Thursday, January 31, 2008

Breaking News: Sundin Still Not Going Anywhere

I sure wish the media would stop asking Mats Sundin what his trade deadline plans are. It seems every day brings another headline that says "Sundin Doesn't Want To Go Anywhere" "Sundin Happy In T.O" "Sundin: Not Waiving No Trade" "Sundin Punches Out Reporter" and etc.

What's the thinking here? Maybe if we ask him enough he'll tell us what he's really thinking? Maybe if we ask the same question for the next four weeks he'll break down and tell us how desperate he is to get out, and how that is all he's ever really wanted?

Sundin is not going to ask for the trade. Sundin is not going to initiate anything, and even if he did, the media is the last place he'd go to do it. Cliff Fletcher isn't going to say anything. He's too busy trying to figure out how this place works. There's no reason for any of them to play their cards this early.

I don't mean to speak for people I don't actually know, but I'm pretty sure that when Cliff does eventually approach Sundin with a feasible trade to a real contender, that no-trade clause is not going to stand in the way. He'll do the right thing when the time comes, no matter what it is that he has to tell the daily crush of reporters who are desperate for a sound bite to stir some controversy, create a mess where none exists.

Sundin will leave, I am certain. Maybe with a gentleman's agreement for a tidy pay raise next season, I don't know. Whatever it takes. If Sundin does exercise his right to stay put, there will be some sort of fan backlash at the captain for putting his interests a head of the team. When was the last time Sundin was booed at home?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Did Anyone Even Score in the Breakaway Contest?

It seems a pretty big no duh from today, but the NHL's attempt at an All-Star dunk contest was pretty awful the first time around. The only guy who seemed to get the point was Ovechkin, and he botched his baseball bat attack both times. Maybe this will be a cool thing two, three, ten years from now but right now those hot dogg skills just aren't something many players focus too much attention on, so when it comes time to put those primo tricks on display, well, they were found lacking. And goalies shouldn't leave the crease, while we're at it. Nothing worse than a guy trying to pull off some puck art only to find a poke check at the hash marks, you know? It was cool that Kaberle won the accuracy thing, maybe he could try that in a game some time. And uh that's all I really saw of the all-star hooplah. They just get better every year don't they?


End notes - Big thanks to the Leafs for losing to St. Louis, who were kind enough to bring Brad Boyes with them just in case we don't get it. They may not make the playoffs this year, but the Blues are just miles ahead of Toronto every sense of it. They had to swallow a few bad seasons, but at least there is a plan in St. Louis. We have Cliff Fletcher.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Things Are Going to be Ok, Probably

John Ferguson Junior is gone, finally. Who else was starting to resign themselves to to four more months? But that's just the Leafs at play: just when you get yourself expecting them to do one thing, wham, they go the opposite direction on you.

First, before anyone starts criticizing the man they got to replace Fergie, let's all take a moment to be glad that anything happened at all. Cliff Fletcher is not the perfect solution. You don't find the perfect solution in the middle of February (do you think anyone talked to Pat Quinn?). So I won't grumble with what we got.

Fletch has a Cup, and he had a few magical years with Toronto once upon a time and that will have to be good enough. I assume he has some sort of rapport with Sundin, I hope he does because it was Fletcher who got us Sundin in the first place, and I don't even need to explain the poetry here.

At the press conference he was all politics, putting Mats first which I guess is what you have to do. After everything we've put Sundin through we owe him some dignity. He still has to go of course, of course he has to go because if he doesn't, why did they fire Ferguson? Sundin has said he wants to stay forever blue and white. This is Mats making sure he doesn't come out the bad guy. Sundin would never ask to be traded, but that doesn't mean he won't take the chance to go to another team if somebody gives it to him.

The only problem now is whether Fletcher is the man who can maximize on Sundin's trade value. The man hasn't been a real GM since he left Toronto, and the last two teams who tried him out ended up firing him, so how much sway does he have among the fraternity? What he needs to land is a prospect, a first rounder, and roster player, or equivalent. This the trade deadline though, and GMs are known to do stupid things in search of the missing piece, and for once we might not be on the wrong side of that.

Better than all that was Richard Peddie telling us that Fletcher's replacement is going to be a real GM, no more learning on the job. It seems it's already been decided that our GM next year will either Ken Holland or Brian Burke or Jim Rutherford or maybe all of them working together for the betterment of this franchise. I don't know. If anyone has the money to poach high class GMs it's Toronto, but even with all this talk of change, does anyone really want to jump into the organizational fracas that is MLSE? Does this white knight exist? I don't know.

