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Name two Leafs that have to be at their best next season if we plan to make the playoffs? For me it’s…Reimer and Kulemin

I’m not sure when Justin Schultz plans to make his “decision” with regards to where he will sign to start his NHL career, but that’s just one of the many storylines in front of us as we hit Canada Day weekend—better known in hockey circles these days as the opening of the free-agency period.

An interesting (maybe surprising is the more appropriate word) number of ‘pending’ UFA’s have already signed with their “old” team before they even took a shot at the open market.  But maybe their feeling is that, with a new CBA yet-to-be-determined, it’s better to grab something for sure rather than banking on a possible bigger pay day a few weeks down the road—when they could also be shut out.

We’ve already discussed here that it’s likely the Maple Leafs won’t be in any of the so-called big names, but surprises can always happen.  As I write this, Schultz is still a possibility, and that would surely excite the Leaf populace, no question.

Beyond that, I can see Burke dipping his toe in the free-agent pool, but I’m hesitant to suggest anything major will happen.  I assume he is still looking at Luongo (if the goalie's not Florida bound), but if Luongo ends up elsewhere, perhaps that opens up money for some other useful pieces, eh? Others have posted here, and probably correctly, that if the Leafs do have limited money to spend against the cap as it sits right now (around 70 million, right?) then how much would they/should they spend on third and fourth-line guys who are out there (Tootoo, etc.) who may not bring a lot more than what the Leafs already have.

The interesting (telling?) thing that hasn’t happened yet is that Burke (assuming he intended to) has not been able to move the contracts of players like Connolly, MacArthur, Komisarek, Armstrong, etc.. Now, maybe when teams are in the position that the Panthers were in last summer/fall, and need to spend to get up to the cap floor, we will see the Leaf GM make moves to rid the franchise of some cumbersome salaries.  We’ll see.

But as things stand now, on the cusp of another free-agency feeding frenzy, I wonder—given our present roster—who you think has to be at their best this coming season if the Leafs are to entertain any real hope of pushing for a playoff berth in the spring of 2013—and maybe even something better than that?

I mean, when your roster is borderline in terms of playoff possibilities—and I think it’s fair to say the Leafs are still in that category, even with the addition of van Riemsdyk—even if they sign young Schultz, you need just about everybody to be “good” next season and to play well more often than not just to be competitive, right?  But I wonder if we also need one or two guys to really play to their potential who perhaps did not last season, when we fell short.

For me, the names that spring to mind are probably James Reimer and Nik Kulemin.  We’ve talked so much about Reimer, and I know a lot of Leafers are not of the view that he is the answer.  I still sense he can be, but the jury is out, no question. 

My point is simply this:  in the absence of another goaltender coming in and “saving the day” (and I’m not sure there is one out there that will…), Reimer is the guy.  And if he can play as he did the second half of the 2010-’11 season, I think a lot of us would take that.  I know that a half-season was a fairly small sample size, but I don’t think it should be dismissed, any more than we can simply dismiss last season’s injury-plagued performance from Reimer.  We just need the good Reimer, for the Leafs to make the playoffs.

The other guy for me is indeed Kulemin.  I think we have all wondered if the KHL Russian air tragedy last fall had a personal impact on the young Leaf winger.  Whatever the issue was, while he had a few good moments (and I have liked this guy from the get-go), he rarely put together his overall game—you know, when he hits, can control the corners and not only be responsible defensively but put up points, as well.  As I’ve said here in the past, heading into last season his career arc was good—very good.  I anticipated last season would be a big one for him, and it just never happened.  Maybe that was an isolated off-year, which happens to lots of players.  Maybe it was one step back so he can take two steps forward.

Whatever, he is another guy that, as things now stand with our roster, needs to be good—I would argue very good—if the Leafs are to push for a playoff spot next spring.

That’s just some summertime dreaming, I guess, before possible roster adjustments after July 1.

 What about you?  Who, for you, has to “step up” next season for the Leafs to have a shot?

25 comments:

  1. I think you are right about Reimer. If he plays at his best we don't need to trade for Luongo. Scrivens can stay a Leaf and he gets time to develop as a backup in the NHL.

    The second guy could be one of three players.

