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The Maple Leafs and handling adversity

It would be difficult to find many Leaf fans who are not pleased with where they sit in the current NHL standings, even on the heels of Tuesday’s loss in Washington.  Whether all fans are happy with how they got here (debates over Carlyle, roster decisions, good luck versus good play, etc.) is another subject, but I’ll not wade into that debate again today.

The Leafs have received solid netminding most of this season; they have fairly balanced scoring, depth on defense, toughness, and better special teams.  But there is one thing I do want to raise and it’s related to a question I have brought up here at VLM a number of times over the past many months, and it is this:  do you have any concerns about where the Leafs are "at" when it comes to leadership and experience, especially heading into the playoffs?

I suppose the Washington loss triggered that thought again, though the nagging notion has never left me entirely.  I recognize that, goodness, we can’t expect the Leafs to win (or even play well) every night.  They were less than stellar Monday night in their win at the ACC and Reimer basically grabbed those points for them. That they struggled in Washington is maybe a bit of a surprise, but they were likely not as motivated as they would have been had they actually lost while playing poorly Monday against New Jersey.  However the Caps encounter reminded me a bit of how things can go in a playoff game.  Opposition building, loud fans, a quick goal here, a break there, and suddenly you’re down 2-0.  The other team's superstar is feeling it, and things don't look very good.

You can’t just pack up, go home and say “we’ll get them tomorrow night”.  You can only afford so many losses in the playoffs and you have to fight every night—and sometimes you have to come from behind.

I’m not suggesting the Leafs can’t do this.  I know they can.  And not to spout even more clich├ęs, but it’s a different ballgame in the playoffs.  Teams need to dig deep and all that stuff.  The Leafs are capable but I was checking the bench Tuesday night looking for someone to grab them by the throat and push their teammates forward.  It didn’t really happen.

When it was 2-0, Jake Gardiner tried a solo rush, ended up inside the Washington blueline, lost the puck, got tangled up with Ribiero and that allowed the Brouwer goal that essentially put the game out of reach.  I like Gardiner’s take charge, confident attitude, but I’m not sure that when you are on the road, behind 2-0 with half a game left, you need to take chances.  Maybe Carlyle saw that differently than me, and I understand that Jake wanted to make things happen.  But I would have preferred a little more caution while the game was still up for grabs—especially when a point on the road was all they really needed.

But Gardiner was maybe the least of the problems Thursday night.  It was great to see Lupul back (and I’m glad Gunnarsson is getting some time off to heal) because Lupul seems to be a guy teammates look to.  McClement fits that “veteran” role, as does Liles.  But I’m still wondering if we have the ‘veteran savvy’ to carry us if things go sideways when the games really start to matter.

I’ve generally been impressed with their ability to fight through things, including injuries, this season.  But I’ll say it again:  when you are facing elimination (i.e. playoff action), it’s a different game.  A team needs leaders; you need experience.

There is no team, as I’ve noted before, that can’t be beat in the East.  But the Leafs can be beat, too, eh?  Stellar goaltending can often cover up some mistakes, a few turnovers and sometimes even sloppy or careless play.  And great goaltending can provide leadership too, some inspiration when you see your goalie pulling rabbits out of a hat.  But a team can’t rely on that exclusively.

For you, who are the leaders, the “pro’s pros”, those experienced greybeards who can lead us when adversity strikes, as it inevitably does in the playoffs- like what happened in an albeit less important game Tuesday night in Washington?  Are there some Leafs who you sense may not be at their best when things go south during a game, players who may, say, hang their head a bit instead of digging deep? Do we have some guys who tend to go invisible a bit too often?

A couple of other questions:
  • Is Kadri looking a bit tired, maybe just a natural extension of playing so well and hard through much of the season?  I’ve loved his game all season, but just this week I wondered if he was tired, maybe hitting a mini-rookie wall.  He maybe doesn't have that dance in his step these days…
  • Which Leafs would you like to see pick up their game as we head down to the last few contests of the regular season?
  • Who do you think  has actually picked up their game of late?
You’re not going to win every night, including in the playoffs.  The point of this post is not to over-react to one game in isolation.  Washington has been the hottest team in the East for some time now.

