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Maple Leafs: Off-season blues

If you’re like me, the off-season represents a time of bitter-sweet reflection.

The Toronto Maple Leafs decided to play the minimum number of games possible this season. No extended playoff run for them and no early exit either. I guess this is the price of inconsistency (and mediocrity).

For most Leafs fans, the story is now familiar: the season starts with promise, but ends in disappointment.

This leaves the faithful denizens of Leafs Nation in a difficult situation. While the Boys in Blue & White make an early appearance on the greens, we’re left to ponder the futility of another lost season. Making matters worse, many of us are also forced to watch in shame as the teams of friends, family and foes alike continue their fight for Lord Stanley’s legendary cup.

The situation isn’t entirely lost, however. There’s a way to maintain some of the passion that drives Leafs Nation this off-season. We can escape to a winning season through NHL 14.

We can also revisit the Leafs’ storied history through paperback. After all, there’s a reason why we remain unconditionally devoted to the Leafs despite their many indiscretions and perennial losing ways.

As the current season slowly comes to a close and a new season begins to appear (or disappear?) on the distant horizon, here are some of my favourite Leafs classics. They may, or not may not, help bridge the gap between disappointing seasons. In either case, they’ll help keep the Leafs at the center of your life. What more could you possibly want?

The Hockey Sweater

It may be a children’s book at heart, but no book does a better job of capturing the spirit of the greatest rivalry in hockey. It also captures the importance of hockey in general to Canada and Canadians/Canadiens.

Beyond hockey, The Hockey Sweater delves into the English-French divide that has defined Canada for much of its history, and it alludes to the past importance of Eaton’s, the once great commercial giant of Toronto that still bears its mark on the city.

I cannot say enough about the significance of this book as a Canadian, hockey fan and proud member of Leafs Nation. These’s a reason it graces the $5 bill.

A Boy at the Leafs’ Camp

If The Hockey Sweater ultimately belongs to Habs fans, then this book belongs to Leafs fans. It tells the story of young Bill Spunska and his quest to make the big club out of training camp.

This is a dream that many of us shared as children, and the book’s ending speaks to the importance of pride, determination and loyalty – all qualities that define Leafs Nation.

A Fan for All Seasons: Following the 75 Year History of Toronto’s Maple Leafs Through the Eyes of a Fan

Moving away from fiction, A Fan for all Seasons retells the triumphs and failures of Leafs Nation through the eyes of a life-long fan, Tom Gaston.

Rich in history and anecdotes, I strongly recommend this book as the perfect gift for any true Leafs fan. The opening chapter alone brought tears to my eyes.

This is our story.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems

This book is really dedicated to the great Terry Sawchuk, who helped pilot the Leafs to their last Stanley Cup in 1967.

It offers a unique take on Sawchuk’s impressive career and tragic personal life by retelling his story through a series of short poems.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems is a deeply intimate and rewarding story. Any fan of the Original Six will appreciate its insights, candor and craftsmanship.

Why the Leafs Suck and How They Can Be Fixed

Why the Leafs Suck and How They Can Be Fixed picks up after that last Stanley Cup victory, stretching from the Harold Ballard years to the dawn of the Brian Burke era. As its provocative title suggests, a highly critical take on the Leafs over the past 40+ years is provided.

Although the book only briefly touches upon Burke’s tenure – it was written shortly after he came to town - it’s interesting to see how Burke addressed (or failed to address) the many challenges laid out for him.

This book speaks to the frustrations of many Leafs fan, and it’s likely to attract interest from all of the Leafs haters out there as well. All I can say is that only the Leafs can warrant this much attention.

Book of Exodus

Moses spent 40 years wandering the desert before he finally brought the Israelites to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, he wasn’t destined to enter the Promised Land himself.

Leafs Nation has spent the past 47 years wandering the hockey desert. In this time, we have seen numerous guides come and go, but our destination has always remained the same: a magical parade down Yonge Street.

Is Brendan Shanahan our new Moses or will his time at the helm simply prove another detour in our larger journey towards the Stanley Cup?

Shanahan has inherited quite the mess, which suggests that the latter scenario is closer to the truth, but this shouldn’t deter him. He wouldn’t get to see the Promised Land anyway.

Let’s hope some new hockey stories come our way in October.

Photo credit: The Globe and Mail (May 3, 1967)

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Maple Leafs: Tyler Bozak continues to improve

As the dust slowly settles on the 2013-2014 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, we’re afforded an opportunity to look back at what went right and what went wrong for the Buds.

The wounds, of course, are still fresh and plenty has already been said about the negatives (I’m no exception here) so it might be nice to focus on one of the few positives for a change.

