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OK Leafs, time to get serious

There’s plenty of time left in the 2011-’12 NHL season for teams to make a playoff push.  And my column title today is a bit tongue-in-cheek.  I well realize the Leafs have been  quite serious about their efforts so far this season, from management through to the coaching staff and every guy on the roster.

They are trying hard to win every night and we’ve all seen some legitimate progress across much of the roster this season.  It’s just that now is the time for an objective and cold assessment of where they “fit” in the wide-open and very much up for grabs Eastern Conference.

I say this because, as we approach the official mid-way (41 games) point of the current season, the Leafs are in the mix in their Conference, very much in the playoff hunt in the jumbled standings where one win—or one loss—changes the flow.

Yes, the Leafs have every opportunity to make the playoffs, and in the East, they really should.  There are no excuses.   Virtually every team is fighting through injuries—Markov in Montreal, Myers in Buffalo, Sid in Pittsburgh, Staal in New York, etc.  So while yes, the Leafs face some injury hurdles, they have plenty of depth and should not miss a beat.  None of the injured players—while helpful, to be sure, such as Liles—are irreplaceable. In fact, it’s an opportunity for other guys to earn more ice time or a spot on the roster.

So when I look at the standings and see the Leafs neck and neck with the Ottawa Senators—a team I thought might win 15 games this season—well, it’s not exactly what I was expecting.  I give the Senators credit, but let's be clear:  if it’s not reasonable for Leaf fans to expect to be ahead of the Senators half-way through this season (and well ahead, actually), then the team has not progressed as much as Burke and Wilson would have us believe.  You can’t really have it both ways.  You can't tell fans that we are a playoff team, we are much better, we have all this depth, then point at injuries and struggle to get past what should be one of the weakest teams in the East.

Yes, the Sens are just one opponent.  But we have to be honest in our assessment.  Tampa Bay has really not been much this season so far, but appears to be playing better of late.  If that is indeed so and Miller starts to play as he can Buffalo can be a factor, too (we have to assume the Capitals will make it) and the Leafs will be in tough.  I posted a while back on whom their real opposition is for the final playoff spots in the East, and I still believe that’s what it will come down to.  But while I believe there is every reason that the Leafs should make it, there is not a whole lot of room for giving away points.

That said, every team has games where they can’t hold a lead and end up giving away points here and there throughout a long season.  And there are nights you steal points when you shouldn’t.  But I’m talking about the overall trend here.  The Leafs need to get back to being a team that other teams have to worry about a bit and game-plan for.  They can’t be a team totally dependent on one line and a sometimes predictable (if occasionally potent) power-play.

What's the call to action?  It's very simple and there is nothing very scientific about it.  They need everyone to step up—Reimer, for sure, the young “D”, and all 12 forwards every night. 

This is not a time for excuses- injuries, youth, a tough schedule, whatever.

With a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, one that is young, presumably highly-motivated and hungry, they should be really to play every night.  And if they do, they can make the playoffs.

And I think it's fair to say that's the least fans should be able to expect at this point in Burke's tenure.






14 comments:

  1. The biggest difference between a Stanley Cup team and a non-Stanley Cup team is the ability to get offence from at least three lines, mainly the third line as to contribute and not just two lines. Boston had Seguin, Kelly, Marchand, Peverley, and even Campbell contributing. Campbell saw his contribution decline in the playoffs but the others maintained, if not improved, their effectiveness. Marchand played his way quickly up the depth chart leaving the rest behind.

    The year before Chicago had Versteeg, Bolland, Kopecky, and Brouwer producing as guys who saw third line action.

    Your third line needs to produce around 25 points each. Some guys will be higher and some lower but they need to equal out to around 25 a piece at least. Seguin(22), Kelly(28), Campbell(29) on the season last year. Armstrong(23) was our top producer on the third line last year followed by Brent(20), Crabb(15), Boyce(13), and Kadri(12). Schenn had 22 points and Gunnarsson 20, just to show you how bad it was.

    The penalty kill is very weak right now and whomever is in net seems to be the main problem behind it. Not to fault one guy, and the goalie of all guys, but the GAA needs to improve. Getting Armstrong, Brown, and Komi back would surely help the PK. It just isn't up to playoff team standards.

