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The most important Maple Leaf this season? Here's my answer...

I’m not a big fan of the “who’s the best” discussions in sport, including hockey.  When I was a young hockey fan, the big debate in the late 1950s was “Who was the greatest—Gordie Howe of Rocket Richard?”.  I’ve never fully understood, I guess, how we can possibly make that kind of determination.   Great players obviously bring different traits to the table—and to their team—every night.  Some are offensively proficient in terms of scoring goals, some are great playmakers, others play a rugged game, are speedsters, tremendous checkers, leaders, whatever. Some are a little bit of everything.

I would say that Bobby Orr was the best player I’ve ever seen, no question, but beyond that rather subjective and very personal assessment, how can we say that Bobby Hull (right), for example, was better than Stan Mikita, or Jean Beliveau was “better” than little Henri Richard (his Hab teammate).  Was the younger Richard better than our Maple Leaf hero, Dave Keon, back in the 1960s?  Was Mario Lemieux “better” than Wayne Gretzky?  Was Denis Potvin “better” than Larry Robinson or Serge Savard or Brad Park?  They were all different, and all outstanding.

My point is, they were all fantastic players, supremely gifted and all of them had marvelous careers.  Now, if we want to shift the discussion a little and debate which player we might build a team around if we had to make a choice, or who we might select to start a new franchise, OK. That's a different debate, I think.

But if the discussion is simply who is “better”, how do we prove that?  Was Gretzky better than Messier when both were at their best? I don’t know how anyone can make that assessment. It’s all opinion.  I just see two incredible players, and say that I wish the Leafs had had one of them at least for a while.

Howe and Richard (left) were both remarkable talents.  How can you determine who was better?  Both were champions, but could not have been more different.  I'm sure not going to get into some kind of statistical debate.  Believe me, you could not measure the value of Richard to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s and '50s in terms of goals alone, as impressive as his pure "numbers" were. No "data" could do justice to his impact on that dressing room, that franchise, or that fan base.

In the same breath, Howe was truly "the man" for the Red Wing organization for 25 years.  It would be an injustice, in my view, to try and determine who was "better".

So in introducing my topic for today, I am a bit wary about how I phrase the question.  As we all know, the NHL has the much-esteemed Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the player deemed to be most valuable to his team throughout the course of the regular season.  But even that definition leads to nuanced debates about what that means, and distinctions there might be regarding how we define “value”.

Recognizing that interpretation conundrum, can I just say that am looking for your view today about which Maple Leaf has been the most “important” contributor to the team so far this season, now 26 already games into the shortened 48-game NHL schedule.

There are a number of candidates.  In fact, since this is an “opinion” question (aren’t most of them here?), anyone who has played for the blue and white this season might be in the running.  Every player has helped in some way to the team’s improvement in the standings from the end of last season.

If we are trying to look for candidates, though, a few names jump to mind.  In no particular order, I would throw the following names into the discussion hopper:

  • Kessel
  • van Riemsdyk
  • Kadri
  • Phaneuf
  • McClement
  • Grabovski
  • Reimer
  • Scrivens

Heck, I’d even throw Kostka’s name into the mix, for a very simple reason:  we expected nothing of this guy, and yet he has played well over 20 minutes a night and helped the team survive the early season loss of last year’s surprise, Jake Gardiner. That makes him an “important” Leaf this season, in my mind.

It’s the same with Mark Fraser.  I didn’t foresee him being with the Leafs, much less being a reliable stay-at-home defender who rubs out the opposition with a physicality that helps make the Leafs hard to play against. He has been an important cog so far. And while some eschew the value of the longstanding "plus/minus" stat - and no, I'm not a stats guy - being a plus _ at this point in the season is pretty impressive.

I’d place Randy Carlyle’s name into the mix, maybe even that of Rick St. Croix, the new goalie coach.  Their contributions have been “important” by today’s definition, eh? (As a point of reference, while the voting "numbers" weren't as high as some other recent polls at this site, Carlyle actually received a lot of "votes" on the topic of the most important Leaf so far this season in the VLM poll.  For the record, Reimer and Kadri led the balloting; interestingly, Carlyle stood third.  Kessel and Phaneuf received not a single tally...)

