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The Maple Leafs and the missing link




Recently I posted here that I see no real reasons why the Maple Leafs, as they are currently constituted, cannot play with any team in the Eastern Conference.  Oh, I know the Bruins have given Toronto a tough go the first four games they played this season, but really, who should the Leafs be afraid of?

Now, does this mean I have bought into the belief that the Leafs are a great young team? 

No, I haven’t.

They are young, for sure, but in a salary-cap NHL, there are plenty of youthful teams.  So they may be “the youngest”, technically, but they have lots of company.

My thought is more that the Eastern Conference is not exactly filled with dominant teams.  I’m not even sure if the Bruins are “dominant”.  They made it through the playoffs last spring, yes, but they have had their share of backward steps come playoff times in recent years.  Last year, they did just enough to get by the Canucks in the finals—though winning the Cup was no small feat, I recognize.

So the Bruins are a more than worthy opponent.  The Rangers (the Leafs’ next opponent) look very good, for sure, but they are not unbeatable.  Throw in the Penguins and that’s about it, as far as Eastern conference teams that are truly top tier teams.  Maybe Washington rebounds under Hunter and becomes a legit top team again, but the Leafs should certainly be capable of fighting for a top 5 spot in the East.

Again, that is largely based on who else is in the East.

As I’ve mentioned here, with Burke into his fourth year at the helm, the team is clearly younger, faster and deeper than it has been in quite some time.  In fact, I'm trying to remember the last team they were this young, with not a single player over the age of 31.  But as we examine the roster and what is also available down on the farm, where are we still in need of help?  In other words, is there a missing link, that, if Burke could only find that right piece or two, Toronto could actually make a run in the playoffs and not just make the playoffs?

I want to say yes, but it’s not a particular player (Bobby Ryan, for example) that I am advocating the Leafs must go out and get.  But it probably is a type of player.

At this point, we all believe that Reimer has shown enough that he can carry the team.  The playoff jury is still out, of course, but he certainly presents as someone who will be able to handle the scrutiny and the pressure of a playoff series.  It strikes me that he may be someone who actually enjoys it and thrives on it.  That would be, clearly, a very good thing.

On paper, our defense looks pretty good.  Phaneuf, Komisarek and Schenn provide the muscle.  Liles, Franson and Gardiner skate very well, particularly Liles and Gardiner.  Gunnarsson is a guy who can slide in anywhere and make his partner better.

They can all move the puck and headman the puck, some better than others.  That’s the positive end of that scale.  The other side is that Phaneuf has to be “good Dion” the rest of the way, and we are still prone to giveaways and mistakes (though, in truth, if you pressure any defense, and any team, they will make mistakes…).  Schenn has generally rebounded from a sluggish start.  Gardiner has been utterly impressive.  I just wonder how a physical playoff series will work for him at this point in his development.  Who knows, he may be able to deal calmly with that, too.

So while I would say I’m comfortable in goal (assuming Reimer is healthy, though not proven in the playoffs), I would only rate my confidence level with the team’s defense as “OK”.  I’m not down on anyone, I just want to see how they respond to real checking pressure as the season wears on- and if we get to the playoffs.

But the real missing link, (for me, at least) to go back to that term, has to be up front.

Let’s work through things:  Everyone loves Lupul and Kessel right now,  They can do no wrong in the minds of most Leaf fans and there’s a pretty good reason for that.  It’s hard to knock the kind of production they have shown so far this season.

Bozak has contributed some big games.  MacArthur has shown he can finish.  Grabovski and Kulemin, though, have slid from being considered the true number-one line a year ago to being occasional linemates—and far less productive so far this season.

People like the youth and skill Frattin brings and the heart of Mike Brown (now injured) and the defensive prowess of David Steckel.  Colby Armstrong will be welcomed back next week as the team’s resident agitator.  Many have been impressed with Crabb’s work ethic and his ability to chip in on offense and I have been, too.  Colborne has that size, youth and oozes potential.  Connolly has shown sweet hands and plenty of smarts.

Throw in that injured guys will return, and that all sounds pretty good.  So what are they missing?

Assuming most of the guys are healthy and back at some point, they have about five lines worth of forwards.  So depth, in the conventional sense, is not an issue.  Same thing on the backline;  they are about 11-deep with guys who have played in the NHL.  They have three goalies who have shown they can win games at this level, too.

So they have elite goal-scoring in Kessel and Lupul.  They have the makings of an outstanding second line, whether Connolly or Grabbo is the trigger man in the middle.  They have guys who can check and grind it out on the third and fourth lines.

Heck, their power play has been tremendous lately, and even their penalty-killing numbers are better.

Again you are asking, so what’s the trouble?

Well, from what I am observing, the problem is not youth, or lack of size, necessarily, or lack of depth.  It’s certainly not a lack of effort most nights.  And the overall team harmony, that always-important chemistry, seems just about right.

Many of us have, though, have long discussed the need for a true number-one center.  And while that would be awfully nice, I’m not sure where we get one of those.

What I do think the Leafs do not have is a guy or two who is a proven winner, who brings certain unmistakable qualities on the ice, and some important veteran leadership off the ice.  I’m thinking of (I’m cringing as I write this, because I loathed him as an opponent) a winger like Claude Lemieux, who would drive the opposition batty but also was a big-time playoff performer.  He could shut opposing wingers down, battle, score huge goals and make plays.  Not a fighter, but tough.

I’m also thinking about a Terry O’Reilly type, for those who remember the 1970s Boston winger.  He played like every shift was his last.  Just so hard-nosed—and hard to play against.  He bled for the Bruins.

