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Assessing the Leafs heading into the 2013-’14 season in 10 key categories

Those who are looking for a scientific/advanced stats kind of analysis on today’s topic will not want to read any further.  I’m just being honest.  There is no point wasting your time.

The kind of assessment I’m doing is quite old-fashioned.  There is no “metric”, nothing I can “quantify”. I will do what I always do here when talking about the present-day Maple Leafs:  provide a few thoughts about how I see the team developing, and how I think they’re playing—through my eyes, through my observation only.

As always, for those who are interested in reading on, I extend an invitation to share your views on the ten "categories" (not necessarily in any particular order) I will discuss briefly today, on the eve of the 2013-'14 Maple Leaf season-opener. In fact, this is an exercise I went through a couple of days ago on a recent “Maple Leaf Hangout” show with my colleagues at Maple Leaf Hot Stove. Opinions always vary on these types of things, but for me, that’s part of the fun because it creates friendly debate. 

What I’ve done is rank the Leafs based on their play through this pre-season, sure, but also with an awareness of how certain individuals have played in recent times- and what I project unfolding in the near future with this particular lineup.  Also, I am trying to take into consideration whether I believe certain performances of the recent past can be repeated—good or not so good. I am ranking the team in each of ten categories on a scale of 1-10.  The final tally will give some sense of where I see the blue and white right now.

Here goes…

Overall Team toughness/being hard to play against   (8)

I've sensed dating back to last season that the Leafs had (finally) become a club almost no one wanted to play against.  They had more sandpaper in their game and had generally become a more abrasive bunch.  Players like McClement helped add the “finishing their checks” dimension, and Kadri became a nasty piece of work with an edge to his game to go along with his more sublime skills, like finding open space.

Beyond his pugilistic (as needed) efforts, Mark Fraser is a hard hitter who can stop guys in their tracks and Franson showed a physical element to his game last season.  We know Phaneuf can hammer guys at times.  But just generally they were tougher—a trait which, to me, had not really been in evidence in recent years.  They’ve added Clarkson and Bolland (set aside Clarkson’s contract in making this evaluation—I’m only talking about his potential impact this coming season in this area) and of course there are our resident fighters, Orr and McLaren, so the Leafs are no longer a picnic to play against. So, I give them an 8.

 Shot blocking ability    (7)

Some argue this "skill" is not important.  (Hey, it may be more courage than skill, but I believe it is a bit of both).)  I believe it is.  The Rangers went a long way blocking tons of shots a couple of seasons ago, and while this has long been a crucially important skill (clubs that make it to the final-four in the playoffs every spring generally block a ton of shots, it seems), not all teams devote a lot of attention to it, or at least they don't have the players to handle this job.  The Leafs have some guys that aren’t afraid to drop down and block shots, either as forwards on the penalty-kill say, or from their position as defenseman.  Are we the best in the league?  Well, we haven’t been, but we have improved.  I can’t forecast what the Leafs will be in this area this coming season, but I feel comfortable handing out a grade of 7 at the moment.

Coaching     (7.5)

Carlyle obviously has a lot of detractors, for reasons I have dealt with here over the past several months  Whether it was how he deployed his personnel, including his dependance on “the fighters” and his usage of guys like Grabovski, Kadri and MacArthur, many find him a remarkably out of touch NHL coach. 

I see this picture a little differently.  Yes, the team did not maintain puck possession nearly enough last season and gave up an awful lot of shots at times, but I believe they are headed in the right direction.  The penalty killing was vastly improved a year ago, and that must have something to do not only with personnel but coaching.  I will say this:  I believe this is the first time Carlyle has really had a team in his image here in Toronto.  It’s also going to be his first truly full season behind the Leaf bench.   His grade, from me at least, will go up or down in the months ahead based on a simple factor:  results.  For now, I slot Carlyle (and his staff) in at 7.5

Power play   (7)

I kind of feel there is more talent and potential here than what we showed on the power play at times last season.  I’m hesitant to make a dramatic pronouncement right now, because I really have no idea how our PP will perform this season.  We can only speculate that, on paper, the Leafs should have the talent to ice two very capable power-play units.  Will we feel this way in February?  I don’t know, but on the basis of  recent history, new additions and familiarity with the “system”, I’m going with a 7.

 Penalty-kill    (8)

Again, none of us really knows if our penalty-kill can be as effective as a year ago. We largely have the same personnel, including McClement who was very much a glue guy last season in this regard.  But things can change quickly.  One year a team can be great in this area, then they suddenly fall off and everyone wonders why.  But based on what I saw a year ago, and the potential I see now, I’m comfortable giving them an 8 on this one. (Goaltending is often, as the saying goes, your best penalty killer, so the jury is out.)

