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Archive for the ‘Toronto Maple Leafs’ Category

Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

The Doom and Gloomy Leafs on a Sunny Jays Sunday

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It was warm and sunny on Sunday as I drove into Blue Mountain, but it was also a day where the slopes were still open, too: people carrying snowboards, skis and helmets commingled with people in shorts, tank tops and sandals at the bottom of the hill.

Seemed like fitting weather, given the day’s sports news coming out of Toronto. It too was a mix of summer and winter, the Jays and Leafs each with moves that would normally lead the sports section.

On Saturday night the Leafs season finally came to an end against Montreal. Not an exciting game, not even one I bothered watching to completion. It’d been a rough year by anyone’s standards, not even getting into the weird little soap operas that kept bubbling up throughout the year: Kessel snapping at the media, a plague of jerseys thrown on the ice, a media-driven flap over players not saluting fans who were booing them off the ice. Like I said: it was a weird year.

Anyway, less than 24 hours after the Leafs final game, Brendan Shanahan started purging the team. He fired the general manager, the coach and a bunch of assistants. Depending on who you read, their scouting department was gutted as well. He had promised quick changes, but man, this was quick. As a twitter wag noted, there wasn’t even time for the traditional contract extensions first.

There aren’t really any compelling arguments for keeping Dave Nonis on as GM. For one, his position under Shanahan seems ill defined and is maybe powerless. Even last summer, when the Leafs started hiring management, the moves were seen as Shanahan moves, like when the Leafs hired Kyle Dubas away from the OHL’s Sault St Marie Greyhounds.

If that left the player moves to Nonis, it’s worth noting what happened there is problem number two. Over the past few seasons, the Leafs have let much of their talent walk, kept underperforming players around and never really addressed positional needs.

One example: In the spring of 2013, James Reimer backstopped the Leafs deep into the first round of the playoffs, often while facing upwards of 40 shots a night. That summer, the Leafs added another goalie, who also regularly faces upwards of 40 shots a night. They still haven’t really addressed their defensive and puck possession problems.

In a way, it’s frustrating. The Leafs are always in the news and it’s rarely for something interesting. It’s always negative, either because they lost, because the media is throwing someone under the bus or because there’s some kind of controversy being drummed up. First it was people throwing jerseys, then it was salute-gate, finally it was Kessel getting fed up by accusatory questions.

This season, more than any other I can remember, seemed like the media trying to crank out a new scandal every few days to sell papers or push a columnists name ahead. When I get around to the sports section, it feels like the same old doom and gloom from a crop of writers I used to enjoy reading. Maybe that’s why I read it less and less these days.

And indeed, all the moves are leading the sports pages today. The scribes are already writing stuff that throws Kessel under the bus (no, I’m not linking to it) and slamming Nonis on the way out. I’m sure that in days to come, they’ll find hands to wring, people to blame and easy solutions that won’t really solve anything. I’m also sure I won’t bother reading any of it.

It’s too bad: the Jays played their most exciting game of the year on Sunday and frankly, it might be one of their best games of 2015.

 

I caught snatches of the game on the radio and on Twitter: lots of hitting, a big Jays lead and a near-comeback by the Baltimore Orioles. I think my favourite part was the late home run by Bautista: buzzed by an inside pitch, he took the next into the seats and ran around the bases yelling at Darren O’Day. If I remember right, he was even yelling from the dugout afterwards! It was great: his first home run of the year, one that gave the Jays an extended lead in the late innings and a nice display of emotion from a guy who generally seems pretty reserved.

 

But remember: late last year, Bautista went on a tear and more or less kept the Jays in playoff contention almost single-handedly (I even wrote about it here). He hit .299/.430/.540 in September, including a 12-game stretch where he hit eight homers and slugged a 1.205 OPS. He started this season a little slowly, but man, he seemed jacked up after that dinger and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’ll go on a tear.

 

There were other cool moments. There was a great grab by Donaldson late in the game, where he dove and grabbed a sharply-hit ball. There was two good grabs by Kevin Pillar, including one in the ninth where he lost his glove but the ball stayed inside (he hit a dinger, too). And there was Castro, who found himself in a jam in the ninth, with the tying run at the plate and one out, but pitched his way out of it. Not bad for a rookie!

 

For me, the game hit all the right notes: memorable defense, good pitching (by Castro, anyway) and a Bautista dinger. And what’s more, it’s a positive story: there isn’t anyone to throw under the bus, nobody you to assign blame to, not even a stupid controversy to milk. After all, after a week into the new season, the Jays have gone 4-2 and are tied for the AL East lead. It should be an exciting time!