I’ll show my cards upfront: I’m a huge fan of Tyler Bozak and I think the Leafs got an absolute steal when they re-signed him to a five-year, $21 million US deal last July. A quick look at the stats would appear to justify this view.

Bozak set a new career-high for points this season, recording 19 goals and 30 assists for 49 points in total across 58 games. There’s also an “intangible” factor that he brings to the team: linemate Phil Kessel seems to play at his best when he’s skating alongside Bozak.

It’s hard to find a good comparison to Bozak in NHL given that he’s somewhat quiet and often goes unnoticed playing beside Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, but right-winger Ryan Callahan from the Tampa Bay Lightning and center Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche could pass as useful comparisons.

These three players are comparable, in my opinion, because they provide a decent amount of firepower; assume both offensive and defensive roles; and play high minutes for their respective clubs. They’re also on the younger side of things (though Callahan is pushing this argument to the extreme).

O’Reilly is undoubtedly the best player of the trio and his relative youth will likely see this advantage expand over time. However, if the Avalanche hope to keep him after this season, they must provide him a qualifying offer of $6.5 million US. That puts his “cost effectiveness” into question – a consideration that’s important for all teams in the “new NHL” but especially a young team like Colorado. They’ll have many more of these situations on their hands soon.

O’Reilly recorded 64 points (28 goals, 36 assists) in 80 games this season, which is better than Bozak on an overall basis but actually falls below him when points-per-game are taken into consideration.

On the other hand, Callahan’s production has actually dropped over the last two seasons and it was his exorbitant contract demands that saw the New York Rangers trade him this season. He recorded just 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 65 games this season.

Once again, my intention here is not to say these three players are equal but that they form a useful group for the purposes of comparison. From the financial figures and offensive numbers discussed above, I think it’s safe to say Bozak offers the greatest bang for the buck.

If there’s one weakness in Bozak’s game, however, it concerns his penchant for injuries. They were a big factor for him this season. He’ll need to stay clear of the infirmary next season if he hopes to improve even further.

Photo credit: Ice Hockey Wiki

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Leafs: Phil Kessel & Brendan Shanahan have dinner

Twitter predictably lit up after the following photo of new Leafs President Brendan Shanahan and Phil Kessel was posted:

As you can imagine, it led to a whole host of comments, ranging from critiquing what Kessel was wearing (he’s at that level of rich where you no longer have to worry about making a good impression and you know you’re jealous really), to asking who the hell the guy in the middle was and taking the piss out of him. (Clue: He’s the guy that posted the photo who, unlike you, got to meet Shanahan and Kessel.)

(It never fails to amaze me how many miserable and angry people there are on Twitter. At least that’s what you have to surmise from reading all the negative comments.)

On top of that, there are all sorts of rumours about why Shanahan and Kessel were meeting for dinner. Was Shanahan getting Kessel’s opinion on if he should fire Randy Carlyle? Was the Hall of Famer asking his star player to be the new captain? And so on…..

However, here’s a crazy thought: Maybe Shanahan just wanted to begin building a good relationship with his players, starting with Kessel.

Photo credit: @Jon_Dwyer

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Maple Leafs: Randy Carlyle likely to pay the price

There is a new sheriff in town, as Brendan Shanahan was named President of the Toronto Maple Maple Leafs.  It seems like a great hire, though it doesn’t really solve any of the Leafs problems on its own.  For now, Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle have a new boss.  And they should both be nervous.  So should many of the players on the roster.

But it is likely Carlyle who will pay the price.  Why?  My answer to that is quite simple – it was largely his fault.  He did not get what he should have out of this roster.

People have complained that this Maple Leafs team couldn’t play Carlyle’s system.  That is complete rubbish.  These are professional hockey players – they can play in any system.  Look at what Mike Babcock did with the Team Canada at the Olympics in Sochi.  New system, new roles and players who weren’t used to playing together.  But it worked because the players did their job and did what the coach asked them to do.

The problem for Carlyle wasn’t that the players couldn’t play his system; it was either that they wouldn’t play it, or the system wasn’t one that was suited to the strengths of the roster.   Personally, I believe it was the latter – you can force a square peg into a round hole, but it never quite fits right, no matter how much you fuss with it.  Regardless, either of these circumstances places the fault with the coach implementing the system.

The players?  Yes, there were many disappointments (insert David Clarkson comments here!).  But was that due to a lack of effort, or was it the product of being used ineffectively?  I have a hard time believing that this team quit playing for Carlyle.  But I have little trouble accepting that many players were not put into roles that best suited their skill sets.

