My theme today, however, is that while most would agree that the Leafs have improved and in fact moved ahead of a number of their former fellow bottom-feeders in the woeful Eastern Conference, it seems to me that many Leaf fans are still struggling, in a sense, to “accept” that the team is having success.
No, it’s not ultimate success, as in a Stanley Cup championship, but they are playing winning hockey, and have become a tougher team to play against—a squad most teams no longer look forward to playing against. (The Rangers found that on Thursday night, as Reimer made some huge saves, the Kessel line was dangerous all night and the pluggers like Komarov and McClement for the most part did their job, with a few mistakes thrown in to make things close.)
So why the non-stop uneasiness in Leafland? Why the doubt? Why the constant harping about coaching and the team being “lucky” to be where it is?
The short answer is….I obviously don’t know. I mean, I’ve been following the Leafs since 1958 and I like to think I’m not easily fooled—at least not anymore. I hardly think this is a Cup team in terms of quality, but peculiar things happen come playoff time. I sure didn’t think the Kings would win last year, or the Tampa Bay Lightning or Carolina Hurricanes in relatively recent times. Nor did I think the Habs would win back in 1993, for example. I could go on. The “best” team does not always win. So goodness knows what we will have with the Leafs, come the playoffs.
Where is Al Michaels to say, "Do you believe in miracles?".
In any event, my guess is there a few factors that play into the negativity.
One could be the hate-Carlyle campaign. I don’t get it but it seems to be out there. More than a few fans have suggested he be fired, which at the very least is, ah, premature. It is a bit baffling that we are even talking about that kind of thing. Carlyle’s detractors seem to dislike his roster choices (I admit to being baffled with his steadfast determination to play Orr and MacLaren, but it’s working in the regular season. He will no doubt re-assess come the playoffs…). They also don't like Grabovski as the “defensive” center, or Gardiner in the press box, it seems.
The related criticism of Carlyle seems to be that the team is not actually playing better than they often did under Wilson, they’re just getting better goaltending. (I’ll have more to say on that subject in a future post.)
That’s the only difference people see? Really?
From what I can tell—and those who visit VLM somewhat regularly know I’m not a stats guy and certainly not an “advanced stats” person, though I understand there is some value in such anguished breakdowns of individual player performance—that serious stat element is dismissive of Carlyle as well. I don’t know if people think coaching staffs and GM’s in today’s NHL aren’t aware of these “numbers”, or somehow the number-crunchers think that Carlyle and his staff should coach based on those numbers rather than an acute awareness of the strengths and limitations of players he sees day in and day out—live and on film. Whatever, they sure don't like what he's doing, though we are playoff-bound.
I suppose some of this is that Leaf fans are historically snakebit, so we assume there must be a problem lurking behind every corner. If it’s not the coaching it’s the goaltending, if it’s not the goaltending it’s the “whipping boy”—individual players that we feel we have to blame when things go badly.
Me, I’m just enjoying that we have an imperfect team, coached by a pretty darn good NHL coach, with decent to sometimes better than average NHL goaltending most nights. That we win more than we lose lately is all the better. Heck, I wish this was about chasing the Cup. But I’m not even thinking about that. I just like the fact that the Leafs don’t give up, are in every game pretty much, and compete hard most nights. In the East, that gets you a ticket to the spring dance.
Would I like to expect even more? Of course, just like I did from 1999-2004 when the stakes truly were high and winning playoff games meant we actually had a shot at the Stanley Cup.
But until we’re good enough to worry about that, I won’t spend my time playing with numbers, or looking for why O’Byrne was a lousy pick up because of a chart analysis. If some fans find meaning in that, great. We all look at these things differently.
I’ll just watch from my rocking chair, assess in my own way, and enjoy the wins—and not sweat the inevitable losses.