Game Theory 101: Professor Paul Maurice
Without officially announcing anything, the Toronto media deduced the starter for tonights Leafs v. Sens season opener: incumbent Andrew Raycroft. To many peoples surprise, the Leafs big off-season prize, Vesa Toskala, will be riding the pine. Inherent to this sticky situation is the 'controversy' that will brew for the next several months. Additionally, the brilliant declaration by Coach Paul Maurice, who claimed he will not announce his starting goaltender for the duration of the season, is a glowing indication for his plans this season. He is telling us, without telling us, that he is going with a goaltending-by-committee system. I love it. If this isn't reason to shower Coach Maurice with the praise, then you just don't get it.
The pre-season in Leaf Land was a venerable disaster (from a goaltending perspective) as neither Raycroft or Toskala could effective grab the bull by the horns and win the starting position. Rather than reduce his hairline further, the cunning and courageous Paul Maurice turned it into an opportunity to seize and exploit in an effort to improve his club. A top notch game theory lesson worthy of the Jack Adams Trophy (of course, only if it pays off).
Maurice may have come to realize that the best option for the Leafs is a tandem 'tender system. If you can't rely on one of them, make them compete – scratch and claw each others eyes out – for that starters role. This competition, among men nearing the prime of their career, will bring out the best in both of them just as it did for Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota when Roloson and Fernandez played their finest hockey to date. By the way, this move helped Lemaire take home the Jack Adams in 2002-03, for those wondering the potential dividends of move of this nature can have on the success of the team.
This move makes so much sense when you consider the following. Firstly, nothing in the hockey world aside from a trade will abolish the goaltending controversy talk in TO, so get used to it. Given the current Leafs lineup, there are only three logical hypothetical scenarios whereby the Leafs make the playoffs. We can dream that either Raycroft or Toskala will post Luongo & Brodeur-type numbers, but if you know enough, you'll know better. The most probable scenario that sees the Leafs playing meaningful games in the Spring features both Raycroft and Toskala playing well. I'm talking well in the neighborhood of .905-.920 SV%, 2.66-2.88 GAA, and +20 wins (each), something that is both realistic and necessary for the Leafs to compete.
Furthermore, Toskala is a veteran of the tandem system, splitting time with Nabokov in San Jose for the past two seasons. This setup -- not surprisingly -- featured Toskala as the back-up, in other words in the same scenario he finds himself on opening night. Do you think Paul Maurice considered this when he gave Raycroft the nod for the season opener? If Raycrofts' poor season last year is any indication, it is safe to assume that the money and the pressure that accompanies a starting keeper in Toronto is crippling. Placing Toskala in a scenario that he is very familiar with will only expedite comfort in the chaos that is playing the most scrutinized position, in the most scrutinized event in all of Canada. Well done, Mr. Maurice.
[PS -- Another indication that this is the right play in Toronto is the fact that perennial foghorn Mike Milbury hasn't gotten anything right in a decade, exemplified by his deplorable track record as a GM on Long Island. He thinks this is a terrible play by Maurice – thanks for the support Mad Mike, you'll be proved wrong again at seasons end.]