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Showing posts with label Toronto Maple Leafs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toronto Maple Leafs. Show all posts

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Performance and Mindset: The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Shootout

Leafs logoThe shootout is currently an important part of the NHL. Rip it all you want (and it is rip-worthy) but the ability to do well in the one-on-one tie-breaker represents the number of points that will decide whether many teams reach the playoffs.

With a dozen or so opportunities for most clubs in the regular season, failure to attach significance to players' effectiveness at scoring goals in the shootout indicates a serious flaw in thinking on the part of coaches and management.

The Leafs are failing miserably in both performance and perspective.

The philosophy starts with coach Paul Maurice, who has a bizarre habit of ridiculing the shootout as well as flippantly dismissing his team's ability to determine its outcome.

The thoughts and mood of a coach are contagious and influence the players a great deal. Here are some comments from Paul Maurice following the Leafs' shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens last night:
Coach Paul Maurice has little patience for questions about the shootout. He acknowledges the entertainment value of the format, but little more.

"It's part of our practice, sometimes the guys do it on their own at the end. Sometimes the goalies want them. It's not something you want to do every day with a goaltender, one shot right after the other after practice," said Maurice.

Read the full article here.


This comes following a previous Leafs shootout loss against the New York Rangers on November 10th. Maurice was both sullen and derisive in the press conference after that one. He mocked the format and suggested it was good for nothing more than "novelty value." He forgot to mention that besides that, shootouts are worth valuable points that will help determine his team's regular season place in the standings.

You can see the trickle down effect that his frustration has on the team. In the same Toronto Star article, a number of players indicate their failure to get a grasp on the shootout. They essentially come across as flummoxed and annoyed at having to participate. They seem to have no focus or game plan heading into each shooter/goalie showdown because that's the message they are receiving from their coach.

It's hard to overstate the effect that repeated statements from managers and coaches have on players. In effect, those declarations become the team's operating procedure on any number of issues. Players pick up on these beliefs and make them part of their overall opinions and understanding about the game. And then it affects their behaviour.

Just yesterday, as John Ferguson made the rounds on Toronto radio stations responding to some of the criticism he has faced recently, he repeated a rehearsed statement about "the fine line between winning and losing." Lo and behold, today Toronto players are regurgitating that remark almost word for word. You give your players a subtle out shameless excuse to explain away their failures and they will latch onto it, subconsciously or otherwise.

I'm surprised Maurice hasn't been leapt on by the Toronto media for such a deficient approach to a part of the game that many teams are taking advantage of. There's no guarantee that a more positive outlook and more practice for shootouts will improve the Leafs' record but it would be a step in the right direction. With much of the focus and scorn being heaped on Ferguson, Maurice is getting a free pass on this one.

Mike Peca, who wasn't re-signed by the Leafs in the off season and ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets instead, recently got in a few digs on his former team regarding their poor shootout record. Columbus haven't had much more success than the Leafs but they did come out on top during their most recent attempt against the Red Wings.

Further preventing the Leafs from grabbing any extra points is the performance of Vesa Toskala. He has been in goal for all Leafs' shootouts so far this season and his play is part of the reason for the team's 0-3 record in those situations.  Toskala is 0-7 in shooter on goalie challenges since the NHL adopted the current tie-breaking procedure.

Paul Maurice summed up his most recent musings on a part of the game that has Leafs' players and fans shaking their heads with this quote: "I don't know how much is chance."

A set play that can be practiced, improved upon and tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each particular opposing goaltender and involves probabilities and odds that go up based on shot type and shooter; that can be accompanied by a focused and positive outlook and embraced as an opportunity to pick up a good chunk of extra points in the race to get into the playoffs, is essentially written off as nothing more than pure luck...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Toronto Maple Leafs Melodrama and Hockey Radio

Leafs logoA simple, half-baked explanation used to describe the psychology behind the habits and style of business managers, is the "first rater, second rater" theory.

The first rater is the manager who is competent, motivated and concerned only about surrounding himself with the best possible people and achieving results. He will hire other first raters in an attempt to accomplish these goals, unconcerned by such petty things as internal competition or the possibility that he may not be the smartest person in the room.

The second rater, on the other hand, is a bundle of fears, insecurities and complexes. His every move and utterance is motivated by the desire to protect himself from criticism and at all costs, maintain his tenuous control over whatever situation he has blundered into.

The biggest threat to the second rater is the competence of others, for it highlights his shortcomings and risks unmasking him for the fraud that he is. To avoid such a catastrophe, the second rater will only hire those less capable than him, guaranteeing that he is the lead buffoon amongst a collection of screw-ups, failures and degenerates.

At least in the hockey side of operations at MLSE, the recent comments from Richard Peddie certainly hold him up as a second rater candidate. That he doesn't recognize his admissions put the focus on his failings as much as anyone else's, at least demonstrates he is out of his depth.

He was thrilled at the notion that John Ferguson Junior was almost completely inexperienced? Scotty Bowman, the coach with the most successful record in NHL history, was deemed unworthy as a potential GM or president? Add in the statement that the hiring of Ferguson was a "mistake," and it seems that he is more concerned with trying to stage-manage his own image (and failing miserably) than with the Leafs' on-ice performance.

Listening to Peddie on a recent edition of Leafs Lunch discussing these comments, he came across as a smug, dismissive dilettante thrilled at the position he occupies. Luxuriating in the fact that he is part of the board of directors of MLSE while apparently unperturbed by how ridiculous he makes himself and the organization look, more than a few people must have wished they could have reached through the radio and wrung his neck.

As for Ferguson, it's unfortunate that he has to face this kind of public criticism from the people who hired him. There is no way for him to respond in kind if he has any hope of finding another job in the NHL after this disaster reaches its conclusion. Nor can he resign without being attacked for being a quitter. He has to ride out whatever number of weeks or months remain in his time as Leafs' general manager. Regardless of how you feel about Ferguson and his record with the Leafs, this benefits the team in no way and only serves as a distraction.

Ferguson also spoke on the same radio program and it was a rambling, semi-coherent defense of a situation that has slowly spiraled out of control. While verbal skills may not be the most important aspect of being a successful GM in the NHL, the inability to articulate oneself in such a situation only increases the sense of desperation.

***

Speaking of hockey radio, there are some very good programs out there, many of which can be downloaded as podcasts. There are a few common patterns that show up on many of them.

On each show there is at least one dyspeptic old bastard who been around so long no one quite remembers when he was hired. He is usually very knowledgeable about the game and has a history as player, coach or manager. Mixed in with the interesting comments is the occasional flash of genuine annoyance or momentary lapse from old age.

A musty, rancid miasma oozes out of the speakers and elicits images of decades-old wardrobes, pharmaceutical cocktails and impending dementia and leaves a person feeling slightly wretched though entertained.

A younger host with his own stockpile of information and experience in playing or covering the game is usually present. Often there is good give and take between the two and even some exaggerated exchanges. While most of the program hosts avoid veering into sycophant territory, without fail they all possess a brittle, fake laugh offered up whenever the old bastard or another guest makes a pointed attempt at humour.

The conscious decision must be made by these broadcasters at some point to develop such a staged response. Perhaps they realize how unfunny most people are or that the uncomfortable silence would be a worse option. This is contrasted with the unexpected bark of real laughter when something spontaneous sets them off.

The speaking style of sports radio broadcasters varies a great deal. Many are satisfied with a simple and to the point delivery. Others use a variety of words with ease and in a natural style that makes for good entertainment.

There are still others who have decided at some point that they too must improve their vocabulary beyond the bare minimum if they are to stay competitive and keep their listeners coming back.

Listening to some of these individuals, I always have the mental image of words being rammed down the barrel of a gun and then blown onto a wall where they are read out at random without concern for the skewed syntax, malapropisms and generally weird effect that results.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

NHL Teams Give Thanks for the Power of Change

Leafs logoDevils logoThe Atlanta Thrashers reacted to their horrific start by firing their head coach. With GM Don Waddell behind the bench they have responded unbelievably well.

