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On the eve of training camp, reasons for Leaf fans to be genuinely hopeful—and realistically pessimistic

As much as anything today I’d like to gauge the overall mood of Maple Leaf fans as we all get ready to embark on a new season.  We’ll go through the usual instantaneous judgments (often false, in terms of how predictive these things are) and highs and lows of individual performances at training camp.  We’ll all eagerly await the final cut-down day, and the naming of the opening night roster—though we all know the pieces can potentially change within days, even hours.

Then we’ll breathlessly await opening night and assess beyond all reasonable need how the team performed in Game 1.  Then we will, ultimately, settle in to the equally customary routine of simply seeing how this thing all goes as Randy Carlyle starts what will be his first real full season behind the Leaf bench.

From my end, I’m more of the, “Let’s talk seriously when we’re twenty games into the season” persuasion at this point in my life. It just makes more sense to not make many, if any, bold proclamations too early on, until we really see how this team is playing together, whether the team’s defensive structure really has improved, and just who will play with whom.  It may also help to know exactly who will be in net. (These early-season pronouncements are often a bit like over-reacting to the first game of the season in the NFL season.  So much analysis, but two weeks later, it often all means precious little because everything has been flipped upside down…)

In any event, I want to get to your level of hope or despair, but to help trigger your thinking a bit, here are a few basic observations from the two opposite perspectives...

First, for those who have adopted a hopeful or even a very positive and confident stance around where the Leafs are at as a new season begins, these may be considerations:

  1. Carlyle, for all his nay-sayers and the sometimes legitimate criticism directed his way, has coached a good team to the Stanley Cup in the relatively recent past.  He must have some clue as to what is needed to get a team to the promised land.
  2. The Leafs have added Bernier, the much-coveted (in Leafworld) Clarkson and of course Dave Bolland.  Throw in Paul Ranger and many may see the summer of ‘13 roster overhaul as an indication that the Leafs are indeed much improved overall.
  3. To the above point, this is much closer to being a 'Carlyle' squad than what the veteran coach has had here in previous seasons.
  4. Bernier will provide the Leafs with a new number-one goalie; at the very least he will provide the Leafs with two NHL caliber (on our good days) goaltenders, maybe even two first string/top-ten quality netminders at the same time.
  5. Jake Gardiner seems poised to play a huge role this season.  He’ll see plenty of ice.
  6. Nazem Kadri had an impressive first (near) full NHL season and should only get better.
  7. Impact winger Joffrey Lupul is healthy.
  8. With Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, Franson (when signed), Fraser, Liles and Ranger, we have more depth on the blueline, and potentially more actual skill at that position than we have had in many years. That doesn’t even take into account newcomer T.J. Brennan.
  9. If we can believe the Leaf brass (and what many who know the prospect pipeline believe from having followed the development of these players) says/say, we also have a number of emerging young defensemen who could indeed step into the breach if needed this coming season, including Jesse Blacker and Morgan Rielly. (Granberg and others are evidently not far off, either.)
  10. Up front, youngsters like Carter Ashton and Joe Colborne are waiting in the wings, but not just waiting.  They are no doubt looking to knock the door down to get into the lineup.
  11. The team tasted the playoffs last spring; presumably they will want to go a lot further this year.  They now have a bit of that all-important “playoff experience” we talk about here all the time.
  12. While there have been some roster changes, the core of this group is back, and that continuity should help both Carlyle and the team as a whole.

Now, if you aren’t so inclined to feel hopeful or positive, here is some of what you might be thinking and feeling:

