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The Leafs: only a bad month, or something much worse?

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.

I say this not simply because of the modern advances in communication (e.g. social media) that admittedly demonstrate a frantic side to fandom.  (By the middle-latter part of the second period against Montreal Saturday night alone, Twitter would have had Carlyle fired, and roster changes galore- in-game, if possible…) But my point is, it has always been thus.  When the old Leaf teams I refer to were playing well, Leafers would fall in love with Keon and Ullman because of their exquisite skill or Brian Spencer and Jimmy Harrison because of their physicality and rugged play. When they won a big game on the road, for example, we’d say what a tremendous team we had and wow, we may be going places.  (That's Harrison, one of my favourite old-time early '70s Leafs, standing right in the St. Louis crease above right in a great old Dan Balliotti photo.)

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.


Your turn…

21 comments:

  1. Well, I can't say I'm surprised at what has transpired lately here in Leaf land. I figured they would be a bubble team and that is what they are. They are going to be life and death to make the playoffs this year. The really crappy thing is there is likely no fix coming this year. Nonis painted this team into a salary cap jail this year and there is no getting out till next year. He simply doesn't have the room to make any big moves that would shake the team up.

    The thing that concerns me is despite the obvious talent we have we seem to have a shortage of hockey IQ. The thing that separates Toews, Crosby, Stamkos and others is how hockey smart they are. They just don't ever seem to make dumb moves. Phanuef has all the talent in the world and has played well this year but every once in awhile he does something that just makes a person shake their head. The same goes for all our defense especially Gardiner. Boatloads of talent but dumb, dumb decision making. Rielly and Gardiner are close in talent I think but what separates Rielly is he rarely makes the same mistake twice. His mistakes are what I would call learning to be a pro. Gardiner just keeps making the same bad decisions every game. The same goes for JVR. He has been the best forward so far this year, but if I see him take one more stupid holding penalty I'm likely to shoot my TV. This team has talent but for some reason can't seem to harness it and I don't really know what the problem is. Is it coaching? It seems the Carlyle can't devise a game plan to get the most out of what he has. He didn't like two players from last year who Nonis then sent packing. Both of those players would be top 3 in scoring on the Leafs. Yet despite having a team that many consider more capable of playing "Carlyle" style hockey here we are back at 500 struggling to find any consistency. The Leafs keep playing the same way expecting different results and since we can't change personal they should maybe consider a new style of play. There is just something wrong here and I can't quite put my finger on it.

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    1. It is a bit puzzling Willbur. I think you make a fair point about hockey smarts. There are lots of talented players, for sure (here and all across the league) but the best players generally combine talent, grit, work ethic and a high hockey IQ. If you do not have one of those things, it often prevents you from being - and remaining - a truly elite player.

      We'll see if the team finds its form, or continues to struggle for a while. Thanks Willbur.

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  2. I think this is just the evidence of some key injuries. Without Lupul, Bolland and Franson this seems like the type of team that is just slightly better than .500.

    Lupul gives them real elite skill depth at forward in their top 6. He would play on the first line of many teams.

    Bolland is a veteran,clutch player who can come up with big goals at the right time. We haven't had too many of those lately.

    I also think Bolland is one of those quiet leaders who leads through example. He doesn't yell, he just plays in an inspiring no-nonsense, business-like manner. He will go out and have 5 great shifts in row in all parts of the ice. It's inspiring. Without a word, he just picks up the whole team.

    Our defense is suspect so Franson is a big loss. He surely would have helped on the power play with Montreal.

    I don't know if others have noticed this but Morgan Rielly is -8. Perhaps it's time to give Liles or Brennan a chance with some ice time with the Leafs?

    We should have Lupul in ten days and Franson back soon, so our play should get better.

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    1. Thanks DP. I think all Leaf fans love Rielly and what he can become, but I too have noticed his declining minus ranking. While he is only 19 and still learning to play in this league (which is understandable, to be sure) considering he is generally not playing against the elite forwards in the league, that may be why Carlyle is having him sit upstairs some nights.

      I guess we will soon find out if Liles or Brennan get their chance!