Whatever happens, I'm just glad to know that something will happen, anything, whatever it may be.


Don't Call It Goodbye

It seems official now, John Ferguson Junior is no longer GM. The Leafs replaced him with Cliff Fletcher, no surprises.

I guess this is a good move, as long as Cliff understands his role here and starts a measured deconstruction, and not say, the kind of frantic bombing that marked the end of his last stay here.

The GM is dead, long live the GM

Monday, January 21, 2008

There's Still Some Horse Left to Beat

I did something stupid on Sunday: I watched the Leafs game against New Jersey, and as bad as that is, it gets worse because I actually thought they had a chance at winning, and it just doesn't get better, because to top it off, I actually wanted them to win.

The Leafs are that abusive junky boyfriend I just can't shake. Every time I say, nuh uh, no way get out of my house and don't come back, there they are winning three straight games and everything is all right as long as you hold me tight and promise to never let go.

This is all too confusing. As long as the current management structure is in place it is impossible to cheer for this hockey team. And with every win the Leafs just further remove themselves from top spot at the draft table which is where they should be aiming. Forget the playoffs. If the Leafs shoot for a playoff spot it will just end in a middle draft pick and more mediocrity. It happens every year.

Supporting this team feels like buying blood diamonds. There are consequences. Cheering for a hockey team should not be this complicated. This is not so much to ask.

All I want is a hockey organization structured in such a way that I do not have to feel embarrassed when I tell people my team. Forget the Stanley Cup MLSE. They're overrated anyway. We'll figure that out later. Just stop cocking around, and do something. Please. This is not so much to ask.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cliff Diving and Other Dangerous Sports

The Leafs have won back to back games for the first time in I don't know how long, which is actually a terrible thing for them to do right now because you know that MLSE will take any excuse they can to postpone having to do their jobs. If the Leafs start looking half decent on the ice (no matter how temporarily) it has the potential to grind this push for managerial change to halt. And that would be the worst thing.

This situation is ridiculous. MLSE has managed to cast John Ferguson Junior as the sympathetic victim here by hanging him out there while simultaneously talking to every unemployed GM in the league and telling us that there are no imminent changes coming. How insular can the board of governors be? How can they not realize they've made themselves look ridiculous and probably badly hurt any chance of ever getting a serious hockey man to ever helm this team?

They obviously know that something must be done, otherwise they wouldn't be talking to Cliff Fletcher, but they also don't seem to think that there is any particular rush because it feels like the deathwatch on Fergie started two weeks ago. I'm even starting to feel sorry for him. Why does he even bother to show up to work? I wouldn't blame him if his box was empty the next time the Leafs are home. I don't like Ferguson, I still want his ass fired, but there's no need to be inhumane about it. Especially when this circus just confirms to the other 29 markets that Toronto is just a fudged up city.

The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes to figure a way out. It does not seem like there are any great immediate solutions, no dynamite jobless GMs waiting for the call (is anyone talking to Neil Smith?). What could still happen, and is what should definitely not happen, is that the Leafs could follow the Dallas Star's lead and name a tandem involving Doug Gilmour and Mike Penny or Glen Healy or whoever as their new long term GM. The last thing the Leafs need right now is another inexperienced GM or two.

What's going to happen most likely is they'll name an interim GM to clear house and kick ass for a few months until they can hire a real GM in the summer, like Ken Holland or Brian Burke, yeah right, I know (Pretty sure Scotty Bowman won't be having much to do with this organization). There are two problems. After watching this poor Fergie twist in the wind for a week, a month, however long it takes MLSE to get their act together, what decent General Manager would want to come here? And more importantly, how many experienced GMs are looking for six months of temp work?

Well, there's Cliff Fletcher of course, and of all the options (there are not many) I guess I'm leaning this way. The Leafs would hire Fletcher as GM till the summer and then they'd shift him over to some cushy and well paid consulting job or whatever because that's the only way you'd get him to give up his buyout money from Phoenix.

This is not a great solution. This is not a solution that looks like it will take place any time soon. Just knowing this organization, expect more glacial progress in the coming weeks. If we're lucky, maybe the Leafs will have narrowed their candidate list down to one by the trade deadline.

Fingers crossed,


Sunday, January 13, 2008

It's Mess, I Confess

What do you even say after a night like tonight? You have Toronto, a team that has in the past couple of weeks joined any conversation on the topic of NHL's worst team, playing in San Jose, San Jose a good, well built hockey team if there ever was one but a team that struggles at home for whatever reasons. The Leafs who had lost their last four, took a two nothing lead into the third period and for those first two periods they looked fine, like a team that knew what it was doing, a team with confidence and muscle and everything else you're supposed to have to win in this league.

