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Despite another loss, looking for a guy who cares? I’ll say Luke Schenn

Some early promise in Chicago was betrayed by a sluggish middle frame and in the end, that one bad period was enough to send the Leafs to their tenth loss in the last 11 games.

The Hawks have been without their outstanding captain (Toews) for a while and you can see they’re not the same team without him.  This should have been an opportunity for the Leafs to capitalize, especially against a struggling Crawford in the Hawk net.  In fact, they did jump out early—and things looked good.

But a last-minute goal near the end of the first period seemed to give Chicago a confidence jolt.  Perhaps sensing the Leafs were vulnerable, they put the pedal to the metal and ran around freely in the Leaf defensive zone through much of the second period.

I liked some of what we saw last night.  Bozak played spirited game, and won a ton of huge draws in the last minute to give the Leafs a chance.  Gus made some tough saves and Lupul was flying and creating much of the night.  Kessel was dangerous at times, but Grabovski continues to be snakebit.   And that is absolutely killing a second unit that has struggled too often this season, with Kulemin being almost a complete non-factor in the offensive zone—no matter how much we all try to prop up the notion of his good defensive play.  (Reality is, there is more to the game than checking.  Kulemin needs to hit a lot more, win a lot more battles and yes, score goals, to earn his paycheck.  He simply hasn’t done it.)

I wasn’t a big fan of Gardiner’s night.  The young rearguard is always a pleasure to watch, because he is so smooth and smart with the puck.  But (and this was not even a playoff-intensity  atmosphere) in a game that the Leafs had to win, and had a chance to win (and should have won, given the early lead), they were nowhere near strong enough on the puck, or hard enough on Chicago forwards in the Toronto zone.  Gardiner was one of the culprits.  As much as his skating can get him out of trouble, there are times he needs to use muscle and not just finesse, and on a few occasions last night, he was exposed, as he has been at various times this season.

It's just one game, but it’s an example of what I’ve expressed concern about when it comes to the Leafs and any potential playoff match-up.  Gardiner has remarkable natural talent.  He’ll be a wonderful player.  But he is years away from having the experience (and strength) that will allow him to be the defenseman he can be.

Of course, our issues run far deeper than Gardiner’s occasional miscues in the defensive zone.   We gave up too many chances again, and plenty of guys contributed to that stat across the line-up.  The TV commentators (and I like Ray Ferraro) insisted the Leafs had the wrong line match-up against the Hossa line when that line scored twice in the second period.  But you don’t hold the match-up cards on the road, and let’s be honest:  exactly what Maple Leaf trio has been so good in their own zone in recent weeks, that we want them out there when Kane or Hossa are flying around in our zone?

I have to make one side-comment:  Emery did his job in relief of Crawford, for sure.  But did you notice that he spent an inordinate amount of time on his knees?  There were times that he was down before the Leaf forward even had the puck on his stick to shoot.  I only raise this because we, as fans (and TV commentators, too) have a tendency to say (whenever a goal goes in over a goalie’s shoulder) that “he went down to soon…”.  Last night, Emery was down a lot, but because the Leafs couldn’t manage to get the puck up, no one said a word.  Would Emery have played any worse in people's minds if, instead of hitting him, a couple of Leaf shots went in over his shoulder?  Just a small irritant for me.


I really wanted to focus today on something I’m sure we all noticed, and that I really liked.  I know Luke Schenn has struggled at times this season.  This is on the heels of a strong 2010-’11 season, which itself followed a sometimes struggling sophomore season (after that impressive rookie year).  But as I’ve said here many times before, Schenn is all of 22, plays tough, leads the team in hits, and is a guy who obviously cares.

Against the Hawks, he, without hesitation, went after Shaw when the young Hawk forward had kind of clipped Monster and knocked him off his feet, after a drive at the net.  Then, later in the game, he fought with the annoying Bollig.