The Dallas Stars saw their mediocre beginning as unacceptable and replaced their general manager with the duo of Brett Hull and Les Jackson. While hard to attribute that specific move to better play by the team, the psychological aspect of making it known that lack of results won't be tolerated can't be discounted in the Stars' 4-0-1 record since that time.

The Phoenix Coyotes have been at the bottom of the league standings but have made it clear that they will make moves in an attempt to get better. They picked up goalie Ilya Bryzgalaov off of waivers and have seen him play well in his first two starts, collecting wins in both games.

The Washington Capitals took the unfortunately timed but necessary move of firing Glen Hanlon and bringing in interim head coach Bruce Boudreau. Far to early to judge how it will play out but at least his first game was a victory for the Caps.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? In the bizarro world of Leafs hockey, there are few consequences for losing. In fact, Toronto players were rewarded for their poor play so far this season with a luxury box at an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets on Thursday.

A nice little outing for the team as they were in Texas to face the Dallas Stars on Friday night. There was a great deal of enthusiastic gushing and expectant musings from Leafs players in the lead up to their little quarter season treat.

To be fair, this was no doubt something arranged before the season began. And the Toronto press talked up the story with the players numerous times. They can hardly be faulted for accepting the offer to attend the football game or for talking about it when asked.

Still, is there truly no comprehension amongst coaches and management of reward and punishment associated with the kind of effort and results that are offered up by the hockey team? Perhaps, canceling such an excursion as a way of showing the team that repeated failure will not be accepted might have been a consideration.

Riding the buzz of having watched the Cowboys hammer the Jets in the comforts of a luxury box and likely having plugged themselves with all the grub they could get down their necks, the Leafs offered up another forgettable performance in a 3-1 loss to the Stars the next night.

No one would be silly enough to claim that the players yuk it up amongst themselves and congratulate each other on coasting along without having to pay any real price for their dismal performances. But when losses are not accompanied by any angst or fear of being benched for repeated mistakes or lack of effort, the effects of such subconscious psychological conditioning are hard to measure but undoubtedly exist to some degree.

***

Devils TurkeyIn the latest batch of e-mail updates, many NHL teams included holiday wishes for the Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.

The New Jersey Devils e-mail featured this nice holiday bird with the Devils' logo emblazoned on its chest.

Perhaps the office intern slapping together the bulletin in a hurry before heading out to celebrate the holidays with his or her family didn't consider the potential for embarrassment.

Luckily, the Devils have been playing well in their past few games and have put together a three game winning streak.

In their holiday match-up against the Atlanta Thrashers they weren't roasted, skewered or feasted on and they didn't lay any eggs. No one could call them turkeys after their 3-0 win over the Thrashers.

If anything, Devils' goalie Martin Brodeur stuffed the Thrashers with his first shutout of the season and added another feather in his cap following career win 500 in a game against the Flyers on Nov.17th.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

England's National Football Team and the Toronto Maple Leafs

As England failed to qualify for the 2008 European football championship (Euro 2008) with a loss to Croatia last night, it raises the question of whether similar conditions surrounding two teams in different sports can lead to the same kind of results. Specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national squad.

There are many similarities between the two teams' histories, fan bases, management, media coverage and lack of success in the recent past.

The last time England won the FIFA World Cup was July 30th 1966, as they beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Less than a year later the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1967. Neither team has claimed the top prize since. The attention, hype, drama and failure that have dogged the Leafs and the English squad have similar qualities and perhaps can explain to some degree the elusive nature of again hoisting one of the most important trophies in both sports.

Both teams play in proximity to the birthplace of their respective sports. The tradition and love of the game for fans of both teams results in a constant demand for information about their team and players. The media circus surrounding both teams continues throughout the year and raises the profiles of marginal players to the degree that, as one British journalist put it recently, some will be remembered as "celebrities who just happened to be football players."

Nothing can come close to the nastiness of the British press as they fabricate, ridicule and sensationalize to an insane level. Building players up and then bashing them into the ground at the slightest opportunity is one of their tricks. Or simply reporting on the tawdry private lives of a few individuals who also happen to possess great playing ability.

The Toronto press are well mannered and tame in comparison though they still take up issues that are questionable and see players' lives as potential fodder for gossip and rumours. While the British scribes are reporting on the sordid sex lives of English football players, Toronto writers usually focus on more bland subjects such as Darcy Tucker relaxing at his Muskoka cottage in the off-season. Though they will report on more titillating issues when they become impossible to avoid.

The core of writers who follow both teams and are most concerned about games, results, skills and playing ability are a large group who exhibit a herd mentality that ricochets in the opposite direction at the merest whiff of disaster or success. The demand for narratives, analysis and predictions means that each small development is leapt on by a journalist eager to be the first to report on what could be the next big story. The combined output of any one writer is often more schizophrenic than the play of the team they cover.

Regarding the specific makeup of management and individual players, the current incarnations of both squads have a number of similarities as well. With the exception of one older and fading superstar on both teams (Mats Sundin and David Beckham), the rest of the players can be classified as overhyped and overpaid disappointments (though obviously players on the English team don't get paid for international competition, they receive huge sums from their club sides and endorsements.)

There are also some parallels between Sundin and Beckham's style and performance. While Beckham is a world-wide icon who often seems more concerned with boosting his image and racking up endorsement contracts as opposed to concentrating on his play, he is still noted for his effort and ability to perform at an advanced age (in football terms.) Sundin as well delivers night after night while he is surrounded by others who don't pull their weight nearly as consistently.

Sundin is but a blip compared to the visibility Beckham enjoys. Despite that fame, Beckham retains a surprising level of ostensible modesty and has a soft-spoken demeanor not unlike Sundin.

The management of the Leafs and England's national side are, at this point in time, very comparable (though of course the role of a hockey general manager and football manager differ somewhat.) Steve McClaren has but minutes left in his brief tenure as England's manager (correction: it's already over) and unless a miracle is on the horizon, John Ferguson Junior's days as Leafs' GM are also numbered. Both men have been lambasted in the media as underqualified and nearly incompetent in their performances. Press reports for both have long since veered into mockery and the caricature that resonates is of pitiful, desperate buffoons.

Recent success has been limited. England reached the semifinals of the 1990 Football World Cup but have had little else to cheer for since their victory in '66. In the European Championship they have reached the semi-finals twice, in 1968 and 1996, but have never advanced beyond that point.

The Maple Leafs have made it to the playoff semi-finals five times since their last Stanley Cup in 1967 but have not made it to the finals once during that 40 year stretch.

The fan bases for the Leafs and England are huge, rabid in their support and apparently loyal to the end, regardless of how long the losing continues. While the vast majority are decent individuals who enjoy supporting their side, it's fair to say that a misplaced arrogance also permeates a significant portion of each team's supporters. Perhaps unbridled rage at how such limitless resources and attention to the game can result in few positive outcomes? I've experienced nastiness from both.

Years ago while traveling in Spain, I landed in Barcelona on the eve of a big match-up between one of the city's top sides and Manchester United. We attempted to get tickets but the game was sold out so we settled for a small pub in the shadow of the huge stadium. Man U were hammered 4-0. Enraged Brits in their team's colours were stalking the area after the game looking for trouble and the following day the papers were filled with accounts of violence and vandalism.

While living and working part-time in London pubs a number of years ago, I witnessed the booze-soaked post match gutlessness of the fringe minority who sought an outlet for their impotent rage.

Only one tale regarding a Leafs' fan. It must have been about 2002 and I was sitting in a pub in Vancouver. There was a playoff game between the Leafs and another team on the big screen. Not sure if it was the game in which Toronto were eliminated but regardless, they lost.

There was an emaciated individual in a Leafs jersey sitting alone and pondering the cruelty of life and the realization that it was all over for another year. I was having a pint with a friend and discussing the game. While I don't recall inviting the Toronto fan, who looked like a junky who had crawled in from Hastings and Main, to listen in on or join our conversation, at the merest mention of the word "Leafs" this wacko was in my face.

