Monday, February 21, 2011

*Dunk-Off Underlines NBA Anti-Canadianism

Why don't they just call it "Dunk Idol", and have Steven Tyler and J-Lo decide the best dunks? The results of the NBA Slam Dunk competition more resemble America's favorite popularity contest than a legitimate judgement of slam dunk creativity. Blake Griffin was the media darling heading into the All-Star festivities, even before his best friend died and endeared him to fans everywhere. The NBA got the result they were looking for and Griffin walked away champion, even though his dunks really were nothing that special (a 360? really? no dunk that can be pulled off in a game should be in a dunk competition). 

Maybe I'm speaking out of Torontonian bias here, but Demar DeRozan's first dunk was arguably the best of the round, and was unfairly under-rated by a panel of judges who, like most of the NBA, likely don't see Toronto as a genuine basketball market. This underlines a larger problem around the league in the perception of Canada's only team. 

Tracy McGrady recently made comments about fans in Toronto "not even knowing what they're booing about", heating up the discussion about Toronto's attitude towards former players, and the NBA's attitude towards the Great Frozen North in general. Trust me Tracy, we know why we're booing you. It's the same reason we boo your cousin Vince, the same reason we boo Hedo, and Benedict Arnold-Bosh: You're all douche bags.

It isn't Toronto undervaluing or misunderstanding the politics of the sport of basketball, but the famed ignorance of the American public rearing it's ugly head in the form of spoiled basketball players not wanting to be cast-offs to the island of misfit toys known as the T-dot. There is a prevailing notion that we somehow are uneducated fans, or that we only know about hockey. We may know hockey in and out, and it may be the big ticket north of the border, but Torontonians are some of the most knowledgeable sports fans in North America.

The perceived indifference of fans stems from mismanaged teams that leave very little to cheer about, not from ignorance to the nuances of the game. If anything, that should be an indication of our sophistication, but these ego maniacal morons can't wrap their narrow minds around the concept of being wrong. Of having carried themselves in a less than classy fashion. Of having disrespected the franchise that made them millionaires, and the adoring fan base that made them stars in the first place.

If there is one thing that defines Toronto as a sports market, it's that we are suckers for our stars. We latch our hopes and dreams onto them and label them as "ours". When the revolving door spins around, as it always seems to do in this city, we can't help but feel betrayed because we held up our end of the bargain.

When DeRozan scored a 44 on his first dunk, the city of Toronto collectively shook it's head. That dunk was creative, original, and took an amazing amount of skill. The people he was beaten by pulled off dunks that mostly had been done before. There was nothing special about them, but the theatrics that were employed; the flag-bearers, the double net, the choir, were what won them points. Not dunking skill. Why is it that a hometown guy can't even get his due respect just because he's wearing that god awful word on the front of his jersey? Toronto.

The NBA obviously had an agenda with this event. In Blake Griffin they have a fresh new superstar to market. They have a solid gold story to play on with his friend having passed away only days before the competition (all due respect to the poor young man's family). And what better way to have a coming out party for the NBA's most exciting dunker than to hand over a gift-wrapped slam dunk championship? I have seen dozens of people dunk over cars, and actually over the car, not half-assing it over the hood, which Griffin really didn't need to do. He has the hops to have pulled the move off properly. Not only that, but McGee looked as if he wasn't even trying to win with his final dunk. It was certifiable SLACK.

DeRozan was screwed out of his due two years in a row, and likely won't have another chance to showcase his talents at the next All-Star weekend, and it really is a shame. He's got the skill and athleticism to be a legitimate star in this league, but never had a fair shake at showing it on one of the biggest stages.

The NBA's credibility as a league seems to dwindle yearly, with a crooked match-fixing ref, labour disputes on the horizon, and self-indulgent stars ganging up to set a dangerous precedent that will condemn the notion of parity for years to come. Unfortunately, we here in Toronto are regarded as idiots, quite possibly because we are the only market in the league that doesn't buy the NBA's bullshit.

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss - Part 3

Part 3: The Future

During the writing process of this blog over the last two weeks, the future of the Toronto Maple leafs has been shaping itself in real time. First Francois Beauchemin is shipped back to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardener, then new-kid-on-the-block Kris Versteeg gets the harsh goodbye as well for a pair of picks, and the yearly Tomas Kaberle trade rumours came back out of hibernation, only this time they actually materialized into a solid prospect and a first round pick. Not too shabby (it's better than they ever got for Mats Sundin). In a matter of weeks the face of the roster has been significantly altered, answering some questions and raising several others. We are presently in a time that could prove itself to be the fulcrum to the future.

