Editor’s Note: This is an entry in our search for Fresh Blood at TLN. Every possible contributor will get three posts to strut their stuff and then we’ll ask you readers to help us choose who is going to join.
BY: MATT WRIGHT @MATTWRIGHT9
Tomorrow, I’m travelling from Newfoundland to watch the Leafs host the Habs on Saturday night. I haven’t been at a game since the last playoff run the Leafs had. My mother had bought tickets for Mama Mia and my dad strategically said he wanted to take a "walk" to see what the playoff atmosphere was like in Toronto. Several hundred dollars, two scalpers, and one furious mother, my dad and I saw Gary Roberts pot the only two goals in a 2-0 shutout win against the Senators.
So here’s the game plan: Friday we arrive at lunch and essentially have no plans. We’re getting up Saturday to do the Eaton Centre and Hockey Hall of Fame. We’ve got a reservation at Real Sports for dinner, then to the ACC, then going out. Sunday we’re hitting the Raptors/Lakers and heading home shortly after. Anyone who has recommendations for four 23 year old Newfoundlanders to fill up the remainder of our time, please tweet them to @mattwright9.
According to Brian Burke, "Tim Connolly donated $100K to a cancer centre in his hometown & rented a suite for 10 games for Childhood Cancer Canada." Love to hear stuff like that. Tim Connolly’s a solid player and (clearly) a good guy. That donation is secondary only to the contribution Colby Armstrong has given to Toronto area hospitals since his arrival in Toronto. Yeah, I just made an injury joke with Tim Connolly wasn’t the butt of. Chew on that, internet.
On a serious note, I like what Connolly brings to this game. Yes, injuries will always be a concern but he’s a quiet veteran preference, has tons of skill, and is very solid defensively. He’s also been a big part of revitalizing our penalty kill. A big thing with Connolly is A) he adds depth at centre to spread our scoring throughout three lines and B) it ensures Tyler Bozak is playing with Kessel and Lupul because he deserves to, not because we don’t have a choice.
- Awesome Dion quote that fell under the radar when asked about the differences between the Battle of Ontario and the Battle of Alberta: Phaneuf; ever the intellectual, muttered his general "both great games, for the fans, tough battles" shtick before taking a long pause and adding that "geographically, they’re in a different part of the country".
A while back, Luca Caputi (acquired in the Poni deal) was traded in yet another Anaheim/Toronto deal for Nicolas Deschamps. They’re similar players, but neither player found a fit.
Luca Caputi has been a point per game player (12 points in 11 games) since the trade and has led the Syracuse Crunch in points. As for Deschamps, after the trade he tallied nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 11 games since the deal. In 31 games earlier this season with Syracuse, Deschamps posted only seven points. Yet another Leafs/Ducks deal that seems to benefit two teams.
- Speaking of the Marlies, when the Leafs are healthy, they can post a starting line-up of solid youth: Frattin – Colborne – Kadri – Aulie – Holzer. That doesn’t even scratch the surface: Gysbers, Mikus, Blacker, D’Amigo, Mueller…there’s a lot of potential there. The AHL came back to St. John’s this year and the Marlies have been by far the best team that I’ve watched. Bar none.
- Every day I worry that one of the NHL’s struggling franchises will snatch up Dallas Eakins. I truly think he’s the best fit for the Leafs next coach. Crabb. Boyce. Gardiner. Reimer. The list goes on and on for players who have found their game as NHLers under Eakins’ AHL tutelage. Don’t think it’s an accident Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne have looked better every time they’re called up: our prospects are in good hands. He’s a natural fit to take the reins and won’t be an AHL coach for long. Burke’s worst move as the Leafs general manager could be the one he never makes.
- I understand that he makes 3 million dollars and this complicates things, but having Colby Armstrong on the fourth line is an absolute weapon on this squad. Strong defensively and incredibly tenacious on the forecheck, only the Bruins can match up with that fourth line. The days of Rosehill/Orr taking minutes are gone, we’re rolling four lines and we’re rolling them fast. He’ll see a ton of ice on the PK, too. Armstrong has been a great fit in the room but hasn’t found his place on the ice yet. He’ll be an interesting player to watch if he can ever stay healthy.
Apparently, Carl Gunnarsson (who’s been fantastic all season) was pretty bruised and beaten from a ton of shot blocks in the Pittsburgh series. Ron Wilson quipped: "Those are the bruises that are left over from the beating he took from Joey Crabb last week. Trying to block all those punches that were thrown at him. He’s trying to tell you it was a shot blocking? Baloney!" Wilson might not be the right coach for this team, but he’s a great quote.
- According to Tyler Bozak, Colby Armstrong won the teams fantasy football pool for the first time. According to no one in particular, Phil Kessel won the "guess how many skittles in the jar" contest for a third consecutive month. Colby’s betting philosophy? "A Lion can eat a Patriot, so I’d take the Lions". Oh. THAT guy.