For me, the bottom line is that for a team to be successful, everyone has to make a contribution.  Everyone—regardless of how many minutes they play, or how many games they play with the big club.  But acknowledging that, for fun, let’s have the discussion:

When all is said and done, for me the guy -so far- is Reimer.  It all starts and stops in so many ways with goaltending.  If you get that, everything - the system, the coach, your teammates -  looks a lot better.  And for the most part, Reimer has been steady this season.  We've seen in the past many years that, when this franchise (like most any other) receives top flight netminding (Felix Potvin, Curtis Josehh) we can win.  When we don't, the impact across the roster is clear.

But who say you is the most “important” Maple Leaf so far this season?  There is no right answer- have your say.


If you've by-passed some recent posts, I invite you to have a look at the links below.

Also, you have a standing invitation to check out our "Leaf Matters" podcast, co-hosted with Matteo Codispoti from We Want a Cup.  We've competed 42 episodes as I write this.  I always remind people that we are not professional broadcasters, just two long-time Maple Leaf followers looking to give fellow fans another "Leaf chat" option.  We've had some great guests on the program, from former Leafs like Pat Quinn, Mirko Frycer, Jim Dorey and Bob Nevin to mainstream media folks like Lance Hornby, Damien Cox, Mike Zeisberger and Adam Proteau.  We've also been joined by fantastic  bloggers, including Curt Snoddon from Blue Chip Prospects, Marco Perruzza from Hope in the Big Smoke, Rob Del Mundo from TMLfans and the talented duo from Maple Leaf Hot Stove, Anthony Petrielli, Jon Steitzer.  The show is available on iTunes and of course, on the growing PodAlmighty Network.  If you enjoy the chase, by all means give us a nice "rating" on iTunes and "like" us on the PodAlmighty site.


Here are those story links:

Thanks for visiting Vintage Leaf Memories.


  1. Another excellent post Michael. You really give us food for thought here. You're wise and gentle with us unlike some of the younger bloggers who think they know everything and act like they've won a bunch of Stanly Cups.

    I see why you'd pick Reimer. Goaltending has been brutal for the Leafs over the last few years and anything that improves on letting, on average, 2 stinkers a game will make a huge difference and put the team in a whole different category... But Reimer hasn't been good. He's been ok. He hasn't stolen us any games. He's simply not brutal this year and while that may well be the most 'important' improvement over the last year I really don't think we have a proper starter goalie in him. Our goalies are better, and they are 'giving us a chance' and that may well be enough but it would be really nice if we had a goalie of Luongo's or Miller's caliber there - someone you can count on to steal you games. I'm still worried that we may have an achilles heel there between the pipes with Reimer and Scrivens. I don't think they have the talent to take it to the next level (I think Gustavsson actually had the talent but was destroyed by Allaire) and I know that they have 'the potential' to really suck. We've seen glimpses of that sucking this year (Reimer's first game back and the first period against Pittsburg come to mind). Sometimes I feel like prayer is the only option when I see them out there 'holding the fort'. That's not a good feeling.

    To me, the credit for the Leafs improving should go to coaching staff and management (Carlyle, Burke, Nonis, Eakins and St. Croix) for assembling a group of youngsters and getting them to buy into the system after a few fits and starts.

    I think the key point to be made is that we don't have amazing star players here like Ovechkin or Crosby or Pronger or Chara (although who knows what JVR and Kessel and Kadri will turn into) that can carry the team on their shoulders and that what is good about the Leafs this year is that they are a team that plays as a team and competes and that the roles are well-defined for each player and that noone is tasked with more than what they can deliver while at the same time everyone gets to be 'special' in their own role and feel good after each game if they did their job.

