Suspending DisbeLeaf


Why so blue? 

Editor’s Note: This is an entry in our search for Fresh Blood at TLN. Every possible contributor will get three posts to strut their stuff and then we’ll ask you readers to help us choose who is going to join.This is blog post #2 for Matt.

By: Matt Stephen @mattystephen

The Leafs will face many obstacles on their way to a playoff berth: the Eastern Conference bottleneck, poor special teams and, of course, their own fans.

Five seasons out of the playoffs and 44 without a cup title is enough to make even the most loyal fan jaded, but the Leafs fan has unknowingly become one of the team’s biggest detriments. The bet-hedging, self-conscious cheering that seems to have become the rule for Toronto’s home crowds doesn’t help one of the league’s youngest teams (average age of 26). It sometimes feels like nobody is ready to fully cheer for the Leafs including their own mothers, at least until they’ve clinched a playoff spot. But the Buds are on par for the most points since the last time they made the playoffs in 2003-04. That should be enough to cheer about, or to at least let out a sigh of relief, but nothing suspends the disbeLeaf.

You’ll never be able to completely stave off all the Leaf scoffers, even if they put together a few deep playoff runs or a Cup or two. Everyone loves to hate Toronto and that includes self-loathing Leaf fans. The longer fans wait, the more weight is put on that year’s team to win, so should we be surprised to find a majority of the roster plays better away from their fans?

For example: The Leafs are more proficient on the power play away from the ACC and have the third most road goals in the league. The Leafs rank 16th in goals for at home, whereas they move up to third place in road goals.

As a team they’ve still played above-500 hockey at home, but when playing at home, the disparity in performance between the Leafs stars and “the rest of the gang” is concerning.

Aside from the starting five (Kessel, Lupul, Bozak, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson), all other Leafs have statistically better numbers on the road. The Grabovski-MacArthur-Kulemin line has a combined plus-minus rating of +28 on the road, but that nose-dives to -18 at home. On the flip side, the Kessel-Bozak-Lupul line is a plus 20 at home and -5 on the road. It’s the other five lines that are suffering at home; the “auxiliary” players can’t seem to perform in the 416:

Player +/- at home +/- on the road
Luke Schenn Even +7
Mike Komisarek -6 +5
Nikolai Kulemin -7 +9
Mikhail Grabovski -5 +10
Jake Gardiner +1 +6
John-Michael Liles -7 +5
Matt Frattin -3 +5
Colby Armstrong -4 -2

Could it be that as the Feb. 27th deadline approaches trade rumours become more of a distraction for those players tied to speculation? This makes sense when it only seems to affect players who’ve been mentioned in trade rumours (Schenn, Grabovski, MacArthur). Even the Bill Watters couldn’t manufacture a believable trade involving Kessel, Lupul or Phaneuf. Or maybe the younger Leafs lack the resilience to prove themselves as stars in front of a tough home crowd? Honestly, who knows, but with 25 games left and the Leafs hanging on to the final playoff spot by their fingernails, what else can fans do but cheer?

Yes, the Leafs have the most giveaways in the league, yes, they are on a losing streak and yes, Phil Kessel has zero charisma, but 12 of those remaining 25 games are at home and trite as it sounds, it’s up to the fans to make those games as inhospitable to opponents as possible.

Take a look at Winnipeg’s MTS center: any time Kessel or Phaneuf touches the puck in that building, they’re treated worse than Lupul at the All-Star draft. Those fans were the extra man on the ice, something the Leafs don’t have in their favour right now. The cynicism of a 44-year-long losing streak has worn down the league’s most loyal fans, but even so, that’s only 43 years more of a streak than it took Scott Gomez to score.

Like Sundin told us all:

“No fans are more loyal passionate and committed than you leaf fans, thanks for all your support through the years. […] Being a leaf player is a big honour, but also a big responsibility, with the great support and interest from the leaf fans comes more pressure to perform. When you’re a young man in your 20’s it can be overwhelming. The players that represent the Leafs now are young and hungry, eager to win, support them; cheer them on, to give them that extra energy they need to win games.”

In other words: get over the heartbreak, don’t become a bunch of doomsayer-pessimist Reims. People, it’s time to say, Phaneuf is Phaneuf.