Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 22-20-6   Maple Leafs 25-16-7

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network

ALL DAY: Pension Plan Puppets 

We’ve been doing this all season. The Hawks string together two or three wins, generally over bad teams, and look good in at least one of them, and a part of you wants to believe that something has clicked and just might go on a run to make the season interesting. They’re only four points out of a playoff spot, with only one team between them and that last wildcard spot, and you don’t even have to squint all that hard to make a case they could make a run at it. Especially when they’re chasing the Oilers, who are more guaranteed to have their intestines fall out than the Hawks. Vancouver and Arizona could also still make a thud.

And then usually they get thwacked by a good team and we start this all over.

So that’s what feels like is about to happen tonight, as the Hawks take their three wins against the Ducks, Sens, and Habs up against a real team. And the Leafs are the fully operational annoyance that they were forecasted to be. Casting off the shackles of Mike Babcock has had the effect that Kyle Dubas would have hoped, as Sheldon Keefe has helped everyone realize their joy again. The Leafs are more threatening, more dynamic, and quite a bit more scary now that Keefe has allowed them to “try shit.”

Which shouldn’t have been all that hard. The Leafs still have perhaps the richest array of offensive talent in the league. There certainly isn’t a team that can match Matthews-Tavares down the middle at 1-2, and Alex Kerfoot has enjoyed the sweetheart spot that used to belong to Nazem Kadri. Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Johnsson, Kapanen certainly don’t lessen the threat on the wings. If they’re on song, they can put up a touchdown on you before you’ve finished your Timbo’s.

But the problems for the Leafs are still the same, and they’re exacerbated now. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are out for weeks with a broken foot each, and this wasn’t a great defense to begin with. It’s lead them to give Travis Dermott top pairing minutes, and use Tyson Barrie as a defensive specialist, neither of which is a path you’d choose lest your life depended on it. Keefe has at least kept Cody Ceci away from the top pairing.

And the goalie is far from sure either. The Leafs haven’t had a solid backup all season, as you saw evidenced by Michael Hutchinson KICK-ing every puck into his own net here in Chicago last time they met (get it?). But Fab Five Freddie Andersen has been bad for six weeks now, partly due to exhaustion. Also he’s Freddie Andersen, which is the definition of “just good enough to break your heart.”

For the Hawks, Brandon Saad could suit up tonight, but that’s looking like a gametime decision. Brandon Hagel could make his NHL debut after being Rockford’s leading scorer. With optional morning skates we’re guessing along with all of you. Corey Crawford will get the start, with Lehner taking the back half of the double tomorrow night at home against Winnipeg.

Once again, the Hawks have risen to at least the discussion of a playoff spot. But now they’ll be facing two teams that are either good or competing with them for that spot, and it’s a spot where they’ve generally fallen flat on their face. The Leafs aren’t invulnerable here, given the state of their defense and Andersen’s level right now. But getting into a track meet with this team almost certainly equals death, and yet the Hawks don’t have the structure generally to keep things tight. They did so for most of the game against the JV version of the Leafs in Montreal, but this is the real thing.

They were able to hilariously add on to a Leafs crisis last year in T.O, even though Duncan Keith did his best to ruin all that work. It’s a big stretch here on the weekend and then Quenneville Bowl on Tuesday. The Hawks have to put it together now, so five of six points is minimum before we even consider believing they can actually take this to the wire.

Plus, beating the Leafs is always fun.

Hockey

Certainly there’s more to Sheldon Keefe than just his work behind the bench with the Leafs. We discussed that here, though have come to learn later that some of it is no longer the case. Today we’re just here to discuss his work the past two months with the Leafs, and leave the rest for another day.

What was clear before Keefe arrived is that life under Mike Babcock was miserable for the Leafs. Auston Matthews had just about completely tuned him and the staff out, and Hockey Night In Canada had a few chronicles of him looking dejected with them on the bench. He wasn’t alone, as Babcock’s simply abusive personal style and his stifling tactics had choked the life out of Toronto. So really anyone coming in, their simple task was to make the Leafs enjoy hockey again. That doesn’t sound all that hard when you consider the talent on offer here.

Oh, and maybe not play Cody Ceci so much.

So how has Keefe done? Whatever he is actually doing, he has certainly freed up the Leafs. Before Babcock’s firing, the Leafs had a positive possession-share but were below water in expected-goals to the tune of 47.9%. That should have never happened with the arsenal the Leafs have. Keefe obviously realized this, because since he took over the Leafs’ expected goals-percentage is 54.8, third best in the league behind Vegas and Tampa, the latter of which you might have noticed have lost like one game in the past two months.

