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It was 4-1.

Archive for the ‘i miss the goddamn playoffs’ tag

On Happiness

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I was asked last night, over beers, whether I was happy, on a scale of one to 10.

First of all: A score of 10 is unattainable. For anyone.

Second of all: The question was posed to me shortly after I’d watched the Maple Leafs lose 8-0 to the Boston Bruins. Eight-nothing. Who the fuck loses 8-0? And I watched, for the most part, the whole game; couldn’t turn it off. The Bruins can go to hell. The Leafs can, too, for that matter.

I answered “Six-point-five.” And I think I was being generous. Had the Leafs lost 2-1, I’d have probably answered “Seven.” At least. Eight-nothing’s some bullshit.

No playoffs.

Image credit: Robert Adams, via This Isn’t Happiness. 

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 20th, 2012 at 6:36 pm

I Learned Nothing From Last Season’s 4-0-1 Leafs Start

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Life — growing up, the human experience — is about making mistakes. They’re inevitable. What’s important on this journey is to learn from your mistakes. Not repeat them. So I’m a bit disappointed in myself because, with the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting pretty at 4-0-1, just as they were last October after five games, here we are, again: I’m ecstatic. I’m thinking this team’s different, this team’s the one that will end the postseason drought. I learned nothing from last year, when the Leafs got my hopes up, only to murder those very hopes a month later, in November, when the games mattered. Nothing at all. Actually, I’m even more excited this time around, after five games. Should the Leafs win four out of their next five, I think it’ll be pretty obvious to everyone else, as it will be to me, that the Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup.

How could you not be excited after watching The Phil Kessel Show these past two weeks? Sure, people, including Ron Wilson, are talking about Kessel being a streaky scorer and really being in the zone right now, and that might well be the case, but Kessel looks like a different player on the ice. While his supporters, and I’m surely one of them, have continued to trumpet the fact that he is one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive players, already a three-time 30-goal scorer at only 24-years-old, it’s the complete nature of Kessel’s game that has all of us thinking things we probably shouldn’t be. You know, hardware: a Maurice Richard trophy, maybe an Art Ross, hell, maybe even a Selke. Kessel looks dangerous out there, on every shift. You didn’t have to be watching to know when Kessel had the puck over the Leafs’ first five home games; you could hear it. He had the crowd buzzing. It was … fun. And if Kessel lights up Boston …

I know, I know, this Leafs team isn’t perfect. Far from it. It almost makes them easier to love. Nobody likes a perfectionist. But the flaws are evident, five games in. It’s a serious problem that Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul are scoring all the goals. Someone, anyone, please find a pineapple for Mikhail Grabovski to murder; he’s got to get going. The defence has been poor. Not that that’s surprising, really. But my worst fear seems to have been realized: Luke Schenn has been infected by the disease known as Mike Komisarek. Schenn looked awful on Winnipeg’s second goal Wednesday night, just brutal.

But one man’s struggles are another man’s opportunity, and after the way Jake Gardiner played last night, it’s impossible to keep him out of the lineup. And good on the kid. For selfish reasons, of course. Gardiner’s making it easier to let go of Tomas Kaberle.

It’s so much easier to support this team when the trades Burke has pulled off — Kessel, Gardiner, Lupul, Dion Phaneuf — seem to be working, and working out quite well, isn’t it? Speaking of trades, I wouldn’t object to the acquisition of Rene Bourque, but I’m mostly surprised that Calgary would even consider trading again with Toronto. The Flames are one fucked up organization.

A few words on Lupul: helluva finish on his first goal of two last night. What I love most about his success is that I know how much it pisses off, and will continue to piss off, Edmonton Oilers bloggers and fans. I hope he scores 35. In the battle of rebuilders, screw the Oilers, I say.

A favor: If you see anyone out there wearing a Carl Gunnarsson jersey, shake his or her hand. I will do the same.

Another reason to be a lot more excited about this season’s edition of the Leafs, compared to last: James Reimer. The fate of this 4-0-1 team doesn’t rest on J.S. Giguere’s groin, and the wounded psyche of Jonas Gustavsson. Advantage, huge advantage, this year’s squad. In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to seeing how Gustavsson does tonight. The Bruins aren’t scoring goals; they’ve got 11 in six games, Kessel’s scored seven in five. If this Leafs team wants to be taken seriously, now’s the time to capitalize on a struggling Boston squad, and to make sure that not one bloody soul at T.D. Garden is chanting “Thank you Kessel!” Well, except for Leafs fans. They should definitely be chanting “Thank you Kessel!” at T.D. Garden.

Also tonight: Nazem Kadri makes his debut. More skill. And there’s nothing wrong with more skill. Can’t wait.

