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No need to over-react to one loss, but the Boston debacle does provide more proof of ‘the gap’…

On any given night in the NHL, one team is apt to hammer any other.  The same can be said for any team sport, I suppose.  (I remember that the year that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl…they had lost to Oakland by a score of like 40-0 one Sunday afternoon during the regular-season.  A few weeks later they were champions.  Go figure.)  So on the one hand, it’s not a shock that the Leafs might get their hats handed to them on the road against a good team, especially as a long and difficult second half of the season is drawing to a sometime painful close.

That said, one might have expected a bit more (something, eh?) from a team that had been receiving such rave reviews for its (Carlyle-induced?  Does he still want to take credit?) improved defensive performance in recent days against Tampa Bay and Ottawa.  James Reimer had played solidly in back-to-back outings, allowing but one late goal on both occasions in clear-cut, well-earned Maple Leaf victories.

Too, Toronto was in a position, with 10 games to go, to reasonably believe that a late spurt would bring them pretty darn close to a playoff spot—if not get them there—by the end of the regular-season.  (They were only, if I’m not mistaken, 6 points back heading into the match-up with the Bruins.) And they are still playing to impress a new coach, of course, while also having had a day off to get ready for a Bruin team that had been slumping badly until their weekend victory over the Flyers.  (And even in that contest, the Bruins could not hold on to a lead, giving up the tying goal late in the third period, I believe. They won in a shoot-out.)

Finally, the Leafs surely were “up” for this game for yet another reason:  the Bruins had taken them out rather convincingly in the earlier match-ups this season.  Put all this together, and one could (should?) have assumed Toronto would play this one with an edge and a lot of jump, for all the above reasons.

So the outcome, an 8-0 loss, left me with more questions than answers.

Or, maybe I already have my answers.

Those of you who happen upon this site fairly regularly will know that a central theme in my posting this season, even in “good times”, has been about the Leafs lacking “team toughness”.  There is nothing fancy about what I’m talking about.  No thorough statistical analysis.  You likely know what I mean.  It’s just having a team full of guys (or at least enough of them so that the rest of their teammates feel emboldened and play bigger than they are—or than they feel) who can grind, wear a team down...even a team that may have more skill and pop than us.

Now, I don’t expect a Maple Leaf team built on youth and a lot of free-wheeling speed to suddenly become rugged, or to be the toughest team in the league.  (And as I keep saying here, I don’t mean fighting.  I mean guys who will hit hard, yes, but will fight for loose pucks, battle along the boards, in the corners and in front of both nets.  Players who check their man diligently, take a hit to make a play—those kinds of players.  Like being a good defensive player, almost anyone who is willing can be that kind of player, whether they are highly-skilled or not.  It’s a question of willpower and determination.)

In any event, I’m not prepared to look at one game in isolation and make grand pronouncements about how lousy the Leafs are.  It was one game.  But I won’t add what I often add, when I say, “It’s one game—nothing more, nothing less”.

In fact, a game like this may indeed mean something “more.”

As I was watching the clock wind down, Joe Bowen made the comment on the Sportsnet broadcast of the encounter that hit me a bit.  Joe said, essentially, that everyone associated with the Leafs would remember this for a long time.  At first I thought he was referring to this specific game, and perhaps hinting that the Bruins had run up the score.  (I would argue that they actually backed off in the third period, and could have scored more…)  But Bowen went on to speak of Leaf people remembering the entire season-series, and how the Bruins had, basically, overwhelmed the Leafs all season.

Yes, “pay back” is part of sports.  And maybe some day, maybe some day soon, the Leafs will turn the tables on the now rugged Bruins, when Boston is going in the other direction.  (This Bruin team will likely be in tough to repeat as Cup champions this spring.  It’s an awfully long haul to do it two seasons in a row…)

But the first thing that came to mind when that comment was made was, well…this is not 2008-’09, the season when Burke took this team over and started turning over the roster.  I would expect this sort of result with that team, perhaps.  Nor is it 2009-’10, Burke’s first “full” season in charge of the blue and white.  No, this is now three and a half years into his time here.  This is his hand-picked team—drafted, traded for, his free-agents, his goalies, his draft picks, his deals, yes…his team.  We can defend his moves and say it’s still early, but it’s really not.  He has had time to build a playoff team.

