Jake Gardiner MUST be laughing in the face of the Maple Leafs right now

A few injuries and boom, the Maple Leafs don’t look the contender we all thought they were. Often the target for fan criticism, Jake Gardiner has been missed on the back end and has to be laughing at his struggling team right now.

Hand up – I am a Jake Gardiner critic. I think he plays with one hand on his stick too much, is unreliable in his own end, lacks hockey sense, and is a mess trying to keep the puck in on the opponent’s blue line.

I am also of the opinion that without him in the line up right now the Leafs are getting continually embarrassed due to brutal defensive zone coverage. Travis Dermott’s injury has compounded the issues, but missing Gardiner, the Leaf’s second best defenseman, has caused massive problems for Babcock’s Buds.

Also, Jake Gardiner has to be kicking back and laughing in the face of his team. Maybe not the players, but the fans certainly. All the boo’s (which I think he’s earned and then some), all of the criticism, being dropped to the bottom pair, all of it is now laughing material for Gardiner.

Despite comments about keeping Jake Gardiner, there has to be little to no way he sticks around. He’s due for a substantial pay raise as he hurdles towards free agency, regardless of his current injury, and Toronto would need him to take a haircut to stay.

No, instead of sticking around the most watched and over-analyzed team in the league, Gardiner should ship out, collect his, oh let’s say $2 million raise, and coast for the rest of his career.

We deserve better than Gardiner as a defender (please note I said defender, not referencing his obvious offensive upside), and I believe it will be addressed this offseason. But, as for now, Gardiner has to be laughing in the face of the circus surrounding a wallowing Toronto Maple Leafs team right now.

He’s back on the ice with Dermott which, despite what you think about Gardiner, is a good thing for the Maple Leafs. He’s better than Marincin, Holl, and Ozhiganov, and the Leafs will be counting the days until he’s back again in game shape.

As for now, Gardiner can take some solace in the fact the Toronto has struggled defensively in his absence. It’s the most criticized aspect of his game, and even though the Leafs looked good against Buffalo… it’s just Buffalo. Gardiner will be back soon, and he’ll bring with him the knowledge that he offers more than a lot of people think defensively.

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Leafs Fans see “What Could Have Been” as Edmonton visits Toronto

The Edmonton Oilers got a year head start on their rebuild, but have continously failed to take the next step towards success. Maple Leaf fans, on the other hand, have felt progressive success and with the Oilers in town tonight will be reminded that the rebuild could have gone much worse.

It felt like the Leafs missed the boat when the Edmonton Oilers card was pulled in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. A year later they would get their long-term superstar center in Auston Matthews and the race was on; who would win the battle of the rebuilds, Toronto vs. Edmonton.

Since then, the Leafs have made the NHL playoffs in two consecutive seasons, both first-round exits, with a third all but confirmed for this season. Edmonton? Well, they lost out in the second round in 2016/17 and haven’t been back, with the 2018/19 playoffs a long shot.

What’s happened and what’s been the difference? Two organizational systems show the different, one built for the long term and the other a simplistic and idealist system destined for failure.

Why Toronto Succeeded Organizationally

The Leafs were ready to take everything down to the studs and start over, the foreman for the project? Brenden Shanahan. The Leafs brought in the NHL Hall of Famer to run their team as the President, overseeing all hockey operations moving forward. He brought with him NHL experience on both the playing and business side.

Immediately, Kyle Dubas was hired as assistant GM, Mark Hunter was brought in to lead the scouting team, Brandon Pridham was hired as a cap specialist, Lou Lamoriello was brought in as the GM, and eventually, Mike Babcock was wooed to be the coach.

Shanahan had a precise plan-of-action and he executed it well from the start. He built an organizational base that includes the successors of each position within it, and focused on drafting new talent and developing existing and incumbent players correctly.

In 2016 Auston Matthews was drafted and the wheels were in motion. Toronto had previously drafted William Nylander and Mitch Marner as well, so Matthews wasn’t forced to pull the wagon alone. With strategic and reasonable dipping into the free agent market and internal promotion through a revamped minors system, Shanahan’s plan for a deep and directed team were well underway.

