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Leafs compete and show some life but fall short against Caps: can the Leafs build on a loss?

Heading into the game, the question on the minds of Leaf faithtful (at least many of them) might well have been:  would the Leafs cave against the growing pressure, or would they say, basically, “enough is enough” and start to play like they have shown they can?

Trailing 1-0 against the Caps on the road (and old nemesis Alexander Ovechkin, who netted the game’s opening marker on a nice little pass from ex-Leaf Mikhail Grabovski) in the second period,  things looked as though they could go either way for the blue and white.  Would they wilt, or fight back?

Toronto did indeed stage a comeback, with van Riemsdyk scoring from his customary spot at the edge of the crease, re-directing a Kessel shot. Then early in the third, Kessel wristed one home that deflected into the top corner of the Caps’ net off a Washington defender’s stick.

Scoring goals usually goes to your legs (and provides a confidence jolt) and the Leafs seemed to skate even better at that point.  I didn't sense they were just going to sit on their lead.  They created some offense while not giving up an unduly high number of dangerous scoring chances. Mason Raymond had a great opportunity, wide open in the slot, but he couldn’t beat Neuvirth to make it 3-1, which might have been enough for the Leafs.

A fluke deflection gave the Caps life five minutes into the third, though the Leafs were still creating chances themselves. Unfortunately a costly tripping penalty in the neutral zone gave the Caps a power play opportunity.  While the Leafs handled that well, within seconds of getting back to even strength Joel Ward was left alone in the slot and Washington had reclaimed the lead.

Overall, it felt like a stronger game for the leafs.  They had some jump, and I thought they competed for the most part.  Kadri and Lupul created some chances in the third. Bernier played well but in the end, the Leafs fell by a goal.


Simple question: was this a “good loss”?  Can the Leafs build on this?

32 comments:

  1. I would say "yes". I already posted on your last story but I was glad to see them compete and I'd rather see a young fourth line who make mistakes but will learn to contribute than one whose play is as good, or bad, as it's ever going to get. C.N.

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    1. Our fourth line played very little again against the Caps, C.N.- one played five minutes, the others less than that, I believe. Just don't know how we can compete against good teams if we cannot roll four lines with confidence...

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  2. Michael,

    For me, this team is so far away from getting any credit for a 'good loss', I really am not sure what to think of them. Other than the anger and frustration, naturally. I feel like such a colossal moron for spending the vast amount of time, effort, and energy that I have on this team in the last 42+ years.

    If this was a team with a pile of rookies on it, or really young guys playing prime time roles, fine. I would even give them credit if they were a team that was hamstrung as a low revenue team. None of these things are true. Nonis has an entire roster of overpaid under-performing 'core' players. I appreciate that you are trying desperately to write something that evokes good thoughts. I really do understand where you are coming from.

    Maybe the only good thing that will come of this lost season is that the coaching staff gets fired, or even the entire management team. They are right up against the cap, moves are going to be terribly difficult for Nonis to make. The guys they are rumoured to be willing to trade have value, partially because they are young, Kadri, Gardiner, Reimer, also because they aren't making huge dollars. No to mention that they all still have upside or potential to evolve into stars. I can safely assume that no one in their right mind would take Clarkson off our hands. I can't think of a move that could be made to salvage this season. I can however, think of a lot of moves being made that will take us many more years to recover from.

    I consider Nonis' time in Toronto to be an extension of the Burke rebuild. Am I going to be forced to watch another 5 plus years of garbage time hockey so that the Leafs may one day be good. I am not even talking about a Stanley Cup team, just a team that is expected, and does, make the playoffs every year for a good run of seasons. It has been six years since Fletcher was replaced as GM. Other than one playoff appearance in a truncated season, what precisely do we have to show for it? Rielly? We talk all the time about how young this team is. Kessel is playing in his 8th NHL season, Phaneuf his 9th, JVR his 5th, Bernier his 6th, Lupul his 11th season as a professional hockey player. This is the core Nonis has locked up, with the inclusion of Clarkson. I can't look at this group of players and believe that they are going to magically get better and challenge the likes of Chicago, Pittsburgh, or LA, for the Cup.

    It's time in my opinion, to fire everyone, trade established players again, and try to land a generational talent in the next five drafts. The same old, same old, wash, rinse, repeat cycle that this team is trapped in, needs to end.