And a team that is tougher—in the important areas I have listed— than this one.

Every guy on this team, in my view, is an NHL player.  They have either the talent, the smarts or the desire to be here and play at this level.  But I would say this:  there are players on this team who are also lacking some combination of the above - talent, grit, smarts, determination- when things get tough.

And those traits are even more important when things go south.  That was in evidence when the team went through that awful slide for six weeks over whatever it was and it was in evidence in a game like Monday night, when someone had to step up, (several guys, in fact, it can’t fall on one individual) respond and, through sheer determination and will, get the Leafs back into that game.

That didn’t happen during the “streak” and it didn’t happen against the Bruins.  

I think the Leafs have some players—and I’ve discussed this in posts over the past two months, at least—who are simply no more than a fourth-line player.  In fact, I wrote a while back that the Leafs have about 9 fourth-liners on this team.  But more than that, I wonder: who would be the guys on this roster that would step up, lead, play through traffic and also hit and fight to get to the front of the net—come playoff time.

Maybe it is just as well that the Leafs don’t make the playoffs this spring.  I have precious little doubt that they deserve it now.  They don’t deserve a spot.  I‘ve agreed with those who have suggested that it would be a good experience for the young Leaf players to find out what it’s like, to discover, perhaps through trial and failure, how difficult the playoff environment really is.

But if a late-season game, on the road, against a good team, could not create the energy level, the belief in self, the team toughness, the togetherness, to raise their level of play to a point where they are at least competitive, then, well, this team is is what it is.

And it isn't, therefore, just a case of a sudden, peculiar late-season “slide” that no one can explain.  It is in fact that this team, as it is currently constituted, was and is not anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs, even in the mediocre Eastern Conference.

I have plenty more to say, and will look to step back and provide some further thoughts in the days ahead.

For tonight I will leave it there.  I mostly want to hear your thoughts, and we’ll have lots to talk in the weeks and (summer) months ahead, as the Leafs continue, surely, to re-build the roster.  It’s a roster that, on a night like Monday evening in Boston, simply could not compete with one of the best teams in the East—just as they haven’t been able to all season long.

Have your say.  It’s your forum.

23 comments:

  1. Well it is just one game last night. However, it is now going on 2 months with all the same sympyons. No leadership, no fight for pucks etc. If were just one game a guy could shrug it off. I can't shrug off the last 2 months though. This is not a good hockey team for all the reaons you have mentuoned Michael. We have talked about ad nauseum now and really what else can a guy say. There has to be major changes coming this summer, in fact I'm now starting to beleive we are on the start of a 5 year rebuild not the end. I truly think we are that far away that this team has still got to bottom out. I'm not sure I would let Burke start that rebuild but I think we are stuck with him for a least a couple more. You simply can't fire the GM after he hires his coach and signs him to a 3 year deal. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

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  2. We all see the symptoms, as you mention, Willbur. It's tough right now.

    They had every opportunity to earn playoff berth. It was there for them and they did not make it happen. There are zero excuses. This has been a remarkably healthy team for two seasons now.

    You make a very good point on Burke. He will surely be around through Carlyle's contract. it makes no sense, as you say, to hire a new coach, and move out the guy who made that decision. That won't happen.

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  3. The thing is, this isn't just one loss. It's one of many this year in which the team has seemed unprepared to play, unwilling to pay any price to get to the puck, and unable to match the intensity of another team. We looked like a minor league team tonight. The difference between the Bruins determined drive for the puck and the Leafs "after you Alphonse" bumbling was staggering. I believe there's something really amiss with this team, and I'll predict again that at least one "untouchable" will be gone by next year.
    You know, I've been through the seven stages of grief with this year's Leafs, and I've come to accept that they're just not good enough to be anywhere but where they are, scraping the bottom. I've come to accept that for all the bluster and blarney, Brian Burke's team has actually gotten worse, which is hard to conceive. And I've come to accept that there's no really competent leadership at any level in the organization - though I'll exempt Carlyle for the moment. I like the fact that he took responsibility for the loss. Too bad the team seems to have dialed him out already.
    I'm not sure I agree that every player on the Leafs is an NHL level player. Maybe in a few things, but half of them can't even hit the net, and we're missing grit, as many of us have been saying for months. The Bruins didn't beat us on skill - they beat us on desire.
    It's going to be a long summer for those of us in Leafland.