Edmonton on the other hand…

Listen, I’m not going to tell you that I know everything about the Edmonton Oilers and their organizational depth and structure. What I, and just about every other hockey fan in the world knows, is that the owner is the problem with Edmonton and shit rolls downhill.

His influence on the board of directors has had a hand in the appointing of Todd McLellan, who alone is a terrific coach, as well as Peter Chiarelli as the GM. Both men have winning pedigree’s in the NHL so in the surface they were good hires, but McLellans success was through managing experienced talent, and Chiarelli’s was through an aging hockey mindset.

Where Edmonton went wrong was in their building of the system before Connor McDavid was drafted. There were plenty of prospects and young players in the system – Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, to name a few, but all are/were undervalued by the team’s front office.

Rather than deciding how players fit into the long-term plans for the team, they gambled some of their best talents (Hall and Eberle specifically) for whatever return they could get. The sacrifice of stability for lucky success did not pay off. As we now know Hall has set New Jersey on fire while his return Adam Larsson has struggled to show his elite status. Oh, and Eberle was turned into Sam Gagner (who was on the Marlies via an AHL loan this season). Enough said.

The result?

Toronto boasts a deep lineup built on speed and skill opposed to Edmonton who boasts a skillful and speedy player who drags a sluggish and ill-conceived lineup with him.

Originally, the bite of missing hometown McDavid was brutal. Leafs fans, myself included, were preparing for the incredible with him and were heartbroken when Edmonton was seemingly rewarded for their perennial failure.

The most prized player in the NHL since Sidney Crosby would report to the team where prospects seem to stagnate. A year later, however, the Leafs happily accepted their “consolation” prize as Auston Matthews was drafted. He’s brought him McDavid level of play and excitement ever since.

Unlike Edmonton, Toronto’s rebuild didn’t start when their generational talent was draft, but years prior. There was a foundation and plan in motion when Matthews put on the Blue and White for the first time. He is a cog in the machine that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the only piece to the puzzle, just the biggest and most important one.

His presence has directly contributed to John Tavares signing here, William Nylander signing long-term, and Mitch Marner having so much success early on in his career (that goes both ways). Indirectly, the likes of Nazem Kadri, Morgan Reilly, and Frederick Anderson all committing long term to the Leafs also committed to this team after decades of failure due to the Matthews forecast.

Larry Tanenbaum, the owner of the MLSE and the Leafs ownership group made the important decision to empower Brenden Shanahan to kick-start this franchise, and he’s done just that.

The two teams who paralleled each other for so long have taken vastly different approaches to the rebuild and thus have had differing results. Rejoice, Toronto fans, your team made the right decision and are years ahead of where Edmonton currently are.

Leafs Fans Get Their First Look of Nic Petan in the… Green and White?

Nic Petan was lucky enough to have his first practice with the Toronto Maple Leafs in their awesome St. Pats gear ahead of their St. Patrick’s Day game. Now, let’s try predicting Petan’s future with the Leafs.

Feast your eyes, Toronto Maple Leafs fans! That’s your newest Leafs in your sickest gear you’ll see any NHL team don this season.

Petan, who will wear 19 on the Leafs this season, looks like a good fit for the Leaf’s third/fourth line this season, and is also looking stylish in the green and white St. Pat’s gear.

The fourth line, Petan’s eventual home, was booming against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night. This was thanks to Tyler Ennis’s speed and veteran presence, Frederick Gauthier’s hands and size, and Trevor Moore’s intensity and skill. Safe to say, Petan won’t have an easy road to winning ice time.

With little sustained opportunity in Winnipeg, especially this season, Petan wasn’t able to get a run of games to fulfill his potential. Out of the draft, though, he was viewed as an elite prospect.

HockeyFutures.com described Petan as:

“an offensively gifted with high-end skating skills. While his size might prove detrimental, he pals a ‘big’ game and relishes physical play. He has a quick release and is a slick passer.”

They continue on to describe his game as gritty and physical, as he uses his size to gain leverage and create pressure situations. He is projected as a skill-based two-way bottom-6 forward.

It’s clear, Kyle Dubas is prioritizing players who can play this style of hockey. Speed reliant, skill players who tire out opponents not through physicality, but unrelenting pace.

