OK. The season is here at long last. The Leafs are back in action. They are playing their first meaningful game in almost a year, given that the last 20 or more games of last season were basically a write-off in terms of any serious playoff chase. And to start things off with some urgency, we play a traditional “Original Six” rival, the hated Habs, in a great building to play in, an arena we usually play well in. (Even if the Leafs were rolling out a roster full of guys off the street, many Leafs supporters would still be excited for opening night. It’s been that long since we’ve had NHL hockey.)
As much fun as it is to have Leaf hockey back—albeit after a messy and agitating labour dispute—once opening night is over, we are back to the reality of a tough grind over the remaining 47 regular-season games. Like every other Eastern Conference squad, the Leafs will need to be ready and will be looking for that much-discussed “quick start” to their season.
So will everyone else, of course.
Are the Leafs a playoff team? You know what, they just could be. I say this not because I am wearing Leaf-coloured glasses. I’m well aware that this roster is still a work in progress, and there are all kinds of things that can go wrong. But because the East is not that strong (four “elite” teams, if that?) no one really knows what a new season (and after a long layoff) will bring. Also, this will be a “short” regular-season, so a bad stretch could make it very difficult for otherwise playoff-worthy teams to make it. To me, it’s wide open in the East, and the Leafs are in the mix just as much as most teams. (Let’s exclude, for the sake of debate, Philly, Boston, Rangers and Pens. We all expect them to be top seeds. The Caps? Borderline elite, in my mind—at best. They could just as easily go backwards.)
I honestly believe even those four “top” teams have vulnerabilities. Regardless, we’re talking about, say, eleven teams fighting for the last three or four playoff berths. Are the Leafs that much worse off than all the other pretenders? I really don’t think so.
Again, this is not to suggest we have a great team, or even a very good team, on paper. But there are reasons why I choose to be hopeful, and positive. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Nonis will rein back the bluster—and unnecessarily high expectations. He’s already done it. His way of interacting with the media is less harsh. There are no bold pronouncements. It’s mostly just calm, seemingly realistic reflections.
- That alone does not make him a high-end GM, of course. But his early moves have already distanced Nonis from his predecessor. Gone are older players with big contracts who did not seem to have a role here (Lombardi, Connolly).
- I don’t love Carlyle but that is more about his tone than ability to coach. He is already a bit less sour than the man who held the job before him. And I sense he will demand accountability from every player on this roster. He clearly wore out his value in Anaheim, and was not a “player’s coach”, that’s for sure. But most coaches need a change of scenery when they lose their team, just as players sometimes benefit from a new environment. I’m prepared to give Carlyle some time to see if he can blend his approach with the apparent limitations of his roster.
- Rielly is back in Moose Jaw. I will not belabor the point here. Those who follow VLM know my feelings on this subject. If he returns for a Marlie playoff run, fine. But in my view, the organization did the right thing by the young man—and by the big club. Lots of players under the supposed “meritocracy” approach deserved a shot here before an 18 year old. His day will come.
- It finally looks as though Kadri is a Leaf, period. Hopefully this also means no more shift-by-shift obsession with what he doesn’t do well—or right—and instead, letting the kid play like he can. He’ll make mistakes, but everyone does, not just young players. I’d like to see him get a run with the same linemates over a period of games, and some power play time as well. If that happens, I’m satisfied. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll know. But he needs ice team and has earned it, in my mind.
- I know Frattin is gone but I believe he will be back. I recognize that not everyone is high on him, but some of you know my views on Frattin. Poor man’s power forward, with some speed and a nasty shot that can bust in on his off wing. He should be here. A 5-day “camp” in the middle of his season was not the fairest way to judge him, in my mind. But if this demotion triggers an edge in his game, great.
- I like that they have kept 8 defensemen (9 with Gardiner). Fraser and Kostka truly earned a longer look at this level. I’m guessing at some point one or two of they and/or Holzer will find their way back to the Marlies, though I don't know all the waiver restrictions in those scenarios. While I would not say this is a star-laden defense, they are all guys worth having a look at. Isn’t Kostka a nice story? (And I admit—to me, he was just a Marlies’ roster-filler when he was signed. I was wrong.)
- I don’t think any Leaf fans are surprised Komarov is here. He seems to be precisely the type of player that Carlyle will not be afraid to use in various circumstances. If he is as unpleasant to play against on the road as he is apt to be at home, all the better. We need to be a harder team to play against, especially on the road. Komarov should help.
- Komarov, van Riemsdyk and Kadri is a pretty interesting forward line, eh?
- I will need to see McClement in action but based on the positive attention he has received this week (I realize we usually have to divide by two when listening to pro-Leaf assessments) but he does seem to be a guy who can fill a fourth-line slot. Face-offs, penalty kill and hard minutes.
- Will Orr be on the roster for long? Well, if he really is the new and improved Colton Orr, who knows? Goodness, if he can play some, in addition to being a protector, we could use that, right?
- Brown and Orr have big hearts, and by all accounts, so does McClement. I can understand why Steckel has been bumped down a slot. And I get why Frattin needs to show he belongs to be here going forward. I think there is room for Frattin to play his way back here. It would be remarkable if the Leafs went without an injury for the next three months.
- Yes, I know, I have not discussed the goaltending yet. I’m something of a Reimer guy, for all the reasons I have cited here before. I think it will be important to see him without Allaire over his shoulder. And healthy, too. Scrivens is a gusty guy, and seems to have a ton of “compete” in him. Can they be like Bester and Wregett in the ‘80s? My preference is that Reimer be at least the nominal “starter”, but Carlyle has made it clear he will go with the guy who is playing well. Can’t really argue a lot with that. I would start Reimer Saturday night, and be ready to bring Scrivens back Monday. But I’m guessing Scrivens will actually get the nod in Montreal.
So there it is. I’m happy. (I didn’t say ecstatic.) Could I write a piece taking an entirely different perspective? Sure. But it's a new season. So let's be positive. Management will not be on the front page every few days. Youth, to a degree, has been served. We have not made any desperation trades, giving away solid young players. There seems to be some balance on our lines. We have some roster flexibility going forward. And if I’m not mistaken, we may have some cap flexibility if things evolve such that Nonis wants to tweak things at the deadline for any reason.
I sense, though, that Nonis will be the patient gardener as he oversees the team’s growth. He knows what he has, and what he needs. He will wait for Rielly and others who are still at the prospect stage.
But for now, it’s opening night Saturday in Montreal. Let’s enjoy some hockey.