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Let’s take the emotion out of it: how good are these Leafs?

Something has been (or at least has become) patently evident to me over the 55 years I have been following the Maple Leafs: at any given time, I can convince myself my team is a lot better than it really is.  At other times, I can see nothing but doom and gloom in their future.

When do I feel hopeful, optimistic about the future (and this applies to any number of Leaf teams I’ve followed over the past five decades, even in some pretty awful seasons)?  Well, it’s usually after a big game, when they've beaten a really good team.  Sometimes it’s after a road win against a tough opponent. 

Personally, I’d often get that feeling when we beat the Habs in Montreal, for example, or the Bruins in Boston in the Bobby Orr (right) years, which did not happen very often, by the way. It might be after a young player finally started to show what he had (Lanny McDonald in his third season with Toronto comes to mind)  or when a player showed the kind of grit I like to see in a Maple Leaf (Brian Spencer was but one example), or when a goaltender looked like he was finally emerging as the real deal. (That could be a Palmateer, Alan Bester, Felix Potvin, etc...)

At those times, all felt good, and the future was seemingly rosy.  I would start to feel particularly 'heady'.  Maybe we weren’t going to win a Cup that season, but you never knew.  You could always hope—and choose to believe.

Conversely through those years, it wouldn’t take much to produce a very different feeling—and perspective.  A losing streak; a goalie struggling; watching my team go through a string of games where they lacked passion or don’t seem to hit anyone or fight to get to the net;  a power play that couldn’t score. Those were all examples of things that could make a fan feel downhearted.

At those times it has always been difficult to look at the Maple Leaf glass as anything but half empty, if not entirely depleted.

Why do I raise this?

Very simply, I recognize that it’s a challenge for Leaf fans (or fans of most professional teams, for that matter) to truly look at their team with a detached point of view, and to try and determine, as best any of us “non-experts” can, how good a particular Leaf team really is.

This is always driven home to me when I drop by social media sites.  When the Leafs win a few in a row, the mood is so much better.  What are people saying then? That our goaltending is great; don’t change a thing. Isn’t Phaneuf wonderful?  Kessel is so dynamic.  Lupul wants to win so badly.  Gardiner is fantastic.  Reilly will be a superstar…

But turn the page in the book—say, after a game like Saturday night against the Rangers—and the perspective is, naturally, distinctly different.  Fans are frustrated, they pick at—and on—individual players.  Our defense (previously acceptable and perhaps even thought of as reasonably capable) stinks.  Our forwards don’t work hard enough.  

And on it goes.

So here’s my question for you today, with a suggestion first.  Step back.  Be as objective as you can be about this roster, and about this coach (and the General Manager, for that matter).  Don’t be swayed by some nice plays by a player that you personally like in isolation, or a mistake here and there that any NHL player will make playing against the best players in the world.

Also, don't just be swayed by "stats"- either the conventional things like simple 'plus/minus' or the followed-like-gospel modern-era 'advanced stats' that so many have adopted as what matters most.  Look at all that, but include your own ability to identify what a good hockey player is, too.

And don’t look at a particular game, necessarily—either a convincing win or an especially distressing loss.  Instead, focus on each of the players, what they bring night in and night out.  Look at Franson, for example (or Kadri, or McClement, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, whoever…). What are they right now as NHL players?

Go beyond skill.  Most of these guys have obvious skill.  They wouldn’t be in the NHL if they weren’t good players.  Most of us would likely agree that not many guys are more dynamic than Kessel.

But do these Leafs have character?  Do they play with grit? Does this team have what I will call real leadership?  What about the team toughness I have talked about here at VLM for years?

Do we have any players who you can honestly say are the kind of player who will go through the proverbial wall to make a play, on a consistent (not a once in a while, when the mood strikes) basis?  Do we have any players who are among the very best in the league at what they do?

Again, set aside your Leaf loyalty for a moment: who are these Leafs? 

Let’s make this even more specific.  Say you were a scout for an NHL team. You have been assigned to follow the Leafs closely so you could write a report about what that other NHL team would be facing if they were to go up against the Leafs in the playoffs.  What would you say about a) individual players, b) about our will,  c) about our 'team game' and d) about our coaching?


Have your say…

39 comments:

  1. Michael,

    You know that I make an effort to honestly evaluate the games I watch, you do as well. It is my opinion that most fans are fans first, and are critical of the team only superficially. The this guys a bum perspective, or whatever the theme of the day is. As fans most of us lack any objectivity at all. I have raised many questions in the comments here about our team. Is this player elite, that player? Would other organizations give up their best players for ours? Do the Leafs do enough of the important things that will win them tough hockey games in the playoffs? My take on this team has largely been dismissed as being negative, and not focussing enough on the good things they do. I don't see this group doing a lot of good things, even when they win. Except for the goaltending, this team is a train wreck.