The Leafs have yet to lose in regulation, their power play stinks, their penalty killing stinks even more (77.3%, ugh), they have zero secondary scoring, and, as cliched as I know it reads, have yet to play a full 60 minutes. Yet I’m thinking 6-0-1, what with Boston and Montreal — both struggling, both beatable — on the schedule before a date with the Flyers.

Should the Leafs take 13 points out of their first available 14, sorry, but I have to think playoffs. It’d be a crime not to. Let’s be honest: I’m thinking playoffs, hockey in spring in Toronto, already. It helps takes my mind off the coming long and depressing winter.

Image courtesy Crystal.  Thanks, Crystal. It’s my favourite.

Written by Navin Vaswani

October 20th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Blue Jays Sweep Mariners, Save Their Season

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For the Blue Jays, it was revenge, pure and simple. Unlike the last time Toronto and Seattle completed a three-game set, the mood in the Toronto clubhouse – the swanky, air-conditioned Rogers Centre clubhouse – was jovial.

“I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t talk about that April series before game one on Tuesday night,” said manager John Farrell. “They ended our season after, what, 10 games? I hope they lose another 12 in a row.”

The unofficial end to the Blue Jays season came after only 11 games, actually, but that hardly mattered Thursday afternoon, in the glow of victory. After blowing a 5-1 lead in the 8th inning, the Blue Jays rallied to win 7-5, sweeping the reeling Mariners out of town, and, in the process, salvaging what was, up until then, a lost season. Now a game above .500 with just over two months left to play, Toronto’s right back in the thick of the playoff race.

“Eight-and-two in our last 10, and only eight-and-a-half games back in the Wild Card,” Farrell said, beaming. “It’s on. This is what it’s all about. I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer.”

So is Travis Snider. While he went hitless on Thursday, he continues to look confident at the plate; like he’s now able to leave his poor at-bats behind, instead of dwelling on them. Since his recall, Snider’s put up a .384 wOBA, along with a 145 wRC+, while driving in 17 runs. And he’s playing centre field, and playing it well.

“The food’s a lot better in the Major Leagues, let me tell you,” Snider said, seated at his locker, enjoying a post-game rack of lamb. “But everything tastes better when you’re winning, and when you’re contributing.”

He didn’t even have to say it, before I did for him: “Meats don’t clash.”

Mike McCoy walked by, and I asked him if I could have a word. He came up big in Thursday’s matinee, hitting two clutch doubles, and scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the 8th, to make sure Seattle’s losing streak continued.

“Sure,” McCoy said. “But I want to ask you a couple of questions first. I saw you talking to Farrell. Did he mention me at all? Say he needed to talk to me?”

I told McCoy Farrell hadn’t.

“Excellent. I’m still here,” McCoy said. “You wouldn’t think you could get tired of hearing, ‘We’re sending you to Las Vegas,’ but you’d be wrong. I try to stay away from John, you know? Alex, too.”

“Well, you could always hide behind Jon Rauch,” I told him.

“That’s actually a pretty good idea,” McCoy said, clearly thinking about it. “Shit, Farrell’s coming this way. I gotta go.” And he took off; a departure Nyjer Morgan would have been proud of.

As I was making my way to Ricky Romero’s locker, where he was pulling a crisp $100 bill out of his wallet and handing it to Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind stopped me.

“You know who I just spoke to on the phone? John-Michael Liles,” he said. “Yeah, the new Maple Leafs defenceman. He’s from Indiana! Like I told you last time, man, it’s just a great state. Ask him about it. Lets go Hoosiers!” he yelled, and walked away.

Lind’s a little bit crazy.

I finally got to Romero, who was now alone at his locker, writing the letter “W” over and over again on a notepad. I looked down and caught “WIN” written a few times, too, but mostly there were only Ws. I made the decision not to ask.

“Uh, Ricky, hey, I know it’s none of my business, but I saw you handing Edwin a hundred dollar bill a few minutes ago. What’s up? He win a bet?”

“Yeah, actually he did,” said Romero. “We’ve got a bit of a wager, you know, between millionaires, when he’s on the field when I’m pitching. You know as well as I do it’s a circus when he’s out there, especially at third base. So any play he makes, error free, I have to give him $50. If he makes an error, he owes me $100, and $200 for the second error, and $300 for the third error, and so on. I know he hasn’t done it yet, but I think Eddie’s probably capable of making five errors in a game. He’s got it in him to do that. Just depends on the bounces, and the guy keeping score.”

And this is how ball players keep a 162-game season interesting, I thought.

