And, hey, nobody’s caught Phil yawning on the bench. Carlyle is pushing them but they’re hanging in.
As I’ve said here often through the years, I’m not much interested in any deep analysis until we’ve played a good chunk of the schedule. Typically 10 to 20 games gives us a window into what type of team we have, though last season’s second half debacle kind of threw that theory out the window. But in a compressed season, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of rushing to judgment.
That said, my thoughts today are not so much about judging this particular team’s work ethic, which seems fine, for the most. They are clearly endeavouring to do what Carlyle is asking of them. It’s more about trying to understand exactly where this organization, now run by Dave Nonis, thinks this team is - and where it's going.
Nonis took over from his predecessor only a couple of weeks ago, mere days before the current regular season began. Does he get a free pass because it is now “his” team and he is obviously “new” to the job? For me, I’m more of a mind to ask him to accept a fair bit of responsibility (not all, of course) for where the organization is at—good or bad—right now. I say that because he was, previously, the supposed right-hand man and was involved in essentially every decision, acquisition, signing and draft pick the team has made since he arrived from Anaheim.
Some Leaf fans look to the Marlies (and our draft picks still in junior, like Rielly) and say we’re in good shape, that the plan is unfolding as it should. My response is generally that virtually every NHL team has loads of promising players on their top farm club, or in junior hockey. The Leafs are hardly unique in this regard.
It’s nice to have a pipeline but the proof is in the pudding, right? You can have, say, ten former ‘number-one’ picks in your system, but how many of them can—or will—play and contribute as more than replaceable parts at the NHL level? That is always a central question.
Hey, I get it. I’ve been observing the Leafs since the late 1950s. That’s, a pretty long time. Doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but I have followed this ship closely and have seen a lot of coaches, players—and fans—come and go. I can, like many of you, look at this roster and tick off all the forward lines and and say, “I like Kessel, I like Lupul. Bozak is really coming around. Grabbo has a big heart. Brown works so hard. Kadri looks really good. Love van Riemsdyk’s size. Kulemin should be better this year. Isn’t Komarov gonna be good? McClement is really helping the penalty-kill….”.
In other words, when we do that, we’re back to, well, just being fans that are easy to please. When we win a few games, everyone on our roster is “good” or “great”—or will be really good some day. But it’s all hope and puffs of smoke, waiting for the new “Pope” to arrive to really turn things around.
But let’s cut through the a) hope and b) ever-present and often unnecessary Leaf world negativity. Let’s just ask some simple questions about this roster.
What is our aim?
For me, the aim is to have a team that, as in, say, the Quinn years, is good enough that we can assume the playoffs are a certainty every season. Full stop. A team good enough that the question is: can we actually compete for a Cup? In that Quinn era, we twice made it to the “final four”. In 2002, but for peculiar circumstances, would have been in the finals against Detroit.
For me, that’s the standard. A team that is always there—good enough to, in any given spring, make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. I don't expect us to win every year, but be good enough that the thought, at least, is not unrealistic.
Right now, it feels like the bar for Leaf fans is much lower than that, and that's not good enough. I hear many fans saying a) let’s tank and get a high draft pick or b) just making the playoffs would be great. (I understand that players and coaches never "tank" - I'm talking here about fans...)
I understand the sentiment, but don’t like what those fan 'options' represent. It still doesn’t get us where I think we need to be.
Where are I going with this?
Well, to be an elite team, you need certain things:
- Generally speaking, elite goaltending (teams have won a Cup with less, but by and large, if they don’t have superb goaltending, they have an absolute shutdown roster…)
- Legitimate playoff—and winning—experience somewhere on the roster
- Authentically strong leadership
- A truly top-end first line, often (not always, I concede) with big (preferably physical), talented players; legit game breakers
- A true shutdown defense pair.
Of course, teams need depth, a solid second and third line, etc.. Those are all givens, too. But I’m simply trying to highlight the qualities a really good team has that even we everyday fans can easily recognize. It doesn’t take a ton of in-depth analysis or statistical breakdowns—or being an NHL-level scout—to know what we’re talking about here.
So here is the question: whether you want to talk about first line, “top six”, “top nine” or whatever—who, in your mind, are truly elite forwards on this Leaf roster?
I’m talking about guys who can fight through tough checking, who can compete and produce at key times (including playoffs, though we can’t make this assessment with this roster, really). And obviously, players with a big-time skill level.
Next question: Can you name an elite defenseman on this roster? What about a true shutdown defense pair?
Where is our “proven” experience coming from?
I’ll leave room for your answer.
Who is the team leader? Who do other players follow?
Do we have an elite goaltender? (I love Reimer. I always feel I’m defending the guy. But I‘m just asking the question.)
My point in all this? We can talk about prospects. We can talk about our great player pipeline. We can talk about Gardiner being an untouchable and Rielly being ‘can’t miss’. Maybe that’s so. Maybe.
But if we step back and ask the simple questions, as I posed above, what are the answers?
And since no elite, proven NHL free-agent has chosen to sign here since, well, Curtis Joseph, let's not bank on that - or having lots of 'cap space' - as our salvation. Or, for that matter, on some “big trade” where we give up nothing in return…or the notion that a good draft pick will save the day.
For today, let’s stick with answering the questions that have been asked.
Nonis has been part of this ‘development plan’ for most of the four plus years that his predecessor was here. By the way, I like (a lot) the lower volume level coming from the manager’s office these days. That’s great. But we're talking about results today. That’s what this business is about, right?
Four plus years in, are you honestly satisfied with saying, “Hey Grabbo is a really gutsy little player. We sure beat Montreal on that deal. “ Or, “Yeah, Rielly will be great…what a pick”.
Can we even use the excuse that we haven’t had super high draft picks? Based on poor on-ice performance, we have been able to draft 5th, 7th, 2nd and 9th , if I’m not mistaken, in recent years. That’s four top-ten opportunities the last four drafts.
I think the Leafs can make the playoffs this season because the Eastern Conference is filled with teams just like Toronto, who have rosters with holes. But that’s not my debate today.
Do we have a first line? Who’s our stud center? A game-saving goalie? A stand-out defenseman? The grind-it-out Draper-McCarthy-Maltby-like third line? A voice of wisdom and experience in the locker room? The leader who has winner written all over him?
And not to unduly lay “blame” on Nonis, because I like what he has done in his short time as GM, but I think it’s fair to ask this, also: with all the fanfare about the bright “future”, should not at least one of those above-mentioned areas have already been well and firmly addressed by now, more than four years into this “program”?
I await your thoughts - and answers.