Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

Toronto Maple Leafs 4 at Boston Bruins 5, May 13, 2013

A lot of people I know are feeling really bad after the Leafs fell apart when they had a 4-1 lead on the Bruins. A lot of other people are trying to spin it positively:

  • at least the Leafs were in the playoffs for the first time in 9 years;
  • at least the Leafs took the Bruins to game 7.

Prior to the game, numerous Leaf fans were saying we should reconsider Burke’s legacy because the Leafs had pushed the Bruins to game 7.

Now, I say this with some degree of emotion but also, I like to think, some degree of sanity: we shouldn’t reconsider Burke’s legacy, we shouldn’t celebrate a first round playoff loss, and we certainly shouldn’t celebrate being the first team to be up 3 goals in a game 7 only to lose in overtime.

We waited 9 years for the playoffs. We shouldn’t have waited so long to be given a team that has so many holes in it it can’t keep a 4-1 lead with 14:31 left to play in its most important game in nearly a decade.

So what can we learn?

In my long-running campaign to get the Leafs’ former GM fired, I regularly made the claim that his plan was going to result, eventually, in a mediocre playoff team that gets eliminated in the first or second round every year. I don’t want that. I want a Cup.

From the results of this first playoff “run” in nearly a decade I see no reason to change my mind. The Leafs made Game 7 because of their goalie’s super-human play and some timely scoring. That’s it.

It is reminiscent of ’98-’02, when the Leafs consistently over-performed because Cujo faced 1700 shots a season but yet somehow still won about 35 games per year for them. Those Leafs teams were actually offensive juggernauts – except for in 2001 – so the comparison fails there as this team was not exactly that. (As a friend has pointed out, those teams were actually also way older, but I feel like the results of their play are similar enough.)

The Leafs appeared to be an offensive juggernaut this year, but all advanced metrics suggest, as I pointed out in my year end wrap-up, that they over-achieved because of the short season: they had unsustainable success from their second best forward – who really didn’t play that much, and whose unsustainable success disappeared in the playoffs – and they won a number of games they shouldn’t have.

But lets focus on the playoffs now.