And as you might expect, the Leafs have improved their numbers by simply upping the offense. This is a team that has at least three scoring lines and should just be bludgeoning teams. Their attempts per 60 have only gone up about one per game, but their expected goals-for has gone from 2.14 under Babcock to 2.69 under Keefe. That’s a rise of 25%. Their scoring chances per 60 has risen at just about the same rate, so clearly Keefe has found a way to get the Leafs in more dangerous areas more often. Which against the quality of finishing the Leafs have, is death to most teams.

What might really rankle Babcock is the Leafs have gotten better defensively as well, though that’s probably to do with having the puck more and creating better chances. But their expected goals-against has gone down from 2.33 under Babs to 2.22 now. Offense sometimes is the best defense?

Luck of course plays a role, though Leafs followers would argue that a happier team is more prone to get the bounces, especially when they’re forcing things more as they are. The Leafs shot 7.8% under Babcock, and that’s risen to 9.6 under Keefe. The SV% has also gone up, from .909 to .916 at evens.

The power play is also clicking a little better, with 19 goals in Keefe’s 25 games after 13 in Babs’s 23, and that might be a result of letting Matthews freelance a little more on it. The motion the Leafs get is akin to when the Sharks’ PP became self-aware a few years ago. They’re also getting that kind of movement at even strength, and there are very few teams that can live with that speed when it’s allowed to go wherever it wants.

Of late, Keefe hasn’t been hesitant to shift things around. Matthews had spent most of his time earlier with William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson, and now Marner has replaced Nylander on the top line. Zach Hyman has replaced Johnsson. Considering their xGF% is 65% together, it’s clearly working.

Keefe’s big tests are yet to come. He’ll be without both Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly for the next few weeks as both have broken a foot (how adorbs). And of course, no one’s going to care about anything until the Leafs get past the first round. Perhaps any coach could have lightened the mood simply by not being the overrated, raging asshole that Babcock apparently was. Still, the results are the results, and the Leafs certainly are a more fun bunch to watch and be around now.

Hockey

Toronto Media And No One’s Ever Guilty – You could apply this to the fans as well. But no Leafs has ever done anything bad, except on the ice where apparently none of them have every done anything good. Auston Matthews mooning a female police officer in Scottsdale while she was in her car is just youthful indiscretion. Morgan Rielly was just saying “Rag it,” because that’s something people normally say. The list goes on. Oh, and their GM is a rape apologist. But don’t worry, it’s all a story about how the Leafs have matured and overcome their “mistakes.” Matthews is now more mature. Rielly cares so much about being a good person. Dubas doesn’t look like he got kicked out of Weezer. Give these guys a chance and they’ll give you 5,000 words a day on Cody Ceci’s play. Make them write about anything important off the ice and they clam up quicker than your grandparents stumbling upon porn.

Mike Babcock – Only because he’s going to be the Hawks coach no later than January. So see Cody Ceci getting 23 minutes a night, and be sure it’s going to be Maatta or de Haan getting more. It’s coming. You’ll see.

Toronto Media – Yeah, them again. Any Leafs fan who is willing to debase themselves gets a major TV deal. Dart Guy got a radio show. The dude with a dolls and his own piss collection who made videos for teenage girls got one. It’s a goddamn sickness up there.

Hockey

Let me contrast two organizations in this town. A month or so ago, a brilliantly researched and written piece about the Bears’ throwback jerseys by Jack Silverstein at Windy City Grid Iron pointed out the problems with said jerseys. That would be that they came from a time when black players were banned from the NFL, and how awkward it seemed that the Bears would not be wearing it. This caused the Bears themselves to address it head on in the week leading up to the game, releasing a video with several players commenting on the debate, problem, and why they felt it was important for them to wear the jerseys. For it being staged, I actually thought it was pretty well done. It certainly wasn’t the Bears hiding or skirting the issue, we can say that.

So, do you think the Hawks will be addressing this?

I wouldn’t try to tell you this is the exact same thing. One is directly from the organization and one is something of an offhand remark by an announcer. But they come from the same place, and carry some of the same issues, and both can be damaging.

Believe me, I know all the arguments that are coming from the people who I would bet good money own a pair of Zubas or six. “It was just a joke.” “It’s Pat Foley, he’s old.” “Well, that does sound like a shortstops name!” Heard it all before, will hear it all again.

At the base of it, however innocent or off the cuff it was, it reinforces that if you have a Hispanic last name, hockey isn’t for you. You don’t belong. However softly it might do that, it still does that. Which seems like maybe not the best method of carrying out, “Hockey is for everyone.” Certainly, participation in hockey faces what we’ll call an uncertain future if they don’t engage with and get Hispanic kids involved. Also, the best player on the league’s signature team is Hispanic (Auston Matthews). Hockey is already seen, and often is, as a whites-only-and-keep-it-that-way. That doesn’t fly in this day and age.

