When you assess someone’s work, it’s and reasonable—and only fair— to wait a sufficient amount of time before making any “final” determinations. Now, when it comes to the performance of the Maple Leafs, we can argue and debate whether we have waited long enough (this particular season) to make pronouncements with any degree of emphasis—and authority.
But acknowledging that, I’ve been waiting for the "right" time (never really a right time, I realize) to suggest a few things, ideas to bounce off you, to see if you sense that I’m way off base or perhaps closer to “truth-telling” than perhaps we want to hear or realize.
This is not about applauding all that's wonderful or, conversely, criticizing all that's less than wonderful about the Burke build, re-build, make-over, whatever it is. (We do know that it has certainly changed since its original publicly stated intentions, but few would suggest it hasn’t produced a better team than was in place, say, three years ago…). His work is still ongoing and a far measure from complete, to be sure. But let’s talk about where we are, right now—not where we have been, or where we might be in a month or even two years from now. And let’s do it in the context of who is our competition, in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
The East is wide open, I feel. Right now, the Rangers and Bruins appear to be the “elite” teams, the favorites. They are both fairly gritty, but with enough skill and goaltending to be not only dangerous but hard to upset for just about any squad that will meet them in the playoffs. The Flyers have overcome a ton of injuries to not only survive but thrive, at times (though they have their lousy nights, for sure…).
But I don’t sense anyone f those three teams is so strong, so tough, so skilled, that a big playoff effort by a good team couldn’t defeat them.
A year ago, we might have believed that Washington would be one of those teams that you wouldn’t want to meet in the spring, but while they still have Ovechkin, a fair bit of skill and playoff experience, they may also be facing some self-doubt, given their playoff failures and their uneven play so far this season. They are, as of this moment, one of the bubble teams who will have to play well just to make the playoffs.
Boston and New York are, as I mentioned, good teams, but unbeatable? I don’t think so.
From our self-interested perspective, the question is: could the Leafs be one of those underdog teams that could provide a playoff “upset”?
All this said, my focus today is very specific: the team’s second—and so-called “third” and “fourth” lines.
A year ago, we were in the midst of a winter wonderland feeling about the emergence of Grabovski as a (almost) true front-line NHL center. That Kulemin was continuing his pleasant career arc was expected, at least from my perspective. But MacArthur’s contribution came, if not out of left field, certainly as a modest shock to most Leaf observers.
In short order, they became the team’s best and most consistent unit, a line that could skate, move the puck, check and actually "finish", too.
So when, this season, Lupul caught fire with Kessel, and Bozak did nothing to hurt the line (and in fact helped it, with his vision, smarts and speed, I would argue), most of us naturally expected the Grabovski line to further cement its status as a productive, defensively reliable and at times explosive unit. Who really cared whether they were a "first" or "second" line?
For reasons most of us probably can’t quite digest just yet (perhaps because we don’t have the required time or distance to step back and assess their performance with detachment and perspective), this “second” unit has been less than stellar too often this season.
We have all season Grabbo play some splendid hockey in the last six weeks or so. But Kulemin has been in a dreadful, season-long swoon. For me, it is one of those inexplicable collapses (the KHL team tragedy may well be a cause, as others have cited, but we just can’t really know…) that defies explanation. We can defend Kulemin (and those who follow this site know I really like this guy and have tried to look for the positives in his play) and say, “oh, but his defensive game is still good…”. But the reality is, we need more from him—much more. Five goals or whatever it is, at this point in the NHL season (56 games in) just doesn’t do it. He’s paid to produce more—and expected and needed to produce more and let’s face it, simply play better. He’s a big guy who should be delivering those barnstorming hits that we see on rare occasions at least once a night or every other game to keep the opposition honest- and a bit off their game. But most nights he seems to glide through the evening with effort, yes, but not much to show for it.
As for MacArthur, well, it’s a good thing he can snipe goals on occasion, and gets hot just often enough to keep the wolves at the door and satisfy some fans, but from my perspective, he had a career year last year. Was that MacArthur, or is he what we see now? He has “points” this season, but is he really doing enough?
So if I had to rate the second line this season, with raw “numbers”, I would put Grabovski at a 7.5 (maybe a B+, because he has been very good in recent weeks, less so earlier on…) MacArthur at a 6.5 (a straight “C”) and Kulemin at 5, a D. That’s just my honest perspective, though, as always, I am more than open to compelling arguments to the contrary that will sway me from my current stance.