First let's take a look at how the roster is currently constituted and pose the question "when nobody is safe, who will find themselves in the lineup on opening night in 2011-2012"? The chosen few who may be safest are Dion Phaneuf, and Phil Kessel, most likely James Reimer and Keith Aulie aren't going anywhere, and the team's emerging young leader: Luke Schenn.

Schenn has taken his game to another level this season, finding himself near the top of the league in blocked shots and hits for defencemen, and after Kaberle packed up for Beantown, Schenn was the one to take over his assistant captain duties. At 21 Schenn is the second-longest serving Leaf, behind only Nikolai Kulemin by two games, and has quietly become an impact player. He's also a free agent at year's end, and should be retained on a three or four year deal in the range of 3.5 million dollars per season, allowing him to be appropriately paid as he reaches his prime years, when the team will have a better view of how his development will turn out, and can either give him a big raise, or retain him for market value.

Keith Aulie appropriated the bulk of Beauchemin's minutes, and has handled them like a boss, using his size and strength to make himself a force to be reckoned with in the corners. Forwards now have a to keep their heads up on both sides of the rink; you go out of your way to avoid a patented Phaneuf open-ice hit, you're going to get wiped out on the boards by a mini-Pronger. This kid is going to become a minute muncher in the next couple of seasons, while still on a entry-level rookie contract.

Carl Gunnarsson is a decent puck mover, is responsible in his own end, and could reasonably become a solid contributor on the power play. Mike Komisarek's contract is about as movable as a heavily sedated Mexican ox, which is ironically what he resembles when he plays. Expect him to be back in the fifth or sixth slot. Add to the mix up-and-comers Juraj Mikus, Korbinian Holzer, and Jake Gardener, and the blue line seems like one of the more solid areas on this team in the near future.

Goaltending is a fairly safe area as well, with James ("Optimus Reim") Reimer proving that he can handle the big minutes, and put the heat on Jonas Gustavsson to show some better poise and composure on a nightly basis (all too often lately Gusto has looked like a fish flopping around on a dock longing for the icy embrace of a merciful death). Gigeure will limp his way into the end of the year and become an afterthought in the minds of hockey fans in Hogtown, while Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens will continue to develop on the farm, likely getting spot starts next season when The Monster has another monster heart problem.

The really intriguing part of this team is the unit of forwards. The lineup as is today could potentially have a massive turnover by the time the next season rolls around.

Kessel and Lupul will likely remain linemates into next season, as would the Grabovski - Kulemin - MacArthur line, assuming the Leafs are willing to pony up the cheddar to keeep MacArthur in blue & white.

The team needs to deal for a big-bodied, top-line centre, an asset which is hard to come by in today's NHL. Sombody Joe Thorntonesque. Bozak should, in all fairness, be bumped to the third line where he would be far more comfortable in a two-way role, and his commitment to the backcheck could go to good use. Colby Armstrong is bound to be a staple on the third line as he was all of this year.

A fourth line of Colton Orr, Tim Brent, and Mike Brown seems likely to return, as all three have proven themselves very effective in their given roles, although the lower you go on the talent scale, the more expendable you become, and the Leafs will be looking to upgrade at all positions.

This is what makes Fredrik Sjostrom expendable. He's a one-dimensional player who is highly effective on the penalty kill but does very little else over the course of a game (let it state for the record that Sjostrom is highly effective on one of the league's worst penalty killing units. Take that for whatever it's worth. Just saying). Joey Crabb, and Daryl Boyce are a couple of other guys who have to be on the cusp. While both have been solid for the Leafs this season, neither seem to be the calibre of player to remain at the NHL level on a team deep enough to contend.  

There will be, at best, four to five spots up for grabs at the forward position for this coming year, and there are going to be alot of players vying for them. Youngsters like Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, and Joe Colborne will be looking to snag a chance at becoming impact players, while returnees like Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi will get strong consideration, all battling with the likes of Brent, Boyce, Crabb, and Brown for those last few spots. 

These are just questions for the coming year. Those who know sports know that it's more like chess than checkers, and having a sense of foresight in your transactions is essential. So what are the answers long term for this group? 