    If I was to scout this team for another organization. My message would be simple. Make the Leafs pay for every inch of ice, every play that has to be made. The majority of the players won't make the tough play, especially the skilled players getting lots of ice. When was the last time you saw Kessel, Bozak, JVR, Kadri, Lupul, or Raymond, bust their ass on a backcheck? Or sacrifice their body for the team by blocking a shot, or taking a big hit to get the puck out? I will say it again, there are obviously reasons that other teams gave up on most of these guys, and to me, they haven't changed. I do mean the majority of the roster, and not just the players I mentioned. Even our captain, our best player by a mile, is a castaway. He's flawed enough in some way that Calgary wanted him gone. Up and down the roster are guys that were deemed expendable in other places. Where the hell is our development stream? I know, it's always two to three years away. If I could go just one day without having to hear about some nobody on the farm team tearing it up, I would be so happy. The reason they are there, is because they aren't good enough to be here.

    This season can be summed up as the year of excuses. From injuries to suspensions, to the schedule, HBO distractions, and on and on. Other teams it seems to me, soldier on. Pittsburgh has been ravished by injury. Tampa lost arguably the best player in the game, other guys stepped up. Every team goes through challenges in a season, some triumph over adversity. We make excuses. Dave Bolland is a fine player, he is not Stamkos. The players, coaches and management of this team need to take a good long look in the mirror. If they try, they will see where the problem lies.

    These guys are good, is the motto of the PGA Tour. The Leafs are good as well, just a long way from being anything close to great. Even, as you like to say in a very mediocre Eastern conference.

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    1. I can appreciate your comment regarding being seen as 'negative', Jim. When I post honestly here, some will sometimes wonder why I'm being negative. To me, it's not a question of negativity when I say the goalie situation is a mess, because, well, it is- in my view. I may be wrong, but that is my view, having watched similar movies in this market before.

      Trying to be objective while still being a fan surely does not mean we all have to applaud lousy play. The bar in this market has been way too low for a decade almost. We should try to step back, look at the team in the context of the rest of the league, and be fair - not emotional - in our assessments.

      We may draw different conclusions, and that's OK, too.

      It's funny that you raise "excuses". The former GM used that as one of his many mantras, but I thought that whole 'era' was all about excuses and loud, empty talk. And I'm not sure we aren't still in that mode.

      The Leafs are a good. Lots of talent here. The NHL, though, is filled with talented guys. That's why I raised the question today: "who are these Leafs, really?

      Thanks for providing your point of view, Jim.

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  2. You've done an excellent job defining the parameters for a response, Michael!

    As a result, I must say that at this point the only guy I see as willing to go through a wall to succeed is actually James Reimer. It seems to me that everyone else have their moments and almost all of the team are actually excellent 'support' pieces.

    The historically 'ready to go through a wall' would include Clarkson, who hasn't had a playoff to show that in Leaf-land and those on the cusp of doing so in the future are: JVR, Phaneuf, Lupul, Kessel and (quietly) Rielly. What we need now, is exactly what you've identified repeatedly... someone (or two) more upgrades from 'support' types to 'carry the team on your back' types (a la Wendel, Sundin, Roberts, Sittler, et al).

    There are others in the fold who may one day provide this, but can they do so without more veteran leadership (or are we really missing Bolland as much as many of us have acknowledged)?

    I think other managers that may have an abundance of top end talent that are looking for more balance and willing to part with a top-end player (eg. Malkin/Crosby) for financial and/or other reasons, might be very happy to pluck that support from our roster. Whether the ideal opportunity presents itself (or not) is another question entirely.

    In the meantime, we may find someone on the current roster 'stepping forward' though I doubt we'll see that until Bolland returns (hopefully, close to his earlier form). I hope we can maintain a playoff spot and improve in the (weak) east standings in order to deal from a position of strength (if that is in the cards)

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  3. PS re: C) and D) Our 'team game' is lacking and inconsistent and our coaching seems a little slow to respond to what appears significant to us (lacking our own coaching prowess) - pertaining to the 4th line makeup and our defensive support from the forwards, not to mention breakout support.

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    1. Thanks, InTimeFor62- you've handled the assignment well!