I seriously considered battering the fool into the concrete but I settled for laying a verbal assault on him as he shrank back into his seat, shut his gob and proceeded to profusely apologize. In the heat of the moment he seemed to recognize that he had erred and had the decency to say sorry. I guess a person could admire his commitment and the willingness to take such an unwise risk in what he thought was the defense of his team.

Comparisons between the two are a bit limited of course. The English national team play in a small number of major tournaments and players can be invited to participate without regard for financial concerns or other teams competing for their services. But the Leafs also have no real financial obstacles and still fail to hire the best managers, scouts and apparently, coaches.

So what's the reason for such limited success in the midst of endless enthusiasm, finances and, at least in England's case, a culture that results in widespread participation and layers of player development? Is the pressure so intense and the dreams of glory so enchanting that no one can play or manage to their potential? Or maybe a subconscious sense of entitlement and assumption stoked by the surreal media coverage? Hard to say.

One thing is clear however. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national football team have little hope for any real success in the near future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Regular Season: Quarter Pole Standings and Review

nhllogo.gifWith most teams in the NHL having played 25% of their schedule, it's time for a look at how things have played out so far.

Eastern Conference


The Ottawa Senators are in a class by themselves in the Eastern Conference and show no sign of letting up. On the few occasions the team have played poorly, they have quickly bounced back and returned to their winning ways.

The Washington Capitals are about the only team whose season is already looking close to an unsalvageable disaster. That they haven't made some kind of move yet is perhaps a testament to the lack of other clubs willing or able to shift players. You've got to think that head coach Glen Hanlon will be walking the plank any day now. A coaching change can jolt a team in the right direction as demonstrated by the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers have gone 10-4 since sacking Bob Hartley and are suddenly a tough team to beat. They are now nipping at the heels of the hapless Leafs and within a few points of the 5th to 8th place glut in the Eastern Conference.

More than just trying to turn around their season, the Capitals have got to be thinking about Alexander Ovechkin and his looming free agency that will become a reality at the end of the season. No doubt the Caps' potential in the next few seasons will affect his decision about where to play.

Ovechkin will be a Group 2 free agent, so if he does accept an offer from another team and the Caps don't or can't match, at least Washington will get four first round draft picks in return from the organization who lures him away (the prescribed compensation for the salary range Ovechkin will no doubt command.)

Regarding a change behind the bench, what exactly have the Caps got to lose besides more games?

Speaking of the Leafs, they offered up another classic third period collapse in the game against the Bruins last night. The fans at Air Canada Centre had to feel a bit queasy at the sight of goalie Tuuka Rask performing at least as well as his Finnish compatriot in the Leafs net. Most importantly, he got his first start and win in the NHL against the team who traded him away for Andrew Raycroft.

The Leafs now sit in ninth place in the conference. All the teams above them in the standings have at least one game in hand on Toronto and most of those clubs have played two or fewer matches. No sense of urgency seems to grip the organization at the moment.

The Philadelphia Flyers have flattened out a bit after their strong beginning. After going 6-1 with 28 goals to start the season, they have followed up with a rather mediocre 5-6-1 with only 29 goals during that stretch. To this point it has still been an impressive turnaround from last year. The Flyers have a tough run in front of them in their next 8 games as they play the Senators, Bruins, Wild, Avalanche and the Hurricanes (twice), amongst others.

The two most disappointing teams in the East are the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Sabres plummet is not as much of a surprise since their team scoring was gutted in the off-season with the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. But most fans didn't expect their drop-off to be as sharp as it has been. Head coach Lindy Ruff has built up loads of capital with the Sabres and despite the team's woes, I can't see his position being in jeopardy any time soon.

The Penguins on the other hand, have got to be the biggest under-achievers of the season. They could be in the market for a number one goaltender or a new coach in the next little while. Rammed with talent and coming off last year's impressive regular season, it will be a bit hard for fans to tolerate the losing much longer.

Two other teams that have swapped places in the standings as compared to last year are the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils are getting hammered this season. They have yet to win more than two games in a row and the last time they did that was in mid-October.

The Canes on the other hand are off to a great start after their disappointing campaign in 2006-7 and have scored more goals than any other team in the league with 71.

Western Conference


The Western Conference is even more of a mash-up, with the Detroit Red Wings at the top, the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes at the bottom and every other team clogging up the middle. A whopping four points separates 2nd place from 12th.

The grouping at the bottom looks similar to the end of last season with the exception of the Chicago Blackhawks who have exited the cellar. The Blackhawks are a rejuvenated club with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews off to good starts. The ongoing restructuring of their front office is a positive sign for Chicago fans as well.

The biggest non-story of the season is still the expectant Calgary sports writers waiting for Mike Keenan to blow a gasket as the Flames continue their underwhelming start. The standard lament from everyone who follows this team closely is that they seem to have a talented club with all the potential pieces to do well but they continue to offer up sub-par efforts. Keenan's got to be wondering if he should shelve his new milder approach and once again start throwing wild haymakers (metaphorically) in the dressing room.

It's been frustrating so far for the Edmonton Oilers, though their fans at least can take some solace from the fact that they're not too far behind the Flames in the standings. It's safe to say that Dustin Penner is the biggest bust of the off-season free agent signings.

On pace for only 16 goals, that's far from what the Oilers were probably expecting from the lumbering forward. Most fans of the team will say that it's a signing whose worth can only be accurately judged after Penner's 3rd or 4th season with the team. Fair enough. But in the short term, it's certainly not looking too good.

The Detroit Red Wings keep blazing along with consistent play and plenty of offense. Second in goals scored in the league and second in goal differential (with 19 more tallies than they have given up), the Wings are still one of the toughest teams in the league to play against.

The Anaheim Ducks have put together six wins in their last eight starts after a dismal start to the season. The Vancouver Canucks have been improving lately but are still having trouble with consistency. The Columbus Blue Jackets have come back to earth with only two wins in their last nine games (and three shootout loss points) after their impressive beginning.

The St. Louis Blues are in the midst of their second four game winning streak of the season. Though they are a bit lean in the scoring department they have found ways to win. The goaltending from Manny Legace has been solid if unspectacular, though he has only faced 389 shots. Based on play in 15 of the Blues' games, the number of shots directed at him is lower than for most other goalies in the league with comparable minutes played.

A definite sign of good defense and also borne out by the fact that St. Louis have allowed only 40 goals. This has also been helped by having had the lightest schedule in the league so far. With only 18 games played to this point, they have at least two games in hand compared to all other teams above them in the conference standings.

As much as I dislike that qualifier "It's still too early/close to count anyone out," it has a lot of merit for most teams with three quarters of the season yet to play.

Friday, November 16, 2007

NHL Hockey Fights: Milan Lucic vs. Mark Bell

Leafs logoBruins logoThe fight took place early in a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins on November 15th.

With the Bruins already leading 1-0, perhaps Mark Bell sensed an opportunity to provide a spark for the Leafs and turn around the momentum. If that was his intention, he picked the wrong 19 year-old rookie to tangle with.

As the Bruins chased the puck into the Leafs' end, Bell and Lucic were jawing face to face as they headed into the corner. Mutual agreement and the gloves went flying.

The first few seconds of an NHL fight can determine the outcome as both players grab each other's jerseys and start swinging.

Milan Lucic tied up Mark Bell's punching arm with a rigid and unyielding gripful of sweater and that set the tone for this scrap. As they were positioning themselves, Lucic's helmet was pulled off by Bell.

Lucic hammers five or six body blows into Bell's side as Bell tries to gain leverage and get his right arm free. Lucic starts throwing some hooks, connecting a few glancing blows on Bell's face and then adds an overhand blow that lands solidly. They are up against the boards now and some re-positioning takes place.

Lucic shows his strength in controlling and moving Bell forward out into open ice. Bell is bent forward and being held down by Lucic. Bell straightens himself and now his helmet is slightly askance, tilted forward and possibly affecting his vision. Lucic backs Bell up against the boards and then Bell does throw one hard punch that connects on Lucic's face.