- Bozak on Grabovski: "I don’t think I can do half the stuff he does". Beyond his offensive skill, which has always been clear, Grabbo has become one of the best second line centres in the league. Grabovski trains with Datsyuk in the off-season and models his game off of the Red Wings star. Obviously he’ll never reach Pavel Datsyuk levels, but his production has increased every year, he’s suddenly our best shutdown centreman, and he wants to raise his family in Toronto. Sign him to something Plekanec-esque as soon as possible. He’s worth it.
The Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk trade talks refuse to go away. To be honest, I’m okay with it. It’s no secret Burke wants JVR, so I asked noted Philly fan @DownGoesSpezza who he’d want for Van Riemsdyk: Luke Schenn and a second rounder.
- As I type this (in a Starbucks), I’m watching a grown woman standing up and reading what appears to be her third magazine cover to cover. I also paid $5.50 for a beverage so sweet I can actually taste diabetes. Tough day.
- Funny tweet by @mforbes37 on increasing goalie momentum in Toronto. His suggestion to measure it? "Put Raycroft & Toskala in a barrel, push it over Niagara Falls". If Vince McMahon wants to do an XFL reincarnation for the NHL, this will probably replace the opening faceoff. Oh god, I’m two columns in and I’ve already referenced the XFL. This is not going to last.
- The Toronto Maple Leafs are third in scoring by defensemen, only behind the Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa KarlSens. We’ve already passed our total for last year (109). Unsurprisingly, Dion Phaneuf leads the charge with eight goals and 24 assists.
Overheard at the Super Bowl, celebrity wife Gisele Bundchen defending Tom Brady; citing that her husband "cannot f**king throw and catch the ball at the same time". Overheard at the Air Canada Centre, celebrity girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert defending Dion Phaneuf, citing that her boyfriend "cannot f**king pat his head and rub his belly at the same time".
- Jake Gardiner is first in rookie defensemen in points, second in assists, and second in time on ice. He recently came off a five points in five games streak and looks as assertive as anyone else on the blueline. Why isn’t anyone talking about Jake Gardiner for the Calder?
- It’s really easy to forget how good Tyler Bozak was during his late season call-up in 2010, but his play this year are making it easy to forget about a terrible sophomore season. On an 82 game pace, Bozak would be slated to reach about 40 assists and 60 points, as well as being a solid +10. Obviously, it’s easy when you’re in the middle of Kessel and Lupul but if Bozak ever hits sixty points I think Leaf fans should be more than happy.
- Kessel unsurprisingly reached 30 goals this week on a beauty goal against the Jets. Linemate Joffrey Lupul quote: "We didn’t take the puck for the 30th so we better get to 40". Kessel’s on pace for 45 goals and 87 points. In the last five years (cumulative), Kessel is in the top five in goals in the NHL. You know, it’s too bad Brian Burke mortgaged our future for this 24 year old dinosaur. It’s Owen Nolan all over again.
James Reimer; already fresh off a shutout, apparently found it necessary to post a 49 save shutout in a five goal romp over the Senators. Good guy.
- We’ve grown accustomed to massive deals from Burke at this time of the year but the trade market is looking pretty sketchy. I think that we’re going to see teams get bent over acquiring players of Tuomo Ruutu’s quality. That’s not what we need. The theme of this trade deadline is overpayment. We do have some solid assets that can be moved but when we decide to pull the trigger we have to make sure we’re overpaying for the right player.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff Carter lately. With the whole fiasco in Columbus, he’s a potential "buy low" while his value in question. The length of the contract is ugly but that’s a good money value for someone of his age and skill set. He’s a very reliable 30-30 player (last four years). He isn’t a natural passer for Phil Kessel but is anyone still concerned about Phil’s production at this point?
Carter is massive (6’4/220), stronger defensively than he’s given credit, and is noted as a strong penalty killer. Obviously Getzlaf would be a better fit but he simply isn’t going to get traded. Statsny makes over a million more and; like Getzlaf, would take more assets to acquire. Staal’s cap hit is awful. Nash’s cap hit is ridiculous and we don’t need a winger as badly as we need a first line centre. This isn’t something we can rule out.
- Jonas Gustavsson did a perfect Jonas Gustavsson impression on the Thorburn against the Jets. He had a decent game, but that was ugly. With Reimer in net, that’s an easy save and maybe a different game. I’m confident with Gustavsson as a backup but I don’t think there’s much doubt going forward that Reimer is the go to guy down the stretch.
- Infamous Leafs play-by-play man Joe Bowen was asked what his stance was on the upcoming collective bargain agreements impact on the salary cap. His response? "Neeuhhhyayayaaaaa!"
- James Reimer on superstitions: "If all it takes is a lucky pair of socks to win, why do I work my butt off all summer?" James: I appreciate the work ethic, I love the attitude, and you are just too old to use the word "butt".
