Custom Search

The smartest player the Leafs have is…..

I’ll start by saying I can’t possibly know definitively who the “smartest” guy on the Leafs is.  I’m not even sure what “smart” means some days, but what I’m talking about today when it comes to "smarts" relates to hockey.

It’s not just instincts, though that is surely part of it. It’s not necessarily native intelligence, because how we define that, beyond IQ, I don’t really know. But we all know that some rare athletes see the game differently than others.  It’s part experience, part anticipation, part “hockey smarts”.  It’s not just about being “one step ahead” (like a Gretzky, right) though yes, that’s part of it.

It just has to do with being in the right place at the right time. Constantly thinking the game.  Finding the places on the ice where other guys don’t go.  Making the smart little plays under pressure that other players generally don’t make.

The problem in trying to assess this is that, in my view, having watched this sport for 55 years, sometimes what makes a player ‘smart’ is so subtle we fans can’t necessarily ‘see’ it and so we can’t quite pinpoint why we feel this way, and certainly cannot define it properly.

With that as a bit of an ‘excuse-me’ overview, I will still put the question out there: who has been—in this twisty-turny, upside-down, sometimes confusing shortened NHL season that will now end up in a playoff berth for the blue and white—the ‘smartest’ player on the Leaf roster?

By all means, since I have done such a lousy job trying to explain what I’m looking for, establish your own criteria and frame the question in a way that works for you, in terms of how you, as a fan, see the game and how this Leaf squad plays.

I have three guys that jump to mind as the ‘smartest’ Leafs in the way in which I tend to look at the game, but I won’t jumble the picture even further by sharing those names just yet.  I would mostly like to hear from you.

The Leafs are down in Florida enjoying the sunshine.  In a week, they’ll be playing intense, playoff-style hockey (though as I've tried to say here, for better or worse, they've been trying to play that style all season...).  So let’s hope that, while they enjoy themselves and unwind a bit after the pressure-cooker of trying to make the playoffs, they also are—here’s that word again—smart enough not to enjoy the warmth too much and leave their mental toughness (or skating legs) on the beach.  (Though a mental break can certainly be a good thing, I well realize…)

So you have my question for the day.  And once the playoffs begin, we will need all the ‘smarts’ we can get—in addition to goaltending, good break-outs, physical play, solid special times, timely goals, breaks and everything else that goes into a making success possible at playoff time.

As always, I’m interested to hear what you have to say…


  1. Only one guy comes to mind and stays there for me... it's Jay McClement.

    Game after game, he just keeps making the smart plays... protecting the puck, finding ways to get it out of the zone on the PK, positionally sound zone defense (not to mention the hustle to get there), line-change awareness, wise puck cycling in the offensive zone... He's a keeper!

    I do believe Scrivens thinks the game quite effectively in a position where that may not be so obvious.

    And, as I reflect further, almost surprisingly, Phaneuf came to mind as one who is accomplishing more while doing 'less' more nights than previous seasons... this occurs to me in a greater context of observation beyond this season (not to mention, in contrast to, the many disparaging remarks I have seen elsewhere pertaining to his game). Dion is 'growing on me' as he matures in his role...

    I've seen some great (smart) playmaking amongst others, but decided to go with these 3...

  2. Thinking the game of hockey:

    Gardiner or Kessel.

    Intelligence in real life:


  3. #1 Lupul - always able to find those empty areas on the ice, shake defenders then appear in front of the net
    #2 Kadri - always able to find Lupul and others, when they are streaking past the defence
    #3 Kessel - always heavily criticized, especially when pulling off his patented, stop at the top of the circle, then shoot...his assist totals clearly indicate he has the vision, hands, and IQ to find his teammates

    WILDCARD: (Really really want to put down Gardiner, but have yet to see it this season...maybe next year!)
    Fraser - while he does make many mistakes, generally does the right thing under pressure and usually able to get the puck out of our zone with one pass


  4. Won't argue with any of those observations, InTimeFor62!

  5. As with InTimeFor62, I hear you, BCapp. Thanks for chiming in.

  6. Hi Michael:
    Do not have enough exposure to Leafs in South, but let me contribute to definiton.
    RLMcC Theorem - It is not where it was, not where it is, but WHERE IT IS GOING TO BE.