Now, is this alone a fireable offense from Foley? I struggle to get there, but I could see where people might. I think an earnest apology on the next game broadcast would suffice, along with an acknowledgment from the Hawks themselves. The Hawks do a fair amount of outreach with minority communities here in town, and this would run counter to that and something they definitely should want to get out in front of to not undo any of that work. Though man would I want to be a fly on the wall with whatever team employee has to tell Foley to do this.

This would be an opportunity for the Hawks to stand out from the league again, on a very important issue. It could reinforce the work they’ve already done, if they handle it correctly.

While it may not warrant a dismissal on its own, as yet another piece of evidence in the case against Foley, it’s getting pretty pretty mountainous. And I reiterate, I grew up with Foley and Tallon on my headphones way past my bedtime broadcasting from Chicago Stadium. I know exactly what he means to Hawks fans, because he means that to me. Doesn’t mean I can ignore what’s gone on here the past few years.

The biggest complaint you get from everywhere is that Foley hasn’t been able to hide his displeasure with the team. Which is fine.  We don’t want simple water-carriers in the booth (though that hasn’t stopped him and Edzo from doing just that in regards to certain players). Criticism is welcome and vital. But it goes beyond that when Foley makes it clear how much he’d rather be doing something else and how hard it is to watch this team.

Sure, we do that here, but it isn’t our job to sell the product at all. We’re supposed to tell you what we think. It’s all we do. And while that has a place in a broadcast, it can’t be all of it. Ask Len Kasper or Jason Benetti how you present a team that sucks in a fun way for the viewer. And they either do it or had to do it every damn day.

Add to that Foley is usually behind the play, or misidentifying everyone, or just grab-assing it with Olczyk, and you get a pretty unlistenable broadcast. This is the Hawks, it’s a job most every up-and-coming play-by-play guy would remove a digit or two for.

Everyone loses the fastball. Throw some casual racism on this pile, and what you’re left with is something the Hawks simply don’t need anymore, and could enhance. It’s time.

Hockey

The only team that matters. Don’t believe it, just ask them. The Leafs got Mitch Marner into the fold before the season, which was something of a minor upset. They’re going into the season with a better defense than they did last year, now a full year of Jake Muzzin, along with Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci arriving this summer (the latter already causing hilarious furor). And yet, this collection of players still doesn’t have a playoff series win to its name. The thinking is that if they get the first a whole bunch more will follow. Problem with that is they’re still in the same division with Tampa and Boston. And we know if they don’t get past them, it’ll be a national disaster and you all have to have a week of mourning. Is this the time? Could be, but it’s no guarantee.

2018-2019

46-28-8  100 points (3rd in Atlantic, out in 1st round)

3.49 GF/G (4th)  3.04 GA/G (20th) +37 GD

51.7 CF% (8th)  51.7 xGF% (10th)

21.8 PP% (8th)  79.9 PK% (17th)

Goalies: So here’s the thing. The Leafs can dress up their changes, acquisitions, and experience gained all they want, but they’re still counting on Freddie Andersen. And Freddie Anderson is the very definition of “good enough to break your heart.” It’s what he does. It’s what he’s always done. He’s certainly more than enough to rack up points in the regular season, especially when you score a ton of goals as the Leafs do. And he wasn’t even bad in the playoffs last year, with a .922 SV% in the series against Boston. But it wasn’t enough in Game 7. It never is. That’s what happens. And the Leafs seem to think they can break through the same wall this time. They don’t have a good enough defense to shield him. They need Freddie to make the saves. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team that just scores its way through four rounds. Freddie has yet to do it. I’m not betting on him to do it now.

Anyway, Michael Hutchinson is backing him up. There’s not enough time for all that I want… to say about him.

Defense: It’s new look, and if it doesn’t work everyone here is a free agent after the season except LGBTQ spokesman Morgan Rielly. You would think that would create some urgency, which could help. I’m bigger on Tyson Barrie than most, and provides someone who can get the puck up himself or to the forwards better than anyone they had last season save Rielly. Cody Ceci is already causing Alka-Seltzer sales to go up in Ontario, as everyone expects Mike Babcock to use him way too often. They’ll get a full season of Muzzin, who was surprisingly good last year after arriving from LA. But beyond those four it is ugly, which is probably where the Ceci fears are springing from. Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, The Other Schmaltz, Ben Harpur, you don’t want any of these idiots skating more than 10 minutes a night. Which might leave the top four exposed and exhausted by the time the games really count.

