Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Heeeeere We Go

This is about hockey.

Part of the Film Fest this year are short clips from the Toronto archives and National Film Board celebrating Toronto's 175th birthday. One of these clips is of the 1967 Stanley Cup parade, the last one this city has seen. I like this clip because I get to yell out "OH MY GOD! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?" when the cup appears on the screen.

Which brings me to today. Tonight is exhibition game #1 - the Bruins are in town. For the next few weeks, the coaching and management staff get to assess their talent in a game situation. The Leafs don't have a ton of talent, so this will make it difficult.

There's talk of making of the playoffs this year. It's remotely possible. The team's toughened up the defense a ton, and bulked up the team as a whole. Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Colton Orr, and Wayne Primeau (I still don't get that one) have all been brought on board. They'll be side-by-side with Jamal Mayers, Ben Ondrus, Luke Schenn, and others in the agitator and brick wall departments. It should help Tomas Kaberle and a now healthy Mike Van Ryn get into the play for some quarterbacking.

Throw in Gustavsson as the fire being lit under Toskala's ass in net and everything behind the blue line looks solid. If the opposition gets in the Leafs end, they should be punished for it, and if they still get the puck on the net, there should be some admirable minders between the pipes.

Which is all great, and will address the worst penalty killers in the league and one of the worst goals-against numbers. But what about up front?

Yah, goaltending, like pitching in baseball, wins you games and playoffs, but you still need to get some points on the board. Jason Blake? Mikhail Grabovski? Alexi Ponikarovsky? Matt Stajan? These are our big point getters? Maybe John Mitchell steps it up and becomes a star this year. Maybe Phil Kessel finds his way into a Leafs uniform and has a great season. Maybe we end up with another season with 4 20-goal scorers and not much else.

In short, we have half a team. There is no bona fide star on this team, and not enough "character" players up front to make it one of those hard-working, grinding teams that goes deep without a hot-selling jersey. This is the year for the young guys to step it up and impress. This is where talent is assessed in year 2 of the 5 year plan. Who's good enough to stay? Who's good enough to be traded? One thing's for sure, the front end of this team isn't going to remain stable.

Playoffs? Maybe. Boring, defensive hockey can take you far, even in a faster, more wide-open NHL. The Leafs seem to have the size and speed defending their end to effectively hobble other teams. The downside of the gritty and rough game they're gunning for is that injuries tend to pile up, which means there will be definite slumps, and probably running out of gas earlier than they'd like. Let's say they'll finish somewhere between 7th and 11th in their division.

I have no problem with this. The team needs to stick to a rebuilding philosophy, and doing too well this year will cripple those efforts. Next year - year 3 - is when they're supposed to start surprising people.

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