A dreadful 3-11-5 start for the Maple Leafs has everyone asking the same two questions. What the heck happened? And what the heck is the solution?
In the course of pondering those questions, many suggestions have been offered as to why this team is failing, and what can be done to get it back on track. However, many of the assumptions made are of the black-and-white variety, when the truth of the matter exists in shades of grey. In short, the answers to such questions are never quite so clear-cut as they may seem to be on the surface.
Myth: The Leafsâ€™ problems are tied directly to a weakness in goal.
Reality: Itâ€™s the age-old chicken vs egg debate.
To suggest that goaltending is the chief concern is to suggest that success is dependent upon the goaltender more than any other player. But how realistic is it to expect the goaltender to win the game by himself? This is not to say that goaltending hasnâ€™t been a problem â€” it most certainly has â€” but to what degree has the problem been due to the goaltenders as opposed to the lack of play in front of the goaltenders?
Case in point: the Iginla and Bouwmeester goals which sealed last Saturdayâ€™s 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames. The 2-on-1 that led to Iginlaâ€™s goal was created by the Leafs forward failing to cover for the pinching defender, which led to Iginla having a clear break down the right wing boards. Had that player been in proper position, he would have been able to impede Iginlaâ€™s process and perhaps prevent the odd-man rush that created the goal-scoring opportunity. Bouwmeesterâ€™s goal was the product of an even more egregious mistake. On the penalty kill, the puck was in the corner and the Calgary players near the puck were being covered by the defenders, leaving a forward back to cover the front of the net. Rather than watching the opposition players in the zone (a penalty-killerâ€™s sole responsibility when not near the puck), the forward was watching the puck battle in the corner. The result? Bouwmeester snuck in the back door and was able to get into perfect position to score in the open side of the net. Had the forward been paying attention to the positioning of the open players instead of the puck (which someone else was already doing), chances are heâ€™d have been able to slow Bouwmeester up enough to allow Toskala to get across to make the save.
Again, this is not to say that goaltending hasnâ€™t been a problem; indeed, there have been countless goals of the â€œweakâ€ variety scored against the Maple Leafs. But the fact remains that hockey is a team game, and on several occasions the goaltenders have been hung out to dry by forwards, and defenders, who have a worrisome tendency to get caught watching the puck as opposed to covering the open man. Bottom line, the Leafsâ€™ struggles to date are the result of a team-wide epidemic and cannot simply be blamed on a weakness at one position, easy as that is to do.
Myth: The team needs to acquire a veteran goaltender to stabilize the position
Reality: See above.
This one is simple. What difference could anyone expect, with a new goaltender in net, if the forwards and defenders are not willing to either (a) pay attention to opposition positioning; or (b) get physical in front of the net? The answer is, there would be minimal difference at best. No goaltender can be expected to win games for his team unless the team is willing to clear rebounds, take away the front of the crease, and pay enough attention to the opposition to prevent the back door plays from becoming a regular occurrence.
Myth: Calling up the kids should be a no-brainer at this point.
Reality: It all comes down to dollars and cents.
The argument has been made â€” and on the surface it has plenty of merit â€” that young players in the system such as Bozak, Stalberg, and Hanson should be called up immediately. Arguments that a culture change is necessary, and that, frankly, it canâ€™t hurt at this point to have the young players learn on the job, are sensible â€¦ but unfortunately, impractical as well.
People love to point to Brian Burkeâ€™s statements about sending veterans to the AHL if they donâ€™t perform. Now, everyone is asking why that hasnâ€™t happened. Was it grandstanding or was it an empty threat? Not at all. The answer lies in the very context of the statements themselves.
When Burke talked about sending underperforming veterans to the minors, he did so at a time when salary cap space was not a problem. If a guy was to get claimed on waivers, so what? They had the money to afford it. But that was before the Leafs acquired Phil Kessel. After that, it was an entirely new ballgame.
Kessel, to his credit, has to date been worth every cent the Leafs paid him. You wonâ€™t find many people who will argue he is overpaid to the slightest degree. However, the contract still poses some problems. It put the team up against the cap, to the point where they cannot afford to call up a player like Tyler Bozak without sending a veteran down. So why not do it? Waivers.
For example, if the team were to send Jason Blake to the AHL (as many fans have suggested), they would clear enough cap space with that move to bring up Tyler Bozak. Great. But then you are stuck with a situation where (a) you have a malcontent on the AHL team (a problem but not a big one) and (b) you get painted into a corner if he gets claimed on waivers at any point (a very big problem).