      I think that while all of your comments are noteworthy, your initial point is worth a second look. If indeed Reimer is the one guy that would go through a wall to try and help the Leafs win, why is that? This is one of the proudest franchises in hockey history. Every guy in that room wearing the sweater should be prepared - every night - to do everything possible to help their team win.

      I'm not suggesting these players don't care. Of course they do. But just as there is a difference between an athlete who works hard and an athletes who really works hard, there is a difference between caring - and, well, wanting it badly enough to work more than your opponent for the same prize.

      Bolland's return may help, yes. But we both recognize that we will need more than one 'vet' to steer this ship in the direction it needs to go.

      One loss against the Rangers may mean precious little. But the concerning questions are still there, despite that recent run of extra-time victories. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

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    2. Against NY, Reimer struck me as a guy who was ready to stand on his head to get the team back in the game, but rather than get in while down 3-0, he was sent in to 'mop up' after 5 goals... looked like a sure way to crush the spirit of the only guy willing to work harder than anyone (before, during and after the game).

      Perhaps part of the problem is the stigma of so many players on the team being acquired with the stigma of being 'discarded' by their former team. It makes me wonder if a team psychologist could help these guys to get past the past and give their all now (without protecting their damaged psyche's - if that has anything to do with the inconsistency).

      All we can do is speculate on the reasons and hope they can be overcome!

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  4. In watching the game Saturday night two things struck me Michael. One was the total lack of effort that was displayed and two was how we kept giving up the blue line so easily and then getting hemmed in. I try to put myself in the players shoes, they just came off a big win, the Rangers are 5 points back and a win makes it 7. I wouldn't need any more motivation than what I just stated. Instead it is the worst performance of the year, even worst than the Columbus game. The team can compete and showed that in the playoffs last year but there is something missing with this team but I can't put my finger on it. The hard to play against team look like cream puffs most nights even when they win. Carlyle looked flabbergasted last night without any answers. I Dont think he has any idea what to do with this team. I really think that there is as much talent as most teams but something just isn't right. We could use a player that can stir things up when the team comes out flat, we Dont have anyone like that, a Steve Ott type that you have mentioned here before. Is complacency setting in? Is there a sense of entitlement? Would a big trade that would not be an exchange of minor pieces but that would reset the dynamic of the team work. I don't know about you Michael but is exasperating watching this team now, you don't know what to expect from night to night.

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    1. The thing that really stood out for me in your post today purch is the reference to the Leafs no longer being hard to play against. While they certainly weren't a great team last season, I do honestly believe they were hard to play against most nights. Nobody looked forward to playing them.

      It can't be just the loss of Komarov, or the current absence of Bolland. Team toughness and being "hard to play against", is always about more than one player. It's an overall team attitude- as in, we will not give in. We may not be good enough every night, but we will not yield.

      They have skill, for sure, but right now, I don't see this squad having that type of mentality. I'm open to hearing a different perspective. Thanks purch.

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  5. Michael,

    It seems as though the last part of my post didn't make it. So as best as I can remember, here it is.

    a) Make the Leafs best players play hard minutes. Finish checks at every opportunity. The cycle game down low should be productive as the Leafs D doesn't handle it well at all, other than Phaneuf. Even though the D is mobile, they don't as a group handle wide rushes appropriately, very soft on the body. Bottom half of the lineup are easy to pin in their own zone for vast stretches, make them skate to tire them out, East West in their own zone. If you can get McClement in the box their penalty kill is pretty awful. Take away time and space from Kessel, get in his kitchen, he will react and perhaps take a penalty. JVR likes the wide move one on one, and the down low play at the crease. The goaltending has been excellent. There is no margin between Reimer and Bernier, no backup vs starter gameplan to exploit. Bernier handles the puck, and rebounds better, yet is susceptible to the soft goal. They are both capable of stealing two points, beware.

    b) The teams will to make the difficult play is pretty much zero. Make them take the most difficult route to the puck. It won't take long to wear down their resolve. By the second period you will beat them to every loose puck, and their battle to regain it will be gone. Do not engage their most physical players, physically. Orr, McLaren, Fraser, Phaneuf are willing to take it and give it back. This kind of play gives the Leafs momentum and energy. Just skate away from these players.

    c) The Leafs demonstrate very little in the team aspect of some games. They are very willing to pass the puck, but unwilling to make the tough play for their team. Going hard to the front of the net and looking for rebounds is not a strength. They are terrible at helping out a team mate that makes a bad decision. Not back checking is evident throughout the lineup. This is especially true of the top players. There seems to be a lot of individuals in Toronto and very few team mates. For example, letting their best player and captain fight his own battles. Taking him out of the game for five minutes at a time is advantageous to our cause.

