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Where will the real toughness up front come from for the Leafs when things get difficult?

It would be hard to argue that Brian Burke has not pretty effectively re-vamped the Maple Leaf roster in his now three plus years in charge.  Or that he has done anything but made it more skillful and certainly faster while also  developing significant depth at all positions throughout the organization- on and off the ice.

Against many teams this season, the Leafs have demonstrated that they can play and compete very well—and win more often than not.  And I well realize that given the current lofty status in the Eastern Conference standings, the easiest thing when talking about the team is to simply focus on how much better they are than they were five years ago, or even two seasons ago.  But having watched this franchise for so long, and seen how little it takes to create near euphoria when they win a few games (or a particular guy plays well for a while) my antenna goes up when things seem, well, better than perhaps they really are.

I take nothing away from what the Leafs have achieved in the first third of the current NHL season.  It has been well-earned, especially overcoming an injury to their number-one goaltender as they have.

For me, though,  the “hold-up” may be that, come spring, when the games are less free-wheeling and more of a grind, I’m not quite sure if the Leafs are built to sustain their modest early-season success.

Burke has made it clear in the past that he has little interest in building a team simply to make the playoffs and then be gone after a quick 'four and out'.  He wants (as Leaf fans want) a team that the city will enjoy watching all season long- and then will be tough to play against come playoff-time.

So yes, it has been tremendous to see Lupul and Kessel bond.  It's been a pleasure to witness what Connolly can do with the puck.  And I have marvelled at how Jake Gardiner has not only proven me wrong (for those who have not been here before, I had often opined early this season that I would like to see him develop with the Marlies and get lots of ice time, since the Leafs have plenty of other NHL-ready defensemen available like Franson and Aulie) with his calm on-ice demeanour and obvious skill, but some nights is actually playing more minutes than even Phaneuf on the Leaf blueline.

And, of course, we have Reimer in goal while we wait for Grabovski and Kulemin to regain the form that made them one of the better forward combinations in the NHL just a season ago.  Our agitator (Armstrong) is ready to return to the line-up.  There are youngsters aplenty like Frattin, Colborne and Kadri ready to make an impact as they develop and find their way at this level.

And when Mike Brown is healthy, he provides energy and physicality beyond just being able to fight.  Orr and Rosehill have that role too, though Brown provides more minutes and some shot-blocking willingness, too.

My thought, though, is this: beyond the trio I just mentioned, and yes, Joey Crabb, where does the Leaf front-line toughness come from come playoff time?

Yes, we have some of that on the backline.  Schenn can take people out of the play with authority.  Phaneuf does too, at times, though I’ve never thought he was quite as consistently “tough” as his reputation.  (He’s certainly not a fighter, and while he does provide the occasional big hit, like the one recently at Madison Square Garden, I don’t know that he is feared.  I'm guessing some of you will tell me that I am wrong on this one...).  Komisarek can play tough, though again I’m not sure he causes opposing teams to worry about him when they are about to face the blue and white.

But up front, who will crash the net come April?  Who will win the battles in the corner and in front of each net?  Who will have the size and the determination to win those crucial one-on-one battles more often than not—when each battle means puck possession and a possible scoring chance come playoff time?

Who will deliver the crunching, big-time hits?

Right now, I see a team that has speed (when the opposition doesn’t get on top of the Leafs and therefore lets them wheel…) and can make sweet passes and cause problems for their opponent in quick transition.  And, when they are firing on all cylinders, they can surely be a handful for the run-of-the-mill competition they often face in the Eastern Conference.  (We shouldn’t kid ourselves, the Florida Panthers are near the top of the standings and that’s not a typo…)

I know we have all over-used terms like truculence, belligerence, etc. since the early days of the Burke regime.  But frankly I don’t much care what we call it.  Come playoff time, it’s never about fighting.  It’s about having the strength—and the will—to win battles all over the ice.  Every inch matters.  By the time you get to the “final four” every year, the teams that are remaining not only have speed and skill, but resilience, grit and a brand of toughness that is way beyond the ordinary.

