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Is there any rational basis for optimism in Leafland?

Commentators often like to point out possible turning points, in a game, or a season.  In short, they look at a particular play, or a big comeback, and say things like, “We may look back at tonight’s game and say this is where (fill in the team) turned their season around…”.

Well, will we look back on Tuesday’s come-from-behind win and accompanying power play explosion as just that—the turning point for the Leafs?

Heading into Tuesday night’s encounter with non-rival Nashville, the Leafs were well aware of the “importance” of the game.  A game against Nashville in the middle of the week on a rainy night in November doesn’t usually make the case for “big game”, I realize.  But the obvious circumstances of being at home and needing a win, after a seemingly inspired performance against the powerful Canucks on Saturday night, seemed to suggest the team would come out hard and take the game to the Predators.  That didn’t quite happen.  (The Preds themselves were no longer quite on the edge of a cliff, having won two in a row after a difficult three weeks.)  And, the Leafs knew going in the Predators rarely take a night off, in terms of effort.

But come back the Leafs did, after a poor start.  And the outcome perhaps deserves some in-depth game analysis.  However, one come-from-behind victory (against a team that took a ridiculous number of penalties when they had the game in their grasp) does not necessarily suggest the season will now be ‘onwards and upwards’, with early November only a memory. 

That said, I would argue that, especially in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs won’t be the last team to go through extended stretches of futility, scoring-wise and in the wins column.  The teams are that evenly balanced, and not overly skilled.

For me, though, the broader, more significant question about the Leafs is a simple one:  Is there a rational basis for optimism that the team, as it is currently constituted, is poised to play consistent, winning hockey in the foreseeable future?

Those that believe there is will point to certain factors.  In no particular order, here are some of the positives that optimists will point to:
  • Burke is a “winner”.  He won a Cup in Anaheim, and has a “plan”, a successful blueprint, that will turn the Leafs into champions.
  • Their coach has taken teams to the finals and has been very successful in international competition.  The coaching staff is considered to be as progressive as any in the league.
  • The Leafs are strong in goal, with a Conn Smythe winner as the 'number one' and an emerging 26 year-old athletic goalie, the “Monster”, in reserve.
  • The GM has said the Leafs have the best “top six” defense corps in the NHL.
  • The coach says Kessel may score 50 goals in a season some day.
  • The Leafs just need to get back to their pre-season power play success, when Wilson said they were “scary dangerous”— or words to that effect.  The power play breakout against Nashville may be a sign of things to come.
  • The team was struggling, but will rebound when Phaneuf and Armstrong return healthy to the line up.
  • The East is not a strong conference.
  • Montreal and Philadelphia barely eked into the playoffs last year, and both had impressive playoff runs.
  • The Leafs have some young players with the Marlies and in junior hockey who may make the team in the next couple of years.
  • The team’s two prime-time stars, Kessel and Phaneuf, are just reaching their prime.
  • The team has a core of forwards who may become high-end players in the years to come, including Kulemin, Versteeg, Bozak, Gunnarsson, Schenn and Kadri.
  • Players like Versteeg and MacArthur give the team the elements of a strong second line.
  • They have tough forwards like Orr and Brown to keep other teams honest.
  • They will have money under the cap to improve the team next summer.
  • If the team does not look like a playoff team in February, they can try (with his permission) to move Kaberle for a high draft pick or a top-six forward.
  • This is still one of the youngest teams in the league.
Not surprisingly, it’s not to difficult to play point-counterpoint on this one.

