Fallen Leafs

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With a 3-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning dashed the Leafs’ chances of making the playoffs. It marks that time of year again for Leafs Nation, where everyone from management down to the coaches and players are scrutinized to no end as the streak of 47 years without a Stanley Cup championship in Toronto will go on for another year.

There are so many factors that went into the Leafs not making the playoffs. But the biggest thing that sticks out in my mind is the Leafs managed to pull off another choke job at the worst possible time. From March 16th to March 29th, the Leafs lost 8 games in regulation, reaffirming the belief that Toronto’s big stars are ineffective in crunch time. Guys like captain Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak took most of the heat as they should. The whole team deserves blame but the core guys who are your best players and leaders of the hockey team need to take responsibility.

I do not believe Dion Phaneuf is captain material. Do any Leafs fans honestly believe he will be the one to lead their beloved team to the promised land? I certainly don’t. When I see guys like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews lead their teams to Cups, I see true leaders. Are they exceptional players? For sure. But you don’t have to be an exceptional player to be an exceptional leader. I wouldn’t consider Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings to be an elite player, but he effectively wears the C in Los Angeles and has a Cup ring to show for it. On December 31st 2013, Leafs management gave Phaneuf a 7 year $49 million dollar contract extension. With that kind of term and money, management must believe that he is the main man. I have heard excuses that with the salary cap going up that this contract will be a bargain, but I don’t buy it. As of April 9th, Phaneuf does not rank in the Top 40 in defencemen scoring and while offensive numbers don’t tell the whole story, when you are being paid $7 million per year, top level production is practically a requirement. When looking up next season’s salaries among defencemen, Phaneuf will rank third behind only Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber and Suter are two elite workhorse defencemen with Olympic pedigrees but the fact that Phaneuf will get more than Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Erik Karlsson seems wrong.

Phil Kessel is applauded for being a prolific scorer that is rounding out to be a two-way player. But I don’t see it. Kessel has a great shot and blazing speed but I’m not convinced he is going anything more than that. Yes, I have seen him back-check more and while Kessel isn’t expected to morph into a Jonathan Toews like player, effort is questionable sometimes with him. And he has a gift for disappearing in the most critical times. In the Olympics, he was a top scorer but was invisible in the semifinal and bronze medal games. For a player with his natural abilities, you would think he could do more but I guess not.

For the first time in a long time, Leaf Nation can’t blame goaltending. Getting Jonathan Bernier from the Kings was a godsend to the Leafs, who relied heavily on him. Bernier did well in his first season as a No.1 goaltender after apprenticing behind Jonathan Quick for a few seasons in Los Angeles. Bernier stole games that the Leafs had no business winning and his numbers stacked up well against the competition. In the case of James Reimer, he needs to be moved out of Toronto. Reimer did not play to the best of his abilities when Bernier went down with injury. However, he sat out for games on end before getting a start and no doubt his confidence is crushed. This summer will be flooded with free agent goaltenders and there could be a market for Reimer. Perhaps Winnipeg could be a fit as Reimer would be close to home and I find Pavelec to be an overrated goaltender who is holding the Jets back from going further. Calgary could use a young goalie for their rebuild. Buffalo has some young goalies but no sure thing. Evgeni Nabokov is nearing 40, so the Islanders could be looking. Platooning two goalies who both want to be No.1 doesn’t quite work. When you look at how Montreal handled it with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak in 2010, they understand one had to leave and the Habs went with Price, which turned out to be the right decision. Reimer desperately needs a fresh start and I’m sure there is a place for him somewhere else.

As for the rest of Toronto’s main core, they have no excuse. Guys are Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk aren’t youngsters who need to be babied. They have been around long enough to understand how the game works. The other two big summer pickups David Clarkson and Dave Bolland were basically non factors this season. Bolland was hurt for most of the season and it understandably affected his contribution to the team. In the case of Clarkson, he was a massive disappointment. Suspensions and injuries aside, there is no excuse to his performance this season.

The season isn’t even over yet and the Leafs have already started making changes. Brendan Shanahan was hired as president and alternate governor of the team. Leaf management has some serious evaluating to do before the start of next year. What is the status of coach Randy Carlyle? What to do with James Reimer who is a restricted free agent at season’s end? Does Clarkson get bought out? Does the core group need a shakeup? It is another long summer for Leafs fans again and as they watch another team go on to win the Stanley Cup, they will wonder what it will take to keep the 18 wheeler from going off the cliff. Again.