  • In this series, the Leafs out-hit the Bruins to a significant degree.
    • This should be no surprise because of the pedigrees of the former GM and current coach. It is an encouraging sign, though hardly a major sign: a team that out-hits its opponents is worthless if it cannot score or cannot prevent goals.  Fortunately for the Leafs this year, they could score and their goalie was really good.
    • This hard-hitting a team that can also score a ton and / or defend at an elite level should be just about unstoppable.
  • The Leafs out-performed the Bruins on special-teams.
    • It should be no surprise to anyone that the Leafs had a better power-play than the Bruins. For all their talent the Bruins have had an anemic power-play pretty much consistently since before they won the Cup in ’11. That certainly suggests the Bruins need a better coach or assistant, or maybe some different talent. It also, in this series, suggests something else:
    • The Leafs shocked a lot of people – including myself – in out-performing the Bruins on the penalty kill as well: the Leafs have improved greatly in this regard; leaps and bounds better than past years. But a lot of this has to do with James Reimer. Some of it also has to do with the fact that more Leafs forwards than ever are able to kill penalties without embarrassing themselves. The Leafs do not really have a shut-down defensive forward despite what I have wanted to believe – if they do, he can’t score – but they have become very sound at playing in their own end when they have a man-disadvantage. Sounder, in fact, than when they are 5-on-5.
  • The Leafs were outscored.
    • Even though the Bruins are semi-legendary for their anemic offense – and even though that offense was not exactly horrible all year, just at the end – they managed to outscore the Leafs enough to win. The Leafs were the 6th best offensive team this year by goals-for – Note: not by shots-for – and the Bruins were 11th. But against the Leafs the Bruins scored over 3 goals per game, significantly up from the regular season average. The Leafs scored slightly over 3 goals per game in the regular season but could only manage 2.5 in the playoffs. This should have been expected.
    • So the lesson here is that, yes indeed, the Leafs’ offensive prowess this year was as illusory as the shot differentials and PDO suggested. They can score, but they can’t score as much as they need to to even beat a mid-level offensive team such as the Bruins.  The real issue is that they can’t score consistently, and though a lot of that has to be on Carlyle and his bonkers line combinations – Orr, Komarov and MacArthur? Really? – some of that also has to fall on the team’s best offensive player, Kessel, as well as the team’s supposed other stars JVR and Lupul. More on that in a minute.
    • The Leafs remained bad defensively, giving up over 3 goals per game. And this with Reimer posting a pretty stellar .923 save percentage and generally saving the day way too many times to count. (Reimer was only on the ice for 2.88 goals per game, FYI.) The Leafs showed that their defense is porous and they do not have a solid checking line. As much I personally like Grabo and Kulemin, they just couldn’t handle the Krejci line. (This is not to say that somebody else should have handled that line. The media was all over them, CBC said that they were collectively -14 prior to the Leafs’ late game theatrics last night. That’s retarded. They weren’t collectively -14. They might have been -7. You can’t be on the ice for one goal and suddenly become -2. They finished the series at -10 and -9 respectively. That does not mean they were -19 together. it means they were -9.5 together. Ahem. Anyway, they did what they could and nobody else on the team would have faired better – or did, in limited minutes.) The problem is that they are not the solid foundation of a shut-down line. McClement might be, but he can’t score. So the Leafs are left deciding what is more important: above-average defensive players who cannot shutdown top offensive players or finding some better defensive forwards who might not be able to score. Or maybe they should find some better D instead. They’re stuck with Grabo anyway. Nobody is going to take that contract.
    • Not to beat a dead horse, but if the Leafs are going to succeed in the playoffs, they need a team D that is better than this. They gave up over 3 goals per game while their goalie played phenomenally. I think the post-Phaneuf era should really be a consideration, especially with the development of Gardiner, but they need to find a pair that shut down the top line. As much as I like Gunanrsson, he and Phaneuf are not it.
  • The Leafs were horribly out-shot more than they weren’t.
    • With the exception of game 2 – correct me if I’m missing another game – the Leafs were out-shot as badly as they were down the stretch. At the end the shot-differential wasn’t as appalling as it seemed, and that I think is due to the Leafs out-shooting or least matching the Bruins’ shots in some periods while getting rained on in others (often the 3rd). This is a consistency issue and should theoretically improve with time. But we need to understand that getting out-shot is not a recipe for success. It might be if you have the best goalie in league or the best shot-blockers in the league – or both – but why tempt fate? Teams need to create their own opportunities for success, and one such way is to out-shoot opponents game-in / game-out. (This is especially true for teams which are not puck-possession teams, such as the Leafs.)
    • The Leafs’ forwards just don’t shoot enough on a consistent basis. Kadri had a crazy and unsustainable shooting percentage in the regular season; in the playoffs it was 7%. If that’s how few of your pucks are going in the net, better shoot more. JVR’s was even lower even though he led the team in shots. The Leafs had success when they just threw pucks at the net – witness some of the goals last night – but they need to muster more than 33 shots per game against a goalie such as Rask and the third best defensive team in the league. That 33 shots-per-game is misleading, because it was significantly higher in their wins than in their losses.
    •  Kessel shot enough. And finished. That wasn’t exactly his problem. In fact, only he, JVR and Lupul shot enough this series. JVR had twice as many shots as the the Leafs who shot 4th most (Phaneuf and Grabo). That can’t continue if they expect to win games consistently in the playoffs. Anyway, to Kessel. Yes, Kessel mustered a decent, if not spectacular, 4 shots per game (over a short sample, remember). But he didn’t take over the series offensively. Of the two teams’ all-offense-no-defense stars, Krejci was clearly far superior, even if Krejci had a huge hand in the Bruins’ falling behind by three last night when he made an idiotic decision to change. Krejci had 13 points to Kessel’s 6. If the Leafs are going to hang their hats on a “star” forward who doesn’t do much defensively, that guy has got to score more than 6 points in 7 games in the playoffs. If he can’t do that, then he has to learn some more responsibility at the other end of the rink. As I noted in my season recap, he is the star of this team right now. JVR and Kadri might impress here are there, but neither has demonstrated they can be a point-per-game player over 82 games. Kessel has. Now he needs that next gear in the playoffs, or the Leafs need to finally concede that a Kessel-centric offense is not going to win. Personally, I think the latter is the safer plan, but then I think a lot of things.
    • The lack of consistency of shots is definitely more on the forwards than the D. The D did show one thing this series: that they are capable of scoring. They weren’t exactly consistent in front of Reimer, but Phaneuf and Franson were 4th and 6th on the team in shots. The Leafs D is mobile and can jump into the play. They just need a legit stopper. Hopefully must of us are ready to acknowledge that Phaneuf is not that guy.