So here’s my point.  In a season where we have seen our goalies ambushed, our captain hammered, and no one did a thing, Schenn did something.  Despite regular public criticism, being a healthy scratch, being in play at the trade deadline, he comes out every night and plays hard.  And on the road, he showed no fear in taking on the ‘chippiest’ Hawks.  He only played about 15 minutes on the night but played tough.

In isolation, the stat may not always mean much, but he still is one of the top guys on the team at plus 5, not bad on a squad that now has given up more goals than it has scored this season.

We’re looking for positives.  We’re looking for leadership.  We all talk about our “young defense”.  We gave up a guy I think will be a good one (Aulie).  We can’t give away any more, no matter how much we want to be hopeful about who looks good on the Marlies.  We need good young defensemen—and I think we have some. We have depth right now, but Liles has been fighting it a bit since his injury.  Gardiner is still a rookie.  Schenn is in his fourth year.   Franson was just a healthy scratch.  It takes time to become an accomplished, consistent, reliable NHL defenseman.

I often think back to long-time ‘80s and ‘90s Maple Leaf Todd Gill.  He was much criticized early in his promising Leaf tenure, and some particularly memorable giveaways gave him a reputation as mistake-prone.  But through sheer determination, Gill became an accomplished defenseman for the blue and white.  He was an important part of those wonderful 1993 and ’94 playoff teams.  But you know what I  remember most about Gill?  This guy was a true Leaf.  He bled blue and white.  He was, in hockey terms, a warrior.  Not a big defenseman, size-wise, but he played big.  He was rugged—was loyal.

And importantly, over time, he was a steady blueliner.  But the key point is “over time”.

At a time when we can easily hang our heads, it’s perhaps important to project what might be.  And for me, Schenn is a future captain.  A flawed player right now, but when you have already played close to 300 NHL games at the age of 22,  I wouldn’t be too quick to unload a guy with a heart that big.

Skill matters, of course.  But you win with skill, determination, smarts, toughness—and heart.

And whatever “skill” we add in the months and seasons ahead, we will need all the heart we can muster, if we hope to build a true championship team.


  1. "petal to the metal"
    Elizabeth (and I) will like that one.
    Only other thing I feel like talking about is you're right, Michael- Ray Ferraro is head and shoulders over Pierre McGuire and in another universe than Glen Healy.

  2. The most interesting thing about the game was what I didn't notice until I looked at the box score.

    Lombardi was scratched. Did anyone else miss him?

    In a team of small forwards he seems totally expendable. I didn't even notice that he was missing.

    I think they should have traded Lombardi at the deadline. Perhaps there is a larger team that needs his speed and a deal can be made this summer or next year.

    I would much rather have Moen or Gaustad on that third line and there are other free agents.

  3. Well, it's old glass-half-empty O'Malley chiming in with what's becoming an all too common refrain. We will never go anywhere with the lack of grit, effort and leadership the Leafs are showing these days. We were outworked by Hossa, Kane - even Shaw made Gardiner look like the rookie he is. Our so-called defensive guys were beaten to and pushed off the puck all night long. We were skated through and over by the Hawks on almost all their goals. Don't blame Gustavsson - though he drops to his knees at the thought someone might shoot - when the defensive play is as shoddy as it was tonight, and has been for ages, he could be Georges Vezina and we'd still lose.
    We're pretty well done after this disastrous month. I'm fed up with this bunch of underachievers, and with management that has been incomparably incompetent over the past many years. We've all got our favorite players, but I would trade ANYONE for someone like Doug Gilmour, straight up.
    I'm not looking for bright spots because that's what we do every year in Leafland, and it doesn't matter. It's about winning, and doing whatever it takes to win, and we aren't doing it. It's infuriating to watch, and it seems no-one is accountable. It's insulting to fans as loyal as Leaf fans are. If this were any market but Toronto, the arena would be half empty.

  4. I know we all have to 'grasp' for positives these days, Michael. But good point on Schenn. Full credit to him for 1) publicly (and almost immediately) shouldering responsibility for his error against Florida; 2) following it up with a decent performance the rest of the way, and 3) 'answering the bell' and another strong game in Chicago.

