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After loss in St. Louis, Leafs need a statement game—and a statement month

After an outstanding start to the 2013-’14 NHL season (at least in the standings), the Leafs have kind of fallen back in a state that has become somewhat concerning.

They show flashes of solid play, and against the LA Kings on Wednesday night, played one of their most complete games of the season.  But defensive lapses, inconsistent play combined with missing some key players have all conspired to give them a no-longer-imposing record of 16-14-3—good for a quite modest 35 points after 33 games.

The St. Louis game was a relatively late start, so I will get to the point:  The Leafs are not far off from the half-way point of the season.  There has been time to adjust to the roster realities of injuries (e.g. Bolland).  They have, the last two nights and some isolated games here and there aside, received pretty darn good netminding this year.  Yet they too often continue to struggle and can’t seem to find their form—or that second gear—on a consistent basis.

What’s my point?  Simply this, that it is time for a statement game from the Leafs.  In fact, it is time for a statement month.  A good effort from time to time from this or that player is not sufficient. A solid 60-minute game is not enough. The LA game was maybe the closest we have come to stringing together what we could legitimately call an almost complete game (yes, there were some individual breakdowns, but by and large the work ethic, tenacity and grit was there) but we still lost.

So the time has come for raising expectations.  Right now they are pretty low, as in, “well, let’s hope they play hard” or “let’s see if they will start to play a full 60 minutes”.  We’re talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It’s not enough to wish for good efforts, or even just a playoff spot.  We’ve been to the post-season once in a decade.

In my mind, this was supposed to be the year that we strove for something serious in the Eastern Conference.

No, I’m not negative.  I still believe they can make things happen.  But I’ve talked about it enough.  So have they. I want to see “statement” play.  Full stop.


Do you agree?

25 comments:

  1. Amen

    Anon from Scarborough.

    P.S. funny fact - Bernier with the loss since for once in a loss leafs score 3.

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    1. Thanks for kick-starting the conversation, Scarborough Anon. Short and to the point!

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  2. Absolutely, I agree, Michael.

    I think the team played a game I enjoyed for the first time in a while against LA, albeit, a team playing back to back with the Leafs rested and motivated to 'hunker down' in the absence of their stalwart on defense. I was impressed with their breakouts and support from the forwards (for the first time in a long time). There were options for passes out of the zone and more help retrieving the pucks in their own zone... I hoped there would be more of that tonight, but was concerned about the travel/back to back/ (elite?) hard-working opponent elements that presented themselves tonight in St. Louis.

    Clearly, it was too much for a squad lacking Phaneuf. My hope going forward is that the LA game helps the Leaf to realize that if they supported the D with Phaneuf's strengths, we might have had better results in other close games... and that realization might auger well in the near-term extended run of 'complete games' we are hoping to see over the remainder of the season.

    It may well solidify the contract situation with Dion, too.

    Speaking of contracts, I have another thought regarding developments in Calgary with the new interim GM (Burke) who knows our roster well and knows what he needs for some significant rebuild changes. He wants more size, needs a goalie, some veterans and more in order to 'build from the net out'.

    I suspect he knows Holland from his recent time with the Ducks; was probably the moving force in re-signing Liles and picking Biggs; and may just be interested in Reimer for the starting job in Calgary.

    It seems more and more like James' days in a Leaf uniform are sadly fading away... he seemed quite deflated being pulled tonight and I wonder if your predictions are about to come true...

    Given that many teams only want Liles if the Leafs hamstring themselves a bit by retaining salary for 2 1/2 more years, I wonder if the Leafs could be creative, by giving Reimer a new contract with a significant signing bonus that the Leafs pay immediately, then send him in a package to 'help' Burkie to quick-start his rebuild... my hope would be to see Monahan coming back... do you think the suggested players might be enough to sway Calgary to part with a young asset like Monahan and to take on Liles' veteran-presence contract?

    Of course, there would be other pieces coming back, but I just wonder if this isn't the kind of scenario where a win-win could result from familiar friends at the bargaining table. I feel that Burke really likes Biggs and if he could scoop up Holland, too, maybe we could find another high potential prospect in our ranks at the centre position... what think ye of such musings?

    Kinda' feel like there's something brewing to prevent further unaddressed slippage near the cliff, and with Burke in the mix, this just might be the kind of blockbuster trade we might see...

    Any thoughts on who else might be in the mix from Calgary?