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2014 WJC Review. Pesky Finns win gold, Canada contemplates what went wrong (again)

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Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Yesterday in front of raucous crowd in Malmo, Sweden, Finland won the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships, defeating arch rival (and the heavily favourited) Sweden, to win their first gold medal since 1998. In overtime, Buffalo Sabres 2013 first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen scored the golden goal for the Finns, leaving the host team and their fans in shock and dismay.

The Finns received stellar goaltending from Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros, played excellent defence headlined by Ristolainen and was led offensively by the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Artturi Lehkonen and Saku Maenalanen. Known as the Pesky Finns, Finland never gave up throughout the tournament, gelling as a team and believing they deserved to be in the conversation for the gold medal. Finnish coach Karri Kivi was a fiery presence behind the bench and had this team playing a structured game and believing they could win. Finland is a team that never goes away, always pushing and refuses to give up.

On the international stage, they are not quite an afterthought, but rarely the favourite. I extend my congratulations to Team Finland for their gold medal win. They played with discipline, hard work and most of all, heart. They deserved that gold medal for the way they played and for a such a small country, their ability to produce quality hockey players is remarkable. 

The other big story of the tournament was for the first time since 1979-81, Canada has gone back to back years without a medal. For a country used to gold medals galore, the Canadian national junior team has gotten further away from the podium with every passing year since their last gold medal in 2009. A lot of it comes from other countries catching up to Canada as five of the past six gold medal winners have been different countries.Teams are making strides as the USA, Russia, Sweden and Finland continue to crank out elite players, Switzerland is starting to produce top quality prospects, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany are slowing climbing their way up. It’s safe to say Canada is no longer the overwhelming favourite to win every tournament anymore.

As for this year, the same problem reared its ugly head again. In the semifinal against Finland, the Canadians looked woefully unprepared for the pesky Finns. It was the same problem the 2013 edition faced as they were dominated by an American squad that wanted it more. Canada has seemed to choke the past three semifinals they have played in and it’s alarming. Is coaching the problem? The last three WJC coaches for Canada include Don Hay, Steve Spott and Brent Sutter, who are all experienced coaches with extensive careers coaching junior hockey. Is the top level management for Hockey Canada the problem? Politics have come into question in recent years as arguments over taking too many or too little players from one league or leaving talented players at home.

This year’s team was one of the youngest Canada has iced at the WJC and post tournament, player selection has been criticized. High first rounders such as defenceman Darnell Nurse and forward Max Domi were left at home as was the OHL’s leading scorer, Connor Brown. Blame was pointed at goaltenders Jake Paterson and Zach Fucale, but they weren’t necessarily the problem. They didn’t steal games or play to the best of their abilities, but that could be said for the entire team not just them. On defence, turnovers and poor passes were an issue. Derrick Pouliot and Aaron Ekblad were good but the others were just okay. Matt Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Josh Morrissey didn’t live up to their high draft standings while Adam Pelech and Chris Bigras played in limited ice time. Up front, many of the forwards just couldn’t find their game, including captain Scott Laughton, Kerby Rychel, Taylor Leier and Frederik Gauthier. During the big games, too much individual play was an issue as well as dumb penalties. Jonathan Drouin, tried to do too much and took too many penalties including a ten minute misconduct in the semifinal. Anthony Mantha was considered to be on the bubble during camp but emerged as the team’s leading scorer during the tournament.

One of the biggest sources of debate was whether Connor McDavid was ready for this level. The 16 year old phenom had four points in seven points which isn’t bad by any means. But as the play ramped up in certain situations, McDavid appeared overwhelmed. Sutter doesn’t regret taking McDavid and this tournament serves as a good learning experience for him, as he will be heavily counted for next year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto. People often forget how young McDavid really is, despite his maturity, the exceptional status and his already impressive hockey resume. He was playing against the best players in the world in his age group. Many have tasted the NHL already and have the physical maturity that comes with age.

So what does this fourth place finish mean? It means Hockey Canada will no doubt go back to the drawing board to try and find a solution. It wouldn’t hurt to re-examine player development at the grassroots level or perhaps look to other countries and see what they are doing to understand why they are having so much success. Canada has another year to contemplate what went wrong and unfortunately, there is no definite answer.