    That sense of accountability hasn't been there in a while. Another point I feel about Schenn is that the trade for Phaneuf sort of overshadowed or even hindered his emergence. He was all set to be 'the man' even at the tender age of 20 and all of a sudden this supposedly 'proven' veteran takes over. Not to criticize Dion (as discussed here previously, he's still growing into the role), but perhaps that has left the young D-man confused and the benching, diminishing ice time, etc., has hurt his confidence. Just a thought.

    Last night's game showed just how hard this team needs to work to even be remotely competitive against another somewhat mediocre (albeit likely playoff-bound) team. They can't afford any off-shifts. That's why I feel they need to make the playoffs at any cost, regardless of first round performance, and expose their youths to that 'desperate' atmosphere.


  5. KidK...thanks for catching that. (Though, in light of yesterday's garden conversation, as you cite, it fits, at least!)

    Yeah, I'm a Ferraro guy, comparably speaking. I enjoy him when he is interviewed on the radio. Worthwhile insights from a guy who played a long time.

  6. DP....I'll let others speak to your Lombardi point. But that could probably apply to a number of guys, including a few defensemen these days- and a lot of fourth-line guys, and some who are playing like they are...

  7. Gerund O'.....I can't argue. It's supposed to be about results, and we're not seeing it. Thanks as always.

  8. Caedmon- I think that's a very fair point about Schenn standing up and not making excuses the night before. And that's partly why I was glad he was not a healthy scratch last night. There were reports he might be. I hate this thing (which we've seen with the goalies all season) of "a mistake" and you're out.

    Laziness, lack of work ethic, lack of discipline, a poor attitude, those things, in my mind, merit coach intervention and a seat upstairs. But a guy who is playing hard but simply mistaking mistakes, I don't get the benching thing. How will any young player ever build or re-build confidence if they know they'll get yanked in some fashion every time they make a faux pas? If a player feels the coaching staff doesn't believe in them (see Gustavsson) the results are usually predictable.

    All my long -winded way of saying, yes, Schenn bounced back in the Florida game, worked hard again last night and stood up for his teammates, at least.

    Your point on Dion interesting as well. I'm not sure Kaberle didn't regress in a major way when Dion arrived. (It was Kabby's team in many ways. Big personality comes in; Kabby, the quiet guy, slipped into the background...) Komisarek was going to be the next (short term) captain, likely. And he has never fully, consistently found his game here. So, as you say, it's not a question of blaming Phaneuf. Simply that for all the good that deal made, it may have impacted some individual players in a negative way. But I guess we can never really know for sure, eh?

    I like your last point. Getting to the playoffs (not that we wouldn't complain if we lost meekly in the first round...) would at the very least give some of the kids who will be here when the team is a serious contender some invaluable experience- experience you can't get in any other similar situation.

    Great post. Thanks Caedmon.

  9. And KidK...I thought you'd pick up on the Todd Gill reference. He's one of your guys.....

  10. I think Luke Schenn is a class act all the way, and know he's better than he's played this year.

    However, it's a lot more common that a smooth, smart, skilled defenceman adds some muscle and grit and becomes a star than a big, rugged one adds footspeed, positioning and instincts.

    Gardiner may be years away from his peak but in one year in the NHL, he's already a much better player than Luke Schenn.

    Five years ago, when Luke Schenn was playing D at the World Juniors, Jake Gardiner was converting from forward at a Minnesota high school. Now look where the two are. Nuff said.

  11. It is what it is. DP is right I didn't know Lombardi was out, but then again I didn't realize Armstrong was in either. Isn't that the problem, the Leafs have a bunch of interchangeable parts none of which are getting the job done. Kudos to Schenn for having a good game albeit half a season to late. Again isn't that a perpetual problem, when the pressure starts to disappear they get going. Now the playofs are a miracle away from happening I suspect they will finally get going and finish in 9th place after a valiant effort which ignores the the fact that if they had simply played 500 since thier great start they would have made it. Last thing I'm tierd of hearing how Phanuef will grow into the role. The guy is an 8 year veteran he's played well over 500 games in the NHL. He isn't growing into anything. What you see is exactly what you are going to get. The youngest team in the league, who next year will have 2 out of 3 on thier top line be eligable for unrestricted free agency. In 2 years the 3rd guy will be eligable. Sorry I'm just bitter. There was no silver lining last night, they lost and have virtually assured us of seven years without a sniff of playoff hockey, let alone a championship.