Season Predictions for this year

Petan fits this NHL build perfectly. In the remaining 20 games for Toronto I expect to see Petan in no less than half of these games, so let’s call it 15 games played in Toronto before the playoffs start. He’ll get some late PK time, I believe, as well as some off chance PP time too so he’ll get a good chance to produce.

By seasons end, I give Petan 4 goals and 7 assists for 11 points in 15 games. Babcock has rewarded his depth lines with increased ice time when his big guns aren’t going and Petan can capitalize on this. I think the odd man out becomes Connor Brown, as well, with Trevor Moore continuously impressing.

Not a bad start for Petan, who could end up being a long-term solution for the cap crunched Leafs in 2019/20 and beyond!

Three Things to get Excited About for the 2018/19 Maple Leafs

Its just over a month away, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are already getting their fans excited for the upcoming season. First round playoff exits over the past two seasons have been disappointing, however, the sustained success is promising and should be built on over this season and for the foreseeable future.

Here are the FIRST three things Leaf fans can get excited about for the upcoming season:

Pinch yourself, John Tavares is a Maple Leaf:

Maybe the most discusses topic of the offseason thus far, and maybe one of the biggest free agent signings in NHL history, John Tavares being a Maple Leaf is something to get excited about. His playmaking and impressive stats speak for themselves:

2017/18:
GP: 82
Goals: 37
Assists: 47
TOI: 19:56 minutes
Shots: 257
Faceoff Percentage: 52.9%
Selke and Lady Byng votes.

Will all these stats aside what may be most intriguing about John Tavares is what he’ll do to the makeup of the Maple Leafs roster. Will Marner play on his wing? Will his 23 even strength goals make Toronto that much more of a 5on5 threat in the league? Will he make Nazem Kadri a more effective player by pushing him down the lineup? How many more powerplay points will he have over his 51 from last season?

It should be a symbiotic relationship for John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding a franchise talent to an already contending playoff team, while providing an upgrade in personnel for that player to succeed.

The Leafs are going to scare the opposition:

Having center depth is a hallmark of any Cup contending team, having a franchise level player is necessary for a team to build around, having a mobile d-core is something the elite teams have, having young, creative wingers is a must in today’s NHL. Check all four boxes for the Maple Leafs as they stack up against anybody in the NHL on paper to be a Stanley Cup contender.

Line matching is something Mike Babcock likes to make the most of when coaching at home and losing this ability in the playoffs when visiting Boston saw the Leaf’s struggle when the Bergeron-Pasternak- Marchand line came over the boards against Matthews or Bozak. The addition of John Tavares offers another dominant center to the group who can play hardnose, gritty minutes in the corners offering another layer of insulation to Auston Matthews.

The center depth should also help in tempering new NHLers into the league on the fourth line. Tavares averaged 19:56 TOI, Auston Matthews averaged 18:08 minutes, and Kadri averaged 16:46, leaving just over five minutes of ice time left for a fourth line centerman to have. This will probably swell with powerplay time, but it isn’t going to be a lot of ice time for someone to make their own which is why players like Josh Jooris and Par Lindholm will need to earn their well-insulated spot this season.

The Leafs also boast Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares as franchise level players to build around. Some teams are lucky enough to have one of this caliber of player to build around, and playoff teams usually have two or maybe even three – the Leafs have four, which again is intimidating to stack up against.

While not necessarily elite, the Leaf’s d-core is mobile, young(ish), and doesn’t have a lot of holes in it structurally. Morgan Reilly leads the pack and is as close to being an elite number one defenseman as you can get without being one of the big names in the league (Doughty, Karlsson, Burns, etc.). He is a leader on the ice and is integral to the team’s success this season.

Gardiner is polarizing but with the Leafs betting on a strong contract year for their offensive defenseman we might as well support him, right? He seems to provide more than he gives away, can chip in a good deal on the power play, and can skate the puck out of his own zone with relative ease. Ideally, he slots in on the second pairing, reducing his minutes and letting him be that powerplay specialist.

