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Can fans take credit for Phaneuf’s offensive revival?

How many times, I wonder, will the Maple Leafs win a game that lacks much tempo or artistry against an opponent that doesn’t look very good (and the Sabres sure stood around a lot Thursday night, for a team that should have been pumped up to show off for a new coach) and we say, “wait until they play some good teams”?

But this is what I have been saying here for the last few seasons.  The Eastern Conference is, well, awfully mediocre. There are a lot of outstanding players, but not really many what I would call elite teams. And it’s been this way going back many seasons, actually.  I’ve been writing about NHL parity  for what feels like a long time.

The difference in a club's success compared with another team can be discipline, good coaching, line match-ups, a hot goaltender- all kinds of things large and small, subtle or obvious.  Now, you might say, those things are always important—and they are.  But my point is that there are two, maybe three teams in the East that you would probably say, on paper, are out of the Leafs’ league, as it were. I keep saying it because it’s true: most of the East is made up of teams that can be beat, have roster flaws and are not that deep.  Are there any teams that the Leafs really can’t compete with?

I think you know I am not a guy who has flights of delusional Leaf fantasy.  I've seen too many false starts and unmet expectations over the past forty-five years.  I’m not pretending they are suddenly a world-class team.  But they are playing with an edge and even on nights when they lack jump, they aren’t seeing a lot of push back from opposing teams.  Are they suddenly that good, or is the competition simply not that what we thought it would be?

Hey, maybe the Sabres will turn it around under a new coach.  But you usually see a surge in energy right away when a team changes coaches, and it just wasn’t there at the ACC on Thursday night.  The Sabres were listless, for the most part.  (What’s happened to Tyler Myers?)  Beyond Buffalo, the Islanders are lacking in a lot of ways, as are the Panthers, Capitals and Jets.  I don’t see Tampa as a lock for the playoffs, nor is Montreal (though they have been hot) and the Flyers have clearly underwhelmed their fans so far this season.

The playoffs are right there, if the Leafs play like they have so far this season.

Against the Sabres, van Riemsdyk scored twice from basically the edge of the crease, one on a lovely set-up from Kessel when it looked like Kessel was going to shoot, then another beauty pass cross-ice from Franson on a five-on-three to salt the game away in the third period.  That said, his most impressive moment may have been killing a penalty in the second period when he skated from the blueline in and around the Sabres net, took the puck back outside the blueline and made another rush  and almost scored as the Sabres stood around, seemingly frozen. (The Sabres sure looked like one lazy team, didn’t they?) You don’t see what van Riemsdyk did on that play often.

When John Scott tried to motivate the Sabres in the third period through fisticuffs, MacLaren went to-to-toe with the Sabre behemoth.  Scott’s teammates were clearly not inspired by the fight.

That exchange, however, kind of epitomized the Leafs’ season to this point.  Between Orr, Fraser, Brown and MacLaren, passive Eastern Conference teams don’t much seem to want to go to the danger zones very often, and the Leafs are benefitting.

Komarov is part of that new emphasis on physicality, as it McClement, mostly by simply finishing their checks. While there are a lot of familiar faces in a Leaf lineup that hasn’t been very good these last few seasons, Kadri, Bozak, Kessel and Grabovski can skate a little freer now and Phaneuf doesn’t have to fight all his own battles while everyone else stands around and offers no help.

Speaking of Phaneuf, can fans (I know, I know, it’s Dion himself, or at least the influence of his coaches…) take credit for his renewed offensive productivity of late?  How often were fans—and rightfully so—carping that the captain was taking blazing slapshots from the point that were nowhere near the net, night after night.  Yet, starting about half a dozen games ago, it’s almost like he had been watching Cody Franson and realized, “hey, I don’t have to blast it all the time.”  When he shoots now, he usually tries to keep it low, so it gets to the net or so one of his teammates might at least be able to deflect the shot.  Against the Sabres, he scored because the shot was on the money, not five feet wide or ten feet over the net. (I think he now has points in five of his last six games…)

I apologize for my lack of fresh ideas as to why the Leafs are “winning”.  But this Leaf team looks the same virtually every night.  The goalies make most of the stops; the defense clears the front of the net; they move the puck with short, smart passes to clear the zone and when they are on the attack, they let their skill guys work, while their energy guys and tougher forwards make a path to the net.

Pretty basic.  But effective.

I don’t know what else to say. It’s not always exciting (certainly not like the Penguin/Flyer game from a couple of nights ago) but we’ve seen that movie and it turned out badly for us.

So my guess is most Leaf fans will take this:  smart, solid play with a physical edge.  Suddenly, we’re a team no one wants to play against.

If the goaltending holds up….I’ll stop there.


  1. I agree on all of your thoughts, but I do think that "smart, solid play with a physical edge" can be exciting. Watching an opponent entering our zone and beeing rubbed out against the boards, guys on the forecheck pasting the other teams defenceman against the galss, breaking up an offensive rush (like Kadri did last night) is fun to watch too. It's not a Wendel wrist shot to the top corner, but not bad.

