Sunday, May 3, 2015
Authors Posts by Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens

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Michael Stephens has been writing for Maple Leafs Hotstove since 2010, and has featured in the 2010 and 2012 Maple Leaf Annuals. Former Editiorial Intern at The Hockey News. Undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor. Chat me up about all things hockey on twitter @MLHS_Mike

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Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

On Sunday I shared with you most of the highlights from Brian Burke’s appearance at an executive breakfast.  Due to time constraints and formatting issues (and word count.  That’s Petrielli’s bit), I had to omit an excellent story that Burke told about an altercation between the Fire Department of Vancouver and former Canucks tough guy Donald Brashear near the end of his tenure there.  With the movies like Goon and Slap Shot portraying hockey players are lug nuts who can barely function in normal society, Burke related a story that in no way dispels this motif.

As a caveat to both the readers and potential claimants in a libel suit, I cannot certify the veracity of this particular story.  I got the sense that Brian Burke is close to his Irish roots in that he’s an admitted lapsed Catholic and that the point of a story isn’t the facts, it’s the story.  My family can relate.  But this was a tale that Burke told the assembled group last Wednesday, and I’d feel derelict in my duty not to pass it along.  Burke re-enacted two scenes, playing out both parts, from a phone call with the Fire Chief of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services and an in-person meeting with Donald Brashear.

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Photo: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

This past Wednesday I had the great good fortune to see the guest speaker, Toronto Maple Leafs President and GM Brian Burke, at the Scotiabank ® President’s Breakfast. In no way should I have been in attendance at this swanky affair used to reward lucrative business clients and senior management, but my branch manager is an avid hockey fan and when a favoured client had to pull out, I was a last minute substitution. As we stand on the eve of the trade deadline with the Leafs in a tailspin, I’d like to share with you some of the highlights from Burke’s speech and Q&A session held in the opulent Ratcliffe Room on the 63rd floor of Scotia Plaza.

As a brief primer, I must report that Brian Burke is a terrific raconteur who speaks confidently and lucidly at all times; but when given a chance exhibits a tremendous, ribald sense of humour. His bravado and bluntness quickly came to light as he approached the podium. With a cup of coffee and some prepared notes in hand, I expected him to begin formally with pleasantries and platitudes for his sponsor. Instead, raucous laughter met his opening line regarding the Leafs OT loss to the New Jersey Devils the night previous, “So that goal was horseshit!”

Darren Calabres/Canadian Press

For fans expecting GM Brian Burke to make a big splash next Monday, prepare to be disappointed.  After acquiring Joffrey Lupul a month ahead of D Day in 2011, Burke equated the deadline frenzy to ethnic party favours, “it’s almost like a party with a piñata, everyone’s going for one player and everyone’s swinging at it.”  These are not the words of a man willing make a knee jerk trade just to appease his Twitter feed.

Below are the trades the Leafs have made on the past three trade deadline days.  Aside from showcasing just how far the team has come, it speaks volumes that the best player Brian Burke has acquired for the Leafs at the deadline is Olaf Kolzig (about ten years past prime).

Photo: Vintage Leafs

Mats Sundin, perhaps the most hotly debated Leaf of all time (sorry, Phil), is in town.  His number is being honoured this Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, and the recluse-in-retirement has come back to Toronto for the festivities.

Maybe the best Leaf of the past two decades, he was an affable if reserved player both on and off the ice.  He was no flash in the pan; he became the leading Leaf scorer through 13 seasons of determined consistency.  Known for foppish locks, McDonald’s commercials, and breaking hearts, Mats’ mere presence always caused a stir.  And on Saturday he’ll be in the ACC, just a stone’s throw from the Hockey Hall of Fame.  He’s eligible this coming fall, and it begs the question: Is Mats Sundin a first ballot hall of famer? 

Box Score | Ice Time | Recap

God damn! It was a night of many happy returns, as the Toronto Leafs held on for a tough 1 – 0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  After clutching defeat from the jaws of victory last night the Leafs returned to the ACC, where they’ve been good this year, and managed to play an effective defensive game.  James Reimer recorded his second shut out of the season in his first game since January 17th, overshadowing the welcomed return of John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong.

Someone’s going to be handing out tardy slips, and some notable names are missing around the NHL.  So join us for the Wednesday Mashup and take a look at the presence of  absence in the league this week.

Alexander Ovechkin, freshly suspended, will not be taking part in the Some Stars Game this weekend.  Ovechkin not wanting to play due to the suspension is specious reasoning, no two ways about it.  His inclusion to the festivities this year was on previous history and name, not merit.  He’s one of the games poster boys, someone who generates revenue at these events.  In what amounts to a flash bulb hyped game of shinny, Ovechkin could have put a little shine on his image.  He could stand to put in some face time.

