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5 things the Leafs are missing and need to deal with to be truly competitive when the lockout ends

Mid-way through the 2011-’12 season, the Leafs seemed to be trending not too badly.  Weren’t they even briefly in first place in their Division? (Or was it the Conference, even?)  Despite Reimer’s early-season injury, the Leafs played with confidence most nights, using their speed, those almost rink-long headman passes along with that “activated” defense to create uncertainty and havoc for their opponents.  It all added up to some decent results—and a bit of hope for the short-term that things were, maybe, finally getting better.

At that point, I think most observers assumed they would make the playoffs in the East.  Lupul and Kessel had genuine chemistry, it seemed, despite not having an elite center between them, and the team  looked to be thriving and generally playing hard for Ron Wilson.

Oh, there were glitches.  The Reimer setback was serious, but for a time it looked as though that would be something they could overcome.  Franson was none too happy early in the season (who is happy sitting in the press box?), but no one much cared because impressive rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner caught everyone’s attention with his play.  Phaneuf was all over the ice and Steckel was winning tons of key face-offs.

We were, it seemed, turning a corner of sorts.

I don’t need to chronicle all that happened from February onward, but it was a bit of a mess, as you all well know. While our goalies gave us some good moments, they also, combined with a deteriorating defensive structure, were part of the team's lasting struggles in the second half of the season.  Bad goals, bad giveaways, momentary lapses, injuries—it all hurt.

I also began to notice a disturbing trend that the Leafs did not always stand up for one another.  Forget just Reimer being run over with no real reaction against Montreal in that early-season game.  There were instances as the season wore on when the captain was hammered and no one raised an eyebrow, much less actually did anything.  We seemed to become passive at times, hesitant.  Kulemin never got going.  Grabovski was OK but not quite what he was the season prior.  Armstrong kept getting hurt.  By the time Lupul went down, the ship was already lilting badly.  When Carlyle arrived, it was already too late.  The nerves were frayed. 

Now we find out that stuff was going on behind the scenes as well, as in "L’affaire Allaire".

So all this said, when we do get back to “hockey”, post-lockout, where will the Leafs be?

Well, we can only assess the state of the Leaf union based on the roster we see in front of us today.  There may be moves, signings, surprise promotions and even trades once the lockout is settled, but as best we can break things down, here are the things that we need to address:

  1. Goaltending.  We have Scrivens and Reimer locked up and under contract.  What we don’t know of course is what they can—and will—deliver for us.  We have no reason to believe the tandem won’t work out.  Reimer was strong in his first half season here and solid in the early going last year until a significant injury kept him out of action and later seemed to hurt his confidence and stunt his progress.  Scrivens looked OK when he was up with the big club and then showed his mettle in the AHL playoffs this past spring.  Could they carry a team to the NHL playoffs?  You almost wouldn’t think so, but the way some young goalies have led teams to not only the playoffs but championship success in recent times suggests just about anything is possible.  So while I wouldn’t bet the house on it, we’ll see.  (I don’t doubt reports of Toronto’s interest in Luongo are accurate.   I’ve said here for ages that Burke would like to make that deal, but Gillis is holding out for a “hockey” trade, not a cap deal.)
  2. Team toughness.  I think this remains one of our biggest flaws.  We have some skill (Lupul, Kessel, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Gunner, Grabovski…) and some players who can fill crucial roles, like Kulemin, McClement, Steckel and MacArthur.  But we still lack, in my view, a thread of real toughness that runs through the whole roster.  Komarov may help, but I saw too many times last season where a) we did not respond physically when challenged and b) we just did not have enough guys who would—or could—muck it up effectively enough take the game away from the opposition.  This needs to be addressed.  Even one or two such players could infect (in a positive way) the rest of the squad and build their confidence in this regard
  3. Another elite first-line player.  I know we all say we want a center, but I’ll take any really good addition.  I think we are still a few players away from being a legitimate contender, but one more really good piece would obviously help up front- or on the blueline.  It’s not that we haven’t talked about this ad nauseum, and I realize it’s not as though the Leaf brass in unaware.  They know better than we do what the team needs.  Acquiring it (or waiting for it to blossom in the system) is not always easy.  It’s not every day that a Joe Thornton drops in your lap while he is in his prime. (I think we were in on Rick Nash, for example, but he didn’t want to come here, it seems.)
  4. True leadership, mixed with players who have success and experience on their resume.  Looking at our roster last season, it was odd to think in terms of guys like Liles being a “veteran”.  I know he has been in the league for a while, and I’m not suggesting we need a bunch of 40-year olds like Knuble (though he would have been a great addition here at some point earlier in his career), but someone with playoff or championship pedigree would be nice.  We had that with Beauchemin, but somehow we killed his confidence while he was here.  I’m not fully sure how this happens to some players in Toronto, but it’s not just one thing, I don’t think.  Is it the coach sometimes?  The constant media or fan “scrutiny”.  It‘s hard to pinpoint but when things go south for very good players in this market, as has happened through the years (Larry Murphy being an obvious modern-day example), it’s tough.  But we need experience and we need legitimate leadership- no offence intended to Phaneuf.
  5. Off-ice, it would be great to see less talk from management and just a simple focus on results.  I think too often we’ve seen the GM and coaches say unnecessarily outrageous things, and make what sound like “promises” to fans, like…”this is a playoff team…”,  or “Phaneuf is playing like the best defenseman in the league”.  It also doesn’t help when the GM says, “I always build my teams such and such a way….”.  If that’s not good enough for Allaire (and he is supposedly outdated) I don’t want to hear those words uttered by my General Manager.  He needs to be constantly evolving himself- just like his coaches and players.  It’s not enough to say “I always build my teams from the back…” (though he never has, in fact…) or whatever the statement of supposed personal "philosophy" is.  Have core principles, sure, but be flexible.  Don’t be beholden to your own ego, mythology or reputation—or to your own words and faux, ego-driven promises.  Just do whatever is necessary to handle the job as well as you can and build a great, competitive roster.  There’s no excuse not to in Toronto.