“How many plays did Edwin make today?” I asked, while thinking that it was funny that we were still talking about Encarnacion’s defence. Other than Jose Bautista, Encarnacion’s been Toronto’s best hitter in July, putting up a most impressive slash line: .328/.394/.500; a .400 wOBA! Believe it or not, Edwin’s walked seven times in July; he walked only nine times in April, May and June combined.

“Only two plays,” Romero replied, as we got back down to business. “Both in the 2nd inning. Luckily for Eddie, Seattle didn’t hit another ball his way.”

I feel for the Mariners right now, from Ichiro to their fans, the team in the midst of a soul-crushing 12-game losing skid. You know they had to have been trying to hit the baseball at Encarnacion. Towards him, in his vicinity. It’s the right game plan. It’s just that nothing’s working for Seattle these days, except for Eric Wedge’s mustache.

Usually when a team’s caught up in a losing streak the likes of Seattle’s, you figure they’re bound to win a game, thanks to a lucky bounce, or an error-filled game from Encarnacion. Something. Anything. But not the Mariners. They don’t look like a ball club that’s going to be winning a game anytime soon. Even after Miguel Olivo tied up the game with his grand slam in the 8th inning, and stole Romero’s precious “W” out from under his fingertips, the momentum didn’t feel like it had swung. The Blue Jays were going to find a way to win. More to the point: the Mariners were going to find a way to lose. And they did, with the light-hitting duo of McCoy and Rajai Davis doing the the damage. Now off to Boston, then New York, and then back out west, at home to Tampa Bay, it might be August before the Mariners win again.

But the fate of the Mariners is hardly the concern of the Blue Jays. They’re off to Arlington, Texas to face the Rangers, who play the opposite of Mariners baseball, and who own the American League’s best home record: 31-18.

“They ought to get a roof down there,” said Jose Bautista. “What baseball fan wants to pay to sit in that heat? That ain’t beast mode.”

Neither is Jo-Jo Reyes, I thought, who’ll be on the mound Friday night, deep in the heart of Texas. But should Jo-Jo and the Blue Jays, against all odds, continue their winning ways and sweep the Rangers, they’re guaranteed three more wins after that, with Baltimore in town after an off-day on Monday. That’d be a nine-game winning streak; definitely beast mode.

Image credit: Getty, via Yahoo! Sports.

Written by Navin Vaswani

July 22nd, 2011 at 10:15 am

The habit of believing

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I’m reading Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat.” Carbohydrates, my friends, are the devil. Have you seen Travis Snider?  The Meats Don’t Clash diet works.

Anyway, I came across a quote in the book by Umberto Eco, Italian all-around smarty-pants, which Taubes uses to help expose the flaws in the widely accepted calories-in/calories-out paradigm. It’s fantastic. Fucking fantastic. Witness:

I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.”

I had to put the book down. Actually, I read the quote again, twice, and then put the book down.

That’s me. That’s my fandom. Of the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Bills, Toronto FC, and Toronto Raptors. Of every awful team I support. There’s nothing really rational about supporting those teams. Then again, there’s nothing really rational about sports; rationale doesn’t factor into rooting for a specific team, or player.

I’m sure Kansas City Royals fans, and Pittsburgh Pirates fans, and even Calgary Flames fans, can relate to that quote. Why, year after year, do we go on? Why do we stick around, after all the abuse? The answer’s in the quote: we believe. It’s no longer a habit of pretending to believe, as Eco says. We actually believe. That this year, whichever year it is, is actually the year. Even though it’s probably not.

The Maple Leafs last took part in a playoff game thousands of days ago, in 2004. Literally thousands of days ago. Two-thousand-something days. I don’t remember the actual number, but the CBC was kind enough to point it out last Saturday, during the final Leafs/Habs tilt until October. I don’t even want to begin to think about how many more thousands of days it’s been for the Blue Jays. Almost two decades. Yet every April, I find myself thinking, “Wow, I haven’t been this excited about the Blue Jays since, well, last year.” I say the same thing about the Maple Leafs in October.

In years prior, I’ve still been bout it bout it for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nothing better than the first round, and playoff overtime, I’ve always said myself. Wednesday night, as the playoffs began, and Vancouver welcomed Chicago, and the Rangers and Capitals treated folks to overtime, I watched baseball. Dodgers and Giants, from San Francisco, with Vin Scully in the booth.

I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I know something’s changed. I chose baseball. It’s definitely got something to do with listening to Scully, something I haven’t done enough of in my life. He’s absolutely brilliant in the booth, a one-man team. But another part of me simply isn’t interested in the playoffs if the Leafs aren’t involved. I don’t care anymore. I’ll be watching tonight, Montreal and Boston, but that’s only because I’ve got to live-blog the game for The Score. Pay me to watch it, and I’ll do it. Gladly, of course. But between hockey I’m not emotionally invested in, even though it’s intense and awesome hockey for the most beautiful trophy in professional sports, and Scully’s baseball poetry, I chose the legendary Dodgers broadcaster. And I’d do it again.