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  4. I think we're saying much the same thing, Gerund O'.

    We know the coach and General Manager aren't going anywhere....so since not making the playoffs is a failure, changes are forthcoming.

    But who?

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  5. The team isn't built properly...too many small softer guys.



    The good news is that this can be corrected. Guys like Ashton Carter help increase the team size while bringing some talent.

    We need to get rid of a few smaller forwards (we have too many) package them up up for big skilled forwards.

    I can't see how the smallish Kadri will ever play here. Package him and another for a larger player.

    Lombardi and Armstrong should go too. I like Joey Crabb, but lets replace him with somebody who's 220 lbs.


    Grabo, Kessel MacArthur and Bozak are the only smaller guys worth keeping. Dump the rest.. start trading for the RJ Umbergers and Paul Gaustads of the NHL

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  6. I learned at least one thing last night when watching the debacle on NESN; Boston announcers can be as big-headed as Montreal announcers when their team possesses last year’s Cup. It was not easy to listen to, an unfortunate result of a roll of the dice that is setting the DTVR to NHL Center Ice for recording prior to hauling a load of garbage to the city dump. Insert sardonic comment about Leafs fan here: _______________. I had to listen to how all of the Bruins' success was due to the Kessel trade, and on it went from ridiculous to sublime.

    There was one thickly accented New England comment that was thoroughly grounded in reality though, when one announcer noted that the Leafs looked pretty good for a while, but fell apart when it really mattered most. Yeah, that one, innocently enough delivered, really hit home. I have to admit, I certainly did not see this year coming and I am having trouble understanding what, as a team, is going on with those individual players wearing the jerseys with the once-proud crest.

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  7. I disagree with the premise that being a grinding, hard-nosed, effective on the boards hockey player is completely an issue of desire, rather than skill. I can say as an OK junior player who had some puck skills (but sadly, not nearly enough), but struggled in the physical aspects of the game, that I had a hell of a time being a solid physical, grinding contributor. I found I was useless, out of position and ineffective when I was trying to be Gary Roberts, but a helpful player when I played more like Pierre Turgeon/Craig Janney. Whereas some guys on my team were just awesome along the boards and clearly had an innate skill set to play like that. Its not like they worked harder than me or were more competitive than me-this was patently untrue in certain cases.

    You can't just throw players without any toughness pedigree at a team and assume you can just get them to play "tough". Players are generally pretty finished products when they get to the NHL, and metamorphases are rare. You need to get players who have proven that they can play tough before, have shown that skill set.

    Which is why this is all on BB. This is his team and it is not nearly good enough. Not entirely sure where he goes from here, because this mediocre crew is more than 1-2 pieces away from true contenderdom.

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  8. I don't think Burke will be around for all of Carlyle's contract, necessarily. First, new ownership is coming in June. They won't want a repeat of this season or last season, and I pretty firmly believe he'll get cut if he doesn't do something drastic to make this team better for next year. If we miss the boat again next season, i think that'll probably be it for Burke, unless there's some reasonable explanation (injuries, etc.)

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  9. Thanks DP. What you're describing sounded like the original plan three and a half years ago....

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  10. Great post today - I agree 100% with Gerund O', there were a lot of players this year who are not showing any real propensity to win, who are willing to sacrifice to win.
    I am longing for Toronto to find some players who play with pride; where are the Gary Roberts & Doug Gilmour in the organization right now?
    I thought Phaneuf was suppose to the shining new example of this Leaf pride, but I'm just not seeing it .... and with the league structured the way it is, I don’t see how Burke is going to change things for next year.
    I don’t know how much Burke is sleeping these days – he may not be going anywhere but the pressure must be immense right now!

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  11. Bobby C....my guess is the Boston announcers (while too triumphant-sounding, no doubt) think the Kessel deal moved out a guy who wouldn't or did not want to play the "Bruin way" under Julien. Maybe there was something in that?

    Kessel is young and cold still mature. Or, he is what he is.

    That said, he is but one component in an overall roster make-up that is not working well-enough most nights.

    Thanks Bobby.

