Rough Patches and Mainstream Meanderings

We follow the Leafs.  We're used to the highs and lows.  We know they go through down spells, and we appreciate the fun up swings, but generally speaking, things level out over time.  The NHL season is a long grind.  82 games, 7 months out of the year.  If you include the pre and post seasons you're talking closer to 9 months, or three quarters of the calendar year.

It takes a lot for an NHL franchise to be consistent for that length of time, and generally speaking the consistent teams are experienced, skilled, and well coached and managed.  Virtually no team makes it through the stretch of the season unscathed without a losing streak, and no young team will make it through without a few rough patches.

Consistently inconsistent might be another way to describe the season of a younger squad.  Read the following season break downs, and pretend you DON'T know which one describes the Leafs.

TEAM A

games 1-6: .333 PT%

games 7-12: .500 PT%

games 13-18: .167 PT%

games 19-24: .583 PT%

Average Point % per 6 game stretch: .396

TEAM B

games 1-6: .666 PT%

games 7-12: 1.000 PT%

games 13-18: .250 PT%

games 19-24: .333 PT%

Average Point % per 6 game stretch: .562

TEAM C

games 1-6: .750 PT%

games 7-12: .250 PT%

games 13-18: .417 PT%

games 19-24: .250 PT%

Average Point % per 6 game stretch: .417

Now if you examine this carefully, you may be able to discern which 3 NHL franchises you're looking at.  Edmonton is Team A, St. Louis is Team B, and Toronto is Team C.  Despite the fact that the Leafs have an 8 game losing streak on the season, they've actually obtained more points in the past 13 games than St. Louis - 10 points for Toronto, 8 points for St. Louis.  Edmonton has the most points of the three, with 14 points in their last 13 games.

I sincerely doubt anyone would describe St. Louis as the weakest team of these three, particularly since the Blues won 7 games in a row earlier this season, and bad teams don't tend to go on 7 game winning streaks.  Young teams might though.

Edmonton is currently the favourite of the press, and thumping Toronto 5-0 is apparently indicative of the awe inspiring strength of their hard charing young line up.  Of course, more weight is given to Edmonton producing a 5-0 victory over the 28th placed team in the NHL Toronto, or over the obviously reeling St. Louis Blues, than Toronto's 3-2 shoot out victory over Boston, 4-1 win over Dallas, or demoralizing 4-3 Over Time loss to Tampa Bay.

Perhaps rather than glorifying Edmonton's victories like they're bound for the playoffs (they aren't), or denigrating the Leafs losses as they sink to the bottom of the standings (the youngest team in the NHL tends to end up in that region), the main stream media could provide some depth and understanding of how development works in the NHL.

All of this quibbling over who has how many draft picks is ridiculous.  We know the Phil Kessel trade happened.  We know Edmonton has 3 solid rookies.  But let's think about it this way: Edmonton has two 19 year olds and a 20 year old, drafted 1st, 10th, and 22nd, producing 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points on a 24 point team; Toronto has a 23 year old forward, a 20 year old forward and a 21 year old patrolling the blue line, drafted 5th, 7th, and 5th overall, producing 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points on a 22 point team.  The 21 year old D man from Toronto is 16th in the NHL in hits, and 36th in the NHL in blocked shots.  The 23 year old forward from Toronto is tied for 30th in the NHL in goals with 10.  The Edmonton rookies rank 2nd, 5th, and 18th in rookie scoring.  

Both teams have good young players.  Both teams will continue to have good young players.  Why? Because in all likelihood they're both going to finish fairly low in the standings for the next few years.  This seems like a contradiction to many, but it is not.  Being a good young player on a bad team is a common occurrence in fact.  Sidney Crosby produced 102 points on a Pittsburgh Penguins team that finished with 58 points in 2005-06.  Alex Ovechkin scored 52 goals and 106 points on a Washington Capitals team that finished with 70 points in that same 2005-06 season.  None of the Edmonton trio are likely to end up with over 100 points or over 50 goals.  Their team is unlikely to produce enough points to get into the playoffs.

Why then are we treated to this sort of (non) analysis:

In a swing through Eastern Canada, the Oilers humbled Ottawa 4-1, showed great comeback power in beating Montreal 4-3 in overtime and 24 hours later embarrassed the Leafs.