That's all he can muster for now. Bell leans away from his opponent as Lucic drives another fist into the side of Bell's head. Bell is clearly being overpowered but still manages to set himself and come up from his off balance, hunched over position and in one motion delivers another good overhand shot to Lucic's face.

Lucic quickly counters with another hard shot to the side of Bell's head. The two combatants are slowly pirouetting together as Lucic still has far better unfettered control of his punching arm. Bell's hold of his opponent's jersey is superficial and not hindering Lucic at all.

While holding some fabric near the collar of Lucic's jersey with his left hand, Bell manages a quick left jab into Lucic's face. Lucic drives a well placed punch into Bell's jaw, buckling his knees and ending the fight. The refs move in and break it up.

Definite TKO for Lucic in this one. With the poor set-up by Bell he still had the guts to stay in there and absorb some hard shots, all for the chance of getting in a couple of his own clean punches.

And he made those punches count as other reports indicate Lucic was cut, though of the two, Bell was the one who needed immediate attention after the fight was over.

A solid scrap, the kind hockey fight fans love. Both players willing and able to take a punch and unconcerned by any injuries they may absorb. They're only driven on by the desire to do damage to their adversary, get the win and give an edge to their team or at worst hold their own.

An impressive win by a 19 year-old in his first season in the NHL. Lucic showed some impressive power and was able to dominate Mark Bell in this fight.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u47FKpM2zDc

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Darcy Tucker vs. Sean Avery

Leafs logoRangers logoIn a sport where driving your fist into an opponent's face is tolerated, the uproar over the pre-game tiff between Sean Avery and Darcy Tucker the other night is a bit surreal. Such incidents always elicit responses from those who seem to have a hyper awareness of some kind of honour code that respects a certain "line" that they of course would never cross.

That line apparently applies to both actions and words. Where exactly is that line then, regarding what is allowable in terms of physical play? Does it stop in front of launching an assault against another player who is much smaller and doesn't want to fight? No, that happens all the time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Da0exRn-xcw

How about continuing to hammer one's fist into an opposing player's face once he is down on the ice and prone? Again, no. That is a regular occurrence in the NHL. While many of these actions may be ostensibly prohibited in the NHL, everyone knows they are brazenly condoned. The reality is that there is an ever-shifting "code" that is invoked only when it suits the player wanting to issue threats and set up a good revenge scenario.

So why the outrage over a few words exchanged before the start of a game? With blunt actions go blunt words and vice versa. With expectations of an all out war against an opposing team, surely you bring out the heaviest verbal artillery as well. Why would you care what a detested punk on the opposing team had to say about you or one of your team-mates? Why let someone control your emotions and throw you off your game?

Unless of course you are secretly or subconsciously thrilled at the license it provides to act in a certain way and occupy a desired role (victim, avenger, etc.) It even supplies the freedom to openly issue threats in public, the kind which would spark a visit from the local police for most people (what a liberating sense of being outside the law it must be for many professional athletes.)

Wade Belak's fantasizing about what could happen to Sean Avery in the future if he provides the desired provocation is oddly reminiscent of gun lovers and their drooling over the thought of criminals giving them the opportunity to be heroes.

Aside from all that though, what I'm still trying to get my head around, is what exactly could Avery have said about Jason Blake's cancer (If that is in fact what his comments were about. And that story is losing credibility by the day.) "You like suckin' back those pills every day punk?"

As horrible as cancer is, it just seems there are better sources of insults for getting under someone's skin. After going through the shock of hearing the news for the first time and reconciling yourself to a life forever changed, I think any derogatory comments would come across as oddly meaningless.

There are much more effective ways to get people riled up. It's no coincidence that the nastiest insults in languages the world over are based on a person's mother and a certain part of her anatomy.

But despite the lack of any hard proof about Avery going after Blake for having the audacity to be afflicted with cancer, why did that rumour quickly gain traction? Because it doesn't take a genius to know what most people's vulnerabilities are. And we all have some unpleasant, if usually unarticulated, thoughts bouncing around inside our skulls.

That's part of the reason why in many instances words can come close to actions in sending people over the edge. And it's interesting how often words seem to cut deeper than actions. Getting knocked down and kicked in the guts is one thing. But being mocked and ridiculed is somehow even worse and stokes the fires of murderous rage.

Maybe being called a gutless maggot after you've been flattened compounds things a thousand times over because now there's some validity to the claim and the thoughts of self-doubt are more open to confirmation than ever before.

Except in cases where someone is physically injured, actions disappear into the ether the moment they occur. The rationalizing narratives that remain are designed to alleviate any discomfort about what really happened and helps us form opinions about ourselves. Someone getting inside our minds and churning things up with a well placed insult can be distressing and may force us to confront buried truths.

We all know that regardless of what was really said, Darcy Tucker is really most concerned about his opponents behaving in a more respectful way when they come to the Air Canada Centre. Tucker, Toronto fans and all those who love the game of hockey really don't want any villains that ratchet up the intensity and potential for an explosive rivalry between the New York Rangers and the Leafs.

There just wouldn't be enough "class" in a situation like that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: NHL Points, Parity and Positive Thinking

The Toronto Maple Leafs are like that blundering oaf in the workplace who always seems to be on the brink of being sacked. He repeatedly screws up, pisses people off, comes in late and occasionally vomits on the secretary. And just as the collective weight of universal condemnation has him on the verge of being turfed, he does something to get back in everyone's good books.

The Leafs continue to rattle off two or three lousy games in a row followed by a couple of competitive efforts. One of many aspects of Toronto's game that has fans worried is their goals for and against differential. On the plus side, they are filling the net at a rate higher than almost all other teams. But that bright spot is obliterated by the fact that they have also given up the most goals in the league.

If a team is on the negative side regarding the difference in tallies for and against, it's obviously an indication of how they have been playing and will normally be reflected in the standings. Similarly, a team that turns around their fortunes will also see their "for and against" numbers improve.

For example, Vancouver started out poorly last year and then had one of the best second halfs of the season. Their goal differential wasn't impressive to begin and slowly improved as the year went on, with the team going into positive territory in about mid-January.

The Ottawa Senators were another team from last year who saw their position in the standings rise dramatically after turning it on in the second half. Their for and against numbers were on the plus side even as they were languishing in the early stages of the season. As the Sens' explosive offense ramped up and their goal-tending improved, their place in the standings got better and the gap widened between the GF and GA columns.

While both the Senators and the Canucks had favorable goals for and against numbers as the regular season finished, Ottawa had a better positive differential . Both teams finished with 105 point records but the Senators continued further into the playoffs. After the two teams did little tinkering in the off-season regarding their line-ups, Ottawa have also had a far better start to 2007-08.

The Tampa Bay Lightning was the rare team last year who had a winning record and qualified for the playoffs while still scoring fewer goals than they gave up. The Atlanta Thrashers were on the cusp in 2006-07, notching just one more than they allowed and the New Jersey Devils had a relatively narrow margin, scoring 15 more than they gave up.

Such anomalies can be explained by strong defensive teams who were involved in numerous games decided by one goal (New Jersey) or perhaps teams that were receptive to being on the losing end of an occasional blowout. Those three teams have had poor starts in 2007-08.

On the other hand, the Colorado Avalanche were the only team to finish out of the playoffs in 2006-07 with more goals for than against--a decent 20 goal difference. So it's not surprising that together with the Ryan Smyth signing they are off to a strong start this year.

Two teams that made significant changes in the off-season and have seen an unwanted reversal of their goals for and against stats are the Buffalo Sabres and the Nashville Predators. They have both scored relatively few goals compared to the ones they have allowed and have poor records to go along with those totals.

There are always exceptions such as the ones mentioned above. And trades, coaching changes, injuries and other intangibles can lead to a big improvement or a drop-off over the course of a season. It wouldn't be sports and it wouldn't be interesting otherwise.

