North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Maple Leafs

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.

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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

Two Game Sevens In the City

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It’s an interesting day today, as the two hockey teams I enjoy watching both have game sevens tonight: the Barrie Colts have game seven of the OHL Finals in London while the Toronto Maple Leafs play game seven of their first round series in Boston. Both games are at the same time, so it’s going to take some creative remote-work to fit them both in, but it’ll be worth the effort.

It’s been a while since I felt so invested in a hockey game. Long enough that I don’t have anything in my archive here I can easily compare it to. I suppose there’s this 2006 post and another from 2007, but both were about the regular season. I’ve written here since 2005, which is just enough time to cover the Leafs postseason gap. So this is new and uncharted territory for this organ.

The first round’s been a mix of rad James Reimer goaltending and Tuukka Rask looking either impregnable  or soft. The series opened with four games with the winning team scored at least four goals, including an overtime game that I regrettably fell asleep watching (because I’m an old man). But in the last two games, it’s  tightened up considerably: games five and six were 2-1 affairs, each won by the Leafs.

They’ve been nerve-wrecking affairs, especially last night when Toronto didn’t score until the second and Phil Kessel put in the eventual game-winner on what looked like a giant fluke: a rebound that bounced to a rushing Kessel, who flipped it into an open net. As I might have said back in my sportswriting days, he took advantage of an opportunity. And truth be told, I didn’t think there was a great many of them; Boston’s defence has been pretty strong through six games and mostly kept Toronto’s scorers in check. For example, through six games, Kadri’s picked up just two assists and hasn’t scored on any of his 13 shots on net; this season, he scored on nearly 17 per cent, fourth-highest on the team.

At the same time, Reimer’s had a bunch of good games. His save percentage is tied with Rask at .932, despite having more goals allowed. This comes from how Reimer’s been peppered with shots through every game: the 237 shots he’s faced is most of any goalie so far. He’s had four games where he faced at least 40 shots and the 43-save performance in game five was one of the best Leaf goaltending performances in recent memory. It’s an easy thing to say about goalies, but he’s been the best Leaf on the ice for nearly every game so far. Watching him this spring has been a blast.

About an hour north of Toronto, the Barrie Colts have also gone through a tear this postseason. They  made quick work of both Kingston and Oshawa, but the series against Belleville was wild, with games swinging back and forth and both Malcolm Subban and Mathias Niederberger making big saves. Two of those games went to overtime and Barrie nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, including a third-period collapse in game six. But they won game seven on the road and moved to the OHL Finals, facing the London Knights.

You may remember how good the Knights were this season. Earlier this year, they went on a tear through the OHL, winning 24 games in a row. They’d finish the regular season with 50 wins, most in the league. Until the finals, they’d lost just two games in the postseason (one of them in double OT) and had two of the league’s best scorers in Max Domi and Bo Horvat, who have combined for 25 goals in 20 games. That’s a pretty good pace.

But Barrie’s has its own scoring monster: Mark Scheifele. Through this postseason he’s come into his own, scoring 41 points in 21 games. The other night, he scored four times in the third period as the Colts came from behind to win. He’s been a beast all season, especially after he returned from a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets. More than anyone else in the series, he’s stood out on the ice: number 19 is usually the guy with the puck and almost always the tallest guy on the ice. Even if Barrie loses tonight, he deserves serious consideration for series MVP.

In all, it’s a blast for as fair-weather a hockey as myself. I mentioned it earlier this season, but this year I’ve really dived into the OHL and this Colts team has been a blast. For one, Scheifele’s one of those players who’s bigger than everyone else and can just dominate on the ice. But there’s also Niederberger, who’s been a standout in net (.927 save percentage and two shutouts) and Zach Hall, who’s picked up 20 points in 18 games. There’s also Anthony Camara, who’s hitting is questionable at best.

These Colts have been a great team to get into junior hockey through; I certainly hope they advance to the Memorial Cup, but I’d be satisfied no matter tonight’s result.

Same thing for the Leafs. It’s been so long since they’ve played a playoff game that I’m just happy they’re even in the postseason at all. That Reimer’s been so much to watch and extended this series to seven games is a bonus. I’m nervous about the games, but it’s a nice feeling. I haven’t felt this way about hockey in a long time.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

It’s been a while and might only be for a while: Leafs Postseason Preview Special

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Tomorrow night, the Toronto Maple Leafs play their first postseason game in what feels like forever (although it’s been all of nine years). I’m excited, although not quite as excited as I thought I’d be, and I’m a little anxious but on the whole, I’m feeling a little pessimistic: it’s been a long time coming and while Toronto was fun this year, I don’t think any rational person thinks the world of this team.

They’re fun and Kadri’s a blast to watch and there’s usually one or two moments a month where I think Reimer all but steals a game, but I don’t think there’s any way they get past the Bruins, ya know? Toronto’s a team with some serious holes. They don’t control the puck and their Fenwick Close  at 43.80% is not good. As recently as April 22, it ranked behind Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Calgary and Florida. They’re a team that allows a ton of shots. And even with one of the better offenses in the league – they scored the 6th most goals in the league – they were scored on a bunch, too: 133 goals allowed, slighting above league average. And that was with James Reimer in net, who’s had one of the best seasons for Leaf goaltender in recent memory.

A short list of albums I like released since the last Leafs postseason appearance: Visions – Grimes; St. Vincent – Strange Mercy; Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall; Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene;  Metric – Live it Out

Still, there are a lot of things to look forward to with this series. I don’t expect much from Phil Kessel, who’ll probably have Zdeno Chara up his ass all series long, but maybe Nazim Kadri or James van Riemsdyk will explode in a game or two. Maybe Tuukka Rask won’t have it on the same night Reimer is locked in. Maybe I won’t get tired of hearing about the Kessel trade, the Raycroft trade or any other of the recent history between these two teams. Maybe I’ll even change my tune on Bob Cole once again and decide he hasn’t lost a step and doesn’t get players mixed up.

I suppose anything is possible in the second season and teams have ridden hot goalies to improbable-seeming wins. And Boston did blow a first-round series against a divisional rival not too long ago…

Some people who have died since the last Leafs postseason game: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Gerald Ford, Jack Layton, Jay Reatard, Evel Knievel, Norman Mailer, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Trish Keenan

Still, if I were going to bet, I’d take Boston. I think the series could end pretty quickly, but my gut’s telling me that Reimer has at least one standout performance in him and I’ve got enough faith in the Leafs to think their offense will better Rask once, too. I hope it’s not on the same night. My biggest worry is if something like this happens:

(CP) Toronto – It took a while, but Boston finally solved the Maple Leafs. Game four of the first round series is likely to be remembered for it’s length, with six sudden-death overtime periods making it one of the longest games in recent history. The clincher came well after midnight, when Nathan Horton put a wrister over the shoulder of Toronto netminder James Reimer to secure a  2-1 victory for the Bruins…

A low-scoring series is what I expect here, even if both teams have good offenses (and Boston’s is stacked, much deeper than Toronto’s). I’ll say Boston in six and hope I’m wrong.

Written by M.

May 1, 2013 at 9:00 am