Back to the quote: the believing is exhausting. But I guess, in the end, the believing is also what makes it worthwhile.

Image courtesy The Best Part.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 14th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Road Trip: Hockeytown

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Playoff dreams often go to Detroit to die.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ likely did just that this past weekend, as after landing in Motown on Friday afternoon only three points from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and optimistic they could claw closer, Toronto is an overwhelming seven points back with six games to play.

- James Mirtle (The one and only.)

Fitting, no, that I, along with my fellow “Kadris,” were at Joe Louis Arena when, for all intents and purposes, the dream — 8th place — died its most recent death. No playoffs.

Saturday night, though, wasn’t depressing. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but our visit down to Detroit on a weekend in late March felt more like a celebration. For starters, the game mattered. It wasn’t supposed to. The youngest Toronto Maple Leafs team I’ve ever seen assembled had put together quite a second half run, clawing themselves back into the race, and ruining — well, hopefully, still –Boston’s hopes of winning the lottery. They may have lost 4-2, but Saturday night was the celebration of a rebuild, and a fete in James Reimer’s honour.

(It was probably the alcohol.)

Nemo’s

Nemo’s, on Michigan Avenue, in beautiful downtown Detroit, is where the evening began. The joint opened its doors back in the mid-60s, and is still going strong today.

Upon walking into the bar, five brown-skinned men and one Asian, we were greeted warmly by the Detroit faithful.

“Hey, look, the Kadris are here.”

From that moment on, we were indeed The Kadris. It’s no coincidence young Nazem scored the second goal of his career a couple of hours later. His supporters section went wild.

I’ll pass on the recommendation we received from a Red Wings fan who’d made the trip across the river from Windsor: A Ground Round burger with American cheese, fries, and a beer. After a meal like that, in a place like Nemo’s, you can’t help but want to chant: “USA! USA! USA!”

Once you’ve done your patriotic duty, hop on Nemo’s shuttle bus for $3, and be whisked away to Joe Louis Arena.

The Business

We found ourselves seated next to and around some of the most polite Red Wings fans ever. They were Canadian, obviously. Let’s be honest: If I was from Windsor, I’d root for the Red Wings, too.

Other than some good natured razzing at the rink, and by one buffoon at Lafayette Coney Island after the game, a good time was had by all. The highlight of the night might have been my boy Dee explaining to a fellow Leafs fan in the concourse that we were, in fact, related to Nazem Kadri. His emphatic response: “I KNEW IT!!!1″

You’ve heard it before: It’s a shame the Leafs and Red Wings don’t play each other more often. Well, it’s true. I can now corroborate this fact. The building’s paying audience is split down the middle in its fandom, and there isn’t much better than yelling “Go Leafs Go!” at the top of your lungs in between chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings!” She’s an older rink, the Joe, but she’s got character, and charm.

I’ve been to Maple Leafs games in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and now Detroit. The tilts in Philly and New Jersey were playoff games; we truly were the enemy, and were treated as such. Philly, to no one’s surprise, was the worst. It got racial, and there was some mild shoving. Fun!

I’d lump Detroit in with Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It’s as Canadian a hockey experience you can get without actually being in Canada. The folks at the Joe know their hockey, they enjoy their beer, and they’ve been blessed for years with a fantastic, #winning team on the ice.

Needless to say, I’d recommend a visit down to Detroit. Stop by Caesar’s Windsor on the way. Spend the night. Don’t think of it as losing money at the Blackjack table. I don’t. I think of it as contributing to Windsor’s, and Detroit’s, battered economies.

Good Times

The older I get, the more I realize weekends like the one that just passed will only become fewer and further in between. Good friends, good times, incredible music, copious amounts of alcohol, along with healthy debates about religion, why I personally think all Hindus should eat beef, politics, and democracy. Cheers, fellow Kadris.

Looking back, there’s only one way the weekend could have been better. In a perfect world, the Leafs would have killed off the only two penalties they took.

Maybe next year.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 28th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Time goes by so slowly

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It’s amazing how much I’ve come to neglect this space — this corner – of late. My excuse: I’ve devoted myself to the Adventures of Joe West. If you haven’t noticed, Joe West’s silhouette has replaced that of a batter in the NotGraphs logo. Since Joe West’s first adventure just over two weeks ago, that’s how far we’ve come.

