Well, we’ve hit the ‘mark’ I refer to every season, the time when I invite VLM readers to step up to the plate and share their thoughts on where this team is headed, now 20 games in. I’ll start with a few personal observations, and let you take it from there.
Some of my feelings about the team are influenced, naturally, by the fact that we have missed two of our centers (Bozak and Bolland) for extended periods. We all recognize that Bolland will be gone a long time. Clarkson also missed the beginning of the season with that suspension and Kulemin and Fraser have missed time as well. (Fraser looks to be out again, which opens the door for Rielly to play full-time going forward, I presume.)
My overall view is that the team, while certainly owning a quite satisfactory record, still has not played many (any?) games where we, as fans, can sit back and say, “Boy, they were on their game tonight from start to finish. Lots of offensive pressure, gave up very few scoring chances, played smart, aggressive, penalty-free hockey, etc…”
Instead, we have usually been reduced to saying, “Good thing our goalie was great again tonight. Glad we got that power play goal. Kessel (or Kadri or van Riemsdyk) came alive just in time. We really got outplayed but hey, at least we won…”.
Those are very general kind of overview comment to make, I realize, but I’m just trying to describe the feeling that I sense a lot of Leaf fans have at this point in the season. On any given day, the cup will feel as though it is half full. But it can also feel as though it is moving closer to, well, empty.
I doubt many Leaf observers will take umbrage with the notion that our goaltending has been pretty darn good. I’d have to look up the individual stats, but it sure seems like both Bernier and Reimer have good “numbers”. We have all observed Bernier’s calm demeanor in goal, the composed way he plays the game. He inhales the puck more often than not.
For his part, Reimer creates palpitations, I’m sure, for many Leaf supporters. But isn’t it time for even his critics to concede that, for all his alleged flaws and the criticism he takes (glove hand, too scrambly, rebound control, etc.) he’s a fighter and a heck of a young goaltender.
Now, I have no idea if this standard of netminding can continue, but for now, they have saved our bacon quite a few nights. That said, that’s what goalies are supposed to do, eh? It’s good that we are finally back in that group of teams (like we used to be in the days of Potvin, Joseph and Belfour) that can count on an inspiring performance most nights from the guys in goal.
I don't really know what to say about our defense corps. On any given night, I feel they are pretty good. In the same breath, I will turn around and think, “We need to be better back there”. On an individual basis we can find plenty to like about each guy: Phaneuf, with his ability to play against top lines and log minutes and play both ends of the ice; Gunnarsson’s calm, generally mistake-free presence; Franson’s emerging overall game; Gardiner’s sometimes electric (if high-risk a little too often for my liking—witness Reimer having to make a game-saving stop in the third period Saturday against the Sabres after Jake turned the puck over in front of his own goal) play. Fraser has guts galore and is a a hard-working, team-first player. Ranger has toughness and a high compete level as well, though I still see too many little errors that lead to scoring chances against.
As for Rielly, we’ve all seen his game now and he will only get better as time goes on once he is fully comfortable playing at this level. (Maybe he already is—he certainly presents like a confident young man.) So our defense group is either really good, pretty good, or needs to improve- take your pick.
It’s difficult to be too harsh on our forward group given the injuries we have sustained. Kessel was lighting it up early on, but has been quieter lately (one point in his last 7 games, I believe). That’s standard stuff for Phil, who to me almost always plays much the same but tends to produce goals in bunches- and then is off the scoresheet for a while.
Bozak is widely disliked by a large (or just louder?) contingent of Leafers. Yet surely we have come to see he is a contributing player who has actually been missed a fair bit. Bolland’s absence, for me, leaves a very big gap in terms of the overall game he brings along with his versatility. We will miss his experience and leadership as well.
I’ll leave it to others to review Clarkson’s work. The heart seems to be willing—the “numbers” aren’t there, though that will likely be balanced somewhat as the season moves along. It’s hard to miss van Riemsdyk’s value as an offensive catalyst—he’s not afraid to be around the net, and has awfully good hands. Kadri continues to emerge as a dynamic threat. Lupul is Lupul, though am I wrong in thinking he has not been quite the impact guy we thought he would be this season, after a sterling start to the year? (Has he had many goals over the past dozen or so games?) Again, he may be missing injured teammates, I don’t know. I also wonder if he is worried about trying to impress the Team Canada brass?
We have plenty of skill players at this point—I just named some of them. Mason Raymond has been a solid overall contributor. But I will say that, especially with the all the injuries, we have a lot of what I like to call “nice” players—guys who are certainly NHL caliber, but don’t excite me much. Smithson, Bodie (now back with the Marlies), the newcomer Holland, Smith and of course the ever-present Orr and McLaren would be in that category for me. I still love McClement but I just feel like we have a lot of “filler” players right now. Which is fine, every NHL team does. I just wonder if we will have what we need for that much-discussed long playoff run.
I guess I can say, “Hey, bottom line, the Leafs are winning more than they lose”. And that’s true. But while we have moments where we look great (the recent Boston game) there are times that we look a bit like the old, stumbling-around-out-there Leafs. That was in evidence on Saturday night as Toronto was seemingly determined to let the Sabres back into the game. Had Reimer caved even a little, does anyone doubt, the way the Leafs were back-peddling, we could have lost that game in regulation 4-3?
So while I remain optimistic overall (goaltending can take you a long way), I do wonder if we have the scrappiness in our game to go along with the skill we possess. Oh, we can retaliate by fighting, as I mentioned in my last post, but that doesn’t reassure me that we have the team toughness that I thought we had, to go along with the aforementioned skill and offensive prowess. (I haven’t even mentioned Carlyle today, and the good and not-so-good that he seems to bring to the equation—I know he’s a lightning rod for a lot of Leaf fans.)
I’ll turn it over to you—20 games into a new, hope-filled season, are you confident we are on the right path? Are we just talking about that low-hanging fruit—making the playoffs—or can this Leaf squad do a lot better than that? Let me know…