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So the Leafs can win with an 18-man roster…and let’s give Ashton (and Reimer) a legitimate shot…

One of the ongoing debates in the Carlyle ‘era’ of Leaf hockey here in Toronto is whether it makes any sense at all for the Leaf bench boss to continue to dress two enforcers/heavyweights/face-punchers/utility forwards (you choose the most appropriate term) most nights.

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.

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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.

19 comments:

  1. Hi Michael.
    I couldn't agree more. Dressing two enforcers doesn't make any sense to me. I don't know what Randy is expecting but I think Orr out there along with Clarkson and Ashton (if he ever gets a chance) would be sufficient protection. The Leafs are very short on the very type of player Ashton shows signs of becoming, the gritty sort of player Carlyle likes. I must be missing something.......
    I do wish we could see Reimer more. He's used to playing a lot of games and I'm amazed he can stay so sharp and focused after several days off. Bernier, on the other hand, is used to long spells between games.
    Michael, will your book be published in print? I'd like it for my brother for Christmas and E-book isn't an option for him -no cable available, minimal and slow internet) Thanks, C.N.

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    1. Thanks for kick-starting the conversation on this one, C.N.

      As for the book, no, it won't be in print form. (Many reasons!) But some readers have contacted me to say they were able to print it off. after they downloaded it. Send me an email at michael@prospectcommunicaitons.com and I can try to explain how that could possibly be done once the book is downloaded.

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  2. Hi Michael

    Well, you certainly bit off a fair amount on this post, didn't you?

    ASHTON: I'm totally with you on this one as you may recall. I find it unfathomable that we would continue to dress 2 players when the same coach selecting them doesn't trust them to do anything but fight when (a) we have Clarkson ready to fight any time it's deemed necessary as well and (b) Ashton will also fight if necessary but can at least skate as if his legs aren't tied together.

    REIMER/BERNIER: This issue has been a mosquito in your bedroom whining around your ears, hasn't it, Michael? I guess I fall into the 'what's the big problem?' camp. I mean, would you really trade one of them right now when we forcing them each to face an inordinate amount of shots every night as a matter of strategy? Just because Reimer's a swell guy? I don't mean to mock, but I do think you are letting your extremely positive assessment of the lad's character distract you from what is best for the team at times.

    CLARKSON: Yeah, so he's finally scored a couple of goals. Sorry, his contract will never NOT be an issue for me until he's scoring 20+

    REILLY: Isn't he looking great? I wonder if Fraser's contract and roster spot was predicated on the very effective partnership he formed with Franson last year. And if management is now liking the Franson-Gardiner pairing, Fraser's value will now be perceived as dropping. But hey, Reilly is so very young if he, Ranger and Fraser split the third pairing duties all year, I wont be upset by that. I'll admit I wouldn't mind seeing them pair up Fraser and Franson again though. I'd be rather titillated by that, Phaneuf/Gardiner and Rielly-Gunnarsson although I'm not sure Gardiner's quite ready for that. Certainly when they've been faced with monstrous opposition (Pittsburgh, Washington) Phaneuf and Gunnar have really shown class.



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    1. Hi KiwiLeaf- I always look forward to your posts here. Yes, like you, I'd like to see Ashton be given a 'fair' chance over a period of games.

      I hear you on the Reimer matter. I have little doubt my favourable impression of him impacts my views, but I find it hard to imagine that even his critics can't see that he has played well as a Leaf over the years- and this season, too. We'll see how he and Bernier perform over time.

      Fraser remains a generally dependable guy, but as you say, how he will be paired up will be worth watching going forward. Thanks KiwiLeaf.

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  3. I think part of the reason they may have sent down Ashton is so that he continues to get some time as an offensive player and those parts of his skill game continue to develop. Though it may be an effective 4th line with Ashton, Smithson and Orr, Ashton's offensive game is likely to stagnate by playing with a guy like Orr, who would rather throw a hit than make plays with the puck.


    Ashton had a goal and 2 assists with the Marlies in 2 games on Saturday and Sunday. He even got one of those points on the power play. He never sees a minute of power play time with the Leafs

    They might also be trying to manage Ashton's wavier exemption status by sending him down. We don't need to lose another player in the same way that we lost Joe Colborne.

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  4. You're no doubt right, DP, that the brass wants Ashton to get minutes and a chance to evolve as an all-around player. He can do that as a Marlie. At some point, though, he will need an extended shot with the big club. Thanks DP.