Time, and Toronto, rolls on. Postseasons are about to officially be missed, and new seasons are about to begin. Death, and rebirth. The cycle of life, yo.

1. Opening Day is less than two weeks away. That is insane.

2. Back in the day, learning about the happenings of Spring Training meant waiting for highlights — awful looking highlights, camera angle wise, too — found in the depths of SportsCenter. Today, I know when Edwin Encarnacion hits a fly ball to the warning track immediately after he’s sent said fly ball to the warning track.

3. The coverage has increased at least a billion-fold, but I still don’t really care about Spring Training.

4. If Rajai Davis hits home runs, Rajai Davis can’t steal bases. The legend of Dwayne Murphy grows.

5. This time of year reminds me of one word, and one word only: Thaw. It’s a fantastic word. Say it out loud: thaw.

6. Ron Wilson starting J.S. Giguere in Miami was straight disrespectful to me as a Toronto Maple Leafs supporter. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.

7. I like to think I’ve made peace with the Phil Kessel deal. That I support it fully, and am glad Kessel’s a Leaf. He’s 23. Kessel won’t be 24 until October. He’s a child! But every now and then, I suffer through fits of doubt. And I’ll be honest: defending Kessel, and the deal, is bloody exhausting.

8. You know who else is only 23? Carey Price. Thanks to The Score, I’ve watched a ton of Montreal Canadiens games this year. Price is for real. And he’s only 23.

9. Michael Cammalleri looks nothing like the Michael Cammalleri of 2009/2010, let alone the Cammalleri of 2008/2009. His struggles, injuries included, are what’s known as sweet justice for not signing with the Leafs.

10. I desperately — very, very desperately — want Nazem Kadri to succeed in the NHL. It would make my life easier.

11. Tomas Kaberle will play in Toronto as a member of the Boston Bruins Saturday night. Awkward. The Bruins are 7-2-3 since the trade, Toronto 6-4-4. Kabba’s got three assists in those 12 games as a Bruin, and he’s +5. But I’ve no doubt: Tomas misses home. If you’re at the game, I hope you remember that Kaberle is love. Give it up.

12. Brian Burke’s got to sign one of Tomas Vokoun or Ilya Bryzgalov. As much as I can’t really stand Ron Wilson, Burke owes it to his BFF to hook him up with at least one year of NHL-calibre goaltending. Imagine the freedom.

13. That being said, thank you, James Reimer. You’ve been the most pleasant of surprises.

14. My brother tells me I’m way too hard on Mike Komisarek. I say I can’t be hard enough. Worst.

15. I’m headed to Detroit next week to watch the Leafs take on the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. If you’ve got any Motor City recommendations, I’d love to read them.

16. I still can’t believe George Packer doesn’t have a Twitter account.

17. I can’t point out the date on a calendar, but I checked out on the Raptors season a long, long time ago.

18. However, this — DeMar DeRozan’s spin move, posterization of two members of the Utah Jazz — might be the play of the year. As always, the reaction from the bench is almost as great as the dunk itself.

19. Re-sign Bryan Colangelo already.

20. What’s up with Gaddafi and the tents?

21. If you’re ever in the Phoenix area during Spring Training, make sure you visit Salt River Fields at Talking Sticks. Incredible facility. I’ll have a post about the place up at NotGraphs in the coming days. And, yes, hanging out with the FanGraphs staff, the best and brightest baseball nerds, in the desert was just as fun as I imagined it would be.

22. Tell me that Toronto FC, led by locals Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman, will make the playoffs.

Image courtesy Ronnie Yip. Davisville Village stand up.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 19th, 2011 at 5:40 am

Delusions of grandeur

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Over the past couple of weeks, as the Maple Leafs have rocketed up the standings, I’ve heard it on radio call-in shows, have read it in emails and text messages, and have even had it said to my face: “Don’t bother. They do this every year.”

“This,” of course, being Toronto’s late season sprint towards eighth place — the promised land — in the Eastern Conference, after the rest of the field got off to a head start.

“Don’t bother”? Really? Would you rather the Leafs didn’t, and continued to, you know, stink?

Personally, I can’t see how anyone, if they’re out there, isn’t over the moon about James Reimer, finally annointed Toronto’s number one goalie. The “deeply religious” and unassuming 22-year-old, who looks so goddamn comfortable between the pipes, as if he feels no pressure at all, has me thinking I need to find God. While Alex Ovechkin’s busy posting photos of Phil Kessel on Twitter, Nikolai Kulemin’s out-scoring his Russian comrade. Kulemin continues to improve, year over year. He’ll pot 30 this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be a 40-goal man in the years to come. Speaking of Kessel, chosen last by his peers in the all-star draft, only 13 players in the NHL have scored more goals than #81. Five of those 13 players have 28 goals to Kessel’s 27. It rings true about the all-star game, too: Draft Schmaft.