But but but, any savvy hockey fan who has followed the Leafs season to this point could have figured out what was coming.

Third period meltdown.

Oh yes, in what I think has become the Leafs trademark move this season, they did just enough in the third period to lose a game they had spent forty minutes winning. Quel surprise and etc.

But these loses are all for a higher purpose now. Change is coming, and I know I said that earlier this season and than nothing happened but you have to think that things have progressed to the point where not even Richard (Pettie) Peddie can sit back and tell us this is not the time for hasty decisions. Richard Peddie's job is safe, I think, I mean I don't think I've ever heard any of his bosses complain about him and the man does wonders for their investment returns so the blame is going to fall to John Ferguson Junior. I would be surprised now, following these three consecutive California loses if something did not go down. How can it not?

Whatever happens though, I can't even trust whether it will be a step in a positive direction, or just JFJ redux. I mean we are trusting Peddie, the same man who hired Fergie to replace him. What's giving me hope are Peddie's comments earlier this season when he told us that hiring a rookie GM like Fergs had been a mistake (oh you don't say) and the very, very positive example set by the Raptors' recent reconstruction led by GM/messiah Brian Colangelo, which leads us to believe that MLSE is not as completely useless as they seems. If they could get it right with the basketball side, and remember how that half of the operation used to make the Leafs divine in comparison, why can't they repeat it with the hockey half?

Of course, in order to fix this mess you'd need to bring someone in and then give him complete control of the hockey business, like Colangelo secured for himself with the Raps, because nobody worth hiring would put up with a board of governors who fancy themself hockey experts. So right there you have a problem because is this a hockey organization that is willing to take it's chefs out of the kitchen? Yeah I don't know. I want to be optimistic, but this is MLSE we are talking about and if there is anyone capable of screwing this up, it's going to be the clowns running this franchise.


Endnote - Tomas Kaberle is the only Leaf on the Eastern All Star team, which makes Mats Sundin an obvious snub, but he says he'd rather take the rest anyway so I guess problem averted? Or maybe it's just Mats being Mats, not wanting to cause a fuss. We could probably debate whether Toronto even deserves a player on the All Star team, but then, getting worked up about All Star games is just silly. Do people still watch them? I don't know.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Hear Ottawa Has a Good Team

There are only so many things I can blame on Mr. Ferguson. He was not the one who hired himself to be the Leafs General Manager. It is not his fault that the men he works for have left him out to dry with no contract extension and out of nowhere public criticism. It is not his fault that every move he makes must be vetted by a board of Governors that may be good at diversifying stock portfolios and making important tee times but lacks any serious hockey competence. It is also not his fault that none of his bosses really want their team to win, at least, not win in the traditional sense, on the ice, because the Leafs franchise has been winning financially for the past forever.

Here's the thing. The Leafs need to make certain moves right now, certain moves that are completely untenable and impossible from where we stand today. There are just too many forces pushing this team towards the status quo. The general manager needs to make the playoffs to save his job so any move that would be seen as giving up, that is specifically, trading Mats Sundin, are unlikely to happen under his watch. Mats Sundin, the man who could attract an entire farm team given the right GM, is too classy to ever ask out of this city, so we can't expect him to drive the trade, though I doubt he would hold to his no trade clause if someone asked nicely. And even if Fergie did want to trade Mats, not that he will because bold moves and John Ferguson are not on speaking terms now or ever and frankly trading Mats at this point is less a bold move and more just simply a competent one, anyway even if Fergie did get hit in the back of the head and decide that the future of this franchise is more important than continuing his career and did look to trade Sundin he would have to get the board of directors to say yes and the board of directors are not going to say yes to anything so outside the box and fresh and because even they understand that trading Sundin amounts to giving up on the season and that by giving up on the season they are giving up the potential for playoff gate receipts this year and if there is one thing that the Ontario Teacher's Pension Fund understands it is that playoff ticket sales are basically free money.

So our hypothetical Fergie will go before MLSE's board of directors, the bandages still around his head from the recent lobotomy, his hat clenched and wrenched between his hands and he will bow his head and mumble some ancient Latin words and one of the dark robed millionaires will motion for him to rise with a single, crooked finger. Fergie will look up, but he will not make eye contact with anyone, for this forbidden, and then he will mumble something inaudible. Another dark robed figure commands him to speak louder, "Louder" but it sounds like a hiss, a dry, rasping hiss. By now Fergie will be sweating and wiping his forehead with the back of his expensive suit but he will manage to gasp out, "iwannatradesundin" before recoiling back waiting for the punishment that is sure to follow.

