I'll say it: in a season when the Leafs have had many jumping off points that went nowhere, those (Bruins and Sabres) are potentially the biggest wins for the franchise since the last time a Leaf game actually meant something- the playoffs in the spring of 2004.
Now, to be clear, for these last two games to truly mean something, they have to really build on this. If they don't, those victories will have simply been nice wins on the road against divisional foes, but not a legitimate "turning point". (See "Why can't the Leafs get over the hump".)
What did I like most? That it could have been a 2-0 game, maybe more, if Miller didn't make some very good saves. Reimer didn't have to be huge after coming in for Giguere. Toronto finished checks, were tough in their own zone and had busy sticks.
Crabb would have been a game star even if he hadn't scored that big short-handed goal (a beauty). He was tenacious all night.
Aulie, Schenn, Kaberle (who's going to replace all those assists). The forwards worked hard all over the ice.
When you only allow 15 shots in Buffalo when you are protecting a lead, you've done a good job.
If the Leafs keep playing like that in Buffalo from now on, I won't have to post any more about the curse of Punch Imlach.
I said earlier in the week that the Leafs needed to take at least three points in these two tough road games. They did even better than that.
When you haven't played a meaningful game in years, you have to feel good about something.
It’s easy to be a constant critic—particularly so when writing about a team (the Leafs) who haven’t “won it all” in decades. The tendency can be to simply look at various roster moves and automatically find fault.
So I wanted to wait a couple of days, as I often do, before posting on something “big”—in this case, the Versteeg trade.
Now, I have to admit I’m confused by this latest transaction. We’ve seen what I thought was a trend of bringing in young guys (Phaneuf, Aulie, Kessel, Gardiner, Versteeg, Bozak, etc.) to build a strong corps for the future. Not the “I have no patience for a five-year re-build” that Burke has often dismissed, but more a measured, longer-term approach to re-building the Leafs.
Now, we all realize that out the door went those two-first round draft choices to the Bruins, but given that Burke had picked up Kessel and Phaneuf, proven young players, as well as Aulie and Gardiner, two young defensemen, eases that concern about lost draft picks.
But this latest move is a head-scratcher.
I realize the Leafs have won two games in a row without him and that Versteeg was not, as the season went on, maybe what fans were hoping for when we heard that the young forward was joining the Leafs after the Hawks were forced to cut their over-capped Cup roster. Perhaps, as some have opined, his style didn't mesh with the way the Leafs played. Maybe he lacked the nightly passion we had all expected. Maybe it was chemistry. (I posted in hopeful but measured terms about his arrival in early October. Click to see the earlier story.) Management tried to force-feed him right away into a top-six role, and that didn’t quite seem to work.
As the season wore on, I sensed things weren't working out, as Wilson was sending messages to his players, including Kessel and Versteeg in early December (click to see that story).
Along the way, other newcomers kind of jumped ahead of him. MacArthur out-pointed him, Armstrong was more of the under-your-skin agitator that the team needs.
Versteeg was productive in spots (6th in team scoring, but minus 13, so he fit in with a number of other forwards who gave up more than they delivered) but never quite a force on the power play or the impact player some thought he would or should be all over the ice.
Burke has essentially told the media Vertseeg just didn't fit here, but may play better on a better team, as he did last season in Chicago. Doesn't just about everyone play better on a good team? But isn't the point to, if you believed in the guy in the first place, keep him and build with him, so he would be better when the Leafs got better- not some other team.
Talk about here's your hat, what's your hurry. Not even 60 games into his first season with the Leafs, he's gone.
Likely, from a fan perspective, it was a case of undue expectations based on very little knowledge of the player that he actually was in
—a useful role guy. (He may be just that again in Philly, maybe even more.) Chicago
From management's point of view, surely they knew what they were getting when they acquired Versteeg in the first place? The way he played should not have been a surprise.
The surprising thing to me is that the Leafs need more, not less, gritty, energetic forwards. Top-six or bottom six, they need forward depth. Lots of it. Right now.
They just took on a big salary guy (Lupul) who at 27 may be an Owen Nolan—someone who was an impact player but time and injuries have prematurely worn him down.
In the next breath they trade a young, healthy winger in Versteeg, who is still 24 and just entering his prime.
Now, I understand that the Leafs are getting a first-rounder, but that could be the 28th or so pick in June. I’m hard pressed to see how a 28th pick (and yes, a nice third-rounder, too) make up for Versteeg now, or even three years from now.
Burke says he will go big-name hunting on July 1.
As for the rest of this season, I guess the question has been answered: With Kaberle (click on his name to see my earlier post on why he absolutely was destined to leave before the deadline) the next to go, the Leafs are sellers. Big time.
Even though the playoffs are still on the table.
Jeff Blair (Globe & Mail columnist and host at The Fan 590) made an interesting point Tuesday morning, about, as he put it, the disconnect around Leaf management and two very different kinds of Leaf supporters.
Those who spend the big money on luxury suites, etc. want a winner now, he suggested. On the other hand, some Leaf fans may well have been supportive of an Oilers-style re-build from the ground up.
Blair opined, as I understood it, that management leans toward the demands of the high-paying customer.
This, though, is not a new point. This has been the debate in Leaf-land for, well, almost forever.
The reality is that, were it not for the thousands and thousands and thousands of Leaf fans, young and old—most of whom rarely if ever can afford to get to the ACC for a game—those “high-paying” customers wouldn’t be there. It’s only because support for the Leafs is so widespread, so deep, that those with the corporate money are willing to pay those extravganat prices for platinum seats and costly suites.
Eliminate the “small guy” Leaf supporters—youngsters, the grandmother who listens on the radio, the retirees, the university students, everyday fans around the world— there is no Maple Leaf hockey club the way we know it. There would be no one willing to put up huge money for boxes.
The Leafs would be, at best, just another team.
So we can debate whether “fans” would be patient with a complete re-build (isn’t that what we have been going through anyway since Fletcher arrived, it’s not like they have been bringing in nothing but old, stop-gap guys…?). But at the end of the day, the fans’ job is to cheer, be exasperated, debate, comment, buy Leaf souvenirs (if they can afford it) to fill the kitty even more and blog, call talk-shows.
Management’s job is to get the job done, however they have to do it.
Leaf TV plays the Burke quote over and over (when Phaneuf was named captain this past summer) that the Leafs are "not just another NHL team".
Unfortunately, well into Burke's vision, it is- on the ice- precisely that.
Now we'll see if they can build on the wins in Boston and Buffalo- and become more than that.