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  3. Michael,

    Great stuff today. The time is now for this team to put up, or shut up. By all accounts the schedule maker gave them a great test in December. If they can come out of it with a .500 record in those games. Then I think, there is hope. If not, for me at least, it will be on to next year and what changes need to be made. Coaching, personnel, etc. Time will tell, the season is ticking away.

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    1. I think we all understand that even good teams go through these periods where they struggle, don't score, goaltending slips a bit, whatever. But you're right, Jim, December may be a harbinger as to whether we are serious about this season or are still building toward some "future" point in time.

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  4. I recently read a comment about the uber-talented Oilers who lost their first cup attempt to the gritty Islanders... each of whom was nursing the kinds of injuries that that come with 'grit' and 'commitment', the Oilers, it was said, had nary a scratch to show for their talents alone.

    I wonder if these (mostly) young Leafs are just beginning to realize the level of commitment required of an elite team and are not 'all there' yet. I think the loss of Bolland is having a greater (negative) effect than I could have possibly imagined... since he was 'cut out' of the line-up (sorry... pun intended) the Leafs have lacked the very identity that Bolland's attitude and tenacity had injected into 'our' confidence in 'greater things to come'.

    The very reason that he and Clarkson were acquired, is what Clarkson alone has not been able to duplicate since he joined the lineup. I believe he brings many similar traits to the table, yet he does not have the kind of 'plug and play' skills that Bolland was demonstrating before the injury. The team misses him for more than just his play... I think his work ethic and 'leading by example' have knocked the wind out of some young sails.

    I am so glad we got to play the Detroit role by obtaining JVR at a time when he was the enigmatic Frank Mahovlich for the Flyers. Frank seemed to really step into his game with confidence and consistency after leaving the Leafs and I suggest that's what we've gained in JVR! There is even seems to be a bit of a similarity in the way they look on the ice for me (maybe I'm just imagining things, but perhaps you know what I mean, having seen him more than my youthful memories' accuracy will allow, Michael).

    Just before I read your article, I was thinking 'this feels like a .500 team right now, but I've been thinking they might have just had a bad enough month to say... 'enough of that'... 'let's get it together'. I'm ever hopeful because of the possibilities we've seen early on, but these guys have to really buy into Randy's program and get off the periphery, even if they feel a bit 'snake bit' by injuries.

    Hope we see a bit of a stretch against all the 'more difficult' December opponents that will remind us (and them) of the possibilities that are still laid out for THIS season - before it all 'slips away'. I don't think we're as bad as we've been looking or as good as we're hoping, but I thought the last few games had some good moments with a lot of adversity, that may be just what we need to 'overcome' to be a better team.

    Hope we don't see any 'kneejerk' trades - though I don't really think Nonis is looking to solve much by a trade (other than get Liles back in the NHL, where he belongs with someone).

    Been enjoying your hangouts and articles while recovering my typing hand after surgery... glad to have a place to read/listen to quality conversation while unable to participate!

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    1. Good to hear you're on the mend, InTimeFor62.

      There are so many good points in your post today (as usual). It does take a young team (especially without much playoff experience) time to really comprehend what it takes to win at crunch time (as per your Islander reference).

      JVR is exactly the kind of strong, skill forward with size you like to get at the age the Leafs did. He is not even in his prime, but was also not just a draft pick. He was already a "proven" commodity. (I agree The Big M played his best hockey in Montreal...) Too often in the past we acquired good players (e.g. Lindros), but they were past their real prime. JVR isn't.

      And as you say, they can't feel sorry for themselves. They have to fight through this. Good teams do. And yes, there is time to make this season successful. No need to just plan for the future- yet again. Thanks InTimeFor62.

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  5. Hey Michael,

    Hope you are doing well and getting into the holiday spirit and into the shopping spirit as well. :)

    I think the leafs are experiencing the following:

    Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives: Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment

    I think Nazem Kadri has come back to earth after a lot of things having gone right for him last year. I think the same could be said of the games of cody franson and mark fraser.

    All three of these guys were a great part of the team success last year in measures such as: team toughness (not punching but the other kind like you always mention), hockey smarts, guts/never give-up attitude, timely offense/defence (better than this year).