    I think one of those guys could be Grabovski. Even when Kulemin was having trouble, Grabovski kep that line going. Grabo's best year is 58 points. Ten or 12 more points would put him in the top ten centers in the league right up there (in points) with Brad Richards, Datsyuk and Eric Staal. A career year could lessen weakness at center...If you have one of the top ten point getting centers are you really that weak?

    James van Riemsdyk once had a playoff run with 7 goal in 11 games. He was absolutely dominant with that big body going to the net. Over a whole season if you got some of that drive to the net and 30 goals out of van Riemsdyk. An extra 30 goals would certainly change the fortunes of the Leafs.

    Finally, Tim Conolly had 65 point in 73 games in the Sabres in 2009/10...it wasn't that long ago. 70 points in 80 games from Tim and nobody would be talking about our problems at center.

    I can dream...right?

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  2. All of those players having strong seasons is a reasonable possibility, DP. No reason to believe it can't happen....and as you say, we can dream!

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  3. In other news:

    Veteran forward Travis Moen has elected to remain a Montreal Canadiens for another four seasons.

    The 30-year-old potential free agent agreed to a US$7.4 million, four-year contract with the club on Friday.

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  4. Well, you've heard my healthy doses of skepticism re Reimer before, but I would absolutely agree that the first of one's two picks would have to be whoever our first string goalie is. I've read plenty of posts elsewhere that quote statistics strongly suggesting that league-average goaltending would have even got last year's fiasco across the line and into the playoffs. While life is never quite that simple, you've got to think that a bit more consistency between the pipes is going to remove a significant distraction from the other 5 guys on the ice at any given moment.

    Second pick for me is definitely Phil Kessel because I just can't help that think that without another 70-80 points from him we are just sunk. I've pretty much given up on the heavenly trade to land us a top line centre and while a potential second line of JvR, Grabo and Kulemin is as titillating as a feather duster and a fish-net stocking, a quiet year from Kessel and we just wont score enough goals.

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  5. Kulemin is a good catch; when he pulls his working gloves back on, the statistics will come as a byproduct. However, his poor season had as much to do with the whole team being somewhat bereft of ideas when they had the puck, and an uncoordinated disaster when they didn't. Even early in the season, when the Leafs were winning games, they were hardly dominant, they just had a bit of luck to provide efficient scoring. They lacked a system, which to me is a coaching issue.

    Which brings me to goaltending. Goalie is a key position, of course. Whether our number one will be Reimer, Luongo, or even Scrivens, he absolutely has to play well. But high save percentages are commonly the result of facing a fair amount of shots taken from marginal angles, which an efficient system can force the opponent to do, and then your defencemen clearing the rebounds. Last season, our goalies were all too often let down by poor team defence, and then thrown under the bus after a bad game. It's a rare goalie who can be consistent under those circumstances. Again, a coaching issue.

    So for me the key is not so much in singular player performances, but in Carlyle. He can hardly be worse than Wilson, right? But my worry is that hiring Carlyle as a replacement was more of a lateral move. He failed with the Ducks, a roster rich with offensive talent. He's not going to have that here. The history of NHL has its fair share of blue-collar teams doing well, so playoffs are definitely a doable goal with what we have. But Carlyle needs to do something along the lines of what Roger Neilson did with the expansion Panthers, which was a very low-skill team (relatively speaking, Leafs have a lot more than Panthers had beck then, in terms of talent). I want to see a trap incorporated in the Leafs system, yes, I said it, but I also want to see something else than run, gun and turn the puck over when we are on the attack.

    I know I'm digressing here, but for me the key to success is having a system that provides our players with the tools to improve their individual performances on the ice. If Carlyle can do that, the stats will follow.

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  6. Thanks KiwiLeaf, and I concur when it comes to the goaltending. I'm not a stats guy, but if Reimer (or anyone else) provides a) big saves at important times and b) does not allow back-breaking goals at key times, the Leafs are better right away.

    Very good point about Kessel, too. As much as we seem to take for granted he will score 30+ goals, etc., what would happen if he didn't?

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  7. Hey DP, yes Moen had been on my "list" as one of those effective third/fourth line guys....now gone.

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  8. CGLN, I understand your focus on coaching. Our sort of run and gun, fun in the sun approach in the first part of last season was often entertaining, but in the end failed to deliver results when we needed them.

