Friday, January 25, 2013

The Myth of the Maple Leaf Mid-week Malaise

Last night, while listening to the Leafs hosting the Islanders game (which Toronto dropped 7-4 after leading 3-1) I heard at least a few times from the broadcast team of Dan Dunleavy and Jim Ralph a reference to the Maple Leafs "mid-week malaise". This is in reference to the fact that neither the players or the fans can gather up enough intensity for home games that are not on Saturday. The theory goes that a Saturday night game in Toronto is such a magical experience, it is difficult to get up for a game during the middle of the week. Apparently ex-coach Ron Wilson even espoused such a theory before being turfed last season.

Well, it's bullshit.

I checked the game records going back five full seasons, and here's the results. I counted mid-week home games as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. In fact I believe every "weekend" game not in that group were Saturdays.

Mid-week 9-10-5
Weekend   9-7-1

Mid-week 7-11-7
Weekend   9-5-2

Mid-week 10-12-4
Weekend    8-5-2

Mid-week 13-10-4
Weekend   5-5-4

Mid-week 12-8-5
Weekend   6-8-2

So, maybe up until three seasons ago the "Mid-week Malaise" was in fact true, from 2007 thru 2010 the Leafs were collectively 6 games under .500 during the week and 7 games over .500 on Weekends. This all changed over the last two years however. In this span the Leafs are a collective 25-18-9 at home during mid-week matches while going 11-13-6 in weekend home games. If anything, they should play less Saturday night home tilts.

It used to be that a Saturday night home game in Toronto certainly did hold a cache of importance to both fans and players. Sadly those times seem to have gone, hopefully not forever.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Randy Carlyle and the 1981 Norris Trophy

I like Randy Carlyle as the coach of the Maple Leafs. I'm also old enough to remember him as a Norris Trophy winning defenceman over 30 years ago. In the 1980/81 season Carlyle was named best defender in the NHL after scoring 16 goals, 67 assists, 83 points in 76 games. This despite the fact he also posted a Minus 16 +/- rating. Did he deserve the Norris Trophy that season?

The voting for the Norris was extremely tight. Carlyle collected 120 voting points, Denis Potvin 113 and Larry Robinson 100. Potvin had finished second to Carlye in defenceman scoring with 76 points in 2 fewer games, but Potvin finished with a Plus 38 +/-, 54 better than Carlyle. Robinson missed even more games that year playing only 65 yet still put up 50 points and a Plus 46 rating.

Perhaps more revealing is the voting for the First and Second All-Star squads after the 1980/81 season. Here, Carlyle finished behind Potvin and by a wide margin. Potvin collected 194 All-Star votes to Carlyle's 168. Robinson finished 15 behind Carlyle to grab a Second Team spot (along with Ray Bourque).

Potvin had won three previous Norris Trophies and Robinson two, including the previous season's. Carlyle. Maybe the voters merely wanted to reward some new blood with the Norris as they would the next two years with Doug Wilson and Rod Langway. In my opinion the Norris should not be given to a player with a Minus 16 rating, and Potvin should have won it in 80/81.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

James Reimer will be just fine.

43 Games
24 Wins
10 Losses
6 OT Losses
4 Shutouts

2.59 Goals Against Average
.920 Save Percentage

These were the career numbers of Maple Leaf goalie James Reimer on Sunday, October 23, 2011. This of course was the day after he suffered a concussion thanks to the knee of that dirty Canadien Brian Gionta. Reimer returned to the lineup six weeks later only to miss two week chunks of the season three times the rest of the way. He never returned to full form until the very end of the campaign. Over his last five games his Save Pct. was .915.

James Reimer is 24 years old, still two months shy of his 25th birthday. In my opinion, he should be given every opportunity to regain his spot as Leaf goalie of the present and future. In a 48 game season, I would give Reimer 30 to 35 starts, if he even approaches his pre-concussion numbers of 2.59 GAA and .920 Save Pct. the Maple Leafs will be just fine.

Now is not the time to bring in a Roberto Luongo. He would only serve to be a roadblock to a hopefully 'returned-to-form' Reimer over the next four or five years. Give Reimer the ball and let him run with it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Month Tim Horton was a Scoring Forward

January 1965. The Toronto Maple Leafs were three-time defending Stanley Cup champions. In an effort to win their fourth straight chalice the squad encountered an unusual rash of injuries as 1964 turned to 1965. A 3-0 loss at Boston on Friday January 1, 1965 dropped the Leafs to under .500 at 12-13-8 and fourth place in the NHL.