Then there was Bob Gainey (left).  He didn't score a ton for the Habs, but that was a small part of his job.  He hit everything that moved and when he hit guys, they knew they'd been hit.  He killed penalties.  He skated so fast and so well and was a bruising (but clean) guy to play against. Goodness, if the Leafs had a player like that now, we'd build a statue in his name.

I’m thinking, in more modern terms, of a Brendan Shanahan.  Not the center to fit a glaring Leaf need, but the classic modern prototype of the “power” forward off the wing.  He could fight, sure, but more importantly he could play the corners, hit, take a hit and stand in front of the goal.  And yes, he could score goals once in a while, too.

I’m thinking, I don’t know, of a Tomas Holstrom, a Mike Knuble.  Guys who just plain don’t mind getting really beat up and dirty when they play.

So what am I talking about, specifically in terms of what the Leafs need?

Well, two players with huge hearts, who are tough as nails.  Guys who know how to win,  who finish their checks and who aren’t afraid to stand in front of the opposition net.  Individuals who force the other team into penalties.  Guys with experience who will lead a young team and show them the way.

A Gary Roberts type, maybe?

The other night, you could see Chara pumping up the Bruins against the Leafs.  That only comes with the presence of a guy who has been there and has won it all and knows how to play the game when it matters.  And those were only regular-season games, yet the Bruins dug deep when they had to and it was enough for them to handle the Leafs in both games.

For me, as much as I want a center, too, for the Leafs to take that next step in their “evolution”, it strikes me that what I have described above is what they really need to look for.  I don’t mean those specific players (O’Reilly might be a little too old…) but guys like that.

You may disagree, and I will respect your perspective, of course.

Let me know your thoughts.

7 comments:

  1. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 4, 2011 at 11:11 PM

    Man have you ever hit the nail on the head with your thoughts Mike. I clearly remember your interview with Dickie Moore and what Bert Olmstead said when he arrived to play for the Imlach young Leafs. "You guys will never beat the Canadiens because you guys are too nice to play against". Mr Imlach credited Olmstead in his book "Hockey is a battle" for teaching his young horses how to win. And I agree with you that what this present team is missing is a couple of war horses who has been to war and won! Someone like, if I dare say...a Gary Roberts, Darcy Tucker, and Shayne Corson.

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  2. I think the Leafs might actually have what they need within their system.

    Brad Ross could be a player much like Marchand, though not quite those offensive numbers.

    Joe Colborne could develop a mean streak as he gets older and grows more acustomed to NHL.

    However the unrealized answer might be Jamie Devane. He has played the enforcer role in the OHL and he's actually turning into a real player.

    Not many people realize it, but he has 16 points in 23 games in the OHL so far. Almost a point a game out a guy from a 6 foot five inch 220 pound enforcer?

    In a few years Devane could turn into a 25 or point a year, 235 pound NHL enforcer?

    Lucic was a point a game guy in WHL.

    Perhaps Devane becomes the guy who can mitigate Lucic's play against the Leafs?

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  3. Yes Michael, you may figured out the current Leaf enigma, one that has been staring us in the face without our noticing. Up to the quarter mark we were wondering what kind of team we have. I think, after the last two games we have a much better idea. Pretty good, but not good enough. The player you are talking about has a rare combination of high skill (especially defensive) determination and "muckulence", as well as the ability to influence his teammates to follow him across that fine line between losing to winning. Who is that player and is he available? Does anyone know?

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  4. Long Suffering...A modern-day equivalent of Olmstead would be something, for sure. Gary Roberts would be nice, too!

    dp....thanks for your post. You've identified youngsters who just may grow into key roles in the future. It can take time, but this is a young team so time is on their side.

    Bobby C....you raise the million-dollar question: is such a player out there and if so, the problem may be he won't be available.

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  5. Devane is an intriguing player dp. If I remember correctly, his pick was roundly criticized in the Barilkoshpere as a "wasted pick", ostensibly to mollify Burke's then preoccupation with size and truculence. From all recent reports, he has developed in a way that, like clockwork, once again vindicates Dave Morrison. Sounds good to me. However, I think the current team is on the cusp, which means that we need someone now, or soon, not in a few years. This someone needs a resume and preferably a ring, someone who leads like Chara, but a forward. Who knows, this player might become available around the trade deadline or as a free agent. A salary dump? A deadline seller? Experience in exchange for potential? It's possible.

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  6. Bobby Craig:

    The forward you are describing sounds like Ryane Clowe. But I don't think there is anyway the Leafs can get him, without giving up too much.


    It might be best to wait for Devane in two years. They should play Devane in AHL next year and see if he is ready for the NHL the year after that. By that time Colton Orr's contract is over.

    If you look at Devane's minor league numbers they are much better than Orr or Rosehill and even Brown (3 points in 62 games in one AHL season, 15 in 73 games another.)

    I really think its better to wait for Devane. Just play more Orr and Rosehill against Boston. Orr fighting Chara and taking him off for 5 minutes is a good trade.

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  7. i think you're dead on, Michael. To my eyes, if we assume that we'll get the goaltending we need - and I'm not yet convinced we've got it - we're two forwards short of being a top 4 team. As you say, Bob Gainey, Gary Roberts - those kind of guys. 60 minute men, to paraphrase an old r&b tune. Right now, we're a 40 minute team, meaning there's usually one period when we let down. I didn't see the Saturday game, but did anyone hit Chara after he hit Kessel? I don't mean start a fight, I mean just hit him hard on the forecheck. Without a couple of forwards like that, we're going to have trouble advancing to that top tier.

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