Blowout or Bust… Can the Raptors Bounce Back?

By Kimberly Daniels

The Raptors game one versus the Cavs was an incredibly hard game to watch. The last seven seconds of regulation saw a desperate team trying to win, and missing every single shot they were handed. (Hey guys, it’s okay to use the backboard) However, the mental breakdown and mistakes of the Raptors as a whole was the most disappointing; their plays after timeouts were sloppy, the turnovers were high and at most points it looked like Korver couldn’t even be touched on the three-point line.

For long-time Raptor fans it becomes really difficult to escape the feeling that we are seeing the same old tired mistakes that ultimately busted our Championship dreams in the past.

Does one bad game mean the Raptors are falling back into who they used to be? Are the Raptors doomed to their ghosts of playoff past?

Well, only time will tell. But tonight is do or die.

The Raptors will have to beat the Cavs before they hit the road and play two games in Cleveland and they will have to do so in blowout fashion if they’re to convince anyone, including themselves. Setting the tone early in this series and showing that they are capable of stopping LeBron and Co. is the biggest statement they need to make.

The Raptors pulling out a big win tonight will mean digging deep on defense and understanding how to guard the inside, continuing to challenge LeBron every possession while also ensuring no one is left alone to hit corner three’s. This will take more communication between the Raps and also means not giving the Cavs any second chance points opportunities.

But most of all the Raptors will have to showcase mental toughness tonight. They need to be alive with confidence and the fierceness we know they have. It is time for the Raps to show everyone why they are an opponent to fear and it’s also about damn time they put these playoff ghosts to rest.

Off with his head: Raptors look to dethrone the King

By Kimberly Daniels

And so begins another series, as the Raptors travel the road to Championship status. However, this time our opponent needs no introduction. This is the team (or should I say player) who has caused the demise of Raptors playoff dreams too many times in the past…

LeBron James.  A player who is argued to be better than Michael Jordan, who is referred to as the ‘King’ and who averaged 34 points and 10 rebounds per game against the Indiana Pacers series that went to game 7.

But all Kings lose their crown at some point right? And if there is ever a time where it could happen for LeBron, the time is now.

The Raptors are ready. They have a deeper bench, they have the confidence, they have the whole country behind their back and they even have Charles Barkley hopping on their bandwagon.

But what does the actual game plan look like to stop LeBron?

Defense will obviously be the upmost important key. OG and Siakam will be looked upon to stick with LeBron, make it as uncomfortable as possible for him to find a groove, and stay in his face and to keep him from getting into take-over mode, which can be nerve-racking and scary.

The starting five will need to come out on fire, setting the tone that every. Single. Possession. Counts. Taking good shots, feeding the bigs inside and jumping for every single rebound will be the true difference maker.

Our second-unit will need to stay with the mindset that they have had all year, knowing that they are the best bench in the league. With their leader VanVleet back, this should come easier than against the Wizards and if C.J. Miles can also get a hot hand with the three, it would give the Raptors the extra boost they need.

Above all, the Raptors as a whole need to know they can win. Surely, Neo and Morpheus understand that a King means nothing when you have the power to see all.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

Dear Leafs fans: Breathe

That’s all you need to do.

Before the final buzzer had gone, Jake Gardiner had been chastised, (I admittedly also wrote a few pointed words), and for all intents and purposes been banished from Leaf land.

Willy Nylander is bait for a top pair defenseman, Auston Matthews is an ineffective playoff performer, Freddy Andersen was no longer the tender receiving a chorus of ‘Freddy’s’ just one game earlier.

The sweat had not yet dried on their equipment, and Coach Babcock, also once praised, had ruined his relationship with the Leafs saviour and he was being shipped back to Arizona where he came from.

Does this sound familiar? Ah, yes of course. It’s the signal that Spring has arrived in Toronto, and befitting with the late round of winter we’ve had, has kept up the routine.

The Toronto media and fan-base has no off-season when it comes to hockey. Every move, every meal, is critiqued, and most wear it as a badge of honour. “The media here is so crazy, right? We’re so hard and tough on players I hope they’re ready for it!” Do any of these people realize that hey, it’s not a great thing to have that reputation? It’s one thing for outsiders to say ‘yikes it’s there’, but for the people asking the questions in the locker room to be doing it it’s a little too… what’s the word…uncouth? I’ll go with that.

This has been said too many times for me to feel good about repeating it, but pain is coming. I’d say it’s here and has been for over a year. But that’s what we were to expect, no? Speedbumps? Yes, plenty of them.