Rather, it is to bring forward a thought that we have considered here before. 

The difference, now, is that the Leafs will soon play meaningful non-regular season games for the first time in nine years.  Are we ready?

13 comments:

  1. Really the only way to get experience is to play, I think we all agree on that. As you have stated before Michael this year is sort of a bonus year. I don't think anyone had the Leafs pegged for 5th in the division. I think the majority of people had the Leafs finishing out of the playoffs or at best sneaking in in 8th. So why worry about how they are going to do in the playoffs or who is going to be the leader? Take this year with all the good and bad sure to come in the playoffs and learn from it. Next year Reimer will be a playoff goalie. Kessel will be the main guy in a playoff run. Phanuef will be the stud dman for a run. Sure no one can help them now but the experience gained for next year is going to invaluable. Next year the whole core of the Maple Leafs will be battle tested playoff players.

    As for Kadri, I know a lot of people don't like to hear about stats and such. The fact is though is that Kadri had an abnormally high shooting%. It was off the charts compared to the NHL average. This is just a case of the % coming back to earth. Does he look tired, maybe. I'm not sure he has been playing great lately but at the same time he was playing far above himself for awhile and now things are averaging out. He will get hot again and hopefully right in time for the playoffs.

    To me I think this a continuation of the learning process for the Leaf management. They will see if the "leaders" on this team are in fact ready to be the "leaders". They are finally going to see who can perform under playoff pressure and who can't. No one thinks they are true contenders at this moment. Yes, I know the east is weak but it will still be weak next year and the Leafs will have a much better idea of who they want to keep moving forward. There was no need to make moves to bring veterans in for this year because this year is a learning year. Next year if the Leafs can maintain this level of play then they can make moves to fix holes but as you said yesterday you dance with the ones who got you to the dance.

    Very few people had high hopes for the Leafs this year. It is the youngsters that got them to where they are, so you reward them and in fact owe it to them to let them play. Let's not loose sight of the long term goal here and remember this year anyhting good was a bonus. Well here's the bonus lets just enjoy it.

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  2. All points I can readily agree with, Willbur. I'm a big fan of wanting to see our young players get valuable experience, as we have discussed here before. Management will for sure find out about some of their players this spring. It may not be a final assessment because sometimes it takes a couple of years to get accustomed to playoff hockey. But it will be a barometer of sorts, and that's a good thing.

    Expectations were indeed modest this season and the playoffs are an unexpected treat. Thanks Willbur.

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  3. The veteran leaders on the Leafs: none. At least not yet. We don't have the "greybearded" true leader. We have some older guys, but being older doesn't automatically make you a leader.

    When your captaincy question came forward I threw out Liles' name. He strikes me as a guy who could become the "greybeard" (if he sticks around and plays regularly). Lupul and McClement could also become leaders.

    As for the guy who wears the C, maybee I'm wrong but he's not there yet. He leads the line to turn up the volume on the stereo but it's not enough. He goes out there and does his job, but we don't see him on the bench talking to guys or swearing at them, or calming them down when needed.

    Gardiner, I'm sad to say, doesn't look very good. He looks slow (decision wise), did he forget how fast the NHL was or are there still some cobwebs upstairs?

    Kadri has fallen off lately, but I think he'll be fine. He could just be tired. Or maybee his well known "conditioning issues" earlier in the season weren't exagerated after all.

    Like I said recently, the right guys seem to be heating up at the right time: Kessel, Reimer and Franson are playing very well of late. We'll need most of our guys going to get past round one though, it is possible.

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  4. Hi Michael,
    I think, as you mentioned, Wilbur has some fine points about just enjoying the ride this spring. You have also pointed out yourself that you're not as invested in the success of this current incarnation of the Leafs as you have been with the bonefide Cup-contending Leafs teams of the past (and near future we hope!). I'm with both if you on this. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens, and I'm pleased that a talented core of youngsters will get some much needed experience and gut-checking opportunities.