What Now?

So what can the Leafs do moving forward? Obviously, with the Leafs experiencing their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade, there is no chance in hell they will try to rebuild properly. The Reimer-Phaneuf-Kessel era seems firmly in-place. So what now?

  • Reimer should be extended, preferably while he is still upset about losing.
    • Perhaps this way they can continue getting him at a bargain price. But they shouldn’t insult him by low-balling too much.. He is clearly the most valuable piece of this team.
  • Phaneuf should be moved.
    • Not now, unless some crazy GM thinks he is either the last piece his team needs to contend, or thinks he is one of the Top D in the league, but the Leafs should move him sooner rather than later, especially if he starts strong in 2013-14. They should do everything they can to avoid being in the position of fear-re-signing him because they didn’t trade him. Phaneuf will want a raise – what player doesn’t? – and he is not worth the salary he is currently earning.
  • Franson showed he belongs this season.
    • Last year, after acquiring Matt Lombardi to get Franson, the Leafs decided Gardiner should play instead. I don’t really know what the rush was with Gardiner but fortunately saner heads prevailed this year and we saw what Franson really is: an effective but flawed offensive defenseman. I for one think Franson should be a fixture of the team’s power-play going forward, and the second pair provided he is always paired with a stay-at-home. The problem is that Franson knows these things too, and will likely want to get paid this summer, especially after his 6-points-in-7-games playoff performance. The Leafs have to be careful here not over-paying for offense.
  • Despite some of his on-ice woes in this series, Gunnarsson was a huge bargain.
    • And unless some North American agent gets to him, the Leafs should try to re-sign him for a slight raise. He is far from a star but he is more reliable than most D on this team, and further more he was cheap. Only his ice-time shows his value to this team – 9th on the team in ice-time in the regular season and 4th in the playoffs, but 17th in salary. So hopefully the Leafs can harp on his lack of offense and keep him around for hockey pennies.
  • Gardiner should be the Leafs D to build around, not Phaneuf.
    • I am far from the only one who thought Gardiner was awesome in this series. Moreover, he is only 22. He should only get better. If he can be more consistent in his own end, this guy could be one of the top D in the league. I don’t think that’s a stretch. His ceiling is that high. In any case, he is at least already on track to be a legit Top 2. The Beauchemin trade was a good risk and he is why. It’s too bad they extended Lupul. More on him in a minute. In the meantime, this team needs more Jake Gardiner. I would extend him. Soon.
  • JVR showed a lot in this series.
    • I was very skeptical of acquiring JVR last summer, not because I think he’s bad, but because I think trading a 22-year-old D for a 22-year-old winger is a losing bet, more often than not. (The theory behind that: wingers don’t have a lot to learn: shoot, tip, get puck out of zone, block shots. D have way more to learn. A 22-year-old D has a lot more potential improvement ahead of him than a 22-year-old winger.) But he (barely) led the team in points this playoff and more importantly he led the team in shots. And he did whatever it took in front of the net. That’s good, because he’s around for the long-haul.
  • That Grabo contract still looks as terrible as it did when he signed it, though it looks better than it did during the regular season.
    • Grabo tried really hard this playoff, so that’s something. But at the end of the day he just wasn’t good enough – or big enough – to shutdown the Bruins’ top line. The offensive decline I feared would come in his early 30s has already showed up. And now we know that when it matters his defense isn’t quite what some of us thought it was. Fuck.
  • At least Lupul took a ton of shots.
    • I still hate that contract, but at least he showed his worth in this series: he scored a big goal or two and he was at least actively trying to score more. Let’s hope he stays healthy and some idiotic GM wants him (and Nonis recognizes his mistake).
  • Kessel remains a dominant offensive player in the regular season.