Ability to overcome injuries/depth    (7)

Up front, I think we have a few guys that can step up from the Marlies and take on roles with the big club.  In that sense, I’m far more comfortable with our overall depth if we run into injuries than I have been in recent seasons.  (I used to feel we were populated by an awful lot of bottom-six forwards on this roster; I know feel pretty good about our top-six, and while I’d still like to see a legitimate number-one center with size, skill and grit, they clearly aren’t easy to find.)  We are very deep on the blueline, but I do wonder if we have a lot of quality depth there. So I’m calling this category a 7.

Top-six forwards     (8)

You know the names.  I’m finally confident that we have people who are legitimate front-line offensive threats, with some overall ability at both ends of the ice to boot.  I know people want to make a fuss about Bozak being on the first line (I’m giving up on that one; he’s a nice player—it is what it is…) and whether Kadri will or won’t center the second line.  But I’m not worried about Game One.  Things have a tendency to change over time as a season mves along and the coaching staff makes adjustments.  Down the road, Carlyle will (hopefully) have the right people in place and we’ll be fine in terms of a top-six.  So the boys get an 8 here.

Blueline quality      (6)

Here, I’m sort of falling back on my earlier blueline depth comment.  I like our defense corps but I don’t love it.   I think there will be nights when we feel it's a 8 plus, and nights when they play like a 5.  For now I am leaning toward the more modest ranking and will grade them out at a 6.  However, as I said on the podcast, if Ranger emerges as many hope he will, and Gardiner becomes more than just a flashy offensive defenseman (in other words, if he gets harder on the puck and is better in his own zone and around his own net) to go along with his impressive natural gifts), the grade will jump substantially in the months ahead.  But for now, it’s a 6.

Goaltending       (7)

I’m not fussed at all about the pre-season.  It didn’t convince me of anything one way or the other (except that even Bernier's biggest boosters surely acknowledge that if training camp was a level plying-field "competition", Reimer should start Game One.  After that, of course, all bets are off...)

I have plenty of faith in Reimer, and believe Bernier will get comfortable here.  I’ve said before Bernier is the guy the brass wants to grab the top job, but regardless, I don’t see both of these guys have poor seasons.  (Whether having a young netminding tandem will work in an overall sense, long-term, is a separate issue that I won't get into yet again today.)  For now, I am passing out a grade of 7, but that could go higher, obviously, as we see them both in action in the weeks ahead.

Leadership and experience   (6.5)

Regular VLM visitors will know this has been one of my pet concerns for years, that we simply have lacked the kind of seasoned, winning presence that emerging young teams usually need to help get them over the hump.  I concede that we still do not have any “greybeards” that the kids can look to and ask, “where do we go from here, old-timer?”, but the addition of “young” veterans like Bolland and Clarkson should help in this regard.  I think there is some leadership in the room now as well as some legitimate winning playoff experience.  I believe this team trait will also evolve in a positive way as the season goes along.  That said, it is not yet “proven” here, so I can only give us a 6.5 in this area—with hopes for a significantly higher grade in the not too distant future.

It can certainly be argued that I have been quite cautious and somewhat conservative in my assessment today.  If my arithmetic is correct, I believe I landed at an overall “score” of 72 out of 100.  (In school terms, I believe that would be a B-.) And the truth is, I think the Leafs are a bit better than that.  I believe we are probably a solid “B” team right now, maybe even, in the parity-filled Eastern Conference, finally a club that may be a B+ which in my world means we should be a top-six team in the Conference- maybe even a bit higher.

Again, none of this is science  - no stats, zone charts, exhaustive clinical breakdowns - just my gut feeling about how we shape up with a new season upon us. And I acknowledge that there are certainly other important areas that could have been included in any serious early-season team evaluation, but this is a start.

If you’re so inclined, share your thoughts on this one, and then, let‘s drop the puck.


One sentence on the Colborne deal:  I'm not sure there is any other way to say this-  when you acquire a former first-round draft pick, talk about him publicly about becoming your team's second-line center in the very  near future, develop him for years in your system and then trade him for a future fourth-rounder, well, that's not good.


I think it's fair to say Carter Ashton has earned his spot on the roster heading into the season.  He kind of shoved his up up the line with his work throughout camp, generally getting better as the days went by.

As for Morgan Rielly "making it" (for now) I don't get it, but I've said here all through camp that I believe Carlyle wants him here.  Again, not sure why at this juncture, but maybe other roster moves are upon us.


