The most heartwarming aspect of the win in Tampa Bay had to be Reimer’s performance. (Some of you will recall that, after the last Leaf game, another loss, I posted here saying I was confident that Reimer would rebound next season. Can I be called a prophet—for one night, at least?) It’s just good to see the young man excel. He deserves any success that comes his way, including at the tail end of a difficult season.
There were other hopeful signs as the Leafs broke off their skid, but I’m guessing some fans will be torn between being pleased about a nice win and wondering if it will damage the now much-discussed hopes of landing a big fish on draft-day in June.
In any event, a win always feels better than a loss.
Especially in this market, there is forever the tendency to over-analyze everything that happens with the Maple Leaf hockey club. And I don’t mean just the “big picture” stuff. I refer as much to the tiniest little things that happen game-to-game and even shift to shift.
A defenseman gives the puck away, we see it and have an instantaneous reaction. At the very least, we are upset; at worst, we want the guy traded; Chances are a few disgruntled fans will look at some kind of “advanced stat” to prove the guy is lousy because, well, he plays almost all of his minutes on the right hand side of the ice (or is it the left?) when the puck is faced-off in the offensive zone and that proves that…..whatever they want it to prove. Usually, that the guy is a bum.
My point is simply this: when I was a kid following the game 50 years ago, fans noticed mistakes, of course. (Eddie Shack, for example, used to drive me crazy. I often complained about Eddie Shack to my Dad—who couldn’t have cared less, he was a Montreal fan—quite regularly, demanding that Shack be traded, as though Dad had some influence with then Leaf General Manager and Coach Punch Imlach. I guess Shack made too many "mistakes" for my liking at the time. Having said that, Eddie was indeed an "Entertainer"- check out the great old early '60s photo at right of Shack in action and up in the air against the Bruins at the Gardens...)
Back then, a fan might especially notice an individual player’s “faux pas” if, say, they were at the game in person at Maple Leaf Gardens. Or, fans maybe happened to see the game on TV (the parts that were actually telecast; they did not televise entire games in those days) and noticed a give-away via the TV screen. They perhaps read a newspaper write-up the next day and if the beat reporter was in a particularly specific mood, he may cite a particular error an individual player might have made.
But to state the obvious, it was nowhere near what we have today, and I include myself as part of the modern-day reality, and maybe even part of the “problem”. Every game is on TV, starting with pre-season. We not only know what the big team is doing, we know what every guy on the Marlies is playing like. We have replay after replay of every little miscue. We have the Pierre McGuire’s of the world yelling in our ear about match-ups, bad plays, providing more breathless observations than we could ever possibly need.
Daily, we hear and see dozens of “analysts” on television and radio—24 hours a day. Throw in the newspapers (they still exist, it seems) and all the online and blog reporting, and well, it can be overwhelming just to say “current”. Imagine coaching or playing in this market. It’s no doubt pretty neat when things are going well—but not so much when the Leafs are going through what they have gone through these last few weeks, until the victory in Tampa.
By the way, this is not to excuse the mess the Leafs find themselves in, or how they got here. Simply to acknowledge that we are all (albeit an awfully tiny part) a part of the Leafland syndrome, which sometimes appears to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: having seen the disastrous end to this movie, in one form or another for the past 45 years, we assume that if anything can go wrong, it will. We think the team may, for example, be good enough to make the playoffs, but fret that, if they go into a slump, they won’t make it. Before you know it, when they do get into that slump—early-season, mid-season or late-season—the whole thing becomes like a vortex that they can’t get out of—until it’s too late, yet again.
It’s not the fans, or the media, that causes this, no. But everyone is a kind of an un-intended co-conspirator.
All this said, standing still is rarely, if ever, an option for an NHL General Manager, even if you are coming off a season where you win the Stanley Cup. But no one in the situation the Leafs find themselves in can afford to just wait for something good to happen. They need to address certain issues, make changes- and move forward.
Now, there are no doubt all kinds of things the Burke and his people will be looking at this spring and summer. We know he already has a coach in place. I am assuming he likes his scouting staff so we won’t see changes there before the draft. No, this is all about the on-ice product now (goodness knows we don’t need another “voice” in the front office, eh?) and what management will do to either “fix” the problems, or, putting things more positively, enhance the team’s present roster by plugging in certain apparent holes.