 

It’s too bad it’s buried under a pile of Leafs-autopsy ink.

Swoon City: Toronto, Sports and the Media in 2015

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It’s early on Wednesday morning and I’m driving around, listening to 1050 TSN when I hear the latest Hot Take: the Raptors are bad because the Leafs are bad because Toronto likes bad teams.

 

I used to call this The Toronto Malaise, a general feeling of depression that hangs over the city and it’s sports teams. When I wrote that, the Jays and Leafs were doormats and the Raptors the best of a bad division, fading with nothing to show for it.

 

But that was then and this is now: both the Leafs and Raptors have been in the playoffs in recent years and the Jays might too, if they can stay healthy and shore up their pitching. There are several great athletes in this city and most of them are pretty young. They’re even happy to be here! So things should be looking better, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

March 26, 2015 at 10:47 am

Now That The Choke Job’s Over

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Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a hockey game for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even up here, I could hear the collective exhale: maybe this season isn’t a wash after all.

Over the end of March, the Leafs dropped eight games in a row, slowly sliding down the playoff bracket until they dropped off it completely. As far as losing streaks go, it was an interesting one: the Leafs lost close and they lost big but in every loss, they didn’t even pick up a point. Going by that measure, it was their worst streak since the mid-80s, when the team was a perennial doorstop, played in a decaying arena out by College Station and a guy named Harold Ballard owned the team.

Trust me, it’s been fun: when I plowed through a crossword puzzle during the Detroit/Toronto game, I realized I was more interested in a seven-letter word for Tea Time than if Phil Kessel scored a goal. It helped with my reading too: with the game on in the background, I’ve been plowing through Robert Caro’s The Master of the Senate, only occasionally glancing up to look at the score (“Oh, it’s 3-1 Detroit, what did Dion Phaneuf do now?”). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

April 2, 2014 at 11:31 am

Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm

What can the Leafs point steak tell us about their 2013 postseason?

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It’s been a while since I weighed in on the Leafs, I suppose with good reason: there wasn’t much I wanted to say. They were good, for a while and then, for another while, they were not good. As March started, they dropped five games in a row, including shootout losses to Pittsburgh and Winnipeg that drove my creative lobes into an apoplexy. It didn’t help this went alongside the Raptors also bottoming out and blowing their infinitesimally small chances at a postseason spot.

But like I said, things have gotten better. The Leafs have won a few games and even when they lost, they’re still getting the NHL’s Loser Point. Indeed, starting with that shootout loss to Winnipeg, the Leafs have picked up at least one point per game. That’s a seven-game stretch, their best such stretch of the season. Let’s break it down a little:

  • March 16, Winnipeg @ Toronto: The Jets explode toa  4-1 lead in the second period, but Toronto comes back and ties the game. They lose in the tenth round of the shootout.
  • March 20, Tampa Bay @ Toronto: The Leafs win 4-2, although the Lightning rally for two goals in the third. Kadri picks up three assists, too.
  • March 21, Toronto @ Buffalo: a back and forth game, tied for good with Kadri’s third period goal. The shootout again goes deep (six rounds this time) and again, Toronto comes out on the short end.
  • March 23, Boston @ Toronto: Toronto leads most of the game but Boston rallies late, scoring two goals and pressuring for an equalizer as the third period ends. I think it was Phaneuf who made a game-saving puck clear. Toronto beats the Bruins for the first time in a couple of seasons. Kadri scores again, too.
  • March 25, Toronto @ Boston: Toronto goes ahead 2-0 in the second, but Boston ties the game up and it goes to a shootout. Characteristically, the Leafs lose.
  • March 26, Florida @ Toronto: another back and forth game, this time won by Toronto.
  • March 28, Carolina @ Toronto: the Leafs were down 3-2 in the third period but scored four unanswered late goals. Lupul’s third period goal was a beauty, too.

Notice any trends? I’m nowhere near as smart a hockey guy as Cam Charron and the guys at Leafs Nation, but even I’ve picked up a couple: Toronto’s had a nice stretch of home games, played some weak competition (Carolina, Tampa and Florida are all probably going to miss the postseason) and can’t win on the road. They’ve struggled late, too and been lucky to escape in a few games (the home win over Boston comes to mind). It’s a stretch where their goaltending has carried them, although it’s nice to see Kadri still performing pretty well.