  1. It sure looks like Morgan is being rewarded for a strong camp and good attitude, though I believe there may be many layers to the Leaf onion related to his presence on the team at the outset of the season…

    First of all, even though I think Joe may flourish in his home town and make the Leafs look foolish for letting him go (but may have needed another kick in the pants to realize his potential anyway and probably would have been lost in waivers for nothing since others, like Ashton, played better and with more training-camp-impact earning a place over him), it seems like there could be a(n admittedly speculative) relationship between the low pick gleaned for Colborne and my thoughts about Liles. I still think Liles is a fit for Calgary and that said prospect could be the price for Calgary to claim Liles off waivers (so that the Leafs wouldn’t have to retain any salary). This doesn’t mean that the Flames are certain to grab Liles, since the Avalanche might just do the same (being higher in the claim order), but this MAY have been an ‘insurance policy’ so the Leafs would have a backup ‘claimer’ for the contract they are so willing to let go.

    It is possible that this was less ‘proactive’ and merely represents Nonis’ hopes, in which case, Liles may not be claimed by anyone, but could ‘shuttle’ between the AHL and NHL after clearing waivers, so that Rielly could be rewarded with some games.

    My second ‘layer’ pertains to the Moose Jaw Warriors, who may choose to trade Morgan’s WHL rights to a contender if they believe he won’t be back in Junior. It seems like the Leafs want Rielly to play in the World Juniors (so he won’t be around for either the Leafs or the Warriors) providing great flexibility to have a look at Blacker, McWilliam or others (even Liles, if he’s still here) when he's sent down or gone to the Worlds.

    I think Morgan will have to ‘knock our socks off’ in order to stay up, but perhaps this is also a bit of a wake up call for Gardiner (who reportedly hasn’t, apparently, impressed the coach with his 'unstructured' forays on offense) – so the onion peels back another layer…

    Rielly’s cap hit is mitigated by the contractual entry-level bonus structure (that can be put off until next season in the bonus cushion), so his base salary is the same as the relief gained from sending Liles to the Marlies (who could fill a much needed leader/veteran presence, since Zigomanis and Hamilton have departed along with Conolly, Komi and others) – onion layer 4…

    There may be more, but I think Rielly gets his 9 games and we get a preview of things to come… still hoping his contract 'slides' for another year!

    1. Thanks, InTimeFor62. While Rielly may not stay once his game-limit runs out, my guess is Carlyle actually would like him here. (Whether Nonis wants to see a year of his contract gone already, I don't know.) I don't doubt Rielly, like many young players, has the ability to play in the NHL. I'm just not sure it is the right thing to do, for all the reasons I have cited here in the past.

  2. Hi Michael,

    You and I see this team for the most part, in much the same way. I don't wish to quibble with a point here or a point there. My concerns about this team are pretty much the same as they have always been. The mix just seems off to me. There are a lot of reasons for this, I would like to touch on a few of them here if I may.

    Coaching, I think the failure in the playoffs against Boston was a coaching failure. Plain and simple, call a time out, do something to stem the flow of the dam breaking against Boston. Get your top defensive guys a rest, give them a speech. Yell at them, encourage them, dump a cold bottle of water on someones head. More and more, this is Randy's team. And to be honest, I don't like it. David Clarkson has shown me nothing in the preseason, other than he isn't that smart. No dynamic offense, little in the way of hitting, to separate the puck or intimidate the opposition. Kadri playing up in the lineup may work out, it may not. He is certainly unproven at the NHL level. I don't see Dave Bollland as a number two centre at this point, he is what he is. A responsible third liner. Thats ok, but if you can't score playing with Sharp and Kane, you can't score in the NHL. The plethora of face punchers that the team employs will not help them against Detroit, as we all witnessed Friday night. The teams iced their regular season lineups, for the most part, minus Kessel. And the results were less good for the Blue and White. Detroit sure can pressure the puck in all three zones. Colton Orr looked as out of place in that game as I would have.

    Can the penalty kill be as lights out as it was last year? I would suggest a regression is in order, and specifically that last year was an outlier statistically. We shall see, lots of good and favourable bounces last year. It may continue. Bernier is unproven as a goalie in the League, and management have no faith in Reimer, otherwise why get Bernier. This is not really a great source of confidence for me. One guy management wants to replace, and the other guy is a career backup with a new contract. Toskala, had a lot of backers coming in from San Jose too, I remember.

    Colborne didn't work out here. I wish him the best in Calgary, but the last trade Calgary did even ok in was the Iginla for Hull deal. Long time of getting fleeced, me thinks.