The best thing that could happen to this team is if they were to finish dead last for one or two more seasons, and have their poor finish actually pay off with a couple more top picks. By this time Phaneuf and Kessel will have either given us a great return for their hefty paycheques, or will have proven themselves failures and will be dumped for much needed cap space. Ditto goes for Joffrey Lupul who makes a little too much for what he provides, but in an undermanned, undersized forward unit, he could flourish. This would also give upper management a chance to see young players like Kadri, D'Amigo, Gardener, Aulie, and Colborne develop, as well as the next wave of youngsters like Greg McKegg and potential Darcy Tucker clone Brad Ross.

All of these personnel changes mean nothing without the proper voice providing direction, and it would seem that Ron Wilson's is not that voice. One potential solution to this problem is currently working about an hour down the highway.

Lindy Ruff has been coaching the Sabres for about fifteen years, keeping them consistently competitive despite the lack of many bonafide impact players, save for the people between the pipes. It's a situation not unlike the one in Toronto, where goaltending and defence are the strengths of the roster, and a guy like Lindy Ruff could get a sub-par group of forwards committed to back checking with one stern discussion. Buffalo has not offered Ruff an extension for next season and the general consensus around the league is that the team is going to be going in a new direction.

With Ruff looking for work, and a prefect fit just up the highway from the place he's called home for such a long period of time, it would seem only natural that the Leafs move on from Wilson now, while his stock is at an all-time low. Kris Versteeg seemed elated to be out from under Wilson's reign of terror, and Kessel made his feelings about his relationship with the coach abundantly clear. Wilson seemed like a great fit at first, but the time has come to move on, and the team needs a confident new leader.

Speed, leadership, and commitment to team defence. These are the areas that the Leafs need to master to return to respectability, and there needs to be a healthy dose of realism in the public perception. They're still pretty far off from being a real team, and the fan base needs to be ready to suffer through a little more mediocrity. The calls are going to come for Burke's head, but patience is the key.

If Burke is allowed to see out the length of his six year deal, and possibly beyond, he can and will make this team a winner again. Vancouver made the mistake of giving up on Burkie's vision, and some of the moves he made in his time there are still paying them dividends, and his work is part of what is currently putting them head and shoulders over the entire league in the standings.

We still hang our hearts on a polished turd in this city, but there are things to be excited about. Toronto is a team on the upswing, and depending on the magnitude of the moves they can pull off before the deadline, and in the coming off season, they could be back in the playoff picture sooner than later. Never too soon to plan the parade for a city that's been refining the route since 1967. Keep the faith, Leafers, and take comfort in the fact we're still better off than Ottawa...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss: Part 2

Part 2: The Present

Where were we? Ah, yes, we left off with the Toronto Maple Leafs having been mired in a vicious cycle of underachieving teams that are constantly overestimated in their proximity to competitiveness. John Ferguson Jr. led the charge as Leafs GM through the first four and a half post-lockout years, bumbling his way through a series of awful roster decisions en route to getting politely asked to F-off in January of 2008. Brought in to pick up the pieces was senior citizen discount card holder Cliff Fletcher, who did his best to help set the table for eventual predecessor Brian Burke but ultimately helped compound the team's problems rather than address them.

The one move with the most lasting effect on the current edition of the Leafs was the hiring of Ron Wilson. It's common practice for a team in a period of transition in the front office to allow the incoming GM to hire his own coaching staff. It's his team, why shouldn't he get to hire the staff he thinks best suits his intended style of play? In their desperation to land the established GM, the Leafs hired Burke's close friend Ron Wilson in the hopes that it would lure the burly cup-winning executive. Whether it did or not is a mystery, but Burke did resign from his post in Anaheim for the "plum job" in Toronto.

I'm not suggesting that Ron Wilson is a bad coach, but it put Brian Burke in an awkward position going forward, no matter how good an idea it seemed to be at the time.

Burke came into Toronto like a pimp comes into a whore house. With swagger, self-assured confidence, and promises of a better future if you'll comply with his style of business. Like noble prostitutes we gave him every bit of our trust, and he knew exactly how to handle us. He allowed us to believe his spiel about us not being far off from success, but in a few short months Burke had decided the charade was over and began to clean house.

At the top of Burkie's shit list were the unreasonable contracts on the roster, like Jason Blake & Vesa Toskala, both of whom were promptly shipped out (Burke employed a similar strategy in Anaheim, ridding the team of bulky contracts like that of Sergei Fedorov). Shedding contracts that bad is a win in itself, but Burke really branded the team with the Dion Phaneuf deal.

