With the 2011-'12 NHL regular-season now behind us, my thoughts have moved to what direction the Maple Leaf franchise is really going in, under Brian Burke’s leadership—fully three and a half years into his stewardship.
We all know we have a younger roster in place, some speed and, yes, mobility on the back end (notably the promising Jake Gardiner, a modern-day rover-style defenseman). And yes, we have those other “kids” either here now, or soon to be: Frattin (though, at 24, not that much of a kid any more), Kadri, Colborne and young Blacker and Holzer on defense. And of course many Leaf eyes will be on the newest addition to the kiddie corps, Carter Ashton- and that top five or better draft pick upcoming in June.
So OK, Burke has built a young team…fair enough. We have some speed and some blueline “depth”, with more pieces to come, we’re told, in the minors. But here’s the rub. I've talked here most of this past season about what I perceive as the lack of real "team toughness". And I'm not talking about fighting, simply the ability and willigniness to play the game hard- along the boards, in the corners, and in front of both nets.
Exactly where is the grit, the legitimate toughness that you also have to have on your roster? Yes, speed and explosiveness are vital in the game today. Being able to think the game and execute plays, with pace, matters. And we showed that at times earlier this past season under Ron Wilson. But one thing that hasn't changed in the fifty plus years I’ve been observing the game of hockey is that, come playoff time, teams inevitably dig deeper than they have all season long. They play much harder. Even guys that don’t normally have that “edge”, that sandpaper in their games, will sometimes step up in that regard. Just getting into the playoffs seems to require some of that grit nowadays.
And hey, maybe, when the Leafs do play in the playoffs (next spring??), they, too, will be so inspired that they will deliver that same kind of determined play that I’m talking about. My problem, I guess, is that I’m not sure exactly where this toughness is going to come from.
Let’s do a mini roster assessment: who are the guys who really like the physical going on this team (and I’m not referring to fights)? Who likes to play a physical game, to hit—and be hit. Do we have guys that come back hard after they have been plastered?
In the for sure “yes” category (these guys like to play physical hockey and can give it and take it), I will put, without hesitation, the following players: Mike Brown, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek.
In the “I want to believe they will play a physical game or will at least not back down from the punishment” I will list Mikhail Grabovski and Dion Phaneuf (and possibly Matt Frattin, who I think has the potential to be a power forward but hasn't quite shown me enough consistency in that regard just yet- he's still developing...).
In the “they will at least try to annoy the other team and get them off their game” category I would include Colby Armstrong.
Finally, in the “I’m not sure where he fits, but I’m hoping he can play through it all” goes Lupul.
But for me, that’s it. That’s the entire group that I see with any physicality whatsoever in their game, in a serious sense, on the Maple Leaf squad. (Maybe I'm forgetting someone...) I mean, yes, Franson can occasionally dole out some hits, but I’m not sure I look at him as a defenseman who brings that element to his game regularly.
Truth is, I even feel a bit of indecision about some of the guys I’ve listed above. I have no hesitation about Brown or Schenn. But the thing is, Brown can only play limited minutes, and Schenn was playing 5/6th man minutes many nights, so he’s not on the ice a ton.
Komisarek can hit, but as much as I’ve tried to look at his contributions here positively over the past three seasons, the bottom line is: for a number of reasons, he has not been able to stay in the regular line-up, much less play the role of physical leader, intimidator or anything along those lines. Teams don’t say, “Watch out, Komisarek is on the ice”. That’s just not happening. He remains mistake-prone and that over-shawdows his physical abilities.
Phaneuf, well, I know a lot of Leaf fans love the guy, and see him as a big, imposing player. I just don’t see it. Oh, I see the once-in-a-while big blast on an opposing forward from him (and sometimes it’s not how often but when you do it that matters, and I get that), but I‘m trying to remember many times (any?) where his physicality, or a big “hit”, turned the momentum in a key game in favor of the Leafs.
As for Grabbo, I think we are all living with the memory of him being plastered into the end boards by Chara last season right in Boston, and coming back (probably concussed) to score a huge goal in a big Leaf victory. That was something, for sure. But did we really see, this past season, him fighting through traffic the way he did most of last season? Will he keep doing it with his big, new contract in his back pocket? I love the guy, but I think it's a fair question.
So, on the current roster, we have a couple of guys (Schenn and Brown) who play low or modest minutes (and a defenseman in Komisarek who plays irregularly) who “bring it” and are fearless. They will fight but more importantly will stick their nose in messy areas and stand up for teammates.
Then we have guys who have a reputation for either toughness or being able to compete against hard opposition (Dion and Grabbo), a minor agitator in Armstrong and a guy who I hope fits the bill here, in Lupul. That's it.
But really and truly, do we have anyone, come a crucial playoff game, who is going to take abuse in front of the opposing net, get knocked around, slashed, high-sticked, hammered, and go back and stand there again like nothing happened—until the Leafs score that big goal? Like Tomas Holmstron? Like Draper, McCarthy and Maltby did in Detroit for years. Because, in addition to all that skill that Detroit had, that’s what it took to have a shot at winning—yes, just to have a chance.
I’m not saying we can’t do it—I just don’t know who will be willing—or able—to do it?
So I’m back to my original point. We have this pretty fast team. Against weak opposition, or teams that are not hard to play against and give us space, we can look fantastic. We’re young and Burke did not want to give up any part of his re-build whatsoever (excepting Aulie, something I’ve already discussed at length here) to possibly make the playoffs this spring. He will claim he was/is being “consistent” in not straying from his “re-build”. In my mind, however, he would actually have accentuated his re-build if he had moved the wildly inconsistent MaCarthur, or Lombardi for a legitimate prospect or a decent first-rounder (if it’s true that they were offered that kind of return), since winning it all this season was highly unlikely anyway.
But forget this spring. That bus has left. We missed the dance. Let's look ahead- and here's my question:
Does anyone really believe that the Leafs are only one or two pieces away? Do we really have anywhere near a “complete” roster? Come a playoff match-up with Pittsburgh, Boston, New York or Philly, how would be fare, right now? Do we really have a team with the different attributes that you need to be elite (and I’m not even discussing goaltending yet)?
Any thoughts? Try to be specific with names from the current roster (or in the system) that meet the criteria I outlined above.
Part II tomorrow. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your comments.
Part II tomorrow. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your comments.