    Since I mentioned Wendel... has there been anyone since with a wrist shot like his? I hear broadcasters call wrist shots that are actually snap shots. Wendel had that long slow backswing sort of whip effect where he dragged the puck befor releasing. That's a wrist shot. It's not seen today.

    Playing like we are now, and if some guys can get back to their normal play - Grabbo and MacArthur (had a good game in my mind last night) - we can have a pretty good season.

    What I don't like seeing though, is the dump and chase on the power play. It gives the other team a chance to get the puck, and if there is a fight for it along the boards it kills alot of time. Why can't we set up properly anymore? It's horrible. Last year we could get in the zone easily and set up quickly. The players would start out from our zone and with a few drop passes the set was complete. That's gone this year and we can't get it right.

  2. Am impressed with Franson. He was great tonight on the PP - what a great pass to JVR. It seems to be very good for Phaneuf to be paired with him.
    Also impressed with Kessel's playmaking. On the PP for the Phaneuf goal he had the puck on his stick for ages and looked the part of the set up man. And then the feed to JVR for that goal. What a beauty.
    They seem to be really listening to Carlyle and the coaching staff. Carlyle himself is a suprise. Appears much more thoughtful than the grouch he was portrayed to be.

  3. I think you summed things up nicely at the very end there. No, we definitely do not want to go back to those 6-5 games of yesteryear. They have proven not to work out well. The disciplined game the Leafs have played thus far this year has such a different feel to it. Suddenly, I feel safe watching them play with a one-goal lead in the third period, as opposed to the white knuckle feeling I used to feel as I watched and waited for the collapse.

    As much as the Sabres have been one-dimensional this season, and they sure did look anything but imposing last night, you can't deny that their top line has put up some good numbers. And last night that line did not strike any fear into the Leafs. I like to think they deserve a little credit for that.

    I have to feel for you a bit, Michael, this team lacks controversy and big swings in their level of play, and therefore is not as easy to write about! But I'll take it for sure. Your last comment, the goaltending. I don't know if its because Allaire is gone, or the way Carlyle and Nonis are handling them. But they are definitely playing with confidence and understand their roles.

  4. I like a team that finishes its checks and plays hard and smart, too, portuguese leaf. One of the best players I ever saw play was Bob Gainey and he didn't score many goals. But he was so fast, smart, tough and difficult to play against. I'd love the Leafs to have guys like that.

    (Wendel did have an old-school and exceptionally powerful - and heavy - wrist shot. And no, we don't see that a lot nowadays...)

    As for the power play, it is an issue. We can certainly do better than what we have shown many nights.

  5. For a guy that was not even supposedly on the radar screen (un-signed) during the lockout and did not play in every game early this season, yes, Franson has indeed made himself pretty darn important, Faraway Stew.

    I've talked here about Kessel's playmaking for a couple of years now. We can all see he is not simply a "shooter/scorer". I agree, everything (including the lifted leg) pointed to a shot on that particular play. A beauty pass and a crafty little re-dicrect and we had a goal. Good hockey.

    And you're absolutely right about Carlyle. A lot of us wondered out loud if he could adjust and, to use the modern term, "re-invent" himself with this roster. So far, he has. Thanks for visiting, Faraway Stew.

  6. I agree, Pete, the Leafs absolutely deserve credit for how they handled Buffalo's scorers. No question. I just thought the Sabres didn't look engaged much of the night, but again, that may have to do with the checking they were facing.

    I remember writing here that I was keen to see Reimer play without Allaire around. That may not be fair to a guy who has been a respected goalie coach, but it wasn't working here, it seemed. And yes, both Scrivens and Reimer, whether they liked working with Allaire or not or "learned" some things, sure look pretty confident this season- so far, anyway. Thanks Pete.

  7. It's all very encouraging and what's even better is that the sick bay is about drop in population, with Reimer, Frattin, and Lupul all likely back within the next 10 days or so. Add to that group Jake Gardiner, who should be called up sooner rather than later (I think Holzer is the odd man out in that regard, although I wouldn't be surprised if Gunnarson has to leave to injury again. He's admitted the hip isn't 100% and likely won't be all season). I agree with your comments on Leaf Matters earlier this week, Michael, when you said that Gardiner will very shortly be back to the Leafs and that he is in no way trade bait. Eakins has given him the thumbs up and that's good enough for me. It's just a matter of the Leafs D as it currently stands playing very well most nights. Sooner rather than later, Gardiner will be back where he belongs with the Leafs. Not much else to say. This team is playing great and I haven't seen many games, even in the losses, where this group looks totally outplayed. We're one step closer, Folks!

  8. Absolutely agree, Twisted Sittler- I have no reason to suspect Gardiner will not be here. He's obviously an NHL player, we all know that. He has flaws but can also be a potential difference-maker.

    Come the stretch run and the playoffs, you need to be very deep on the blueline, so I don't mind having all these guys ready to contribute. But Gardiner can eat up minutes, and that will ease the burden on certain guys.

