The last 4 to 6 weeks as a Leaf follower and fan have been quite a roller coaster ride for all involved. Leaf fans must be feeling fully schizophrenic these days. Only a person with complete bipolar personality disorder can logically accept that the Leafs will fall short of the playoffs for the 3rd year in a row while simultaneously cheer loudly for yet another miraculous late season run that has the Leafs closing the gap on the 8th and final playoff spot to a point where it actually seems attainable. Not much a Leaf fan can do these days except to heavily self medicate lithium and allow both personalities to exist for the time being.
This is a team playing without their 2 leading scorers and 2 biggest bodies up front (Sundin and Antropov). Considering Raycroft hasn't started a game since Jan 20th, they are essentially playing with 1 goalie. Their interim GM (Cliff Fletcher), traded away several veterans at the trade deadline, all of which combined were considered to be the physical heart and soul of the team. Yet, here they are, compiling one of the leagues best records over the last 20 games and have climbed to within 4 points of 7th & 8th place in the Eastern Conference standings (Philadelphia and Boston sit tied for 7th and 8th respectively) with 6 games to play.
The point must be made that this Leafs team has been a fringe playoff team since the lockout. It must also be noted that parity in the league has dramatically changed the landscape, as while the Leafs have simultaneously been a fringe playoff team, they have also only been 6-8 wins away from either a division championship or a top 4 seeding in the conference. For example, a quick glance at the standings now shows that the 12th place Leafs, out of the playoffs by 4 points, sit exactly 7 wins behind the conference leading Montreal Canadiens. The thinking in the modern day NHL needs to change. The difference between being a Cup favourite and a pretender is so minute, and when considering salary cap restrictions almost becomes a case of which team can stay healthy, which team will find the right chemistry and which team will get solid goaltending. Carolina is a perfect example of this phenomenom. Stanley Cup Champions coming out of the lockout, then failing to qualify for the playoffs the following year with essentially the same core group of players. Carolina is poised to be back in the playoffs this year, and if not for some serious injuries to key members of their core groups of players, would certainly yet again be considered Cup contenders.
The Leafs have also fallen victim to this phenomenom. Lack of quality goaltending has really cost us all (the fans, media, team executives) the opportunity to accurately assess where this team stands. Afterall, this can only truly be determined by a teams play in the playoffs. Following the lockout, and after missing a year of hockey, Ed Belfour lost something. It could have been his edge, his conditioning, or simply his age just catching up to him - but, he was never able to regain his composure, and although the Leafs made the switch to Aubin late in the season once Belfours back succumbed to the rigors of a career, it wasnt enough to make the final push for the post season. In the following off season, the Leafs realized they needed to find goaltending help and took a huge gamble in acquiring former Calder trophy winner, Andrew Raycroft. It was obvious to anyone following the club that Raycroft was not a starting goalie in the NHL and could not carry the team to the playoffs. Poor rebound control, very weak glove hand and his complete inability to make a big save cost the Leafs a playoff spot again last year getting eliminated on the final day of the season when the New York Islanders defeated the New Jersey Devils in a shootout. Many, trying to protect the media popular Andrew Raycroft placed the blame for the failed season on the Leafs defense core, or the Leafs inability to play team defensive hockey. However, considering the Leafs allowed the 6th fewest shots on goal in the NHL, while simultaneously possessing the leagues 35th worst goals against average painted a completely different picture and the obviousness of the situation was not lost on the Leafs management who promptly went out and traded for Vesa Toskala in the off season. Many of us pleaded with the Leafs to publicly acknowledge what was clearly insinuated with the Toskala trade. Andrew Raycroft had been a mistake and the Leafs were moving in a different direction in goal. Yours truly publicly called for the demotion of Raycroft to the minors as it was obvious to anyone that the Leafs GM (JFJ) had given up a significant asset to acquire Raycroft and he was trying to save face by creating value for Raycroft in an attempt to get something back in return. For those interested, you can read my blog titled "Time to Ship Raycroft to the Minors is NOW" here:
Sadly, no one was listening, and the Leafs chose to play "who is the #1" game for awhile and opted to start Raycroft on opening night so as "not to hurt his confidence". Heck, many of the community messaged me or responded in my blog at that time stating that Raycroft was just as good as Toskala and that I didn't know what I was talking about. Too bad the other GM's in the league were not as gullible as the average Leaf fan, otherwise this season may have turned out completely different. As it stands, the rest of the GM's watched the same tape and games I was watching and quickly determined that Raycroft was not an NHL goalie and unlike Toskala, did not have the required skillset to be a #1 and wasn't even worth the risk as a backup at $2M per season. The rest is history. Raycroft was given just enough starts, either under the foolish mandate of trying to artificially create value for him or our of necessity due to an injury to Toskala to likely end the Leafs playoff hopes for a 3rd consecutive year. Worse yet, as the Leafs sit 7 wins out of a division championship, one is left to wonder "what if" when looking at Raycrofts 2-8-4 record. What if Toskala was given the #1 job from the onset? What if the Leafs demoted Raycroft and picked up Bryzgalov from Anaheim for a 4th or 5th round pick before he was made available on waivers and picked up by Phoenix? What if they had given Pogge or Clemmensen a real opportunity to be the backup this year? would the leafs have acquired the 6-7 additional wins required to be competing for 1st overall in the conference instead of battling for their playoff lives? the answer is probably - but, we will never know....