    Not sure how everyone in this locker room is gelling - this team's play at times feels eerily similar to that of the 18 wheeler off the cliff team play in feb and march of 2011. This team doesn't seem to have any bite at all - they have a lot of bark but none of the bite of last year at the moment magnified by the goalies being unable to post amazing games night-in and night-out.

    If a team needs to have Max Pacioretty getting you riled-up almost 40 mins into a humiliating 4-0 game because he show-boated then you have some serious issues regarding the commitment/desire to win ("the fire in the belly").

    I need not really elaborate much more on what are the other things that this team lacks - the other members, you and I have all said it over and over again.

    At the moment it is only a bad month but feb 2011 was also just a bad month - bad months can add up - so lets hope this team can have a better December even though they face a much tougher month comparative to November.

    For me the next major question is - how will the HBO camera's in the room effect the game on the ice now that we have this team in a funk and tough sledging ahead.

    Anon from Scarborough

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    1. Excellent post, Scarborough Anon.

      Some guys may well be seeing their games level off somewhat. I guess now, like in football, it becomes (in part, at least) a question of adjustments to what other teams are taking away from you. I'm not sure how much more Fraser has to give. I would think Franson still has a bit of a ways to go to reach his ceiling, but I don't know. Kadri is still learning and adapting, I'm thinking.

      One off month happens. But as you say, they need to ensure it remains just that.

      As for the HBO stuff, I don't like it. I want any team I'm rooting for focused on getting better every day, not on cutting what are essentially daily commercials for public consumption.

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  6. I agree with your assessment on the HBO stuff Michael, it is an unnecessary burden on the minds of players and coaches.

    I just remembered this - do u think this team needs someone like a sports psychologist to work on their mental game as much say a "Barb underhill" has done wonders for the skating/stride of many players on the leafs.

    Also is it time for John Michael Liles to get another shot on this team - with franson injured or maybe brennan?

    Anon from Scarborough

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    1. My understanding is they have a person on staff who works with the players in terms of the sports psychology side of the equation. (Paul Dennis was previously on staff for many years.) Some players prefer working things through on their own; others may well seek some input and counsel.

      I don't believe the Leafs are in a bad way- at this point. A couple of wins against good opponents and they may feel a whole lot better about themselves!

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  7. Good to know Michael.

    I thought they would have someone, but wanted to be sure and get an input from you as well.

    I am sure they could feel a whole lot better with a couple of wins in the coming days. Heck, they could have had a winning record if they had gotten some of the bounces and call to go their way.

    Three consecutive games with such highlighted bad luck/bounce incidents:

    Pens game - the game tying goal - wronged by the refs.

    Sabres game - no penalty in the final minute of regulation and then the game winning goal somehow defies logic and flies through the skate of gunnarson and in.

    Habs game - the refs disallow a pretty standard goal that would have tied things 1-1 and may have helped keep things a little more balanced.

    Also, is bernier playing worse now or is it the bounces for him as well - because he is now letting in 3 and 4 goals regularly in his past few starts.

    Anon from Scarborough

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  8. The question I ask myself is: how many games have I felt the Leafs actually deserved to win this year? The answer: almost none. They've lucked out with a soft schedule, timely goaltending, and a ridiculously good shot/goal ratio. But we all know you can't keep getting away with the kind of loose defence and perimeter offence they've been using. How do we know? Because we saw it two years ago, and for a good part of last year.
    We certainly have many skilled players, but beyond the first line who do we have on offence that plays as if he knows what his linemates will be doing or where they'll be going? As I watched the Montreal game, I kept marvelling at Gallagher's persistence and determination - we have no one with that grit. Towards the end of the game, Gunnarsson knocked a guy down who was hanging around the goal crease - where was that meanness the rest of the game? I mean, Gardiner was one of our most physical guys out there, for pete's sake!
    There's something lacking at the heart of this team, something many of us have noted over the past few years - that refusal to accept losing, or being pushed around, or having your goalie tripped/interfered with, or having a guy get three whacks at a puck on a breakaway without being decked, etc etc. How many times have the Leafs showed up flat for a big game over that stretch? Over 90%, I'd say.
    This isn't coaching - this is in the room. As for coaching issues, I don't think we can say that Carlyle is still figuring the team out - he's had plenty of time. It didn't take Patrick Roy ANY time to figure his team out. Carlyle's insistence on dressing a fourth line that can't play effective NHL minutes is only one of the baffling decisions he's made.
    After the last few games, I'm getting the sinking feeling, so familiar to Leaf fans of late, of "here we go again". The teams you cite, Michael - late 70's, early 90's, early 2000's - at least all had the determination to win despite their shortcomings (and Mogilny's ill-timed drop pass in his own zone...). I haven't seen that determination, and self-belief, in this team yet. If it doesn't show up soon, it's going to be a long, gloomy winter.

