Rather than focus on Tim Leiweke’s half-hearted attempt at “apologizing” for his remarks of last week (the guy really has a hard time admitting he just doesn't get it- and it feels like he may never, but more on that another day) I’ve been focusing these summer days on exactly where the Leafs are right now, as we begin to look forward to the 2013-’14 NHL season.
What I’ve tried to do is look at the here and now. That is, I’ve set aside concerns about Nonis having traded away some down-the-road draft choices, and about whether we will miss Komarov, Frattin, et al. I’m just trying to think about what we do have, not what we let go, and see if I feel any better about the club’s prospects going forward compared with recent off-seasons.
I’d like to be able to give a definitive 'yes' that I feel really good about Nonis’ work or conversely, to be able to unequivocally give the Leaf brass a ‘thumbs down’ for their work this summer. It’s just that there are so many unknowns, so many nuances here, so many uncertainties, that I am struggling to determine whether I’m looking at the jar as half full or half empty.
I’ll go one step further: I’m so tired of trying to be a ‘capologist’ or a hockey economist, that I’d also like to make my observations in a bit of a vacuum. That is, I want to forget what we are paying a guy like Bozak (who I think is, you know, a nice player and everything) more than 4 million a year (boy, the world sure has changed) and that we will also be paying so much to Clarkson for the rest of his useful hockey life (and likely a few years beyond that…). I simply want to assess this roster for what it is in hockey terms, and set aside the silly money that is paid, as well as buy-outs and bad contracts.
I just want to think about the hockey team, full stop.
So let’s look at things as best I/we can, recognizing that hey, the Toronto Blue Jays (for those baseball observers who visit VLM), for example, were supposed to be really, really good this season, and last I checked (I’m not a Jays fan, by the way, though one of my grown sons has been since 1994) they weren’t really good. Similarly, some may think the Leafs have made massive improvements this off-season, but, well, we will only really know if that's accurate once the bell rings and we get through the first twenty or so games of a new season.
(Interestingly, as an aside, this will be Randy Carlyle’s first “full-season” behind the Leaf bench—an 82-game schedule, I mean, though he will be in his third part-year already of being in charge.)
So where do I start?
I guess I have to look between the pipes first, and if I ignore all of my previously-stated reservations about how the team has basically, in my view, shown Reimer the door (no one will come out and admit that, I well realize), I will say this: in theory, we should be better in goal this coming season.
Why? Well, I felt Reimer played strongly most of last season, and pretty darn well against the Bruins in the playoffs. Do I have to say one more time that, if we could have put the puck into an empty net, Reimer would have been a full-blown dragon-slayer and Leaf hero and not a bum for his part in the last-second Game 7 free-fall? So why would I believe that Reimer will be anything other than pretty darn good again this season—assuming he is not knocked off the rails by Carlyle’s silly “win and you’re in” goaltending philosophy.
I can’t say much about Bernier that hasn’t been said already somewhere, but we all know that a lot of hockey folks claim he will be great, so, while the proof will be in the pudding, if he is really that good, then the Leafs, with a tandem of Reimer and Bernier, should be set in goal—regardless of who is “number-one”.
Now, are we good enough in goal to win a Stanley Cup? That’s the million-dollar question. I would not have said Jonathan Quick or Cory Schneider were those kinds of goalies three years ago, so I can’t answer my own question. Not yet.
On defense, while I have never been Phaneuf’s biggest backer, the guy logs huge minutes and, what can I say, he is a good NHL defenseman. I did not say great, but while I could focus on his flaws, that would not be totally fair. He has answered the bell for this team, whether it was Wilson or Carlyle behind the bench, and delivered his best most of the time. We can debate whether that is good enough given his gargantuan salary (I guess it’s not as gargantuan as it seemed a few years ago, in light of the zany money other defensemen are making now), but he is surely no worse than a number-three “D” man on an elite NHL team, and certainly a one or two here.
Beyond the captain, Gunnarsson has re-signed and should continue to be a steady presence on the Leaf blueline. I think readers here know I’ve generally liked Gunner since his early Leaf days. I appreciate guys who don’t bring undue attention on themselves and play hard and generally well. While he has not quite developed as much as I had privately hoped (I know, I know, Lidstrom was a pretty high bar…) he’s a nice player who I think can be part of a winning team. Certainly he should be a bona fide second-pair blueliner for the next couple of seasons, at least.
Franson seemed to earn Carlyle’s trust as the season wore on a year ago. He brings more than just a quick release and accurate shot from the point, but after years of watching the captain blast them all over the building most of the time, if Franson did nothing else, that one element of his work alone would be a welcome sight. He is more than that, of course. He seemed to be more of a physical presence at times than I thought he would be last season, and was fine most of the time in his own zone. Is he a solid “4”? A really good “5” on a good team? Whatever, he, too, seems like a fit here now. Before last season, I barely cared if he re-signed here, so that tells you something about how my view on him has evolved.