    My only real point of contention is your assessment that the Leafs are a top six team in the East. I may be out to lunch here, but I thought the re-alignment had Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh in their division. Some tough sledding if Toronto thinks they are a better team than any of these 3 over an 82 game season. You know I love your work here, and I am really looking forward to another edition of the Hot Stove Hangout. Take care sir.

  3. Carlyle has plenty of critics, and I concede there are things I'm not thrilled with in his approach and style. But I think, in fairness, this will be the season where we can fully and more fairly judge him.

    I'm not too concerned with anything that happened in pre-season, so Clarkson's ordinary play was not, for me, unexpected.

    Whether management had lost faith in Colborne ever becoming more than a serviceable third-liner, or he was the player that had to go because of cap constraints, I don't know.

    I'm reasonably confident the team will be a top-six team in the overall standings, partly because the East may still be not be as strong as the West. Thanks Jim.

  4. I think your grades are fair, Michael, though I think we'll be in tough to make the playoffs. As always, let's check back at the 20 game mark!

    Team toughness: We've definitely added some grit to the mix, but I'd be happier if we'd added, oh, Perron or Ryan for the kind of money we paid Clarkson. It was difficult to gauge him during the pre-season, but he didn't blow anyone away, and now he's gone for an eighth of the real schedule. It will be interesting to see how we do over the first 10 games.
    Carlyle has defined "team toughness" as blocking shots, finishing checks, making the other team work hard against you - and the ability to drop the gloves if needed. I think our new additions will add to our effectiveness in the first three categories.

    Coaching. Though I agree with the comment above about last year's Game 7, you can't deny that Carlyle successfully shaped the team to his template last year. I expect the meritocracy to continue (goodbye, Joe Colborne). I already feel a different team mentality this year. They're going to start with some adversity - it will be instructive to see how we do.

    Power Play/Penalty Kill: I think our PK will continue to be strong. It doesn't feel like we've got a PP that other teams fear yet - this would get one of my lower grades as it stands.

    Depth: based solely on watching a few pre-season games, I think we're stronger than last year.

    Top 6 Forwards/Defence/Goaltending/Leadership: I'll lump them all together because I think we're stronger in all departments.

    Though I think the team is better than last year's version, I noticed in both the first Detroit game and the Ottawa games how inconsistent we are in our positioning compared to those teams - particularly in the offensive zone. We can have all the team toughness in the world, but without two scoring lines both producing at the same time, it'll be a long, cold winter.

    1. I enjoyed your observations, Gerund O'. Balanced, as always. And you know I'm with you about the first 20 games. We've discussed that here before.

      I will always feel that overall team toughness is important- well beyond the sometimes senseless fighting we must endure. It's the other stuff that stands out for me, as you/Carlyle noted above.

      Your last paragraph is important as well. Right now, it feels as though there is hope. We'll see! Thanks Gerund.

  5. Hi Michael! While I'm ever hopeful, the Leafs have gotten even younger this year with Liles moving to the Marlies and more importantly are still very inexperienced. I love the energy and enthusiasm young players like Ashton will bring to the Leafs but I just can't see us doing much more than staying in the mix. Gosh I hope I'm wrong!
    The defence, quite frankly, scares me and we will need players like Paul Ranger to step up or we are going to see some pretty painful mistakes in our defensive zone. And I do mean painful. Forwards are also going to have to support this young defence so losing Clarkson for ten games may hurt us more than we realize. We need a good start to the season.
    I like our top six and hope we can improve our P.P..
    I 'm not too worried about our P.K. and Mason may be another option here.
    I'd just as soon not go into the goalie situation as I'm a Reimer fan and very stubborn about it.
    Our 3rd line needs some work but I like Bolland there.
    Out 4th line admittedly is pretty scary but that's about all it is. I see Devane moving up in the future and he knows where the net is.
    I'm excited for the leafs. I think we're finally headed in the right direction but we have a long way to go. These kids need time to mature and we as fans are running out of patience. There is however a feeling of excitement in Leafland, of being on the brink of success which I haven't felt in years and it is hard to ignore. I'll give them an optimistic 7.5 and hope for pleasant surprises this season. C.N.

    1. I think you're observations are on the money, C.N. - we all realize "predictions" are empty, things can go north or south very quickly and in a very different direction than any "insiders' may anticipate. But there are some good players in place now. Whether they live up to their potential - or slip back - is something we'll only see over time. They are still young, as you note. Thanks C.N.

  6. I think that anyone who thinks that Carlyle is to fault for the melt down during game 7 should be eating their words. Remember this, there wouldn't have been a playoff run without him! First coach to take them in years and people want to criticize? Go back to work and stop thinking that you're some kind of "sports analyst" because you have a long way to go by the sound of some of these comments.