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Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Tyler Bozak’s back and hopefully Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul too as the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Ottawa Senators tonight.  . James Reimer will also make his first start since December 31st and Jay Rosehill will trade his suit for a jersey for the first time since December 19th.

This is the fourth of 6 meetings between the bitter rivals, with the Senators leading the season series 2 – 1. Sitting in 9th place, one point out of 8th, the Leafs can ill afford to lose in this key 4 point game.

A key to tonight’s game will be how the Leafs manage to reign-in a surprising Senators team that has gone 8-1-1 in their last ten and have skyrocketed up the standings in the Eastern Conference.

Working in the Leafs favour tonight is that the Sens lost in a stinker against the Winnepeg Jets less than 24 hours ago and figure to be gassed compared to a rested Leafs squad.  Working against the Leafs is the fact that Craig Anderson, the player I opined to be the single most important factor to a successful Senators club earlier this season, has been just great of late, receiving first star of the week honours for his tremendous showing after a horrible start to the season.

Fourth time’s a charm for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012 with a 2 – 0 win over the Buffalo Sabres.  The Monster stood tall again tonight and the club remains undefeated in what is clearly a sign of end times.  Neither Lupul nor Kessel tallied a point tonight, because who needs them when the USSR is back to its scoring ways.

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Photo: sportsnet.ca

Photo: sportsnet.ca

On the Toronto Maple Leafs, no player has the combination of tenacity and skill that Mikhail Grabovski plays with each and every night.  First labeled as a peripheral playmaking center, Grabovski’s game has evolved to the point where he’s as competent finishing plays as he is setting them up, all while playing with zeal unmatched in the blue and white.  But moving forward is he what the Toronto Maple Leafs need to be a playoff team in the near future?

On pace for his 3rd 20 goal season since being acquired in 2008 from the Montreal Canadiens, Grabovski has been a human highlight reel on some pretty bad Toronto teams.  Last season he reached personal heights in goals, assists and points and was 1/3rd of the only reason to watch the Leafs during the 2010 – 2011 season.  Formerly viewed as a petulant, enigmatic ‘me-first player’, he’s matured in hog town and has been rewarded with alternate captaincy.  He’s become one of my favourite players.  If salary cap is any indicator of point production, he’s been a veritable bargain making $2.9 million these past three years.  A lot to like about the guy.

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    Getting out of a snowy Toronto did little to improve their playoff forecast as your Toronto Maple Leafs lost 5 – 3 to the Florida Panthers.  For the first time in the past 4 games, the Leafs outshot their competition and set the pace of play for long stretches of the game.  Yet for the second time this season, the Florida Panthers prevailed, riding timely scoring and inept Leafs specialty teams to victory.  Let’s recap a hard luck loss by the Leafs.

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    Photo: Getty Images

    When Colby Armstrong looks back on his career in Toronto, there’s a good chance he’ll remark that is was a pain.  How else can one describe the rash of injuries that has befallen the rugged right winger since coming to Toronto?  Since signing a 3 year, $9 Million dollar contract in the summer of 2010, he has skated in 59 games while he’s sat in the press box with casts, bandages and eye patches for a total of 56 games.  So lets take a quick look at the trials and tribulations of the oft falling Leaf.

    Prior to his tenure in Toronto, Armstrong was considered something of a durable player, whose low mark in terms of games played was 72 split between Pittsburgh and Atlanta during the 2007 – 2008 season.  Yet he missed 32 games last season with a broken finger, an eye injury and a broken foot.  This season, he missed 23 games with a high ankle sprain, and after only 3 games back in the line up, suffered both a broken toe and a concussion on Saturday night. The concussion puts Colby amongst the growing list (now more than two dozen strong) of NHL regulars feeling the effects of head trauma.

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    There hasn't been too much of this for Kulemin so far this season (Photo Credit: AP).

    Last season saw Nikolai Kulemin reach new heights. His 30 goals, beyond being a career high at the NHL level, placed him in some elite company for the Maple Leafs. In the past 10 seasons, only Phil Kessel, Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny and Kulemin have managed to tally 30+ goals in a single season. In August, our own prognosticators pegged the Magnitogorsk native to lead the club in scoring, building upon last year’s heroics.  But with his play of late, he might not even hit 10 goals this season. So what’s the deal?

    His current goal scoring slump has now reached 23 games, and unsurprisingly his stat line has been most unimpressive.  He’s recorded 8 assists, is a +2, and has tallied 37 shots (1.60 per game).  I typically dislike throwing out numbers, but very simply there’s little to like about his play this season.  He’s on pace for career lows in almost every major category, and is set to score 27 fewer points than last season.