    • Until he shows me otherwise, that is his ceiling. And everyone already knows what I say: the moment the Leafs know they have his replacement – in Kadri, or in whomever – he should be moved. But they are running out of time to figure it out. I for one do not want to see the Phil Kessel era extend past this current contract unless he doesn’t get a raise. And let’s not kid ourselves, he’s getting a big raise.
  • Kulemin showed me he wasn’t as good as I thought he was.
    • I still think Kulemin is an above-average defensive forward and the best defensive winger on this team, but that is damning with faint praise. Along with Grabo, Kulemin looked over-matched. (Though I feel like he had more strong plays than Grabo when it counted, or at least didn’t get knocked down as much; that is likely bias.) And, along with Grabo, Kulemin couldn’t score. Worse, Kulemin didn’t shoot. He needs to rediscover a scoring touch or the Leafs should let him walk next summer.
  • Bozak is a legit centre in the NHL. He is just not a first line centre (duh).
    • Bozak proved his value to the Leafs when he got hurt: aside form McClement, he was the only one could handle the Bruins’ insane face-off prowess. (Can you imagine the Bruins with legit goal scorers instead of Lucic and Horton? They would be scary good: they win so many draws nobody would have a chance.) He also showed an ability on the penalty kill I missed this season. (I likely wasn’t paying enough attention.) And he is affordable. But the problem is that Bozak is not even remotely a top offensive player in this league. He is a role player who, through no fault of his own, has been played like a star or near-star for his career. The Leafs obviously need a better #1 centre. But they also need to decide if they want to keep Bozak for his obvious value, and what they are willing to pay for it. They can’t keep up this Bozak-is-a-#1-centre facade and expect to improve as a team. But they also need someone who can win face-offs and score occasionally.
  • I was totally wrong about McClement.
    • He is awesome. Too bad he can’t score. Players like him are not dime-a-dozen, but they also aren’t exactly rare. He is an effective role player who is valuable until he wants too much money. I would say that he is a valuable presence provided the Leafs can extend him for a similar salary and provided he doesn’t experience some kind of crazy, precipitous decline in his face-off ability and defensive prowess.
  • The rest of the team just wasn’t good enough, but we should have seen that coming.
    • Kadri regressed like we should have expected he would. He needs to be better in order to take over this team. He is not ready.
    • ‘OByrne actually impressed me but he is a rental.
    • Frattin is too old to be considered a prospect and looks like he will never be a legit scorer.
    • Fraser was doing a (relatively) fine job until he was hurt. But he will want a big raise this summer and I don’t see how he’s worth it.
    • Komarov is a career pest. He is reasonably effective at that, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves to his potential.
    • I really don’t know why MacArthur played so little – and so frequently low in the line-up. I know he’s made some giveaways but it would have helped the team to have him permanently playing with other skill players, even if he never shoots. I think his tenure with the Leafs is over.
    • The Leafs need to get rid of Liles. He is not value-for-money. He does not contribute enough. His contract is just bad. I was wrong about liking his acquisition. The Leafs have better options.
    • I have not changed my opinion about Orr one iota.
    • Colborne looked fine in limited, and somewhat protected, minutes, but he looks like he is a career checker and not a legitimate offensive player like we hoped. I don’t personally see any sense in re-signing him except because he is a warm body who doesn’t embarrass himself.
    • Wait!?! Hold on! You mean to tell me Carlyle was wrong to think he had discovered this lost treasure in Mike Kostka? You mean Kostka’s apparent NHL-readiness was likely a symptom of his having played for months in the AHL when the Leafs’ training camp started? You have to be kidding me! I thought he was the team’s future at the position!!!
    • Hamilton and McLaren are a dime a dozen.

So the Leafs remain where they were at the end of the season, before their surprising and then heart-breaking effort against the bruins: they aren’t good enough defensively, their offensive pieces aren’t quite as good as they should be, but at least they have goaltending. How this team goes from here to winning the Cup is anybody’s guess. But it sure doesn’t look like that’s coming from within at this point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.