Forwards: If any unit can counteract what the defense can’t do, it’s this forward group. Everyone’s locked in now, so they don’t have that hanging over them. There’s still no team rolling out a better top six than this, with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and whatever other jokers you want to pair with them. Nylander should rebound after getting a full training camp and having Marner take all the recent-signee pressure off of him. They’ve lost some depth in trading Nazem Kadri for Barrie, and Kadri did a lot more for this team than people realize.

There isn’t anyone around to take up that role, and you don’t want either of Tavares or Matthews to do it. Nick Shore? Nic Petan? Those are huge steps down from Kadri, who was a shutdown center who could also score a lot. Nobody is going to replace him on either side of that ledger, and the Leafs downfall might be either having some top line go off on them in the playoffs (again) or having to use Matthews to fight fire with fire and losing his production. It’s an issue.

It’s not much different on the wings. where only Andreas Johansson looks like a useful bottom-six piece. Jason Spezza is dead. They’ll be hunting depth via trade.

Prediction: With all the pieces locked in now, one wonders how much patience they’ll have under Mike Babcock again. He’s not a soft sort to play for, and now the Leafs have made their commitments. What happens when Marner and Matthews start rolling their eyes at Babs in January or December even? That’s one iceberg they’ll have to avoid, and it might help that Babs is going to have to play his top six a ton. But if Ceci ends up being a disaster, there’s not much anyone can do about the defense.

And there’s not much Babs can do about Andersen, either. There’s more than enough talent here than make a run…and there’s enough holes to eat it in the first round to any of Tampa or Boston or any surprise like Montreal or Florida as well. Whatever it ends up being, there’ll be far more noise than is warranted.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

 

Everything Else

“You’re not special. So who you foolin’?” – Axl Rose

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. And really, that’s it. But for Leafs fans and media, it can’t be that simple. It has to mean something. Not just that, it has to epically mean something. Maybe even epically mean something. Because everything around the Toronto Maple Leafs has to be definitive or a referendum not just on the team, but on the entire sport and city and possibly society. Because to everyone associated with them in any way, the Leafs have to mean more. They can’t simply be just a hockey team, even though that’s what they are. They’re in Canada’s largest city, the only team there, and even though Canada is a vast nation they’ve dubbed themselves the epicenter and YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION. But it’s just not the case.

Take the opponent. Leafs Nation will have you believe that the Boston Bruins are some mythical monster conjured by some wizard twisted on quaaludes  specifically to keep the Leafs down. But it’s not really the case. In truth, lots of teams lose to the same team twice in a row. Sure, Leafs fans will rush to remind everyone about 2013 (Sir, this is the DMV), but this is a completely different Leafs team. Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri were the only Leafs on that team and this one, as we know Kadri wasn’t even really on this one. That series doesn’t matter to this team. Fuck, the Rangers and Capitals played way more than this recently in the playoffs, and you don’t hear anyone describing it as fucking Helm’s Deep, do you? The Leafs were lucky to be in those playoffs at all, certainly never deserved to be in a Game 7 against a pretty-close-to-a-juggernaut Bruins team. It has nothing to do with this one or the last one.

But that’s not enough for THE NATION. They can’t just lose to a team. They can’t just play a pretty decent series against a pretty good team and lose a coinflip Game 7, which they all are. Because that would just make them normal. That would make them just another team. And they’re not! Don’t tell us they’re not! These are the Leafs AND THEY ARE SPECIAL WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND DON’T YOU SEE THE LATEST DIPSHIT IN SOME RIDICULOUS OUTFIT OR DOING SOME JACKASS STUNT THAT JUST GOT HIRED BY SPORTSNET?! CLEARLY WE’RE SPECIAL! PAT MY HEAD!

But they’re not.

Take a look at how they view their best players. Any player can go two or three games without scoring. No one scores a perfectly regimented one goal every two games. But Auston Matthews goes to or three without a goal and he’s not just going through the normal course, it’s a referendum on if he can handle playing at the epicenter of the universe and on his entire being and oh god maybe that contract was a terrible idea! He’s fine, it’s not, it’s just what happens. Patrice Bergeron didn’t score last night either. I guess he sucks too? But no, that can’t happen to the Leafs, because it’s no epic enough. It must be an exquisite choke-job that can only happen to players under the unique crush of being a Leaf. A crush that they themselves created.

Take the bleating about 1967. But no one really cares, because it’s not like there’s been a ton of close calls and heartbreaks. There was basically one on a missed call in 1993, and if you don’t know about it Down Goes Brown has been writing a weekly column about it for 12 years. And all that would have done is set the Leafs up to get stonewalled by the Canadiens and specifically Patrick Roy just like the Kings did, and imagine how much more unbearable both fanbases would be if that happened. All the talk of THE WALL here wouldn’t be pointed south but north and everyone would be in agreement on it construction.