Still, all other things being equal, looking at current goals for and against is still a fairly good way to predict a team's future goal scoring and their place in the standings. As with all types of prognosticating, the best predictors of future results are trends, patterns and past performance.

And getting back to my original point, that's why things don't bode too well for the Leafs. Add into that mix the fact that two of their top three points leaders at the moment are 36 and 34 years old respectively and the potential for decreased offense as the season wears on is a distinct possibility.

***

Yet the glut in the standings still exists in both conferences and it's still not too late to say, "it's still too early to say."

A couple of things are contributing to the supposed post-lockout parity. The salary cap has put smart management at a premium more than ever before. While trying to spend their way to a championship didn't often work for many of the big market clubs in the past, not having that option can't help but even out the level of competition somewhat.

Many of those same big spending teams of the past are still futile but they no longer have as much of an advantage when it come to making deals and offering fat contracts to free agents.

The three point games contribute to the mid-standings clog up as well. When you lose a game and still get a point, the overall rankings start to get a bit artificial. In the 30 team league, it's got to be a sop to owners, 14 of whom get denied those juicy playoff revenues every season. Not like the 21-team league of the 1980s when only five were left out.

***

How about a consolation tournament for the also-rans? Great revenue for the owners and a second rate spectacle for the fans in cities whose teams didn't make it.

It would never fly of course. Even if games were played on days when the real playoffs had no scheduled match-ups, the embarrassing possibility exists that the ersatz Stanley might have more interesting pairings and better action.

The players would never go for it either. Playoff games have no cash incentive for players, except for some bonuses that go along with the final few series. With no loot or glory on the line and the potential for injuries, "for the love of the game" somehow wouldn't cut it.

***

Insanely optimistic quote of the week from Kelly Hrudey speaking on the Team 1040's Rick Ball show:

"Hockey has the potential to be the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer."

Saturday, November 3, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews November 3rd

Leafs logoHabs logoThe Leafs skate into Montreal on Saturday, continuing one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history in terms of length, passion and polarizing effect. At least in Canada. More than just two hockey clubs playing each other, in many ways the rivalry is symbolic of the dual nature of Canada's founding and the ongoing struggles that involve Quebec and the rest of the country.

Earlier in the week there was another reminder of just how important the language issue is in Quebec when Habs' captain Saku Koivu was criticized for not learning how to speak French. The comments against Koivu came from a Quebec lawyer during public hearings about religious minorities in the province.

It's always ironic that any group feeling threatened (Quebec within Canada in this case) will usually end up taking out their frustrations on other minorities that have even less power in society. There have long been questions about how new immigrants to the province are treated and these hearings are looking at how new-comers are being discriminated against based on religion.

In an obvious attempt to shift the focus, the grand-standing lawyer launched a public attack on the Canadiens' Finnish captain.

Koivu took note and delivered the pre-game announcement of players mainly in French (albeit taped...he had done opening night's all in English which provided the kind of opening the language fascist lawyer was looking for) in the game against the Flyers on Friday.

He then promptly served up another response in the "actions speak louder than words" manner as he had a solid game and received well-deserved cheers from the Montreal crowd for both efforts.

Back to the Leafs/Canadiens game tonight. The Canadiens have been playing extremely well over the last seven games or so, earning at least a point in each of those contests. The story with these two teams is the contrast in special teams.

The Habs' power play is on fire at the moment, with a league wide best when it comes to converting extra man chances. When opposing teams are taking loads of penalties it usually is indicative of team speed and effort for the club being given the man advantage. A huge 21 goals on 68 chances for Montreal when on the power play.

The Leafs on the other hand are still having some problems when their opponents have a player in the box. They are at the bottom of the league when trying to make use of their chances. They have converted a measly eight out of 64 opportunities.

Add to that woeful stat the fact that the Leafs are worst in the NHL for coughing up short-handed goals with four. They gave up one against New Jersey on Friday night. The goal broke a tie, shifted the momentum towards the Devils and helped them to win 3-2 against the Leafs. Second loss in a row for Toronto after previously winning two consecutive games on the road. The Buds are taking plenty of bad penalties as well.

If those trends hold up tonight, it won't be good for the Leafs.

Bruins logoSens logoThe game in Ottawa could be an interesting match-up. While the Senators have been rolling along, they did let up the other night against the worst team in the league (Atlanta Thrashers) and the game ended much closer than it should have.

With the exception of the shellacking the Bruins absorbed from the Canadiens 12 days ago, they have been playing well and winning some close games, with an overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday.

However, Boston hasn't fared too well against teams higher than them in the standings and obviously this will be the best team they have faced this season.

An all important divisional game will make this a close one I believe.

Zdeno Chara versus Brian McGrattan in the fisticuffs department perhaps?

Devils logoRangers logoTwo disappointing under-achievers in the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet in the Big Apple. Both clubs have equally mediocre 5 and 6 records with the Rangers holding the dubious honour of being the lowest scoring team in the entire league.

The Devils have been putting the puck in the net at a better pace than the Rangers but have still been blanked three times this season. One of those shut-outs was delivered by the Rangers in a 2-0 win in the teams' first meeting of the season.

Maybe they should skip the preliminaries. Just head right to overtime instead of playing what's likely to be a bland, scoreless regulation.

***

Some other interesting match-ups amongst the eight other games being played on Saturday night. Phoenix coming off a big win against Dallas could highlight just how far the Ducks have fallen if they can handle Anaheim at home.

The Canucks must be thankful to get back on the road after they continued their dismal play at home in a loss to the Nashville Predators. Regardless, they'll still have to ratchet up their shots on goal (though they did manage 29 against the Preds) or they won't fare too well against a strong Colorado Avalanche team who are unbeaten at home so far this season.

The Sharks and Kings finish off a home and home series in Los Angeles tonight with the Kings winning the first leg 5-2 on Friday. Battle of California has some insight on that match-up and a preview of the Ducks and Coyotes game as well.

Pittsburgh travels to Long Island hoping that the re-energized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can keep scoring the way they have in the past few games. Though they'll want a better result than they had in their loss to the Avalanche on Thursday.

Florida in Carolina, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Calgary in Minnesota and Chicago visiting St. Louis are the other games being played.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ticket Prices, Profiteering and MLSE

NHL logoLeafs logoTicket prices for NHL games are noticeably higher than for the other major North American professional sports leagues because of hockey's lack of big television contracts. The money has to come from somewhere to pay for player salaries and make it a profitable enough enterprise for anyone to get involved and take all the related risks.

I knew the Toronto Maple Leafs had some of the most expensive tickets in the NHL and probably could have guessed that they are the dearest of the 30 teams. But I didn't know the difference was so great or that their increase in prices was close to the average in the league despite already having the costliest ducats. Check out all the numbers here.

You can at least accept the Anaheim Ducks hiking their prices after last season's Cup win. Bringing their rates more in line with the standard after boosting the popularity of the sport in a non-traditional market also makes their increases more acceptable. The Devils moving into their flashy new digs at the Prudential Center casts their steeper entrance fees in a more meaningful light as well.

But the Leafs, after missing out on the playoffs for the past two years and not icing a team that is significantly different this year, are utterly shameless. It's compounded by the fact that they are one of the few teams who do bring in decent revenue from their television contracts.

It makes the booing from fans at Air Canada Centre far more understandable. Whenever you cough up for some kind of outing, your expectations are inevitably in line somewhat with how much you've paid. A huge disappointment comes with the realization that it wasn't worth your effort or money and will never be filed away under "memorable" in your mind's archives of lifetime events. With the way the Leafs have been playing at home lately, it's not surprising that many fans are in a neck-wringing sort of mood.

When considering those who make the decisions to raise prices, the words "reptilian" and "bloodsuckers" come to mind.

It's not hard to imagine what a conversation between two members of the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) board of directors would have sounded like after the team failed to qualify for the post-season in 2006-07:

"Well, we finished out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. What d'ya suppose we do about this?"

"Why, we jack up ticket prices . What the hell do you think we'd do? Something reasonable like leave things the way they are out of respect for the loyal and long-suffering fans? BWAAAAAHA! Ha!"