We all have our opinions—and here are a few things that, from my perspective, need to be addressed between now and September:
- The leadership void. Sure Lupul helped, and Phaneuf wears the “C”, but it’s hard to miss the fact that this team has seemed rudderless through its recent doldrums.
- A strong veteran presence—and preferably more than just one player. We keep hearing the Leafs are so young and so talented. Well, they’re young. And that’s a good thing—in a way. But while a team with speed is nice, unless you have somebody who has “been there”, it’s hard to envision this group becoming a Cup contender, even if the young kids mature as hoped.
- Much better center-ice play. I’m not going to debate (though I welcome your views) whether Grabovski is a first-line center or not. At this point I barely care. He’s one decent center on a team that, it if really wants to compete at the “elite” level, needs at least two more. Someone better, the same, not quite as good as Grabbo, again, I don’t necessarily care. But we need three NHL centers- right now.
- A really, really, really good defenseman. Call him a shutdown defenseman, a game-changer, a hard-nosed guy, whatever. We have lots of defensemen at the moment. That's good. And we have lots of depth on the blue line. That's nice, too. What we don’t seem to have, unless I’m watching the wrong team, is a guy that is more than just reputation or potential. Gardiner has all that potential and should be pretty darn good (witness the great individual effort on his goal against the Lightning Thursday night). But Phaneuf, for all the talk from the brass of him being the best defensemen in the league in the first two weeks of the season (we should never, ever listen to anything anyone says in the first month of the season—it invariably means zilch…) is still more reputation than consistent excellence. Komisarek (and I’ve tried to pump his tires for three seasons) has been consistently just OK. Fairly or not, half the free world wants Schenn traded. Franson evidently is not Carlyle’s kind of player (though he finally got into the line-up against Tampa and acquired himself just fine). And even Gunnersson at times looks like he is caught in a maze lately, not knowing what just happened.
- Another top scorer. I’ve never quite understood the notion that “well, we already have Kessel, we can’t have another player like him….”. I’m not suggesting we hire another one-way, one-dimensional player that only scores goals, but there would probably be worse things. We definitely need another guy who can score, besides Lupul and Kessel. What happens if Kessel gets hurt?
- You probably wondered how long I would go before I cited goaltending. Hey, as I’ve said often here, I like both guys. I always wanted Gustavsson to get a shot at playing a string of games in a row and when he has, he has largely played pretty well. Reimer has not been himself but could be by next season. (The shutout in Tampa bodes well, maybe?) Still, it is difficult to picture a scenario where Burke brings both goalies back and starts with the exact same goaltending duo next fall, considering what the team has gone through this season. A veteran goalie? I see no one that excites me in free-agency, which means a trade. But I couldn’t tell you who we should get.
- As I posted here a while back, where will the Carlyle-Kessel relationship go? Management will have us believe all is well, that Carlyle is just making a small tweak to Phil’s game. The fact that Kessel is playing less at times while Grabovski’s group takes first line minutes should not escape our attention. Not that the first two weeks of the Carlyle era indicates any long-term certainty when it comes to future decisions, but I need to be convinced the two—the newly-signed coach and the team’s most talented and explosive player—can get along without it being a distraction.
- While I recognize that there is still a very strong base of support for Burke and company, and much belief in his “vision”, there is also the risk of heightened fan fall-out if things don’t get significantly better. The fan base has put a great deal of trust in Burke. He was the “chosen one”, the guy who was going to return the Leafs to prominence. So far, they have not, bottom line, done any better than during the Ferguson regime (though surely this is a better team), and have had nowhere near the level of success experienced through the Quinn era. Goodwill only lasts so long.
- Can the Leafs help players—specifically individuals like Schenn, Reimer, Armstrong, Komisarek, Connolly, Liles and Franson—regain their at-times lost confidence? Each of those guys is NHL players, but it feels like each of them has regressed badly this season. Does Carlyle have the approach to make each of those players be what they can and should be? Or will they be moved out, instead?
- Will all those fine young prospects down on the farm (Kadri, Colborne, et al) be solid NHL’ers come October—or still just “prospects”?
Send your thoughts along…