There’s a lot more we could discuss, but these 5 things would sure help get us closer to being in the same league as the good teams in hockey, and especially in the still-up-for-grabs Eastern Conference—once we finally are back to hockey.

I look forward to hearing from you…..


  1. "Team toughness. I think this remains one of our biggest flaws."

    I agree on this. With so many small and/or soft players the Leafs need to balance this out in their bottom six and certainly on their 4th line.

    There are lots of tough players that can actually play the game. I look down the top penalty minute list and I see Chris Niel, Steve Ott, Brandon Prust, Shawn Thorton, David Clarkson, Steve Downie, Scott Hartnell, Milan Lucic, Corey Perry, Nick Fogolino, Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Dubinsky, Cal Clutterbuck, David Backes, Adam McQuaid, Mark Stuart, Zach Smith, Ryan Clowe, Brenden Morrow, Mike Rupp, and Kevin Bieska.

    Those guys are tough. Some throw big hits and all are difficult to play against, but they can actually play the game... and in some cases (Perry, Lucic)play very well.

    The first Leaf appears at the 42 spot...Dion Phaneuf.

    The Captain needs some support.

    Mike Brown helps but there needs to be more. Mike Rupp or Zack Smith might be more useful than the one dimensional David Steckel. I think I would rather have a tough, gritty player over Lombardi or Connolly.

  2. To me, you've captured the "team toughness" aspect perfectly, DP. It's not necessarily about fighting, it is, as you cite, guys who make big hits or are hard to play against, or are simply good all-around contributors.

    That list reveals some very applicable names- we could use a player or two of that ilk. Thanks DP.

  3. I nodded my head often throughout this post, Michael! You're right about the first half of last season, and the subsequent collapse. For me, superseding even the goaltending and weak defensive play, it was the team lack of Bobby Craig's immortal word - "muckulence" - that defined our failure last year. I'd be hard pressed to think of a team that's won the Cup without that quality of team toughness and unstoppable determination to win..
    Despite all the hand-wringing apologies and mea culpas and it-won't-happen-agains from Leaf management last spring, at the moment we haven't improved one iota from the squad that tanked last year. Maybe it's because everyone saw the useless lockout coming, so what the hey? But the truth is we weren't able to attract anyone from the top tier here, or make a significant deal. Goalies? Same old same old. Defence? Ditto. Forwards? One unknown quantity, who's been seriously injured. And, of course, our ever-present "prospects".
    Maybe Carlyle has a system under which the defencemen will know what each other are doing or are about to do, and the goalie won't be hung out to dry like Mother O'Malley's laundry game in and game out. And maybe we'll get that top tier guy after the lockout ends. But without that muckulent quality firing up our team, we can expect more hand-wringing and hankie weeping from management come the end of next season - whenever that is.

  4. We're on the same page, Gerund O'. Until and unless this issue is addressed, the Leafs will likely struggle to be seriously competitive.

    Better goaltending would help. Carlyle's approach may help. But even if they were to achieve regular-season success, you just have to watch playoff hockey these past few springs to realize how far away the Leafs are. You have to have skill, yes. But you have to be able to grind it out, too.

  5. Couple of items to brighten our day


  6. You got 5 yes'es from me, VLM.

  7. The Leafs are 28th in the ESPN rankings?

    Perhaps my list of things the Leafs need to deal with is too short?!

    Thanks Brad.

  8. Thanks Not Norm- I'm sure there are things that we could all add, but the above would be a start....

  9. Actually I disagree with "off ice" comments. Burke has done an oustanding job as GM - in his drafting, trades and management of the media.

    The rest of it is fair but Burke is main reason for the leafs success.

  10. The site is here precisely for this reason, leaferboy- to give Leaf followers a chance to express themselves. We all see things differently.

    We can agree to disagree on Burke. I couldn't characterize four years of missing the playoffs as a "success"- regardless of how much people want to blame Ferguson for the team's plight when Burke became GM. Other teams, as I (and many others) have outlined here many times, have done much more in much less time to become competitive.

    We don't yet know if his drafting will be successful. far too early to tell.

    As for his trades, the Phaneuf deal may turn out to be as one-sided as we initially hoped, but we'll see over time.

    The Gardiner deal has been a winner, for sure.

    Thanks leaferboy.

  11. Agree with everything. As usual, great read, Mike.

  12. I find it quite humourous that the softest Leaf team EVER is Brian Burke's.
    People that don't think Buffalo's season was sunk THAT moment when Lucic ran over Miller and nobody did anything (Gaustad was on the ice) have no hockey IQ. Buffalo got the memo now.
    Boston Buffalo games are gonna be AWESOME.
    How Burke didn't grab David Clarkson after his 12 goal season in 2010/11 is beyond me. I would've. We'd also be looking at a Brown Steckel Prust 4th line.
    I wonder what Burke's issue with George Parros is?
    He's passed on him twice.

  13. I think I have a screenshot somewhere of the standings in the middle of last season - I recall the Leafs being first in the league in December sometime, and Ottawa last. Or was that the year before? The Leafs and Wild were the two teams who really fell off the horse in the second half, though.