The rest of the d-core is fairly regular. Hainsey is the stay at home, defensive defenseman who will have less 5on5 minutes to let him kill entire penalties. Zaitsev is looking to bounce back after a poor second half to last season following injury and illness. Travis Dermott will aim to be Reilly’s top defensive pairing partner and should succeed in that chase. Ozhiganov is looking to step into the NHL with his booming shot and physical 6’2, 210lb frame. And Connor Carrick is set to challenge for that final defensive spot with anyone who has early game hiccups.

Wingers are another area of strength for Toronto who has eight starting wingers who all offer different play styles. The most important are the top six wingers who will impact the scoresheet regularly. Marner has worldclass vision and playmaking. He’s coming into his own as a legit NHL stud and is also getting more comfortable shooting the puck, too.

Nylander is the classic European sniper. He is quick down the boards, drives you nuts with his two-way games, and electrifies you with a snipe that somehow finds a hole the exact size of a puck. He is an elite shooter and being pinned beside Matthews for the start of his career has proved to be mutually beneficial.

Marleau has that veteran experience that sees him in the right place at the right time more often than not. He is a leader on the team on and off the ice, adding stability to a youthful franchise. Hyman is like a dog on a bone – willing to do whatever it takes to get the puck and make a play. His centers love him and so does his coach.

The final two spots will be duked out between Andreas Johnsson, Connor Brown, and Kasperi Kapanen. All three have shown their skill and ability throughout the last two season, and it is a toss up on who will slot in as the wingers on Kadri’s line. This is the epitome of a good problem to have for the Leafs.

The Leafs are years ahead of their rivals:

Remember how intense the Battle of Ontario, the Battle of the QEW, or the Original Six matchup used to be for Toronto and their respective rivals? Well, those years are gone as Toronto has eclipsed Ottawa, Buffalo, and Montreal in team development.

Ottawa is currently in the process of losing one of the best players their team has ever had and one of the elite defenseman in the league, Erik Karlsson. Karlsson’s imminent departure has seen the team stuck in limbo – trading Mike Hoffman for PR reason, promoting youth for starting positions, lowballing their offensive leader Mark Stone in arbitration, and basically being stuck between rebuilding and existing.

Likewise in Montreal, the Habs are a team with no identity. They’ve done well self-destructing over the past few seasons, opening the door for the Maple Leafs to lap them. Trading the young, energetic, and talented Subban for an odorously large contract in Shea Weber should have been enough to get Bergevin fired, but they’ve stuck with him and now will be losing their captain Pacioretty sometime this season as he’s been thrown under the bus by the overhyped GM.

Buffalo continues to have little brother syndrome with the Maple Leafs – always wanting what their older sibling has. You want Babcock? Well, he’s coming here, so enjoy Bylsma a now unproven Phil Housley. You want front office stability? Well too bad, you’re stuck with Tim Murray and his transitions lenses and now Jason Botterill. You want the best young American star? Well enjoy Jack Eichel and wherever he lands on that list because Matthews is taken.

The Sabre’s are closest to challenge the Maple Leafs and have done well this offseason. Additions of Sheary, Sobotka, Berglund, Hutton, Sislo, Skinner, and of course Dahlin have made them a better team. However, adding a forward on a do-nothing team like Skinner, players from perennial underperformer St. Louis, a career backup goalie, and a rookie defenseman doesn’t add up to an immediate elite level contender.

So there it is the FIRST of many things to be excited about as a Maple Leaf fan headed into the 2018/19 season. Safe to say it’ll be one hell of a ride for fans across Leafs Nation.

Tyler Ennis Provides a Different Look and Some Insight on the Leafs Fourth Line

The Leafs continued to sign players after John Tavares this off season including Tyler Ennis joining the Blue and White after years of playing down the QEW. The Leafs are at a unique crossroad for their upcoming season, and the Ennis signing shows that the players will have to earn their spot with versatility and role filling ability being most important.

With three lines that could feature as top units for other teams, the Leafs have incredible centre depth meaning their fourth line will need to be two things – energetic and versatile. It’s not difficult to see that the Matthews line and Tavares line will each take about 20 minutes a night. Mix in a line with Kadri, Johnsson, and Kapanen scooping up a good chunk of the remaining 20 minutes and it becomes pretty obvious that the fourth line will need to have players that are specialists and players who can move up the line up as needed.