    Oh yeah Michael, you at least made me laugh when I heard all these guys saying they just need to get out of Toronto. A little road time would be good just like you predicted. Some reporter should have replied no all you really need to do is start winning. Thats all this orginization is, cliches, half truths and face saving bullshit from the manager ondown.

  12. Thanks GT. We all love Gardiner. He will improve, for sure.

    I'm just a fan of the idea that you need different types of players. A smooth defenseman like Gardiner brings what he does, and a tougher, if more limited player like Schenn can bring what he does. Both can be here and be welcome factors in the future.

    Thanks. Good post, as always.

  13. I absolutely understand your frustration, Willbur. People have a right to be frustrated.

    You touched on something I was trying to get across here the other day: one of the down sides of our eternal optimism about all this "good youth" is that, some day soon, we will have to find a way to keep all these "good young players" and pay them the kind of money they want. Look at Grabbo right now. Either we pay more than, frankly, I think he is worth (and I really like the guy) or he's gone- for nothing. And while he was here, we had exactly how many playoff wins?

    Otherwise, we will simply have helped them build their careers here, only to see them sign elsewhere and really shine- and leave the Leafs "re-building" yet again.

    Can someone remind me how much Phaneuf is making this season, and how long his contract runs?

    Thanks Willbur.

  14. Judging from what I am reading here, the fan base is making a lot more sense with than the Leaf team makes. How can you argue with Gerund’s position on grit and determination? We were all writing about it even as they were winning last year. Michael, like a coach might, is looking to build from whatever positives can be found. This might be our best approach, given Burke’s apparent intransigence and the fact that we have, albeit hard to believe, suddenly woken up to the Leaf Apocalypse 2012. I will never forget a teammate saying to me, after an unlikely rally and win, that “hockey is 90% psychological and the other 10% in your head”. To which I quipped: “Goaltending is 90% in your head and the other 10% completely mental”. Because I was watching the early season games on out-of-market channels, I got a taste of the other teams’ perspectives. Believe it: the other teams’ analysts were in awe of the Leafs’ speed and talent level. So what the hell happened?

    It seems to me that the difference between winning and losing is razor thin at the NHL level. A player like Joffrey Lupul can execute the game faster than I can think it. That sheer speed inspires awe. The difference between winning and losing however; might be more mundane, moving at a slower level to do with determination and leadership, sometimes conflated in the four letter word: Grit. We have seen it before, a single player like Doug Gilmour comes in and the balance between winning and losing shifts, and everyone slides as along with him, as if on a see saw. While the management and/or coaching meddling with prior success (Exhibit A: Unjust Treatment of the Monster) have been so annoying that you want to wring their metaphorical managerial necks, we seem to be stuck with it for now. We have to start somewhere. Luke Schenn (and Dave Brown I would add and maybe an emerging Matt Frattin) is as good a place as any that I am seeing at the present time.

  15. I pointed out to a friend of mine last night that this game seemed like the perfect microcosm of the Leafs entire season.

    They got off to a fantastic start, stumbled a bit, then recovered nicely and built themselves a cushion. Then they completely collapsed, and made a tiny little push at the end that was just enough to make the game seem respectable, but ultimately still failed.

    I can't blame Gus for the loss last night. Allowing five goals is bad, but a bad bounce off his glove on the kane goal, a deflection off a leg on another, and hossa is just goddamn good. He gave us a chance to win, and that's more than we can say for the last few games.