    Guess I just start trying to accept that there may be changes, given the extended period of mediocre success we are 'mired in'... thanks!

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    1. It's hard to know what we could get back from Calgary, InTimeFor62. I do think (I've said it here for ages it seems) Reimer will be moved. The crease is not big enough for both these guys come playoff time, and no competitor will accept back-up status when they know they can play elsewhere as the top guy in this league.

      I doubt Burke would ever part with a prized young player. Now, if he could get Reimer and Jake Gardiner, that may be a different kettle of fish...

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  3. Do I agree? In a word - "yes"!
    We're at the point in the season where what you see is what you've got, and it looks pretty mediocre at the moment. Sure, we've had key injuries, but so have lots of teams. What we haven't got is consistent 60 minute, two-way effort.
    I find it depressing that we're back to praising the team's effort in losing causes, bemoaning the lack of secondary scoring, wondering why our PK is so bad, being baffled at 40+ shots against per game, etc etc. We have been here before!
    Very few teams change their destiny after the halfway point of the season. I feel we're currently on course to miss the playoffs this year. Again. Because we aren't improving, we're regressing.
    At what point do we question management or the coaching staff? I'm already wondering why the players don't seem to be able, or willing, to play the way the coach keeps saying he wants them to. (I'm sure he is, too!) At some point, surely you either change the game strategy or change the players.
    I may sound negative here, but I think I'm just being realistic. We've seen tantalizing flashes of what this team could be, but that's all we've seen. We have some tough sledding ahead of us for the next 8 games or so, with nary a gimme game in the bunch for our surprisingly vulnerable squad. I think those games will tell us whether our team is underperforming, or is in fact playing to its capabilities.
    The glass is definitely half empty at the moment.

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    1. I understand if the "O'Malley glass" is half empty today, Gerund!

      There are a few possibilities, as always: we don't have the right players (which I thought we had...a "Carlyle team" before the season started- or so I thought, anyway); we have good players but they aren't buying into the coach's system. Or the system is terrible.

      I don't have the answer but someone has to find it.

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  4. I didn't see the game but did notice that the PK was 3 for3 tonight. Funny that the goals against were during 5 on 5 play.
    Reimer spoke of the difference between playing with urgency verses intensity. If this is what he feels is the problem, and not surprising for players in this market, HBO cameras at this time sure won't help the situation. I can't imagine a worse distraction when focus is needed.
    In a side note, an interesting read on Pension Plan Puppets as they attempt to rate Leaf defencemen. C.N.

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    1. I think we all notice that, when teams lose, they naturally (only human) try to find ways to communicate what the "problem" is. Of course it doesn't help that in markets like this, the media demands "answers".

      Intensity, urgency. All just words with good intentions. But the team is at a point where they need to make their statements consistently on the ice, not after losses to the media. Thanks C.N.

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  5. Hi Michael.
    I am not surprised that with the team's recent tailspin, the Leaf faithful are calling for a shakeup in the form of a trade. With great interest, fans love to dress up as GM and propose trades. However I dont see Nonis as the type of GM who will make many moves unless if its youth for youth like the JVR for Shenn trade, which is probably a good thing.

    Interestingly though we just played a team where Steen who was at one time one of our up and coming prospects, was given up on for a player in Stempniak who never really clicked here. Steen meanwhile is an instrumental part of the Blues team who plays two way hockey, btw something we hoped Kuleman would become but hasn't panned out yet.

    Others trades like:
    Tlusty who played on Carolinas top line last year,
    Mitchell who fits the mold as a good 4th liner,
    Stalman a bottom pairing Dman on a good defensive team in New York,
    Harrison contributing to Carolina and
    to a lesser extent Aulie in Tampa Bay
    are all playing on NHL teams elsewhere. In return, we got practically nothing of worth back for these players. For a short term fix, making moves may not be the best approach. Maybe this year is a step back but we need to be patient and see what we have first.

    I have faith that the likes of Reilly, Kadri, and our mid twenties core of Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf, JVR, Franson and Clarkson who is not going anywhere with his contract. Lets just let them play and grow together through adversity before we give up on any of them.

    Teams like San Jose, St.Louis, Chicago, may have tinkered with pieces but kept their core together and are reaping benefits now. Meanwhile Philedelphia blew things up and have not yet recovered. Do the Minnesota approach and try to be in a cap flexible situation where and when the opportunity arises make that free agent signing that will help better the team without having to lose any of its players.

