Jan 28, 2010

The Purgatory state of the Maple Leafs

I've noticed that the Hockey talk around the "office water-cooler" has been sorely lacking Toronto Maple Leaf content. For this, I have to blame the Leafs team and staff. The boys in blue are in hockey purgatory.

In past years, when the leafs were this close to the bottom, we'd be talking about the potential of drafting a top prospect. This year is different because the potential draftee was fast-forwarded via trade in to Phil Kessel. Then again, being 11 points out of a playoff spot & having 28 games left to play doesn't completely shut the door on the post-season. The problem with the team is that they're just not good enough; essentially shutting the door o the post-season. This situation negates both the "Tank Nation" and "White n Blue - Tried n True" talks.

One might think that player-movement may spark up some Leaf talk. The leafs are pressed for cap space, so adding players in hopes of making a run for the post-season is out of the question, so player subtraction is the only option. Unfortunately, one of the most coveted Leaf assets in Tomas Kaberly has a no-trade-clause, and looks to be unwilling to be shipped out of town. To make things worse, The General Manager, Brian Burke, will not ask Kaberle to waive his NTC. When you look through the roster there aren't many big name players on the team that would garner enough attention to make a significant impact on the current or future rosters. The Leafs have a roster full of hard-working players. Each of the hard-working players would only garner a late draft-pick or possibly a lost-cause prospect. Neither trade-type discussions would arouse much interest.

Maybe the Leafs fans can discuss the off-season early. There's bound to be some excellent unrestricted Free Agents coming up as of 2010; The only problem with speculating in these cases, is that we're so far away from the opening of Free Agency, that any acquisition-talk would most likely be in vain.

So, here we sit, in hockey purgatory. All the standard mainstays of hockey discussion are exhausted for the boys in blue. All I can do is wait and hope that something interesting presents itself before the Stanley cup is awarded.

Jan 22, 2010

Policing Head Shots

Imagine this, a guy is running full speed down the sidewalk and in a premeditated moment he raises his elbow and hits another guy walking in the opposite direction. The hit was so violent that the person that was struck was knocked unconscious and began convulsing on the sidewalk. This similar scenario transpired last week when Patrice Cormier nailed Mikael Tam with a blatant elbow to the head.

The question has now become one of what to do to penalize the player, Cormier. There are many calls in the media for police involvement, and if the scenario played out the way I first described it, then it is certainly a police matter. But this heinous hit didn't occur on a city sidewalk, it occurred in a hockey rink during a game of Major Junior hockey. The league involved, the QMJHL is tasked with providing the punishment and that's where it should stay. There can't be police involved in all altercations that occur on a playing field, although there are certainly exceptions. If the police were to investigate this incident and decide to file charges then where does their involvement stop? Should a baseball pitcher be charged with assault with a weapon for intentionally throwing a ninety mile-an-hour fastball at a batters head? How about charging a basketball player with assault for giving a hard foul to an opposing player taking a shot. A slap to the arm or chest is assault is it not? When playing soccer, defenders regularly perform sliding takedowns to remove the ball from an opponent. While they likely get carded for the play what if the opponent was injured in the process? Should the defender be charged by police? Then there is UFC and boxing where the ultimate goal is to beat the hell out of your opponent, is there a need for a police presence in the ring?

The answer to all those questions is NO. The participants involved have accepted some level of risk in playing their sport competitively, yet some people still want to see police enter the hockey arena and tend to on ice matters. Is this really a venture that you want pursued? Once started there is no turning back, and it won't stay on the ice. The door would been opened and all sporting plays would become liable and punishable in a court of law. What would the punishment be for a tripping infraction? On the ice it's a 2-minute penalty, but on the sidewalk it's worth a fine and a court date. Should the local police detachment be meeting players at the end of each game and handing out court summons and tickets?

No, instead of police involvement, a pro-active approach needs to be taken that starts from the NHL and works its way down through the feeder leagues. OHL Commissioner David Branch set a precedent when he suspended Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters for the rest of the 2009/2010 season. He carried on and suspended Windsor player, Zack Kassian, 20-games for an extremely hard hit on Matt Kennedy. Branch ruled the hit was borderline "okay" but the suspension is more for the predatory nature of the hit. Kennedy had not touched the puck, his head was turned and he was vulnerable, he was prey for Kassian to take out. This suspension is suppose to send a message about respect on the ice for other players. Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman can take a lesson from David Branch on how to send a message to its players.

In my opinion, the Cormier hit on Tams is worse than the Liambas check from behind. So what can the QMJHL do that has bite? It should be a given that his Junior career is finished, but as a first round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils it is quite possible that Patrice will be playing in the NHL next fall. This doesn't really seem fair does it? In instances like this, all leagues need to have a common policy where they acknowledge each others suspensions. So if the QMJHL decides to suspend Cormier for the rest of his Junior career and he has 2 years of eligibility left, then he should be out of hockey everywhere for that time frame. Playing in the NHL shouldn't be an out-clause to a Junior suspension.

But in this instance, I believe it may just be.

Jan 15, 2010

Jekyll and Hyde team

In a season of uncertainty, only one thing is certain. Whenever this edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes to the ice, you never know what team you are going to see. They will win 4-0 on one night and then lose 6-1 the next, just because they can.

Who gets held responsible for this result? Brian Burke can't be blamed because an astute fan knows that Rome wasn't built in a day and they'll grant some grace to Mr. Burke since he's only had one NHL draft and one off-season at the helm of the franchise. He is methodically placing building blocks within the organization knowing that the sum of the parts, when all in place is greater than the part itself on its own and he doesn't have all his components yet. Ron Wilson can't be blamed because he just got a rousing vote of confidence from his boss in declaring his job secure for the foreseeable future. Plus, he isn't that bad of a coach. The rookies that are being bounced from the AHL to the NHL and back again can't be blamed since they are just expected to learn from their callups and attempt to light a fire under the contract player who is keeping their roster spot warm for next season. We can't blame the media or the fans, though many do try! So what does that leave?

The only people responsible for this result is the players themselves. Perhaps they all needed a dictionary to know what the definition of truculence was and the book still hasn't made its way around the dressing room. Maybe they are still having trouble adapting to Ron Wilson's type of game. It is after all, only the second season. (insert sarcastic laugh here) Ron can coach and teach, but the players are having a difficult time executing. Why? I don't know, if I knew the answer to that question I'd be employed by the Maple Leafs right now and be correcting it. What I do see though is a team not willing to engage. To win the battles, you have to be in the battles and on a lot of nights this season the Leafs have too many spectators on the ice. I'm not going to name players, but we all know the usual suspects. When the puck is in the corner the defenseman needs to be the first player in and the first player out. When he hangs back hoping to hit the offensive player he's already lost the battle because the puck has been moved and the hit now puts himself out of position. On the forecheck, the forward needs to be the first to the puck and not hanging back hoping to hit the defenseman because the defense has already moved the puck and once the hit is made that forechecking forward now has a long way back for an effective backcheck.

Here's where the Jekyll and Hyde personality comes in. When the Leafs do play aggressively and are the first team to all the puck battles they usually win the game. When they show up second to all the puck battles they are usually behind the play all night and lose significantly. Again, here's where Burkie gets frustrated, when the team plays aggressively and executes Ron Wilson's game plan the goaltenders look great and the players can play and compete against the best teams in the league. So the players can win, when they want.

For this season, I don't believe there is any solution. There is a silver lining in knowing that we have some good young prospects just about ready to make the jump. But for now just hope the team can get enough wins to get Boston a pick that's outside the Top 5 or Top 10 and look forward to the next one ... yet again.
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