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    1. You're right, Gerund O'- the Leafs have really not played, I don't think, a full 60-minute game where they have just been dominant against the opposition. Not even close, really. And they have won a few games because of middlish goaltending on the other side.

      That said, can they rebound? Can they find that elusive "identity"?

      Yes, I think so. But, unless they play more like tigers, unless they initiate rather than just (eventually, too late) respond, they won't hit their potential. Thanks Gerund.

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  9. Hi Michael!
    The one thing that has been proven is that if you expect good things to happen they generally do. The opposite is true as well. When I see the Leafs not getting the bounces, hitting several posts a game, having good goals called back, and getting called on the flimsy penalties I always wonder what going on in the players heads. We reap what we think we deserve and the weird stuff going on is a sign of a lack of confidence. That leads to tentative play and mental errors. Carlyle recognized this in his team earlier in the season- is he still addressing it? Playing in a market where everything is analyzed and scrutinized surely doesn't help. That " white noise' is hard to ignore when it is constant.
    Bolland stated he never gets nervous-ever! He's completely confident in his ability to make a difference. That Chicago could let him go tells us they have several more players like Bolland in their line-up. We don't, obviously, or we wouldn't be discussing his loss in almost every post. We still do not have enough of this type of player and it shows. This is what makes just a good team into a contender. Clarkson will come out strong in the play-offs and is a " big game player" but we have to get there first. Our goal-tending and special teams may have helped us win early games but I think Bolland was a bigger part of those wins than we realized. He said that in Chicago even when they played poorly they still believed all along they could win the game and they usually did. We're not the only frustrated team out there ( no matter what the media wants us to believe) and it's all for lack of this type of player. I'd have him him there at the rink at every practice and resign him as well. His sort of absolute confidence rubs off on others. Bolland is a LOT more than a third line center.
    I believe that we won't see the Leafs at their best until they are challenged (and KNOW it's a challenge) and December will bring those challenges whether they are ready or not. Win or lose, playing the best teams makes you better. Believing and having confidence you can win is everything and no amount of hard work will get you where you want to be if you don't believe you can get there. This lack of confidence has to be addressed.
    Meant to write something short. Sorry about that! Thanks Michael. C.N.

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    1. I certainly agree C.N. that confidence for athletes (and teams) is huge. For whatever reason, the Leafs have lost some of that. And yes, Bolland was seemingly a very influential figure in that early-season feeling that they could win almost every night.

      That we don't have more players like that is, well, an issue. As you correctly note, the Hawks did not even see him as worth keeping, much less central to their future success. Here, he was quickly becoming a cornerstone piece. So we need him, and others like him.

      It's all part of the identity, experience and leadership I have talked about in this corner for years- and that the Leafs have been sorely lacking. Thanks C.N.

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  10. That was a passionate Hangout episode and very entertaining!
    I agree with you and Michael S in that there's a problem with identity mostly because most of the players are not the type needed for the team Carlyle wants. Only Clarkson out of our top six is close. Are the players trying to do something they aren't cut out to do? Raymond and now Holland are really cut from the same cloth. Good skaters with some skill but certainly not gritty. I don't see how you can create a tough team out of what we have. I think Ashton and Smith may be our best hope, but we have got to let them play.
    I thought it interesting that Michael S mentioned that Kessel could help lead on the ice and I think he does try. I read today after practice the Phaneuf was the first off the ice but Kessel stayed on late to talk with Cronin. (To be honest I have not seen anything impressive about Lupul in terms of leadership lately in favour of Dion). The first line has been better with Bozak's return and I'm anxious to see what they will do against the Sharks. There could be a bright spot forming. One line performing well can't hurt. Kessel is still young but I don't think taking more of a leadership role is beyond him at all. Joe Nieuwendyk was a very shy person but that didn't stop him. C.N.