In this game, on top of George Armstrong, Andy Bathgate and Dave Keon being absent due to injuries, rookie sensation Ron Ellis sustained a concussion and would now miss time as well. The Leafs were scheduled to play the next two days and were desperately short of forwards. It was at this point that Punch Imlach moved Tim Horton from his All-Star calibre defence position to play right wing.

The next night back in Toronto the Leafs beat the New York Rangers 3-1. Tim Horton had two of the three goals, one of them shorthanded. They would travel to Boston for the third game in three nights and tie the Bruins 3-3. Dave Keon returned for this game but Horton remained as a forward and tallied another goal. Toronto won their next two games as the converted defender Horton continued patrolling right wing, although he had no points. On Sunday January 10 in New York, the Leafs kept on rolling with a 6-0 embarrassment of the Rangers. Horton chipped in two more goals about which the Associated Press wrote,
"Horton, making the most of his temporary conversion to right wing, also scored twice."

Leafs returned home to tie first-place Chicago 0-0, then split with Montreal and Detroit. Horton picked up an assist in each of the last two games. On Sunday the 17th Toronto went again to Boston and were reinforced by the return of Ron Ellis. They won 3-1 behind two more goals by right winger Tim Horton. By now the Leafs had climbed to 18-14-10 good for third place, only three points out of first.

In the nine games so far with Horton on the wing, the Leafs had gone 6-1-2 with Tim scoring 7 goals and 2 assists. Still, the Leafs remained short-handed in the forward brigade. Bathgate and Armstrong were still out and Horton remained on the wing. Leafs would lose to Montreal 2-1 and tie New York 1-1 before Bathgate returned on Jan. 24 for a 4-1 loss in Detroit. Horton had no points in these three matches.

Finally on January 29 the Canadian Press had a small article announcing,
 "Leafs Appear Back to Normal; Toronto Maple Leafs will have a back-to-normal look when they play Boston Bruins here Saturday night. Captain George Armstrong and Andy Bathgate will be back in the lineup (Bathgate had played the previous game) and the Leafs defensive pairings will be changed to the same combinations that won the Stanley Cup for the third consecutive year last season. With those two back, Tim Horton, who has been playing as a forward will be shifted back to defence with Allan Stanley."

Horton did indeed return to his normal spot beside Stanley, and he had two more assists that evening.
When all was said and done, Horton's 7 goals in a 9 game span represented more than half of his 12 goal output for 1964/65. In the big picture, those seven goals amount to 6% of his career total in 0.6% of his career games. Crazy. In relative terms that would be the same as Wayne Gretzky scoring 54 goals over a 9 game span. Come to think of it, he may have actually come close a few times.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oh Well, That Didn't Work

306 NHL regular season games. That's how many Brian Burke was in control of the Toronto Maple Leafs since he took over as G.M. on November 29, 2008. His team's record in over that span was 129-135-42 for a Points Percentage of .490 and of course, zero playoff appearances. In the 306 games that Toronto played PRIOR to Burke taking over their record was 146-122-38, a Point Pct. of .539.

When he took over in 2008/09, Toronto had a 7-9-6 record on the season and were a mere two points out of the NHL basement. The question is, are the Leafs any better off now than they were then? Perhaps the answer is an obvious one or else he would not have been fired, but let's compare the rosters of the Leafs before and after Burkie brought his truculent brand of hockey to town.

On Nov. 27, 2008 Toronto lost 2-1 in a shootout at Ottawa. The average age of the roster that night was 27.2 years. Their top six forwards were Jason Blake, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman. As well there was Nikolai Kulemin, Dominic Moore, Lee Stempniak and playing the role of Nazem Kadri...Jiri Tlusty.

Compare this to the current roster of Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, James Van Riemsdyk and Grabovski. Kulemin is still in the role of third-liner. Add to this Jay McClement, Matt Frattin, Tim Connolly and Kadri.

On defence the Leafs that Burke inherited had a top-six of  Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Ian White, Jeff Finger, Anton Stralman and a rookie Luke Schenn. Today the Leafs boast a defence core of Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, JM Liles, Mike Komisarek and hopefully Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson.

In the nets the Leafs have evolved from a Toskala and Joseph tandem totaling 72 years in age to a (for now) Reimer, Scrivens duo aged 24 and 26.