    LA happened to make the right moves at the right time with Richards and Carter and we all know how that turned out. Look for St.Louis and San Jose to go and fetch that type of player at the deadline. But not us. We are not there and the last month or so shows that we are not even close.

    Maybe I am completely off by my estimation and we need to blow things up but this is a very competitive league. Teams can fall very quickly but the rise to superstardom is a slow process. The teams that usually keep their core group together longer have a better chance of success.

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  6. I absolutely agree, and this is precisely what we were all discussing yesterday. Injuries are what they are, and the Leafs need to overcome them. Personnel decisions have been made and the Leafs need to live with them. This was the exact same lineup that played the night before, and there is no excuse for a performance like that first period. Rielly and Ranger were making the same bad decisions that cause me to yell at my son's bantam team for making. Fraser still looks slow and unable to make a quick decision. Forwards are not backchecking sufficiently. I've seen Reimer look happy and excited for sure, and dejected at times. I've never seen that smoke-coming-out-of-his-ears look like I did last night though. The Leafs have shown they are plenty capable when they want to. For whatever reason they did not answer the bell last night. If they cannot play to their potential more than once every four or five games, this season is doomed.

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  7. There's no doubt Steen has become an influential piece for the Blues, BlueANDwhite. And yes, we have moved guys along, including those you mention, often for precious little, as it turns out, in return.

    Your argument for maintaining the core is fair. As you suggest, most really good teams (including the Red Wings over the years) have done that, then added judiciously and wisely along the way. Toronto seems constantly trapped between a total rebuild and "going for it now" over the last decade. Unfortunately "going for it now" has usually meant going for a lowly playoff spot- which is, as I often say, the very least we should expect of the Leafs.

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    1. And it is fair, as fans, to expect more. Much more. Thanks Pete.

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    2. Hi Michael,

      Long time no post! I've been reading VLM and listening to the Hotstove Hangouts, though. I've followed you on the journey from being grateful for remarkable early-season success to mild concern for poor habits, through injuries to some key players, to frustration with a seeming degradation of effort and focus.

      We've all, as Leafs fans, gone through so many disappointments and near misses since '67. Somehow this latest incarnation had seemed different, like there was a strong future, not just another short-sighted attempt of loading up on free agents to make a push for the current year. And the team looked better on paper than even our Cinderella team from the shortened season last year. Maybe we cuold even expect a second-round series..! Consider we let key players Grabovski, MacCarthur, Komorov, and Scrivens go, and replaced them with ostensibly superior talent in Boland, Clarkson, Raymond, and Bernier.

      Grabovski and MacCarthur are on pace for career years, or close to them, Komorov is lighting up the KHL, and Scrivens is the NHL leader in save %, and second in GAA and shut outs. Boland was steadily proving himself to be a great asset before his injury, and Raymond has lived up to or exceeded expectations. Bernier has been huge, but is looking fatigued (like Reimer; or perhaps they're both just fed up with the rest of their team's lack of support) of late. Clarkson has clearly not lived up to the hype so far, nor his own expectations, I imagine.

      There have been a lot of "wake up call" games so far this season, but, yes, I'm still waiting for a strong statement game--or month--that is likely required of the Leafs to stay in playoff contention this season.

      Go Leafs!

      Matt

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    3. Good of you to chime in today, Matty D.

      You've well captured the last few months of my posts here. I, too, wanted to believe this year felt genuinely "different".

      Of the departures you note, I think I miss Komarov most of all, because he helped create an identity for the team last season. The others are having nice seasons elsewhere for sure, though I'm not certain they were going to be a "fit" here much longer, fair or not. And I'm not sure they would be the difference right now in the Leaf seeing a better team. (If Bolland had not been injured, I have no problem with that 'swap' for Grabovski, because of the obvious leadership and winning experience that Bolland brings...)

      I think you're right, the goalies are not super human, and both have struggled at times of lat (along weigh some outstanding games, too.) Whether it's the high shot totals wearing them down, I don't know. In any event, we can't depend on them to bail us out every night.

      Thanks Matty- stay in touch.

