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The one player the Leafs can least afford to lose for any length of time…

As I was watching the Leafs hold off (take it to?) the Penguins at the ACC on Saturday night, one question kept coming back to me.  And it was no doubt reappearing in my hockey consciousness because we have talked here throughout the early part of the season about the mounting Leaf injury/absence situation. 

As someone noted in the VLM comments section, however, most teams face injuries.  A few seasons back, the Leafs were largely quite fortunate compared to what a lot of teams in the East were facing. So Toronto is hardly unique in this regard.  (The Pens themselves lost a key player Saturday night on what looked like a fairly innocuous hit from David Clarkson.)

Good teams have to not only play—and fight—through injuries, they have to win while doing so.  It’s the NHL.  “Next man up” has got to be the mentality. And it generally is. (And the Leafs have continued to win, despite a lot of critical commentary...)

Now, all this said, some players are maybe more important, more “valuable” (as distinguished from “better” or more skilled players, in some cases), right?  So the question that kept popping back into my head was simply: what current Leaf would most be missed if he was gone for any length of time, or for an entire season?

I waded through the names.  A goalie?  Sure.  Bernier and Reimer have both been pretty darn good overall—each in their own way, with rather different styles.  (On that note- if this is indeed a bottom-line, results-oriented business, do we much care if one guy is more controlled, composed and “efficient” if the other netminder stops just as many pucks? Hasek, for example, was hardly under control at all times…) But if one of our goalies is hurt, the other fills in. There’s no great loss, in a sense.  We just bring up a guy from the Marlies to play what amounts to every fifth game anyway.

Now, if Kessel were to be gone for a long time of course we would notice and miss his explosiveness and productivity.  Saturday night was example number (is infinite a number?) whatever of just how he can have a fairly quiet—by his standards—game and then in a moment, change the outcome.  (I think, by the way, Kessel is putting to rest the notion that some of us may have had over the years that the guy doesn't like to play that much.  I’m pretty sure he shows how much he loves the game by the swashbuckling way he leads the offense—and his reaction after every big Leaf goal. Almost memories of Mats Sundin...)

Recognizing Kessel’s obvious impact, we now have a number of guys who are front-line offensive players.  I don’t mean they are all first-line forwards, but the Leafs now have a roster with people who can play at a high level.  Clarkson and Bolland may not score a ton—though Bolland is showing otherwise so far—but they are both a nasty piece of work out there.  Lupul, if only he will learn to wear his equipment during practice (selfish, by the way—safety trumps comfort) could pick up the offensive slack, as would Kadri.

So while the loss of one formidable forward would be damaging, it may not be devastating. And I say that in part because we now have goaltending and we also (finally) have a third and forth line who are closer to true third and fourth lines—trios that can check and, at times, shut down or at least often hem  the opposition in their own zone.  We can win close games.  We don't need to score 5 goals a night to earn two points.

We’ve played without Lupul for a fair bit of the past two seasons, so while he is dearly important, we have won without him.  Kadri would be a loss for a lot of reasons.  His edgy play is a treat, not to make his ability to see the ice.  That’s a gift. But we would shift guys around and probably make a deal to acquire someone to give us a bit of offensive production in his absence. (Hey Grabovski is not playing big minutes in Washington, after his auspicious debut in Game 1; maybe he’s available…)

I love McClement and he is a very valuable part of the puzzle, but I don’t think we would need to be forlorn if he was out. (The penalty kill would suffer, and I acknowledge that has been a significant element in the Leaf ‘resurgence’ the last two seasons. But otherwise, we have the pieces to fill in for him.)

Bottom line, while those players are not easily replaceable, the Leafs could work around their losses to some degree.

So this leads me to our defense corps, as I talked about the other day here.  I think you know where I’m going with this. Gunnarsson played hurt a year ago and seems healthy now.  He’s a nice second-pair defenseman and like any decent NHL player would leave a hole if he was out.  But 'OK' defensemen we seem to have a lot of in the system.  I certainly would miss Franson, who brings different dimensions to his position at both ends of the ice—some smart offensive skills and the ability to get the puck to the net, as well as a physicality that most of us did not necessarily anticipate when we first saw him here.

The kids, like Gardiner and Rielly, have immense potential and yes, would be missed—though more at times for the dreams fans have for them than for what they may deliver on any given night this season.

But the one indispensible Leaf right now, the guy who plays the most minutes, kills penalties, handles the point on the power play and is asked to - as best he can - shut down the opposition’s top forwards every night, game in and game out, is, of course, the captain.