    As far as predictions and expectations for playoff performers and leaders, I believe Kessel was a point-per-game player in playoff action with Beantown. McClement, Lupul and Liles have solid experience, and I think veterans like Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur will show up too. I hope Bozak and JVR can keep up with Kessel. Otherwise, don't be surprised to see a new top line (featuring Lupul, with Grabbo or Kadri at C). Phaneuf has done a lot to silence critics in the latter half of this short season, and here's hoping he can bring more of the same in the playoffs. However, our top asset is Reimer if he keeps up his winning ways. As I've mentioned before, the team simply wins with him in nets. Whether its confidence stemming from Reims that makes everyone better in front of him, timely saves to keep the Leafs in tough games, or straight-up stolen games (see vs. NJ), this team cannot get to the second round without Reimer playing at his best. Go leafs!

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  5. I'm optimistic too, portuguese leaf. The experience/leadership question has nagged me, but as Willbur says, they'll get the experience now!

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  6. Willbur was on the money for sure, Matty D., and I've said much the same here myself, as you alluded to.

    I think what's happened for me is that, while I don't expect "a Cup" this season or anything near that dramatic, the Conference just doesn't seem to have dominant teams. I need to follow my own advice and temper any expectations that might seep in to my fan mind!

    I appreciate what Reimer has done and like the grit the team shows most nights, even when they are off their game. There is some experience here and they'll certainly get more, soon.

    The playoffs will be a lot of fun. Thanks Matty.

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  7. I'm another of those who thinks the rest of this season is gravy, whatever happens. We've made significant progress, seen what our players can do, and can now make some educated deals during the summer to take us to the next level. (Anyone else think the Devils' Clarkson may be heading our way?) And I don't think there's a leadership vacuum. Many players have attested to Phaneuf's dressing room leadership, and I see it on the ice, too. Lupul and McClement are also players who lead by example. As many of us have said, we may not have much playoff experience throughout the roster, but hopefully we'll have a truckload by the end of this season!
    Hopefully. Once bitten, eight times shy - I'm still not celebrating a playoff spot this year until it's actually locked up. I know what the stats guys say, but if stats told the whole story, Billy Beane would have a World Series ring on every finger. However, looking ahead in a spirit of rosy optimism, I think we're seeing Kessel/Bozak/JvR rounding nicely into form; our third and, yes, fourth lines are doing their job; Kulemin has stepped up his game; PK has been simply awesome; and I really can't fault either goalie. Games like last night's also highlighted our weaknesses in a playoff atmosphere: Kadri has tailed off as he's been given less room to wheel; Lupul looked very post-concussion last night; Gardiner gave up the puck at least five times that I counted, twice resulting in goals for the Caps; our PP was easily stymied; and our D has trouble with a relentless team like the Caps. (Even allowing for Ovie's MVP display last night).
    We're going to see a whole lot of "relentless" in the playoffs. It's a quality I've yet to see consistently on our team. It Learning how to handle it in our opponents and developing it in ourselves will be marks of progress along the learning curve we're on.

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  8. Randy Carlyle is our only veteran presence. He seems to have quite a hold on the dressing room right now and if he can get Lupul to act as his wing-man we may just be ok.

    Even though I'm all about Don Cherry-type hockey I always have the negative 'advanced-stats' rumblings in the back of my head when something like what happened last night happens (I really hoped that we could walk out of this season without this kind of beating) - like you, it seems, I start worrying about the lack of leadership and I get an image of an 18-wheeler sliding off the cliff...

    I'm afraid that many of the kids may not show up for the playoffs - Gardiner doesn't look ready to me, Frattin's been missing ever since he got back from injury, and Kadri is most certainly in a bit of a slump. Our back-up goalie, with his propensity for 'cheating' (as in that holding the stick penalty) does not impress me at all - in fact I've regretted not shipping him off to Detroit instead of the Monster ever since it happened. Relying on Reimer to deliver us into the promised land, regardless of how amazing he'd been this season, is not a good sign.