  9. With the recent play of Gardiner, I have little doubt that Nonis is burning up the phone lines looking for a solution.

    I have long said that I think the Leafs are best positioned to 'help' the Islanders (call it 'directed revenue sharing with a benefit') to buy out DiPietro. Well, he has just been waived to the AHL, so it appears that the 'writing is on the wall' for his time in NY. His 4.5 M cap hit will drop by 900-950K (can't remember the new CBA amount) whether he plays in the NHL or not, so I can't see Wang paying for him without seeking a solution.

    Herein, comes the speculation and hopefulness... first I can't imagine the Islanders not wanting someone to maintain their cap position (especially if the Leafs are able to absorb part of a contract). I could see Carlyle wanting or willing to have Vishnovsky again (to complement Phaneuf, perhaps?) and the Islanders an offensive left side D to replace him... perhaps Liles would allow such a move (but it could be about Gunnar or another lower priced option).

    Komisarek might be willing to allow the move to the land of his youth (just so he can remove himself from the press box) that would 'reinflate' the cap loss of Vishnovsky and DiPietro.

    Now, what do we really get out of the deal... a roster opening for Gardiner to begin with, and something still owing for buying out DiPietro (who could later re-sign with the Islanders, since they are not buying him out, at a very low cap hit and contract if amenable to both sides).

    DiPietro can be easily placed within our cap space until a buyout in the summer but, depending on whether the Islanders' first round pick is in play for the buyout... OR (dream of dreams) Tavares could be pried away, where another center was in the mix. I could imagine Grabo, and his similar contract, could head out the door and allow Bozak to move onto the 'shutdown' line, where I think he could better serve the team's interests and not alienate Kessel (the way Ballard did to Sittler when MacDonald was shipped off to Colorado). Having Tavares on the top line and Kadri on the sheltered scoring line, provides tons of options with Lupul, JVR, and Mac in the mix on either scoring line.

    When I see the Islanders getting DiPietro into the minors, we have a potential callup who could play in a crisis, if necessary, or be benched til buyout this year (or next). I believe Gardiner has 'done his time' throughout the lockout and his concussion recovery plan without complaint and he seems ready, so I think we'll see something happen very soon.

    Thanks for 'hearing me out'... of course, others may desire to work with the DiPietro contract/buyout, but I don't think any are as well positioned as the Leafs... hope to enjoy such a blockbuster solution soon!

  10. Hi Michael

    "this Leaf team looks the same virtually every night." - That is a hallmark of systematic play. Today's NHL is so equally matched that the difference night in and night out are 3-4 key plays if all else being equal. You can't explain why the Senators have a 3 game winning streak after the Karlson injury other than clear structured play. Where the difference lies is in the execution of key plays by talent. In my opinion, key talent in the long term will win you an extra 20-30% of the time. I agree with you that the East is weak and are only 3-4 teams strong. The rest are middle of the pack all closely matched. The Leafs' current playoff positioning can be attributed to Carlyle's system and appropriate placing of personnel into area for success. I am optimistically encouraged but the season is still young. I'd like to see how they handle the elites the latter half of the season but the last Boston game was indeed encouraging even though it was a lost. If they continue with the current style of play and not deviate, I would be very much confident that the playoffs drought will end this year

  11. I always enjoy your Tavares speculation, InTimeFor 62. It is fun and of course, thought-provoking.

    I just can't imagine the Isles moving Tavares. If they did, what would they have to "sell" once they get into that new building in Brooklyn or wherever?

    We can hope, of course. But I do think you're right, that Nonis is looking to bring Gardiner in soon and that may necessitate moving someone.

    1. The only way I see the Isles moving Tavares is if they have a high first round pick available to hit the marketplace in a couple years when they move to Brooklyn. Grabo or another option may be sufficient to keep butts in the seats. Also, having some of the Leaf pieces I've suggested available for further deals at the trade deadline could bring the Isles more picks/prospects. If the team really has to bail on that ridiculous contract, there will be a cost they will have to address... and the pressure is on with the demotion of DiPietro.

      If they are unwilling to part with Tavares, then I'm hoping that their first round pick would be the compensation (a buyout on a 36 million contract should bring a significant return)... I would be almost as excited about that as getting Tavares. It's just that I'd love to get JT while he's still young, rather than hoping to get him, with all the mileage, at UFA.

      I'd like to see Kadri stay here, but that might be part of a future that NYI could 'sell' to their marketplace (along with the high draft pick) if they want to go with youth... eating such a huge contract and sending them Kadri might just get us Tavares right now... just not as excited about giving up Kadri to make it happen...

      Definitely looking forward to the maturing Gardiner providing all kinds of new options for the offense in Leafland!

  12. You summed it up awfully well, Lukas. Work ethic and consistency of execution is the ticket. It will get you past the weaker teams (and squads with rosters much like Toronto's) most of the time and make you competitive against the better teams.