we aren’t looking at a playoff berth what are we playing for?

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have been called plenty of things this season but I can honestly say there is one I have never heard until recently after reading a piece by an Edmonton sports writer, chicken.  The writer said the Leafs played the role of chicken (and turtles) versus the Edmonton Oilers stating Colton Orr spent the “entire evening running away from Steve MacIntyre” and “found an escape hatch” when he beat Oilers tough guy Zack Stortini “in a marathon”.

    Where to begin?  First off, Colton Orr runs away from no man, this I think most NHL fight pundits will agree with.  Brand new NHL heavyweight contender (some say champion) Deryk Engelland has been wreaking havoc on the fight scene this season with some impressive knockouts and wins over some big time opponents.