Leafs fans would like results similar to what the Blackhawks and Penguins had/have; sustained success and perennial playoff contenders. I think it’s fair to say every fan base would like to support a team that wins. But do we realize HOW bad the Penguins and Blackhawks were before actually reaching the pinnacle?

The Penguins were bad enough to get one 1st overall pick for M.A. Fleury, a 2nd overall for Malkin, (could have been Ovechkin), and we all know their captain. Yes, won through a lottery but it still counts. Pittsburgh barely had a building.

Chicago, they were an original six team who couldn’t draw a crowd and didn’t have their games on television. Need I say more?

What have Leaf fans had to endure? Leaving out the whole ‘since 67’ thing and focusing on our team we have right now, not much. Even in the past years, the Buds have made multiple playoff runs with a ton of excitement.

Nazem Kadri, drafted 2009, and is now just becoming the player he was drafted to be.

Morgan Rielly, drafted 2012, was actually in (borderline) Norris conversation for the first time.

Willy Nylander, drafted 2014, played first two full NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 6th in Calder voting

Mitch Marner, drafted 2015, two NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 5th in Calder Voting

Auston Matthews, drafted 2016, 74 goals in first two seasons, 60+ points in each. Won Calder trophy.

Looks pretty good to me. I’d take that over any other team in the NHL.

Do the Leafs have their issues? Absolutely. But what people fail to realize is that even the Champions at the end of the season have their issues. No team is perfect, and that’s why you hear, every year ‘they worked hard and things went their way’.

I use stats only to show you who these players that we have are, and what they’re capable of. We’ve all watched them all season, and how happy they’ve made all the fans. Don’t turn on them when they’re at their lowest.

Relationships in life are special things. They’re supportive, exciting, loving, and they work together. Good ones have those feelings go both ways, unconditionally. How sweet would it be for the team and fans be together in looking out at the rest of the NHL and, together, saying ‘we told you so’ while parading down Bay? (Yes I’ve planned it).

Together.

What unreasonable fans, and mostly the media in Toronto, are at risk of, is becoming part of the enemy. More of a hindrance than help. Why would a collection of humans who feel the need to shield themselves from their own fan-base also want to take a puck to the face for them? Instead of pushing the team under the bus at every corner, be a help. Be a supportive partner. There’s a reason why Patrick Marleau is the first high-profile free agent to come to Toronto, and he did it at the end of his career.

Don’t become part of the enemy. Do not ruin a good thing.

Think about how Phil feels, and don’t be the person in Toronto he’s thinking about when he shoves his 2 rings in their face. We’re better than that.

Can the Raptors Close Out in 6?

By: Kimberly Daniels

After going up two games against the Wizards, Raptor fans felt unstoppable… then Capitol One Arena happened and all of a sudden, we were questioning who was to blame for back-to-back losses. Questions like “Can Ibaka play like he did in Game 1 again?”, “Does the second unit need VanVleet to really get going?” and “Are we seeing the same Raptors playoff fails from the past?” started dancing around in our heads.

But it was just two bad games, right?

The Raptors came back game five with a crucial (and heart-stopping) win. A double-double from Valanciunas and 18 points from Wright added to DeRozans 32 points in 39 minutes, sealing the deal in the fourth-quarter.

Being on home court with the best fans in the league and Drake on the sidelines talking trash to Wall is just so much more comfortable for the Raptors. A win at home almost seems inevitable at this point. So, the real question becomes – can the Raps close out the series on the road tonight?

According to Wizards Oubre he doesn’t think so, throwing some shade at Wright stating “Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home.” Wright has stated that he is saving his comments for Oubre after the Raptors win, but this game will come down to much more than just trash-talk for a W.

The Raptors will have to figure out how to get a handle on their turnovers leading to Wizard points and do a better job at protecting the boards. Watching the Wizards second-chance point opportunities this series has been frustrating, to say the least. Controlling Wall and Beal with determination on defense will also be a major key to finishing up this series.

Most of all the Raptors have to prove to everyone why they are the first seed team in the East. We will need the crew to buckle-down, stay focused on the game plan and play with the heart and strength the whole city of Toronto displayed this week #TorontoStrong

The Raptors may not have gotten the sweep Drake was telling Wall about, but it sure would be sweet to take the series in Washington and see what Wright has to say to Oubre.

Raptors look to Silence the Haters

By Kimberly Daniels

What a time for Raptors fans across the country! Visions of a championship are dancing in their dreams and the buzz of playoff season is in the air.