The Leafs and everyone around them want to be the pre-2004 Red Sox, but also the Lakers. But there’s no Impossible Dream, there’s no Fisk Homer, there’s no Bob Stanley in 1986 (which is who Sox fans really hate, or did, instead of Buckner). There’s no story. And there’s no winning tradition. They want both, and they aren’t either. The Leafs are scenery, but scenery that wants to chew itself.

It can’t just be that Mike Babcock isn’t quite the coach they’d hoped. He arrived as a messiah, because only messiahs take the Leafs job (even if they can’t make toast). And now he’s a relic, a dunderhead past his sell-by date. Could it just be he’ll get out exactly what the roster you give him is capable of, no more no less? Give him the best roster in the competition (’08 or ’09 Wings or Team Canada) and he’ll win it or come within inches of it. Give him a mediocre team (pretty much every Wings team after those) and he’ll get you mediocre results. Give him a bad one and they’ll be bad. Give him a pretty good one and he’ll get you a loss against another pretty good team. But no, it can’t be that easy in Toronto. He must’ve lost something, or Toronto did something to him, or he’s been replaced by a collection of hyper-intelligent roaches wearing a Babcock suit a la MIB.

Kyle Dubas must be a genius…because he figured out to sign the most prized free agent in years? Keen strategy. But now if he doesn’t go out and bring PK Subban or Drew Doughty home (and I suppose there’s a symmetry to a rape-apologist acquiring a rapist) he won’t just be another GM who can’t get his team over the hump. He’ll be The Great Miss, the Great Lie Of Modernity, The One Who Let Us Down.

Even the Leafs playoff series drought isn’t that much. 15 years is a while, but it isn’t unheard of. The Panthers have a longer one, in fact. The Islanders had a longer one. Until this season the Avs were working on a 10-year drought. The Sabres haven’t won a series in 12. While it’s certainly one of the worst streaks around, it doesn’t stand on its own. Like just about anything else concerning the Leafs, if you really look beyond the noise.

It can just never be simple. This loss means that there have to be massive changes and new directions and severe internal study and possibly a few defenestrations. But we didn’t learn anything new about the Leafs. We knew they didn’t have a very good defense and a shaky goalie when things really mattered. Why’d they lose? Because they couldn’t keep the Bruins best players on a leash and then their goalie spit up a bad goal or two in Game 7. Which is what teams with bad blue lines and questionable playoff goaltending do. It doesn’t need to be decoded in the stars or a team on NASA engineers. It’s an easy fix, if you can find the players. But no, that explanation won’t do for a blue-clad mob that has to be more important than everyone. Their problems are bigger, don’t you see, and you wouldn’t understand. You’re not here, you don’t know what it means, you can’t, you won’t, it’s just different here.

It’s not, though. The Leafs are just a team. A pretty good one struggling a bit to take the last step. Happens a lot. Happens to most. Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. What it won’t be is unforeseen or unheralded or unparalleled. Nothing about the Leafs is. They may scream different, but it’s the truth.

 

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Boston Thursday, 6pm

Game 2 in Boston Saturday, 7pm

Game 3 in Toronto Monday, 6pm

Game 4 in Toronto Wednesday, 6pm

After all the whining, moaning, and kvetching, they are still going to play this series and not reschedule the Leafs against a team their media contingent deems is a better matchup for them. At some point, either the Leafs are good enough or they aren’t, and whether they spit it in the first or second round really shouldn’t matter. But any slight is a massive injustice to those clad in blue. In reality, this is a team they should be getting past, no matter the history. But thanks to their mental fragility and bed-wetting, they may have turned the Bruins into such a monster in their own heads there’s no way by.

Goalies: The other thing Leafs Nation seems unwilling to admit to itself is that no matter who the opponent, Freddie Andersen is as likely as anyone to clown it up but good. He fell apart in Game 7 last year versus these same Bruins, just as he’d done three years prior against the Hawks, just as he’d done the year before that when John Gibson took his job. He is basically the biggest question mark for the Leafs, and that’s on a team with no top-pairing d-men. He also went to pieces in the spring with a terrible March, though the Leafs are hoping his small recovery in April bodes well. It doesn’t. That said, the Leafs’ style put Andersen under mass amounts of pressure all season and he was just shy of Vezina-level. If it’s ever going to happen for him…

On the other end, you pretty much know what you’re getting from Tuukka Rask. He was a touch north of league average this year, which is basically where he’s lived the past few years. His playoff record is pretty glittering, somewhat marred by the Bruins being overmatched by the Lightning last year. There’s very little chance that Rask is going to upend his own team, and a better chance he is a major factor to the good in this series. And even if he does misstep, the Bruins have a pretty stout safety net in Jaro Halak, who’s been marvelous all season and has his own playoff history to work with. The only concern is if Bruce Cassidey wants to get cute early and heaps too much pressure on both goalies and tenses up the team, but that’s not all that likely.