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      Tonight marked James Reimer’s first game back at the ACC, and maybe he’d have preferred the comforts of the pressbox as a shaky start and finish sunk the Leafs.  In his first appearance at the ACC since October 19th, Reimer had an off night and a 50/50 penalty kill led to your Toronto Maple Leafs losing 3 – 2 in overtime to the New Jersey Devils.

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      Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

      There is no understating the importance of tonight’s game at all.  With a win tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be in a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with 32 points.  Riding a three game winning streak, the Leafs have gone from looking like pretenders to the real deal in the East, giving them a possible seven-point cushion on ninth place if they can pull off a victory.  It’s just a shame that they have to go up against the defending Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins, who look to be in post season form.  The Beantowners will head into Toronto just one point behind the Buds and two games removed from a tenth straight win.

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      Photo: Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

      Your Toronto Maple Leafs needed a win in the worst kind of way last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Responding with a blow out 7 – 1 win (their second in three games), the franchise seems poised to gain ground again in the Eastern Conference.

      While incredible, their 7 – 1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday masked the fact that the club had struggled mightily to find consistency and dominate the opposition since the turn of the month.  Through November, the team has done as well as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have let them, and one the few nights that the duo hasn’t been dynamic, the Leafs haven’t had enough gun to win games.  Tonight was a night for the ensemble, who have taken center stage in the two blow outs.

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      Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star

      It’s the middle of November, and schools across the land are giving out report cards.  Meanwhile, in the nation’s universities, professors’ TAs are hard at work grading students’ essays before the drop date.  With just over 20% of the Leafs season in the books, let’s take a look at how Brian Burke’s prized acquisitions have fared so far.

      David Steckel
      Grade: B+

      He’s no superstar, but he tries hard, and effort and attention to detail will always earn part marks.  For such a big guy, it’s the little things he does so well, whether it’s blocking shots or winning over 60% of his face-offs.  He’s the leader amongst the Leafs forward corps in hits (42, tied for team lead with Luke Schenn), blocked shots (20) and penalty kill time on ice per game (2:45).  Had a three game goal scoring streak early in the season and his ability to win key draws has improved the Leafs possession numbers all season. He’s a big body up front who provides an inside presence, and that’s a lacking element on this roster.

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      Photo: Reuters

      It’s becoming abundantly clear that all is not well in the house that Brian Burke built.  The Toronto Maple Leafs, after roaring out of the gate like a bat out of hell, have begun to falter.  Their weaknesses have been exposed and have damned the team to a 1 – 3 – 0 record in the past 4 games.  Mired in this slump, the Leafs have a -14 goal differential (5 goals for, 19 goals against) and are primed for a deep plunge in the Eastern Conference standings.

      Any panelist can glance at the wonky numbers above and castigate Ben Scrivens, Jonas Gustavsson or Brian Gionta.  There’s about 19 points to support that argument, but an increasing concern has to be Toronto’s inability to get scoring out of anyone not skating with Phil Kessel.  More specifically, it’s the deteriorating play of the second line of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin that bears most watching.  Held (and therefore rendered) pointless over the past 4, they have become the poster boys for the Leafs recent downturn.

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      Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images

      It was the story of Jose Theodore – who looked soooooo 2002 last night – as the Florida Panthers whipped the Toronto Maple Leafs 5 – 1.  This is the second Leaf loss in a row, and the second game in a row that the Leafs lost by more than a field goal.  The Leafs (skaters, anyway) played better than their result, shutting out a powerplay that came into last night’s game with a 23.5% success rate and outshooting the Cats 39 – 28.

      However, as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it” and while the Leafs had a clear advantage in puck possession and offensive chances, their inadequate goaltending tandem didn’t just hurt the team, it sunk them.

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      flickr.com/bobfina

      There’s a lot going on in Leaf land this Wednesday morning, so lets take a look at what’s making news and look back a little at the month that was.  Your Toronto Maple Leafs will take on the New Jersey devils tonight, hoping to rebound from Sunday’s loss to the Ottawa Senators.  The Leafs will sport a new line up due to injuries, demotions and call ups, and because the only constant is change.  It’s been a promising sign that in spite of the numerous roster changes, the wins have been frequent and most games have been very close.  It’s a testament to the depth of talent (even if the ceiling is a little low) that Brian Burke has provided in his tenure in Toronto.

      That depth will be tested tonight, as Jake Gardiner is the latest Leaf to fall victim to the injury bug.  The 21 year old rookie has been a solid if unspectacular defender for the Leafs, and his two way acumen, speed and utility will be missed if he’s out of the line up for any extended period of time.  This news must come as glad tidings for Cody Franson.  The former Predator has been a healthy scratch ever since the Leafs lost in Boston after he went -3 on the night.