On that note, I always remember a comment that I read, as a youngster in the late 1950s, from then long-time Montreal Canadiens winger Maurice Richard. The illustrious “Rocket” (right, in a great old "posed" shot) told a reporter that he found it difficult to “get up” for hockey games in April when the weather was so nice. He loved playing hockey in the winter. (It’s a bit ironic that Richard felt that way. Despite his protestations, he held the playoff record for most career goals—82—for many, many years after he retired in 1960. That number, just like his old regular-season record of 544 goals, has always stuck in my head for some reason. So Richard obviously didn’t struggle too badly playing playoff hockey in the spring. He also scored mover overtime goals by far than anyone else in his era. I could be wrong but I think he is still in the top ten on the all-time playoff “goals” list…)
Things of course were different in those days. The six-team NHL saw the regular-season end in late March, and the playoffs were always concluded in April, sometimes by mid-April. If I’m not mistaken, the longest season ever (before expansion) was the ’67 final between Montreal and Toronto that ended on May 2. That seemed like such a long season back then. Once expansion hit the following year, the NHL seasons have just seemed to get longer and longer.
In any event, on to the present. While the four most recent Stanley Cup winners vie for this year’s championship in the weeks ahead, we in Leafland are more of a mindset to try and anticipate what the blue and white will do this summer as they prepare for the 2013-’14 NHL schedule. Strides were made this past season—some that were quite surprising, in fact (not just making the playoffs but things like our penalty kill…). That said, I think we all agree there is still quite a ways to go before any of us believe that the Leafs are legitimate year-after-year contenders in the Eastern Conference—much less for annual Cup consideration.
In the past, I/we have often commented here about what I felt were clear “needs” facing the organization: a bonafide first-line center; a stud defenseman; team toughness; leadership; and the addition of players who bring successful playoff experience.
(A side note: the goaltending question for me is moot. Not that there aren’t better NHL goalies out there than Reimer. There obviously are better netminders around. But in a 30-team league, I’m not sure there is anyone available who will make us appreciably better, so I think Nonis should focus on other more pressing priorities.)
Of the above issues, I think we have already largely “solved” the team toughness question. We now have the personnel and the attitude/approach to be a team that is hard to play against, and that other squads don’t like to deal with. We still have some players who may not be individually “tough”, but that’s the same with every team. I believe we have enough grit and play overall with enough of an edge that we should be OK in the toughness department going forward.
We still, however, lack a top-flight center, and they tend not to grow on trees. We can debate whether Kadri will be that some day, but as impressed as I was with his performance through most of this past season, I still don’t see him as a true number-one guy in the middle. We'll see.
We desperately need another defenseman to ease the burden on Phaneuf. Whether we feel the captain is a true “number-one” or a really solid “number three”, he needs help. Gardiner will be able to log big minutes, and if he cleans up the defensive deficiencies in his game, he may be a partial answer. Rielly may well make the big step this coming season, though he is still underage and I’m not super keen on an early full-time promotion. He cannot provide the physical dimension we need at this point, however, so we still need another elite defensive defenseman with some size and meanness even if Reilly 'arrives' next season.
Leadership? I’ll let others debate that one. Is Phaneuf the guy to lead us to the promised land?
As importantly, however, we simply do not have the playoff experience we need, so that remains an ache that has to be dealt with, too. I refer specifically to individual players who help give a team that belief, that inner confidence, at crunch time in the spring.
Now, I recognize some Leaf supporters are more of a mind to “wait things out”, be patient, and let the youngsters grow into their roles and responsibilities and gain that vital experience required. And while I see that perspective, and do believe the recent playoff match-up with the Bruins gave our guys a sense of what it takes to succeed when it really matters, I’m not of the view that we can just sit back, do nothing and let the youngsters learn on the job for the next several years.
To me, the Leafs still need a jolt, an infusion of talent and character- and grit. You can never have enough pitching in baseball, and you can never have enough of that combination of talent and hard work when building an elite NHL team.
Some of you will recall a recent post here where I quoted longtime baseball star Don Mattingly (now a manager), talking about building a team. He also later added a comment that I think fits when talking about a young team like the Maple Leafs:
"There's a touch of a difference between saying you're giving your best effort and you're willing to fight for something," MLB.com quoted Mattingly as saying last Wednesday. "Some guys go to another level for that price, will do whatever it takes to win a game. There's something there you can't measure with sabermetrics."
I don’t think Mattingly’s comment is a knock on the advanced stats crowd in sports. He is simply stating what those of us who have been around sports for decades know from experience. There are some things you simply can’t measure. And the Leafs needs players that have that desire, that determination, who do more than just think they are “working hard”. As Mattingly alludes to, lots of players think they are giving everything they have. But often, championship teams have those special athletes who go the extra mile—and it’s not something you measure by zone charts and all the other modern statistical stuff that supposedly reveals who the good or important players are.
So with that as a long-winded backdrop, here is a simple 5-point plan I expect to unfold from Nonis and the Leaf brass this summer:
- The acquisition, through trade or free-agency, of a notable defenseman. He may be in the NHL right now, he may be hidden somewhere in Europe, whatever. But it has to be someone who can play big minutes right away. He doesn’t have to be an offensive force, but he must be a tough, uncompromising defender. That will help our goaltending, too. We may do nothing in this regard (it's obviously not easy finding good defensemen), but I honestly believe Nonis will be on the prowl.
- I expect some interesting decisions around the center position in the weeks ahead. Two obvious topics within the halls of the ACC will be Bozak and Grabovski. I’m not making a prediction, but I believe this: Nonis will have something up his sleeve that may not have to do directly with either of those guys. Yes, we’d miss Bozak for some of what he brings to the table most nights if he leaves in free-agency. But will anyone really be gutted if he leaves because he gets silly money somewhere else? As for Grabovski, as much as I have come to really like the guy over the years, I no longer have the patience for him that I did years ago, just like Kulemin. Though none of Bozak, Grabbo or Kulemin are "old" and may have many good years ahead, I think we can win with other people. We certainly have not won with them.
- After seeing the success they had with an under-the-radar UFA signing last July 1 (McClement), my guess is Nonis and crew will make another mini-splash which won’t be a splash at all, but will still be important for the team going forward. Will it be a center, a winger? A scorer or checker? Will it happen through trade or free-agency? I don’t know. But the roster still needs something, so I’m looking mostly for skill and character.
- My sense is a Marlie will jump up and grab a roster spot next fall, and the Leafs already have some ideas as to who that might be. If Komarov returns to the KHL, there will be some intriguing internal candidates from the Marlies to assume his role with the club as an agitating, if not a scoring, presence.
- I hope, I really hope, the summer will not be filled yet again with goaltending discussions. I’m not interested in Luongo. Unless you can get me Jonathan Quick for our mid-to-late first round pick (and that won’t happen), I don't particularly want to hear about anyone other than Reimer in the Leaf net for now. Having said that, as much as I like Scrivens, I would not be shocked if Nonis made a move for a reliable, experienced back-up—who would, all things being equal, act as true a back-up and not a threat to Reimer. (Maybe Someone like Harding was in Minnesota this past season.)
Let me add this as a bonus thought: the easiest thing to assume right now is that the Leafs will not make a splash at the draft. They'll simply pick the "best player available" when their selections comes up. Unlike the past few years where the incumbent GM was always trying to get attention and create headlines (remember he was going to “move up” and go after Tavares in the draft??), Nonis will say little and again, simply take the best player available when the time comes. I don’t see him trading pieces to move up.
I’m sure you have ideas as to what the Leafs may do next to take this roster to that elusive next level. Let me know what's on your mind.