The Leafs kicked off their post-All Star schedule with an almost perfectly played game. Pavel Kubina had a hell of a game with two goals and an assist and the Leafs' special teams outdueled the Canadiens top ranked PP and PK. The Habs have gone 6-10 in their last 16 and have slowly been returning to the pack where they belong. Their heady position was built on excellent special teams and any Leaf fan can relate to how shaky that sort of foundation can be. The Habs are a deely flawed team that has been dominated in all five games by the Leafs and have picked up two wins on the basis of incredible goaltending and their special teams. This is the second game in Toronto between the two in which neither showed up and they were easily handled by a team that Sheldon Souray labelled as 'not as good as us' in post-game comments.
Easy Sheldon, I think you might be letting your place as Montreal's Bryan McCabe go to your head. I have a newsflash for you: Your team is not as good as the Leafs and the final standings will reflect that fact. I am sure that the Habs are glad that they will only have to face the Leafs three more times during the run-in to the playoffs. Not even with the Leafs laundry list of injuries could the Habs compete with the boys in blue. It was nice to see Souray, who will no doubt wrangle a ridiculous contract on the back of his wicked slap shot despite his complete inability to play defence (see last year's top 10 goals for 3 appearances by Monsieur 44 and he was not scoring them).
Andrew Raycroft had another game in which he made the big saves when needed (that's 3 of 4 since the Canucks debacle) and the team played the simple game. They rarely got caught turning the puck over in their own end, they chipped it out, and they dumped it in and worked to their strength. They dominated the Habs defence down low and caused numerous turnovers. On the powerplay, the second unit of Stajan, O'Neill, Steen, Kubina, and Carlo showed that they could be a viable threat with two goals and excellent puck movement.
The 4-1 defeat of the Canadiens was a great send-off before embarking on a five game road trip. There are 13 games left before the February 27th trade deadline. They include only four home games which in itself may be a blessing. The Leafs sport a 12-9-3 record away from the ACC and Andrew Raycroft is clearly more comfortable away from the boo-birds as his 11-5-1 attests.
Those 13 games include eight games against teams that are either in the playoffs but within striking distance or in the chasing pack on the ouside looking in. The first five will give JFJ a good indication of what sorts of deals he will be able to make. Bitter Leaf makes a good case for not giving up on the season while still making trades that will benefit the future of the team. Dave Shoalts outlines how Richard Peddie, Larry Tanenbaum and the rest of the MLSE board have put JFJ in a ridiculous position. He can either look out for his own best interests, in this case make short-term trades in order to make the playoffs and retain his job, or do the right thing for the club, cash in assets and build for the future, and risk being fired if the Leafs miss the playoffs.
JFJ has already walked down the path of self-preservation during the off-season and it left the Leafs with a Bryan McCabe contract that gives the team an anchor around its neck more than an anchor on defence and a Pavel Kubina contract that until recently was looking every bit as bad. My belief is that when JFJ examined the team last year he saw a team that missed the playoffs because of injuries to the forwards and shaky goaltending. He addressed the goaltending issue well (whether he made the right decision is up in the air considering most fans would have lived with an Aubin-Telly platoon and that Manny Legace was available cheaply since teams were inexplicably uninterested in him) but he made a calculated gamble based on the advice of the Leafs scouts and their depth at the goaltending position.
He addressed the forward issue by letting Allison and Lindros walk and allowing the younger forwards to take on a bigger role for the club. Despite the doomsday predictions about the lack of scoring the Leafs sit in the top quarter of the league in goals for. The problem lies in JFJ's decisions about the back-end. Kaberle's deal was a steal and he should receive credit. However, in examining the team's chances of success I think that JFJ looked at the powerplay and saw that he had to maintain it in order to have the best chance to save his job. That reasoning is how Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina ended up getting such large contracts. Yes, both would have probably received more on the open market (Kubina was offered more for longer by the Blues but chose Toronto) but keep in mind that Zdeno Chara, the kind of defenceman that chews up minutes and can shut down the opposition's top line, was available. Him and Jay McKee could have been available for the same money but JFJ must have felt that keeping the McCabe and Kaberle partnership was necessary for the powerplay to keep humming along which in turn gave the team, and by extension himself, the best chance to succeed. He didn't want to risk having the powerplay fall off because the team could not adapt to a different strategy on the powerplay.
So once again the Leafs and their fans enter a decisive period with a GM that has his own interests ahead of the team's long-term succes. He not only has to decide if Mats and Darcy remain Leafs but at what price. Will any of the Cup contenders make offers worthy of those two? When will he start/finish negotiations with the pair? If the Leafs are not able to decline Mats' option and negotiate a better deal (thereby reducing the $6.3M cap hit for next season) then will JFJ move him to a team like Anaheim and thereby free up a large chunk of cap space for the next Leafs star? If Darcy insists on more money or a longer term than the Leafs are willing to spend will he move him before he can leave for nothing? or will he cave and sign him to a McCabe-like deal? I love both players and they would be nigh on irreplaceable but if they were not then these would be easy questions to answer. As it stands, they run through my mind every day.
My own view is that if JFJ takes the easy route and tries to save his job again and succeeds (gets a playoff spot) it will most likely be a Pyrrhic victory because he will probably have traded some portion of the Leafs future to ensure short-tem gains. Leaf fans already frequently tear their clothes, refuse to cut their hair, and moan 'Pat Quinn/JFJ, give me back our future!' without tossing some more picks/prospects/youngsters to the mix. JFJ's next month needs to be focused on ascertaining if Mats and Darcy can be brought back at a good price or, failing that, what the best mix of players/prospects/and picks is that he can get for them. A couple of bad contracts or losing Darcy for nothing would be disastrous for the Leafs.
However, there is nothing that I can do but hope that the Leafs, injuries and all, have learned to succeed over the first 50 games and can use those lessons to reach the playoffs. Before the season I believed that they would make it and the signs have been distinctly positive of late. As for the rest, all I can do is hope for divine inspiration to strike JFJ.