I can’t even believe I’m typing this, but the Leafs penalty kill is still perfect in 2012: a flawless 24/24 over 16 straight games. Unbelievable. Obviously discipline has been a huge factor, but Jake Gardiner credited assistant coach Greg Cronin with making the desired adjustments. Leafs Nation writer/grumpiest person on my twitter feed @67sound made an interesting point: the less we see of Luke Schenn on the penalty kill, the better it seems to be. Things aren’t looking too good for Luke in TO.
I’m still struggling with the idea that Gunnarsson and Joey Crabb threw down at practice. Seriously? Is that a dream? "Joey Crabb and Carl Gunnarsson got into a fight. Then Harold Ballard came back, and all the ice melted, and I had a strange feeling my Uncle Jerry was there…"
Done. JVR is going to be a real beauty and is young enough to grow with this team. While I like Schenn, he’s surplus to requirements and is a little slow compared to the rest of our defense. The only knock I have on Van Riemsdyk is the concussion issue. Let’s make sure he’s healthy before we do anything drastic.A quick note about the concussion epidemic: I’m glad teams are taking better care of their players, but I’m so sick about hearing about it – especially from members of the media who don’t regularly follow the game. Some firemen get burned. Some cops get shot. Some hockey players get concussions. People understand the risks of the line of work they are in. That’s what WHMIS training is for.
Can’t imagine Mike Komisarek is happy sitting in the press box but there’s no real doubt that he’s our seventh best defenseman right now. People have been calling for him to be sat since he’s joined the Leafs, but this is the first time it’s happened. Ironically, this has been his strongest year so far. He’s a victim of numbers, and in particular, strong play from Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson. I’ve always thought that if he’s going to be moved, it would be to the Islanders. Komisarek is from Long Island, who are always in a battle to hit the cap floor, could use a veteran presence on defense, and are in dire need of leadership in the dressing room.
The Leafs recently hosted Sam Gagner and the Oilers. While he’s been on fire as of late, I still don’t think he’s going to be that great of a hockey player. In a barnburner 6-3 win, the Leafs held him to one point: a secondary assist on Eberle’s goal he received when the puck bounced off his ass. Move over, Adam Oates. Funny quote from Colby Armstrong on playing someone on Gagner: "I haven’t played someone this hot since Gretzky. In a video game".
The Leafs were clearly exhausted when they played the Jets. The most boring game of the year was highlighted by the most awkward fight since the end of Rocky III, featuring noted heavyweights Joey Crabb and Johnny Oduya (two former teammates). Tempers rise, gloves are dropped, and suddenly Johnny Oduya is showing off his creepy grin and Wyclef Jean haircut. Joey Crabb throws a few wild punches and ends up falling down like a pissed-off little brother. Johnny Oduya is still flashing a stalker smile as he skates to the box. This is LITERALLY the most uncomfortable I’ve felt watching a Leafs game.
Yet another benefit of finally pulling the plug on the fourth line enforcer: now every time a fight breaks out, it’s because of something real. Whether it’s a response to a dirty hit, frustration boiling over, or personal vendettas, the fights are rarer but it’s a lot more fun to watch. I’ll take an unstaged fight with a couple of actual hockey players over a staged fight any day. A good example would be watching Iggy and Vincent Lecavalier squaring off in the cup finals. That’s the kind of passion you don’t want to lose. The NHL doesn’t need to get fighting out of the game, just fighters.
One thing I’m really grateful about the Leafs in the playoff mix? Not having to deal with morons declaring that the Leafs should "tank". Let’s make this clear: I’m okay with trading away veterans for youth and picks to improve for the future and give young players more experience. I don’t want to make moves to acquire veterans who won’t be around when the team is competitive again. But the idea of tanking is losing on purpose, and cheering for your team to lose is about as backwards as you can get as a sports fan. Have some self respect. Yes – Pittsburgh and Chicago won Cups from talent they drafted after terrible seasons, but they never got over the hump without making solid signings, good trades, and (most importantly) raising their young players in a culture of competitiveness and winning. Players don’t learn that when it’s expected the team will bottom out. For every Chicago, there’s a Columbus, Edmonton, Florida, New York Islanders, etc. Bottom line? You don’t win a cup because you have high draft picks. It’s a combination of player development, solid trades, signing free agents, coaching, and luck. Tanking is not the solution. Ask Rick Nash.
To close out, as Mats Sundin week is upon us, the continual, idiotic debate about Sundin’s effectiveness as a player has flared up. Allow me to end that. Who’s your favorite Leaf? Cool. How many points does he have? Cool.
Mats Sundin has more.
Don’t like how he handled the Vancouver situation? That’s fine. His style of play isn’t your cup of tea? Fair enough. Do his Mr. Clean looks make you uncomfortable? Me too. But he’s our all time leading scorer, he dragged our team to the playoffs time and time again, and he was better in the clutch than almost anyone in his day. He deserves more respect. This foolishness, coupled with the brutal treatment of Kessel the last few years makes me wonder if we deserve to have skilled players. One time (literally), Damien Cox raised an interesting point: a hardworking checker who can’t score is beloved; a good scorer who doesn’t check is crapped on.
Looking forward to your feedback. Follow me at @mattwright9