There are lots of ways to evaluate a hockey team these days. The “eyeball test” is insufficient in the eyes of most observers nowadays, so some combination of actually watching your team perform combined with an objective statistical overview should be a reasonably effective approach.
But regardless of whether one relies of "advanced stats" or the eyeball test, however, it is difficult to miss the fact that the Leafs are struggling right now. Those who have been predicting a mini-collapse of sorts (based on early season win totals that overshadowed obvious issues like being massively outshot, out-chanced and out-possessed) may feel vindicated, but it likely doesn’t help how they feel as Leaf fans.
Hey, looking back, we all hoped (hoped against hope?) that after the impressive beginning to the 2011-’12 NHL season (weren’t the Leafs near the top of their Division or some such lofty place around Christmas or something?) and their subsequent fall from the face of the hockey earth, that a new coach (Carlyle) would help them pin their ears back and re-focus—and find their game.
In fits and spurts we actually saw that last season. They were, again despite certain statistical concerns, good enough in the somewhat crappy Eastern Conference to make the playoffs, and damn near beat the supposedly mighty Bruins. (But for, as I have said here before, our inability to place the puck in an open net at the end of Game 7.)
All that said, the current concern—and what is of interest to Leaf supporters—is: what is the team doing now, and what is it capable of?
I have been among those who have posted a hopeful view here, saying that, despite the roster’s obvious limitations and flaws, in a middlish Conference, they can emerge as one of the top teams. I still hold to this position (look around the Conference, review the rosters; we’re not alone) but I well understand that is no longer a popular view, if it ever was.
What, one may ask, has happened?
I think one could argue, not much, really. The Leafs won a number of games early this season on the backs of Bernier and Reimer. As they have both been mortal at times of late, the team’s record has tumbled accordingly. Are the Leafs playing that much worse than when they were winning most nights early this season? Or are they simply playing much as they were, and the goaltending has returned more to its predictable norm, as opposed to at an exceptional or even All-Star level?
The stat I look at to tell me how the Leafs are doing in overall terms is this one: setting aside the still (in my view) ridiculous dependence on overtime/shootout points, if my calculations are correct (feel free to correct my simple arithmetic!) the blue and white have a record this season of 10 wins in regulation, 10 losses in regulation, 4 wins in an overtime or shoot-out and 3 losses in an overtime or shootout. From my admittedly old-fashioned perspective, that means they are a classic .500 team right now. They have 10 wins, 10 losses and 7 ties, good for 27 points in 27 games.
Now we all understand that those extra points are there for the taking, and that the Maple Leafs in fact have 31 points so far this season. But I’m suggesting here that those OT points (by any description) are a bit of an illusion. Playoff hockey of course has overtime, but you don’t get to play four-on-four and there are (thank goodness) no shoot-outs at that time of year. So for me, bottom line, the Leafs—while still better on paper, I believe—are a .500 squad.
That’s not good enough. And the “rough” part of the schedule now awaits us. (The Leafs may surprise us all and play better in the next few weeks against tougher opposition. It has been their history at times, eh?)
In light of the recent tailspin, some are already suggesting the coach has lost the room. Others say that while Phaneuf is having a really good year, he is not the leader the team needs to pull them out of funks like this one. Still others will say injuries are no excuse, given that virtually all good teams face significant lost time due to injuries to key players. Sometimes we will hear that we still lack that elite first-line center (so true) or that big-time number-one defenseman, the implication being that Phaneuf is very good, but more of a 1B, as opposed to an absolute top-tier blueliner.
Let me step back here a bit. The thing that has been forever fascinating to me about our Leafland village is this whole phenomenon is not at all new. I have seen so many occasions over the past especially 45 years where the team looks like it is finally poised for something big. (Specifics, you ask? OK, 1970-’71; the period between 1975-’76 and 1978-’79; the early ‘90s under Fletcher/Burns and the late 1990s/early 2000s under Pat Quinn…) But while we came closer sometimes than others to hitting a gold vein, what has always been the case here is that while Leaf fans love their team, the ability to objectively assess the squad is not always present.
It happened again a few years later with Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Palmateer, Salming, Turnbull and Tiger Williams. When we won they were great, and when we lost, well, they weren’t bums, but we needed more, we didn’t have the right coach, or the right mix of players, or injuries killed us. Whatever. Fans always want something different than what we have right now. They may want big changes or small changes, but changes nonetheless.
More recent Leaf supporters saw the movie in the early ‘90s. We loved Gilmour and Potvin but needed better parts on the fourth line, or something. And as good as the Quinn years were (and they really were) some fans were never quite satisfied. They didn’t like certain players, the Leafs were always missing something, it seemed.
Sometimes that may have been true. Sometimes, we weren’t quite good enough. But sometimes, it just wasn’t meant to be. For those that were around at the time, how can we explain losing to the Hurricanes in the semi-finals in 2002?
Right now, I sense most fans have the same hot and cold feelings about this roster. Most Leaf supporters really like Kessel and Phaneuf. Lupul has become a favourite in his time here. Who doesn’t like Kadri’s edgy game (I don’t like some of the cheap stuff, but you get my point)? Fans regularly speak glowingly of Gunner and Franson and how great Gardiner and Rielly are (or will be, at least)? Then there are players like van Riemsdyk, Clarkson and McClement (and the injured Bolland, yes)—all proven NHLers who have generally impressed here. On any given night, we sound like we believe the Leafs are, in fact, a very talented squad.