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    1. I recognize that coming close is hardly worth applauding, Jim, but I've kind of run out of things to say that are hopeful.

      It's a shame to think what has happened in a decade. The very idea that we should now be expected to "wait" a few more years - after a rebuild that has already gone on forever, is not uplifting. Thanks Jim.

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  3. Definitely a "good loss". Bernier didn't mess up badly enough that Carlyle will be criticized heavily for giving him another start on Sunday. And that's pretty much the goal, isn't it?

    The funny thing is, as much as the manufactured goalie controversy has bothered me, and brought me to the point I wanted Carlyle gone, the thing that has really done it for me is the Holland demotion. It just doesn't make any sense at all.

    I would rather be having a bad dream right now. At least when you realize it's a nightmare you can force yourself to wake up and everything is OK.

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    1. A baffling time, Oliver. At the moment, Leaf management seems to be waiting things out.

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    2. Your use of the phrase "baffling time" hits the nail on the head. I am aware that my posts are becoming successively less cogent. I can only guess that it is because we are (or at least I am) moving away from analyzing hockey and toward trying to figure out what is happening in the minds of two (or three if you want to waste energy thinking about T.L.). I imagine we're all better at hockey than psychology...

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  4. Definitely a better game for the Leafs, but yet another loss when you sum it all up. It's fine for Carlyle, players, or even fans to look for positives, but the fact is that the same old inability to clear, inability to sustain offensive pressure and boneheaded penalties sank us once again. That and the inability of anyone not named Kessel or van Riemsdyk to score.
    There's no point berating the consistently lousy trades made by Nonis, or Carlyle's astonishing insistence on playing Orr - who isn't even an effective fighter any more - or having a fourth line that plays 5 shifts a game. There's no point because, as constituted at the moment from GM on down, we simply aren't a contending team. Once I realized this - after the Canes game - it suddenly became easier to deal with the subpar play we've witnessed in virtually every game this year. Because that's our normal. Any expectation of something more will be met with disappointment.
    So yes, a better display by the losing team tonight. Fluky goals, solid goaltending at both ends, and a generally entertaining evening. Is it a game to build on? Well, it's better than building on a blow-out! But only in beleaguered Toronto would a loss be considered some sort of moral victory.

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    1. I remember saying on a podcast that I was part of last season, that I felt the Leafs should be an organization that hires the best possible GM they can. (In that instance, it was to replace Burke.) They hired Nonis because he was already there.

      I have no doubt Nonis is a good hockey executive- like hundreds of people out there. Is he the best hockey person the Leaf organization could get? I don't think so.The same applies to the coach.

      We should aim to attract the best people we can to build this franchise. Not easy, I realize. Thanks Gerund.

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  5. I'm trying to decide what we would have thought of this game last year. We've seen so many really bad games lately. A good game last year was a win against a strong team. A good game this year is simply competing but not good enough to win against several bubble teams. It's a little too familiar.
    I've heard there's a chance Bolland will be back before the Sochi break. C.N.

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  6. They competed last night, I'll give them that, but at this point we should be long past taking solace from moral victories and good losses. The basic issues, as discussed yesterday, are still with us and will not disappear without some radical changes.

    Note: Peter Holland scored a goal in the Marlies victory against St. John's last night and was named 1st star of the game.

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    1. I never pretend to have answers, but I am especially without a clue right now, Pete. Thanks.

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  7. Hi Michael,
    I'm a german leaf fan and even I am tired of those years in mediocrity. I had the luck to see Sundin and Roberts play in Toronto back in the 2001-2002 season. At least players to reckon or even idolize :-) playing on a play-off team.

    I don't know if there exists a "good loss", but the loss against the capitals is not a good loss. This loss will not lower the pressure to win and I don't think they can handle it.
    Maybe a coaching change is the answer? I don't know!

    In my opinion the big mistakes were made when Burke took over as a GM. Today rebuilds have to go through the draft! No team is trading you their #1 center for example. Core players get looked up long term. Start rebuilding again! Hate to say it, but a core of Phaneuf, Kessel, Lupul, JVR, Clarckson will not lead you to the cup.

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    1. Good to hear from you, Anon- are you living in Germany now, or were you born there and living in Canada/Toronto?