A side question: if we’re picking a team MVP to this point, where do we look? Kadri leads the team in points and has been a standout all season. Over at McKeen’s Hockey, he was listed as one of the 30 best scorers in the NHL today. And looking at advanced stats, he’s been pretty good: he leads the team in Point Shares and, as of this writing, has a Corsi Relative of 13.9. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind about these Leafs is how good their goaltending’s been: both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have played great all season long, keeping Toronto in a bunch of games where the defence either melted down late or just wasn’t there to begin with. I feel like all season long, Toronto’s been outshot. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think it’s worth noting that both Scrivens and Reimer are among the top 20 goalies in save percentage – although both Ottawa and Chicago are too, with better numbers to boot.

It all comes together for a question that’s been percolating at the back of my mind for a while now: which Toronto is going to be in the postseason? They haven’t clinched a spot yet, but they’re basically a given at this point (one website has their chances at nearly 98 per cent, which feels about right). Are we going to see the team that struggles late? That can’t control the puck early? That melts down and has scrambles in the last two minutes? That’s more or less been the standard lately, especially against decent teams.

And in the postseason there isn’t going to be a shootout: so what will the overtimes be like? Toronto’s struggled in the shootout, usually carried by whomever’s in net. Will their overtimes be like that: long, mostly in the Leafs end and ending with distraught calls to all three of the Leafs postgame radio shows (what I like to call the Gary from Scarborough hat trick). I don’t know, but that’s what I’m inclined to believe.

Does it sound morbid to say I can’t wait?

Written by M.

March 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm

A New Division, An Old Rivalry

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I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to remember a few things about the way the NHL used to align their teams. I remember when there was four divisions, each named after a figure from hockey’s distant past. I remember when the playoffs had a weird divisional structure, which led to a lot of cool Edmonton/Calgary and Montreal/Quebec City series. And I remember when Toronto and Detroit played in the same division and had something approximating a rivalry.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 6.42.33 PMLooking back, seeing Toronto in the Western Conference was weird as hell. Toronto’s an Eastern Time Zone team and trips to the left coast, while fun to listen to at night, are a lot of fatigue on the team. I’ve heard people blame these road trips for two Leaf playoff collapses in the mid 1990s. And playing a best of seven, with the last three games a home-away-home going from one coast to the other, doesn’t seem like an altogether unacceptable excuse, right?

That’s the first thought to cross my mind when thinking about this new, proposed NHL alignment plan. It’s cleaner than the six divisions we currently have. It gives a lot of cross-pollination for cities that aren’t in the same division right now: Columbus/Pittsburgh, Washington/Philadelphia, Minnesota/Winnipeg. It removes that weird stigma of having Winnipeg in the Southeast division and sticks Columbus in the East, where it probably should’ve been all along.

And the biggest: Detroit isn’t just in the East, they’re in the same division as Toronto! The last time that happened, Toronto met them in the playoffs three times, all three of which were pretty good series. There’s the 1993 series everyone remembers, but in 1987 it went to a seventh game and the year after, Toronto lost in six. The media’s hyped up rivalries on far less hockey than that.

Yeah, I’m excited for this new plan, even if it means Toronto plays in Florida a lot more often. Detroit is a city that should be a natural rival for Toronto in sports. It’s a shorter drive than Montreal or Ottawa. The Tigers used to be the Jays big rival – ask any fan old enough to remember the end of the 1987 season and you’ll get an earful – back when the Jays actually had rivalries. And there’s a ton of expat Red Wing fans scattered throughout southern Ontario, thanks to their run of success in the past two decades. This could be a lot of fun.

The four divisions are nice, too. Right now, the conferences don’t count for anything more than scheduling. And while I don’t expect the NHL to return to the Adams/Smythe/Patrick/Norris division names ever again, having four divisions feels more natural than six, especially if they return to divisional rounds in the playoffs. Considering how hard the NHL likes to push rivalries – it was the reasoning behind this year’s schedule – I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NHL go back to it. It’d help with travel, too: only a couple of teams would have a lot of travel in the first two rounds of the postseason. There’s a potential drawback for letting a weak team into the postseason (like some of those Leaf teams in the late 1980s) but that happens now anyway. With a 16-team postseason, you’re going to get one or two teams into the postseason that aren’t very good.

Everything about this proposal feels pretty good. But so did the last proposed realignment, but the NHLPA voted it down. I’d like it a lot of the NHL adopted this, but I’m not going to hold my breath, either.

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A little while ago, Flashfact died. Which sucks, but so it goes. But it means Extended Play back in full swing, with book reviews every Monday (most recently: Steven Bach’s book on the making of Heaven’s Gate and the fall of United Artists), music stuff every Wednesday and occasional posts by Flashfact alums like Joey G, Brett Yanta, Jenn and others. So please, by all means, check it out!

Written by M.

February 26, 2013 at 9:26 pm