    While we have a few players on the roster who'd seen and experienced play-offs action before (Liles, Lupul, Kessel, O'Byrne) their experience is rather limited in that respect and, correct me if I'm wrong, only Carlyle has the much-coveted ring on his finger.

    So, unless Carlyle can pull another rabbit out of his hat, and with the help of Reimer, Phaneuf, LupuL and the Leafs Nation, get these kids to play above their heads I think we may have to go back to the original plan and go after a big, experienced, first-line center and another hopefully experienced shut-down defenceman (and even Luongo-type goalie depending on whether or not Reimer passes the test) in the summer/next trade deadline before we can really feel like contenders.

    In other words, I really hope these last two games are an abberation, and Carlyle can find a way to let our youth and skill shine through in the coming weeks. I still believe in this team and think that they can pull of 'the impossible' but I am fully aware that it is indeed, if not 'the impossible' then at least 'the very unlikely' that we're hoping for here.

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  9. Clarkson would certainly be a nice addition, Gerund O'!

    As you well state, there are some players in form right now, and they will all acquire invaluable playoff experience in our "gravy" season. Thanks Gerund.

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  10. Playoff hockey generally reveals roster flaws, leafdreamer. And yes, like all teams, the Leafs have their flaws. That said, whenever a team goes through a difficult stretch, those weak areas are exposed and we, as fans, tend to focus on those things like it will always be that way. When the team plays really well, we love all the players and think the sky is the limit.

    It's like when a goalie is hot, everyone is thrilled with his play; when he struggles, we're down on him. It's the nature of things.

    For now, I will choose to believe we can play well despite the lack of spring experience- if we way tight defensively, finish checks and get great goaltending. A tall order, but it is for every team!

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  11. I have zero problem with where we are at for leadership issues re-entering the playoffs for the first time in so long... precisely because this is a first for a young group. Here is the opportunity to gain experience and grow leaders in the pressure-packed-playoffs. The time for greybeards is yet future in my view and I'm looking forward to seeing who will emerge in the post-season.

    If it turns out to be 'nobody' then we know what to look for during the landscape change coming with the new cap criteria, if it's 'somebody' then its a bonus I hope to see.

    I was thinking the same thing on Gardiner's rush and knocked-down-didn't-get-back-into-the-play-with-energy return to the defensive zone. Kinda' cringed at the stick check on Ovechkin that required the spread eagle pad save from Scrivens (who actually kept us in the first half of the game, but didn't get much support after the goals started coming). Still doing better defensively in the last few, just needs to make some better time-oriented decisions (as you said, Michael) and make better plays on the superstars!

    I think Lupul didn't come out and dominate, so didn't get a chance to get back in the groove in this game... he was a bit disengaged/invisible, but hoping he finds that fire to carry the team on his back again (on a night like we just had). Though the 'wake up call' may be more important for everyone to re-focus!

    This is probably a good pre-playoffs experience for the guys to realize you didn't have it for 2 nights and need to 'step it up' and focus on the program if you want continuing success.

    Kadri has seemed a little off for a few games and may well be tired (like Jake last year) - I wonder if one or two games off might revitalize him for the post-season. Perhaps a couple games with Colborne at center would help both players (and the team would put the big guy in a great position to succeed, while getting a better idea of his progress). Kinda' hope that happens!

    You never know what we may discover in the post-season and I'm looking forward to seeing how everyone in the present configuration does... perhaps there are gem-polishing moments in our near-term future.

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  12. Thanks InTimeFor62- a mini-break would maybe help Kadri, but coaches don't seem to think that way with young players!

    Lots of opportunities to for growth this playoff year. It should bode well for the future, for sure....

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  13. Didn't read the comments before posting, so am covering some of Willbur's perspective - guess we're all just happy to be here on the cusp and hoping it will be satisfying when we 'arrive'!

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