Maple Leafs Dress Up As Hockey Team For Halloween

On Saturday night the Toronto Maple Leafs were on the road taking on the Montreal Canadiens and despite it being a little out of the ordinary Mike Babcock let the players wear their Halloween costumes at work. If you looked close enough you wouldn’t see anyone on the team dressed up as a firefighter, police officer, Spider-Man, Batman, or any other mainstream costume. Carey Price dressed up as a brick wall/destroyer of hopes and dreams but that’s completely besides the point.

No, the players on the Toronto Maple Leafs all decided to dress up as a hockey team and this wasn’t a knock off costume that they might have made with scraps from their garage. They were solid in every aspect of the game and really looked the part. The fact that they lost the game doesn’t take away from the fact that they played one of their best, if not the best, games of the season so far. You could tell everybody was having a great time.

Perhaps too great of a time because they clearly forgot they had to work on Sunday…

After putting up such a good effort in a 2-1 loss to Montreal they came out the next night and proceeded to play one of their worst games of the season. For a team that blew a 4 goal lead to Winnipeg, a late 2 goal lead to Chicago, and just got crushed by the Lightning less than a week ago, that’s saying something.

Leafs fans are currently at odds with each other over where they think this team can finish in the standings. Some are willing to go bold and proclaim that this team can contend for a playoff spot while others expect them once again to be bottom 5 in the NHL. And honestly, they’ve been so inconsistent it’s hard to say which group will be right in the end.

Myself, I think the finish somewhere between 20th and 25th. This is a young team that has proven time and time again that they can generate offence and score goals. The amount of creativity that Matthews, Nylander, and Marner display on a nightly basis is enough to amaze even their harshest critics. But they’ve also been forced to lead the way far too often while some of the veterans take a back seat. Defensively this team is either hopelessly lost or just a little confused when it comes to playing in their own end. Not exactly a winning combination.

The difference is we don’t need the Leafs to win this year. It would be nice if they did but it’s not going to happen. Just like no matter how much you might want Nolan Patrick you shouldn’t want them to come in last again by tanking. This is the year we figure out exactly what we have in the young talent we’ve been accumulating. If we were going to tank this year there would be no reason to have Nylander and Marner in the NHL. Why? Because they’re really good at hockey. If we were tanking again I wouldn’t scream at the tv every time Hunwick and Polak step on the ice. I would want them on the top pairing playing against the best players on all the other teams.

You should want the Leafs to do as well as they possibly can. If that means they make the playoffs then we can celebrate because the rebuild is farther along than most of us thought. It will be young players that get us there not an aging core that relies on James Reimer channeling his inner Ed Belfour and making Randy Carlyle look like a masterful tactician. If they do finish near the bottom of the standings then we can at least take solace in the fact that we’re getting another really good young player that we can add to the best farm system in the entire league.

The good news for the Leafs is they’re still young and this core will get the opportunity to grow and learn together. Once Frederik Andersen finds his footing and the team in front of him tightens up on the back end a bit, they will automatically become noticeably better. It’s going to take a long time before they’re contenders but there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to build off of what they did last season and continue to take steps forward. They are not going to be the worst team in the NHL again. They’re too good for that.

Watch the games and don’t get too discouraged about the results you’re seeing on the ice. After surviving David Clarkson as a top 6 winger, Ian White as a future captain, and Raycroft and Toskala battling it out for the number 1 job, we’re much better off sitting where we are now. This organization dressed up as a hockey team for the last 10 years (remember in 2013 when it was believable for a second?) and we’re finally getting the rebuild we always wanted. This isn’t the year the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup but they still have a lot to look forward to. If you ever find yourself upset about the way things are going just sit back, take a deep breath, and remember.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are Toronto Maple Leafs.

Follow me on Twitter @_JaredClarkson

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Now Is Not The Time To Panic. That Comes Later

I don’t take losing well and I really don’t like it when the Leafs lose (insert joke about Leafs losing)

Growing up I was rarely allowed to stay up to watch the entire game if it was a school night. I was able to watch the first two periods and then I had to go to bed. But rather than go to sleep and have to wait to find out the score I would either sit at the top step just out of sight or I would listen on the radio. The Toronto Maple Leafs were, are, and forever will be an obsession.

