Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tanks but no tanks

Warning, hockey-themed post upcoming.

Since I last discussed those dastardly Maple Leafs, they've had a season full of ups and downs. In some ways, they've vastly exceeded expectations. Nobody but nobody expected they'd be scoring goals at near the clip they are, for instance. They currently rank 13th in a 30 team league in goals for--modest, but none too shabby for an outfit we were told would have trouble finding a net with both hands and a hockey stick. 
Goaltending was supposed to be the one thing that would keep the team in most games. Sadly, it hasn't. Vesa Toskala, who was originally and inevitably nicknamed VeTo by the Leaf faithful, has a new nickname, and well earned: Loss-kala. For most of the season, he's been exhibiting nearly every flaw a goaltender can have in his game: not square to the shot, too deep in his net (or too far out), down too early, down too to game and even within a game Toskala was completely unpredictable. He could make ten stellar saves in a row and have a routine eleventh shot dribble through his legs. The team noticed this and played accordingly, handling the puck like it was old nitroglycerin....which only led to more giveaways and more goals against. 
To be fair, it has since came to light that Toskala is injured, enough to undergo surgery, in fact. But then again, through most of the season Vesa insisted he felt just fine, while playing anything but. The Leafs have let in more goals by far than anyone else in the league.
The defense corps has shown slow but steady improvement. They hit rock-bottom sometime in early February and since then have played more or less the way the coach wants them to. Success has bred confidence and now they're in every game. 
Up front, there's Jason Blake and not much else as far as top-line talent goes. Luckily, Blake has played like, well, Jason Blake, and not like a big mistake. He made a fairly credible first-liner out of Domenic Moore (so much so that most of us credited Moore with reviving Blake's game). Now he's doing the same to John Mitchell.  
Leaf fans are masters of the what-if game: we've had 42 years of practice, after all. This year's crop: what if Toskala played like he did last season? What if Van Ryn didn't have the luck of a very unlucky defensemen indeed? What if Kaberle didn't seem to lose interest in playing hockey halfway through the season? What if Sundin hadn't abandoned the team? (Okay, okay, I'm over that.)
The coaching has been a revelation. For the first time since Pat Burns, the Maple Leafs have a coach that conforms to my vision of what a hockey coach should be: firm but fair, Ron Wilson insists on accountability. Most notably, he endeavours to put every player in a position to succeed. This is common sense, but shockingly rare in hockey for all that. Most coaches handle rookies especially as if they have cooties: Wilson throws his on the first line and says okay, kid, show me what you got. We've thus discovered what we might otherwise have missed: the Leaf prospect cupboard isn't quite as bare as we'd been led to believe.  Luke Schenn isn't the only freshman on the team worth a bucket of pucks. Players such as Kulemin, Grabovsky, the aforementioned Mitchell and even Jonas Frogren have shown they can play an NHL game. 
The team, of course, has a long way to go. Their work ethic can't be faulted: in fact, it's the reason they do amass any points at all...many teams still seem to think they can "mail it in" against Toronto. But the Leafs do lack top-flight talent and without it they have a hell of a time beating the more talented squads out there, so long as those more talented squads put in an effort.

There's a bit of a brouhaha going on right now between two different groups of Leaf fans. The first group comprises Leaf Nation: go, Leafs, go, do or die, blabbledy blabbledy rah-rah-rah. The second group calls itself Tank Nation. These folks, who consider themselves every bit as loyal to Leafdom as the rest of us, cheer against the Leafs in all or most games. (All but the most ardent tanker can't stomach cheering for Ottawa or Montreal...and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who does can renounce his or her citizenship in Leafs Nation posthaste.)

The reason Tank Nation wants its team to lose is that in the NHL, the worst teams are rewarded with the highest draft picks. A good and high draft pick, say a John Tavares or a Victor Hedman, would give the franchise a big kick in the ass down the road to respectability. And every point the Leafs earn, so the thinking goes, pushes them further and further away from the promised land. They could conceivably finish up in that dreaded no-man's land of ninth place in the conference: just shy of the playoffs and well back of the bottom-feeders gobbling up the goody-goody draft picks.

So the thinking goes. The thinking's full of shit.

Howard Berger, the offical Leafs blogger, is not just a member of Tank Nation, he's its president. And he's so full of shit he squeaks.
Here's a guy who never tires of insulting Leafs fans

No team that wants to stay a team deliberately loses games for any reason, least of all the mere possibility of drafting an eighteen-year-old saviour who has yet to strap on the skates for even one NHL game. History is rife with players who tore up the minor leagues, got themselves drafted high in the first round, and once in the NHL promptly became invisible. Tavares just broke the OHL goal scoring record, previously held by Peter Lee. Ever heard of Peter Lee? I rest my case.

Likewise, all-star players can be and often are overlooked. Real gems have been ferreted out of the seventh round of the draft. The Red Wings have a knack for it: they seem to find one every year. You could charitably call the Leafs' drafting record pathetic over the past two decades and even so, Toronto selected four time All-Star Tomas Kaberle 204th overall; blueline stalwart Ian White, 191st overall; hell, Staffan Kronwall was picked 245th and still managed to suit up for the Leafs for half a season. 

And while I don't share Cliff Fletcher's infamous "Draft schmaft" attitude, I do believe there's more than one way to defur a feline or build a Stanley Cup winner. Drafting is important, but so is astute trading. And signing the right free agents. And...well, winning. If the goal is to build a winner, you do that by punishing the things that lead to losing and rewarding the things that lead to winning. 
Wilson's exceptional at this. There's a reason a luminary like Lou Lamiorello thinks this is Wilson's best year as a coach, so far. He's got a lineup that, to put it bluntly, doesn't belong on the same ice surface as the majority of teams in the NHL...and as of right now they're playing .500 hockey. Since the All-Star Break they're actually much closer to a .600 winning percentage, even though they lost two of their top five scorers at the trade deadline. How does he do it? By treating every mistake as a teachable moment and by giving ice time to the players that deserve it. 

The way the Leafs are playing, they're going to finish up in that dreaded no-man's-land between the playoffs and the really good picks. And I say, so what? Maybe Burke packages up some players and/or picks and moves was done last year to get Schenn. Better this course of action than encouraging a team to tank. Start accepting losses, and before you know it you're the New York Islanders, perennially stinking up the league, caught in an endless cycle of drafting high, welcoming your draft winner into a dressing room full of losers (and comfortable losers at that), wondering why he can't lead them to the Land of Win, and then pinning your hopes on the next superstar...and the next...and the next...

No comments: