Having followed, in one fashion or another, Toronto Maple Leaf training camps for decades, I have come to understand one thing: lots of players look "good" at training camp. You’ll always hear, “so and so is really flying”…”fill in the name… looks slimmer this season…”. We hear players say, “this camp is tougher than previous years…” and “we’re really more focused with this new coaching staff in place…”. Everyone, we're told, is working harder than ever before.
Hey, like baseball spring training, hockey training camps bring out the usual cliches. It's part of what we expect.
Every year is always better than the last. Camp is more organized. Lots of high-paced drills. (Are there ever camps with just slow-paced drills?) Guys are always in better shape. The attitude is fantastic. Yada yada yada.
It’s all standard stuff. Players that got bigger and bulkier (by organizational request) the year before now come in slimmer and faster—because that was the new request. Or vice versa. Players generally always look good at camp because, let’s face it, they are pent up and have tons of energy. Everyone gets along, we're told, but there is always competition- which pushes younger players, rookies and bubble guys to play over their heads.
In any event, I have to say that as pleased as I am that NHL hockey is back, I already can’t wait for Leaf camp to be over. Every little move is over-analyzed (is this happening in Tampa Bay?). Every mistake is under a microscope. I mean, I know that’s always the drill, especially in this market. There is all kinds of speculation about who will make the team, even though that debate is usually more hoopla than reality. The roster is largely set. But hey, there could always be some late surprises, right? Lombardi was traded Wednesday night, so maybe more deals are on the way.
The Leafs have had what is it, 28 players left in camp? Well, on any given night, there will only be 18 skaters in uniform so not everyone can be here when the games start for real.
Here are my initial random thoughts (and I need your input in some areas) from the first four days of trying to follow what’s going on in Leafland:
- Training camp scrimmages mean….nothing.
- While we are all frantically trying to determine the Day One roster of 23 guys for Saturday night in Montreal, the truth is that line-up can change a lot in the next couple of weeks. Friday’s setting of the roster is not cast in stone.
- I know I’m in a minority, but I really (still) hope Morgan Rielly heads back to Moose Jaw. The Leafs have plenty of NHL experienced defenseman (none other than Gardiner with Rielly’s skills, I acknowledge). Surely we don’t need to rely—in a short season—on an 18 year old.
- Let’s not rush Gardiner back. I know it’s a short season and Carlyle is trying to say all the right things, but reading between the lines, I just don’t want Gardiner to feel pressured to come back from his concussion too soon. He’s way too valuable to risk further injury. Exposing him now seems premature, based on his rehab schedule. Are we planning to win a Cup this season? If he misses a few games, so what?
- I really hope Reimer starts in Montreal. It’s not that I think he has “earned” the job at camp, but I sure don’t feel that Scrivens playing well in the AHL means he should be a starting NHL goalie just yet- and surely not on “opening day”. C’mon. I look at it this way: Reimer was the clear number-one guy heading into last season. He had earned that designation. He started 2011-’12 very well. Only a serious injury curtailed his season. He was never healthy last year after he got hurt. We can throw away the last part of the season. Should Reimer lose his job to a guy with a handful of NHL games behind him because he hasn’t been healthy? It’s not like we’ve exactly brought in an established NHL starter to take Reimer's job.
- I think Reimer deserves to feel like a number-one again until he plays himself out of that job. I think it would be a mistake to play with Reimer’s head, especially as he is fighting to regain his confidence after that injury.
- On that goaltending note, I’m anxious to see the Leaf goalies without Allaire looking over their shoulder. Allaire’s method of teaching is clearly not right for every goalie and it will be noteworthy to see if Reimer, for example, can return to his earlier career form—and playing style.
- It’s time to give Kadri the opportunity to play on the big club without worrying that a mistake will see him back with the Marlies. Like Reimer, let him prove he can’t be a factor here. Give him regular linemates and real minutes. No more up and down, yo-yo, “prove yourself” stuff. Just let him play.
- Phaneuf, Liles, Gunnarsson, Franson and Gardiner (when healthy) are surely part of the projected defense corps. I have no idea where Komisarek fits, because I don’t know if a buy-out is still an option or if he has shown Carlyle enough that he will be one of the defenders that can play with sandpaper. If so, that’s six guys right there, and we have not even discussed Kostka, who has excelled with the Marlies and by all accounts has not looked out of place at Leaf camp. If you’re looking for “jam”, there’s Mark Fraser. We also haven’t mentioned Holzer. (Paul Ranger is not even here, though he has the skills and experience to be an NHL player, obviously.) Am I missing someone? Oh yes, Rielly. If he stays, who, then, is gone?
- I think Liles will have a nice start to the season, as he did a year ago.
- Will Kadri finally be used as a center on a regular basis with the Leafs? I always thought that was his position, but you’d never know it by the way the Leafs utilized him the last couple of years.
- How do you feel about a third line of Kadri between Komarov and Frattin?
- Do you want Colton Orr on the roster? Various accounts suggest he is slimmer and playing a hard fore-checking game, and will be here as a more versatile performer if he makes the roster.
- We are over-loaded at center ice, even with Lombardi now dealt to Phoenix (I'll take that pick, by the way. I did not expect a third or fourth rounder for Lombardi, given his injury history...). Bozak, Grabovski, Kadri, McClement, Steckel, Connolly and Komarov are all still here. Cap and contract issues aside, I’d like to see Grabbo, Kadri, Komarov and McClement get the jobs for now, though I realize Kadri could be on the wing, too. Who would you like to see start the season up the middle?
- Not that exhibition games are necessarily an indication of what is to come (remember when our power play was “scary good” in pre-season a year ago?) but it’s odd going into a season with no idea whether our special teams are in good shape. At least all teams are in the same boat.
Exhibition games are not usually very exciting, but training camp without exhibition games is even less exciting.
It’s time for some real games. We’ve waited long enough.