Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs would have experienced an odd feeling of deja vu watching last night's game. In any season as far back as most of us can remember but particularly in the last 5-10 years the Leafs have always had games like this. Usually they happen in February when the season is at it's longest and the playoffs seem very far away. The Leafs go out and attempt to mail one in against a supposedly weaker team and look generally disinterested in the whole affair. Usually the team is Buffalo who despite having missed the playoffs for the past 4 years always looks like a worldbeater when they meet the Leafs. Well, some would say that the Leafs allow them to look like worldbeaters.
So it was last night that Sundin, Belfour and Khavanov plus an assortment of career fourth liners and seventh defensemen looked listless in a 5-2 loss to the Sabres. It is the Leafs third loss in three games in which they have been outscored 15-8.
This was the first time in the pre-season that Belfour looked ordinary although to be fair to Eddie the Leafs took 12 penalties and were down two men for two of the Sabres goals.
The defense core last night consisted mostly of players vying for the 6th spot on the blue line: Belak, Marchment, Wozniewski, and Kronwall, with regulars Khavanov and Berg rounding out the group. Unfortunately none of the four bubble players made a great case for them staying in camp. If I was Quinn I would send Kronwall and Wozniewski straight to the Marlies this morning. Kronwall has good potential but he has not looked good in the last few games he has played and keeping him around doesn't help him or the team. Wozniewski has impressed but unless you are giving Belak or Marchment the boot (not a bad option) he should be sharing a cab with Kronwall to the Ricoh center.
As for Belak and Marchment - it is in my mind a fairly easy decision. Keep Marchment. Unless Domi is going to be traded we have no need for another tough guy on this team. Especially with Perrott and Brown (who is a better 6th defenseman than Belak) hanging around.
Belak did give us the highlight of the night however. He managed to fight a Sabre while his sweater was pulled over his head - and he won the fight all the while looking like a giant stocking cap (or as you say here on the Mainland "touque").
And speaking of Perrott he and his fourth line bretheren - Wilm and Kilger don't deserve a spot on this team. If the league continues to call the obstruction penalties the way they have there is going to be no room for a grinder line made up of slow footed checkers. And by checkers I mean obstruction junkies. Gone are the days (I fervently hope) when lousy players could make up for their lack of skill by "positional play" which meant interfering with the player who doesn't have the puck and holding him up so he can't get into the zone or into open ice. So what do we need to keep players like this around for?
Better to give the speedy yongsters like Wellwood and Steen a chance. Besides Wilm has to be one of the creepiest looking guys around. He looks just like a homeless guy I used to see all the time when I lived downtown years ago. If you are going to have useless players on your team you might was well make them esthetically pleasing to the eye.
As in the game against Montreal on Saturday the penalty calls were a little odd to say the least. Mats Sundin who seems to be making a bid for the title of "Swedish Gordie Howe" delivered an elbow to a Sabre player and was assessed a penalty. No argument there. Then once the whistle was blown he was crosschecked to the ice by another Sabre who wasn't given a penalty. Belak then engaged the offender in a fight and was given 5 for fighting plus an instigator!
During the Habs-Leafs game on Saturday a Mtl player merely waved his stick at a Leafs hands and was given a slashing penalty. Last night Maxim Afinogenov tried to break his stick across Aki Bergs hands and the referees blithely ignored it. This morning on The Fan 590 (which proudly bills itself as "Toronto's Hockey Station!!!" even though they don't broadcast hockey and rarely talk about it) played a clip of Sundin complaining about the aforementioned penalty discrepancy and accused him of "whining".
Not to be outdone Damian Cox of the Toronto Star (who has never written a positive piece about the most popular sports team in Toronto if not the country) descended from on high to deliver the following pronouncement:
But the Leafs, winners of two-of-six exhibition contests thus far, have really seen little in the way of truly encouraging news so far outside of the obviously smart Alex Steen, shifty Kyle Wellwood and impressive young goaltender J.F. Racine.
And the kids always look Gabe Gross good in the fall.
Right. Rookies who look good in exhibition are not always that good during regular season. I agree. But the team they played was also staffed with rookies. Doesn't it make sense to assume that the Buffalo team will probably not look so good in December while a more veteran team like the Leafs will look better?
Not to be outdone his fellow writer from the
The Leafs have spent the bulk of their training camp waiting for regulars to get healthy and painstakingly evaluating young hopefuls against Thomas and fellow veteran Bryan Marchment.
By contrast, teams like Ottawa and Buffalo have used mostly set lineups and appear to have left the Leafs in the ice chips in terms of preparation for the regular season.
If the Leafs had gone with a set line-up of regular season vets the same media types would be complaining that Quinn wasn't using the training camp to evaluate rookies.
Remember this is exhibition - a time when you are supposed to be evaluating fringe and rookie players. If other teams ice their regular season line up you are going to lose games. The leafs have consistently gone with a 50/50 mix throughout all the games and have done well against teams who have done the same. Last night they were without Allison, Lindros, O'Neil, Tucker, Kaberle, McCabe and Klee. Anyone willing to bet their house that the Sabres win this game with those seven in the lineup? Fact is the Leafs have only looked poor when the opposition has stacked their side with 90% of their regulars. I would say that makes a better case for the Leafs overall than some people are willing to admit.
But only if they lose the fourth liners.
Especially the ugly ones.