The question must be asked however, If you were the Leafs GM, what happens now, regardless of how unlikely it may be, if this Leafs squad actually qualifies for the post season? What would you do? Who would you keep and who would you look to trade?
Looking forward to your opinions and ideas.....
I will post my "If I were the GM" analysis in my next blog .....
If I was the Leafs GM there's not much to do at this point... you let them finish out the year and try to make the playoffs, they have a shot at them.. Then once the season is over you rip it apart.
Hi hockey_guru - are there no players you would consider keeping?
Tts easy to ask "what if" when looking with hindsight, you might as well ask what if the leafs had the passion they are showing now rather than what if raycroft hadnt started any games because that is basically what you are doing. The leafs are in the place they are in because they lacked that competitive edge from the get-go. They've been in a win or go home type situation for the past almost 2 months and that is the only reason they are in it right now. They out-work the other teams and that is getting them wins. Of course, no one can deny the play of one Vesa Toskala. He's been keeping the buds in every game and even when things look bad he can make the big save. Other players have stepped up as well and that is why the leafs are only 4 points back at the moment. The playoffs have already begun for the leafs and credit has to be given where due, they have been playing well for a team that was all but eliminated and still have hope to dance in the post season.
Well. The Leafs will need to do a light rebuild and retool. The problem in the past has been that we have traded away draft picks for players. This cannot happen. The Leafs need to hold on to their draft players and look to retool in the offseason by signing the right UFAs. The difference is that the Leafs in the past got rid of their draft picks. They do not need to accumulate many picks, all they need to do is to hold on to what they have. We've seen what a little confidence and icetime can do for the youngsters. The work ethic was here for the last half of the season, but if this team has real character, despite not making the playoffs, the youngsters will bring the same attitude into the next season. They need to learn a lesson.
Hi twiztedmike - thanks for your reply and I completely agree with your assessment. RAVE_Haru, the reason I ask `what if`is because many of us were screaming for this to be done at the start of the season. Heck, I posted such a blog in the 1st week of the season stating the dangers of keeping Raycroft. So, the `what if`is a little rhetorical, as most anyone who follows this team, knows the answer to that question. More importantly however, the question is geared towards instigating real thought about which direction we should head and really how much of the current roster should be kept. twiztedmike caught my meaning I think :)
Players to keep:Kubina vs McCabe. (One of these has to go. McCabe is EASIER to keep, and Kubina nets an actual return, however, Kubina has been INSTRUMENTAL to this teams recent success, and perhaps a change of scenery might benefit McCabe)Doesn't matter what happens here. The reason they weren't effective was because they were taking up each others responsibilities. Moore (a pleasant surprise); he brings work ethic, sets up a lot of goals. Good defensive game, good forecheck. Bright spot. Still relatively young. Keep him around, and lets see what this guy can do!Stajan: Recent play suggests he should stay. Past play doesn't. I'd like to see him next year in a Leaf uniform and see how he performs under increased responsibility. He is playing well defensively and offensively lately.Wellwood: The potential of this guy definitely says he's a keeper. What we will get for losing him to RFA or trade will not come close to what he is capable of if he pans out alright.Tucker: This guy works his butt off. Let his contract ride out one more season and we'll see what a season to rejuvenate can do for this guy.Blake: The second half of the season has seen some nifty plays by Blake, and more capitalizing on scoring opportunities. For what we will get for him it might not be worth it to get rid of him. His speed allows him to draw penalties. If he learns to not take dumb penalties himself then this guy could be really good. However, I see him leaving due to salary cap issues via trade although this will be pretty hard to do.Colaiacovo: This guy is VERY injury prone. From last game (which is not enough, of course) we've seen that we still have a capable defense group with some younger guys, and some other guys just waiting for a chance. (White, Kronwall, Stralman) I don't know what to do here. When he's not injured hes nothing short of brilliant. Give him another year. I don't know what the Leafs are doing with Bell. He didn't have a chance to prove himself. However, its not like Bell has shown the work ethic that someone like Moore has. He may succeed later, but not with the Leafs. Whatever happens, the club doesn't need a drastic overhaul. It needs a face lift, thats for sure, but in the form of responsibility for younger guys.