Defense: As has been the problem for years, you might have heard about it, the Leafs blue line doesn’t come anywhere near matching the quality of the forwards. Jake Muzzin has been an all right addition, but hasn’t really locked anything down. Nor was he ever going to. This is an outfit still giving meaningful minutes to Ron Hainsey, who can regale you with tales of cars without windshields. Jake Gardiner is back, which apparently counts for something. I don’t know what. Morgan Rielly is good pointed one way but not the other. The Leafs are best off just going for broke, trying to get up the ice as much and as fast as possible and trying to take their d-men out of the equation as much as they can.

The thing is, it shouldn’t be that big of a disadvantage against the Bruins. Because I don’t think there’s a lot here. Zdeno Chara has been able to strip down his game and be effective at his advanced age, but that only makes him a second-pairing player. Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy are offensive weapons but specialize in the Lemeul Stinson trail-technique whenever asked to defend anyone. Brandon Carlo is….fine? Maybe? Do we even know? I’m sure I don’t care. Somehow they make it work, because they give up the least amount of attempts, shots, and chances in the East. It can’t be all Bergeron…can it?

Forwards: This is where it feels like the Leafs have a huge advantage. But it felt that way last year and look how that went. The Leafs have been showtime at times this year, and that’s with William Nylander getting seriously wounded by the SH% Dragon (BABIP Dragon’s sister). Remember, their second center has 47 goals this year. And neither Tavares or Matthews were the leading scorer on the team. Nazem Kadri is a hell of a weapon, both scoring-wise and annoying-wise, to have on your third line. Only Tampa can boast more, and at least forward-wise, it’s closer to a push than you might think.

We’ve been convinced for years that the Bruins are nothing more than Bergeron’s line plus David Krejci. But much like the defense we can’t comprehend, it keeps working. They were somehow shocked to discover that Charlie Coyle sucks. Jake DeBrusk gives Krejci at least half of a player to do things with, but beyond that there is nothing here. But because of Bergeron’s dominance there doesn’t have to be. The Leafs aren’t going to have any answer for Patrice and Marchand and Pastrnak. Matthews and JT can’t do the defensive work and there’s no pairing up to the task.

Prediction: On paper, there’s no excuse for the Leafs losing this. But there’s more at work here. Much like last year, the Leafs just don’t have an answer for Bergeron, and the questions about their defense are slightly louder than the ones about Boston’s. The questions about their goalie are much louder than the ones about Boston’s. Still, with that firepower the Leafs should be able to simply outscore the Bruins. Even if Rask plays well the Leafs could, and probably should, get three goals or more per game. And the Bruins would be hard-pressed to match that. In a vacuum. But this isn’t a vacuum. And it feels like the Leafs have been looking for an excuse to shoot themselves in the face again. This one’s got a familiar ring to it…

Bruins in seven.

Everything Else

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 30-30-9   42-22-5

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN

THE ABYSS: Pension Plan Puppets 

During the Hawks first “streak,” it was obvious they were benefitting from a softening of the schedule. Even when they played barely real teams, they were simply outclassed. We don’t know if this is a new “streak” yet, three in a row hardly constitutes that, but whatever it is is unlikely to continue tonight. The Hawks are playing one of the few REAL-ASS teams in the league, and we know how that’s gone. And they’re facing one that’s probably going to have an edge/snarl to it.

The Leafs had something of a “test” on Monday, and they got absolutely horsed by the Lightning at home, 6-2. If they had won that game or even been close, you might be hopeful of catching them with their focus elsewhere. Probably no such luck tonight. Maybe if the Bruins had beaten the Jackets last night and moved six points ahead of the Leafs, they would have decided there’s nothing left to play for and would have spent the last 13 games looking at their watch. But with a four-point gap and a game in hand, the Leafs can reasonably think that home-ice is still on the table and worth chasing (which is debatable). So the combination of frustration and motivation should have the Leafs antennae up, which is hardly good news.

There’s also the small matter of Morgan Rielly, which shouldn’t matter but will in the sense that he will get a standing ovation from the frothing, rich aristocracy that fills the Whatever It’s Fucking Called Now Center, because…he might…not have…used a homophobic slur? They won’t know why, they’ll just clap like the trained seals all fans become in situations like this. Either way, he and the Leafs will be happy to have a game to play to distract from whatever the last two days were. All of this does not add up to a pleasant night for the Hawks.