    Hockey is a team sport and I'm really happy to see it played as a team sport in Toronto: Grabovski and Kulemin get to feel good about taking on the giants every night, Phaneuf gets to be the most important defensemen and a captain who plays big minutes and gets to shut down the stars every game while at the same time bringing up young defensemen along side him, McClement gets to run the PK and hold the fort defensively at the end of the games we're winning, the fast, skilled kids up front get to run around and score, JVR gets to stand in front of the net and pick up goals, the tough guys get to hit, enforce and protect...

    The biggest improvement, then, I think is the system that was put in place out of the carefully selected pieces that fit. It took 4 years to get here and the job was well done. Mistakes were made (Connolly, Lombardi, Dupuis, Wilson etc.) But they were corrected and now we're home free - we have the strongest goons in the NHL, the best PK specialist in the league, a solid defensive forward line, a solid captain and depth on defense, and a deadly 3-line-deep goal-scoring forward corps. Finally, we have a good goalie-coach and 2 decent-looking-right-now/top of the line back-up goalies. Most importantly, we have a team that is young and hungry and will only get better. That is a recipe for success.

  2. Thanks for making some solid points today, leafdreamer.

    I can't argue: Reimer and Scrivens have been pretty good, but not unbelievable. (Better than last season, at least!) But I do like Reimer's ability to fight back after a bad start and keep us in the game. And I sense the guys pick up on that.

    I certainly agree with the overall improvement aspect of your comment. Our young "stars" should only get better; players have embraced their roles; we are tougher and edgier and players like Komarov and McClment have infused the team with a different attitude, it seems.

    We're getting closer!

  3. It is very hard to name one player who has been the most valuable to this team. But if I look at last year's team, and this year's team, what player(s) have made the greatest impact on the turnaround (so far) this year? More importantly, if we had to remove that player out of the lineup, which player would be missed the most?

    We've proven that both our goalies can do the job, so despite their good play, neither one I would say is our most valuable player. On defence we've seen quite a few new additions step in and do a very good job. In fact we have healthy highly-paid experienced defencemen sitting in the press box. If any of the D-men went down, the team has the personnel to step in and do the job. Phaneuf may be the one defenceman that would be missed the most. It would be hard to cover his minutes, and battle against the opposition's best players.

    With respect to the forwards, we have a number of players who can be offensive threats. The team has done well despite the loss of one of its best scorers in Lupul. So although many of the scoring forwards are valuable players, I'm not sure any one of them would be the most valuable player on this team.

    So who does that leave? Well there are the defensive forwards. The guys that don't put up a lot of points, but who play important minutes, and can defensively limit the other team's top players. We have some excellent forwards that fit this category, two of which are new to this team. Prior to their arrival, I'm not sure many of us knew just what an impact guys like McClement and Komarov would have on this team. They have both proven to be valuable additions. I would give the nod to McClement simply because he has more NHL experience, and can play both center or wing. He is an excellent PK specialist, and this is an area where the Leafs needed a major. Imagine what the Leafs' record would be this year if our PK was still in the bottom three of the NHL. I'm not sure we would be in the hunt for the playoffs.

    So, to make a long analysis short, I'd say the Leafs "most valuable player" this year has been Jay McClement.

  4. Michael,

    The most important player this year is Reimer. Its not really even a question in my mind. Without good goaltending teams in the NHL have no chance. Reimer and Scrivens have given us a chance to win almost every game this year. While I would always suggest that is what they are supposed to do. They are doing it, not Carlyle and not St. Croix. Its harder to drive the car than it is to direct from the back seat. Reimer has come back now from 2 injuries, and is doing fine. I don't hold my breath very often when the opposition shoots the puck. Forget the Penguins game, Crosby and company are incredibly talented and inventive at getting pucks on net. From all different angles, and different speeds. Our goalies are making the saves they are expected to make, and sometimes making ones they arent't. I feel if the Penguins could get some decent goaltending, that a Pittsburgh vs. Chicago final would be one of the best I have witnessed. Fleury and Vokoun are brutal this year.