Can things change? Of course. I may view things very differently in a month, or come playoff time. The beauty of a long season, I suppose. But here’s the real conundrum, at least for me. I’ll just say it: I think we have two “fourth” lines right now.
I know some will dispute this vigorously, and say, “Michael, you’re way off, we actually have two good third lines…” Problem is, I just don’t see it most nights. Oh yes, when we play a team that lets us free-wheel, Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski and MacArthur will score, and our speed will win the day, assuming we play enough defense, don’t give the puck away all night and our goalies play like they can.
But as I look at how we are constituted right now, I will say it again: we have two fourth lines. Let me be clear: every guy we’re discussing here is, by the 30-team standards of the current league configuration, an NHL player. All bring something to the Leaf table. But is it enough?
Connolly, for example, may break out at any time, but what I’m seeing right now (and yes, injuries may be there that we don’t know about) is an old 30 year old. A guy with sweet hands and vision, for sure, but one that just can’t go to the areas he needs to go to help the team. He’ll help on the penalty-kill, yes, and that’s important. But while he has been relegated to playing with lesser offensive threats, if you just look at his play, I think it is simply lacking the drive that will be required come playoff time.
Lombardi and Crabb? Well, we all love Lombardi’s elite speed, but as I mentioned the other day, for me, he is Camalerri without the finish (Camalerri doesn’t have it lately, either…) or grit. Crabb is a guy we all love for his tenacity, and he shows some offensive moves when given the chance, but is he really an impact third-line guy?
Then we have Steckel, Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong or Darryl Boyce.
Brown is a rugged guy who plays hard. It would be difficult to question his desire or willingness to mix things up and hit. He did that all night in the “lost in the wilderness effort” against the Habs on Saturday night. I admire that.
Steckel wins a ton of draws, and in today’s game, that is awfully important. But is he going to be a shutdown defensive centerman come springtime? For his size, is there sufficient toughness and grit, to go along with those marvelous face-off skills?
Armstrong is seemingly loved in Leafland. I’m not quite sure why. Not that I don’t like the guy. And I know that I keep being reminded that the Leafs win more when he plays. But I sure wouldn’t want to have to put that theory to the ultimate test, as in hoping his presence will swing a playoff series. I just don’t see it. What I do see is a guy who can contribute, play a role, for sure. But those that pigeon-holed him before he came here saw him as a limited player. Has being a Leaf suddenly made him more than that, really? Or is it because we see what we want to see?
Like many others, I love the Boyce story and how he worked his tail off against many odds to get to the NHL. But again, is he a guy that, other than the occasional offensive contribution, is going to be a key factor—albeit within limited minutes—down the stretch?
I guess my answer is, our “bottom-six” (though I realize Burke has now shifted his language to suggest we now have a “top-nine”…my response is…whatever you need to say this month...), while all guys who bring something to the table and play a fair bit under the Leaf ice-time structure, are two units that fall short of what the Leafs will need when they take on teams like the Flyers, Rangers or Bruins in a 7-game series.
Again, I stress, I am open to arguments to the contrary. And I think those who know this site know me well enough that I am not suggesting this simply because the team has lost a couple of games. I’m trying to step back and be honest and assess—not with blue and white eyes, but with the eyes of someone who has followed this franchise closely for more than 50 seasons—what they “are” right now.
And for me, what they are, in a parity-filled and pretty mediocre Eastern Conference, is a team that, when the wind is at their back and the opposition lets them play to their strengths, can win a lot with speed.
But as I have mentioned for months now, what I do not see is team toughness—and that’s not just the willingness (or not) to stand up for Phaneuf and Kessel when they are mauled by an opposing player. It's a mentality that shows itself most nights, a determination, a toughness….an ability (willingness?) to go to the tough areas to make plays—and to prevent plays from happening against them.
This is a young, entertaining team. A lot of good things are happening. (Wilson changed the lines at practice again on Monday, but we saw how that lasted last time...) They can make the playoffs and they can maybe do damage once they are there. But while we may be having an entirely different discussion next season, right now, the second line is being dragged down by Kulemin (and yes, MacArthur, who I’m not sure is a true second-line guy) and the fact that we have, if you include Rosehill, Boyce, etc. about 8 “fourth-line” forwards.
Your turn—tell me why I’m wrong…