For the most part they were the same old Leafs—and for a while it looked like they may yet again grab two points in a game where they were outshot, out-chanced and at times outplayed.
But the thing I really wanted to talk about (and I would have raised the question regardless of the outcome in Columbus) is this: can the Leafs win—and I don’t mean now, in the regular season, but when it matters, come playoff time—with this defense corps?
I guess I raise the issue/question because while I like the team a lot, and believe they have plenty of speed and firepower (and they should be fine in goal—and in the grit department with people coming back from injury), I just wonder about our backline.
I won’t go into great detail. But my quick two-cent synopsis is that most Leaf fans have come to see Phaneuf as a solid front-line defenseman, maybe not quite in the super elite category but he’s pretty darn good overall. He plays against the other team’s best and generally acquits himself well. Gunnarsson is what he is, not fancy but a dependable all-around defender.
My sense is most Leaf observers like Franson a lot, and especially so at his current modest (by modern-era terms) cap hit. And who doesn't like Jake Gardiner’s skills, skating ability and calm demeanor? (Some of us are less than enamored with his seeming determination to rush the puck at will, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
That’s our “top four”. And this kind of brings us to the question of depth as the season moves along.
Clearly, the Leafs have wanted (as I’ve written for weeks) Rielly here all along and so he is staying. He’s someone who may be an impact defenseman some day. If you just look at him as a 19 year-old NHL player, what’s not to like? Paul Ranger? Leaf enthusiasts appreciate everything he has done to get to this point. I’m just not sure he is at his best yet. He is playing hard and tough, but the second Columbus goal Friday night seemed to summarize a lot of what he has been fighting through this season. One small misstep and suddenly the puck is in our net.
I’m not anywhere near enough (despite following this team and the NHL overall for more than five decades) of an expert on defensive positioning to be able to assess whether a defenseman makes the right or wrong move in particular situations. But at times in this young NHL season, Ranger has seemed a step slow or not quite in position. Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.
Mark Fraser is hardly fleet afoot but he is generally reliable in his role. We’ll see when he returns if he is able to deliver what he did during the 2012-’13 regular season. But bottom line, I think that while we are a much better team than we were three years ago, two seasons ago and even last year, I have concerns about the actual quality of our defense corps.
Maybe it’s just me…
One additional thought. Bernier made some outstanding saves Friday night and kept the Leafs in there. But it’s hard not to look at the third Blue Jacket goal and not think that, if Reimer was in goal and was beat high on the glove hand, his legion of critics would never stop talking about it. To me, the truth is that it was an outstanding shot by Dubinsky. Goalies do get beat high. These guys can shoot the puck.)