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  2. I still have to catch up on reading the VLM discussion during the Christmas/New Year break, so please forgive me if this point has been discussed. I am concerned about what I perceive to be an insufficient “compete level” of late. I feel awkward making that assessment given the enormous competitive drive required to be an elite athlete at the NHL level. However, that is usually what separates winners from losers. All of the winners seem to push just a little harder. Even Wayne Gretzky, with all his talent, had it. At the current juncture of the season I am just not seeing it. The teams that are recording the “W’s” seem to have it, the Leafs slightly deficient in the “compete” area. Is anyone else seeing this problem or, is it that I am perceiving things incorrectly? Glen Healy, who seems to have toned down his tendency toward irrational causticism, makes a good point about James Reimer’s positioning. He has to challenge a little more, he does look to be deeper in the crease than he should be at times. I assume that this might be related to his injury which occurred when he was challenging at the top of the crease and was blindsided by a Montreal player. It looks much like a human psychological reaction to touching a hot stove element. (That is a dangerous thing to do, I am going to avoid that.) With Reimer’s, we have to admit it now, middling play since returning, Wilson’s insistence on not playing Gustavsson is beginning to look like stubbornness. I would like to see Ron Wilson create more internal competition in goal by making the competition a fair one.

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  3. Skill2Envy...I like your point about the critical importance of "third lines" on any truly high-end team. I well recall how, in the 1970s, Montreal's "third" line of Risebrough, Lambert and Tremblay was better than a lot of second lines on other teams. (For that matter, Roberts, Gainey and Jarvis as a fourth line was also better than a lot of team's second lines...)

    We've all touched on the Leafs' need for a "number-one" centre and the much-discussed "secondary scoring". All valid things to focus on. The secondary scoring question is, for me, connected with your post today. It may well be that even with Kessel/Lupul having career years, and even IF the Grabbo line was re-united and clicking on all cylinders, we are still missing something in terms of a truly productive (in all-around terms) third line. And, long story short, I agree that a successful team needs that come playoff time. (The Wings with Draper, Maltby and McCarthy all those years...)

    Bobby C....like you, I am loathe to suggest that NHL'ers aren't "working hard enough". We both understand, and I'm sure everyone who visits this site understands, that it takes more than most of us can comprehend just to get to the NHL.

    But as you point out, once there, what often separates the Cup contenders from the others is that will, that desire to win such that a player will drive themselves past what they thought they could handle.

    Most times, in the spring, we see teams who are in the "final four" of the Stanley Cup playoffs because they work so incredibly hard in all facets of the game. It's easy then to distinguish how they got to that point and why other teams did not.

    I'll always remember 800-year old Guy Carbonneau with Dallas (wasn't that in the '99 playoffs when they won the Cup under Hitchcock...?). The guy was working every face-off, killing penalties, blocking shots. You could just feel his effort. He was working so, so hard. And, so was everybody else on the ice when teams like Dallas, Detroit, Colorado were playing in the playoffs those days.

    Right now, I'm not seeing anyone on the Leafs who really plays that way, or at least not consistently. Mike Brown, yes, but they need more than that.

    Eliminate guys from the play, block shots, win battles in the corners and along the boards, drive the net, take guys out in front of your own net. Little of that has to do with skill. It has to do with willingness and effort.

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  4. Michael, I am relieved that I am not alone in seeing a Leaf deficiency in the "compete" area. The difference between winning and losing is such a fine distinction that it seems to carry as much weight as luck, the fortuitous bounce of the puck, the broken stick, the weak call by the referee ... "Compete" always seems to hoist the Cup, regardless of the always fickle Lady Luck. For whatever reason, we seem to need more compete at this time. At this point in the season, I find myself at my most pessimistic, fearing that it might not be there. Like you, I see the coming stretch as the critical one. In these next games I hope to be proven wrong.

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  5. Maybe our mediocre performance has something to do with comments like: "we're pretty much where I'd thought we'd be" coming from management when we had slipped to 6th, or "it's only a matter of tweaking" when asked about player moves.
    Peter Laviolette made an interesting comment on 24/7 the other day, which could be paraphrased as: "if you don't play as if you expect to win the Cup, why are you bothering to play?"
    That attitude is nowhere in evidence in MLSE land. From the start, it's been about expecting, and accepting, a middling team. To my mind, that's why we're putting up with a potentially season-killing PK for the 4th year in a row, rewarding substandard goaltending with more games, and being expected to support a team that can't or won't show the "muckulence" that Bobby C refers to above as "insufficient compete level". And there's no point discussing a third line that can score until we get a second line that can! How it's possible that we have all the same weaknesses we had last year, with all the roster and coaching moves, is beyond me.
    One thing Leaf fans have had to learn, as Long-Suffering's moniker indicates, is that patience is not only a virtue, it's a necessity! I'm looking to the next 10 games to tell us the story of this year. I'm hoping December was just a bad hangover from the giddiness of October and November. But I'm getting that old gnawing feeling in my gut, so familiar to Leaf fans, as they watch the season get fumbled away.