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  12. Mike. You might be interested to know that, since I am down here in Florida, I missed the game last night (didn't have a chance to listen on Internet radio) so I tuned in NBCSports this morning for the result. They flashed the score on the bottom chyron as 8-0 Boston and were giving detailed coverage of the ny-nj game so I waited for details of the Leaf game. They had video and detailed coverage of all the games last night except the
    Leaf Game. It must have been a total embarrassment for everyone including NBC!

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  13. Craig...I think you make a very good and fair point, and as it one based on your own playing experience, I will defer to that experience.

    Maybe I will re-phrase a bit. I have always said that the ability to be a good defensive player was a matter of will. The willingness to do the little, often un-noticed things that go into being a defensively responsible two-way performer.

    In writing my piece last night, I acknowledge that I merged the two together, saying that" will" was enough to make a player better defensively, and in their ability to play a hard-nosed game.

    I will, with your comment n mind, revise that to say that I think the "compete level" stems from willingness of the player to work harder than the next guy. You can be a big-time competitor but not necessarily a so-called tough or physical player.

    Doug Gilmour was small, but competed hard. So does Grabovski here. Koivu with Montreal all those years, Gary Howatt wit the Islanders in the '80s, etc. Just names that spring to mind.

    Not all have to be corner men or hitters like Gary Roberts, but you have to be willing to get hit, pay a price, and compete, even if you are more of a skill guy.

    Would you agree with that?

    Thanks Craig. Good post.

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  14. goosemonster...you may be right. I just don't know if the new ownership would get into a situation where a new GM comes in (again) with a coach that is not "his". It just seems like a backward way to do business.

    My guess is the team will be much better next season (I know we've all said that before...) and that Burke is not going anywhere.

    Thanks.

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  15. Thanks David. Well said.

    It's been an odd year for Phaneuf. Everyone thought he was playing great in the first month or so. He was all over the ice and he wasn't paying for his high-risk play at the other end, it seemed. Wilson wanted to activate his defence and Phaneuf seemed to revel in that role.

    Is he playing "worse" I wonder, or are we just noticing him more as the whole team struggles many nights?

    I'd love to hear from a scout who watches him closely, and could provide an un-biased perspective on Phaneuf's play of late.

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  16. Thanks for checking in from Florida, Ed. Must be beautiful down there (though we've had shockingly good weather in the Toronto area the last few days!)

    Odd that the network did not talk about the game. Who knows why?

    Thanks Ed. Enjoy Florida!

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  17. Well Michael, I sincerely hope you're right. The problem is that our main issue is goaltending and we have very few options to bank on, barring some sort of blockbuster trade.

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  18. I agree with your larger point, Michael, and agree that this team has some capacity to grow in the toughness and grit department. Just not as much as you do, as I think BB has created a fatally flawed team that needs an overhaul to reach this goal.

    I always chafe at the the fact that certain traits are considered pure skill while others are pure will. Its more complicated than that, and I think that was the point I was trying to make. Bob Gainey was considered a completely self made hockey player, while Guy Lafleur was the pure talent. While there is some truth to that, I believe that the media perpetuates a fallacy that "anyone" could be Bob Gainey if they just want it enough and work hard enough at it. That's crap. Bob Gainey was unbelievably talented in his own unique way.

    I think you and I agree heartily that this team needs more toughness (Doug Gilmour/Peter Forsberg/Grabbo type toughness, not Colton Orr style truculence). I just happen to think that the help needs to come from the farm or other teams, rather than the lot we've got right now. I don't care who the coach is, the Tim Connollys and Matt Lombardis or the word aren't going to provide it...

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  19. The discussion between Michael and Craig is interesting, to say the least. I wonder if this is not the most important question facing the Leafs at the current time? There probably was something to the NESN announcers’ comments, albeit a bit too grandiose, smug and conclusive for my liking. Then again, I guess a Stanley Cup is pretty grandiose and conclusive. Still, we can all do without the smug …

    The management question, I think, will boil down to money. The amount of money lost in playoff revenues and turfing out Quinn and bypassing capable candidates for the GM position is incalculable. Others may disagree, but I believe that everything spun out of control from that point in time and the club has not been able to recover since. With that much money at stake and giant communications corporations owning the team, the issue moves beyond questions of individual coaches and managers. I am guessing that the revenues lost in a single playoff game, broadcast, gate and properties would be enough for most of us to comfortably retire and provide for the generations to come. In other words, heaps of mullah have been lost to incompetence and bad judgment.