The list, headed by career years from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, goes on. This isn’t a Leafs squad riddled with underachieving veterans and the Andrew Raycrofts and Vesa Toskalas of the world. This is the youngest Maple Leafs team I can recall, attempting to claw back into a race they were told they were out of months ago. This is fun, goddamnit, and I will enjoy every second of it.

In years past, when the Leafs did “this” before, the killjoys of the world complained that all it did was set Toronto back when it came to the draft. A valid point, sure, even though it wrongly assumes the Maple Leafs can draft decent talent outside of a top-10 pick. Considering Boston’s got Toronto’s first-round pick, I’m having a difficult time wondering why there would be any hesitation to step aboard the bandwagon.

The Maple Leafs are rebuilding. They always have been. Trading two firsts, and one second-round pick, for a proven first-round pick, didn’t make it not a rebuild. Nor did signing a couple of veteran defencemen in free agency, even though Mike Komisarek has turned out to be nothing short of the worst. But: Assets have been recouped. First-round draft picks, and prospects drafted in the first round. All of a sudden, Ron Wilson’s not so bad behind the bench. And Brian Burke’s work in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline was top-notch, or anti-Joe Nieuwendyk. Keith Aulie’s playing 20 minutes a night. Carl Gunnarsson’s playing between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Kessel’s leading the way. Don’t bother, my ass.

The way I see it, the Leafs could be playing out the stretch. In a perfect world, they’d be fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but the world is far from, and never will be, perfect. Meaningful Leafs games, that’s what these — tonight! — are. Or, as I like to call them, playoffs before the playoffs.

Update:

Leafs 3, Flyers 2. Playoffs!!!1

Image via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 3rd, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Bizarro world

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I’m still reeling over what happened Tuesday night out in Silicon Valley. The turn of events that led to the Maple Leafs defeating the Sharks were unprecedented. As George Costanza would put it: There was no precedent, baby!

Think about it. First and foremost: James Reimer. James motherfucking Reimer. The keeper who’s come out of nowhere and swept a hockey-mad city, one that wants nothing more than replacement-level goaltending, off its feet. Through two periods, Reimer had stopped 33 of 34 shots, including all 21 he faced in the second period. With Toronto trailing 1-0, Reimer was doing what goalie after goalie after goalie had failed to do so for the Maple Leafs since the goddamn lockout ended years ago: keep his team in the game.

In the second period, the Maple Leafs killed five San Jose power plays, including a short two-man advantage, and one four-on-three advantage. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, coached by Ron Wilson and, among others, Keith Acton. Five power plays. In one period. In one game. I celebrated with drink. Reimer, of course, was a big part of the effort. And one of the penalties, the final one to Francois Beauchemin, was complete bullshit, a retaliation call after he was dangerously tripped by Devin Setoguchi in a race to the puck.

When trailing after two periods, Toronto’s record was 1-17-2. But they came out in the third period with a purpose. You know, to win. To not waste the solid effort from their rookie between the pipes. And it was Phil Kessel, of course, who tied the game at ones. His goal, number 19 on the season, good enough for eighth in the NHL, was a dazzling display of skill and patience, as if to justify Kessel’s selection for the all-star game.

Four minutes later, Toronto’s power play struck. Clarke MacArthur’s backhand found the net, after a beautiful pass from — who else? — Tomas Kaberle. And that power play, which couldn’t buy a goal early in the season, is now top-10 in the league, rolling at 18.9%. Ben Eager’s thank you card is in the mail.

A minute later, San Jose tied the game. Typical. Surely the Leafs, in the second of back-to-back games, would fold. But they didn’t. Cue more bizzaro happenings.

Like defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, for some reason skating by the front of the San Jose net, deflecting a Dion Phaneuf shot from the point past Antti Niemi. It was only the eighth goal scored by a Maple Leafs defenceman all year, and would eventually be only the second game-winning goal courtesy the back end. The point is: Maple Leafs defencemen don’t score. Especially not on the road in a 2-2 game in the third period.

Could the Leafs hold on? Again? Just as they did the night before in Los Angeles? If there was any doubt, Dion Phaneuf erased it by almost ending the life of Dany Heatley as he skated into the Toronto zone. Phaneuf clocked him. It was the finest hit I’d seen Dion throw as a Maple Leaf. The bodycheck I’d been waiting for.