A gasp goes around the chamber and the many dark robed figures will hiss loudly as they discuss this latest blasphemy when suddenly they are silenced by one voice and the semi circle in front of Ferguson parts and there will stand the representative of the Ontario Teacher's Pension Plan who will look like the Borg Queen and her, no, Its lips will curl into a nasty smile as It holds up the day's newspaper and It will throw it at him and he will pick the paper up and see that it is turned to the NHL standings and It will ask him how many points separate the Leafs from 8th place. "Well that's really not the point-" Ferguson will try but he is silenced by the Pension representative. "We count but five points between our Maples Leaves and the eighth spot, which we understand to be the final spot for which the Maples Leaves would be eligible for playoffs. Correct or Incorrect?" it will say and it will pierce Ferguson with its inhuman stare and Ferguson will try to argue but he will be silenced again. "Correct or Incorrect" will be the question once more and Ferguson will say, defeated, "Correct" and much nodding and congratulating will take place among the board members.

They will not consider that by sacrificing the playoffs this year, playoffs that if we can be ugly and unromantic here, are much, much farther away than what any standings say, that if we tank now then we can build something that will last another five, six who knows how many years into the future. If the Leafs go status quo, which increasingly and sadly they appear to be too willing to do, they will not make the playoffs this year and they will very likely not make them next year even with a new GM (or insallah, an entire new management structure). If we keep Sundin now, make a small or no addition at deadline and then miss the playoffs again by one point, what good does that do? Sundin gets to try the free agent market, or re-sign with us but the Leafs are still mediocre, they still get a 12th or 13th pick and then they get to go out and do the whole thing over again and try to set some kind of NHL record for most consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs by one point. We are going on three straight seasons without making the playoffs and no one with any power to do something about it seems to give a goddamn hug.


Endnote: The Star ran a thing today where they asked a bunch of ex- and one day GM's who and what they would ask for Sundin if they were trading them. Generally these hockey guys asked for one or two high draft picks and at least two solid prospects. Then there was Mike Millbury, who's been doing decently in his new third or fourth career as a tv guy, of all the guys Millbury was the only one who asked for just a first rounder and a single prospect. And suddenly every bad trade he ever made on Long Island comes flooding back and you remember oh yeah, there is a reason he is not a GM anymore.

Monday, January 07, 2008

This Thing I Have Become

It's starting to gnaw at me that I've essentially given up on this hockey team of mine with so much left to play. I am in the most awful position. I'm starting to cheer every Leaf loss because with each mounting loss it just vindicates me even more, look, I can say, I was right this team is just balls to the walls bad. I can't enjoy it when they do win because that only lets John Ferguson Junior shift some of that piling pressure off for another day. Each win is a victory for Fergie, the Leafs management and everything stifling and incompetent about them while every loss is another welcome nail in the coffin and frankly, there are so many nails in there you could probably lift it with a large enough magnet.

So thanks Leafs, you've turned this season into a perverse game for me. I can't tell you how conflicted I was when the Leafs put up that unfortunately timed 5-1-1 stretch because it literally saved Ferguson's job but it also signaled that maybe the Leafs weren't stale leftovers at a time when it still mattered. I mean I don't like Toronto losing but I certainly don't need anyone repudiating Fergie right now. So really yeah, I do want Toronto to lose; I want Toronto to lose often and ugly and the more the better.

The worst part, or maybe the best part is that there are ways out of this. Look at Philadelphia. They were bad last year; they were rank awful, just plain bad and now this year, after management change and a dizzying year of deft moves they are back. Or what about St. Louis. A couple years ago they were bad, real bad but they cleaned management and put some guys in place who had a Plan and the today the Blues are as good as anybody in the league. The point is things aren't hopeless. This season is still a wash I think, but it shouldn't go to waste. A top five pick plus what we can sell at deadline and Toronto could be on the right track like snap crackle boom. Remember what St. Louis got for Keith Tkachuk last year? Atlanta practically gave away the farm. Imagine what Mats Sundin could bring.

Or we could have Fergie, lame duck Fergie come out at deadline time and looking at the standings that, at least nominally, show Toronto within a few points of the playoffs, he could give up another first round pick because if it works and the Leafs make the playoffs his job is safe for another year and if it doesn't work, well it's not like he'll be at the draft table in June anyway. Fergie is dangerous is what I'm trying to say. He's cornered and battered from all sides including his boss Mr. Peddie (who should be swept out too, or at least, swept away from hockey) and he has to know that the only way he has a job in Toronto next year (I don't know why he would still want the job but anyway) is if the Leafs make a playoff appearance and at least make it close. I sincerely and deeply and honestly do not want the Leafs making the playoffs under Fergie.