    d) The coaching staff is still willing to dress a top six bottom six, that was prominent a few years ago. The Leafs play a short bench for some reason, and dress guys who don't see the ice. The philosophical disconnect is easy to see as not working. They are willing to run Orr and Fraser over the boards even when struggling. The coaching staff is not an adaptable one. Jay McLement is a decent defensive centre, playing him when behind is a favourite move by the staff. This might be due to the staffs willingness to engage in matchups, line vs. line. The staff is seen as slow to adapt to changing conditions in a game as well as on the whole. The players are either unable to play the coaches system, or unwilling. The message one way or the other isn't getting through. The team is very willing to give up the blue line, we can and need to exploit this strategy.

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    1. Not adapting or adjusting is clearly an issue, Jim. You've articulated it very well, point by point.

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  6. If I'm an opposing coach I tell my players to get the puck in deep and work the boards. Look for a cycle and then pass to the point. If at any time you get in trouble look to the point because they are always open. I would tell my defenseman to look for the pinch down along the boards. The Leaf forwards have an awful time getting to pucks on the half boards in their own end. Lastly I would tell my players to grind it out along the boards as the Leafs consistently lose one on one battles. They aren't interested in going to the hard areas. They like to score pretty, pretty goals but if they have to work for them they will fold up and go home.

    The Leafs don't have enough "muckulence". This was the case last year but in a shortened season there simply wasn't enough time for it to catch up to them. There was more than a few of us saying last year that the way the Leafs were playing was simply not a recipe for a winning team. The same problems that are apparent now were there last year as well. They have four regulation wins in the last 29 games. That simply is not a playoff team let alone a cup contender. They simply aren't good enough. I posted after Dion's contract that the Leafs were simply following the rest of the league in locking up their core. Well the core is now all signed long term. Lupul, JVR, Clarkson, Bozak, Phanuef and Kessel are now on contracts of 4 years or longer. Factor in young controllable players like Rielly, Gardiner, Bernier, Reimer and Kadri and you about half of your line up on any given night. Individually all these players are good players. They have boat loads of talent and all but Clarkson's contract are inline with their talent. My big fear is the Leaf's have just locked up a core of mediocrity. Something is wrong with this group of players and I'll be dammed if I can put my finger on it.

    Last nights debacle notwithstanding, 4 regulation wins in 29 games is awful. That is not a blip, that is not a slump it is a sign of an ailing team. That is a third of a season and other than some heroic goaltending early in the season it would be an entire season. This is a bad team. I was not as optimistic as you about the Leafs Michael to start the season and thru the early part of the season. I figured they would be a bubble team and probably just miss the playoffs. I now worry that they may be heading for lottery draft area. Something needs to be done to save this year but it will have to be done soon. Thank God the Metro division is so awful or this year would be over already.

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    1. Hi Willbur- yes, I have slowly seen my early-season optimism fade somewhat. I do recall your comments at the time, and to tis point you have been prophetic.

      I think you hit the nail on the head today when you said: all those signed or controllable players are "good" players. But something seems to be missing.

      The Leafs have locked up their core, as you cite. But is that core (and yes, some of them are still young and "developing") good enough to be a contender for a championship? It's hard to feel - or see - that right now. Thanks Willbur.

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  7. It's difficult to be dispassionate about this most exasperating team, but here goes:

    a) The Leafs have a number of highly skilled players on their first two lines who will kill you if you give them room but who, for the most part, aren't prepared to really fight for the puck. So it's important to make them pay for every inch of ice, frustrate them, get in their way, rough them up. They don't like that. They also tend to be lazy on the back check, so play lines with some speed against them. The few players who will fight for ice aren't really scoring threats. The defence is prone to mistakes, and consistently weak on clearing the puck out of their zone (exacerbated by the lackadaisical play of the forwards. Only Phaneuf is a game in/game out tough guy to play against. The goalies are the MVP's, but regularly face around 40 shots a game. So just keep shooting.

    b) The Leafs exhibit no team "will to win". Individual players may show it from time to time, but as a team mindset, it's simply not there on any regular basis. There is no one player who you could call the team leader - the one who won't sit complacently by as the team delivers a subpar performance, the one who makes the other players accountable. It feels very much like the team that got Ron Wilson fired.