  1. We still do not have a true number-one center.  The Leafs have a nifty little player in Kadri, a jack-of-many trades in Bozak and a versatile third-line pivot in Bolland (not to mention the similarly versatile/effective McClement) and Colborne on the ready, but no real ‘force’ in the middle.
  2. The Leafs still, in the minds of many, lack that stud defenseman.  Phaneuf logs huge minutes but most would agree that he is not a true top guy on a real elite squad.
  3. The netminding scenario could implode sooner than later.  Kids don’t like to share their toys.  Veteran goaltenders don’t like to share their crease, no matter how nicely they may speak or will pretend to behave in the early going.
  4. What if the penalty-killing, so effective and prominent in the Leaf resurgence this past season, reverts to old habits?
  5. We gave up way too many shots and far too many good scoring opportunities a season ago. Will our "system" be any better this year?
  6. Is our overall defense group actually good enough in their own end?
  7. Is Carl Gunnarsson capable of staying healthy and being the defensemen he looked like he was becoming three seasons ago?  If not, second-line defense responsibilities may be too much for him.
  8. Are expectations for Paul Ranger too high for a player who has not played in the league in years?
  9. Will Mark Fraser, somewhat exposed in the playoffs, turn out to be a one-year Leaf wonder?
  10. The Leafs will continue to rely on Orr and MacLaren as their enforcers and presumably, fourth-line regulars.  Carlyle’s preoccupation with playing both guys most nights in the regular season drives some Leaf fans around the bend, in part because it deprives the roster of a young player with skill who could contribute more than three minutes a night.
  11. The Leafs are absolutely unproven as potential Cup contenders.  Yes, it was very nice to see the strides they made last year, but there is still a ways to go to be the consistent, talented, grinding squad that they need to be to contend with the big boys—those teams who have proven they can win playoff rounds year in and year out.
  12. Is the roster, especially our defense group, a bit like those ballyhooed five-man pitching rotations  in baseball spring training?  As in, it all looks great on paper before games start for real, but will we be exposed over the course of an 82-game season?
  13. If Kessel does not sign before the regular season gets underway (and unlike Phaneuf, he has already made it clear he won’t countenance negotiations during the actual season) his status will become, without question, a huge distraction for the organization—and the media.
  14. Tim Leiweke will need to learn that less is more, when it comes to talking.  The focus needs to be on the ice, not another suit who talks like he invented the concept of excellence.

I’ve barely scratched the surface.  You could add a whole lot more to the above points on both sides of the ledger.  But bottom line, there are reasons aplenty to believe the Leafs will have a good season, and may in fact be poised for much better days ahead.

Conversely, there are a number of realities that could make many Leafers cautious, if not downright uncertain, as we gear up for a new season.

Training camp is here.  Where do you sit?


  1. Like most people who will comment here, presumably, I'm a mix of those lists, Michael.

    On the plus side:
    * I am very excited by the prospect of what Lupul might achieve if he plays 80 games.
    * I think JvR might improve again this year now he has the confidence to know that the Leafs can succeed with him in the van.
    * If Kadri isn't too scarred by his impending holdout, I'm excited to see if he can consolidate his best form from last year into a full season of excellence
    * Please, please, please let Jake Gardiner be as good as everyone thinks

    On the down side:
    * I can't help but think that at some point this season our depth is going to be challenged and found wanting thanks to our ridiculous summer of cap mismanagement
    * We are one very good defenseman short
    * We're staring down the barrel of yet again seeing Phil Kessel's full potential untapped, barring another phenomenal season of development from Kadri.

    I'm kind of neutral about the goalie thing as I figure we'd be pretty unlucky if neither one of them fire this year.

    Very looking forward to seeing the boys hit the ice.

    1. You've outlined it well, KiwiLeaf- lots of things to look forward to, and some things to be cautious about.

      We'll see how others feel!

  2. I think this team is in a dog fight to make the playoffs. If everything goes great and all the expectations are met they could even be a successful playoff team. Unfortunately, expectations are rarely met, just ask the Blue Jays.

    There hoping for a lot of good things to happen this year that seem to me be high on the expectation chart. Bolland is seen as a third line center who can even play second line minutes if he is just given a chance with increased ice time. That sort of ignores last season in which he was the second line center on the Blackhawks (his most common linemates from last year, Kane and Sharp) and played so badly that he was on the fourth line for most of the playoffs. He was not very productive last year.

    Clarkson is getting paid like he is a 40 goal scorer which ignores the fact that he has only scored 30 goals once in his career and over 17 once. In a cap situation you can't pay third line wingers the same as you do your first line guys (Kessel and Lupul).

    I like the Toronto defence heading into this season. A full year of a healthy Gardiner and Ranger for depth means Phanuef should have to play less minutes which to me means he will be even more effective (which is impressive because he is already pretty dam good). Reilly should start in the WHL this year simply because there is no cap space to carry him with all the NHL caliber defensemen the Leafs have on one way contracts.

    The goalie situation is muddled and unclear and it is here where I think Nonis has had his worst moments this off season. To me there was no need the improve at goal because Reimer was superb last year. To my mind he was the biggest factor in the Leafs making the playoffs at all last season. By trading for Bernier, who will be number one this year because as I've said a GM doesn't trade four assets while retaining money and then pay him more than the incumbent to be a back up, he created the salary cap problem that is getting in the way of resigning two key components in Kadri and Franson. The leafs simply aren't deep enough to survive both of these guys holding out especially Kadri.