For Tyler Ennis his positional play provides some versatility in being able to play both left wing and centre. While more comfortable on the wing now, Ennis did win Sabres team MVP as their top centre man in 2013/14 just three years into his NHL career. And while his offensive abilities may not be what they used to be, he could be in for some extra juicy minutes with some line swapping every night.

This swapping would be on Auston Matthews line with noted penalty killing dynamo Zach Hyman. Babcock likes to roll his lines and pressure off of the back of a successful penalty kill which has caused him to not use the Matthews line post PK in the past. Now, with Ennis having the ability to step in an play a similar role to Hyman at even strength we could see some more Matthews and Ennis as a response unit… or ya know he could just roll Taveras’ line. Regardless, this scenario shows the versatility that having quick skilled players on the roster provide a coach.

Another thing the Ennis signing signals is the desire for roster competition by Dubas and Babcock. Free agent signings and NHL veterans like Ennis, Jooris, Lindholm, Cracknell and the ever present extra forward Josh Leivo will bring experience to the race for a limited roster spot. With it being extremely likely Connor Brown will remain cemented on the right wing position all of these players will be battling for two spots. Leafs fans should keep a keen eye on prospects like Pierre Engvall and Carl Grundstrom to push for a fourth line spot, too.

With limited 5 on 5 time Ennis and the other candidates fighting for the fourth line will need to show effectiveness in limited time, and roster versatility. Again, like with the Leafs goal tending, there is roster depth that is making positions tough to come by which is nothing but a good thing for the Leafs. It appears that the Detroit mentality Babcock had sustained success is being brought to and embraced in Toronto – insulate your prospects and over develop; no free roster spots!

 

Dear Leafs fans: Breathe

That’s all you need to do.

Before the final buzzer had gone, Jake Gardiner had been chastised, (I admittedly also wrote a few pointed words), and for all intents and purposes been banished from Leaf land.

Willy Nylander is bait for a top pair defenseman, Auston Matthews is an ineffective playoff performer, Freddy Andersen was no longer the tender receiving a chorus of ‘Freddy’s’ just one game earlier.

The sweat had not yet dried on their equipment, and Coach Babcock, also once praised, had ruined his relationship with the Leafs saviour and he was being shipped back to Arizona where he came from.

Does this sound familiar? Ah, yes of course. It’s the signal that Spring has arrived in Toronto, and befitting with the late round of winter we’ve had, has kept up the routine.

The Toronto media and fan-base has no off-season when it comes to hockey. Every move, every meal, is critiqued, and most wear it as a badge of honour. “The media here is so crazy, right? We’re so hard and tough on players I hope they’re ready for it!” Do any of these people realize that hey, it’s not a great thing to have that reputation? It’s one thing for outsiders to say ‘yikes it’s there’, but for the people asking the questions in the locker room to be doing it it’s a little too… what’s the word…uncouth? I’ll go with that.

This has been said too many times for me to feel good about repeating it, but pain is coming. I’d say it’s here and has been for over a year. But that’s what we were to expect, no? Speedbumps? Yes, plenty of them.

Leafs fans would like results similar to what the Blackhawks and Penguins had/have; sustained success and perennial playoff contenders. I think it’s fair to say every fan base would like to support a team that wins. But do we realize HOW bad the Penguins and Blackhawks were before actually reaching the pinnacle?

The Penguins were bad enough to get one 1st overall pick for M.A. Fleury, a 2nd overall for Malkin, (could have been Ovechkin), and we all know their captain. Yes, won through a lottery but it still counts. Pittsburgh barely had a building.

Chicago, they were an original six team who couldn’t draw a crowd and didn’t have their games on television. Need I say more?

What have Leaf fans had to endure? Leaving out the whole ‘since 67’ thing and focusing on our team we have right now, not much. Even in the past years, the Buds have made multiple playoff runs with a ton of excitement.

Nazem Kadri, drafted 2009, and is now just becoming the player he was drafted to be.

Morgan Rielly, drafted 2012, was actually in (borderline) Norris conversation for the first time.

Willy Nylander, drafted 2014, played first two full NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 6th in Calder voting

Mitch Marner, drafted 2015, two NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 5th in Calder Voting

Auston Matthews, drafted 2016, 74 goals in first two seasons, 60+ points in each. Won Calder trophy.