    c) The Leafs' team game has been consistently one of underperformance, excepting the first line and the goalies. They have dominated, maybe, ten periods of the first 123 they've played. They seem to always start slow, with a lack of passion that's extraordinary in pro sports. It's thanks to their first line, essentially, that they've been able to eke out points in games they deserved to lose. There is a noticeable lack of cohesion amongst the players, again excepting the first line and the first D pair, and it seems there is a disconnect between the coaching staff and the players. Carlyle's post-game interviews sound remarkably similar night after night: not executing, not playing our system, saved by our goalies, etc.

    d) As noted above, there's a disconnect in the dressing room and on the ice. It seems as if the coaching system is set up for another group of players. Or the players the Leafs have won't buy in to what Carlyle is pushing. Either way, it leads to an astounding number of giveaways, blown coverages, players out of position game after game - things that would normally indicate a coach will be fired or there'll be some significant player movement. Noticeably, management seems to be content with the core of this group, who are accomplished on paper but have consistently failed to inspire their teammates to deliver this year.

    Summation: Unless the Leafs do a 180, we won't have to worry about a playoff performance this year. And if they do squeak in, and play according to this year's form, it'll be a short series.

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    1. That was another post that I simply nodded along with from beginning to end. Thanks Gerund O'.

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    2. Bingo. That was about as good of a summation as I have read so far. So very true.

      On a side note it is kind of funny to see the two sides (the eye test guys and the advanced stats guys) come to the same conclusion albeit from very different directions. Everybody knows that something is dreadfully wrong with this team. We argue passionately about what it is and from different sides of the same coin, but everybody is reaching the same conclusion. Reading around the net today, nobody seems to be arguing anymore that the Leafs are on their way.

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  8. Why do we consistently talk about the players stepping up? Why isn't it the coach's problem? I submit the following incidents from a long line of incidents as evidence:

    1) Jay McClement played 19:57 in the 7-1 loss, which was the highest of any forward on either team. Jay "Hasn't hit 30 points in a season" McClement. The guy we use as a shutdown centre. The guy with a 0.12 PPG pace this season. Can anyone explain why the least offensively talented centre was playing the most time in a game when we were behind 7 minutes in?

    2) Remember the Pittsburgh game in December? Down 2-1 in the final minutes, Pittsburgh gets a penalty, and we've pulled our goalie for the 6-on-4? A timeout is called, one of the assistants draws a plan on the whiteboard, and the puck is promptly chipped in to the Pittsburgh zone, scooped up by a Penguin, and sent back to the empty net? Did they only draw the "how to take the faceoff" part of the plan, and forget the whole "plan of attack"? Or are we going to assume the players just love chipping the puck in, and that it's not how Carlyle likes to play? (It totally is how he likes to play)

    3) Peter Holland has scored 9 points in the 15 games where he plays over 10 minutes. Trevor Smith has 9 points in his 25 games with the Leafs. Colton Orr has 7 shots in 31 games. Not 7 points, 7 shots. Why does Colton Orr touch the ice without there being injuries?

    Every major complaint I have about the Leafs has to do with systems, player selection, and player usage first. Why do they collapse around the net so much? Why do the wingers play so low in their own zone? Why do players who are offensively awful play so much when we need to score? Why do keep playing Colton Orr and co after embarassments like the 2 minute shift vs San Jose where SJ's fourth line hemmed them in long enough to conduct a full line change and score? Why do players who are clearly injured and not pulling their weight (see: Fraser) still see the ice when we have other players available?

    This team is playing the same way they played last year. Awful at gaining the zone, awful at holding the zone, collapsing around the net, awful at clearing. The only differences between this year and last year are lower shooting %, more questionable player usage, and that teams seem to have figured out the easy counter finally.

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    1. Certainly how the personnel is utilized has been a concern for many Leaf supporters again this season, Derek. There also seems to be mounting evidence - both visually and statistically - that Carlyle is pointing the team in a direction it has trouble playing effectively.

      Are the players unwilling, incapable or is it simply the wrong system?

      I do think they were an edgier team to play against last season, and while they were perhaps fortunate to make the playoffs because of the shortened season, they were a are pretty hard working team, comparably speaking. They did take the Bruins to 7 games and that surely suggests they were capable- and that they could win with Carlyle behind the bench.

      Yes, they have lost some players, but it is hard to believe MacArthur, Grabovski, et al were losses that could not be dealt with. Every team has injuries or loses guys in the off-season.

      You are not alone in looking at Carlyle. I tend to look at the players, who are paid handsomely to work hard and produce. Even if the system the coach asks you to play is not to your liking, you can still play your tail off. Kessel, Kadri, JVR, etc. all get plenty of ice time. Is everyone on this roster pulling their weight?

      Thanks for chiming in today, Derek.

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  9. I think a lot of us made the classic "Spring Training" error that you allude to in your piece, Michael. Playing up the strengths of the players and ignoring the weaknesses. Yes, there are a number of good, useful, young players on this team, and some that will likely develop further, but I think we've been fooling ourselves into thinking that we've got a bunch of elite players. We've got one elite offensive talent, a very solid first line winger (JVR) and a bunch of guys with a lot of minuses on their ledgers.

    Players like Lupul and Kadri are exciting dynamic offensive players, and I think that's why we overrate them--they have puck skills and are dangerous when they have it. But these are still limited hockey players due to their inconsistency and weaknesses (puck possession, retrieval, etc). And don't get me started about our defense--plenty of dogs with fleas there. This is what we forget when we rate our own players--yes, most of our players have things that they can offer a hockey team, but the same can be said for the players on other teams. Tyler Bozak is good on faceoffs and has a nice passing touch. David Clarkson has grit and is good along the boards. Great, are their skills so rare that we should be raining them with money for a half decade? Look at the talent all around the league and the answer should be obvious.

    You don't get consistently outplayed night after night after night to this degree if your core talent is sufficient, regardless of Randy Carlyle's deficiencies as a tactician. Colton Orr sucking is besides the point with this team--yes, he hurts the team a bit in his 2:34 of ice team per night, but he mainly serves as an emblem of our coach and GM's frustratingly old timey sense of how to construct a hockey team) Our main problem is that our top 9 and top 5 simply aren't good enough.

    Think about where this team would be without Bernier and Reimer providing more or less Vezina quality goaltending throughout the first three months of the season. Now tell me this is a core worth building around.

    And the maddening thing is that Nonis is leaving himself little wiggle room by locking up everyone up. It's do or die for this core for the next 4 years. I'm not bullish on our chances.

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    1. Hi Craig,

      Your spring training reference captured my attention right away, I often speak with one of my grown sons who has long been a baseball fan. We talk every spring about how so many teams always seem to over-inflate how good their five starting pitchers are. Usually by June they are scrambling to find three guys (much less five) who can get past the fifth inning.

      You express it well: this is a team with some talented, even exciting players. Who doesn't enjoy watching Kadri, Kessel, Lupul, Rielly, Gardine, etc.? When the puck is going in the net, and our goalies are superb, we look pretty good and all is well.

      But as we all know, championship teams don't only have skill and clutch goaltending. That's a given. They are accountable. They play hard. The have grit. They block shots, eliminate the man, fight through traffic (all the time, not just sometimes) and play in the tough areas- and usually win more puck battles than they lose.

      And most of the teams who play that way don't even get to the Cup finals, much less win a championship.

      And yes, they usually have an outstanding coach.

      Your point about locking up the core (also reflected in some other comments above, and here at VLM in previous posts) but wondering if the core we have signed is actually good enough remains the million dollar question.

      Today, it feels like that core, while talented in spots, is too flawed to be what we need. Thanks Craig.

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  10. Hello Michael, I'm going to give a quick report card of each player (more prominent ones, not everyone) and then say how I feel about the team at the end:

    Kessel - top line player, one of the most dynamic wingers in the league
    JVR - a solid top line option. Can play anywhere in top 6
    Bozak - Top 9 center. Should only play in top 6 in case of injury
    Kadri - Top 6 center
    Lupul - Top 6 forward. Has lots of intangibles. Love watching him play although he's less than stellar defensively. Injury prone.
    Raymond - Top 9 forward. Similar to Bozak. I'd rather have him on my 3rd line while occasionally filling in in case of injury. Subpar defensive player.
    Clarkson - Oh boy haha. Top 9 player? I guess? He can't produce like you'd expect from most top 6 players unless given absolutely every opportunity too, which he won't here because he's too far down the depth chart. I do really enjoy watching him on the cycle though.
    Holland - Currently top 9, could develop into top 6 player C but he's not there yet.
    Bolland - Great top 9 C, could probably play top 6 on the Leafs fulltime but he's far too injury prone.
    McClement - Good 4th line option. Solid on the PK but he shouldn't be sold as more than what he is. I still can't believe he got Selke votes last year...
    Orr/FML - I don't think today's NHL has any place for these two. If you're going to fight you'd better be able to play at the NHL level too. Get them off the team please. I'd rather them as what? 5th/6th line forwards if such a thing existed.
    D'Amigo - Great 4th line winger. Solid on the PK. Can play on the 3rd line in case of injuries because of his subtle scoring prowess. Small but doesn't play that way.
    Kulemin - Solid bottom 6 guy. I think on a different team he'd be a good top 6 option but we're too deep at wing to use him there.