And right now, I see a Leaf team that, when things are rolling their way, are pretty good in a lot of areas.  They come from behind, they can score goals and make plays.  They can win games with their goaltending, too.

But when space dries up starting in March (and through to June, when the playoffs end), it’s inevitably a different game.  When I think of really good teams in the past, I think of players and lines who were really hard to play against.  Jarvis, Gainey and Roberts in Montreal, Tikkanen’s line in Edmonton.  Claude Lemieux with various teams, including New Jersey and Colorado.  Draper, McCarthy and Matlby in Detroit, more recently.

Wingers like Kevin Dineen and Pat Verbeek were tremendous all-around players in their day.  And of course, Gary Roberts always comes to mind when we're having this conversation.

But it's a a fair question, I think.  Who will win the physical battles for Toronto come spring?  Connolly?  Bozak or Kessel?  No, that’s not their “job”, but it is someone’s job, isn't it?

I doubt Rosehill or Orr will play in the playoffs.  We will likely need more than Mike Brown and Armstrong to provide grit—that much is certain.

Will the Leafs have what it takes?

Right now, I’m not sure they do.  I could well be wrong, but I just don’t see that in their game—yet.

Your thoughts?


  1. "But it's a a fair question, I think. Who will win the physical battles for Toronto come spring?"

    Armstrong, perhaps Kulemin rebounds and finishes the season well.

    Steckel and Colborne have size. Plus there is Brown, (and maybe Orr and Rosehill against Boston) this might not be as bad as you think.

    It also depends on their first round match up and the way the other team plays. Boston was happy to skate in one recent game.

    If they meet the Rangers, Florida or Buffalo..then this isn't an issue.

    I thik they could even play well against Philly or Pitsburgh.

    If it's an angry Boston, then this is a bigger issue.

    I think this is the experiment year for the playoffs. They get in and Burke sees who plays well in the post season and adjusts via trade etc next year.

    Also important is the question of the standings at the trade deadline.

    If Tampa continues to slide, maybe Ryan Malone shows up in a trade...but I would rather he didn't and we test what we have.

  2. Has Brian Burke’s makeover got the Leafs to where they need to be? It’s a great question, and the answer is probably no. Of course, an NHL hockey club is, and always will be, as Dave Poulin notes, a work-in-progress. Brian Burke is a fascinating man. For all his giggle-inducing bombast about rat’s asses, he is intriguingly sycophantic when waxing prosaically about his current employer, whatever incarnation of accumulated capital that happens to be. Then again, he did not rise to the top of the heap just by being a toady. If I were issuing report cards, heaven forbid, I could not award anything less than an “A”. Even the steep price paid in the Kessel trade, which makes me cringe to this day, is looking better than ever. Did others see a player that good at the time of the trade? Irish luck maybe, but there is an emerging pattern of superior talent evaluation within the Leafs organization. Think Lupul and Gardiner, for example. We all liked the trade, but the result exceeded our armchair abilities, proving us wrong in a subtle way. In fact, Burke probably deserves an “A+”, but we have to detect a half grade for poor media relations. I wonder how Burke sees it all. I read in the Globe and Mail that Burke is attributed to have said that a Canadian GM is “a combination of Wizard of Oz and Village Idiot in the eyes of most fans”. I never heard anyone refer to JFJ as the Wizard of Oz. Here’s the rub: The Leafs are a work-in-progress. I think Michael is on the right track, pointing to a need for what I call “muckulence”, that vague competitive something that takes a hockey team form would-be to winner. As Burke notes,the game is changing, and what that thing is may be changing too. Or, maybe not. Regardless, it’s enjoyable to dissect, analyze, and speculate from an armchair perspective. If we are wrong, no matter. Hell, that is why we are not the one’s being paid the big bucks! Then again, there might be something there.

  3. dp...great post. All valid points. I echo the thought that I'd like to see how the current team, as presently constituted, will fare in a playoff grind and with various potential match-ups.