Looks pretty good to me. I’d take that over any other team in the NHL.

Do the Leafs have their issues? Absolutely. But what people fail to realize is that even the Champions at the end of the season have their issues. No team is perfect, and that’s why you hear, every year ‘they worked hard and things went their way’.

I use stats only to show you who these players that we have are, and what they’re capable of. We’ve all watched them all season, and how happy they’ve made all the fans. Don’t turn on them when they’re at their lowest.

Relationships in life are special things. They’re supportive, exciting, loving, and they work together. Good ones have those feelings go both ways, unconditionally. How sweet would it be for the team and fans be together in looking out at the rest of the NHL and, together, saying ‘we told you so’ while parading down Bay? (Yes I’ve planned it).

Together.

What unreasonable fans, and mostly the media in Toronto, are at risk of, is becoming part of the enemy. More of a hindrance than help. Why would a collection of humans who feel the need to shield themselves from their own fan-base also want to take a puck to the face for them? Instead of pushing the team under the bus at every corner, be a help. Be a supportive partner. There’s a reason why Patrick Marleau is the first high-profile free agent to come to Toronto, and he did it at the end of his career.

Don’t become part of the enemy. Do not ruin a good thing.

Think about how Phil feels, and don’t be the person in Toronto he’s thinking about when he shoves his 2 rings in their face. We’re better than that.

The Best Two Words In Sports: Game Seven

The time for chills and goosebumps is upon us as Toronto and Boston are headed for a game seven!

With many people doubting them (me included), the Toronto Maple Leafs have clawed back from 0-2 and 1-3 to tie up their opening round series with the Boston Bruins.

What was sold as the odds on favourite for most intense series was looking pretty grim, pretty early for the Leafs. Toronto looked laughable in the first two games; unable to keep up with Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak, and throughly unorganized on the ice in general. The Kadri suspension in Game 1 was another situation the Leafs would have to deal with, as their shut down centre made a selfish decision to board a defenceless player.

Now level at three games a piece Toronto has a chance to exorcise some demons, and route out the ghosts of a previous game seven in Boston. And I’m not going to say anything else about that unspeakable night.

Where has Toronto turned it around? And how can they compete with these once believed invincible Bruins? Well, I suppose they trust in Mike Babcock. Hand up, I called him Peter Horachek not long ago and thats on me. But, when adversity struck, Babcock seemed to figure out a new look line up that can handle the physicality of Boston.

Hyman – Matthews – Brown
Marleau – Plekanec – Marner
JVR – Bozak – Nylander
Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen

…or something like this.

Toronto has spread it out and used their two most physical centres, Kadri and Plekanec and paired them with fast wingers to bring a massive forecheck to the Boston end. The use of both centres in a flowing manner also has limited the ability to line match too easily for Boston, as they want Bergeron’s line matching up with Matthews. To ease the pressure on Toronto’s big gun, Babcock gave him a clone of Hyman, Connor Brown, to match Nylanders speed with an added edge in physical board play on his right side.

Hats off to Babcock because it’s working. Something he hasn’t solved yet however, is the face off dominance by Bergeron, by that is a different story.

The player who has undoubtedly been Toronto’s rock, MVP, and saving grace is Frederik Andersen. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearly 40+saves every night, Andersen looks completely calm and in control when he plays. After game six he has now made two massive paddle saves reaching behind him and seemingly has broken the Bruins will to win single handedly.

What goes along with his physical performance is the mental dominance he has shown over Boston. In the first period he made 17 saves, followed by 8 in the second. Boston was throwing everything at the net but couldn’t solve the Andersen enigma in net, and it showed. Sunken heads and puzzled faces populated the Boston bench, they looked defeated. Andersen is showing all of the Toronto sports media that he in fact, isn’t tired after seeing a league high 2029 shots in the regular season.

Toronto isn’t going to get the calls from the refs, they’re not going to win a lot of the physical battles, they aren’t going to dominate the face off dot, but for some reason I’m hopeful. It’s a full 360 on where I was after game 1 and game 2, but they’ve showed me a willingness to win at any cost that I can’t not believe in.

Go Leafs Go.