Look what you've made me Mr. Ferguson.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Post For Wonderful Surprises

I hope you did not get your hopes too high at the prospect of wonderful surprises because today's title is a misnomer, in fact you might call it an out and out lie because the focus for today is on completely unsurprising things and has very little to do with wonder and a lot more to do with depressing reality.

Where to even start. The Canadian Juniors won the gold medal today and this isn't actually depressing so much as it is unsurprising and uninspiring, especially after so many people rang the alarms so furiously after that one single loss back in the first round, the first loss for baby Team Canada since I don't know how long but we are talking years here and suddenly that's all it takes to question whether this team of maybe-one-day-future-studs can win the gold. It was pretty silly. I don't know what it is but maybe it's because I don't follow the tournament much farther than Story is Cont. on page S4, but it was easy money for me to pick Canada as the eventual winner. I don't know how many more straight golds it will take for Canadians to realize that they have the best junior system in the world and that these yearly international tournaments provide the same level of excitement and competition of your average round of mini-golf. Canadian domination of international ice hockey was fun at first, now I think it's just boring.

Surprise number two. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a very good team. This is pretty much indisputable these days even if nobody on the company payroll wants to say it. Toronto lost to Philadelphia earlier tonight, and get this, this is the really unsurprising thing , they blew the game with two minutes to go in the third. I know! Who could have seen a finish like that!

It's not even surprising anymore when the clock hits five left in the third you just need to keep one eye behind Toronto's goalie because you know there will be some heavy action back there before the buzzer goes. So when Toronto fell behind a man to Phillie with just minutes left to play with the score tied 2-2 you could have reliably turned off your tv right then and gone off to do something more productive, confidant that your Leafs would find some special new way to lose and disappoint you.

The Leafs are 1-5 in their last six if I read the results properly. The Leafs occupy a special portion of the NHL standings reserved for only the really mediocre, the teams that can win two in a row and than just as easily peel off three straight losses and come back with a straight face and tell their fans that there is something more in the tank even though that is what they have said all season. It has been noted by those deliriously devoted to this hockey team that thanks to the particularly mediocre East Conference, the Leafs are never more than four or five points out of a playoff spot and that anything can happen, you know?

Oh but they are so hopelessly romantic. The Leafs are never far from that final eight slot but they are never really close either. To think that this team can suddenly reel off five or six straight wins and then motor on down the home stretch at some wonderful .600 clip is some bizarre dream work that completely ignores the body of work this team has put up all season long.

There is no consistency and no secondary scoring on this team. And yet we the fans must continue to listen to John Ferguson Junior and Richard Peddie tell us that it is not wise to make hasty decisions in this business. Hasty! It's like they lack any sort of perspective or sense of irony or at the very least have nothing but contempt for the fans, the only people who would deign to hold them accountable for turning this team into a mediocre halfway home for players with no where better to be. Hasty! It's like they are incapable of remembering anything farther back than five games ago. The team we have now is just as bad as it was a month ago, two months ago and it is not improving visibly. But we can't act just because the team isn't playing well right now. Right now? I can think of just one stretch of hockey this season when you could have reliably called the Leafs a good team and I think that lasted about ten games at the top.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't want Fergie to do anything. I'd rather he didn't touch the team because you can only see him making some ugly desperation act on deadline day sending more draft picks and prospects for another goalie as he, in that JFJ way, mumbles triumphantly that he has fixed the goaltending situation except he won't mention that this is the third time in his three years that the goaltending needed saving and this is all too depressing because it is all too plausible because we already know what our GM is capable when he's desperate.

I've said it before but obviously not loud enough but Toronto needs to fire Fergie, and Pettie too while we're at it and they need to install someone with experience and iron balls and the courage to trade Mats Sundin and the GM savvy to trade McCabe or Kubina or both and then he needs to start actively rebuilding for next year.

I know how tempting that four point gap looks right now and how close that this team may look on paper but if you have been following this team honestly, I don't know how you can conclude they can or should make the playoffs. I'd rather see them tank now and come back next year with something plausible than to see them continue to bundle along blindly wishing and hoping for that multi-game win streak to happen. Because it won't. And if it does, you know that the Leafs are just as capable of matching it with a losing streak of equal or greater value. This is our hockey team.