To me, the once maligned (and still un-signed) Phaneuf is the one player on the Leafs right now that we would have the most difficult time living without.  Jake Gardiner could probably play 30 minutes a night (he barely looks like he has to breathe out there) but would we want that at this stage of his career?  I don’t sense he is quite in a place, defensively at least, to take on that kind of responsibility. I sense we are already stretching Gunner about as far as he can go as a first-pairing guy.  Maybe Franson could take on more, sure, but like most players, he may have his own ceiling that really isn’t being tested right now in the situations he plays in.

The bottom line?  Dion Phaneuf may well be the most “valuable” Leaf right now.  Not necessarily their best or most skilled player, but the most important guy on this roster. I did not picture myself saying this three years ago, or even last season. But when I look at where the team has come from, where it is, who helped get them here, as much as I have voiced at times only middlish support for the captain, it is time for me to give him his due.

One way I can do that is by acknowledging where he fits right now.  New contract or not, he is, to me, the one player we can ill afford, and in truth, least afford to lose if we have serious aspirations of a playoff run—whatever that might mean—in the spring of 2014.

Yes? No?

**

Update: over the weekend I received notice that my eBook, "The Maple Leafs of My Youth: what being a Leaf fan means to me" is now available on Amazon Kindle!  More details are available here.

16 comments:

  1. MIchael,

    Absolutely spot on, Dion is right now, our most valuable player. We have depth everywhere else for the most part. Losing him at this point would be disastrous in my opinion. No one we have left is capable of thriving against the best players on the other teams. We don't have a number one centre, but we do have some very good and capable forwards. This is our greatest strength right now. Lupul gets hurt, again, and someone is there to fill in, as well as fill the net. I do find it curious that Carlyle is admonishing the players for not wearing equipment that would keep them safe in all situations. Perhaps Lupuls feet get too hot when he wears them, and that leads to sprains and strains, as well as bruises. Think about it.

    Back to the goalie situation for a moment if I may. Its not so much for me that I feel one goalie is better per se, it just seems like the team is comfortable when Bernier is in net. I obviously don't know if they are or aren't, it may be just perceived on my part. Reimer sure did play great last night, and was full measure for the the win in my books. I assume that he plays again on Tuesday with Bernier getting the second of the back to backs, and if Reimer wins on Tuesday, that he would get the start on Saturday against the Canucks. I hope he gets the win. I do think that the best goalie will win the job, only if they are more or less equal will the nod be to Bernier. Otherwise, why get him.

    Love your work here, and I plan to be reading a copy of your book. I'm sure its great.

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  2. We're in agreement on Phaneuf, Jim. Time for me to acknowledge his value here. (Not that I have been unduly critical of him; I just haven't probably given him his due.)

    And thank you for mentioning the book- hope you enjoy it. I'll look forward to your feedback.

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  3. I am in complete agreement with you on this. I've often thought the only way Leaf fans would appreciate Dion would be if he were injured and out for an extended period of time. I also hope it never happens. Last year his minutes were ridiculous. He barely had the legs to reach the bench and would be over the boards again 30 seconds later. Of course he was slow and made some bad decisions! Your brain can't function under such circumstances, he did well to find the bench. We are seeing what cutting down his minutes means to his game this season even though it's a minimal amount.
    I also take exception to fans who question the choice to give him the C. His team-mates are the only ones that know the type of leader Dion is, but he's a veteran on this team, he's intelligent and articulate ( you won't hear a single "you know" in an interview), he's constantly directing players on the ice and talking with Randy during practices. More importantly Dion is very capable of changing the momentum of a game by himself with a huge hit or timely goal. We seen it time and time again. This not only shows strong leadership but also that his team-mates recognize it, are very conscious of Dion as their leader and they respond. When Phaneuf is "on" the team is too. When he is over-worked, tired and makes a mistake we see the effect on the team. We have several leaders on and of the ice but no one works harder, no one deserves the C on his jersey more and no one is more essential for the success of this team than Dion.
    Thanks Michael. Anxious for another Hangout episode. There's nothing else like it that I know of. C.N.

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    1. Well said, C.N.- I've been something of a 'late adapter' when it comes to Dion, but you make a compelling case.

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  4. I mentioned Lyles in an earlier post as we have been going with six defensemen. Apparently he has been called up to accompany the Leafs out West. C.N.

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    1. CN beat me to the punch!!

      Though I would add that I believe the Liles call up serves multiple functions: Having 7 defensemen available on the western road trip (the stated reason), but also provides opportunity to sit Rielly for a couple games of 'training and perspective from the press box' (keeping his 40 game Free agent limit down a bit - part of why I think he'll be at the world juniors, too); AND the showcasing of a good veteran defenseman for Edmonton and Calgary to peruse firsthand.