Letâ€™s say Blake lights it up in the AHL, or there is an injury, and the team decides to call him up to see if he can get it going at the NHL level again. He would have to pass re-entry waivers, at which point the team claiming him would only assume half his remaining contract, and cap hit. The other half would be added immediately to Torontoâ€™s cap status. In other words, the Leafs would not be on the hook for his $4m cap hit if he was in the AHL, but would have the pro-rated equivalent of $2m count against their cap immediately if he were claimed upon re-call â€¦ just enough to force them into scrambling to make another move in order to keep a high-priced player like Bozak on the roster. Further, they would suffer a $2m cap hit for each of the remaining two years on Blakeâ€™s contract, inhibiting their ability to add significant pieces to the roster. See the problem?
There are only a couple of ways the team will be able to keep the kids up for the remainder of the season. Offloading salary via trade would be ideal, but will there be any takers? In a recession-slammed economy, the teams that do have cap space are watching their payrolls closely, making any sort of trade involving a hefty salary difficult at best. The second option is sending the veterans down and leaving them on the farm. The question then becomes, what is the impact of having malcontents on the team, in terms of the young players already there? Further, would such a move impact future FA signings?
For those wondering why the Leafs have stuck with their veterans for 19 games in the hopes that they will turn things around, the cap situation and potential waiver ramifications are the reason why.
Myth: Brian Burke is a blowhard
Reality: Brian Burke did exactly what he said heâ€™d do
Itâ€™s natural. We all bought into the hype, and the hope, that the offseason makeover at the hands of Brian Burke brought to the city. And instead of yielding positive results from the changes, the season to date has been an unmitigated disaster. Many of those who got swept up in the fervor of the offseason have begun to turn, their hope replaced by anger.
Subsequently, the call-in shows and comment boards are increasingly becoming forums for people to outlet the blame â€” and most of it is being pointed in the direction of Brian Burke, to the tune of â€œhe made us believe and look what we got!â€
I get where that comes from â€” but how reasonable is it? Burke was very open about having what amounted to a three-point plan for rebuilding the team: build from the net out (which means improve goaltending and defense), add toughness and grit, and then add skill. In the one offseason he has had to work with thus far, he addressed all three areas by acquiring the best available players in each. He signed the top goaltender outside the NHL to a very reasonable contract, signed two of the top free agent defensemen to market value deals, traded a large contract (Kubina) to make those moves possible, added toughness in Garnet Exelby and Colton Orr, added grit in Wayne Primeau, and added skill in the trade for Phil Kessel and the drafting of Nazem Kadri. Go down the list of what he said he would do, the plan that so many supported just a few months ago, and it goes like this: check, check, check.
There isnâ€™t much Burke can do about the teamâ€™s performance on game day, unfortunately. There is no way that he, or any member of the Leafsâ€™ brass, expected this sort of a result 19 games into the season. And now the task is his to right the ship. The question is, how? With a non-existant trade market, and salary cap issues compounded by the waiver issue, the reality is that impactful changes may not be possible before the trade deadline, or perhaps even the offseason (gulp!).
The bottom line, in all of this, is that there are no easy answers as to why exactly this team has struggled so mightily, or what can be done to right the ship. What is the relationship between weak goaltending and weak backchecking? Weak goaltending is a part of the problem, but to what extent is the non-committal defensive play of the forwards, as well as the lack of physical play in front of the net by the defensemen, a contributing factor? Will rectifying one of those issues resolve the other? Can a solution be found, salary-wise, to not only call up the kids but be able to keep them on the roster in the face of a possible waiver claim on a veteran? What is Brian Burkeâ€™s next move, or are his hands tied to a point where there isnâ€™t one to be made until the trade deadline at the earliest?
You see, none of this is nearly as black and white as so many armchair GMs like to believe it is. For every problem, there are a number of causal factors, and for every solution a number of potential consequences. If fans wish to know what the delay is in making any sort of move, well, there you have it. Itâ€™s all shades of grey â€” and itâ€™s not exactly a simple process to make a decision on the cause, or the solution, in such a situation.
So, the question I have for you is, in the context of the shades of grey discussed above, what would you do? What do you attribute the goaltending woes to, and more importantly, how would you fix that problem? Is there a way of getting the kids into the lineup, on a long-term basis, where the cap hit off a waiver claim would not impede that plan? And do you trust Brian Burke to stick to his plan, or do you think he will resort to a panic move to try to save this season (and prevent Boston from getting a lottery pick in the process)?
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,