And even without all that, this is a team so far beyond the Hawks you wouldn’t want to drive it. In games against the league’s penthouse residents, the Hawks have generally been embarrassed. The Lightning have dribbled their head like a basketball twice. So have the Sharks. The Jets took them seriously for like a combined 12 minutes and got three wins out of it. They were with the Bruins in South Bend when the Bs were in their worst stretch, and then nowhere close in Boston. They’re 0-3 against the Flames. It’s not an enviable record.

And though they may finish third in their division. and though their media and fans refuse to shut up about anything, this is still an unholy offensive force. John Tavares has 76 points, and he’s the second center. There are three lines here better than the Hawks can muster with one, and when they get rolling no one can live with it (except Tampa, apparently). The Hawks were able to put up six on this team in the home opener because they got a look at Garret Sparks. They’ll find no such refuge here. The Leafs will want a recovery from Monday, which means Andersen, who’s been one of the better goalies in the league.

If the Leafs have a weakness it’s a defense that still is short, even with Jake Muzzin, but you have to get the puck first which is the real trick. Sure, if the Hawks can get DeBrincat or Kane or Saad or Toews bearing down on Hainsey or Zaitsev or whoever they might find some joy, but getting to those spots takes more than a smile. It’s also a beat-up blue line as both Gardiner and Dermott are out.

For the Hawks, shouldn’t be too many changes. Crawford will start, and the lines should look the same (go pound, John Hayden). The expectations for this one should be nil. If the Hawks can get a win in Montreal against a Canadiens team fighting it, this trip will be a success. After that, it’s the Canucks, Flyers, and a home-and-home with the Avs. Basically it would be set for the Hawks to perform one last death rattle if they get out of Canada alive.

And if not, they are who we through they were anyway.

 

Game #70 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

@

RECORDS: Maple Leafs 1-1-0    Hawks 2-0-0

PUCK DROP: 6:00 PM CT

TV: CSN Chicago

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THEM?: Pension Plan Puppets

If you were going through a tournament of the most insufferable franchises in sports, it probably wouldn’t take too long to end up with this matchup in the “Hockey Region.” If you spend more than five minutes scrolling through Hockey Twitter (and you shouldn’t, it’s bad for your health), you’re going to see these two teams come up most frequently – the Leafs because there are too fucking many of their shithead fans on the internet who do not shut up ever, and the Hawks because everyone hates them because they were really good for a really long time. Die the hero, become the villain, etc. etc.

The most exhausting and insufferable shit that has already been tossed around in the past, and you will probably hear at least once tonight, (and more if you for some reason watch the Canadian broadcast, which is a national one because of course it is) is that this could be some kind of torch passing from the Hawks to the Leafs because the Leafs have a young core with their key guys still having their labor exploited on their entry level contracts and that’s how the Hawks built their empire and the Leafs are using the same blueprint and blah blah blah I am going to fuckin’ puke.

The annoying part about that shitty narrative is that the parallels keep lining up, most recently with the Leafs making their big splashy free agent signing in John Tavares, which you could equate to the Hawks bringing in Marian Hossa prior to 2009-10, though it’s not even up for debate that JT91 is a better and more impactful signing. There was once an inkling of hope around these parts that StanBo and company would get in on the Tavares train, but we never get what we want because we’re all good people at this website.

The Leafs are even in the process of the RFA fuck up parallel as well. We all remember well the Kris Versteeg situation that ended up giving this site it’s new namesake, and while Toronto hasn’t stuck their dick in a fax machine quite yet (but don’t put it past Kyle Dubas) they still haven’t stopped measuring it in negotiations with William Nylander, who wants to be paid like the good-as-shit player that he is instead of signing some bullshit “bridge contract” and risk getting hurt and losing out on the money. Nylander kinda has the Leafs over a barrel because he is such a huge part of what they’re trying to do there, but the Leafs have him over an even bigger barrel and in a much more vulnerable position because of the NHL’s labor exploitation contract and free agency rules. If I was Stan Bowman I would be annoying the shit out of Dubas until he gave in and traded Nylander to Madison St., but it’s not like the Hawks really even have anything to send the other way that would be worth more than a hearty chuckle when proposed in negotiations.

The most annoying thing about the Maple Leafs at the present time, though, is that they are actually, it pains me to say, going to be really good. Yes they got their shit pumped by Ottawa last night and I’m sure their fans have tried drowning themselves in some maple syrup as a result, but on paper the Leafs forward group (when they get Nylander back) is probably the best in the NHL. They have two of the top-10 centers in the damn league, and even though Nazem Kadri is a giant fuckstick, when he’s your 3C you’re in a really good spot. They have some holes on defense, but we saw Pittsburgh go back-t0-back with leftover popsicle sticks on their second pairing a few years ago. And the good players that the Leafs have are fun to watch. Auston Matthews is almost appointment television, Mitch Marner is a nasty playmaker, and we already know what Tavares is capable of.