    Sometime in past year, a hockey blogger (Justin Bourn??) provided an example of how a hockey coach identified this capability at an early age. Line up Players at your own blueline, and then shoot the puck hard down the boards on new ice and yell "Get the Puck". Most players will chase the puck, the "smart" one goes to other side of rink where the PUCK WILL BE. That is where "Smart" starts.

    While I am sure there have been many smart players, the Best that I have seen were Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky who seemed to have this "eyes in the back of the head" or "puck sense". In today's game, Pavel Datsuyk and Sidney Crosby have this quality in spades.

    By following VLM, it sounds like Nazem Kadri has some of these traits.

  7. Offensively: Kadri, Kessel and Gardiner all seem to "see the ice" just a little bit better, anticipating what's about to happen, finding the open spots for skating or open lanes for passing. (Though Gardiner does seem to get caught out of position a lot, but I'll call that a defensive liability!)
    Defensively: McClement. Just makes so many strong plays, often when there should be less ice for him to work with.

  8. You're right about Kadri, in my estimation, RLMcC (and of course, all the outstanding players you cite above...).

    Totally agree with your second paragraph- this applies in other sports as well. If you can "think the game" yourself, you see the kids in youth sports, for example, who may not be the most gifted, but have the "smarts" and may well be future coaches, for sure.

    Thanks for chiming in, Ralph.

    1. Interesting you bring up other sports. While I have not coached for many years and never soccer, I am coaching (in backyard) my budding soccer playing grandaughter to play like a hockey player - we work on quickness, timing and anticipation/positioning which I view as "smarts" oriented.

      Appears to be working, as at 7 years old she is playing "academy" level and holding her own with 9 and 10 years old. Note: She avoids scrums and chase mentality of so many young players.

      Not sure her soccer coach realizes she is getting this hockey schooling?

    2. Soccer was precisely one of the youth sports I was referring to, RLMcC. It's another sport where some only notice the "biggest and fastest" kids, or those with t big shot, but being the smartest player on the field is often just as (if not more) important.

      Best wishes to your grand-daughter, by the way. Soccer is a great sport for kids. And learning skills - and learning how to see and read the game - is way more important at the early ages than "winning" games....

  9. You mention some Leafs who certainly see the game well, Gerund O'. I haven't declared my "names" but I can't find fault with your list, Gerund!

  10. Hey Michael,

    How we define "smart" matters of course but more so the context/application of the smarts

    For me smart in the case of a NHL player would be - a player that is vigilant/observant, can analyze plays 1-step/2-step before they happen on the ice, and can communicate effectively with team-mates/coaches.

    And in hockey u can have 4 contexts to apply this:
    1. Pure Offense
    2. Pure Defence
    3. Two-way Play
    4. Goaltending

    From a pure offense point of view - the players that I believe have most if not all of those smarts on the leafs are:
    1. Kadri
    2. Kessel
    3. Lupul
    4. JVR
    5. Gardiner
    6. Liles

    From a pure defence point of view - the players that I believe have the most if not all of those smarts on the leafs are:

    From a two-way point of view:
    1. Grabovski
    2. Bozak
    3. Gunnarson - not sure if this makes sense to others

    From Goaltending (Lol a rather short list to choose from):
    1. Reimer
    2. Scrivens

    Let me know what u think about my definitions and categories.

    P.S. For those asking about playoff roster limits/allowed call ups, here is my answer best to my knowledge and that which I gained from reading around the web:

    I don't know if things have changed this year due to the shortened season or the new CBA but what I know from the past is that - after the trade deadline has passed - u r only allowed 4 emergency call-ups till the end of the playoffs. However, u can have a few more players in your roster during the playoffs than the strict 23 player roster in the regular season - however u cannot add any players to a team roster mid-series and then can only use an emergency call-up to fill a roster spot.

    Anon from Scarborough.

