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:
- 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.)
- 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
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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…..