So, yeah, the torch passing bullshit is annoying as fuck, and I don’t wanna hear it or think about it or deal with it. But the Leafs  might really have something here, and while that’s bad news for anyone’s Twitter timeline, it could be entertaining as hell, even if they shitpump the Hawks tonight.

Game #3 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Build

Everything Else

We only wish it was Grand Theft Auto. Most of the people we find for this don’t want to be identified because either they’re people looking for them, don’t want to be associated with us, or both. This is yet another case. Dark things lurk in the musty corners of Twitter, and we found this one called Zubes. Follow him @the_Zubes…if you love the absurd. 

While we’re sure you’re basically in a state of hysteria all the time with the rest of Leafs Nation, tell us why this blue line will be better than we think.
– It starts with addition by subtraction. Prior to the first game of the season I can admit that I didn’t know what an Igor Ozhiganov was. BUT, from the same line of thinking that brought you, “We need to get rid of Matt Stajan even if it means taking on Dion Phaneuf” and “We need to get rid of Dion Phaneuf even if it means we get literally nothing” and “We need to get rid of Phil Kessel even if it means we are gift-wrapping Pittsburgh two Cups”, they needed to get rid of Roman Polak, even if it meant throwing a random collection of vowels on the bottom pairing.
Ultimately, the answer to your question comes down to Jake Gardiner. You’re either a “Jake Gardiner is better than you are giving him credit for” or you’re “Jake Gardiner isn’t as bad as you’re saying he is.” The issue this year is that he eventually has to get paid and no matter what he gets it’ll be the wrong amount. Every year around the deadline Maple Leafs fans convince themselves the team is about to cash in on the forward depth (we’re the only team with good young forward prospects – the AHL team is almost TOO talented) and add a difference maker back there to ease the load on everyone’s back. Having already pushed so many chips into the middle with the Tavares move, the shouts to do that very type of trade will be louder than ever and I think most of us are assuming this is the year something along those lines actually happens.
If they don’t make any moves though? Oh, we’ll just add a random AHL defenceman. The Marlies are so good, man.
Also, why we’re at it, why Fredrik Andersen won’t shit a chicken in a Game 7 again. If he has a major dip in the regular season would the Leafs think about going to get someone else?
– Similar to the Jake Gardiner split, a lot of people decided to stake their reputations on Freddie (we call him Freddie because it makes him sound more Canadian) being very slightly above average last year while taking more shots than Ed Belfour before he tries to bribe a cop with a billion dollars. A lot of people are going to hope that the answer to question one will help out here in question two, but I have very little faith. The brain boys in charge seem to be all hyped up on blog posts that explain to rubes “Puck possession is all that matters and goaltending is unpredictable, no we aren’t just saying that because it is hard to quantify”, but count me in the camp with basically no faith in the goaltending. They just let two reasonably okay backups go on waivers (Wow, the whole league wants to gobble up players that couldn’t crack this roster, what a blessing to have so much talent) so I think the powers that be have more faith – way too much faith – in him than I do. It will end in tears, especially when the same problems are lingering on the blue line and crease come deadline time and all that ends up happening is a deal for a 4th line centre.
Backup goalie Garrett Sparks (with a name like a YouTube star) cried the first time he played a game here because he’s a local, so expect his leash to be longer than you would think from the average backup.
Are the problems between Auston Matthews and Mike Babcock real? Will Babs finally take off the tire chains for a team with this much firepower?
– Much like Roman Polak, the first thing noted NJPW weeb Kyle Dubas had to do with the forward group is take away Babs’ toys and force him to not play absolute plugs like Matt Martin and Leo Komarov for half the game. I think the 5-on-5 lines will remain a mix of things like “Tyler Ennis and Zach Hyman on lines with the two best players” but the powerplay units should be as legit as they come. Failing to be a top powerplay team this year would be an unanswerable failure.
More than one person that is closer than I am to the team has whispered that most of the young guys just sort of roll their eyes at Babcock, but does anyone under 25 in the NHL really like their coach? Dubas is letting them grow beards and wear whatever number they want, so the hope is that having a “successful older cousin that talks to you about emo at Thanksgiving and tags you in memes on instagram” type matters to them more than the military dad that yells at you in the car on the way home from your games.
How does this whole William Nylander thing end?
Baldness. And I think Dreamboat Willie will end up around $7M x 6 or so, but it won’t happen for another few weeks. Also, William is starting to lose the wings of his hair first, so he will keep it long so people don’t see how thin his hair is getting. It will be buzzed / shaved before whatever contract he signs is over.

 

Game #3 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Build