Now, as recently as this past Saturday night at home at the ACC against the Capitals, the Leafs eked out a shootout win despite giving up 50 shots and having two players on the roster who combined for less than 8 minutes of ice time (Orr and McLaren). Now, in fairness, if we check the Washington lineup, their fourth-line guys played not much more. In fact, our fourth line center, Smithson, played about a minute more than the Caps’ Latta, his counterpart.
I’ve long tried to defend, if I can call it that, Carlyle’s decision-making in terms of deploying his personnel. Some of us, as fans/observers, may not like his choices but I’ve always tended to believe that, stats/advanced stats-focused or not, a good coach has the pulse of his team. He sees who is working in practice, know the opposition, their tendencies and what they are likely to throw at us. As a result, he is best positioned, obviously, to make the ultimate judgment calls about who should play on any given night—full stop.
We all understand that while both Orr and McLaren have their moments as physical fore-checkers and certainly work hard when they get a chance to actually play, they are primarily in place to counteract the tough guys on the other side and to provide protection for players like Kessel and Kadri. (Those skill players are not useful if they spend a lot of time in the penalty box—or on the injured list—as a result of fisticuffs.) I get all that, and I sense most Leaf fans at least grudgingly acknowledge that you don’t want to go into many NHL arenas without someone on your bench who can “stand up” for teammates, as people like to say. Sadly (at least to me) it remains the way the game of hockey here is structured, what the NHL brass wants (or they could easily get rid of these antics) and the way most NHL coaches choose to construct their lineup.
In local (Toronto) terms, what it does, however, in my mind, is limit our ability to develop certain young players and to really see what someone like, say, Carter Ashton can/could bring to this lineup. And I don’t mean by playing five minutes a night every third game. I mean seeing if this young winger could become something more than a pedestrian, replaceable NHL winger who gets, at best, occasional spot duty.
I don’t think we will ever know what Ashton really is until he gets a run of games, like ten in a row, where he plays at least 10 minutes a night and knows he will be in the lineup every night. Hey, if because he “knows” he will play he begins to float and take things for granted, then the team knows what it has. But if he plays like he has sometimes shown he can, with jump and physicality and some offensive ability as well, why would he not deserve, all things being equal, to be in the lineup on a regular basis? Surely he could be in the lineup at the expense of a player who may or may not fight in a given game, and who may or may not get more than 3 minutes of ice time—and no shifts when the game is on the line because the coach has no faith that that player can prevent a goal against quality opposition.
Some of you will recall that I have said similar things about other players in the past (Kadri, as I recall). That is, unless we give them regular linemates, extended playing time in favourable circumstances, and don’t bounce them back and forth between the Marlies, the press box and spot duty with the Leafs, we won’t know what we have. We now know Kadri is a player; let’s find out about Ashton.
On the theme of giving a guy a chance for extended playing time, isn’t it time for Reimer to get that shot in Toronto this season? I have zero issue with Jonathan Bernier. In fact, he has generally been a solid, dependably, at times spectacular netminder for us. My long-term concerns about the current ‘tandem’ have not changed or diminished; this will not end well, but for now, the Leafs and their fans can enjoy having two capable goaltenders. But I do wonder why Reimer, who has been the Leaf starting netminder for most of the past three seasons and re-earned that job every season, is still getting the short end of the stick. Some have suggested it is because of his early season injury/illness but I don’t buy it. I won’t go over the same old ground but it is patently obvious that the Leaf brass is pulling for Bernier to “earn” the top job. Fair enough, I suppose. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Reimer just continues to plug away. He had that one sub-par game against the Senators in his second start of the season, and another start where he was knocked out of very early by injury. But his stats aside (and they’re not bad, like a 6 and 2 record, a 2.10 GAA and a save percentage of .947), it feels to me as though it is time to give Reimer an extended series of starts—at least three games, regardless of how he plays.
To me, a goalie eventually has to feel the coaching staff believes in them. Right now, I have the distinct feeling that Reimer is playing his guts out precisely because a) he always does and b) he knows the situation in Toronto. He understands that Bernier (no one in the organization will ever say it out loud, at least not publicly) is the guy the Leafs want for the future. No one can afford to carry two goaltenders that are similarly capable—and want the net and will also want first-string money.
I hear people say all the time, “stop the goalie talk, just be happy the Leafs have two solid netminders”. That’s all very nice, and for now, it is true. But it is also a delusion, or soon will become one. In the interim, Reimer (and Bernier as well) needs to play a string of games, whether he lets in a bad goal here or there or not—just like any other number-one goalie in the league. This business of “win and you’re in” was obviously crap, so let’s give each guy a string of games and see where things stand.
Clarkson was a feisty fellow on Saturday night, eh? I suggested here in a recent post that, in two or so months’ time, he would likely be settled in and all would be well in Leafland when it comes to Clarkson. Some fans will never embrace the size or term of his contract but if he plays as he did against the Caps, he’ll be a welcome addition. You need players with grit and, as I often call it, real toughness. I think this guy has it, and the occasional goal will help smooth ruffled perceptions of him in the early going here…
I mentioned in a recent “Maple Leaf Hangout” episode (the program that aired as he was being put back into the lineup after missing a fair bit of time as a healthy scratch) that I sensed Morgan Rielly was ready to break out a bit. I did not mean that he would start scoring goals in bunches and all that, simply that, though he is only 19, I doubt he likes sitting. He badly wants to get some ice time.
Since that time he has been a pretty dependable player for Carlyle, pushing the play at times and still being responsible for the most part in his own zone. I think it was a big thing that Ranger sat and Rielly played on Saturday night. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of Ranger, a hard-working guy to be sure. I simply mean that Rielly had managed to get in the lineup, finally, when Mark Fraser was also available to play, and that meant the kid defenseman had to push a veteran out of the lineup. He played over 19 minutes against the Caps, almost all of it at equal strength, so his minutes weren’t all “protected”. It will be interesting to see where this goes, in terms of lineup decisions.
The Leafs remain a funny bunch. I have long talked about their lack of identity here—long before Carlyle himself was quoted on the subject recently saying, essentially, that the team did not really have one. Yet against the middlish Eastern Confernece, they continue to survive and even a bit better than that, sitting as they are right now with a record of 14-8-1, tied for second in the Atlantic and third overall, if I’m not mistaken. (That could change quickly and we all know the Leafs have a challenging schedule coming up in December.)
But good goaltending generally gets you places, and the Leafs are scoring just enough to win most nights with Phaneuf shutting down the top forwards on the other side- and without shooting themselves too often in the foot along the way.