Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kessel Needs to be Better!

     With just one goal in his last twelve games Phil Kessel is causing Leafs fans to wonder if he's the player Brian Burke thought he was getting when he traded for him in September.  Obviously Kessel is a highly gifted player and already the most talented player on this team.  The question is, does he have ALL the tools needed to help guide the Leafs to the promised land. 
     Phil Kessel's recent mediocre play is not the reason for the Leafs latest lack of success, but it is a contributor.  December was a very important month for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It was an opportunity to reach a number of key milestones and position the team for a genuine run for the post season.  With teams like the Flyers, Canadiens, Islanders and Thrashers plummeting in the standings, last month was a golden opportunity to move up and gain some ground on the rest of the Eastern Conference bottom dwellers.  Unfortunately the Leafs and Kessel failed to take advantage.
     The Leafs came out of the blocks like gangbusters in December.  They began the month going 6 - 3  with 5 of those wins coming against Eastern Conference rivals.  Phil Kessel was on a 3 game goal streak with 5 goals and 5 assists in those 9 games.  With Kessel scoring at more than a point a game they were making a charge and moving back towards respectability.  They even looked like they may finish the month at 500%.

     Since that charge, the Leafs and Kessel have been far from respectable.  They went 2 - 5 in the last seven games of 2009 and began the new year with only 1 win in their first 5.  During this period Kessel has managed just 1 goal and 1 assist.  His point production is worst among all noteworthy Leaf forwards and is even taking a backseat to 3 defenseman.  Even Luke Schenn has been more prolific during this span.
     Nobody is expecting Phil Kessel to carry this team single-handedly.  He also gets a pass for having to play with such a talent starved group of forwards.  Combine this last point with fact that opponents have figured out that if you shut-down Kessel, you shut-down the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Having said this, stars in the NHL are supposed to be able to overcome such things and find ways to succeed.  Not only has he failed at this he's become all but invisible.  If Toronto is going to salvage this season at all, this just cannot happen.
     It's still much too early to judge whether Brain Burke gave up too much for Kessel.  Carolina is trying their best (or worst) to land the number one pick in next years draft so leafs fans may not have to endure the agony of watching Boston use our selection to take Taylor Hall.  With every loss however, it does seem certain Burke did trade a lottery pick.  Too make matters worse, none of the players Burke aquired last season with the exception of junior prospect Nazeem Kadri are making much impact at any level.
     All this boils down to one important fact.  The team we have this year is probably going to look very much like the team we have next year.  Granted Burke will have some money to play with in the off-season and many of our current players may not be back, but with teams holding on to their young core players more than ever, good, young, free agents may be hard to land.
     Kessel is not big, he's not truculent, and he's not a fighter.  He's a fast, flashy forward, who can beat defenseman and goalies from almost anywhere.  He's been this for most of the season, hopefully he will wake up and bee that player again.  If not, this already disastrous season will only bet worse.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Can New Year Bring New Hope for Leafs?

     The first half of the 2009-2010 season is over, and for the Toronto Maple Leafs it may be a relief.  The first half hasn’t been kind to this franchise, at least as far as wins and losses are concerned.  With only 37 points, this season has provided fans with more up and downs than Tiger Woods'  zipper.  Hopefully 2010 will be kinder.
      The New Year is all about fresh starts.  Tonight can give the Toronto Maple Leafs just that.  They can put aside the terrible start and finally show fans exactly what kind of team we have.  Realizing their identity will be the key.  This past off-season, Brian Burke told us we will have a truculent, tough, hard nosed team with a strong commitment to defense.  He said teams would fear coming to play in our house.  Burke told fans this new gritty team would enhance the skill of our existing forwards, enabling them to play their game without having to constantly look over their shoulders.  If only this had come to pass.
      After 41 games the Leafs still sit second last in the conference and third last in the entire league.  They have a losing record at home, have allowed the second most goals,  are 12th in scoring, even with Phil Kessel, and 14th in penalty minutes.  The Leafs have the worst penalty kill and their once potent power play has dropped to 14th in the league.  These stats don't exactly reflect the type of team Burkie promised us, far from it actually.  With only 7 homes wins, only Florida and St. Louis have won fewer in their own house.  Teams will fear playing in Toronto, they may actually look forward to it. As far as skilled players not having to look over their shoulders, ask Kessel, Stajan, and Stalberg how they feel about that.
      There are some bright spots however.  Phil Kessel hasn't been wearing out the goal light recently, but he has brought fans out of their seats like no one since Matts Sundin. Niklas Hagman has had his share of highlights and Nikolai Kulemin is even showing some star potential.  Unfortunately team defense and goaltending continue to struggle.  Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this team so far is the coaching staff.  Ron Wilson and company have proven they can get this team to play well, and even win on occasion.  Their biggest challenging is convincing the players of this.
      The Toronto Maple Leafs true identity lies in their ability to realize their true skill level.   This team has two gifted scorers (Kessel and Hagman), one true offensive defenseman (Kaberle) with another emerging (Ian White), a good not great goalie (Gustavsson obviously), and a very tough enforcer who can actually put time in on the third and fourth lines.  After that we're looking at a bunch of very hard working, very fast, mix of veterans and young players.  It's here where they should be looking for their identity.
     Speed and work ethic should define this team, leave the fancy play and nifty stretch passes to the elite teams for now.  When this team wins they do so by out skating their opponents and wearing them down with relentless forchecking.  They put lots of pucks on net and lots of players in front.  They move the puck with quick short passes and the defense uses it's size to keep the middle of the ice clear in their own end.  In short they play a basic, simple style that matches perfectly to their skill level. 
     If 2010 is going to bring any success to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they'll have to put aside the rally caps and rely more on their listening ears.  They must force opponents to play their game.  They do have an identity.  It's a tough, fast hard working group, with lots of heart and a enough skill to keep fans cheering.  Once players truly believe this they will become the TEAM Brian Burke blustered about last summer.