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  6. Gerund O'...I almost wanted to stand up and cheer when I read the first line of your comment today. For me, this is very much in line with what I have tried to communicate in this space for the last two years. As Leaf fans, we have been so conditioned- including by the current coach and General Manager- to set the bar so low (I know others will disagree, thinking Burke sets a high bar...) that the mere possibility of making the playoffs excites us.

    The current management team talks a big game, and may deliver some day on their talk. But the Leafs are striving to do something now that, in the Quinn era, was the minimum expectation- make the playoffs. That was not so very long ago but the current management talks like the Leafs have never had any success and that they squandered all their assets. (I beg to differ, but I'll make that argument another day...Giving up Boyes and Kondratiev hardly constitutes throwing away the future...)

    Yes, it was a different time and the Leafs could spend more than other teams in the pre-lockout period. But we expected more, and got more. Some very good, if imperfect teams, who competed hard most years in the playoffs and twice went to the "final four".

    As I posted today, yes, the players "work hard" and are doing their best. And they should make the playoffs in the East. Burke has improved the team from when he arrived, no question.

    But like in golf, getting from 100 to 90 is pretty easy if you work at it. Shooting 80 consistently takes an awful lot of work. To get better than that, well, that's when you really separate those that have talent and a work ethic and those that don't quite put in the extra work.

    I sense that's where we are right now with the Leafs. They have an opportunity to shine. We'll see how badly they want it.

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  7. At some point, people are going to have to accept that Ottawa is actually a pretty okay team (and with their youth, the future looks very promising)

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  8. NKB...As I have acknowledged on this site many times, I did not think Ottawa would be a good team this season. I still do not believe they are or will be in 2011-'12, but I defer to you and those who better know their player pipeline, in terms of how they shape up for the future. You may well be right.

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  9. Ottawa is very surprising. I thought for sure they would be dark dwellers in the basement with Winnipeg. Karlsson leading all defensemen in points, all rookie skaters too if i'm correct.

    Toronto could learn something from them, those young guys are hungry. Not salary hungry, but hungry to make and stay in the NHL. Good for them.

    Gerund, I'm not looking to correct/get this guy or that guy going in a certain order. Whoever wants to step up to the plate and hit homers is good in my eyes. Salary or "prestige" of that guy doesn't matter, anyone that brings it consistently only benefits the team and themselves.

    Our 2nd line or "MGK" line may not be producing but that doesn't diminish the importance of a third line needing to produce to reach Cup standards.

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  10. Skill2Envy- very well said. (I, too am shocked by Ottawa's surge in the standings...but yes, credit to them).

    I think we are all on the same page. We need to see max effort, for sure. And everyone wants to see the second line (whoever it is this week...) step up. And a productive third-line will only help our chances for success.

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  11. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 3, 2012 at 6:20 PM

    Yes there is no doubt,to a certain respect that the Leafs have lost some of that swagger that they had in the first two month's of the season. But in the last two games, especially in Winnipeg I have noticed a very disturbing trend creeping back into their game..."the fear of losing!!" I don't know if its because of the sorry state of the PK, them giving up quick goals after they had tied or gained the lead, or if its feeling the heat from the others teams so close to them in the standings?? Whatever it maybe, we can only hope that the "veteran" leadership (Phaneuf, Connolly. Lupul, the return of Brown, and Komisarek) helps them regain that swagger back.

    I never believe I would be saying this...but I feel that the Leafs are a better team with Mike Komisarek in the line up. Love his comments to a sun reporter on Monday, “We’re not going to let a couple of games ruin that confidence and all that effort we put in.“It’s having that lunch-pail attitude, coming to the rink every day, willing to work. We had a constructive day today and a good debate out there. It’s up to us to go out there and execute.” Now that the kind of talk we need to start hearing more of!!!

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  12. Long Suffering....as you well know, confidence can certainly be a fragile thing. You can lose it fairly quickly- and get it back just as quickly. Hopefully Komisarek and Brown can indeed help restore whatever might have temporarily slipped away....

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  13. I'm glad the Leafs/Management read these articles and our comments :) or so it would appear after last nights win!

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  14. Skill2Envy....little did we know how influential we must be, eh? That comment made me smile...

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