When I was considerably younger the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off the 2005/2006 by losing back to back shootouts to the Ottawa Senators. I was considerably upset to the point where my mother had to give me an ultimatum; I could start being less upset that the Leafs were losing or I wouldn’t be allowed to watch the games for an undetermined amount of time. Not watching the games has never been an option for me. Even last year when the Leafs came last I watched approximately 70 games and when I wasn’t watching I was constantly updating my phone trying to find out the score. To this day my schedule is still built around when the Leafs are playing.

At the start of this season I was as excited as I had been in a very long time. This team won’t finish high in the standings but the difference this year is there are young, talented players that make up this roster. My excitement  was validated when Auston Matthews scored his 1st NHL goal against the Senators on opening night. Before the night was done Matthews became the 1st player in the modern era to score four goals in their NHL debut. The Leafs also lost the game 5-4 in OT.

Through the first 5 games of the season the Leafs sit 7th in the Atlantic with a 1-1-3 record. It’s disappointing because they could (should?) easily have at least 3 wins. On Saturday night they had the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on the ropes and they squandered a 2 goal lead with less than 3 minutes to go. The disappointing thing is it wasn’t a game lost by young players making rookie mistakes. If that was the case it would be somewhat understandable and could be used as yet another teachable moment in this young season. No, this was the veterans that let this one get away from them. Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick were brought in to help stabilize a young blue line. Veterans that have grit, play the game the right way (Polak’s questionable hits aside), are real good pros, or whatever cliche you feel like using.

This is the 1st goal the Blackhawks scored on Saturday night.

https://www.nhl.com/video/embed/panarin-dances-in-for-great-dish/t-277752844/c-45564303?autostart=false                (Courtesy NHL.com)

Now lots of things are happening on this goal.

  1. Kadri gets danced pretty badly by Artemi Panarin. Not great defending but it happens
  2. Leo Komarov doesn’t really pick up anybody in this scenario. Not advisable. Common sense dictates that 5 on 5 there will always be someone for you cover.
  3. Nikita Zaitsev also doesn’t come away looking good. He’s actually in a good position to take Anisimov when the Hawks enter the zone but as soon as Kadri gets beat he comes over to help. He obviously recognizes the mistake because when Panarin makes the pass, Zaitsev turns his head and notices that Anisimov is wide open.
  4. Matt Hunwick is JUST getting into the zone as the puck goes in. On the replay he decides to step up into the neutral zone despite Chicago already going on the counter attack . That’s a pretty awful read from someone who is supposed to be one of the reliable veterans on this team. Are we really sure that Zaitsev is the NHL rookie?

Here’s a still from moments before Richard Panik tied the game late in the 3rd period

hawks-tying-goal                    (Courtesy @Draglikepull)

That’s right. Polak and Hunwick, the two veteran defence man in this group, let two Chicago Blackhawks get in behind them with just under 90 seconds left in a 1 goal game. HOW? WHY?

You can criticize Frederik Andersen for some things early on this season but how is a goalie supposed to make a save when he has two players standing almost right on top of him, and then a third player (Panik) comes and puts the puck into an empty net. That’s right. Not only are the Leafs D not doing anything to prevent Toews or Hossa from scoring, but when Panik picks up the puck seconds later Polak decides the best thing to do is to play  goalie. How was this pairing rewarded for their stellar coverage in their own end?

THEY WERE ON THE PENALTY KILL IN OVERTIME!

Despite blowing a 3rd period lead in all but 1 of their games the Leafs aren’t actually in a bad spot. Their goaltending hasn’t been great, their defence is horrid, but they are scoring goals and the rookies in the lineup have been fantastic. The biggest issue has been the veteran players not pulling their weight. If we are still in this position after 20 games then there might be a little bit of cause for concern but until then just enjoy the ride. This is a rebuild after all. They tend to take awhile

When Mike Babcock was hired he promised there would be pain and fans thought he just meant last year. They were wrong. We’re just getting out of surgery now and still have to go through post-op and the recovery time. Did you honestly think we could have Dave Nonis run our team and come out of it day-to-day? Not a chance.

Follow me on Twitter @_JaredClarkson

Auston Matthews Is Just One Piece Of Giant Leafs Puzzle

5. 6. 8. 13

Close your eyes for just a second and picture where you were at 7:11 PM on April 30th, 2016. If you’re anything like me you were sitting in front of a tv watching the NHL Draft Lottery show on Sportsnet. What you may not realize is at that exact moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs fortunes were trending in an unmistakably upward direction. The general public just didn’t know it yet.