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  5. I cannot understand why the Leafs continue to play enforcers against teams like Washington. It has the effect of shortening their bench against a high energy team whereas a robust 10 minute 4th line could take some pressure off the top 3 and provide fore checking physicality.

    I have been impressed with Smithson as a 4th line centre. He is our best faceoff option, an adept penalty killer and be also checks and hits effectively. Carter Ashton seems to be our best option as a winger. He is a big bodied aggressive checker who can skate and hit. Colton Orr has shown he can handle the forechecking role but I wonder if Trevor Smith could be shifted to wing to round out the 4th line. He has played well when called up. I believe that he would provide energy to the line as he is certainly hungry to stay in the bigs.

    I will be very disappointed if Reimer doesn't start tonight. He has certainly earned the start. While I am very happy with the play of Vernier I have always been a Reimer booster and avidly hope that he remains with the Leafs.

    On a goaltender note: I find it interesting that two ex Leaf netminders are making their mark elsewhere. Gustavsson is playing well for Detroit and Scrivens has been lights out for LA. Unfortunately we developed them and don't have much of a plus benefit to show for it.

    I was very pleased with the 2nd line against Washington. They fore checked and cycled the puck effectively, leading to numerous scoring chances. The combination of Lupul, Kadri and Clarkson is one we envisioned with relish at the beginning of the season. They showed what they are capable of Saturday and I believe they could become our most effective all around line.

    Phaneuf and Gunnarsson were excellent Saturday; a true shutdown pair. I believe that was Gunnarsson's best game since the beginning of last season. Rielly looked like he has gained confidence and was very effective on the right side paired with Fraser. Gardiner looked more like his old self (although he still has a ways to go) playing his preferred left side paired with Grandson. If our 7th defenseman is Paul Ranger, then we are indeed in pretty good shape in regards to our backline.

    This is truly an enigmatic team, frustrating at times, but one cannot be disappointed with their record. With the return of Bozak their first 3 lines should be stabilized and hopefully we will see more even efforts in the future.

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    1. Thanks for that post today, Pete Cam- and by the way, enigmatic is an apt word to describe this club so far, to be sure! Thanks Pete.

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  6. On the subject of goaltending, does it not seem like the goalie who sits out for a game comes back extremely focussed?
    Not sure if the stats back me up on this but that is the feeling I get. Perhaps its motivation or perhaps its just that our goalies function better at 100% energy level.
    I say keep alternating them. If they end up with 41 games each that will mean that both goalies will have new career highs in terms of games played per season.

    With respect to Clarkson, his contract does not bother me. The money should not matter to us as long as the Leafs have the ability to get rid of the contract should things not work out. As far as I know, hisNTC/NMC is limited so if the Leafs have to get rid of him they can. If he does work out, he brings a very needed component to our team (real toughness as you call it). I really like the thought of a Lupul/Kadri/Clarkson line and think they complement the Kessel/JVR tandem nicely.

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    1. Good to hear from you, Apollo678. Leaf fans will be forgiving (re the contract), I sense, if Clarkson plays a strong all-around game on a consistent basis.

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  7. Sorry about the misspellings (Vernier, Grandson). I composed this on my cell phone which has a mind of its own. Sometimes it changes words to what it thinks I meant. I love modern technology for the most part but sometimes it is exasperating.

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    1. Not to worry, Pete. Happens to me (and many people) all the time on various online formats. Auto-correct changes words completely sometimes.

      If only it could help change lottery ticket numbers to become winners...

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  8. MIchael,

    This post had me nodding along the whole way. The coach is wasting everyones time playing the goons. They offer nothing, and hurt the development of the young players who have shown some promise. I am waiting to hear today who sits so Bozak can play. I hope its not Holland, he has played well, scored a little and certainly has more to offer than a face puncher. I am assuming the worst, we send him down repeatedly, end up losing all his options, and trading him away for nothing. The same can certainly be said for Ashton, I like his game as well. I just don't like either's chance of playing with this team long term, under this coach.

    The Leafs certainly are reliant on specialists. From Smithson, and Steckel, to Bodie, Orr and McLaren. Watching Smithson take a faceoff, then race to the bench twenty times a night, or shadowing Ovechkin on the PK, is interesting to say the least. I have heard that the coach is doing the best with what he has. Perhaps the staff could, you know, help the other players improve their deficiencies, instead of just getting some meat bag on waivers who is only good at one thing in the game.