      If Liles is moved in a trade, then another minor leaguer would be in line for an opportunity after the next injury (because Fraser should be back in the mix after the road trip).

      I think your Phaneuf assessment is spot-on, Michael! There is nobody that could fill his role on this team right now and he has been playing very well, noticeably having a significant impact upon the top lines from other teams.

      I would also comment that Ranger is doing well at eliminating opponents from their objectives in a very effective physical manner... and I trust that he'll close up some of the weaker areas as he gets his NHL game legs under him (though I acknowledge there have been a few 'gaffs' along the way, I still think there's lots of upside to his game).

      I'm also impressed with Gardiner's commitment to more physical takeouts... he seems to be appropriating the Carlyle teaching a lot more often the last few games.

      Bozak's injury is a great opportunity for Kadri to show his stuff... one wonders what might happen if he excels. It seems one of Tyler's 'strengths' (the faceoff) is somewhat diminished this year. Wonder if the playoff bicep(?) injury situation is fully healed or if there are some lasting effects that are impacting his ability on the draw.

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    2. All solid observations, as usual, InTimeFor62. C.N. hit the Liles point indeed; also, as you noted, Ranger is (hopefully) slowing becoming what he can be and I've noticed the same thing you mentioned about Gardiner the last couple of games. He'll need to continue on that path.

      As for Kadri, who knows what may evolve!?

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  5. I agree with everything that's being said about the Captain here - he is an amazing player, I love him as captain - I've been singing him praises on here for a while as I'm sure you'll recall. He is probably irreplaceable. But I'd have to go with Kessel here just because I feel that if the Captain were gone we could still outscore the opponents with Kessel in the line-up but if Kessel were gone I just don't see anyone being able to do what he does on the power-play or on the attack. Kessel can be counted to make a pure genius play on average once per game and is a constant threat drawing the attention of the best defencemen in the league night after night. Like Phaneuf on defence, Kessel is by far our best forward. There is just no other forward that comes close to the level of skill and work-ethic (and health) that he brings whereas I feel that Franson may be ready to fill Phaneuf's shoes if he had to.

    By the way, I looooove your hangouts and I was really impressed with Anthony on the last show. Can't wait for the next one. You're doing amazing work all around Michael. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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    1. You make a very fair point about Kessel, leafdreamer. I hear you loud and clear. Kessel has been and is an 'essential service' Leaf.

      And thank you for the kind words about the Hangout show. Still a work in progress but hopefully we'll get there.

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  6. When I read your headline I immediately thought Dion Phaneuf. Last season at this point I would have said James Reimer but Nonis has deftly taken care of that contingency. Short of trading for Shea Weber, Phaneuf is the only logical answer.

    I don't know why it has taken a significant part of the Leaf Nation, myself included, so long to warm up to and appreciate Phaneuf. It should have been easy to admire a minute eating shut down defenseman who killed penalties and quarterbacked the power play. I believe that he was exposed too often to odd number situations under Wilson but that he is really thriving in Carlyle's more defensively responsible system and we are finally able to see and acknowledge his excellence.

    I only hope that the Team Canada selection committee has been paying attention and that Phaneuf can take his place with Canada's best. It's about time that a Leaf is on Team Canada.

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    1. I hadn't thought about the Team Canada angle, Pete Cam, but you raise an interesting point. If they will be basing their roster selections on how guys are actually playing this season, he would surely be hard not to consider. Thanks Pete.

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  7. An aside to InTimeFor62: It is my understanding that as long as a player is with a team all games, whether he is playing or in the press box count toward the 40 game limit. Since he would not be with the team, I am pretty certain that any Leaf games played if he were with Team Canada would not count against the limit.

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    1. Thanks Pete Cam, that makes sense though I had wondered about the possibility because the 9/10 game threshold wasn't reached until Rielly actually played 9 games (after sitting 2), so I didn't know if the same was true of the 40 games.

      I believe someone (Anthony at MLHS?) might have suggested Rielly could be sent to the Marlies after his 20th birthday (following the world juniors), but I'm not sure if that could keep him under the 40 games (especially if he continues to grow without regression and grabs a spot in the lineup).

      It'll be interesting to find out how he's managed up to/through the 40 game mark.

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  8. VS Phaneuf: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Semin, Kane, Toews, Hossa, Perry, & Getzlaf have COMBINED for one goal. @ReimNier #TMLTalk #Leafs #Sochi

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  9. Wouldn't it be nice to have a Leaf playing for Canada. We're supplying two for the U.S. With injuies around that time Lupul may have a chance along with Phaneuf.
    RENT-A-KESSEL: A typo on TSN had Kessel scoring for the Leafs and adding two goals for the Canucks which resulted in several humourous posts. What a guy!! C.N.

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