    Bobby well said, as always. Can't really add anything, except to say that this is indeed not a completed "project"....

  4. Bobby C: "muckulence" - what a fantastic word! Says it all!
    This topic has come up a few times, because I think we all know the Leafs aren't quite "there" yet. "There" being the sweet spot where we can skate with the skaters and bang with the bangers.
    I'm more comfortable with the D than you are, Michael. I've felt Komisarek was going to finally show his old form, and now that Schenn is back to his game and even Franson gets better with each game... wow! And it's not just slamming guys into the boards. One thing I like about Phaneuf's game is that he can smear a guy out along the boards and get puck position without having to take himself out of the play with a big hit. Komisarek was a lot meaner this year, too.
    So - the forwards. Boston sets the template for "muckulence", I'd say. We're not there yet, but I think we're close. With a healthy Armstrong and Brown, Steckel, Crabb, Dupuis, we've got a start. I like Frattin, and Colborne didn't embarrass himself. Not to mention the players waiting with the Marlies. A+ indeed, for Burke!
    For me, the questions we need to answer are: can we carry Kulemin all year as a solid two-way player even though he seems to have lost his scoring touch? Does Grabovski become a #3 center? He could certainly be a dogged checker with the ability to score. Is there a place for a healthy Lombardi?
    I continue to have the feeling that we'll see a fairly major trade in January, to add at least one strong power forward and give him time to bond with the team. Then, if our goaltending can be reliable - still a big question for me, but I'm coming around - it could be a very interesting Spring!

  5. I love Bobby C's word, too, Gerund O' and I support your view that the team, while not quite "there", as you put it, is indeed getting closer.

    A trade would be interesting. So far, in his tenure, other than in the Kessel deal, Burke has given up precious little most of his deals while obtaining some valuable pieces- and nothing from the roster that they miss.

  6. Thank you, Gerund and Michael, for the endorsement of the neologism “muckulence”. I would love to see others use it as well. I would especially like to hear it in the mass media, if only to confirm my suspicion that this site is being thoroughly read. I find a lot to agree with in Michael’s, DP’s, and Gerund’s analyses. The only points that I might add to the overall discussion are that Phaneuf probably only looks small on a TV screen. I am pretty sure that he has your conscious or subconscious attention if you are skating on the same ice as he is (especially if you are wearing a different uniform). The other teams do not need to be fearful of Phaneuf, just leery of him. The other point I would like to make is about the goaltenders. I think that both Reimer and Gustavsson have “muckulence”. In other words, these two look like winners to me. Let’s cross our fingers about future moves, because the Maple Leaf puzzle is finally taking a tangible form.

  7. Bobby C: your point about Phaneuf is exactly what I'd say. He's in the heads of other players, makes them rush their passes, dump the puck, etc. And the occasional bomb that he detonates, as in the Rangers game, doesn't hurt his rep!
    As for the goalies, the one thing I do like is their reaction when they're scored on. They're mad - and that's a good thing. I'd like to see a little more Billy Smith-style action, but that's just me!

  8. Gerund O'...Billy about "muckulence"!

  9. Here's the question- what is the "muckulence" quotient of the Vancouver Canucks, runner-up to the Stanley Cup champs last year, and only lost in 7 long games? Name the Canucks who exude that quality- I doubt you get to 5 in total. I think we're a team with more of it than they are. And let's not confuse the Bruins' clutch and grab/interfere/obstruct with their (reasonably high) muckulence level. There are a few ways to get to the SCF, and I think Burke is trying to recreate the Ducks team to do it, with caveats and adjustments for the so-called "new rules", which now seem to be being enforced in an exceedingly sporadic and amateur manner. Speed, skill, goaltending, defense, with enough sandpaper to grit out the dirty and rough series.

  10. Well-stated as always, KidK.

    I think if I felt the Leafs had the elite skill level of certain teams I wouldn't be as concerned. But I think you hit the nail on the head- it's about finding the right combination of skill/grit to be successful at playoff time.