    I'm fine with Clarkson's play, three years from now, I am certain that his contract will be as ludicrous as Tuckers. We are still paying Darcy, right? I get that the coach only cares about this year, he should. Where is the long term vision from the management team? Loiselle, Fletcher, Poulin, Nonis, these mopes can't think that putting players in the press box or the minors is good for the long term development of the franchise, can they? How many guys do the Leafs have to give up on, to acquire another one dimensional NHL journeyman?

    I am fine with the goaltending situation this year. If Bernier or Reimer, end up being the guy that gets traded, I'm going to support it. I will say this, the mopes in the office better make the right choice. If either of them get traded, and go on to a Rask like career, I won't forgive any of them. For now, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, play them both, and make a decision next summer. Who gets a few more starts right now, isn't really bothering me. They are both playing better than darn good, with my own edge given to Reimer.

    Rielly, I hope that he is getting the environment he needs to succeed and become a super star. He's nineteen and immensely talented. I hope the Leafs allow him to become the player he can be, and don't ruin him. I have watched that movie before.

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    1. All your comments caught my eye, Jim, but your last paragraph is key: Leaf fans of a certain age well remember this movie- an exceptional 'under-age' talent (especially defensemen) who go south or on to a career- elsewhere.

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  9. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Having an effective fourth line will wear out the opposition. Having that fourth line to play the tough minutes keeps your top two lines fresh. Your top two lines not being hemmed in their own zone means they are putting offensive pressure on the opposition.

    I've made my own feelings on the issue of face punchers taking up roster spots, and what a waste of space they can be. I've also said often how I think an effective fourth line, ala Boston Bruins, is necessary for a team to compete in the long run, especially in the playoffs. There's a reason why teams like the Bruins have beaten up on the Leafs for years now. The Leafs looked absolutely silly putting Orr and McLaren on the ice against Buffalo, expecting a sequel to the pre-season game, and ended up losing to one of the worst teams in the league because the Sabres declined to play in to their game. If the Leafs insist on putting one or the other of those two guys on the ice, I guess I can live with it. Both having both of them dress on any given night is essentially playing, as you said it, with 18 skaters, and it severely limits their chances of competing in the NHL.

    As you pointed out, Ashton needs some time on the ice to bloom, and I absolutely agree that allowing him to play his game with enough minutes to display all of his skills would show that he belongs here. It is unfortunate that he is up and down with the Marlies while McLaren has his spot locked up.

    As much as I have been impressed with Bernier, I too am happy to see how Reimer has played. Whether or not having Bernier pushing him has made a difference, Reimer is blowing up management's best laid plans to push him aside. As we have discussed before, the Leafs will not be able to keep both long term, and Reimer is sure making their decisions difficult.

    I'm not surprised to see Ranger scratched from the lineup. He just has not impressed me and shown that he's back to his NHL calibre of play. An aside to that, I don't think the Leafs want to keep Gardiner with the franchise once they are comfortable with Rielly in the lineup as their speedy, puck moving defenseman. I suspect they are playing both right now more because they want to display Gardiner to the rest of the league as trade bait. They apparently have more faith in Ranger and Fraser than I do.

    Thank you for bringing up "identity" at this juncture. I know you've asked the question many times before, but it really got me thinking after the Nashville game. They didn't play their worst game of the year for certain, but they really got an up-close look at a team that has that identity, and can be a real tough nut to crack when they're on their game. I'd really like to see the Leafs play with a specific identity like that. It sure would help to avoid those white knuckle rides like the Capitals game.

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  10. You point about the impact a fourth line can have is a very good one, Pete. Right now, we don't even have a representative fourth line, at least by the standards of a truly elite team vying for something serious at the end of the season. So it remains, at this point, an issue.

    It will be fascinating to watch the defines pairings unfold in the weeks ahead. We have 7 legitimate NHL defensemen (more in the minors?) and that is a good thing. Who is in the long-term plans is another question.

    Our discussion here about the team's identity (or lack of one) is not to suggest there is not the talent or desire here to be a very good team. I'm just not sure we can go far until we know what we are - and consistently play to that self-determination - and self-belief.