The Raptors finished the regular season with a franchise record 59 wins putting them 1st overall in the East, their “bench mob” won respect from many and Head Coach Dwayne Casey is in talks for Coach of the Year. They undoubtedly had their best season yet.

But can the Raptors do it?

Can the Raptors silence the haters, earn the respect of the league and win a championship?

Well, the short answer is yes and as DeRozan recently reminded everyone that while the Raptors “swag is at an all time high” it’s going to take a few more things than swag to crown them champs.

The Raptors will have to come out in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards with grit. Locking down early on offensive rebounds, and controlling the paint will set the tone for this matchup.

While the Raptors added C.J Miles this season who is known for his 3-point shooting ability and DeRozan is taking and making more 3-point shots than any other season, they will have to understand  that they are much more productive as a team feeding their bigs inside. The Raptors have a tendency to take some unnecessary long range shots and post-season doesn’t have time for that.

The old saying goes “offence wins games but defence wins championships.” Washington Wizards Bradley Beal will need to be controlled and overall the Raptors will need to focus on perimeter defence to ensure success in this series. A true championship team shows up with heart on the defensive end creates momentum from forced turnovers and steals.

I mean surely if it was up to Drake – Gods Plan is for the Raptors to break the game one curse and sail through the first round, but it wouldn’t be tradition unless the Raptors gave their fans a few mini heart-attacks along the way.

Prediction: Raptors in 5

Redemption Psalm

‘Go Leafs Go,
Go Leafs Go,
Go Leafs go.’

This is what you’re going to hear all over Toronto for the next two weeks, (months, hopefully).

What once was a hollow cry for hope, a temporary high for many Leaf fans with wishes and thoughts of promise ahead, is now a war cry.

A chant preceding another commencement of the Stanley Cup playoff that fans everywhere long for, but is now a reality. And one The Nation should start to get used to as our boys lead us to Boston.

Another regular season gone, another year older, another playoff season presents itself. While the youthfulness of this club is well documented, there is no doubt that adding a little ‘grey’ to the mix in the form of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey brings a renewed and more fully-formed anticipation of bringing the ‘silver’ back to Toronto as well.

What will make the Leafs successful?

Consistency.

As coach Babcock has worn his record thin on the subject, its never a more appropriate time to play it. Playing sound positionally, being in the right places all the time, doing your job properly. It seems to be something that all great, (and successful) coaches preach, and one that has proven to be successful across all sports.

The Buds are in a unique position of having four strong lines, bringing matchup problems to the Bruins. While Boston has arguably the best overall line in hockey, the Leafs have the most balanced lineup, with 30-goal scorers and 50-point producers peppering all three top lines.

It’s one thing to do it in the regular season, and the test will be to bring that with you into the post-season. I think they can do it. Do your job, and do it every time.

Keys for Toronto:

 The popular thing to say here, is keep up with Boston’s fore-check, and don’t get hemmed in by the banging and crashing Bruins. I don’t believe these are the Leafs of old, and it’s the Bruins who should be weary of being hemmed in.

Coach has also been hot on the fact that it’s a lot more fun to play with the puck than to chase it. Puck possession will be the name of the game, as that is what has made Boston successful in the past, so the Leafs will need to use their speed to wear their opponents down. The Big Bad Bruins to me are now on the cusp of falling behind the rest of the NHL in terms of style. With dynamic players like Nylander, Marner, Matthews, and especially Kapanen on the fourth line (presumably), the Leafs have the ability to simply outrun the Bruins over the course of a series. This is exactly what I think is going to happen here.

‘Freddie,
Freddie,
Freddie.’

What a pickup. Arguably the best trade the Leafs have made in the past 10 years, Frederick Andersen has proven to be all he was touted to be. Last season was his coming out party in Toronto, and he proved in the playoffs that he is a fully capable tender. The task for him this season is to take that up another notch, as there is no doubt he will be called upon at some point of the series to keep his team’s head above water. While I won’t go as far as to say he’ll need to steal a game, he will need to steal a period here or there, and he will.

There is nothing like being in Toronto during the playoffs.

With a smattering of Leaf sweaters dotting the rainy streets of Toronto in the early morning, the cold and wet 5-degree temperatures feel warm to me. The rain didn’t hit me. Something tells me this feeling will come over everyone in Maple Leafs square tonight as we gather outside of our version of Mecca. Our eyes glued to the screen, hands held high for every close call, and hearts travelled all the way to Boston. Our voices however, ring with us here.