Coming into the 2015/2016 season Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock had promised fans that there would be pain and he was completely right. Even the most diehard fans had a problem getting through all 82 games. There were more than a few hopeless nights but as the losses piled up the fan base was more content than they had been in a long time. The team was losing on the ice but behind the scenes the pieces were being put in place to ensure that this time, the pain of defeat would be followed by the joy of success.

Brendan Shannahan, Lou Lamoriello, and the rest of the front office have put together the Leafs deepest, and most talented prospect pool the organization has seen in decades. William Nylander is down in the AHL leading the Marlies on what hopes to be a deep run in the Calder Cup playoffs and Mitch Marner is averaging just over 2.5 points in the OHL playoffs with the London Knights. Those are just the most high profile names. You can add Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco, Dmytro Timashov, Connor Brown, Travis Dermott, and Scott Harrington and you still haven’t listed everyone. The Leafs are making a puzzle but they’re missing some of the pieces. It seems like they’ve been perpetually looking for a #1 centre and the goaltending has seen it’s fair share of ups and downs.

5.6.8.13

At 7:11 PM on April 30th, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced to a room of team representatives that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the winners of the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery. Everyone outside that room would have to wait until after 8pm for Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to announce the winner on live TV. The Leafs had found, maybe not the final, but easily the biggest piece of their rebuild.

But who’s name are they going to call?

It’s difficult to say with 100% certainty that the Leafs are taking Auston Matthews with the 1st overall pick this summer but it’s largely considered to be the consensus among among the people that really matter. There is the odd contrarian that thinks Patrick Laine should be the player that puts on the jersey (not a lot is being made of the fact that whomever they pick will be putting on the new jersey the team is unveiling for their centennial season) but the odds of it being anyone other than Matthews are so slim it’s almost not even worth mentioning. He’s the big, highly skilled, potential cornerstone 1st line centre that the Leafs have been craving since Mats Sundin packed his bags and moved west to play in Vancouver. Matthews will be the 1st overall selection in June and will most likely break camp with the big club. He’ll have to earn his spot but he shouldn’t have a problem doing that.

Aside from his obviously elite skill level, the other thing worth pointing out is that the Scottsdale, Arizona native (how cool is it that he’s from Arizona?) has an added level of maturity than some of his peers. Being a late ’97 birthday means that Matthews will have celebrated his 19th birthday before the puck drops on the 2016/2017 season. He’s only 6 months younger than Mitch Marner but because he was born 2 days after the cut off for the 2015 draft, he had to wait an extra year. Rather than spend that year in the NCAA or the WHL with the Everett Silvertips controlled his rights, he elected to turn pro and spend the season in Europe playing for the ZSC Lions in Zurich. The Swiss League might not possess the cream of the crop in terms of talent but it’s still a professional hockey where he had to battle against men as opposed to players similar to himself in age.

Winning the draft lottery is a giant victory for the Leafs. The team made tremendous strides this past season towards learning how to play the game with structure and discipline and the last place finish was not indicative of their progress from the year before. Adding another elite player provides Mike Babcock with another weapon to deploy  throughout the regular season but while the 1st overall pick is an important building block that will help the rebuild, it only represents a single puzzle piece. Any talk of this being the piece that turns them into a playoff contender is far too premature. There are still holes that need to be addressed, and will be over time.

If you’re a Leafs fan don’t feel bad about celebrating this win and don’t let anybody tell you that this pick doesn’t matter. Not all wins take place on the ice. For years the Leafs lost in the front office and behind the bench long before the puck was dropped. After everything this fanbase has been through it deserves to celebrate a big win. Pretty soon you’ll get to cheer on Matthews wearing the blue and white but at the end of the day; He’s a puzzle piece. A really, really important puzzle piece

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Bernier To Undergo AHL Conditioning Stint

On Monday I wrote about how Jonathan Bernier was struggling mightily for the Maple Leafs right now but you should still be cheering for him to succeed. You can read that here. That same night Garret Sparks went out and made history becoming the first Leafs goalie to record a shutout in his NHL debut

Today the Leafs placed Bernier on a conditioning stint with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL. So what does it mean?

For Jonathan Bernier

According to section 13.8 of the NHL CBA

“Unless a Player consents, he shall not be Loaned on a Conditioning Loan to a minor league club. Such Conditioning Loan shall not extend for more than fourteen (14) consecutive days. The Commissioner may take whatever steps he deems necessary to investigate the circumstances under which a Player is Loaned on a Conditioning Loan. If the Commissioner has reason to believe or determines that the Club has used the Conditioning Loan to evade Waivers, or otherwise Circumvent any provision of this Agreement, he may take such disciplinary action against the Club, as he deems appropriate. The Player shall continue, during the period of such Conditioning Loan, to receive the same Paragraph 1 NHL Salary, and be entitled to the same benefits, that he would have received had he continued to play with the Club.”