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  11. I love our fourth line. I think the role of the fourth line should be to grind down the opposition with big hits, win fights that they get into, and keep the play in the opposite end of the ice. Most importantly they are there to insure that our star players are not subject to dirty hits and plays. I feel comfortable knowing that McLaren is there to take that ten-minute suspension for coming over the boards in case someone again tries to go after Kessel. I think they've done that well. I don't think Bodie and Ashton, Devane aor Broll are ready to take on that responsibility - they are just too young and/or weak for the NHL - all have struggled in fights during the preseason and none have delivered the kind of thunderous hits that Orr can deliver - the hits that really hurt the defencemen that receive them. It doesn't look like any of them is good to produce points either. There's nothing wrong with keeping them in minors where they can keep working on their game and be ready to step up in case of injuries.

    Clarkson is playing well and now putting up points. He's kind of taken off from where Bolland left off. I see him as kind of Bolland-light. I really miss Bolland. I think it would make much more sense for Bolland's and Clarkson's contracts to be flipped around. Still, as the years roll by, I think Clarkson's contract will become less of a problem as the cap goes up.

    The best thing about this team IMO is the depth in the organization. The only reason we're bickering over here about who should play is because we have options - so many that we have former Leafs shining all over the league (4 Leafs goalies in top ten in the NHL). Let Ashton, Smith and Holland light up the AHL and be ready to step into a scoring role in the NHL if some of our star-forwards go down. Let Devane and Broll train their fists on the weaker opponents and be ready if Orr or McLaren get hurt. There's nothing wrong with having depth.

    Quarter of the season in, I'm beginning to see the acquisition of Bernier as Nonis's greatest accomplishment so far. Competition has been good so far for both goalies as they've both played lights-out. The longer we can keep this tandem together the better our chances of winning the Cup. I figure we have maybe 2 years window (probably one). A real test of Reimer's committment to the Leafs will be in this upcoming offseason when he'll be faced with the options of being a starter on a lesser team or taking a home-town discount and going for the cup. If Bolland comes back for the playoffs we have a shot.

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  12. Great post as always, leafdreamer. I don't always agree but always enjoy your commentary.

    One comment I would make is that I do not see Reimer signing or not with the Leafs as a test of his commitment to the club. He owes them nothing, especially given how he has been, in my view, treated by the organization. He fought for and won the top job three years running. I sure don't expect him to stay here as a backup to another guy just because he likes the Leafs. Not a chance.

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  13. Hi Michael,

    Well, that was an interesting turn of events last night. It made me think a fair bit about the team, in a more detached way. More big picture stuff, rather than who is in goal, or what the fourth line looks like.

    I hope that the players on the team get the message. Relying solely on your goalies to win games, isn't the best path to success. It can work, Roy and Hasek come to mind. They both got their teams farther than I would have ever predicted. When Hasek burst onto the scene, I didn't think he had a chance to survive more than a year or two. I really believed that the players in the League would figure him out. Man was I wrong. His flopping around worked until he retired. It seems to me like the Leafs play as if they feel destined to have the two best goalies in the game. I am curious to see how they respond on Wednesday against the Pens. Do they hang back and assume the goal tending rebounds? Or do they take it upon themselves to outplay the opposition, and take the game to Crosby and Malkin? If they remain the passive club they have been in the next few weeks. I am afraid other teams that work hard and are hard to play against, will pass them by. We have yet to see a full 60 minute game by this team. They need to start bringing it very soon.

    It's just this simple. The coach preaches tough hockey, the players for the most part don't deliver. Or, at best, half of them do. The other half of them play like Wilson is still the coach. Which team is this going to be? Our coach wants them to be tougher, and plays the tough guys. But, we have all seen that the truly tough guys can't play. The rest of the team needs to be tougher to play against. Whether or not they get there, really is up to the coach. They need to get the message, or the messenger, and the message he has, needs to change.

    The fourth line got a lot of ice time last night. I hope the coach was watching them chase the Blue Jackets around. If our coaching staff keeps putting these guys over the boards, this team is going nowhere. The coach needs to man up and admit that these guys aren't capable NHL'ers. The Jackets were missing their entire first line last night. Our first fourth line shift has Reimer digging the puck out of the back of the net. This lesson should have been learned already. Ashton, Smith and a host of others have more to offer an NHL team.

    Mark Fraser is having a tough go of it right now. If he's not healthy, and he doesn't look like it to me. He needs to be on IR, and in the press box. Liles is in the minors, he plays that side. He needs to be back if this is what Fraser can offer us right now. I think this team will have sorted everything out by Christmas time. They are either going to the playoffs, or not. We will all know the answer by the New Year.

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