    Overall I think the Leafs are no better than they were last year and probably have slipped back a bit. I think they are a bubble team and will be life and death to make the playoffs. I can see a trade sometime this season where Phanuef is traded as is Reimer. Maybe this changes the dynamic but as of right now I think the Leafs finish anywhere from 7-12 and to me probably just miss the playoffs.

    1. I always appreciate your perspective, Willbur. That's what I'm looking for: an honest assessment of where Leaf observers see the team right now.

  3. So I was thinking to myself today about the whole Kadri situation. The more I thought about it the more I think he is prime for a offer sheet from Calgary. Calgary just had a draft in which they had three first round picks so they could afford to give a couple up in the next couple of years. They have loads of cap space and are just starting to rebuild, what better time is it to grab a potential top center under 23 to start that rebuild around?

    Plus wouldn't it be kind of funny to see Burke stick it to the Leafs in revenge for getting fired? I don't know if it would ever happen but this seems like a perfect situation for Calgary to get the player they want. I think the Leafs might actually take the draft picks rather than sign Kadri to a 6 year 4.5 million dollar per year deal. It'll probably never happen but it sure would liven things up wouldn't it.

    1. Yes, sir, it would.

      But if he did it, wouldn't Brian Burke have to challenge himself to a fight in a barn?

    2. No question that would up the ante, Willbur! (Whether Burke or Feaster are calling the shots at this point, though, I don't know...)

    3. That's funny KiwiLeaf. I'd forgotten about that Burke quote on Lowe. If I remember Burke's frustration correctly though it wasn't against offer sheets in general it was paying ridiculous amounts of money to not very good players (Penner). I think Burke would say something about Kadri being worth the money and a great player. Maybe call him the real deal which would remind him that he also said that about Reimer. Which in turn would remind him that Calgary has no goalie and he should see about getting Reimer in a trade since Nonis obviously likes Bernier and could probably be persuaded to trade him.

    4. Whether it could happen I don't know, but Reimer in Calgary makes sense for a lot of reasons. His future is cloudy at best in Toronto, for all the reasons I've cited here before. He's a Western kid and would no doubt be very popular with the Flames. (I can't recall for sure, but I believe some VLM readers have posted on this very possibility in the past.)

    5. I stand corrected, Wilbur, I thought I remembered that particular piece of bluster being about offer sheets.

      I think if they offered us a 1st for next year, we should seriously consider it given Calgary will probably finish in Lottery territory this year. Problem is we'd have to immediately go looking for a back-up. Who's left that you'd want to see in Blue and White? Hedberg?

    6. Yeah that would be a problem as goalie depth in TO is remarkably thin (kinda like their forward depth although d depth is good). I'm not really sure who would be a back up although they could get the Flames to toss in one of their back ups since they do have two of them on the NHL roster.


  4. Just heard that Kadri resigned. 2 years at 5.8 million as per sportsnet (Kypreos). Good news the Leafs just simply couldn't afford to have him out for a long time.

    I do wonder about Franson now though. Do they have enough left over to get him signed. Going to be very tough.

  5. Great points on both sides of the ice. I for one think this team can go two or three rounds into the playoffs with the addition at the dead line for a couple of pieces without breaking the bank. Lots of positives and agree that maturity and buying into Carlyles system will bring good results.

    Thnx for some positive on my day.

    1. Good to hear from you, Steve. There are plenty of positives to focus on. Either way fans look at how the Leafs look, it's good that hockey is back.

  6. I believe that the Leafs fortunes rest solidly in the hands of their two young netminders. If they have a solid and sometimes spectacular year then I can see a cup contending team. If they play to a mediocre level I would anticipate a bubble team.

    I cannot see the Leafs trading Reimer in the near future. As Wilbur noted goaltending depth behind Reimer and Bernier is weak. Anyone coming back in a trade would be a definite downgrade and the Leafs just spent a great deal of resources strengthening the position.

    I am optimistic that they will get stellar goaltending this season. I think that the top three lines will stack up with any team in the league. I think that the defense is adequate and could be very good if Gardiner is the player we saw in the playoffs and Ranger is the player we saw in Tampa. Thus I see the Leafs as a cup contending team this year.

