- Assessing the Leafs Part I: the back end-
- Assessing the Leafs Part II: the forwards
- 10 things the Leafs could do for the Leafs with the lockout finally over
****For those who may have been anticipating a lengthy post about the Burke press conference on the weekend, I just don’t have the enthusiasm for that. I saw it, heard it, heard it again. That era is history, though his imprint will be seen for some time. I will only say a couple of things. If you love Burke and feel he can do little wrong (and love his bombastic manner), I’m sure you liked his press conference.
Those who are less inclined to want to have to listen to more of the same old, same old, likely are happy it is the last time we will have to hear well-worn and highly over-used phrases like “no complaints, no excuses”. (Then going on to say yes, ownership can do what it wants, but that he wasn’t given a satisfactory answer for the timing of the decision.)
Some will see taking a shot at an individual reporter, for example, (when the organization was gracious enough to let him have his day in the sun after he had already been terminated) as gratuitous and unnecessary. Nor will they applaud Burke’s twice, in answering a question, saying, “That’s not my problem anymore”.
His supporters will say he left with class and grace. Others will view the departure quite differently. (That his contract will be as a special advisor to Anselmi and the Board, not hockey operations, speaks volumes.)
With that, for the purposes of VLM, I will aim to leave this chapter in Leaf history behind as best one can when you post as often as I do here about the organization. I’ll simply say that, having followed this team closely since the late 1950s, I was much more disappointed when Jim Gregory and Pat Quinn were relieved of their duties as GM in 1979 and 2003, respectively. They had both built teams that were ultra-competitive every season, and could play consistently with the best teams in hockey. That wasn’t good enough for ownership at the time. So I’m not shocked that, after the last four years of non-playoff hockey under Burke, this decision was made by new owners.)
This is, as Burke always said, a results-oriented business, after all.
Before you stop reading this piece and think, “what the heck has Michael got against our two best young defense prospects?”, the answer: is absolutely nothing. But I just wanted to raise this point today for discussion at VLM.
There is no question both of these young men are fabulous talents. A lot of us who aren’t on top of the prospect pool rankings knew about Gardiner vaguely but had no idea he could—or would—have the kind of impact he did with the Leafs last season, after the bold move Burke made the season prior to make a deal with Anaheim for Beauchemin. I don’t need to list all of Gardiner’s attributes. Those who have seen him play know what I’m talking about. Suffice to say he has remarkable ‘presence’ on the ice for a young player. He never (and I don't use words like ”never” very often) seems to get rattled. In addition to all his skills, he is simply a very poised young player.
Rielly, too, comes with promise galore. While, as I’ve posted here previously, I have zero interest in him being on the big club in a shortened season with a middlish roster that is not a serious contender, I can see the writing on the wall. The organization wants last summer’s 5th overall pick here sooner than later. I don’t like it, but I get it. He, too, has all the offensive talent in the world and should be an impact player for years to come.
So who wouldn’t want two (potentially) premier, young defensemen patrolling their blueline for the next decade (or, as that timeline is now conveniently known, the next lockout)? I sure would. All things being equal, I’m guessing the Leafs should have both of those guys for the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing, for sure.
But there are some sobering considerations when it comes to putting so many of our hopeful eggs into the baskets of these precocious talents. One is the reality of injuries. Rielly, as well all know, is still coming off a serious knee injury, if I’m not mistaken. He has rebounded remarkably well, and looks for all the world like an absolute keeper. But when you’re 18 and already have a major injury behind you, I can’t help but wonder about challenges he will face at the next level, especially as a rushing defenseman. Even the best hockey player I’ve ever seen, Bobby Orr—who started his NHL career at 18 after major knee issues in junior hockey in Oshawa—got belted around enough that his knees took a pounding. His career was over in his 20s. And Orr was the fastest things on skates in his day, and the best skater, ever.
Of course, we have superb medical technology now, and Rielly may be injury-free for years. But I raise the point simply as a cautionary note.
For his part, Gardiner is now in the midst of fighting back from what appears to be some kind of neck/head/concussion issue. That hardly makes him damaged goods, but the reality of NHL hockey nowadays is that every player—given the speed of the game, size of the players and the massive equipment they use—is one hit away from being on the disabled list for long, long time. And every time you incur another concussion, it seems that players have to stay away from the game longer each time. Again, every player faces that risk. It is certainly not unique to Gardiner. But he already is overcoming one apparently serious injury, too- like Rielly.
Again, I am saying that we can be enthused, but also wary of assuming they will both be here and healthy for years to come.
But beyond that, which is perhaps of no concern for some Leaf fans, there is another question. Do we, or will we, have the roster support necessary to allow these guys to do what they do so well? Neither Gardiner or Rielly are tiny tots, but then again, neither is exactly a behemoth as a defenseman in the modern-day NHL. Both are offensively gifted, and both are naturally inclined to do what they are so good at: skating, moving the puck, making plays and being an all-around offensive threat.
That’s important. But neither player is, or seems destined to be, a shutdown-type defenseman, right? I mean, if they turn out to be anything like, say, Paul Coffey or Ray Bourque (I realize I’m shooting pretty high here), I think we’d all take that in a second. We wouldn’t even have to be asked.
But in today’s NHL, you generally also need your top guys to be able to master their own zone. That means not only making smart plays, chipping the puck out as required, all those little things, but also being strong on the puck, tough in the corners and someone that opposing forwards should fear (a la Pronger) in front of your own net. I don’t see either Rielly or Gardiner fitting that bill, and that may be just fine. But then someone, somewhere, has to be able to eat up huge minutes and play that role some day alongside these guy, right? Is that player already on the roster, in the system—or available to us? If not, when will they be?
Hey, most of us would be satisfied (who wouldn't be?) if Gardiner was a mini Scott Niedermayer and Rielly was, say, anywhere near Coffey or Bourque. Niedermayer may have been the most complete defenseman, along with Lidstrom, of the modern (recent) era. Bourque and Coffee, in those free-wheeling ‘80s (though both their careers stretched like 20 years, into a more defensively-oriented NHL) had their defensive frailties, shall we say. But those shortcoming were usually masked by their brilliant offensive forays. Fans accepted their not always being the best or toughest one-on-one defensive defenseman in the world, or not being like Pronger or Scott Stevens, because they were stunningly good in just about every other way.
Bringing it back to the Leafs, that we have these two guys is fantastic. There is nothing to moan about. It’s all good, as people like to say.
I’m just trying to remind myself that as promising as these young players are, there are holes in their game that I’ve discussed here before. I hope we don't rush their progress (as I've posted before, need I invoke the names of other highly talented young Leafs from years gone by- Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate, Luke Schenn...). And there needs to be someone to complement Rielly and Gardiner when the time comes—to help them be what they really can be, and to make the Leafs as competitive as we want them to be with the best teams in the NHL.
When a team becomes really good, truly competitive, an actual Cup contender, they need this kind of talent, yes. The Habs of the ‘70s had three superstar defensemen and a Hall-of-Fame goalie, and still needed solid fourth, fifth and sixth defensemen to win along with exceptionally talented forwards. No one has that kind of roster talent nowadays, but along with the elite players, you need your role players to be standout role players. It's a must.
And come playoff time, you need to be ten-deep on defence, because chances are, if you go four rounds, attrition will mean you will be well past your top six.
So yes, the Leafs have lots of “numbers” at camp - and with the Marlies and in the “system”. Gardiner and Rielly are certainly blue-chip. But let’s not stop there. We have a ways to go before we are one of the big boys in the East.