I’m not sure I can provide analysis that will answer the many questions that are on the minds of Leaf supporters these days. In the last week alone, there was the “encouraging” loss against the LA Kings. There was a letdown loss the next night against the Blues in St. Louis followed by an impressive win against the defending Cup champion Hawks (who admittedly had an off-night…).
That victory brought renewed hope this week, as the Leafs faced the always tough but significantly undermanned Penguins and the eminently beatable Panthers back home at the ACC.
Yet another loss against the lowly Floridians Tuesday night will, at best, give pause to even the most hopeful Leaf enthusiast. At worst, it will lead to a cavalcade of calls for radical change—behind the bench and throughout the roster as well.
The ironic thing is that I had been playing to write a piece specifically about two promising Leaf players: Nazem Kadri and young Morgan Rielly. I was going to comment that while Kadri has frustrated some with what they see as inconsistent play so far this season, for my part I keep seeing a player who lives to play the game and has uncanny offensive instincts. He is, as I have said here of late, a cagey player with an edge to his game. The “numbers” have not always been there this season but I think he can become a big-time player. I don’t know if he is a first-line pivot or a second line guy or whatever, but he is surely a keeper. If the many chances he creates or has himself start going in for him, his numbers could skyrocket.
As for Rielly, he continues to impress me (despite my admitted protestations that he should be released to play with Team Canada) in a variety of ways. And I’m not simply talking about his first NHL goal that came against the Penguins on Monday night. (He may not score on a shot like that for weeks, though he does have a good wrist shot. He happened to hit a great spot.) I don’t much care if he scores a lot, though he will surely put up his share of points given his significant skill level. I expect him to play as advertised, a guy who can clear the zone, lug the puck out and make plays because he has great wheels and hockey smarts.
But what I’ve been looking to see is whether he can handle, even at the tender age of 19, some of the little things that make a defenseman invaluable: can he win battles, move guys off the puck, retrieve the puck and move it quickly to get it out of danger?
With that in mind, I noticed one solitary moment, well into the third period on Monday night against Pittsburgh, when the score was 1-1. Rielly muscled a Penguin forward off the puck near Bernier, and I just nodded quietly to myself. If he can do that, I told myself, this kid can play here—and stay here—right now.
Rielly is a minus 12, but he seems to be the least of our problems right now, eh?
I’m not a huge fan of pointing fingers, but clearly some players are struggling and as a unit, the Leafs are not, as the expression goes, clicking consistently on all cylinders. Reimer has not been stellar of late and everyone here knows I’m a Reimer guy. (I will say that Carlyle has not done what I wanted to see—Reimer (and Bernier as well) being given a chance to play a string of games in succession, regardless of a bad goal or bad game here or there. This constant back and forth with the netminders, will, I believe, kill any chances either goalie has to find their form consistently—and ultimately their confidence. (I also wonder what the goalie back and forth is doing to team harmony…)
I can look at Gardiner and say I’ve liked a lot about his game—same with Liles when he is in the lineup. Everyone sees Phaneuf playing huge minutes against top players. Gunner is a plus player. Franson has been solid offensively much of the season (16 points). So where does the problem lie? In fairness, despite what some fans want to suggest, this does not all fall on Ranger or Fraser. C’mon.
It’s the same thing with the forward units. We know about the injuries but everyone has those. There seems to be a preoccupation with Clarkson, but as with Ranger and Fraser, fair-thinking Leafers surely can’t pin all of our losses or problems on one highly-paid third-line winger?
On any given night and at any given moment, Twitter explodes with commentary about the talents of Kessel, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Rielly, Gardiner and Phaneuf. Fans seem to really like Holland, Raymond and newcomer D’Amigo. But something must be lacking. All these guys can’t be playing winning hockey, or the Leafs would obviously have a much better record than they do right now.
Considering that the Leafs started the season with a record of 6 wins and one loss, their current record is not really acceptable—or remotely encouraging. We’ve all seen moments (and the occasional game) where we think, “That’s it. That what we want to see…” but then the moments ends, as suddenly as it came.
I've talked here about "statement games" lately. But do we have the experience, the leadership, to make a statement? Do these guys believe in themselves?
Sometimes we’ll say a team that lost a game deserved a better result. And every once in a while, that’s true. My question for you: have the Leafs deserved a better fate so far this season? Or are they in fact what their record (now 17-16-3) says they are?
I have no idea if changes are coming, but I cannot believe Dave Nonis (or Tim Leiweke) will wait much longer to do something—whatever something might be.