    In response to the Kiwi-Wilbur repartee on Burke and offer sheets; if memory serves me correctly Burke was very much against offer sheets and instead of offer sheeting Kessel he worked out a trade. In effect he paid more for Kessel than he would have if he had submitted an offer sheet.

    1. Good points, Pete Cam. Virtually all NHL teams have question marks at this time of year, and the Leafs are no exception. But as you note, they now seemingly have depth in goal and competition for roster spots both on defense and the forward lines. They should certainly be competitive in the East. So we'll see if early-season optimism lasts! Thanks Pete.

  7. Hope and despair. It seems like the fitting dogma for this Leaf's fan. It seems at times I try to abandon all hope so as not to end up feeling despair. Clearly my relationship with the Leafs is very unhealthy...

    But all that aside, I am feeling more hopeful than I have for some time. I put that hope down to the relatively young and talented roster with several bright prospects coming up in the minors.

    I also believe that Carlyle will implement a system that the players buy into and that will produce good results. I expect this system will reduce the GA by a good amount and that the Leafs have enough scoring that the result will be a reasonable jump in the standings. It would not surprise me if they are among the top 6 seeds in their conference. Ahead of both Ottawa and Montreal.

    But I am also haunted by the possible despair that would result if the Leafs don't qualify for the post season. It would be more crushing than usual!

    1. Whenever expectations (as afraid as some of us are to express them sometimes) are high, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment. But the "unhealthy", as you put it, reality of having a rooting interest in a team (maybe especially the Leafs) is what it is. We can't shake it, evidently, so we live for the good moments, I guess- no matter how infrequent they may seem to be! Well said- thanks Steve.

  8. This is a team that can win the Cup. Burke's road is being followed. I was worried about Nonis destroying everything but I have been pleasantly surprised by Nonis's work this summer. He has ensured that the goaltending will not be the achilles heel of this franchise any longer and he has brought in hard-working yet humble, experienced winners to make our locker-room better in place of flashy losers who played every second or third game. This is a tough, skilled, fast, deep team that can make it all the way. We may as well start printing play-offs tickets because barring a plain-crash we're in the postseason. If the Leafs don't play lights out I am confident that Nonis will make a trade for a unicorn centre and/or a strong defenceman and that will ensure that we are contending for the Cup. Ultimately we will have to credit Burke but Nonis and Carlyle will deserve credit for not screwing it up. Leafs will win the Cup this year or next.

    1. A lot of Leaf fans will like what you said- thanks leafdreamer!

  9. Off topic Michael but I wonder if you saw the obituary this morning in the Windsor Star for Glen Skov. He played centre for the Windsor Spitfires in the late 40's and then during the 50's in the NHL for the Red Wings and Blackhawks. His older brother was Art Skov the referee and he had a younger brother Elmer who played defense for the Windsor Spitfires in the 40's and for the Senior A Bulldogs in the 50's.
    Quite a good player in his time but probably retiring when you were starting to follow the game. I know you are from that area so thought you might have heard of him and be interested.
    By the way, put me in the hopeful category for the Leafs again this year. The glass is always half full for me at this time of year but after a good showing last season, my expectations feel a little more legitimate this time!

    1. I always appreciate hearing from you, Ed. I do well recall the Skov family, though as you say Glen was finishing up his career when I was very young. And yes, Art Skov was a well-regarded referee for many years. (I'm trying to remember exactly when he retired, but I know he did games as far back as the early '60s in the old six-team NHL.)

      Great to hear your thoughts on the new season. Hope springs eternal every year at training camp! Thanks Ed.

  10. I hadn't seen that Glen "Spider" Skov had passed...thanks to Ed for mentioning it. I met Glen Skov along with Sid Abel at a Wes McKnight "Meet the Hockey Stars" broadcast at the CFRB studios circa 1954. Both Skov and Abel couldn't have been nicer to a young fan, but then hockey players were much more approachable back then.

    Art Skov was one of the excellent referees of the 50,s and 60's along with Red Storey, Frank Udvari and Matt Pavelich. I hsdn't realized, until Ed mentioned it that Glen and Art were brothers (as were Marty and Matt Pavelich).

    1. I love hearing those old names, Pete Cam. Yes, in those simpler times, players were seemingly more naturally humble and less prone to blow off young fans.

      I was too young to see Abel in his playing prime, but I well remember him as the coach of the Red Wings through a good chunk of the '60s. I was able to interview Matt Pavelich, the former linesman, in the early 1980s. Thanks Pete!