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“Go to the net” plus building the “perfect Leaf” from the current roster—who is the Leafs’ most complete player?


So the Leafs practiced going hard to the front of the net at practice on Monday.  Now, as a coach, you can preach that all you want, but not many guys like the job description enough to continue doing it over a long, punishing NHL season.

It’s one of those hockey clich├ęs we hear all the time when a tream is struggling.  Along with “we just need to keep giving a hundred per cent” (among others) we often hear, “we need to start getting bodies to the front of the net”.

Most teams go through this, when forwards start playing around the perimeter, while also avoiding the contact that comes with a presence near the opposition crease.

But good on the Leafs for focusing on this aspect of the game.  There’s no question that creating traffic is important in the game, and in fact, it always has been.

I remember back in the spring of 1962.  I was only 8 going on 9, but I was following the Stanley Cup final series between Toronto and Chicago very closely.  The Leafs won the first two games at home but were taken to the woodshed in the two games at the raucus old Chicago Stadium, with 20,000+ screaming, intimidating Hawk fans yelling at them.

After the fourth game, the Leafs who were interviewed told reporters that they had to start getting traffic in front of Chicago goalie Glenn Hall.  They had been too passive, they felt, in Chicago, and as a result, let Chicago back into the series.

Now, the Hawks were probably the most talented team in hockey at the time, with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, "Moose" Vasko, “Red” Hay and many others.  But the Leafs buckled down, and were much grittier at the Gardens in Game 5, and won going away by a score of something like 8-4.  Mission accomplished.  And in Game 6, they came from behind in Chicago with two late third period goals to win the game 2-1 and the Stanley Cup, as well.

So yes, going to the front of the net can make a difference.  We saw it with guys like Gary Roberts a few years back.  The question is:  who, if anyone can  and will play that role consistently for the Leafs in the weeks to come?
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This site is a blend of talk and memories about the olden days as well as some current observations about what’s happening with the Maple Leafs right now.

But we can’t just assess and break down every single Leaf game.  That’s part of the fun in being a fan but it can get tedious, too.  It’s a long season, and something that seems really important in October can mean precious little come playoff time—if a team even gets that far.

A guy gets hurt (Armstrong now, for example) and suddenly the picture changes.  The Leafs have actually been very fortunate so far this year.  Many clubs have already been hammered by injuries, but until this, Toronto has been as healthy as you can possibly be.

This will be an early indication as to how deep they really are.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have shown a lot of positives in the early going, and who can argue with a 5-4-1 start.  But before the headiness of that start wears off, I was thinking about the different traits that players on this roster have.  It’s a young team, likely the ‘best’ overall group in terms of talent that the Leafs have had since probably 2004.

They are far from a great team, and Burke still has plenty of work to do to get where he wants to go.  But there’s some quality here.

So, though it’s early, my thought was to be positive, seize the day, and have fun building the near-‘perfect’ Maple Leaf, based on the individual skills of players on the current roster.

Goal

This is obvious, I guess.  Giguerre’s big-game experience, ability to play the angles and calmness under pressure mixed with The Monster’s size, athleticism, agility and obvious youthful zest for playing the position.

If you could combine the two, you may well have a great goalie.

Defense

I would take Beauchemin’s savvy with Kaberle’s ability to skate the puck out of danger when being fore checked—and making that great outlet pass.  Mix in Phaneuf’s “truculence” and enthusiasm on the ice and ability to make hits and mix in a bit of offense.  Let's not forget Schenn’s overall potential and his still-developing physical presence.  Add Gunnarsson’s skating ability from the back end and all together, that makes a pretty fine “D” man.

Forward

Bozak’s hockey brain; Kessel’s quick release; Kulemin’s play in both ends of the ice;  Versteeg’s instincts;  Armstrong’s pluck;  Grabovski’s quickness;  Zigomanis’ (now with the Marlies) ability to win draws.  Throw in Mitchell’s size, Sjostrom’s penalty-killing skill, Brent’s shot blocking, Brown’s toughness and Orr’s ability to fight and you’d have a heck of a forward.

Of course, no one has all those traits.  But who do you think is the closest thing the Leafs have to a perfect player on the current roster?  More realistically, who is their most “complete” player?

Back in the 1970s, I thought Montreal’s Bob Gainey was about as complete a player as you could find.  He could check, score a few goals, was so fast, tough, but played clean and between the whistles. In the 1960s, for me it was Dave Keon with the Leafs, because he did so many of the things needed to be a really good hockey player so well.

So today, on this Leaf roster, who fits the bill for you?

2 comments:

  1. I think on paper Bozak should be the most complete forward. But he hasn't found any offence so far this season. It's between him and Kulemin.

    On defense it's Phaneuf, if I've got to pick someone. His puck moving skills are lacking but he can shoot hard (and miss), skate well, he's big, he can hit, he can fight, and he can put up points (hopefully.) Kaberle is the most skilled, but he has no physical edge at all. Schenn is still young but will make a case for being the best player on the team soon.

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  2. On this team, Kulemin is the most complete forward. His presence on the forecheck is always felt, his two way game and hustle to get back to avoid 2-on-1's is superb, and he's got a wicked wrist shot when he pulls it off. Even still, his potential is probably not fully tapped yet.

    My other suggestion would be Phaneuf... IF HE COULD REMEMBER TO HIT THE NET. If his scoring prowess ever returned, and he (as well as other Leafs) started getting shots to the net and not to the shins of other opponents, he could be the most complete player.

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