Unless we thought the Leafs were never going to lose again, we should not be shocked at the back-to-back losses this weekend. After a nice run of four wins, they went on the road to face a hungry (albeit struggling) Buffalo team. We all know that’s not been the kindest place for the Leafs to play over the last…well almost forever, actually.
As for the Rangers, yes, they started Biron, which should have favored the Leafs, but you just knew New York would be up after playing poorly in their previous game, a 3-0 loss. Let’s face it. Right now (and yes, things can definitely change over the next two months) Boston and the Rangers are the class of the Eastern Conference. Both are skilled, smart, well-coached teams that can grind and are hard to play against. There isn’t a lot of open ice most nights when you play either of those squads. And if you're willing to go to those spaces, you might get run over, anyway.
So the Leafs came up short against a good team, which will happen sometimes. Not to over analyze one game in isolation, or suggest the Rangers (who have struggled previously this season against the Leafs) have now found the key to slowing the Leafs down. But they did what I would try to have my team do if I was playing the Leafs in a playoff series—be physical against Kessel and crowd him because he needs room to be effective. Do everything you can to take the Leaf top line out of the game, and then outwork the rest of Toronto's units, who can be spotty sometimes in their execution and intensity.
It worked for the Rangers Saturday night.
I expect Reimer to get back in against the Senators. I get the feeling that every game will feel like a mini-playoff game from here on in. That's how tight the standings are in the East...
Within every NHL season—and certainly within every team’s up and downs—there are dozens of “story lines” that we, as fans, can pay attention to. The Leafs are no exception. In fact, Leaf fans may parse more things—daily practice notes, line combinations, possible trades, the minor league team’s progress and much more—than fans of any other franchise in hockey, save possibly the Montreal Canadiens.
Just off the top of my head, there have been a number of interesting little issues already this season in Leafland. Among them:
- should Kadri be with the Marlies or the Leafs? (Some fans love that he’s with the big club now, but that assessment could change depending on his performance. As I’ve posted here before, I felt he should have spent all of last season with the Marlies. I just don’t want him to continue to be a yo-yo. Let the kid play a lot—somewhere, to get better.)
- Is Wilson the right man to be the coach of this particular Leaf team? (His mini-extension quelled some talk, but the Leafs need to make the playoffs at a minimum, I would think, for Wilson to stay on the job…)
- Who’s the number-one goalie? It was Reimer, clearly. And that’s very much what the Leaf brass and coaching staff wanted. But an untimely injury set the young goalie back, and Gustavsson—after some nervous fits and starts (and some confidence issues)—has righted his own personal ship, at least to some extent.
- Can Connolly be a number-one center? (We’re starting to have a sample-size that is giving us a clue. But I’ll save that discussion/debate for another post.)
- How can a team’s penalty-kill be this bad four years running?
And that’s just a small example of the day-to-day talking points around the Leafs this season. But the interesting situation that is evolving for me right now involves the sudden prominence of former Predator defenseman Cody Franson as a significant member of the blue and white.
We all remember how the season started—with the almost shocking emergence of first-year pro Jake Gardiner as one of the first six Maple Leaf blueliners. His spirited pre-season performance—a nice blend of skating ability, poise and hockey smarts—earned him instant playing time on a team that already had an abundance of NHL-experienced rearguards. But the decision to start him with the big team meant a demotion for Keith Aulie, who had himself shown some good things a year ago when he was called up from the Marlies.
But more controversial, at least for me, was the choice of Gardiner over Franson, who just a few months prior was a key performer for the Nashville Predators in the playoffs against some of the best teams in the tough Western Conference. Not surprisingly, Franson was none too pleased with his seat in the press box. His coach was just as displeased when Franson was not shy about expressing his frustration publicly.
This set off a chain of events whereby Gardiner was opening eyes almost every night and Franson was (at best) being spotted in and out of the line-up and playing modest minutes when he was in. But over the past six weeks, while we can hardly say Gardiner’s play has deteriorated, it would not be a surprise if the young man is hitting a small wall, given he is accustomed to playing a U.S. college schedule. At the same time, Franson has, most nights, become more and more comfortable in a Leaf uniform. He is now a “regular” in the Leaf blueline mix, playing significant minutes while getting some time on the Leaf power play unit. His physical play has surprised some, as he came to town as a guy known for bringing some offense, a big shot and size—but not necessarily for particularly aggressive play.
Bottom line, he has been mostly solid. And with Komisarek—an experienced, big ticket defenseman back from the injured list—Schenn, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson all permanent fixtures in the Leaf picture, it leaves Aulie and Gardiner vying for the 6th and final regular spot on the back end.
At the moment, and maybe it is just for the moment, Aulie has been occupying the spot.
As I mentioned in this space early in the season when this was all unfolding and there was talk of Franson being traded, things can change quickly. It’s a long season. And things have indeed changed. Gardiner is watching and while the loss Saturday night against the Rangers may see Gardiner re-inserted into the line-up (that would be my guess) on Tuesday, before long the Leafs will ultimately have to do something, roster-wise, especially if Liles regains his health.
I had written here many times early in the season that, even though Gardiner looked great in pre-season and clearly has NHL skill, given that Toronto had/has so many defensemen, I would have liked to see him develop and play a lot with the Marlies. But he received tons of playing time here, and some nights was one of the better Leafs. So maybe, as I acknowledged here not that long ago, I was wrong about the Leaf decision to keep Gardiner.
That said, it will be frustrating if they were to decide to demote him now. I would much rather that a kid play with the Marlies and not go back and forth unless absolutely necessary (emergency situations, injuries, etc.). I like to see a guy so well “cooked” at the AHL level he never has to go back.
Once you have been up with the big club for this long, as Gardiner has, it’s hard to go back, though it hasn’t seemed to hurt Del Zotto with the Rangers, who was a stud rookie at 19 and spent a chunk of his sophomore year in the minors before rebounding so nicely this season.
In retrospect, maybe the Leafs knew what they were doing with Franson. That is, perhaps they saw that he needed a jolt upon arriving him at camp. He certainly has some fire in his game now and maybe they thought that was missing when he arrived.
As for Gardiner, I hope the Leafs’ handling of Franson doesn’t end up harming his development. But he should be just fine. With that talent and his calm manner, he will be a player here for a long time.