Toronto actually held a territorial edge in play and out-shot the Oilers 12-4 in the first period and 11-8 in the second. But a goal by Jordan Eberle, Edmonton's first pick in 2008, 3:10 into the game gave the Oilers all the offence they would need on this night. Then Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, added some insurance with his seventh and eighth goals of the year.Sam Gagner, the Oilers’ first pick in 2007, added to the lead. All in all, it was a big night for the Oilers scouting department.

Toronto, meanwhile, has slipped to 28th overall and in doing so has put the Boston Bruins, which own the Leafs’ first-round draft choice in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, back into a lottery pick position. It marked the sixth time in 24 games this season the Leafs have been shutout. Barely past the first quarter mark of the season and it's already beginning to look like another write-off in Toronto.

Both of these teams will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs, but fans in Edmonton can at least see light at the end of the tunnel. Fans in Toronto just see more of the same old, same old and that was never more evident than Thursday night.

-Mike Brophy, Sportsnet.ca

 

No mention of the fact that Edmonton currently sits in 25th spot, all of 2 points ahead of the Leafs, who hold a game in hand.  No mention of the fact that despite Toronto's six shut out losses, the team is only -18 in goal differential, while the Oilers, who have been shut out twice, are -23 in goal differential.

Edmonton has a starting goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, that is 38 years old, with back problems, and a history of interesting (if not outright disruptive) behaviour including a DUI charge this past off-season.  They have brought in a 36 year old reclamation project to play in the AHL for them in the form of Martin Gerber.  This is a team that has no goaltending prospects of note.  This MIGHT be an area of concern for a rebuilding franchise.

Toronto on the other hand began the season with a 33 year old nominal starter in J.S. Giguere, a 26 year old starter in-waiting in Jonas Gustavsson, and has three solid keepers at the AHL and ECHL level in 22 year old James Reimer, 23 year old Jussi Rynnas, and 24 year old Ben Scrivens.

On the blue line, Edmonton has 27 year old Ryan Whitney, 29 year old Kurtis Foster, 28 year old Tom Gilbert, 23 year old Theo Peckham, 30 year old Jim Vandermeer, 24 year old Ladislav Smid, and 26 year old Shawn Belle.  That amounts to 2 players under the age of 25 who have played in the NHL.

Toronto has 32 year old Tomas Kaberle, 29 year old Mike Komisarek, 21 year old Luke Schenn, 21 year old Keith Aulie, 25 year old Dion Phaneuf, 30 year old Francois Beauchemin, 24 year old Carl Gunnarsson, 22 year old Korbinian Holzer, and 29 year old Brett Lebda.  The Leafs boast 5 defensemen with NHL experience that are 25 years of age or younger.  Again it looks like the Leafs may boast a solid future on the back end.

  Putting aside the flash and dash of the young Oiler trio, the Leafs aren't as far behind in the rebuild as the consensus appears.  This isn't the same old same old.  It's a bunch of kids figuring things out.  The last time the Leafs had 5 D men under 25 years of age was 2000-01 when Tomas Kaberle was 22, Bryan McCabe was 25, Danny Markov was 24, Aki Berg was 23, and Petr Svboda was 20.  That was 10 years ago.

The last time the Leafs featured 5 forwards in the top 6 who were 25 or younger (Kessel, Kulemin, Kadri, Versteeg, Bozak, and MacArthur are all 25 or younger) was a long time ago.  When Mats Sundin was 25, so was Sergei Berezin.  Steve Sullivan, Mike Johnson, and Fredrik Modin were 22... that was way back in 1996-97.  

Twenty years ago, Vincent Damphousse scored 33 goals at the age of 22, Gary Leeman had 51 goals as a 25 year old, Ed Olcyk had 32 goals as a 23 year old, and Daniel Marois had 39 goals at the age of 21.  Wendel Clark potted 18 goals in only 38 games as a 23 year old.  

That was 1989-90, and the following off-season, Leeman was traded for Gilmour, Damphousse was traded for Fuhr and Anderson, Olzcyk ended up being traded along with Mark Osborne in the deal for Dave Ellet and the Leafs went on a pretty magical journey when they got a bit older and added some experience in the form of Andreychuk by dealing Grant Fuhr, and brought in the coaching of Pat Burns.

The Leafs are on the cusp of developing into a solid team, and they have a lot of the pieces that will could lead to that sort of promise in the future.  Basing any analysis of this team on a single 10 game stretch ignores the big picture.

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