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    1. I know I have discussed the identity thing to death for years, but I do see it as a significant issue that appears to be hampering the club at times, C.N. Whether Phaneuf is THAT guy, or Kessel emerges (Bolland was in the mix prior to his injury, for sure), I don't know. But a team needs leaders- and generally more than one. They don't have to be loud, as you cite with Nieuwendyk. There are all kinds of different ways to lead. But someone has to follow, too!

      The Leafs will be playing some tough teams but but that may be a good thing. A few wins against good teams could go a long way toward changing the mood in the dressing room- and on the ice. Thanks C.N.

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  11. The positives first. There are just over 6 months in the regular season. We played poorly in November no doubt. But we are still in the drivers seat. We control our own destination, with hopes that it is a playoff spot. When the Leafs face adversity, this squad from most of last year we remember them doing well. When we got the Bruins in the first round last year we were up for the task, even though we came up a little short.

    We need to look no further than around the league to see teams that were expected to be good have struggled in the east. Rangers, Flyers, Sens, have gone through their downs. However facing adversity this early in the season may be good for the team. I hope it will bring out our best.

    The last little while, whether its the bad penalties called on us, lack of penalties going our way, sticks breaking at bad times and even our goalies both having struggled and come down to earth now it seems the sky is falling all at once. No doubt the players seem to have lost their confidence a bit and has affected their game mentally. You can see McLement over playing the puck carriers on the penalty kill trying to do too much. Our dmen trying to pass off when they just need to get the puck to the net and look for those garbage goals. Creating second and third chances would be a welcomed addition to our game.

    Clarkson needs players like Kuleman and Smith on his line to be most effective, they could work the boards and cycle quite well in the offensive zone I think together as a line. I think Kadri the playmaker, with Raymond and Mclement together can use their offensive instincts and speed to help put up some points. While on the 4th line I'd like to see Smithson with Orr and Brodie dump, chase and hit at every chance they get just to wear the other team down at the least.

    I have not seen other teams reverse the puck back in their own end as much as the Leafs do when the other team presses on the forcheck and it drives me crazy. Id like to see our guys just use the boards and glass and play it safe and just keep the focus going forward with the puck.
    Also our funnel collapse defensive style has too often left the other team's dmen with too much space and time. When our Dmen have possession of the puck in our own end, we need to play some Hitchcock hockey and get our wingers high to the boards to chip the puck out past the other teams Dmen and create some counter odd man rushes. The book is out on the Leafs and the other teams seem to pinch at every opportunity.
    Our power play is becoming too predictable and we need to exploit the 2 on 1 down low more to keep the other team honest. When they took away McCabes one timer ,we remember Sundin and Tucker down low was effective for us.

    I can't believe that we miss Bolland as much as we do (while Chicago has been doing fine without him i might add), as well as that fiesty hitting machine Komarov from last year. I don't see McLaren fitting in with this team any longer.

    I wonder if the trade rumors of J.Ruttuu from Carolina for Liles have any truth because he'd be a nice fit on this team.

    Im anticipating that playing the better teams in the league in the near future will bring out the best in our team. I hope that any one of the two goalies grab the bull by the horns here and hope that Carlyle keeps playing him with several games in a row.

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    1. Good to hear from you, BlueANDwhite. Lots to think on in your analysis. What you wrote does make me wonder if we are sometimes a team caught in a specific strategy, but maybe not able to adjust as needed at times. Generally if the "book" is out on a certain team, they may need to change things up a bit. That need not mean throwing the baby out with the bath water, simply modifying things so as not to become predictable, whether in terms of your break-out game or power play or whatever.

      One thing you cited stands out as well- the need to simply get pucks to the net. When teams are struggling to score, it makes sense to throw it at the net (Franson historically has this skill, to get pucks through) and then fight for deflections, rebounds, etc. Clarkson scored a goal that way recently, but we need to see more of that. Going to the net and creating havoc once you get there. It's been written about often that we can become a bit complacent and fall back into being a perimeter team. That's fine when your shots are going in, but insufficient most of the time.

      I think you're right, playing really good teams should in fact be good for us. We'll see! Thanks BlueANDwhite.

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