"I guess you're right. But what do we do come the end of next season? If the Leafs miss out three years in a row, that will be the first time that they've displayed such extended futility since 1928..."

"Of course, WE DRIVE UP THE PRICES AGAIN! Do you know how many malleable sycophantic apologists we have within Leafs Nation? For every fan who raises a peep about how we over-charge and continually raise prices without any improvements in the team, there are a few dozen others who will dutifully vomit forth the usual mantras about "supply and demand" while taking pleasure in the fact that they can afford such prices while others can't.

Luckily those same useful idiots don't have words such as "profiteering," "gouging," "decency" or "moderation" in their lexicon."

"But where does it all end?"

"It doesn't. Do you think I care about some meaningless piece of tin? All that matters to me is that generations from now we will be held up in business and economics circles as a never before seen anomaly that turns old theories inside out. One line showing an increase in profits and rising prices and another line showing the accompanying fall in quality! I LOVE IT!!"

"I suppose so..."

"Shut-up and pass me the caviar..."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Week Four Headlines

JFJ Tries to Entice Tavares, Tlusty Tallies Two


Ferguson is thankful for the distraction that Tlusty's early pair provided. The Leaf's GM tries some creative coercion to improve his credibility.

Are Jerseys a Joke? RBK offers Patch, Pleads Patience


Still being discussed whether remainders from factory to be used.

Oilers Fans Push Penner to Produce


Does a lummox like Penner simply appear lethargic? Or is the "lazy" tag legit?

Visor Usage Vaults


50% of players now wear them. (When this son-of-a-bitch laced on skates in his first organized game at seven, shield use was scattered and still optional.)

Modano Yearns to be Top Point Scoring Yank of All Time


Needs five more to accomplish feat.

Two Swedes on Top in Scoring Race


Sundin at 36 is stunning.

Boys from Broad Street Head into Boston


Flyers and Bruins put their identically respectable 6-3 records on the line Saturday night. Two of the most improved teams so far this season, they've both shown toughness and determination in surpassing early predictions.

Sens Finish Siesta, Skate into Jersey Saturday


In the inaugural game at the new home of the New Jersey Devils, the Senators will play for the first time after a juicy seven day break. Will the Devils christen the Prudential Center with a win or will the Sens improve their league-wide best record?

Buds on Broadway


Two struggling teams with different problems tangle tonight as the Leafs take on the Rangers in New York.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews October 23rd

Avs logoOilers logo

Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers

Prodigal son returns with a fistful of dollars and burning desire to massage his lagging reputation in his hometown. Loads of post-playing appearances, endorsements and perhaps even a future with the Oilers organization to be considered.

The Mulleted One, Ryan Smyth, spurned Edmonton for a shot to perhaps win a Cup with Colorado and at least slurp up another four and a half million dollars over the course of his contract as opposed to what he would have earned with the Oilers.

In his attempts to assuage the feelings of fans in the Alberta capital, he mentions that his heart is still in the city and he will bring the Cup back if he ever wins it with the Avalanche.

How soon do those kinds of comments start to grate on Colorado team-mates and fans?

With the Oilers continuing to struggle to score goals and the injuries mounting, the fans could have a lot to boo about in tonight's game.

Thrashers logoLeafs logo
Atlanta Thrashers at Toronto Maple Leafs

With a 1-1 record after former head coach Bob Hartley was sacked, Atlanta will be playing against another team in Toronto whose coach is starting to feel the heat. Look for the Leafs to ratchet up their effort a few notches in hopes of reversing the early season 3rd period disintegrations. Or not.

As the abuse rains down on the team while the "Maybe it's the coach?" narrative also starts to pick up steam, perhaps the players begin subconsciously latching on to that easy out and let up even more in hopes of a fresh beginning.

Rangers logoPens logoNew York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins

Relatively slow starts for both of these clubs. Especially the Rangers, who were widely touted in the pre-season as the most improved team in the NHL. It's far too early to label their free agent signings as busts but there has been little scoring from Scott Gomez or Chris Drury so far. Only three goals between them and a combined total of nine points.

The Ranger's Marc Staal in his rookie season in the league and his brother Jordan of the Penguins will get their first chance to play against each other in the NHL.

Overall, it's a game of potential breakouts, with Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins all looking to get back to a scoring pace they have been accustomed to in previous seasons (with Crosby and Malkin only in their 3rd and 2nd years in the league respectively.)

B Jacks logoHawks logoColumbus Blue Jackets at Chicago Blackhawks

One of the most exciting stories of the season so far is the play of Chicago rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane at 18 and Toews at 19 are rare examples of teen-aged players entering the league and being able to immediately adapt to the pace and style of NHL games. It may not continue all season but they're helping the Blackhawks get off to a good start in the the post-Wirtz era.

Columbus have been up and down this season. They have blanked the opposing team in all three of their wins, been close in two others and dropped two lopsided contests. By many accounts they seem to be putting in a solid efforts on most nights and have benefited from the return of Mike Peca after he started the season injured.

Ducks logoBlues logoAnaheim Ducks at St. Louis Blues

A bit of an early season reversal of fortunes for these two teams as compared to last year. The Ducks have been struggling while the Blues have been showing improvement. Anaheim have played four more games than St. Louis but only have one more point in the standings.

The Ducks are having problems putting the puck in the net and only have one player in the top 50 for scoring league wide with Ryan Getzlaf at 18th place with ten points.

Remember also that the Ducks have played more games than any other team in the NHL.

Predators logoKings logo Nashville Predators at Los Angeles Kings

Two teams that have started poorly. Both have experienced five game losing streaks with Nashville still in the midst of theirs. Los Angeles started the season in London against Anaheim and like the Ducks have played more games than other teams in the league.

They are not nearly as disappointing as Anaheim have been this season but perhaps there is some credence to the claim that the overseas traveling and early schedule have somewhat accounted for the poor start.

The Kings at least rebounded with a win against Vancouver on Saturday while the Predators are continuing to let in boatloads of goals. It doesn't look as though that trend will change any time soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Week Three: Results, Changes and Stats

Habs logoOilers logoFlames logoYotes logoJets logoThrashers logoLeafs logo50 years since Maurice Richard became the first player in the NHL to score 500 goals. And with the commemoration comes that inevitable parlour game: would he have fared as well in the current NHL? Such discussions are interesting and yet another way for fans to rank their knowledge against one another.

Of course, it's totally hypothetical and rather meaningless. But because of the passion some invest in these "what if" scenarios, I'm always surprised that the most obvious qualifier of all is rarely mentioned.

If Richard were to have played in this era as opposed to in the past, he also would have come up at a different time and thus benefited from better conditioning, nutrition, coaching and competition. So, all other things being equal, he probably could have been a very good player in today's NHL.

***

The first battle of Alberta is in the books and it wasn't even close. Apparently the two teams are headed in the opposite direction with the Flames overcoming some early season collapses and the Oilers dropping most of their recent games except against other bottom feeders like the Phoenix Coyotes.

"It's still early yet," but Dustin Penner hasn't produced much offense during the first eight games. Which generally goes to show that most players are not of the impact variety and instead see their fortunes rise and fall depending on who they are playing alongside.

On the bright side, if Penner does become the largest and most expensive pylon ever, at least those dire predictions of overpriced offer sheets for restricted free agents might not come to pass.

***

Speaking of the Coyotes, has there ever been an NHL team that has experienced so many years of futility, first as the Winnipeg Jets and now in their current existence?

It's a bit ironic for Wayne Gretzky, considering the amount of regular season and playoff misery he inflicted on the team when they were located in Winnipeg.

Who would have believed it all those year ago? Imagine if someone had approached Gretzky in the visiting team's dressing room at the Winnipeg Arena after the Oilers had once again eliminated the Jets from the playoffs and said to the Great One,

"Hey, this is all well and good but one day you will be saddled with the very team that you've just beaten. While they are currently mired in this northern wasteland, at that distant point in the future they will be located in a desert."