    As far as I'm concerned, the Leafs just need to get rid of dead weight. Armstrong, Lombardi, Connolly, Komisarek, and probably even Liles, should be dumped in the offseason. Take back anything that's not more money or longer term. These guys are overpaid and underperforming and just don't deserve to be on this team. Even Phaneuf lately has been playing horribly (Btw, he makes $6.5mil/yr through 2013-2014 season). The only players on the team I feel for are the first line players. These guys have no quit in them and pour their heart and soul into every shift every night, but the rest of the team is completely letting them down. It's tragic. The 4th line was a total train wreck last night but Wilson still kept dumping them out there against opponents where they were clearly overmatched.

    Maybe I'm just upset, but as fans, why shouldn't we be? Why shouldn't we be upset at the perpetual mediocrity of this team? Overpaid and under-talented. Talented but under-performing. It seems like we say the same thing every year, so where is the accountability? Ugh

    Also, side note on Aulie. His stats seemed good and he played with Phaneuf, but he benefited from great puck luck (helped largely by Reimer's great run at the end of last season), and looked pretty terrible every time he was on the ice this season. He has a ton of potential, but I don't think this team is worse off without him. Put it this way, I'm glad it was Aulie and not Holzer/Blacker/Schenn/Franson/Gardiner/etc. If it could have been Komisarek instead, I'd raise a fuss, but otherwise...meh.

  16. Bobby C...your neat story about your teammate does bring to mind wonderful memories of the great Yogi Berra and his famous expressions, right!?

    There is no question that, at many points this season, the Leafs have played with speed and skill and I would even say some offensive flair. They still have it. It's just buried beneath a lost confidence that can also quickly re-emerge. (As you say, Bobby, the line between success and failure is very thin at this level. As it is with confidence, quite often...)

    That said, that "talent" is also coming up against your later point, one that Gerund continues to (correctly) make, and others here as well: call it your term, "muckulence", my regular references to "team toughness", grit- whatever...they need a jolt of all of the above.

    Too, they are facing teams that are playing harder than what the Leafs were encountering earlier in the season. As we all know, if you let a free-wheeling team have plenty of "time and space" as people like to call it nowadays, they'll make some pretty plays and score some goals.

    Come spring (and playoff) time, that space dries up and goals are harder to come by, especially if you don't go to the tough areas.

    Gilmour, Gary Roberts...anyone in that vein would be nice, yes. Who knows, one may be on the way this summer in a trade or through free agency.

    I admire Brown as well, and agree that Frattin has a bright future. Love seeing him use the ice, and both wings.

    Thanks Bobby.

  17. Thanks Darryl...good post, as usual.

    I have to believe Burke will move people this summer. Anther season with too many highly-paid "fourth-line" guys won't cut it.

    I can't argue that Bozak, Kessel and Lupul have done their share, and probably more. But beyond Grabbo having that nice impact spurt in the middle of the season (and Brown playing consistently hard) it's difficult some nights to find silver linings.

    As for Aulie, well, we can agree the jury is still out. That's the fun of trades- we can debate them for years to come!

  18. Michael, thank you for your continued support of my scribbling. It could be that my teammate was making an allusion to the Yogi Berra quote (which I had to look up): “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” If so, his allusion to the famous Yogi Berra quote went completely over my head at the time. Berra's quote is funny though, as are the endless playful permutations that can follow from it.

  19. Michael-
    I posted the petal comment before reading the whole post. I was on the verge of going off for a few hundred words about how awesome he is and that I shook his hand at a Petes/Frontenacs game a couple weeks ago, then I remembered the game and that we have about a 10% chance left of making the playoffs and I shut it down....

  20. Thanks Bobby, but I need to thank you. You- and many other thoughtful individuals who take the time to visit and comment here- make this site so much better than it would be if it was simply my own reflections. Thanks.

  21. KidK...understood. (I'll always remember Todd Gill fondly...)

  22. On behalf of all VLM readers, I'm going to request that Michael bookmarks this so he doesn't have to keep asking us for terms/length of contracts, like Phaneuf's or like that horrible, horrible Komisarek one-
    Also, Todd Gill rules!