    As the NESN announcers seemed very content to point out – just two teams out of thirty post-lockout without any playoff games, soon to be one. If Burke cannot deliver playoff revenues, internal politics will not matter – lost potential revenues will. Is it possible that the new owners who paid big money for MLSE do not care about playoff revenues? Methinks they care aplenty. If Burke cannot deliver one playoff game in five years, he could well be gone. This is the doomsday scenario I feared. Will he panic and make a series of rash moves in an effort to save his skin? Will he stay the course, which has suddenly become indefinable? Or, will it all suddenly fall into place? “Don’t touch that dial …”

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  20. I think you make a great point, Craig. And I can't disagree.

    Your Gainey reference is an excellent one. (You may know that I've written often about Gainey here...a guy who, while he played for the hated Habs, was a player I admired greatly, and with good reason). Gainey had blazing speed and was so hard to knock off his feet. I agree that he was skilled, in addition to being tough and very hard to play against. He was almost the perfect hockey player, as the old Russian coach (Tarasov?) said in the mid- '70s. He was right.

    There are many kinds of toughness, of course, including mental toughness, which I'm not sure this team possesses to any great extent. Then there is defensive skill/ability/willingness. And yes, the aforementioned "compete" level.

    All are cousins of the same trait, perhaps, but I will agree with you Craig that they are also distinct qualities.

    Thanks for your insight.

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  21. I'm biased but I agree, Bobby C., that things have gone due south since Quinn was not allowed to continue as GM.

    A new, inexperienced guy simply was not prepared for that job, and that falls on Peddie, who, for me, is the author of this mess.

    Some can say that it's a new NHL, with the cap, etc. and the Quinn "era" was better only because the Leafs had more money to spend. But so did many other teams, including the Rangers, and in those years, the Leafs were always a playoff/Cup threat, and far superior to the Rangers in every way under Sather.

    As for now, most of us would agree there is no need to throw the baby out with the bat water. There is talent here, and young players with serious potential.

    But right now, as important as "goaltending" is (and yes, it is, I well realize), this team needs more- much more.

    Is it a case of just waiting for the young talent to emerge? I don't think so. There seem to be some fundamental "compete" issues that emerge when the going gets tough- issues that were camouflaged (and I wrote about this a fair bit this season) when the Leafs looked fast and sharp playing against teams that gave them all kinds of time and space. But that's not the way things are at this time of year when teams are fighting for playoff positioning- and it's certainly not the way it is in the playoffs.

    The revenue question you raise is key, certainly, Bobby. MLSE has managed huge profits despite their three major-league teams missing the playoffs for as long as some fans can remember. Is there no true will, besides empty talk, to be great?

    I love your last line...it brings to mind my childhood when, in the mi- 1960s, I would watch the Batman TV series. Each Wednesday, (Part I), would be the cliffhanger ending...a kind of "Don't touch that dial" moment.

    The summer will be interesting, for sure.

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  22. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 20, 2012 at 6:05 PM

    The most disturbing thing I have found in the last 3 years is how the players say "We weren't ready to play" after a lost to an important game. Sounds to me like they're excusing their poor performance, which we were led to believe from Mr. Burke that it would not be acceptable!

    He also stated that he would rid this team of what he called the "blue & white disease". Yet, as witness on many occasion this season, the entitlement label is alive and well. How else do you explain, Dion Phaneuf, John Micheal Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Connolly, and Phil Kessel defensive miscues, but never miss a shift. Whereas, Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Colby Armstrong, and Joey Crabb has a poor game and they, are other receiving reduce ice time or find their backside planted in the press box! I guess it is acceptable if you're one of Burkie's boy's.

    This sorry mess cannot be blame on the players. I honestly believe that they are on most nights doing the best they can, they're not simply good enough to contend for a playoff spot.

    No, this mess rest completely on the shoulders of Brian "the ego" Burke and his management team for their poor advise on free agents signing and ill advise trades. In my humble opinion, whoever said yes trade for Kessel regardless if it cost us a Hall or Seguin should be looking for work elsewhere.

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  23. You've said it clearly and strongly. Thanks Long Suffering....

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