A few things stick out from this.

  1. Jonathan Bernier had to consent to the assignment. He could have refused but given his current situation it was best to go down to the Marlies, play really well, and wait to be recalled. The Marlies play 3 games this weekend and then are off until they play another 3 in a row starting December 11th.
  2. Bernier can only be in the AHL for a maximum of 14 days so he will have to be recalled no later than December 16th
  3. He is entitled to both the salary and benefits he would receive if he were still in the NHL

Garret Sparks

For Garret Sparks this is basically a dream scenario. At this time last year he was riding the bus down in the ECHL playing for the Orlando Solar Bears (best name in sports?) and now he’s in the NHL. He’ll get at least one more start tonight when the Leafs play the Winnipeg Jets so hopefully he puts together another good effort. Reimer is nearing a return and expects to play tomorrow night. At the very least Sparks can continue to enjoy earning an NHL salary along with the other benefits of being a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

As far as the actual team is concerned this doesn’t really change their short term plans. James Reimer is this teams starting goalie and will play the majority of the games moving forward. They really didn’t have a choice but to get Bernier playing in an environment where he can have the most success. That wasn’t going to happen any time soon at the NHL level.

Long term there will be some difficult questions to answer. Reimer is set to become a UFA and Sparks will be an RFA, leaving Bernier as the only goalie of the three with a contract going into next season. It would be perfectly fair for Reimer to be looking at a deal similar to the one Bernier currently has at $4.15M and if the Leafs can’t get him to sign before the trade deadline they at least have to entertain the possibility of moving him for draft picks.

Agree? Disagree? What would you do with Bernier? Tweet me your thoughts @_JaredClarkson

Garret Sparks Perfect In Historic Debut

(Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com)

Record books are written in pencil so that people like Garret Sparks can come in and rewrite them. They aren’t meant to last forever.

Last night Garret Sparks, the 22 year old rookie goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopped all 24 Edmonton Oilers shots he faced to become the first Leafs goalie to ever record a shutout in his NHL debut. When he found out after the game he was so overcome with emotion that it brought him to tears.

For a guy that was playing in the ECHL just last season it’s understandable why the emotion of the moment got to him. He’s been through pretty much everything you can go through on his way to the NHL.

Brian Burke drafted Sparks in the 7th round, 190th overall back in 2011. Not many players drafted that late even make it to the NHL at all. That in itself is a testament to the work that Sparks has put in to get to where he is today. According to TheScore, just over 19% of players taken in the 7th round between 2005 and 2010 made it to a single game in the NHL.

Once he graduated to the professional ranks from the OHL he managed to have a solid rookie campaign with the Toronto Marlies while also playing 10 games in the ECHL. Last season he battled injuries, and when he was healthy, he couldn’t find work at the AHL level so he played all but 2 games in the ECHL. That’s when he turned his game around.

“As a goalie, I find that my strengths are my size, flexibility, and ability to read plays as they unfold. Coupling those strengths with strong pushes from point A to point B rather than dramatic slides has greatly changed the way I play, and greatly increased my control.”

That quote is from an article that Garret wrote this past February for a website called faceoffcircle.ca. I highly suggest you check it out as it goes into incredible detail about the work that Sparks put in to reinvent his game as well as explains why it helped him.

The Leafs season has been tough so far. James Reimer has given the team some good stretches of play but for the most part the fact that they’re hovering around last place tells you all you need to know. They’ve been better than last season but there’s still a long way to go.

Moments like last night make it just a little bit easier to stick with the rebuild. Every so often you need a reminder that all the losing is going to be worth it in the end. There are players on this team that can be good additions to a contending team

Last night Garret Sparks’ performance wasn’t just good. It was historic

-Another bit of history for you. According to NHLdrafter.com since 1998 Brian Burke has been a part of 14 drafts as an NHL General Manager. Garret Sparks is the first goalie selected by Burke in the draft to play a game since 2002 and the first to win a game since 1998.