But when the team struggles, we sometimes want to throw everything overboard. Is it really Carlyle’s fault if the players can’t defend properly? Surely they have been taught. (I’ll say it again: playing ‘defense’ is all about willingness and effort. It doesn’t matter what ‘system’ you play…) Yes, he coached some superstars in Anaheim when they won the Cup., but he also won with a lot of grinders and an overall team attention to detail. When you get to that point in a season, every team has superstars. Coaching always has something to do with championship success.
So is this just a blip, and the Leafs will prove my suggestion correct that they are indeed better than this, better than merely a .500 team? Will they hit December, snow and cold weather and finally start playing consistently with the passion and grit we want to see on a nightly basis? (Quick aside: I remember the wonderful Globe and Mail writer from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Scott Young, writing about “The Big M”, Frank Mahovlich. Fans were on Frank early one season, because he wasn’t scoring much and when he wasn’t scoring, like Kessel nowadays, people criticized him for floating, not playing hard enough, etc. Young remarked in a column that, when the weather turned cold in December, and Mahovlich, who was 6 foot one or thereabouts, needed to get out of bed at night to rearrange his bed sheets to ensure his feet didn’t get cold, the skilled winger would catch the fever and get excited about hockey again, because it was that time of the year again…That's Frank, left, by the way, in early '60s action against the Hawks of Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote and Moose Vasko. I think that long-time Leaf Billy Harris in the background.)
Maybe these Leafs are like that?
I guess this is my way of saying (and I’m sure many of you will be saying, “Michael, you’re full of it, this team just isn’t good enough…”) that it may well be that this, too, shall pass. While I don’t love our tandem approach to goaltending, it does, for now, give us two guys that on any given night can steal us a game. Heck, Reimer did that just a week ago against the Capitals, a game we probably had no business winning, given up 50 shots as we did (or is that becoming the norm…?).
So we do have goaltending. No, our defense corps is not elite right now, but I would argue we have a lot of good second-pairing guys. I think Gunnarsson, Franson and Gardiner all fit that profile right now, and Rielly will surely be at least in that mix some day, with an even higher ceiling. So these guys are not slugs.
Up front, no, we don’t have a stud center, but we have, even with Bolland missing (and who knows, maybe he will return, with an extension in hand, ready to ignite the team again) guys who can play the position like Kadri and Bozak and McClement. Do fans really not like Kessel, Lupul (injured again, I realize), van Reimsdyk or Clarkson? They are all pretty darn elite NHLers. Many love Kulemin and everyone thinks Mason Raymond has been a pleasant surprise.
So what’s the issue? Is it just the fall off (rather dramatic, I recognize) in our ability to kill penalties? Is it that we give up too many shots and are ultimately paying the price for our possession struggles? Is it that we continue to play with a limited roster?
Or does this team, collectively, simply need to realize that in a long, often boring (hey, Phil yawned on the bench in a game not that many years ago… and he can be one of the most electric players in the game) NHL season. If they can all simply re-adjust the covers on their bed, realize it is indeed winter and time to play hockey, they will be fine.
For me, that’s all I want to see. Passion. Grit. Finishing checks. The goaltending will be what it is—generally very good, with the normal struggles any goalies will have. Our defense is fine, not great, but better than many, I believe. Our forwards are actually OK. They can score (even really good teams go through stretches where they can’t find the net, much less the back of the net) and they are capable of defending. It’s not like the team doesn't have a plan, or a system.
What they need is self-belief and to be able to carve out an identity that I thought we were developing a season ago. An identity? How about: we are the Maple Leafs. You don’t really want to play us—at the ACC or in your own building. We’ll run you through the boards after you pass the puck, and we’re not afraid to take a penalty here and there because we’ll kill that off, too. We have speed and skill and can score. We’ll pressure you into mistakes. We can come from behind.
But mostly, I want to see that fire, that desire, that conviction in and about their play. The coach and the players said after Saturday night’s game in Montreal that Pacioretty’s reaction and showboating after the fourth Montreal goal sparked Toronto’s emotions. Precisely why it required hot-dogging from the other team on a Saturday night game on Hockey Night in Canada in the best hockey atmosphere in the world (Montreal) to get them going, I don’t know. But that should not be the case, obviously. The drive has to be there already, in every player.
If Carlyle is the guy to bring that passion out, great I’m all for it. But I want to see it starting, well, right now. They grabbed some early season points but that means precious little if you don’t build on that momentum. Since the first 7 games of the season, when the Leafs earned 12 out of a possible 14 points (am I remembering correctly?) they have, what, 19 points in 20 games—and some of those are the freebies the NHL gives away.
So yes, now is the time to get back to being the skilled, aggressive, hard to play against Maple Leafs. I’ll say it again: they can do it. They are better than most teams in the East. How badly do they want it?
Today, I remain optimistic. But I will soon become one of those who will not be so positive, unless they demonstrate a nightly commitment—win or lose—to playing to the type of identity and with the team toughness that I have tried to write about here for years.