In one foul swoop Brian Burke changed the face of the Leafs for years to come, by acquiring Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie, in exchange for four pilons. They had shed a few underachievers with bad contracts, for a possible stud defenseman, a solid penalty killing specialist, and a prospect who looks and plays like Chris Pronger's illegitimate love child, faster than you can say "plan the parade".

That momentum led him right into a deal that would be viewed as the pivotal point of his Toronto tenure; During his first training camp as Leafs GM he sent out two first round picks and a second round pick for Phil Kessel. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Leafs had the general notion (as they had pretty much every year since the lockout) that they were "one legitimate sniper away" from being a playoff contender, and the valuable picks given up were deemed expendable as the team was ready to compete now. The result? Dead last in the eastern conference and one of the worst seasons in team history. Maybe my math is off, but I'm pretty sure the Leafs could have finished dead last without the help of Phil Kessel and his brand spanking new five year contract.

Poor finishes usually pay dividends in the draft, but instead the Buds handed over the second overall pick (Tyler Seguin) to a division rival who was already stacked at the forward position.

The heat was now on for Burke to put something tangible together over the summer, because another cellar-dwelling season would be viewed as a massive failure.

The tough part of navigating this market is not succumbing to the overwhelming outside pressure when people are clamouring for change, and Burke did not get Rob Babcocked into another bad move. He played his cards safely, holding onto top asset Tomas Kaberle, and shaping the team in his image by singing free agents like Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, and Clarke MacArthur, who all have become solid contributors to the organization in different ways. Kris Versteeg was also brought in via trade and has become the team's best two way forward, and has plenty of up side.

Despite an improved roster, it's a long way up from the bottom and the Leafs bumbled through the first half of the 2010-2011 season. Fans were growing increasingly restless and could be heard chanting "fire Wilson" at several poor home games. The feeling began to grow around hockey's most knowledgeable fan base that the team had been lost to Wilson and his sarcastic attitude, and that the players were no longer buying what he was selling. The standings seemed to agree.

The All-Star break rolled around and the Leafs were again sitting near the bottom of the eastern conference. Phil Kessel, the Leafs not-so-worthy All-Star representative, had the unsavoury distinction of becoming the first player to be chosen last in the NHL's new fantasy draft selection format. It was a not-so-subtle slap in the face to the organization, and if there ever was a rock bottom for this team, certainly this would be as close as they could come. Or was it?

Less than a week later a league-wide player poll showed that 24% of players in the league had voted Ron Wilson as the coach they would least like to play for, and with thirty coaches to choose from that is a pretty hefty percentage. If Wilson's loss of credibility was in question before, surely it couldn't be now. Phil Kessel put the exclamation mark on an embarrassing fortnight by publicly calling Wilson out on his bullshit when he told a scrum of reporters "me and Ron don't really talk...that's all I have to say about that". Bitch move? Yes, but maybe this will finally be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Wilson needs to go, and no amount of Anaheim Duck-fleecing is going to change that (really, how many different ways can we screw that team? Toskala. Blake. Now Beauchemin for Lupul, Gardener and a pick? Thanks losers! Might as well call you the Anahaim SUCKS!).

As the standings sit today, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in twelfth place, seven points out of a playoff spot, and barring a comeback of epic proportions, will miss the playoffs yet again. Brian Burke has done an admirable job rebuilding this team with very little assets to speak of, but until he gets up the gumption to let his BFF Ron Wilson go, this team will not compete going forward. There are options on the horizon, and if they're not taken advantage of soon then Toronto is as doomed as any pimp-ho relationship. The ho winds up ODing on whatever junk she's been strung out on, or simply facedown in a ditch somewhere, all used up, and if she isn't dead, she'll be void of any emotion or ability to return to a normal existence. The pimp? Well he just finds a new btich and keeps on pimpin', baby.

I'll talk more about some of the options for improvement facing the blue & white brigade in my final installment, part 3: The Future. Until then, you stay classy Toronto.

Monday, February 7, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss: Part 1

The relationship between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their obsessively rabid fan base is a little bit like being married to an abusive alcoholic; one has chronically self-destructive personality traits, and the other is hopelessly dependant on their spouse, no matter how many times they get smacked around, publicly humiliated, or occasionally pushed down a flight of stairs. The dysfunctionality is so embarrassingly obvious to the rest of the world and those who watch closely shake their heads and say "how pathetic"...but they just don't understand. This is what true love is about.

