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:
- 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.
- 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.
- To the above point, this is much closer to being a 'Carlyle' squad than what the veteran coach has had here in previous seasons.
- 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.
- Jake Gardiner seems poised to play a huge role this season. He’ll see plenty of ice.
- Nazem Kadri had an impressive first (near) full NHL season and should only get better.
- Impact winger Joffrey Lupul is healthy.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- What if the penalty-killing, so effective and prominent in the Leaf resurgence this past season, reverts to old habits?
- 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?
- Is our overall defense group actually good enough in their own end?
- 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.
- Are expectations for Paul Ranger too high for a player who has not played in the league in years?
- Will Mark Fraser, somewhat exposed in the playoffs, turn out to be a one-year Leaf wonder?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?