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  8. HI Michael,

    I am struggling today to both make some sense of why this team seems so uninterested in doing the things that everyone acknowledges is necessary,as well as struggling with my own disappointment. What more is there to be said at this point about a team that just isn't willing to work hard on a nightly basis? Are we really going to talk about why the coach won't put together a different lineup? It should be pretty evident to everyone concerned that Ranger and Fraser, aren't cutting it on the blueline. I am really fed up with this organization. They really do talk a good game, all of them. They all have nice stories of perseverance , and good will. The problem is, they are better at talking about playing and coaching than they are at doing it at an NHL level.

    Management has a choice to make it seems to me. If you believe in the core group of players that you have assembled, you fire the coach. If you believe in the coach, you trade some of the core group that he doesn't think he can win with. There are lots of players that have value, some would bring a huge return to the club. It's time for this team to put on their big boy pants and stop crying. The decisions may be hard, but hey, thats what you get paid to do.

    I believe that the players that are here, and as importantly, in the press box, constitute a lineup that could be much more competitive than the one the coach puts in. We constantly hear about the blueline depth on the Marlies. Let's bring one of them up and put someone on LTIR, or waivers, for that matter. Rielly has been fine, but let's give him a break and send him to the junior team to get his mojo back. The facepunchers can't play hockey, they need to go. There is no way that Orr and McLaren are helping this team win games. So long meatheads, I won't miss you. I am no longer willing to discuss, or even care who plays in net. Neither one, to me anyways, has distinguished himself above the other. I am washing my hands of that debate. Nonis and Carlyle need to do something, and that something is, pick one, trade the other. That's all, just pick one of them, make a decision already. Here's my lineup for Saturday night.

    Reimer/Bernier

    Gardiner, Phaneuf
    Gunnarsson, Franson
    Liles, Rielly

    JVR, Kadri, Kessel
    Lupul, Holland, Kulemin
    Clarkson, Smith, Raymond
    D'Amigo, McLement, Ashton

    Lost in all the debate yesterday, big teams and truculence aside. Chicago is not a big, lean on you, punish you in the corners team. They skate and hustle, and possess the puck. They are exactly the blend of hockey team that the Leafs should aspire to be. A team that has talent, yet works hard, is fast, but takes the body, skilled, yet tenacious. Big players are great, but they have to have skill to play the game.

    Forget Brian Burke, I almost used another F word. His way is the old way. Besides, I don't think there are many first ballot hall of fame players lining up to go to Calgary. Just a little bit different from his days in Anaheim. I laughed out loud when he took credit for rebuilding the Leafs. I would like to let him know that there is a lot of crap left in the barn. If he can find the time to come back and clean some more of it out, it would be mighty nice of him.

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    1. Thank you for that, Jim- I'll let your comments stand on their own. I actually found it uplifting and refreshing (if caustic, of course!).

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  9. I think the Leafs are what the standings say they are: a sixth to seventh place team in a weak Eastern conference.

    I think last night was a bit of statement game. It said they probably can't beat the league's best without everybody healthy and playing.

    With Bolland and Phaneuf back in place, the Leafs are a 3rd to 5th place team, like they were in the begining of the season when all the important players were healthy.

    I am not really expecting a win or a statement game against Chicago. What I do expect is wins after that game against Chicago. The statement game might be against Pitsburgh. After that, I expect some wins against weaker teams Florida, the New York Rangers, Buffalo and Carolina. They might split against Detroit and Phoenix.

    The Leafs are not an elite team, but they are a good team (anywhere from 3-8 depending on injuries, puck luck etc.) If you expect elite performance from the Leafs you will make yourself crazy.

    My happy thought is that good teams often squeak into the playoffs and play a round or two. That is what I am expecting from the Leafs: They make the playoffs, win a round and maybe scare somebody in the second. That's my reasonable hope and a result that I can be happy with.

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    1. Thanks DP. The East is what is is, which means if you get to the dance, who knows?

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  10. I liked Jim comment about "putting their big pants on". Mental toughness is as important as physical toughness. They already knew they'd be physically tired in a back to back situation and a 3am arrival.
    Again, we wonder about the fourth line and as we complain about Ranger and Fraser we have to look at who their forwards usually are- specifically McLaren and Orr with different centers thrown in. While these forwards can hit and are occasionally successful cycling in the opposition zone, I seriously doubt they are any help at all in the defensive zone. Fraser and Ranger don't have the benefit of a JVR, Raymond, Bozak etc when the pressure is on. They are on their own. A youthful, more energetic line with some speed to skate the puck out would be nice to see. More of D'Amigo, who is good defensively, Ashton and maybe Smith when Bozak returns. But we won't see it. What's the point of bringing these young players up if they never get the chance to show what they can do? Five minutes a game isn't enough.
    In the end, I'd rather see the slump now when there's time to work out problems than later in the season when they've run out of time and options. Painful as it's been the Leafs are still in the mix. I expect a good game on Saturday, hopefully with rewards. C.N.