The state of affairs have grown increasingly out of hand in Leaf Land ever since the lock-out, and with each passing season one may think they certainly must have bottomed out. Astoundingly, the Leafs continue to strive for new lows in their perpetual quest to master the art of sporting futility, and over the last few weeks massive strides have been taken in the search for rock bottom. Unfortunately Toronto doesn't seem have a rock bottom to find. Welcome to the abyss.

Where to begin... An overpaid, overrated new captain, a goalie-of-the-future who can't maintain any semblance of confidence or consistency, one of the most expensive blue lines in hockey allowing a pitiful goals-against average, woeful special teams units that are among the worst in the league, a slew of high-priced long-term contracts shackling management, a laughable selection of centres and bonafide scorers, and the least-likable coach in hockey who evidently doesn't communicate with his snake-bitten star sniper. A star sniper who helped his team get a public smack in the face by rightfully being selected last in the all-star fantasy draft. Let me catch my breath.

To understand this monolithic cluster funk one must first examine the route this team has travelled to arrive to where they are today. This will shine a light on the problems of today and the potential solutions of tomorrow.

Part 1: The Past

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs were associated with respectability was the last season before the lock-out. A collection of seasoned veterans put together a 100+ point season before being promptly bumped off by a Jeremy Roenick wrister in the second round of the playoffs. When the lock-out ushered in the salary cap era, the way the Buds do business was drastically affected. No longer would they be able to throw money at high-end star veterans in their attempts to contend. This was the beginning of the John Ferguson Jr. experiment.

JFJ was a rookie general manager in the most pressure-laden market in the sport. His hiring was mistake number one. He promptly threw big-money, long-term, no-movement contracts at players he deemed to be the back bone of the future. Players like Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Jason Blake, Pavel Kubina and even *ahem* Jason Allison. He traded away a blue-chip goalie prospect in Tukka Rask for a walking, talking, fail named Andrew Raycroft. When Raycroft flopped he brought in an even bigger fail named Vesa Toskala, and signed him for big dollars. This pattern of handcuffing himself to poorly performing players, and neglecting the most important position on the ice, the goaltender, began a downward spiral of epic proportions.

Perhaps the biggest bumble of all was allowing Toronto's all-time leader in points, Mats Sundin, to walk away in free agency for nothing, receiving no return via trade for their greatest asset.

To his credit, JFJ was a scout by trade, and drafted some solid players during his tenure, like current Leaf bright spots Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, and James Reimer. His failures were not in finding new, young players, but in handling the one's he currently had and properly assessing what his squad needed.

Under Ferguson's regime the Leafs went from being one of the top teams in the east to missing the playoffs a franchise record four straight seasons. Upper management finally got the hint and fired Fergie before the season was out, bringing in former Leaf GM and current somebody's-great-grandfather Cliff Fletcher, but the damage was already done. The franchise had been tied in an unimaginable knot that is to this day still being untied.

As the team transitioned into the interim Cliff Fletcher phase, there were several questionable moves made. The mandate was to set the table for the new GM, and although seemingly addressing the problems at hand, Fletcher lacked the foresight needed to truly allow the new manager to make the team his own. For example, trading a top asset in Alex Steen was, in retrospect, a failure as the return of Lee Stempniak paid little dividends. The hiring of Ron Wilson as the new head coach was also ill-foreseen. The move was viewed as a strategic form of enticement for the team to land their coveted GM-to-be Brian Burke. Burke and Wilson are long time friends, former college room mates, and Wilson is even the godfather of one of Burke's children.

Eventually the Leafs did land the highly-regarded Burke, but in their efforts to woo him, they had unintentionally shackled him to a coach who has drastically under-performed, and because of their deep ties to one another, Burkie is far less likely to give Wilson the desperately needed axe.

This is only one of many problems plaguing the 2010-2011 edition of the Maple Leafs, and I'll dissect this and many more aspects of the current state of Leafs Nation in part 2 of my mini-series: The Present.

Stay tuned for the next installment, and if you're a die-hard Leafer like me, try not to succumb to the suicidal urges that are forced upon our fragile psyches. The one trademark of blue & white fandom is blind, loyal and utterly unsubstantiated hope. No reason to change that now.