Enter Brendan Shanahan: Smart, savvy, respected and a proven winner in his playing days.  This alone doesn’t mean his hiring makes the Leafs a better team.  However, there is no reason to think he won’t make a big impact on this team, and quickly.  So, it stands to reason that a new coach is likely.  And so are a large number of roster changes.  Perhaps we may even see a new GM.

Regardless of how he does it, fans are hoping that “Sheriff Shanny” can get things in Leafs Nation back on track.  My bet is that the cleanup will start behind the bench.

Photo credit:

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Maple Leafs: Dion Phaneuf says they let fans down

If you were to say just a month ago, that April 14th would be the day the Toronto Maple Leafs were cleaning out their lockers for the off-season, it would have been tough to believe. (Much like the eight-game losing streak.)

However, that’s exactly what happened after a disappointing end to the Leafs campaign. As you’d expect, captain Dion Phaneuf was asked about the season and what went wrong:

Give Dion his due. Whatever people may think about his leadership capabilities, he usually manages to stay calm, no matter the circumstances.

Mind you, there is a saying that if you can keep your head while everyone around you is losing theirs, it’s highly likely that you don’t fully understand the severity of the situation. Make of that what you will………….

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Leafs: Randy Carlyle amuses Senators Paul MacLean

Last night’s 1-0 loss to the Senators may have brought a miserable last month of the season to an end, but it wasn’t all bad for Leafs fans. This clip of Randy Carlyle cooling himself down brought a smile to my (and Paul MacLean’s) face:

It was also good to see Carlyle practising his waving skills. Something tells me (rightly or wrongly) he’ll be doing it for real sooner rather than later.


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Maple Leafs: Beatable until the end

CP24's Photo

The Toronto Maple Leafs had one last chance to finish the 2013-2014 season on a winning note, but they couldn’t muster any offence against the lowly Ottawa Senators (a team they dominated all season).

That drops Toronto’s season record to 38-36-8 and will see them finish 11th overall in the Eastern Conference – a far cry from the days in early March when they sat near the top of the conference.

What happened to Toronto? There were great expectations for this season and at times, things appeared in good shape. James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak both had career years; Phil Kessel continues to show he’s one of the league’s best offensive players; and the play of Jonathan Bernier has all the makings of a legitimate NHL starter.

Heading into the Olympic break, Toronto was hot and racing up the standings. However, on their return from the break, things started to turn sour. There was an eight-game losing streak and towards the end of the season an injury limited Bernier’s play and Kessel virtually disappeared.

In all honestly, it’s probably just the case that reality finally caught up to the Leafs. Their defence was suspect all season and a lack of secondary offence was apparent from the start. Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson, for instance, fell well below expectations, while Dave Bolland missed most of the season due to injury.

It might take the Leafs a few days to accept their new reality, but the fans have already been braced for it. We saw it coming in late March. The players said nothing was wrong and that they would stick to their game play.

We screamed, “Wake up!” but the message fell on deaf ears. Now there may be a shake up on the team, led by new team president Brendan Shanahan.

I can only guess at his plans and what they mean for general manager Dave Nonis, but I don’t expect James Reimer, Bolland and head coach Randy Carlyle to return next season.

Aside from the potential loss of Reimer, this would be understandable. The Leafs cannot afford to keep Bolland in a financial sense and they certainly cannot afford to keep Carlyle in a competitive sense. I just hope they came finally come to terms with the reality of the team.

No more delusion, please. We need an(other) overhaul.

Credits: @CP24

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Maple Leafs: A “battle” for nothing

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators battle for the puck in front of James Reimer

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators meet tonight on Hockey Night in Canada to conclude their season series.

Normally, the “Battle of Ontario” (or the “Battle for Ottawa” as it should actually be called) draws out the intensity of both fan bases, but these aren’t normal times. I cannot even quote Charles Dickens here – it’s arguably the worst of times for Toronto and Ottawa. (Editor’s note – Mentioning Charles Dickens?! In a sports column?!?! You’re much to smart for the likes of us.)

The Senators had high hopes for this season. They saw excellent goaltending from Craig Anderson last season and it was expected that they would simply improve upon their 25-17-6 record from the 2013 campaign. A healthy Erik Karlsson and the addition of Bobby Ryan added considerable weight to this idea.

Despite a healthy Karlsson, however, nothing else really worked out as planned. Anderson has battled inconsistency and injury all season, while Ryan’s season was recently cut short. The Senators hold a decent record of 35-31-14, but it isn’t good enough to get them into the playoffs.