      Yes, the Sundin/Roberts years were pretty darn good ones. No, we did not go all the way to a championship, but we won a lot of playoff series, and save for one poor playoff game in Jersey (6 shots or something) the Leafs of that Quinn era competed their tails off and were a load to handle every spring come playoff time. (I seem to remember Hitchcock explaining at the time that the Flyers that he coached would usually lose later in the playoffs because they were gassed after having to play a series against Toronto.)

      Your post made me reflect on one thing: after all these years of rebuilding, we still do not have a high-end, true, number-one centre. There are many other issues but that remains a key factor. Thanks for posting!

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    2. I am german and live in Germany. I was on holiday back in March/April 2002 in Toronto with a group of other hockey freaks. We had the luck to watch the Leafs vs. Devils in the Air Canada Center. They lost this Game 1-3 I think.... and the best player on the ice was Marty Brodeur. Cujo was injured and they signed Tom Barasso, who got injured in that game. So we saw some action of Corey Schwab too!

      You're right, many issues but no real numer-one center. And those players considered as number-centers aren't available. Crosby, Toews, Malkin, E. Staal, Getzlaf, Kopitar, Giroux.... are not available.

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    3. It's amazing that Brodeur is still playing!

      Those were fun Leaf teams that you got to watch during your visit to Canada. And yes, I recall that Schwab played some good goal for Quinn one season. Glad you visited VLM.

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  8. It is a little depressing that yet once again we have been reduced to looking for moral victories. Last night was actually a good game but in reality Washington is just about as bad at giving up shots as the Leafs. By any way you measure a hockey team, be it new stats, old stats or made up stats the Caps are a bad team. The fact that we look for solace that the Leafs were able to play an even game against one of the worst teams in the league just makes me sad. I can see that the commenters here feel the same way.

    I mean I don't know what to say anymore. Its obvious that something is broken on this team, whether it is coaching, flawed management decisions, the wrong make up of players or some combination of the three. To hear the talking heads, the ones that have connections to Leaf brass, now talking about how management thinks it may be 2-3 years before the Leafs are ready to compete just makes me depressed. This is simply the team trying to float the idea that all is well and on schedule except basically this is the exact same management put in place by Burke 6 years ago. You know the management team that don't believe in 5 year rebuild plans. Now they trying to float an 8-9 year plan. The very fact is just insulting to my intelligence. Despite what the team thinks I'm not a stupid person, although maybe I am because I keep blowing hard earned money to watch games on TV. I just feel we have seen this movie before and that really just saddens me.

    Its going to be very tough for the Leafs to make the playoffs ( I don't think they will) that means one playoff in 10 years with really no end in sight. This is the same core group of players who already got one coach fired and are in the process of getting the current one canned. These guys are all locked up for the next 4-5 years. That thought truly depresses me.

    Right now it is hard to see things getting better. I know they will, they have too. Its just that some very smart people have been predicting this fall for a while now. The way these guys play is more reminiscent of an expansion team and it really is hard to see them improving any time soon. Maybe that is what I'm feeling more than anything, the loss of hope.

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    1. Your comments made me nod along today Willbur. Given that our former GM had "no patience" for a five-year rebuild, what we have been sold, in effect, is (as you just said) an 8 or 9 year re-build.

      You said it: Washington is not a good team. Look at their roster. It's "OK". Take away Ovechkin and what would analysts really say? Like any team comprised of NHL players, if they work hard, sure, they'd have some success. But the Leafs were't playing the best of the West- and haven't been most of the season.

      The Leafs are seemingly in the same boat as Washington. Lots of skill. Lots of young players. But who doesn't have those traits in the cap-era NHL?

      What one feature distinguishes this team? What is our identity (as I have asked here for years)?

      As many have said, our "core" is locked up, but that's a lot of money for players who haven't won a thing.

      Your post also made me think: I know people are tired of Carlyle. But let's remember: this group of players (at least the "veteran leaders" like Lupul, Kessel, Phaneuf, etc.) got one coach fired; now they want another guy gone. At some point, when is it the players- who make gazillions of dollars - to play like professionals? Thanks Willbur.