‘Go Leafs Go,
Go Leafs Go,
Go Leafs Go.’

The Twins

I wonder if Daniel ever holds it over Henrik that he was drafted one pick ahead of him. I wonder if it did happen and people overheard that Henrik would just say “stop pretending to be me”. And we’d laugh.

There it is. They’re twins, they look the same, and now we can move past that aspect of their career.

1999 was a draft year that brought something new to hockey. Brian Burke and the Vancouver Canucks did what no team had done before; traded to be able to draft 2 twin brothers 2nd and 3rd overall. What a treat Vancouver was in for.

 

https://twitter.com/JeffVeillette/status/981189935326728192

 

Since then, they’ve had almost identical careers. I mean identical. As of the time of the retirement announcement, Daniel had scored at a pace of 0.796 points per game, and Henrik at 0.804. If my math is correct, (there’s a chance that it isn’t), that is a career separated by 0.08 points per game (measured over careers spanning 1,300 games played each.

They have won their share of individual awards, 3 for Henrik with 2 going to Daniel. Back to back Art Ross trophy’s, 09-10 going to Henrik and 10-11 to Daniel. The difference there being Henrik took home the Hart that same year for his accomplishments.

They each won an Olympic Gold in the 2006 games, with Daniel adding a silver medal in 2014 and Henrik a silver at the 2013 World Championships.

Okay maybe now we can move past it.

The decision had been in the works for the past couple of months, and in typical Sedin fashion, in conjunction with the Vancouver Canucks.  It was only fitting, and a prime example of how unique they were not only as players but people in this league, that after one of their last games in front of a home crowd the opposing team wanted to not only salute them but shake their hands.

https://twitter.com/BradyTrett/status/981397863216418816

Over the years stories of hockey players off the ice have usually at some point involved some sort of debauchery. Much to their delight, these kinds of things have dried up more now that social media exists, but it’s very seldom that players will even try to hide their good deeds from the social pipelines.

The Sedins’ may have also been some of the first to do that, as they actively tried to anonymously donate $1.5 million to the BC Children’s Hospital in 2010. A statement was only released on their behalf after hospital officials convinced them the news would encourage more donations from other sources.

The game will miss them. The city of Vancouver will miss them. And I’m sure Daniel and Henrik will miss each other from time to time now they’ll have some separation.

But then again they can just look in the mirror.

 

Plight of the JVR

Let’s rewind back to the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are fresh off drafting their top pick Morgan Rielly at 5th overall and Brian Burke was still probing for a way to improve his club but this time up front.

Burke had made it clear his goal was to upgrade the skill level and in describing his latest target as a “thoroughbred’, he knew his man was the young Philadelphia Flyer James van Riemsdyk.

What would it take to pry a player who was the 2nd overall pick just 4 years earlier? “He’s a young guy, he’s a right shot, he’s a big defenseman that plays physical and gritty, and he can move the puck,” Flyers GM Paul Holmgren described. The only player on the Leafs roster that fit this description was Luke Schenn.

A Chris Pronger replacement was what Holmgren wanted, and he was prepared to fork over a big, powerful, goal-scoring forward.

Have mercy on him, how could he know what would transpire over the next 6 years?

In my humble opinion, this is the best trade the Toronto Maple Leafs have made in the past 2 decades.

With 34 goals and counting, JvR is having the best scoring season of his career. And what better timing could he have, as he (barring a miracle Leafs signing) heads into his first summer as a UFA.

For years, he’s taken a beating in front of opposing goaltenders and made space for his smaller line mates. He’s an adept passer, and came into the league as a big power forward who had speed and a wicked wrister. He’s got it all.

He’s also been playing in the shadows a little bit. Success was always merely a by-product of having Phil Kessel on his line. As we can see now, that was terribly unjust. It’s been three seasons without #81 at his side, as look at what he’s done:

2015/2016*: 40 GP – 14G – 15A – 29pts – +3

2016/2017: 82 GP – 29G – 33 A – 62pts – -2 (career best point total)

2017/2018: 75 GP – 34 G – 18 A – 52pts – +2 (career high in goals)

*(Including +/- as he improved from a -33 the previous season)
*season cut short with broken foot, placed on IR

Give this man the respect he deserves!

The good news for him is that he’s probably about to get it in the form of this new deal, much to the dismay of Leafs fans everywhere.