Gretzky: "You don't say? That's interesting...Hey Mess! Ya got an extra bar of soap?!"

Strange how things play out in life. With Gretzky's partial ownership of the Coyotes and his iconic status in the hockey world, he has stayed on far longer as head coach than most others would have.

Kind of a conundrum for Gretzky since he essentially can decide for himself how long he remains as coach. Remove himself and some will label him a quitter. Stay on and the frustration mounts. Fair play to him for sticking with it.

Looks like another painful season of "rebuilding" ahead for him and the Yotes. I’m sure he’s not taking bets on his team making the playoffs…

***

The Atlanta Thrashers sacked their coach Bob Hartley and then quickly got their first win of the season against the Rangers the next evening with GM Don Waddell behind the bench. A coaching change often results in at least a temporary jolt of momentum, though as Atlanta demonstrated following their lone win of the year when they got back to their losing ways against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, it often takes far more to turn a season around.

***

The Thrashers will slump into Toronto on Tuesday for a game against the struggling Maple Leafs. If the Leafs can't put up a win against Atlanta or are listless and offer up another abysmal 3rd period, the winds of change are going to be blowing a lot stronger in the Big Smoke.

The Leafs 3rd period collapses only eight games into 2007-08 have been shocking. It's a carry-over from last season where they had one of the worst 3rd period team plus/minus records. Many people point to potential conditioning problems when such late game fades become a trend. But if you look at this season's 3rd period stats for the Leafs, it's probably more because of discipline than anything else.

So far this year the Leafs have a 3rd period team plus-minus rating of minus 2. But more importantly, they have taken 21 third period penalties that have resulted in six power play goals for their opponents. Add in another four overtime penalties with one game winner scored with a man advantage for the opposing team and it's not surprising Toronto are 1-2 in the extra frame.

Losing to the worst team in the league on Tuesday would not bode well for the fortunes of either GM John Ferguson Jr. or head coach Paul Maurice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs: Hockey Game and Public Execution

Leafs logoI wouldn't want to be Bryan McCabe heading into the Leafs' Thursday night game against the Florida Panthers in Toronto. Well, OK, the 86, 000 plus dollars he will pocket for the match-up (at the 7.1 million he will earn this season in the front-loaded contract that averages 5.75 million per year, divided by 82 games) would make it more than tolerable.

But it's still going to be a gut churning affair for the Leafs' defenseman. McCabe has been abysmal this season and things got a whole lot worse when he scored into the Leafs' net in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. It was a performance in which he otherwise made relatively few mistakes in comparison to the blunder-fests of previous games.

Toronto fans have been relentlessly raining down abuse to let the highest paid player on the team know that he has to improve. The only other possible aim of the boo-boons is to pressure McCabe to waive his no-trade clause and hope the Buds can pawn him off on another team willing to take a chance. Players rebounding with different team-mates who complement the new arrival and elicit dormant skills is certainly not unheard of.

The huge salary plus no-trade clause for McCabe is the prime example that highlights why John Ferguson Jr. is rarely praised as being a shrewd operator. The fact that there are more than a few contracts with no movement provisions on the team is a hard one to fathom. It's perplexing that the person in charge of an NHL team would strip away his own power by so casually removing his ability to trade a player in the future.

No doubt many players and their agents now head into negotiations asking for no-trade clauses. But I find it hard to believe that such demands are deal breakers if not acceded to by team management. Eliminating your own options and giving unnecessary leverage to players is just not astute or forward thinking.

It adds credence to the claims that Ferguson is unqualified, inexperienced and soon to be unemployed. It's been a difficult year for Toronto's GM and he has probably questioned his own abilities at times. Perhaps Ferguson's unlikely hiring has led him to subconsciously want to reward players beyond their abilities. In the process convincing himself that they will overachieve as he must at times also believe about himself, lest he self-destruct. Or maybe it's far simpler than that. Maybe it's done in the naive hope that it will make the players like him because of his generosity and thus try harder.

But, just like with the morbidly obese contracts awarded to certain players, it's hard to fault the person on the receiving end of a job offer that he is unqualified for. In both examples, incompetence has introduced factors into the story which otherwise wouldn't be so important. Aspects that have been unfairly amplified and focused on simply because someone further up the chain blundered ahead with no concern for perception or long-term goals. The bottomless pit of billions at the disposal of the Leafs organization can't help in such situations either. If things fall apart, just start over with no concern for taking a financial hit.

For McCabe, his salary is what everyone mentions first and what justifies for so many the ruthless nature of the personal insults. And for Ferguson, the fact that he wasn't ready to take on such a big responsibility. A decision which has ruined his development as a general manager. When he is eventually sacked by the Leafs, it will be a long time in coming, if ever, that he gets another shot at running a big league club.

The two issues are directly related, as without the unwise hiring of Ferguson, the McCabe contract never would have become a reality. And so their fates are similarly intertwined.

The looming on-ice massacre by a million boos is the kind of story that even the casual fan can get his head around. This is not a media generated narrative. It resonates and transcends the interest of hard-core followers and has taken on a nasty life of its own. McCabe is one of those players well-liked in the dressing room and even by some reporters (despite the piling on and recent headlines), so there is more than a bit of sympathy for him.

If things continue to decline and he is traded, those who participated in the repeated verbal assaults will know that their efforts got to him in a personal way and succeeded. For he will be the one that has to request or agree to such a trade. If, on the other hand, McCabe pulls out his best performance of the year, he will briefly silence his detractors and just may be able to use it as a turning point.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mats Sundin: Leaf Number One

Leafs logoDespite having played in Toronto for the past 13 seasons and become the franchise's all-time leading scorer, Mats Sundin remains a bit of an enigma.

At the end of every season he retreats to the comforts of home in Sweden.

Mats SundinThough perfectly fluent in English with nary a trace of an accent and as obliging as any player is towards the media, it is well known that he is still quite shy. Sundin will segue into the stock cliches faster than most when giving an interview, always finding a way to deliver them with a thoughtful and genuine disposition.

One of the most popular and well-liked current and all-time Leafs players, there is still a small number of fans not completely enamoured of Sundin. This is mainly due to the absence of any Stanley Cups for Toronto during his tenure, his salary and his apparent "lack of emotion."

Criticism of any player is warranted, expected and quite often helpful. When you are number 4 in terms of cash raked in by NHL players (see "Fortunes Accumulated") over the last 18 years combined, that analysis naturally seeks out any and all possible vulnerabilities.

It's hard to get on Sundin for the lack of playoff success in recent seasons (especially the last two.) Though for some critics, not winning it all and Sundin's slightly less than a point-per-game production in the post-season warrant the barbs. Considering his relative lack of support in terms of team talent, the negative assessments don't gain much traction with the majority of fans.

It's the "lack of emotion" claims that you hear being spouted on occasion that I find the most unfounded.

A player lacking emotion wouldn't play for years surrounded by mediocrity and not ask to be traded. Make it even more basic than that. A player without that internal drive would never rack up such consistent totals over that time period.

My feeling is that most of these claims are based on a skewed perception. A perception that is largely cultural. When certain fans say that Sundin "lacks emotion," what they really mean is he doesn't display emotion. In that florid-faced, emoting, slightly cringe-worthy way that Canadians are known for.

Passive aggressiveness is an epidemic amongst Canadians in general. Scratch the surface of the placid, nonchalant persona of an average Canuck and they will turn into an abrasive, confrontational wacko thrilled at being granted the license to put on a public display. Not surprising that this is also an attribute seen as admirable in hockey players. I'm not referring to conduct within the flow of a game but after the whistle behaviour such as the little tantrums meant to show just how much the game matters. (For example, see Darcy Tucker's attempts to get at fans in the past couple of Leafs games. How convenient that there is always someone nearby to restrain him.)

I quite like the extra side performances at times as well. It adds excitement to a game, likely acts as a motivator for the animated, gesticulating oaf engaging in such tactics and probably even spurs his team-mates on to perform better, if only for the hope that it will prevent further antics and subsequent embarrassment.