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    2. I'm starting to believe one of the core guys has to be traded before you can fire Carlyle. That pains me to say because I have no faith at all the Randy Carlyle is the guy to lead this team to, well anywhere. I think the game has passed him by and he can not or will not adapt to the new realities of the NHL. Look with basically the same guys in Anahiem that were there when he got fired ripping it up since he left it leads me to wonder about him. People have commented before about his "pounding square pegs into round holes" and I believe that to be true. However, before I would fire him I would shake up that dressing room. I'm not in there so I don't know what the leadership is like, nobody does. Its painfully obvious though that something isn't right. One of the core guys has got go to send a message.

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    3. I agree Willbur. We're not in the room and we don't "know". But I'd be loathe to let the players run the show. Otherwise, the message is: this is all on the coach, you guys get a free pass for never-ending indifferent play. (That said, we all know the next coach will be a "player's coach"...that's always the way these things go...)

      Right now, this group reminds me of a team that is satisfied as long as they get their points and "stats". That's generally not how teams win.

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  9. Peter Holland is worth a 2nd rounder in my book. He has proved he can play in this league and should be on the third line. If he has been sent down to learn to be better defensively, he won't learn it in the AHL. We see too many players that come into the NHL lacking those skills for me to believe they spend much time teaching them.
    I wonder why, with all the money we hear the Leafs organization has and claim is available, that they don't hire a recently retired top defenseman to come in and work with these guys for a month or two. We've seen the difference Barb has made as a skating instructor. Why is Gardiner trying to learn by watching plays on his ipad? And he really is trying. A few extra minutes with the present coaching staff to learn these skills is not nearly enough, C.N.

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    1. Hi C.N.- you raise a good point about bringing in a seasoned former NHL defenseman. Now, we do have a coach in Dave Farrish who was a longtime NHL defenseman, but maybe a new voice would help. As you say, it's not as though there isn't money to bring experts in, even like baseball teams do in spring training when they invite former players in as guest instructors. Thanks C.N.

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  10. I like Farrish and wouldn't suggest supplanting him with someone else. I think he might appreciate a little support, though. There's a lot on his plate. Someone who could work exclusively with the youngsters, Gardiner and Rielly. Lots of money doesn't mean a willingness to spend it? C.N.

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  11. Yes, I think this game is one to build on. Finally, the Leafs are starting to resemble the last year's edition - a team that was 'hard to play against', that hits hard, that leads the league in fighting majors, that raises the level of intensity whenever it plays and leaves the opposition significantly banged up and deflated after the game, a team that punishes with it's speed and skill, that has 'emerging offensive stars' like Kadri and Kessel producing hat-tricks or dominant performances most nights.

    I wouldn't touch anything if I were Nonis - let this play out - be patient (and I don't mean 8-9 year rebuild) - let them play out the season and get their game together - the Leafs are young and this is a relatively new roster that has not played together for a long time. They will make the playoffs again.

    Has Ashton won a fight this year? Has Orr? Has McLaren even fought? If anything is wrong with the 4th line it's that they are not winning their battles. I have no problem with the 4th line playing 5 minutes a night but in those 5 minutes the need to be effective and let the opposition know that they are there. That's what they did last season and it worked very well. Perhaps it's time to see if Broll and Devane can come up and stir some trouble? It may be time for Orr to retire? He's looking slow and not punching like he used to.

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  12. You do realize that they have led the league in fighting majors pretty much all year right?

    Hitting does not win games. That should have been evident from the game against Carolina where the Leafs out hit them 44-14 or something ridiculous like that. If you dominate the hitting statistic all it means is you are chasing the play because the other team always has the puck, which is probably why the Leafs do lead the league in hitting by a wide margin . That's a fact. Had Chicago or Detroit ever led the league? Seems self-evident to me. Even the big bad Boston Bruins are mid pack for hits.

    Therein lies the problem with the coaching style. Team don't fight as much any more. They just don't. Dressing a fourth line of guys who fight and only play 4-5 minutes a night is an antiquated notion.

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    1. I see your point here, Willbur, though I would make the case that hitting does matter. No one wanted to play against Bob Gainey, for example, because, in addition to all the other good things he did, he may knock you cold with a clean check any moment. Ovechckin did that against Kadri last night- shoulder check, knocked Kadri down with a clean hit that will make Kadri very aware the next time he sees Ovechkin.

      But your chasing the puck point is of course valid. For me it's not so much how many hits but the timing of the hit and the circumstance in the game. A good hit can change the temp/momentum of a game more than a fight. (I think Detroit had higher "hit" totals years ago when they were actually winning Cups and had players like Chelios and Shanahan...I could be wrong.)