  11. I appreciate your perspective, Scarborough Anon. You've broken things down almost into 'categories", which I think can make sense. It may be that some players are more finely tuned to doing the "right" or "smart" thing in the defensive part of the game, as you note. Others show it more on the offensive end, and it's not just "creativity", though that is no doubt part of it.

    I like that you have included guys like Grabbo and Gunner. I've long thought one of the things that has made Gunnarsson a generally reliable player is that he sees and thinks the game well. That doesn't mean he won't make mistakes- but maybe fewer than the next guy.

    Appreciate the roster question clarification as well. Thanks Scarborough Anon...

  12. Thanks for the kind words Micahel - it was a simple attempt to make things a bit clear and categorical - as this debate is anything but easy to have without setting up some base "rules/definitions" and categories.

    I do feel the same about Gunner - we saw an example of the importance of his ice-time/presence on the team - when they were without him - the defence really looked weak-sauce. On Saturday we allowed a great many number of shots but the leafs appeared to be in better control in their zone than the shot number would suggest compared to some of the previous games.

    And this year Grabbo may have hit the wall due to a new assignment, plus the fact that he is having health issues with maintaining his weight - which can really take a toll I imagine - especially in such a high energy sport. One wish that I have is to be able to see some more of JVR and grabbo together - the few games that they played together they showed some great chemistry.

    Anon from Scarborough

  13. I'd have to agree with Gerund here. Kessel and Kadri are showing signs of Gretskyesque intelligence offensively and are also developing their two-way game. I'm especially impressed with Kadri who seems to be able to change the pace of the game with his hits and steals at times. They've truly matured in a sense that they don't seem to be relying on their raw skill anymore as much as they are really keeping their cool and thinking on the ice instead - doing the right things, passing when passing is wise and shooting when they see the opportunity for that. They are so young still. I'm very excited about the future watching them this year.

    Jay McClement, also, looks amazing out there presiding over the PK and closing out games, communicating on the ice, organizing the defence... He has made a huge difference on this team. I also think Kulemin deserves an honorable mention. He has really stepped it up this year, playing a very similar defence-first oriented game that resembles McClement's but also having a bit more of an offensive upside. If pretty much everyone on the team needs to improve their defensive game, the opposite, I think, applies to McClement - that I think should be his assignment for the summer. It just kind of sucks to feel like the puck will more likely than not go in when he's on a breakaway and that has been the case this year. I know - I'm nitpicking - but why not aim for perfection?

    Intelligence in hockey (or any sports really) is the attribute that is most properly applied to the management and the coaching staff I think - it is in those large organisational decisions that it really shines through and I think that the biggest credit should go to Burke and Nonis for winning the chess game against other GMs and owners in bringing this group together and Carlyle for having the gutts to let the kids play and having the 'emotional intelligence' to turn them into a 'team' - to know what works with each one of them, to make them stick to their roles.

    Finally, even though I have no 'proof' for this, I think that the Captain must be doing something right to keep the room from imploding over all the years of losing... Don't you think it's kind of amazing that there was never any bad blood between players developing, not even a suggestion of a feud or someone not liking someone else at any point on this long road? Do we credit Phaneuf with that?

  14. I didn't see anybody nominate Orr or tonight might be one of the smartest line-ups that we have seen all season. The facepunchers might be in the press box. These are tonight's rumoured lines:

    van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Kessel

  15. Lots of good stuff as always, in your post today, leafdreamer. To your last question in the final paragraph, I don't know. What you suggest is logical, yes, absolutely. Now, this is a very young team, and as I used to say. under Wilson, they should be easy to coach because the vast majority of the players on that squad were still just trying to earn a spot or the roster, or the game sheet, or get ice team. Usually those types of teams don't see a lot of coach push-back, because they are all in too uncertain of a position to rock the boat in any negative way.

    When it comes to team leadership, I guess we could credit Phaneuf. I just don't know. But as you say, we don't appear to have any internal squabbling that can sometimes harm teams, so maybe he is partly responsible for that. Thanks leafdreamer.