So to take a contrary position, let’s work through the above points:
  • Yes, Burke is a solid hockey guy, but he had years, and full freedom, to build a winner in Vancouver and he didn’t do it.  He never rectified the goaltender situation, a cardinal failing for a GM who claims his blueprint is to build his teams from the back end.  In Anaheim, he made useful moves, but it was still a team largely built by his predecessor, Bryan Murray.
  • Wilson, too, is recognized as a good hockey man and a successful NHL coach. To his credit, he appears to be able to shift his earlier sometimes acid-tongued approach to a more nuanced strategy, aware as he is of the sensitivities of a very young team.  His detractors will say he has had some very good teams to coach (notably in San Jose) and did not have ultimate playoff success.  Others will point out that, while the Leafs have not been good so far in his three years behind the bench, other similarly weak teams have progressed more quickly and jumped ahead of Toronto in less time.
  • The Leafs are no doubt stronger in goal than they were over the last few seasons. But taking a step back, Giguere’s save percentage, prior to the Nashville game, was .899—not the standard teams want nowadays in the still largely low-scoring NHL.  Gustavsson has not played enough to be in the “proven” category.
  • If the Leafs really did have the best “top six” defensemen, we would not have already seen Holzer and Aulie up with the big team while Gunnarsson sits—and they would have allowed less goals.
  • Kessel may well score 50 goals some day.  Certainly 40.  The bigger question is whether he will ever become the kind of complete player (I think of Modano and Yzerman, who took years to develop their all-around game) that, as their best player, he will need to be to help make the Leafs a very good team.  And, will he be able to withstand the tight checking that will surely follow him when the Leafs do contend in the playoffs in the years to come?
  • The power play was very successful Tuesday night (that short-handed goal aside), but they were handed successive five-on-three opportunities in the second period.  The true test of their capability on the PP will be seen in the games to come.
  • Phaneuf and Armstrong will indeed help.  But it’s always a bit of a stretch to rely on a return to health of particular players as a jumping point.  The fact is most NHL teams will play a lot of the season without any number of their top players available for extended periods.
  • The East is certainly weak, and it is not unusual for lower-seeded teams to generate upsets in the playoffs. But to say the Leafs will do the same because other teams have done it in the past is not a surefire argument.
  • Yes, the Leafs have some guys in the minors and in junior hockey who may play here some day.  So does every team in the NHL.
  • Orr and Brown absolutely provide the toughness that most good teams need.  But when you look at the roster, specifically the first three forward lines, do they have overall team toughness? Playoff toughness?
  • Kaberle hasn’t waived his no-trade contract in the past, except for a last-minute offer last February.  Even if he were to waive his veto, is it realistic for a team that has Cup aspirations to give up a bona fide top-six forward for him?  Not likely.
  • There is no question they are a young team.  Youth is important.  Skill, cohesiveness and determination are important, too.  Do they—or will they soon—  have enough skill to run with the best?
We all know the expression, often used in sports:  “You are what your record says you are”.  Right now, the record is not great, but a win like the one against Nashville is always encouraging.

And records can change in a hurry.

The bottom line is: what kind of team will the Leafs be in two months?  Maybe more importantly, will they be where Burke wants them to be, in two years?

Your thoughts?


  1. I agree on almost all counts but there are things that can happen that can alter what you're able to get out of the same players/talent quickly.

    Kadri's inclusion on the PP seems like one potential catalyst for positive change and an improved PP would go a long way toward helping our record.

    Coaching changes are another thing, though I doubt Burke will be heading down that road unless the team is effectively buried beyond the point of being salvageable.

    Again, neither of these are sure things, but why not be optimistic about it? Optimism, by definition, is having a positive outlook on an uncertain outcome. Just because they're not sure things, doesn't mean we can't be hopeful.

    Great post.

  2. Curt, Thanks for your comments. Agreed. The easiest thing as a fan is to always take the cynical or negative perspective. For sure there are no guarantees that the positive "possibilities" will come to pass, but that's forever the case in these situations. There seems little doubt that, record aside for the moment, this is a better team than it has been in a few years. And with so many youngsters, that does lead people to feel more optimistic.

  3. Great post, good points on both sides.

    One thing that is rarely doubted about Kadri is his ability to put up points. And his inclusion on the powerplay, even if it only ends up with a single assist, takes pressure off of other players, notably Kessel. When the Leafs were on their strech (which may not be entirely over) of futility, watching teams routinely shut down Kessel, and thus, the powerplay was painful and aggravating. At least another offensively gifted player could take some attention away, whether they play together or apart.

    However I would say there is a little more to be said about Burke's ability to win. Although he didn't solve the goaltending situation in Vancouver, his replacement (and now assistant GM) did. Those two collectively also brought in the Sedin twins, Raymond, Kesler and Bieksa, all important pieces in their success today.

    Mike Gillis will be the one that put finishing touches on the team (and thus deserving of much of the credit) should they hoist the cup this year, which can be just as, if not as hard as building. This is much the same as what Burke did in Anaheim, making a few minor but crucial moves to take a team over the top.

    Burke has accomplished both, albeit in two different cities. He won't get full or, according to some, even partial credit for either, but he is vital to both teams current and past successes.

    Great article, keep it up.

  4. Thanks for the note. Yes, Kadri is a point-produer, and should be at this level, as well. Whether now or in the future as he develops, Kadri may indeed help take some of the load off Kessel.

    Agreed that Burke build a good club in Vancouver, and certainly put the key final touches on a Cup winner in Anaheim. With the cap and everything else, the job here is a tough one, but he has already re-built the squad almost entirely, with more moves to come.