      At the end of the day you need skill but also grit, the will to win puck battles. A team does not have to generate a lot of hits but I think we agree that the compete level has to be there. Thanks Willbur.

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  13. Agreed. The compete level has to be there. Yes hitting does matter. Its just this notion that if the Leafs just hit more they would win. Its just so obviously not true. We all agree that the St Louis Blues are a hard hitting physical team. The funny thing is they are mid pack in hits. Toronto has currently outhit the Blues by some 700 hits this year. I remember reading an article about the Red Wings about this very topic. Even when the Wings were winning cups they never finished above 15th in hits. Were they a tough team to play, no doubt. I totally agree with you about compete level. Its Bobby C's term "muckulence" and the Leafs have a severe lack of it.

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  14. Hi Michael:

    I was not going to post today as pretty much everything has been said and there seems to be a consistency in how followers are feeling. However, in thinking about your question, I decided maybe I could add something constructive.

    To me, your question is easy. It goes back to the old saying "you can't change a leopard's spots". This team is what it is, a bubble team and for many reasons is not likely to change. Certainly, by the methods being used, tried, whatever.

    The good thing - there are actually some parts that the truly good teams would like to have. There was a time when you could look at the team, and ask "who could play on the Black Hawks or Bruins. Now, there are actually some players. Unfortunately, the sum of the parts is less than the whole.

    For some time we have been saying that "We have no idea what the problem is" and it is because we don't have the necessary background". I choose to differ. While no one of us has all the answers, I suspect that over the past few months, we have collectively identified the problems. From what I have read, you and many of your followers do have a clue. What is distressing is that there is little evidence that management has as good an understanding. After all, Ken Hitchcock's coaching career started as the team bus driver.

    While I am at it, I will take the opportunity to discuss the fourth line issue. While I too have questioned the selection process and decisions, I believe we may be over-reacting. In my view, being able to roll a fourth line is not really that important until the playoffs. In the playoffs when intensity increases by 35+%, It becomes important. Since at the moment that is looking doubtful, the key is to ice the best players for three shifts during the year with specialist augmuntation, when I believe many players on some nights go through the motions.

    Not to only be critical, let me offer a constructive alternative though some of young followers will not know the examples. In days of yore, teams went with three lines and a couple of specialists. These players only hit the ice for penalty killing, power play, etc. and may or may not have been sprinkled onto regular lines for various reasons. Using the Maple Leafs as an example, Mike Walton was often the power play specialist (I prefer forward on the point), and Eric Nesterenko was a terrific penalty killer. If one must have a face puncher, how about Gerry James type playing the protector role for Kessel, Kadri and other skill players. In today's hockey this would probably be a 2nd line, but I imagine you get the drift.

    Bubble team is not enough for Toronto.

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    1. I know all the old-time names you cite in your last full paragraph well, Ralph (RLMcC). Right now, a "specialist" like McClement likely plays way too much, for example.

      No a bubble team is not enough in Toronto, and should not be. There are indeed some gifted players here who may well be a fit on very good teams elsewhere. That's a good thing.

      We would agree I'm sure that the objective is to get those good players to be their best here, and complement them with vital specialists, as you cite. Thanks Ralph.

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  15. Hi Michael!
    There are lots of stories to choose from today! Maurice is now the coach for the Jets. I was hoping we could have switched with them--several Jets fans were asking for Randy.
    It does appear that Randy and not Nonis is the G.M. for the Leafs. We have lost all the players that were continually "in the dog-house" last year and we have to face the facts that several more besides Reimer will be headed out the door. Randy's decisions have gone from confusing, to bad, to downright insane. Holland being sent to play with the Marlies because his talent is " wasted on the fourth line" and worse-Ashton forced to play center when a third line with Holland and a fourth with McClement makes so much sense. I can only think that Carlyle has gone beyond making bad decisions and has completely lost his marbles. Even if Randy is fired, and I think that will come, -not from Nonis but Leiweke- the damage is done. C.N.

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    1. I understand the consternation around Carlyle's decision-making, C.N.- I still can't help but wonder if management won't be letting the players off the hook for sometimes indifferent play if they simply fire the coach.

      Yes, a new voice can help, for sure. But will it last?

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