By Ryan Lambert
Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?
Remember over the summer when the Toronto Maple Leafs made a couple of decent signings and everyone was like, "Oh, hey, I bet they end up being a borderline playoff team," and that all seemed reasonable?
Then they started out pretty hot, with Phil Kessel scoring 1,000 goals in two games and the Leafs streaking to a 10-5-1 record on Nov. 10. A full 21 points from the first 16 games? Why, that was a pace for 108 points. Maybe everyone on the entire planet was wrong about Toronto!
History tells us, obviously, that no one was wrong about Toronto. Since that 10th win, the Leafs have gone just 19-23-6 (a roughly 75-point pace). Things have only gotten worse in the past two weeks, as the team slipped from sixth to 10th in the East and have won just one of their last 11 games, and still allowed Edmonton an OT point in that one.
There have been a lot of theories as to why the Leafs are on this losing skid advanced by people of all stripes.
The most popular seems to be that Brian Burke's inability to wrangle 1970 Bobby Orr and 1992 Mario Lemieux for a pair of late-round picks has left the Leafs bereft of all hope of making the playoffs despite the fact that they're just five points out of the playoffs, with mighty Washington and Winnipeg standing between them and the postseason.
A lot of that is his own fault, of course. He makes a lot of edicts that tie his own hands for no readily apparent reason. If he's now going to outlaw making personnel moves within 10 days of the deadline, and the week around Christmas, how far can we be from similar declarations for American Thanksgiving, Arbor Day, Canadian Thanksgiving and Take Your Daughter to Work Day? Wouldn't want to put too much pressure on those adorable little girls.
The second-most popular theory is that Ron Wilson is a moron who isn't good at coaching in the NHL.
"Goldurn you Ron Wilson! You are a loser!" comes the cry from every Leafs fan who seems to have forgotten that the Leafs forward depth is in a state where Tyler Bozak is the most common accompaniment for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul this season, followed by Tim Connolly, who has 28 points this year.
And let's not dare impugn Kessel, who had a good February after a completely awful January, and only has 11 goals in his last 26 games after scoring 21 in his previous 38. The former is a 35-goal pace. The latter, a 45-goal clip. Let's not act like that has nothing to do with it, though it's tough to go placing too much blame on one of only two reasons the Leafs were ever considered good this season (the other, obviously, being Joffrey Lupul).
The team, very legitimately, has about four top-six forwards in its top six, and that's if you want to be pretty nice to Bozak.
It's defense is also, umm, quite bad.
The goaltending, well, is the goaltending.
Wilson is decidedly not Punch Imlach or Toe Blake, but he's also not the answerless buffoon the crowd gleefully chanting "Fire Wilson" makes him out to be. Case in point that firing the coach isn't always the answer: Washington. Bruce Boudreau didn't go from genius to moron to fired back to genius again, and there's not exactly a guarantee that you'll get anything more than a dead cat bounce when you bring in someone new. The Capitals, of course, didn't even get that much.
But the cutest theory of all was one that gained popularity earlier this week. It's wholly reasonable to say that the Leafs' struggles probably start and end in net, and are as much the result of a crisis of confidence on the part of the defense as they are James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson being not-great. And that's why people started blaming the team's goalie coach, Francois Allaire. "He has them trying to block shots instead of save them," analysts agreed, and noted repeatedly how good Reimer was before he was being forced at gunpoint to try to have everything hit him in the chest.
I'm sorry, was Allaire unreachable on a tropical island vacation during the first half of the season, when Reimer put up a .912 save percentage prior to getting concussed by Brian Gionta? Or do you think maybe this could be a combination of the injury affecting his game and him regressing after 40-something games in the NHL? No goaltender is going to look especially good behind a PK as bad as Toronto's but Reimer isn't helping his own cause either.
And it was really adorable when Brian Burke made that stern "The only reason we're not 0-61 or whatever is Jonas Gustavsson" speech immediately following the deadline. Oh you mean the Jonas Gustavsson who's had one good stretch of hockey this season, from Jan. 1-17 when he had a 2.01 GAA and .931 save percentage? Yeah, that was an unbelievable two weeks (a month and a half ago), alright. But we're still talking about the Jonas Gustavsson who has an .899 save percentage between Jan. 18 and right this very second, yes?
The point, I guess, is that it's really tough to see where this mystery comes from. The Leafs were an okay team before the season began, then they got hot right out of the gate and suddenly they became a legitimate playoff team and everyone forgot how they weren't all that good to begin with.
So yes, 1-9-1 in the last 11 is bad. No doubt about it. It's got to be frustrating as hell. But let's keep things in perspective here: The Leafs were always going to finish somewhere between seventh and 10th. That hasn't changed, and people need to be realistic about expectations then as opposed to now.
But if you're looking to lay blame at someone's feet, there's enough for everyone here. No one change puts Toronto in the playoffs.
A word on fighting in junior hockey
It came out earlier this week that both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are working toward banning fighting of all kinds in junior hockey.
But that, of course, brought the on-rushing hordes of fighting defenders who see a 19-year-old wailing on a 17-year-old's head as An Integral Part of the Sport. The argument from Vancouver Giants coach Don Hay, who helped raise Milan Lucic into the terrifying monster he is today, was that if you're not fighting in junior, you're not adequately prepared for it in the NHL.
The difference is that guys who fight in the NHL are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to do it, and junior players are put on a bus for 16 hours after they fight. As true patriot Chris Peters points out, there have been almost 1,700 fights in major junior this season alone, and another 617 in American junior-A leagues. That's a lot of teenage brains getting rattled around for no good reason.
Maybe that's true. As Peters points out, look at all the junior hockey a tough customer like George Parros played. What's that? He played in the NCAA, where a fight is answered with a one-game ban? So where oh where did he learn to become one of the game's premier puglists? Maybe they taught him how to pummel guys like Mike Rupp and Eric Boulton on the reg in one of his Princeton econ classes.
The guy's been in 138 regular-season fights in the NHL since the lockout, and he sure as hell didn't need to be taught how to do it at the age of 17.
Lucic's insistence is that without fights, games get dangerous because kids take runs at each other. Again, the NCAA doesn't have fighting and yet I've seen dozens of college hockey games this year and seen maybe two or three appalling plays, all of which were summarily handled by their leagues. So that doesn't hold much water either.
People want fighting in junior leagues because fighting has always been in junior leagues. You used to be able to smoke in hospitals too.
The solution is simple: If your league isn't paying its players (right, CHL teams?!?), you shouldn't allow fighting.
Pearls of Biz-dom
We all know that there isn't a better Twitter account out there than that of Paul Bissonnette. So why not find his best bit of advice on love, life and lappers from the last week?
BizNasty on annoying ads: "I've had it up to here with the 5 dollar foot long commercials from Subway."
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