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  11. Phaneuf - Still a top pairing guy but his defensive game has been worse this year. I'm questioning his new deal but for now I'm ok with it. Money is good but term I fear a bit.
    Gunnarsson - I think his hip is still bugging him. Before he had a bad hip I would have said he's a solid top 4 guy. Now? Bottom pairing maybe? He's not looked good this year, IMO.
    Gardiner - Currently top 3 guy who has a lot of potential to be a top pairing guy by as early as the end of the season. I'm genuinely scared he's traded before we see that to fruition here though.
    Rielly - On the Leafs? I'd say he's a top 4 guy already. League wide? He's a solid bottom pairing Dman. Needs a bit of sheltering but he'll develop. Still very young.
    Fraser - Last year was his peak. He should be in the AHL/7th Dman.
    Ranger - Hasn't been as bad as he's looked but hasn't been good either. Bottom pairing.
    Franson - BIG step back this year. Hoping he can rebound in the second half of the season but my gawd he's been a mitigated disaster defensively this year. Could end up being no more than a bottom pairing Dman who's an elite PP specialist. Who knows? Hopefully he becomes a good top 4 option.

    Reimer - Should be the team's #1 goalie, IMO. Apparently lacks in the technical aspect of the game compared to Bernier but I also think he has way more athleticism than him. His "weak" glove hand and 5 hole are fabricated stories simply to be...well stories. If they were legit problems he'd have numbers more resembling Pavelec, not .920sv%s.
    Bernier - Could be a very good #1 goalie but I'm not quite convinced yet. I mean look at Scrivens. He's posted a .931sv% in LA this year in 19 games (most starts by an goalie this year in LA). If he can post a couple years while in tandem or one year where he's the clear starter with these types of numbers I'll believe the hype.

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  12. Anyways, that's my take on it. Our goalies are clearly our strongest contingent (which is a nice change compared to the 8 previous years of futility) followed by the forwards who are a good group but lack down the middle a decent amount, our best being Kadri who's only shown to be a good top 6 center at this point. Hopefully Holland develops into a top 6 center. Really hurts not having Grabovski right about now. Our defense has been dreadful but I think that could be fixed if our coaching staff *cough Carlyle cough* started using the players properly. I think he makes far too many questionable decisions. Defense. Forward. Doesn't really matter. Like seriously, Holzer on the top pairing last year? Bozak on the top line? Grabovski (best offensive forward) as a shutdown center? Scratching MacArthur? Playing FML/Orr like every game. Even giving them 10 minutes a night sometimes??? WHY!?

    I think if he deployed the lineup properly he'd have a lot more success. The systems are another issue unto themselves. Some days it feels like he's asking the players to put a round block into a square hole. It's frustrating to watch. So...I think the Leafs can make the playoffs this year simply because we're talented enough to do it. And frankly, the East is brutal brutal brutal. If Carlyle deployed proper lineups and used better systems I don't see why this team can't be right around 2-3 in our division at the end of the season considering how bad the East is. Will that happen though? No. No way. I doubt it. I think this team has talent in most spots. I just don't think it's being deployed properly. Cheers Michael! Keep up the great work :)

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    1. Good to hear from you, Sasko.

      I concur with a lot of your player assessments. For me, however, the thing that is missing sometimes (in terms of player performance) is the grit quotient. The league has lots of skilled players. How many on the Leafs, though, combine the grit required (with the skill) to be difference-makers against good teams?

      I agree (and have said here for years) that the East is very mediocre. Yes, if the Leafs play like they "can", they should be able to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

      And if they get the playoffs, who knows? Teams play harder, so maybe the intensity that is lacking some nights will be evident for the Leafs.

      Whether we have the right coach is a question for debate in the minds of many fans, obviously.

      For now they are a difficult team to gauge, in terms of commitment. Thanks Sasko!

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  13. Well, I don't have much more to add, Michael. The usual thoughtful commentators above have covered off my perspective nicely.

    Wanted to wish every one a Happy New Year though. Cin cin.

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    1. Thanks KiwiLeaf- Happy New Year to you as well!

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  14. I can't believe you guys. Actually, I can't believe myself - I can't believe I've managed to remain hopeful and optimistic in this atmosphere. This used to be the only Leafs fan-site that wasn't completely depressing and now you've finally joined the club as well.

    Luckily, I don't think the general media and fans are as depressed about the Leafs and it's a pleasure to talk about the Leafs with informed fans of other teams. At this point - it's becoming almost necessary to step away from the Leafs discussion forums to maintain any semblance of hope and optimism.