Reimer shut the door, of course. Just like he did in Los Angeles. He stopped seven of eight shots in the third period. The Leafs won important faceoffs in their own zone, and iced the game thanks to another MacArthur goal, this time into an empty net, which, let’s be honest, is just as intimidating as Niemi. Four wins in a row. Five straight victories on the road. Likely the apex of 2010/2011 Toronto Maple Leafs fandom.

In the end, Ron Wilson had victory number 600 in his back pocket, becoming only the seventh coach in history to reach the milestone. And it came against his former team. I won’t lie: Based on Wilson’s time in Toronto, I was still in disbelief he’d won 599 games before Tuesday night. But it’s not too late for Wilson. Should the Leafs turn it around, Ron may get his own statue yet. (Looking smug, of course.)

The power play’s working. There’s a guy in the crease playing as big as his six-foot-two frame. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail “Mickey Grabs” Grabovski, Kris Versteeg, Kessel and MacArthur are all on pace to have career offensive seasons. Luke Schenn has found his game. Kaberle is reborn. The penalty kill, the useless goddamn penalty kill, hasn’t allowed a goal on the road trip. It’s 10-for-10. It’s creeping towards an 80% success rate, and respectability. Believe it or not, after the bizarro Leafs assured themselves of a winning road trip (!) Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Wilson hasn’t been given enough credit.

While I’m doubtful Toronto Maple Leafs hockey can get much better than it was on Tuesday, all I ask is that there be no return to regularly scheduled programming. Fuck losing. And poor goaltending. They’re both bloody exhausting.

Image of a beaming Clarke MacArthur courtesy of Reuters via daylife.

NotGraphs: Where were you when …

with 16 comments

To give you an idea of what you might find from me every Tuesday and Friday over at NotGraphs, I’ve cross-posted today’s entry. It’s about hall of famer Roberto Alomar’s 1992 ALCS game four home run. The home run that changed everything …

For a generation of Toronto Blue Jays and Canadian baseball fans, it is the home run. The home run that forever changed Toronto’s baseball destiny. The home run that represents, perhaps defines, one’s fandom. And I’m not talking about Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series-winning walk-off.

What made Roberto Alomar’s call to Cooperstown this week so enjoyable for me was the reliving of past glories. Up here, they’re all we’ve got.

I was 10-years-old when Alomar sent a 9th inning 2-2 Dennis Eckersley pitch into right field for a two-run home run, to tie game four of the 1992 ALCS between Oakland and Toronto at six apiece, completing a rather miraculous 6-1 Blue Jays comeback. I don’t remember watching Toronto take an early 1-0 lead on a John Olerud home run, or watching Jack Morris get tagged for five runs in the Oakland half of the third, but for some reason, I remember Alomar’s home run. Vividly.

It was a 4:00 pm Sunday afternoon local start in Toronto, the game being played out on the west coast, on October 11, 1992. When Alomar went yard, it had to have been after 7:00 pm Toronto time. I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, being whisked away somewhere. I remember hearing Alomar’s heroics on the radio, listening to the call as the ball sailed over the right field wall, Alomar apparently raising his hands in the air in triumph, and going absolutely insane with my older brother, who was sitting in the backseat with me. Without looking at the box score, I couldn’t tell you how Toronto won game four, or whether I saw it happen live on television or heard it on the radio. I only remember Alomar’s home run.

Time is funny. I can see myself in the car, bouncing around the backseat with my brother. But in my memory, it’s daylight out, bright and sunny, which it couldn’t have been at the time. I asked my older, and much wiser, brother if he remembered, and he said: “I think we were at home.” Which one of us is right, we’ll never know. But I like to think it’s me.

The next day, I probably didn’t even read the newspaper. I was too young at the time to understand the magnitude of the home run, or the comeback victory. I was too young to realize that the Toronto Blue Jays were exorcising their past playoff demons; putting 1985, 1989, and 1991 to bed, and shedding the label of playoff chokers.

In the aftermath of the home run, it all came back to Eckersley’s antics: His dramatic fist-pump to end Toronto’s 8th inning, when Oakland was on top 6-4.

Jack Morris, quoted in The Toronto Star, pulled no punches:

The best part was that we knocked Eck’s butt off.

But Morris saved his best quotes for The New York Times:

I think Eckersley’s Little League gesture to us really inspired us. He wheeled and looked at us and did all that stuff you do when you’re in Little League. He got it today. It finally came back to haunt him.

Years later, these quotes amaze me, and take me right back to the backseat of my folks’ car, when Alomar made history. Roberto, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, seemed to understand the importance of what he and his teammates had done.

Everybody is always talking about Toronto choking in the playoffs. We’ll see.

Candy Maldonado chimed in as well with this gem:

Sometimes you can’t wake up a sleeping dog because he might bite you.

Preach on, Candy. Preach on.