Sorry for the big block of text, I pressed enter to make paragraphs but I guess theyre all gone!
i think this team, on the strengths of toskala and the scoring by committee throughout the roster, may be able to make some noise this year. and the key seems to be sundin being out of the lineup. i can't be the only one whose noticed this. sundin goes down and the leafs play better? do expand you may say? the reason is quite simple. the other 17 skaters clearly wait for mats to do something when he comes back from injury and if he's not hot and not scoring, then the leafs aren't scoring. i've seen it too many times for it to be a coincidence. this may be a case of the team outgrowing the team instead of the other way around. as much as i love watching him play and having him play for the leafs, it's not unfathomable to think that maybe he no longer has a place on the team. i say let him ride out the rest of the contract and take it from there. sundin is only going to sign a year at a time anyway. not moving any other forwards would be backwards progress in my opinion. however, the first period of the ottawa game REALLY exposed what the leafs are missing. GRIT! they got kicked around like i've never seen before and it was disgusting! so with that, i think the emergence of antropov makes ponikarovsky expendable. trade him. i think twiztedmike is correct that it would be a mistake to trade wellwood, stajan or steen. they can definitly be impact players and i think the one problem thats holding them back may have been maurice. it's a little hard to say that now, the way the team is playing, but it's obvious, early on in the year, that he was hampering their progress. those three, stralman and one of colaiacovo(god if he could EVER stay healthy) or white will be the core of the team down the road. hard to get rid of those guys. kubina should be moved, not because i don't like the guy, but because he's a moveable asset that we already have a comparable to. if there was any other way, i'd say keep him, but right now, hes almost too valuable not to move. kaberle stays, blake stays(don't really have a choice now do we...), williams, newbury and foster should stay up. thats one hell of a line. overall, i'm pretty impressed by what these players have shown there capable of doing, they just need a coach that can bring this out in them all year long.
I would also try and sign Avery if he reaches the FA market. Then it would be worth it to keep Tucker. Player Tucker Avery and perhaps Newbury/Bell on the same line. Now were talking.
KEEPERS: Toskala - the Leafs need the kind of goaltending he's been giving them. If Pogge gets some NHL action in next year and performs well it might be tempting to see what you could get in a trade for Toskala though. Antropov and Ponikarovsky - both solid if unspectacular players with great size, good offensive ability, and good play in their own zone. In terms of trade potential I don't think either would bring much in return on their own but they'd both probably be guys GM's would be interested in if the Leafs were putting together a package deal to bring in an impact player. Steen - He's young and he's been playing great lately. If he keeps it up the Leafs situation down the middle doesn't look quite as dismal without Sundin. Stajan - Also been great lately. Also young. Colaiacovo - His play has been good and he brings a physical game that the Leafs sorely need. There is his health, but really, if the Leafs give up on him because of that how much would he be worth to another team? Moore - Never seen him take a shift off. He always seems to be in high gear and provides exactly what an energy guy should. He's a UFA next year but shouldn't cost a lot to sign. Tucker - He's seemed to find his game in the later part of the season. I don't think 3 million is too expensive for him but unless they need the cap space or could get a good return he should stay. He's a good team guy and reportedly loves being a Leaf. All prospects and young players - Keep them.SHOULD THEY OR SHOULDN'T THEY? : Kaberle - After Sundin he's the closest thing to an elite player the leafs have. It would be hard to part with him, but...if the deal was sweet enough (cough.. Jeff Carter..) you'd have to do it. McCabe - Good defenseman, but not 6.5 Million good. If he could be moved you'd have to move him. Kubina - If there was demand for him at the deadline, the demand for him now will be greater with his play lately. They should get a good return for him and dump 5 Million in salary. As the only high paid player the Leafs can actually trade without permission, he's as good as gone (assuming they don't make the playoffs). Blake - He's had a rough, rough year. He seems like a good guy and like a lot of Leafs he's been playing better lately but I think his 4 million could be better spent elsewhere for the next four years.