I think Jake Gardiner has a world of potential (that’s hardly a breakthrough notion). I tend to focus too much on what I perceive as his not being hard enough on the puck in his own zone, but when he plays as he did most of the time against the Bruins in the playoffs (getting rid of the puck quickly and smartly, though still a few too many “Lone Ranger” rushes for my liking), he is a gifted player who is a pleasure to watch. He definitely will play on the second pair this season, and some nights I’m sure he will log 25 minutes of ice.
I loved what Mark Fraser brought last season, though, as I have admitted here, I wouldn’t have known him from Adam twelve months ago. He seems to do exactly what Carlyle wants from a third-pairing guy. He's nasty and hits clean. He can fight. Whether he will lose ice to emerging Leaf defenders I don’t know, but we’ll have to use someone on the blueline that holds the other team accountable. And I don’t see Gardiner, Liles, Rielly or most of the up-and-coming “kids” in a position to do that. My guess is Fraser sticks as no worse than a seventh-defenseman.
I’m guessing Liles will have a great training camp. He has to. Whether that is enough to restore Carlyle’s belief in him, I have no idea. We know there are any number of promising young rearguards who are poised to take that next step. Liles seems to be the likely candidate to see his role impacted by the promotion of one of the youngsters, but time will tell.
Overall, it's a nice group of defenseman. Maybe T.J. Brennan (he’s the left-hand defenseman we got from Buffalo, right?) can play a role. Regardless, I think it’s good enough as a unit to be very competitive. I don’t feel it’s championship-level at this moment, though two years from now, when Gardiner is in stride and Rielly is on board and one or two of the other young defenseman (Blacker, Finn, Granberg, etc.) assume a place, maybe we’ll be closer. But we still lack a stud on the blueline—not just a minute-muncher but a tough-as-nails guy in his own zone and someone who the opposition worries about at both ends of the ice. Until we find that guy, I’m thinking we are not Cup contenders, unless our goaltending is a lot better than I think it is. (It’s quite good; I’m just not sure it is truly “elite”.)
Up front, if you take away my above-noted concerns (who we have lost, contract costs, term of contracts, etc.) I like the addition of Clarkson on its own merits. My only question is did we get him on time? Leaf history is riddled with acquiring/signing guys who were, sadly, just a bit past their best-before date. Clarkson may be in his prime for the next two seasons and if so, that should be very helpful. We need grinders, and grinders who can score. We don’t need him to score 30 goals, but I’d like to see him help create a hard-edged attitude among the forwards, especially with Komarov gone.
I like what I’m hearing from Kadri. He wants to be a go-to guy. Look, I admit I did not expect Kadri to have the break-out season he had in 2012-’13. Heck, there were nights he was the most dangerous guy on the ice for either team. He hit guys, moved the puck really well, found those empty spaces a-la Brett Hill. There wasn’t much not to like. Didn’t he score a big goal in Game 7 on the road against the Bruins? The kid can play, and should be an impact player for years to come.
Bozak will do what he does. He won’t likely score a ton of points, but he will win face-offs, kill penalties, make some nifty passes (and play with Kessel) and generally do the little things that Carlyle seems to like.
I don’t know whether Lupul or van Riemsdyk will draw first-line minutes, and I don’t know that it matters. Either way, we should have a good skating, high-scoring first line, and a solid second line centered by Kadri. (Will van Riemsdyk and Clarkson be on his wings?) Bolland will anchor the third line, I presume, with Kulemin. McClement wil bring his workmanlike attitude and tenacious play to spearhead the fourth line. Sometimes his wingers will be, yes, Orr and MacLaren, but some nights other guys may get a shot.
I’d rather Colborne play center than the wing, but he may have to adjust to working along the walls if all the regular centers stay healthy. I can see him getting ice time early in the season, so Carlyle can continue with the tinkering and experimentation (which was his approach much of last season) to see exactly what he’s got.
I like the forward group, but as with our backline, we have a large hole when it comes to the first-line center slot. Yes, Bozak can play there and do a credible job, but can we win a Stanley Cup with the forward lineup that we have? Maybe we have three ”second-line” centers on this roster. I don't know. Maybe we don’t “need” an elite first-line center. But something tells me we do, just like we need that high-end defenseman.
Can we compete without them? Absolutely. Can we make the playoffs in the newly revamped Eastern Conference? More than likely. Parity will still rule the East.
But if we are talking a championship, we remain, in my mind, three of four pieces away. But that’s OK, that’s a good thing. When was the last time we could legitimately say we were maybe a couple of moves away from being serious contenders for a Stanley Cup?
Things can always go south, as with the Blue Jays example cited above. But the Leafs have been built (and built up) differently than their baseball counterparts in the big smoke, and I would argue that while I am far from completely confident championship success is around the corner, to answer my own question as to “where the Leafs are now”…I’d say we have plenty of work to do but we are on the doorstep if being contenders.
How about you?