-Mike Babcock said last night that if Reimer isn’t healthy enough to play Wednesday against the Jets Sparks will get the start

-Joe Bowen’s call during the final seconds of the 3rd period

Follow me on twitter @_JaredClarkson and tell me what you thought of Sparks’ NHL debut

Like It Or Not, You Should Be Cheering For Jonathan Bernier

Perhaps Jonathan Bernier was doomed from the start of his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After all, James Reimer had just single-handedly ended a Leafs playoff drought that spanned almost 10 years. It probably didn’t help Bernier’s cause that Reimer rode into town as a folk hero of sorts in 2011. You don’t get the nickname “Optimus Reim” because of how nice of a guy you are. He took a team that was in shambles and got them back in the playoff race without a whole lot of help from anybody. More importantly, he had proven to the fans and to the city that he could be counted on. Fans believed in him in a way that they never could with Raycroft, Toskala, Gerber, Giguere, Aubin, Gustavsson, McDonald, 2009 Joseph Tellqvist, Pogge, Clemmensen, Scrivens (wow they’ve had a lot of goalies since Belfour). When he took the Bruins to game 7 in 2013 people were ready to anoint him king.

Dave Nonis did a lot of strange things when he was GM. One of the strangest moves might have been when he acquired Bernier from the Kings in June 2013. You’re probably thinking “NO WAY! This is the guy that bought out Grabovski, traded for Dave Bolland, signed David Clarkson, traded John-Michael Liles for Tim Gleason and then bought out Tim Gleason.” At least with those ones Nonis was trying to fix something that was a problem. The Leafs couldn’t play in their own end and had glaring holes up front as well. He did a terrible job trying to fix those problems but he tried. The Bernier trade was upgrading something that was in great working condition.

Imagine having a busted fridge and oven (offence and defence in this scenario) but your microwave (James Reimer) is working so great that it’s the best microwave you’ve had in 10 years. DAVE NONIS BOUGHT A NEW MICROWAVE! Then when anybody went over to his house and pointed out that his fridge and oven don’t work he kept showing them his fancy new microwave

Going forward Reimer is a UFA this summer and Bernier is signed for one more year at $4.15M. The fact that both goalies naturally want to be a starter in the NHL should give you a pretty good indication that both of them won’t be here by the time the puck drops on next season.

Asset management is such a big part of sports and being able to maximize the players you have at your disposal, especially in a rebuild, is one of the most important jobs a GM has. That can’t happen if Bernier doesn’t turn it around because there are not very many teams calling about a $4M dollar goalie that can’t stop the puck. Bernier needs to find his form again and do it fast.

Mike Babcock has made it clear that he doesn’t trust Bernier in net and that he’s out of chances at least for the time being. James Reimer is still not going to be back for today’s game. Bernier got passed over so that Garret Sparks can make his NHL debut. That’s where Babcock is at right now and it puts the team in a very delicate situation.

Reimer is not just the Leafs best goalie right now but he’s been one of the best in the league this season. Like I said earlier he also happens to be a UFA this summer and his history with the team might mean he would rather move on and start fresh then come back to Toronto. However, the opportunity to be the starter and the loyalty he seems to show for the team that gave him a chance to live out his NHL dream could persuade him to stay. I think money probably goes a long way to helping that decision

With Jonathan Bernier the Leafs have a goalie that sits 9th from the bottom in save percentage despite being one of the 30 highest paid goalies in the league. He can’t be traded while he’s playing this poorly and his coach doesn’t trust him enough to play so that he can work his way out of this. He’s caught in a tough place.

It’s still too early for the Leafs to completely give up on Bernier and go all in on Reimer. If you look at their numbers Bernier and Reimer  still have virtually identical career stats despite James significantly outplaying him all season. Reimer may very well end up as the better goalie when all is said and done but it’s also important to recognize that this is a small sample size in a much larger career. There was a time when Montreal Canadiens fans wanted the team to trade Carey Price and he turned out to be pretty good.

If you’re a Leafs fan you should be cheering for Bernier to turn it around. You can be part of Tank Nation and still want him to at least play well while the team loses. Don’t forget that this is what you wanted. If you want to be in on the Auston Matthews sweepstakes this losing is going to have to go on for a lot longer. But you should still want for every player on this team to play the best they’ve ever played. The better they perform the more draft picks the Leafs get at the deadline.

Cheer on Bernier because if nothing else, a good Jonathan Bernier has value to the other 29 teams in the league. Every time he lets in a goal from centre ice stop, take a deep breath, and cheer.

Mike Babcock said there would be pain.

Follow me on twitter @_JaredClarkson and tell me what you would do with Jonathan Bernier