    There are two changes that I see on the coaching front making a difference. One is simply a different voice. That is often enough in sports to affect a change. Secondly, Carlyle is sticking to the roles he wants the players to play. The second line is responsible for the majority of the defensive assignments, and they are doing quite well at it. Jay McClement is helping the penalty kill, and the defensive responsibilities of whatever line he is on, 3rd or 4th. The rest is pretty much the same to me. I still see the same brutal defensive zone coverage from the top line. And our overall competence on the back end is sorely lacking. Holzer and Kostka, while its nice that they don't seem out of place, neither is making me think of them in a way other than fill ins, or 6/7 guys on the depth chart. As long as Carlyle insists on right shot, right side, left shot, left side, I don't see much changing barring a trade.

    I am ecstatic that Kadri is flourishing this year. For a couple of years, I didn't think he was willing to change. He gets a lot of credit in my book for working at his craft. I would have voted him in a tie for second with McClement if this was a ranking, just behind the goaltending for most important.

  5. Exactly, Don (TML_fan). So hard to talk most "valuable"...but I won't argue against the notion that McClement is a great choice as a most "important" Leaf. Especially, as you say, if we look back to last season, etc. Thanks for posting!

  6. It's good that we can even have this discussion without smirking or rolling our eyes, Jim!

    You know I'm with you on Reimer. And McClement, Carlyle, Kadri, etc.- yes, we have a long way to go, but a lot of people are contributing to a common goal, at least. Thanks Jim.

  7. The most important Leaf?

    I can go along with Reimer but I would rather say the goaltending (Reimer/Scrivens)has been among the most important things for this season.

    If Scrivens doesn't come in do a credible job as a replacement, then the season might already be over. The 6 wins, 12 points, 2 shutouts and .920%...that keeps the Leafs at 5th in the East. 7 points less and the Leafs are in 12th place and talking about another hopeless season.

  8. Scrivens definitely deserves kudos for being a key part of the goalie tandem, DP. Absolutely agree.

  9. What I love about this question is that I think there's no obvious answer. The Leafs' improvement really has been across many players and the coaching staff - and I think that bodes well for the future. Yes, Reimer and Scrivens have shown improvement, but how much of that is due to the vastly improved clearing of our zone, not to mention the minefield it's become for opposing forwards? The PK improvement is major and McClement can shoulder a lot of the kudos there, no question. Kadri's improvement is major - but having empathetic linemates like Frattin or MacArrthur hasn't hurt either. As I've said many times, our future's very bright if we continue along these lines. It's too early to demand perfection. I think Reimer, Scrivens, half the D, half the forwards, are growing into a very good team. We'll have to be patient and let them develop.
    Having gone off track like that, I'll reel myself in and say that if I HAD to choose a Most Important Person, I'd agree pick Randy Carlyle. He has maximized the talents of our players, and has added coaches who've improved many areas of our game. (My second choice would be Dallas Eakins, by the way).
    I've been lucky enough to see the last three games at the... Gardens, I almost said...ACC. There's no question that we're a "work in progress", as Carlyle says. But progress is definitely evident - oin no small measure thanks to the systems and confidence he's brought to the team.

  10. That's why I included Carlyle in the VLM "poll"", Gerund O'. I believe there is no question he has had an impact. Yes, many new coaches do, but it's a good sign, at the very least.

    And I concur that there are a number of factors, which make this a difficult question to answer. Thanks for chiming in, Gerund.

  11. I would say the coaching staff, just for seemingly giving this team some backbone and fight. They don't seem to know when they are beat. Saturday was a case in point.
    As for one player I would agree with you on Reimer. You can paint it any colour you like but without goal-tending you aren't going to have any success. Reimer has come back to show some of the form he produced on that incredible run two years back and the team look more confident in front of him.

  12. I'm certainly among those who give some credit to the coaching staff, for sure, Mark. We'll see if this is sustainable, but for now, the team has shown some resiliency and that's always a good thing.

    If Reimer can maintain a generally capable level of play, all the better. Thanks Mark.