    Hopefully Carlyle can adjust to his new surroundings. While he won a Cup in Anaheim, that was a stacked team, far from what he has with the Leafs at the moment. Your comment about the expansion Panthers does include the infamous "T" word (trap), but I sense most Leaf fans would accept some kind of defensive orientation as long as there are wins attached on the other end.

    Thanks for a very good post, as always.

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  9. I will agree with Kulemin here, and add van Riemsdyk to that. I am on the fence as to whether Reimer is truly the long-term answer at goaltender, and my guess is that the Leafs will not be able to make the trade for Luongo, so it's a gamble they will have to take. Barring injury like last season, I have no doubt that Reimer will in fact be at the top of his game, he will work hard and focus. So in that respect it isn't a matter of whether he will be at the top of his game, but more a matter of just how good he truly is.
    The reason for my selecting Kulemin and van Riemsdyk is that I believe the Leafs defensive woes have begun up front. I think the defensemen and goaltenders have taken on far too much criticism for their play. When your forwards cannot maintain puck control in the offensive end, and cannot backcheck efficiently enough to slow down the transitional rush by the other team, your defense is going to be exposed sooner or later. That to me is simple mathematical probability.
    I envision these two guys slugging it out in the offensive zone and making it difficult for the opposition to have a free-flowing offense. The last time I can remember that, Sundin, Antropov, and Ponikarovsky were dominating the boards down low, cycling, and wearing out the opposition. True, the Leafs did not have a lot of success with that team, but I felt it was their biggest strength just a few years ago.
    I believe Kulemin is a 20-goal scorer with the ability to be that power forward, his offensive production two years ago was an anomaly just as last year was in the opposite direction. So as I see it, if he and van Riemsdyk can both produce 20 goals, and more importantly set an example with a heavy hitting two way game, the Leafs will finally start to play the way necessary to make the playoffs and compete once there.

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  10. Pete, your comment about Reimer and the overall goaltending situation is fair. I'm sure he will work his tail off this summer. The question is: how good will he be?

    And yes, a lot of our troubles start with offensive issues, turnovers, etc. which create opportunities going the other way.

    If Kulemin rebounds and van Riemsdyk plays as he can, that would set a tone, for sure. Thanks.

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  11. I think Reimer for the obvious reason. Goaltender success almost simultaneously goes hand in hand with team success. Players in front can relax and play without having to fear that every mistake will result in the puck being in their net. Kessel is the 2nd most important player who needs to have a good season for any season success. If Kessel does not score it affects his entire game, I can just about see him pouting and letting his frustration get the most of him and as a result the whole team. However if HE IS scoring then that would mean he faces the opponents best defensemen ex: Chara. This in turn should open up our 2nd and 3rd lines to being more successful against weaker defensive opposition.
    In addition I see Kuliman brings a better work ethic, defensive game and a grinding game in the corners. If Kuleman is not scoring he still contributes with these other skills to help our team win. The same cannot be said for Kessel.

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  12. Kessel will be Kessel of course, and it is a given that whoever is in net has to shine, but it is absolutely essential that Joffrey Lupul continue to play in his rejuvenated way if the Leafs are to have a shot. I believe it is a contract year for him so it should be interesting.

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  13. I think this is the growth we will look to see in Kessel in the years ahead, bluenwhite. Can he, as you allude to, become a player that brings more (as helpful as it is..) to the team than goals? If he fleshes out his overall game, that could be huge.

    And yes, a lot of us are hoping Kulemin scores enough to help make his overall contributions as valuable as we sense they can be.

    Thanks bluenwhite...

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  14. Good point on Lupul, Sean. I hadn't automatically thought of him, but he was so significant for the club until he was injured last season. That it is a contract year does indeed make things kind of interesting, eh?

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  15. Thanks, Michael, and a bit of a clarification on my use of the T-word; I am absolutely not suggesting that the Leafs should use anything like Tampa's 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. That's 90's, boring and ineffective unless the opposing team regularly looks to pass from blueline to blueline, and that's not something the best teams really do anymore, because the risk of a turnover is so significant.

    Over the past few seasons I've tried to catch Red Wings games regularly, mainly because they're usually fun to watch. Or terrifying, couple of times each season. One interesting thing I've noticed about them is, that when they lose the puck in the offensive zone, they tend to settle in a 2-2-1 formation to receive the counterattack. Their positioning usually makes it very hard to get past their blueline with the puck, so the attacking team generally has few options beyond dumping the puck into a corner and trying to win it there. That's a trap, too, it's just more subtle, more effective and keeps the pack of five tight enough that once they win the puck back, they are already set up for attack. And all their lines do that.