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  11. I'm not quite sure what all the angst is about. The Leafs are a bubble team and that is right where they are on the bubble. The same problems from years past are still the main problems today. They lack a true number one center and they need more depth and better dmen. Instead Nonis spent the offseason "upgrading" at goalie and signing a free agent winger who is not as good as either of the two guys who were let go to get him (MacArthur because he is a winger and Grabovski because they couldn't afford both contracts) while being more expensive. All this has done is paint the Leafs into a salary cap hell for the rest of this year. There is likely no trades coming because anyone they get who could be an immediate help would cost way too much money. What you see is what you get. They can trade for minor pieces like Hollande, but while a good player he is unlikely to be a difference maker at such a young age. I like the no drama approach of Nonis compared to Burke but Nonis completely mismanaged the off season in my opinion.

    As for Carlyle I have been on the fence about him since he got here, but no longer. This guy is why we let go of two guys who couldn't play his style of hockey. At the beginning of the year everybody said this is a Randy Carlyle team. He now has the guys who can play his system was the comment from a lot of people in the offseason. Well if that is so then maybe it is his system that is broke, because it is obvious the Leafs are being woefully out played on a consistent basis. Maybe if the players can't execute your system, you change the system to one they can instead of ramming a square peg into a round hole over and over and being mystified at to why you don't get positive results. I truly believe the game has passed Carlyle by, he knows what is wrong with the Leafs but he has no idea how to fix it. I hear Dallas Eakin's comments about the Oilers yesterday " I came here with a plan but that plan isn't working so its time for a new plan" and can only pine that we once had a forward looking coach in our system but once again went back to the old boys network for a retread. Its time for Carlyle to go because he can not fix the problems the Leafs have.

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    1. I recall your earlier posts here Willbur and recognize that you have been consistent in your assessment of the Leafs.

      My earlier view (and to a certain extent my current view) is that while not, as DP said above, an elite team, in the Eastern Conference they should be no worse than most clubs and better than a lot.

      Whether Carlyle is the right guy or not at this point, I don't know. But the team is what the standings say they are. Thanks Willbur.

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  12. What I find most annoying is the panic that has set in among the fans - right now it seems to center around Carlyle and his 'face-punchers'.

    What we have is a very young team full of talent and grit - a team that Carlyle wanted and got indeed and what we need to to do is give them a chance to get their s*** together before we start calling for heads. Just imagine what a change in management and coaching staff would bring now - a disarray - some kind of 'new' approach to coaching the 'pieces' that are assembled to play Carlyle's game.

    All we need is patience. There's no way Kadri, Reilley, Fransen, Gardiner, Holland, Ashton etc. are not gonna get better at hockey as the time progresses. Phaneuf and Kessel are gonna stay solid for a while for sure - they are just hitting their peak. We have two very good goalies and some solid guys that keep the puck in the oppositions end in Clarksona nd Kuli and Bolland. Raymond keeps producing. Bolland will be back in time for playoffs.

    What appears as the end of the world disaster is really just a young and relatively new roster getting their game together while having to deal with a plethora of injuries and suspensions. All we need to do is be patient and the results will come.

    Some positives:

    - we're not being pushed around - the enforcers are doing their job.
    - we're in a playoff spot despite a slump and have had only one truly bad game (Columbus). We've been 'in' every other game this season.
    - the scoring and goaltending is stellar
    - we have an experienced cup-winning coach with a room full of young talent - listen to their interviews - they are parroting his words - he has the room - the players (aside from Kessel and Lupul) have no other frame of reference for seeing the game than what they're getting from Carlyle. He is getting his system implemented slowly but surely and it is a good, proven system.

    Everybody needs to chill out and support the team.

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    1. I appreciate hearing your perspective, leafdreamer. Take care.

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  13. Speed reallly does kill, even against the champs. This game showed a team that's still listening to their coach, as Leafdreamer suggested and also that Randy is maybe listening to his team. Lots of youth, speed and exuberance. What a fun game to watch! C.N

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    1. Thanks C.N.- agreed. I'll be posting later today...

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