When Alomar stepped into the box, Toronto shortstop Alfredo Griffin, quoted in Sports Illustrated, and a Dodger in 1989, knew what was going to happen:

I saw Kirk Gibson all over again.

While I didn’t see it live, I’ve watched that ball sail over the right field fence in Oakland a thousand times. Probably more. Alomar’s iconic arms-raised pose is one that every Blue Jays fan remembers, just as much, if not more, than Joe Carter leaping at first base at the SkyDome in October 1993.

Alomar, of course, wasn’t trying to show anybody up. Like me, like the rest of us, he was simply caught in the moment.

I’m a little guy. But I guess the little guy became a big guy.

Time can play tricks on the mind. But it certainly can’t change the facts. And Alomar’s home run remains one of the reasons I’m more in love with baseball today than ever. Because I want to feel how I felt in the backseat of that car, all the way back in 1992, again. Just one more time.

Image courtesy of RobertoAlomar.com. Alomar himself loves that photo!

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 7th, 2011 at 8:58 am

A humble request

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First things first: Maple Leafs fans in Edmonton set the bar pretty high Tuesday night, during round two of the Rebuilding Bowl, now tied at one apiece. I hope Leafs fans in Calgary and Vancouver are up to the task.

Secondly: I found Brian Burke’s comments Tuesday afternoon, assessing Toronto’s and Edmonton’s competing rebuilding philosophies, rather poignant. Usually when Burke talks to the media — when he’s either defending the Phil Kessel trade, or telling paying customers they’re “disgraceful” for booing Dion Phaneuf, or claiming Leafs fans aren’t upset about the state of the union – I want to punch myself in the face.  But on Tuesday he actually made some sense.

For all the Oilers’ drafted talent, it’s Burke’s Leafs who are the youngest team in the NHL. The two teams are truly going about their respective rebuilds in a different manner, and no winner can yet be declared. After 30 games this season, the Leafs have 28 points, and Edmonton’s got 27. After 82 games in 2009/2010, Toronto finished with 74 points, and Edmonton with 62. While they are talented players, Edmonton’s first round picks from the past four years — Sam Gagner in 2007, Jordan Eberle in 2008, Magnus Paajarvi in 2009, and Taylor Hall in 2010 — aren’t exactly helping Edmonton climb the ladder. Not yet, at least. The Oilers remain a last place team.

Would I rather Burke have gone the Oilers’ route? Yes. Absolutely. But he didn’t. I’m sick of rehashing the Kessel deal. I’m sick of reading others reevaluate the Kessel deal. It’s done. The draft picks are never coming back. I always said I wanted a rebuild. It’s certainly not by the book, but it is a rebuild. And there’s no guarantee it won’t work out just as well, or as poorly, as the Oilers’ rebuild.

Both teams have bad contracts: Shawn Horcoff and Nikolai Khabibulin in Edmonton, and Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda and, arguably, Colby Armstrong  in Toronto. I’d argue Toronto, with Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas, have more depth in goal than the Oilers. I also hope and pray that all the kids Edmonton drafted in 2007 through 2010 turn out to be the reincarnation of their teammate Andrew Cogliano. Or at least that Nazem Kadri’s better than all of them.

Ironically enough, both teams, with 52 games left on this season’s schedule, find themselves eight points out of a playoff spot. And that brings me to my next point, and, eventually, the point — my humble request — of this bloody post. On Monday afternoon, the incorrigible Steve Simmons wrote:

The conclusion to [the Leafs' recent strong play combined with their inability to climb the Eastern Conference standings] is two-fold: One, the Leafs are playing better. Two, they have no chance, absolutely none, of making the playoffs.

Absolutely none? With 50 games left to play? I refuse to believe it. Crazier things have happened. Like, I don’t know, the 1992/1993 season, when after 30 games, the Leafs had the identical record they do today: 12-14-4.

It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy. Nothing comes easy in Toronto. But I won’t stop believing, because of all the Leafs on the current roster, including heartthrob Luke Schenn, there’s nothing I want more than to see Mikhail Grabovski suit up for the Leafs in the playoffs. Preferably against the Montreal Canadiens. Grabbo’s success — he’s on pace for a career year — is that much sweeter because he’s a Habs castoff. And props to Francois Beauchemin for stepping up for #84 after he was Stortini’d. Love.

Okay, we’ve finally made it. My request: When the Maple Leafs make the playoffs, the night they clinch a spot during the regular season, I ask that they be allowed to celebrate baseball style; I humbly request champagne. Because 2004 was a long, long, long time ago. Because life’s too short to not celebrate (appropriately) small victories.

Image courtesy this isn’t happiness.