I wrote a piece here recently about Leaf players who, in a sense, divide the fan base. But as we all know, it is really much more than just that when we talk about those who truly love the Maple Leafs. Leaf fans are a funny bunch. It has always been this way. But it feels particularly noticeable now, perhaps because of the pervasive influence of social media—something even older folks like myself have become more and more aware of.
What I’m talking about is just how much fans differ after watching the same Maple Leaf “movie”. Here we are, virtually at the end of the 2012-’13 NHL regular season (albeit a very short one) and we still are absolutely split on a host of issues.
Some of these “issues”?
- Grabovski: some hate the way he has been utilized by the coach and think he’s been just fine given his role, ice time and wingers. Others see his play as having fallen off rather precipitously from previous seasons.
- Carlyle himself: lauded by some (including myself for the most part) but absolutely loathed by a loud segment of the blue and white fan base, who hate that he eschews the advanced stats principles (though he is well aware of what those “stats” tell him) and has an imperfect relationships, according to some reports, with certain players. (Quick aside: hockey history is littered with stories of successful teams who evidently had players that could not stand their coach….from Al MacNeil and Scotty Bowman in Montreal to the more modern example of John Tortorella in Tampa Bay.)
- Reimer: a burgeoning hero once again to quite a few fans, but he is not without a truckload of critics- he has a bad glove hand, can’t control his rebounds, doesn’t know where the puck is, gives up too many bad goals, etc. And he’s a goalie. Hard to trust those guys, eh?
- Virtually everyone loves the captain now, and it is hard not to grade his overall game quite favourably these days. But goodness, many are really unhappy with the rest of the defense group, which some nights can seem like an uninspiring lot.
- Jake Gardiner may also be one of those “situations” that is driving people crazy the most. A segment of the fan base can't abide that he is not playing regularly, because they see his puck-moving skills and calm demeanor on the ice as huge assets for the team. (Not to mention his obvious skating ability and overall talent.) But some look at this as a case of having to earn your ice time, regardless of how precocious a young player he seems to be. They feel Carlyle is doing the right thing by insisting that Gardiner focus on playing a tougher (on the puck, I mean), mistake-free game before he sets off on his dashing offensive forays.
- Bozak: Despite the young center’s relative success (and to some, it’s more than relative), many bemoan that Kessel is “stuck” with what they see as, at best, a really nice third-line middleman. Yet, he has a ton of “supporters”, too, who see him as under-rated.
- The very presence of O’Byrne has some in a tizzy. They look at his “stat” breakdown in Denver and see horrors ahead for him in Toronto if he even sets foot on the ice. His every “mistake” will be tweeted. Yet some are happy to have a big physical defenseman who may fit nicely with Liles. Carlyle certainly is.
- Of course, it goes without saying that we are never in agreement in Leaf Territory on Kessel. (I’ve tried to be consistent here—I think he plays much the same almost every night. Some times the pucks goes in for he and his linemates and he’s a hero; when the puck’s not going in, he is supposedly in a “slump”. Sure, he may have a bit more jump in his step some nights, but generally he’s flying around out there…) The “trade” will forever be part of how many assess him, of course, and that’s part of sports, fair or not. No question he has been splendid much of the season, but again, for some Leafers, he will never be the rounded player they’d like him to be.
Have I forgotten anything?
So no, we won’t agree on a lot of things. That’s just the way it is. I do hope, though, that as fans we can spend less time fighting one another’s views and pull together to enjoy the playoff run. This is a fun team to watch, imperfect and certainly flawed though they are. An as much as some do not like Carlyle, one question: how many games have they been “out of” with no chance to win this season?
So again, as much as “analyzing”, each in our own way, is part of the enjoyment of being a Leaf fan, let’s try to enjoy the moments, too. But since I don’t like when other people tell me what to do, feel free to ignore my “advice”.
Now, there are some things I feel pretty strongly about going forward. And I believe we can make the following assumptions:
- Barring injury, Reimer is the guy in goal. (I referenced this possibility on a couple of occasions recently, here (I said this when the Leafs were slumping) and here. I hope it pans out this way, because I’d like to see the young man in form and truly healthy at playoff time. It would be nice if Leafworld could finally put the “goalie debate” (and never-ending controversy) behind us.
- Carlyle has a pretty good idea what he’s doing. Some may not like what he’s doing (including, yes, some of his players) but I’ll put my faith in a guy with tons of experience as a player and coach at that level over a computer that spits out stats—as revealing as some of those statistics may well be.
- Phaneuf will be called upon to play 30 minutes a night in the playoffs. Yes, that may wear him out, and it would be nice if we had another guy who could log and share some of those minutes, but right now, I’m not sure if we do. From a “I can skate all night and not miss a beat” perspective, Gardiner would be that guy. He never seems to get tired. But at the moment, it doesn’t appear as though he will be on one of the top two blueline pairings. There is some history here, though. In their hey-day, McCabe and Kaberle played 30 minutes a game and more sometimes, as needed, in the early 2000s at playoff time—and often quite dependably despite the huge workload. Phaneuf is young and strong. He may tire, but he can handle it though I’m a bit concerned about his workload heading into the playoffs.
- Komarov will be invaluable come playoff time. He plays “playoff hockey” all the time. Adding an extra gear to that should not be a problem.
- This will be a pivotal spring for Gunnarsson. If he’s hurt, then my comment may not be a proper guide. But if he’s OK, this will be an opportunity for the Leaf brass to see what they really have in the player who has made a reputation as a fairly reliable defensive defenseman, with occasional offensive flair. The playoffs will test his mettle, and I think he can respond.
- Scrivens will be an ideal playoff back-up. If he plays, he will battle all night, and do everything he can to help his team win.
- I think we can assume that, with the playoffs right around the corner, management will ensure Lupul does absolutely nothing to face any setbacks over the next couple of weeks. Yes, they would like to see him in “playoff form” from Game One of the first series, but they would much rather he be completely healthy whenever he does return.
- Carlyle will not play both McLaren and Orr in the playoffs. He may be tempted, depending on the match-up (Boston??). But I think not. He will want more versatile wingers, but he will need guys who can hit and finish their checks, and those guys certainly do that.
- Grabovski should become a more important player for us in the playoffs than he has been in the regular season. Setting aside whatever issues Carlyle has with his play, I don’t see it as personal. Kadri will get a lot of attention from the opposition in the first round, and that should leave a bit of room for Grabovski to play a little offense in addition to his checking responsibilities. He may shine.
- There will be a Leaf who surprises us at playoff time. I don’t know if it will be Gardiner, Frattin, Colborne, Bozak, or someone else, but it usually happens in the spring.
And...number 11 could be: many of us will find things to criticize, even if the Leafs make it all the way to the finals.
Again, it’s just the way we are. But what the heck—we’re fans.
Let me know if you see things differently.