On June 23rd 2012 Holmgren had some very kind words about the young stud he had just dealt, “I think I’ve told you enough about how strongly I feel about James becoming a good player, and I believe he will become a very good player in our League. Unfortunately for us, I think it’s going to be for Toronto now.”

He was right. JvR’s going to have a lot of success in his future still, unfortunately for Toronto I don’t think it’s going to be there.

Is $50m still too much?

It seems like only yesterday, Toronto Maple Leafs fans were ecstatic about their new addition, but were a little taken aback at the cost. His name and past brought along with it a sense of credibility and steadiness that were long sought-after in this market; yet the price tag left a little room for “I don’t know if I like this…”

Mike Babcock’s arrival in Toronto in May of 2015 was the glimmer of hope the fan base had been looking for. A proven winner with pedigree and a focus that would be needed to turn this tire-fire of an organization toward the sunlight. But this optimism wasn’t shared by everyone across Leafs Nation.

In a survey conducted by @CBCSports at the time of the hire, fans sat on either side of the ‘is he worth it?’ coin with 51% voting YES and 40% NO. It was an interesting moment of hesitation this time for Leaf fans, trending away from the usual over-hyping of free agent additions and appointments of a savior. Maybe an over correction though, as at least this time the addition in question was a Stanley Cup & 2x Gold Medal winning coach who had seen sustained success in every role he’d been in. It’s hard to blame the public though, I mean, enough was enough right? The timing and choice of hire/signing to waver on seemed strange to me.

In years past it was always management promising progress with sprinkles of signings yet failing to deliver an actual long-term sustainable plan, and fans played along. It wasn’t until the Waffle-gate era that it became clear fans had been pushed too far for too long and were now sitting pretty on the side of absolute skepticism. So when promised the club was going to do everything in their power to “do it right” and take their time to build a contender, nobody was in the waiting mood.

Fast forward 3 seasons and here we stand. 93pts (with 18 still up for grabs) and firmly planted in the playoffs, who’s talking about Mike Babcock’s salary?

Who in May of 2015 when faced with the prospect of ‘years of pain’ nobody thought 3 seasons down the road the Maple Leafs would be a shoe-in for now and years to come. Now, it’s natural for naysayers to cite the drafting of Auston Matthews as THE turning point for the franchise. These are the people who subscribe to the savior theory, and don’t get it anyways.

We could go on about the individual accomplishments of the players under his guidance, but Coach Babcock in my opinion has more than earned his keep. He has turned the Toronto Maple Leafs into a team that all others don’t want to face, and provided his team with a mindset of a winner. When you need a strong foundation you don’t skimp on the materials, you spend what it takes to acquire the pieces that are most important. This is where the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the nail on the head.

 

 

Leo & Cristiano: Why even choose?

As far as I can tell, this is a debate that will rage on probably until another total shift in the sport occurs. When the players go from human physical specimens to actual robots, and managers are replaced by algorithms that forego Antonio Conte-like outbursts for silent telepathy. And what fun is that!? I just don’t think it can get any better than it is right now.

It is an absolute privilege to be living in an era that boasts two of the top players in the history of the sport, in the same league, and facing each other at least twice a year. Even going beyond that, looking all over Europe, every league is filled with unbelievable talent with diverse skills-sets. It’s truly a pleasure to watch. But let’s face it, two players stand head and shoulders above everyone else and have for a long time.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have sparred for FIFA’s Top Men’s Footballer for the past decade. In most of these races it’s come solely down to who’s scored the most goals over the past year. Simple, right? Not so fast. With debates over dribbling ability, passing, vision, speed, strength, number of goals scored with which body part, etc. It goes on forever when fans try and convince others of who’s the best. But doesn’t this tell us something about just how closely matched these two men are?

Messi is touted as the natural, Ronaldo a product of training. Cristiano consistently labelled as ‘the best footballer on planet earth’, while Leo calmly resides (according to his believers) somewhere not on this planet at all. And while it’s hard to argue with Madrista’s who faithfully don the #7, it shouldn’t come to one is hero therefore the other is zero.

For anyone who follows me on Twitter (@hollandgregj ) it’ll be hard to see anything but a Messi fan, but I’d like to just focus on the facts here for comparison purposes:

I love a good healthy argument in sports, I believe it’s the fire behind all fans love of their team. It’s the essence of competition essentially, ‘I’m better than you, and I’ll prove it’. The part that I believe can change, is the fans need to show respect to fans consistent with how players respect each other.

Until then, #ForcaBarca