    1. Hi hockeygirls_score - Carlyle is a bit of a polarizing figure as Leaf coach. In defending him, (and I am well aware of the views of those who don't especially like him as a coach here) your comment may be a bit harsh. Those who post here are generally quite fair-minded, even when they criticize playuers, coaches or the organization. People have a right to express their frustration with coaching decisions.

      That said, from my perspective, Carlyle should be judged, as I mentioned in today's post, based on the team's success going forward. There are no excuses now that this isn't "his team" It is. Thanks hockey girls_score.

  7. By and large, I agree with Michael’s assessments here and on “The Hangout”. The only differences are that I would tend to have a lower assessment of the top six forwards (more like a 7) and a higher assessment of the “blueline quality” (a 7 instead of 6). I would tend to go higher with goaltending as well. I see a healthy Reimer as an 8 over his brief career and he appears to be continually improving with time. Recall that the only time that Reimer has looked ordinary was when he was inexplicably forced into playing with neck/head issues. Bernier is a wild card, a goaltender who hasn’t played a lot but who exhibits excellent technique, skill and athleticism. Consequently, I am comfortable going to an 8 in the crease.

    I wonder if the team toughness quite includes something else we have discussed here in the past. It may be time to resurrect the “muckulence” category for assessment purposes. Recall that during the Wilson era we would sometimes marvel at the speed and skill but feel reticent about the lack of muckulence in the team’s play. The ephemeral, hard to pin down muckulence category includes a little more than just toughness and was probably manifest (in a frustrating way) in the Buffalo brawl. While Carlyle has yet to fully prove his ability to take us to where we deserve to be, I assume we can agree that the team's muckulence level has risen considerably.

  8. Hi Bobby C.- I dithered over a rating for our defense corps, and (as with goaltending) I can see the grade rising if things evolve as many of us think they should. I'm probably just a bit hesitant to fully 'endorse' our back end just yet, but we'll see.

    You know I have always seen eye-to-eye with you on the "muckulence" quotient (a term that you coined here), or at least the importance of it. I think we are getting there and I sense most would indeed concur. Thanks Bobby.

  9. Michael,

    I always try to be well reasoned making points about the Leafs. I hope for the most part that I have succeeded, if not my apologies.

    This week we have seen the part of the management group decision making process that I am the least enamoured with. The fact that Morgan Rielly is here, even though this is never the best decision going forward. A young defenseman needs to develop slowly, in an environment where they can learn without the pressure of losing a huge amount of money. Checks for playing in the NHL are huge and who wouldn't want to see them continue. Not to mention the immense pressure. I don't care if Rielly is ok at the NHL level, so what. You draft players in the top five, to be better than ok. We went down this road with Luke Schenn, it didn't work out well for him here.

    But onward and upward to the coaching staff. Troy Bodie, McLaren and Colton Orr are on this team on opening night. Joe Colborne was traded in order for this to be the case. A ridiculous decision in my opinion. None of the three guys I mention have any upside other than as a face puching energy guy/goon. Colborne may still turn into a player in the league, as a centre or as one of your guests on the hangout suggested as a winger. Other than marrying Leiweke's daughter, Troy Bodie has done nothing of note in the NHL, or in the preseason this year. Can someone please explain to me why a guy with some potential is traded so another facepuncher can be dressed for the Leafs? I blame this kind of moronic decision making on Carlyle, and him alone. This is his team.

    By any measure other than being friends with Kessel. Grabovski is a better hockey player than Bozak. Bozak got a new contract and Grabovski got bought out. There is no analysis anywhere that I have seen that suggests Bozak is a better centre at the NHL level, none. The fact that Bozak is still here was a coaching decision. Carlyle didn't like Grabbo, so he is out the door. Bad move again, in my opinion.

    And lastly, yes the Leafs did make the playoffs in a truncated lockout season. My, oh my, is that bar for eliminating criticism awfully low. The suggestion that we shouldn't have anything critical to say about Randy or the staff because of a first round exit in the playoffs, is disgusting to me. I thought the goal every year for the last 45 was to win the Stanley Cup. Personally, I would like to see them get there sometime in the next 45 years or so, that I can expect to live. Whether or not the team is making progress to that goal, should always be a topic for discussion amongst fans. I believe Leafs TV has cornered the market on the if you have nothing nice to say, say a lot more fantastically optimistic things about the team. If we aren't going to discuss this team, warts and all, we should all move along. Nothing to see here.

    1. Well said, Jim. This forum has always existed in part to encourage thoughtful and yes sometimes critical discussion of the Leafs. If it's fair and reasonable, it should be talked about here at VLM. Thanks Jim.