All in all, the average age of the current squad is definitely younger (approximately 25.0 years depending on the lineup) but is it better or worse than when Burke came aboard? To me it seems like comparing rotten apples to moldy oranges. If I had to pick, it would have to be the current roster just barely. In reality, the last four plus years under Burke have been pretty much a waste of time. If not for his two fine trades acquiring Phaneuf, Lupul and Gardiner it would have been a definite regression. Two good trades, zero playoff appearances and one bad trade (yes, the Kessel trade) add up to a pink slip. The fact that the team's record was noticeably worse certainly didn't help Burke's resume.

In the end, I had grown sick of Burke's shtick and lack of results by the end of last season and I'm fine with him being turfed. I'm just not sure that his protegee Dave Nonis will result in much of a change.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Punch Imlach & His Faceoff-Taking Defencemen

Leafs celebrating Bob Pulford's OT winner in Game 3.

It's part of Toronto Maple Leaf folklore. And really, that's all that keeps us Leaf fans going is folklore. Game Six of the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals. 55 seconds remaining. Who does coach Punch Imlach have take the defensive-zone face off to the left of Terry Sawchuk but defenceman Allan Stanley. Of course, Stanley would beat Jean Beliveau on the draw and eight seconds later George Armstrong sealed the Leaf Cup win with an empty-net goal. The truth is, Imlach using his defencemen to take the defensive zone draw was more of a normal than a rarity.

Punch Imlach had actually started this practice as far back as the early 1960's. His thinking was that the defender could simply run right through the opposing centre with little concern for the puck that was being dropped. This actually led to the introduction of an interference penalty being assessed to such actions. Even still, Imlach enjoyed throwing his d-men out for defensive draws.

I watched this very game recently and decided to keep track of the face off stats as best as I could. The NHL Network broadcast has cut out a few minutes of the game play in places, but I was able to count well over 90 percent of the draws in the game. The results are as one might expect. Of the total of 32 face offs in the Toronto end, Imlach had a defenceman take an amazing 27 of them. The individual breakdowns are as follows:

Armstrong, a Right Winger managed to split the two draws he took, both in the offensive zone.

Kelly, the defenceman converted to centreman years prior took 8 of his 10 draws in the neutral zone. The two face offs he took in Toronto's zone were within 10 feet of the Toronto blueline, caused by pucks that went over the glass.
Centreman Keon took 6 of the 12 face offs in the Montreal end, splitting them. Amazingly, there were almost three times as many face offs in the Toronto zone compared to the Montreal zone (32 to 12).  The majority of this discrepancy occurred in the third period with Toronto protecting a lead, in the third alone there were 16 face offs in the Toronto end (mostly icing calls) and only ONE in the Montreal end. 

Centreman Stemkowski was the only Maple Leaf to win more draws than he lost, yet did not take a single face off in his own end.
Winger Pulford managed to win his only face off, in his own end, in the third period.

Hillman, along with Stanley and Pronovost were each even on face offs for the evening, although he was only 1 for 3 in the third.
Horton was the only weak spot among the defence corp face off brigade going 1 for 7 on the game including 0 for 3 in the third period.
After wining both his draws in the first period, he took only two more the rest of the game losing both.

As stated, in the third period there were 16 face offs in Toronto's zone and the only three taken by forwards were within 10 feet of the Toronto blueline. All 13 of the face offs in the circles left and right of Sawchuk were taken by Leaf defenders. They won 4 and lost 9 of them.Stanley took five of these draws in the third winning the most important one with under a minute remaining.

Dave Keon vs. Jimmy Roberts in the 1st Period of Game 6. Keon won.

Beliveau was the horse one would expect winning 70% of his face offs overall. He was especially tough in Toronto's zone winning 9 of 11, he was 4 of 5 in the third period losing only the last one to Allan Stanley.
After a slow start to the game, Backstrom won 11 and lost 5 face offs in the second and third periods.
As with most of Les Canadiens, Richard won far more draws than he lost yet took only 1 of the 16 draws in the Toronto end in the third.
Roberts who played both defence and forward was playing up this game and was an abysmal 1 for 8 on draws.

When all was said and done, I counted a total of 69 face offs throughout the game with Toronto winning 30, Montreal 39. Toronto was in fact leading after two periods by a count of 24 to 21. In the third period alone Montreal won 18 and Toronto 6, and remember 17 of those 24 third period face offs took place in the Toronto end.

Toronto's forwards won 19 and lost 23 overall with the defence going 11 and 16. As stated, the defence were even on draws throughout the match if not for Horton's 1 win in 7 attempts. In the end, Imlach really can't be faulted for this strange practice as 3 of the 4 defencemen performed adequately. The Leafs didn't win the Cup as a direct result of this practice, but it definitely didn't hinder them too much.

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