It goes without saying that Maple Leafs winger Jason Blake was upset about being a healthy scratch against Calgary earlier this week, but the veteran must also understand this is coach Ron Wilson’s ship and only one man is steering it.
No professional hockey player wants to sit a game out, especially a veteran like Blake. But in breaking down the numbers and keeping in mind what the diminutive forward was brought in to do, it’s difficult to argue with Wilson’s decision.
Blake is currently on pace for 35 points this season (assuming he gets out of the doghouse soon), which would be his worst total since 2001-02, while he was with the New York Islanders. His best season, not surprisingly, came in New York the year before he was signed to a whopping contract in Toronto. And that’s the main problem here.
There’s a concept in the hockey world that basically states that someone has to score on a bad team. The Islanders were, and continue to be, a bad team, though ironically they were better than the Leafs in 2006-07. Blake tallied an impressive 40 goals that season, before diving down to 15 in his first campaign with the Leafs. And it’s not like Blake wasn’t getting chances – he threw 332 shots on net last year, 27 more than he did during the 40-goal season and good for fifth in the NHL.
Which is where the real quandary comes in. With a salary cap hit of $4 million this season, Blake is Toronto’s highest-paid forward and he’s a healthy scratch. Now it’s tough to blame him for taking the money former Leafs GM John Ferguson offered him, but it’s also not hard to blame coach Wilson for benching Blake in favor of players who are producing or doing other things well.
What Wilson is doing in Toronto, which fans have clearly realized and relished, is changing the culture of a squad that has long been derided as a “country club” team; one where ice time was entitled, not earned. This strategy worked so well that the Buds missed the playoffs every year since the lockout ended.
Now there is accountability; Wilson has metaphorically smacked a couple of players upside the head and the results have been good. Matt Stajan suffered the indignity of being a healthy scratch early in the season and has been a house on fire ever since. His faceoff winning percentage sits at a very sturdy 54 percent this season, up from 47 percent the year before and with 13 points through 15 games he is also on pace to obliterate his career high in that measure. , as well.
The Leafs will likely find themselves outside of the playoff picture once again this season, but no one who has watched them can claim this is the same old team. The Buds compete, they work hard and they’re fun to watch. When they fall behind this year, the games don’t devolve into blowouts; comebacks are actually mounted.
There may be some bruised egos along the way, but Wilson’s battle plan is based on winning as a team, no matter who that team is comprised of.
This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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