    Of course it could be argued that the Leafs can't play like because our roster isn't as talented, and that's certainly true. But there are quite a few elements in Detroit's defensive play that won't require Datsyuks or Lidströms. After all, Brett Lebda managed well over 300 regular season games with the Wings before falling flat on his face in a team whose coach was apparently more interested in giving inspirational speeches before games than figuring out what, beyond talented players, makes a succesful hockey team. Knowing how to motivate players is important, but it's not going to have much of an effect after a while when your team gets outplayed night after night.

    So yes, I'm very much focused on coaching, because it's a bit too easy to say that all these formerly good, or at least useful, players the Leafs have acquired suddenly became bad, or couldn't handle the pressure or just didn't fit in. Some players might find the pressure overwhelming, some might not simply fit in, but when that theme becomes a constant, to me it's just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

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  16. I think the Detroit model is a fair one to use. I just wonder how Carlyle will fit. Is he a guy that can adjust to his roster reality? Can he devise a system that will be effective, win games but also not be dreadfully dull- which Burke has insisted we would not be.

    Thanks CGLN. Good stuff....

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  17. several players on last year's roster seemed to have a 'bust' season. i remember even commenting as early as november at PPP that 'we need someone other than kessel and lupul to score!'
    armstrong had a season of injuries, ditto connolly, and lombardi was injured coming into the season... my guess is burke won't be able to move all of the dead weight... so i'm hoping these guys can a) stay healthy, b) really live up to their potential.

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  18. The Leafs were pretty fortunate regarding injuries in 2010-'11, Alex, but last season they weren't. Agree that health is key (though we have to assume some lost time, every team seems o get hammered...) and we need a lot of players to get closer to what they can be...

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  19. Michael, I just hope Burke realizes that pretty much nothing would be as dreadfully dull as missing the playoffs yet again...

    As for Carlyle, his stock certainly hasn't been on a rise, and I have my doubts about him being the man to make the difference. But he is the coach now, so I wish him all the success and I'll be very happy if I'm proven wrong. I guess only time will tell.

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  20. Long suffering Leafs fanJune 30, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    Hey Mike! Great post as always and agree 100 percent with you on Reimer and Kulemin. A team cannot win without strong goalkeeping (Maybe there is a chance for Bordeur to sign with the Leafs...be a great tudor!), and Leafs need Kulemin to score at least in the mid twenties for them to be competitive.

    Been on vacation and never had a chance to weigh on some of the topic's but like to now if you do not mind.

    On VML missing the mark? NO, no, no! As already mentioned, keep up the good fight! We do not need another mindless everything is wonderful site. As always I have found your post to be well thought out and mostly on the mark. You are also kind enough to allow us to speak our minds, as Wilbur said without fear of name calling. The only criticism I have is that there needs to be more of your outstanding audio interviews with former players. Mike, they're awesome and give us a little more insight than the run of the mill.

    On Schutlz, loved Hogans hero's!

    I agree that the HHOF needs to have an international section for great accomplishments. Everyone who was old enough, understands the importance of Paul Henderson goal. It was not only about our game, it also about our national pride! Sadly about Henderson is with all the break-away he had he should have scored 40-50 goals in a season. Just didn't have the touch!

    Well it is over 114 degrees here, and my air unit died on me while I was gone, so I need to find someone who will be willing to come out in this heat and fix it.

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  21. Good to hear from you, Long Suffering...

    Funny that you mention Henderson and breakaways...He absolutely would have scored a ton more goals if he could somehow have found the mark more often on breakaways. He was like Dave Keon in that regard. His speed helped get him those chances but he missed so many...

    I will try to do more interviews in future, Long Suffering...hope you can get the air conditioning dealt with!

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  22. More breaking news:

    “Colby Armstrong is being bought out by TOR. Will be on unconditional waivers at 12 noon ET."

    http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=399599

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  23. and yet more:

    According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the Maple Leafs and Rangers have been informed that they are out of the running for free agent defenseman Justin Schultz.

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  24. Schultz went to the Oilers

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  25. Thanks for the updates DP...at least the Leafs know for sure before July 1 and they can prepare accordingly.

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