It should be noted however, that different cultures around the world place a much higher premium on avoiding such behaviour, even when taking part in sports. The justifiable "losing it" that seems to be more accepted in North American culture is considered a weakness in many parts of the world. In those societies, strength is in not showing your true feelings to opponents. Based purely on my own anecdotal experiences, and in an attempt to nicely wrap up this collection of generalizations, I'm going to say that Swedes tend to fit into that category.

So, rip Sundin for his salary if you must and compare his performance to the Herculean efforts of other players who single handedly drove their teams to playoff success. But when talking about emotion, consider the superficial aspect of many such claims.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

NHL 2007-08: More Firsts

Canes logoLeafs logoFirst real blowout of the season.

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The Carolina Hurricanes lay an almighty shellacking on the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-1.

Yesterday when I wrote the post about some firsts of the season, I had wanted to include at least one lopsided game but so far there hadn't been any that qualified.

The game in Toronto against the Hurricanes that wrapped up a few minutes ago satisfies all the requirements however. A listless, uninterested Leafs squad and a Hurricanes team clicking on all cylinders and the result is the kind of game that will have the hounds baying for blood in Toronto.

The early season stand-by cliches will start falling by the wayside pretty soon. "It's only 3, 4, 5 (insert number here) games..." will start to become meaningless shortly and the Leafs will have to do something to quell the rising tide of media-stoked fan rage that has less patience than seasons of the past.

No doubt the blowout mantras will accompany this one as well. "If you're gonna play poorly and lose, sometimes a lopsided result isn't as bad as you might think. Get it out of the way and move on, as opposed to when you lose a close one it can blah blah blah etc."

I caught the game on the radio and by all accounts Vesa Toskala in nets was solid despite letting in seven. No doubt the goaltender debate will ratchet up again.

Should be some interesting discussion in the Toronto media in the days to come...

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Ticket to Boo

Jets logoLeafs logoWhat an odd word and an even stranger way to express your displeasure at something. To actually yell "Boooooooo!!!!" Sure, booing often incorporates more than just choruses of that sound, but many times, that's it.

Years ago while attending Winnipeg Jets games, I can remember getting into the action as the entire arena rained down abuse on opposing teams. There seemed to be particular type of play or penalty committed by an enemy player that elicited the genuine and spontaneous boos. It's that essence of gutlessness that isn't always easy to articulate but when you see it, it's visceral and at once enrages and motivates.

The habitual booing of a certain player is something different and is almost surreal when the arena is otherwise sullen and detached. The off/on switch of the puck on the hated player's stick has got to have some kind of effect, though I've got to think it could be more of a motivator than anything. To know that you've got 18, 000 baboons watching your every move and waiting to utter a moronic sound in unison has to induce a certain amount of glee in many players who have been targeted. Hammer one home and shut the primates down, make them hoarse with your possession and enjoy the fact that they respect your ability and are utterly helpless to do anything else. Individual players may be tagged for a game, playoff series or their entire careers.

To boo an individual player on your own team is something I've never fully understood. I can understand letting the entire team have it on occasion but to target a player for a period of bad play is counterproductive in my opinion. What is the rationale? Obviously, the fans who engage in such behaviour must loathe the player to such a degree that they would like to see him hounded off the club.

The practice has got a nasty air of unfairness about it and I've no doubt it turns into nothing more than a habit for many of the lunatics who haven't got their fill of nastiness at a particular game. I've often thought that such behaviour is partly because of the thrill people get from letting others know how far they're willing to go. Part of the appeal of being a sports fan is the tribalistic aspect of of living and dying with your team. But within the fan base there are of course divisions and cliques just as there are in any group. The "I'm a better, nastier, more dedicated etc. fan than you because..." is something that occurs amongst fans, though usually never so brazen as to be stated directly like that.

It's even further beyond comprehension that the new Leafs' goalie Vesa Toskala would get booed in his first game (albeit preseason) in nets in Toronto. In such a situation it's beyond the play of Toskala, who hasn't even been given a whiff of a chance to show what he's got. It's more from the frustration of missed playoffs, years of poor management and the thought that "here we go again."

I guess fans who are willing to boo one of their own players at the first sign of less than stellar play should ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish. Clear away the usual (and completely legitimate) lines about "paid for my ticket," "when they play well enough not to get booed," "want to send a message" etc. and consider that the net effect is to produce some gut-churning anxiety for someone like Toskala whenever he may let in a soft goal. Do you really want any of his mind space devoted to the angst related to the expectation of the first wave of derision? Or do you want him to focus completely on the task at hand?

If that's irrelevant in what you consider the world of the hockey fan, then carry on...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Some Early Stats and Online Games

NHL logoDucks logoSens logoLeafs logoNiedermayer decision coming soon? Five games into a less than fantastic start for the defending Stanley Cup champions and Nidermayer is soon going to fill us in on whether or not he's going to grace the Ducks with his presence? And therein lies the answer to this increasingly self-serving display of procrastination.

Niedermayer simply wants to convince his teammates and the rest of the league that he, in fact, is not expendable. The longer the Ducks struggle, the greater his loss is felt and the more his stock rises. At the merest hint that Anaheim is returning to form, he will slide back into the line-up and ride the wave with them, undoubtedly bolstering their fortunes even more as they improve beyond what these first few games suggest.

More likely, he's doing a stint of scouting his current/former team to see if it really is worthwhile to return for another year. Without the assurance of another competitive season with a reasonable shot at repeating as champs, it may seem like a redundant uphill slog to someone like Niedermayer who already has four Cup rings and a barnful of other hardware.

Or, he could just be enjoying the experience of not getting hammered into the boards (and doing a good deal of hammering himself) in October for the first time in almost 20 years.

***

Hard to start crunching numbers or establishing trends with only a handful of games played by most teams, but here's an interesting stat. The Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently the most penalized teams in the NHL (discounting the Ducks, who have played two more games than the Buds and the Sens, though their per game average is still lower.) Ottawa and Toronto have 31 and 30 minutes in penalties respectively while both have been short-handed 20 times over the span of three games.

The difference between Ottawa and Toronto is that the Senators haven't allowed a single goal while killing penalties while the Leafs have given up two. Ottawa has actually fared even better than that, scoring two short-handed goals. Toronto has allowed a short-handed goal but scored none of their own.

With the man advantage, Ottawa has scored two goals and Toronto just one (the game winner in overtime against the Canadiens yesterday.)

At least some part in why Ottawa has the maximum six points after three games and Toronto just three. Special teams are a huge part of any team's success and this year will be no different as it appears the obstruction and stick penalties will be called as tight as ever.

The numbers aren't that far apart of course, and most importantly, the three games make it all the more lacking in significance. Still, I'm dying to start seeing the trends develop so I thought I'd get some early practice. After ten games things will warrant a far closer and more relevant look.

As for the stats themselves, I've relied on Yahoo! sports for the above numbers. I have seen at least one discrepancy elsewhere regarding the number of times Ottawa has been in a penalty killing situation, with the Globe and Mail quoting 19.

Speaking of stats, there is a satcheful of online sites that cater to those who love the numbers games. The NHL site is a good starting point and also includes links for all the individual team sites. Hockeydb provides some great individual player numbers and details that span over their entire careers. I like ShrpSports for the snapshots they provide of previous seasons including the standings as they were at any particular date in the past.

***

The attempts to watch games online have proven fairly useless so far. What happened to those glorious, uninterrupted stretches of streaming during last season's playoffs? No doubt it's down somewhat to my internet connection though there are limits to what I can do to improve that. Radio is a weak alternative but still provides some respite.

I like the feature from NHL.com that gives you the real-time scoreboard of individual games on your monitor together with a pretty good ticker of all the action. The detail in the ticker is impressive with surprisingly intricate play by play that includes shot type, blocks, hits, penalties and of course goals.

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To access the scoreboard for a particular match-up, go to NHL.com Scores and then click on the "Real Time" link that appears next to a game that is currently in progress.