Toronto’s season has been just as bad. Once sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, the Leafs have essentially dropped dead over the past month. They’ve been officially eliminated from the playoff race and fingers are now being pointed in every imaginable direction as they head towards another long offseason.

In other words, there’s nothing really at stake for either team in this latest instalment of the “Battle of Ontario”. The Leafs have already won the season series, outscoring the Senators 15-10 to claim the first three games. A win by Ottawa won’t change this fact.

At best, the Senators can simply ensure that they finish above the Leafs in the standings, but this is really just a small consolation prize.

In fact, the real victory might come in the form of a loss tomorrow night. There’s a potentially higher draft pick at skate, and this might as well be the Stanley Cup for these two loser clubs.

Photo credit: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography – Getty Images

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Leafs: Enter Shanman – Brendan Shanahan arrives in Toronto

Elite Sports Tours's Photo

A new era is about to begin in Leafs Nation.

Following intense media speculation over the last few days, hockey legend Brendan Shanahan has officially been named the new president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The fancy title places him directly above general manager Dave Nonis, but directly below MLSE president Tim Leiweke on the organization’s depth chart (for management anyway). He’ll assume the new role immediately.

Shanahan previously worked as the discipline czar for the NHL – an office that will now be occupied by Stephane Quintal, who played in the league for 16 seasons.

Adding a hockey legend like Shanahan gives the Leafs some instant credibility, but it raises a host of awkward questions as well.

What exactly will Shanahan do? What does this mean for Nonis? Why now?

(All of Nonis’ decisions will be vetted by Shanahan from this moment forward. That’s a good thing.)

It’s also unclear why the organization chose Shanahan as its new president. This isn’t meant as a knock against Shanahan, but there’s no connection between him and the Leafs beyond the fact that he’s a Toronto native and likely supported the team as a kid.

For some reason, the idea of hiring a former player or landing a great one is popular in the NHL. Look at the Vancouver Canucks: they just hired fan favourite Trevor Linden as their new president.

However, a familiar face or a famous last name is no guarantee of success. For every Patrick Roy and Steve Yzerman out there, there’s a Brett Hull and Pat LaFontaine to remind us that hockey smarts don’t always equal management smarts.

Where will Shanahan fall? I don’t know.

It took him some time to adjust as the head of discipline, barely surviving intense criticism during his first year. (For a while, there was even talk that he would resign under the weight of all the criticism.) Leafs fans are incredibly impatient. They ate Brian Burke alive and now it seems like head coach Randy Carlyle will serve as the second dish.

These are “tough” guys, but ones who could never carry the weight of expectations placed on them in Toronto.

Can Shanahan survive? We’ll probably know very soon, given the current state of the franchise. As I said, the fans are impatient and hungry.

Photo credit: @EliteSportsTour

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Maple Leafs: Dion Phaneuf is the right captain

The Hockey Writers's Photo

Bottom line first: I think Dion Phaneuf is the right guy to be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I believe he was (and still is) deserving of his contract extension.

Okay, don’t throw things. And stop cursing at me. At least let me explain.

First of all, the captaincy. Phaneuf is a presence. A big one. You may not like him, but he commands respect with his size and physical play. Take away the last couple of weeks, when the entire roster was awful, and Phaneuf had one of his best seasons in recent years (78 GP, 8G, 23A, +3).

He is well-spoken, and can handle the spotlights of the media, and in Toronto, that is a huge responsibility.Yes, he ducked out after one game, frustrated by the team’s losing streak; he’s human, and it shows he cares.

Let me ask a question: who else on this roster could be the captain of this team?

Phil Kessel? Nope. Not a leader, just a scorer. Joffrey Lupol? Nope. Injured too often to have the necessary impact on the room. Fans do love him, though. Dave Bolland? Nope. And not likely to be back anyway. David Clarkson? Please. And there you have it. Nobody.

Phaneuf is the guy. He is recognizable, carries himself well and despite being a polarizing figure, at least among fans, he is able to shoulder the responsibility of absorbing the attention of media and fans alike.

Is he a number one defenceman? No, not on most teams. But he is on this one. And he is so far and away the best defenceman on this team, he deserved his contract extension.

Imagine this roster without Dion Phaneuf? Your new number one defencemen, by default, would be his linemate, Karl Gunnarson. Happy with that? I didn’t think so.

It would be great to get Dion a partner that was a true top defender, to take that pressure off of him. But it probably isn’t going to happen, at least not without a significant cost.

The team is out of the playoffs, and deserve to miss the post-season party, but to put this all on Dion Phaneuf is just wrong. So let’s give our captain a break.

Photo credit: @TheHockeyWriter

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