    The Leafs have a mighty, stable, wealthy beyond compare ownership group, a solid management team and all the perks, facilities, trainers, all the 'extras' that many of the other teams can only dream of. This matters. For a first time in a long time investment is being made.

    Carlyle won the Cup with a poor team. He's a bit old fashioned and stubborn but he has a winning strategy and he has managed to bring 'respect' back to this Leafs team by establishing the truculence and work-ethic that has previously been lacking in the last season. He is trying to build a complete team identity - grit/toughness, skill, cycle, speed etc. and I think what we're seeing as failure is just growing pains. He's very demanding and it's not easy for the very young leafs to focus and deliver every night. They've been taking many nights off. And that's the problem - motivation. Last year they really wanted to make the playoffs - they were sick of being the laughing stock of the league - when they saw that they had to face the Bruins they stepped up and played well. This year they won that Winter Classic and the associated media frenzy and now they're taking a break - they're not giving 100 % and it shows. You can tell that the leadership cares and is frustrated - Carlyle is freaking out, Pheneuf is playing as well as on any other night, Lupul is trying hard and is visibly frustrated, Reimer already said his bit about the lack of compete that he's noticing... but the rest of the kids are chilling. And I repeat - that's ok. It shows because with a young and inexperienced team like this there is no 'auto-pilot' button like there is in Boston or Pittsburgh or Chicago - I don't think any of those teams are playing at 100 % percent either - it just doesn't show because they can coast and still win because they have the plays all worked out, they know where each other are etc.

    Leafs have elite talent and amazing speed on the rush. Our offence is literally second to none in the league. Kessel, Lupul and JVR are elite. Bozak is a perfect fit for the 1st line. Kadri is still, it looks like, developing. Holland, D'Amigo, Smith are pretty good but so young and green... Raymond, Clarkson and Kuli are solid hard-working bottom 6 and JayMac and Bolland are special elite bottom 6 centers that can shut down any top line in hockey. Our goons are the strongest in the league and are there if needed. I miss the fights - the league seems to go through spells during which fighting goes away for some reason, then it comes back... weird.

    I'm really impressed with Phaneuf lately (and by that I mean the last few seasons). He's just shutting the door - there is no scoring for the oppositionwith him on the ice it seems. It is him and the goalies that are keeping us in games as the young, inexperienced super-talented but so young defensemen are fooling around most nights.

    All we need is patience. This is a team on the way up - a team loaded with skill, speed, size and grit that only needs a bit more time to start clicking and become a serious contender. They'll step it up as the going gets tougher. The best part is they know what they need to do - just do what the coach says and focus. It's all good.



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    1. Hi leafdreamer- I obviously do not agree that VLM has become a negative site. I don't know how asking the simple questions I asked today is somehow negative.

      The individuals who post here are, for me, as thoughtful (if not more so) than anywhere you find in the blogosphere and in the Leaf-oriented "Barilkospehere". Because they assert an opinion based on what they see, does not mean they are necessarily, in my mind, being negative.

      I welcome your posts any time. You happen to have a hopeful perspective. That's great.

      To be clear, of the almost 1,400 posts I have done here over the past (almost) five years, I would not be surprised if I tallied things up and saw way, way more "positive" and hopeful posts than what would fairly be described as negative- even during some awfully dismal Leaf seasons.

      But I have always been willing to try and look at the organization realistically, and try to do that every time I post here.

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    2. I apologize if I came off as more critical than I meant to be. I didn't mean to slight this wonderful forum. Of course your commentary and the site has been an exception and that's why I'm here - there is definitely diversity of opinion here and not all is negative, or, even the negative is thoughtful and insightful and pleasure to read.

      You've been trying to keep the torch burning but it's looking lately like it is becoming ever so hard to do. It's just getting depressing lately - look above - there's a dozen opinions and all but mine are pessimistic. It's just the way things are right now. Most likely, I hate to admit it, the majority is right. Do you not see it Michael? There is no optimistic voice anywhere. How come? Do the Leafs really suck? Or do the Leafs fans suck? Do you have an opinion on this negativity?





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    3. This is one of the reasons I developed this particular post, leafdreamer. I was trying to say that, in my experience as a fan of the team for many decades, there is inevitably a tendency to over-rate the team when they play a few good games and pass them off as awful when they struggle for a bit.

      My feeling right now is this: the Leafs are better than they have been in years in terms of talent/skill. They actually have a number of young players on the team who may well (no guarantees) get better over the next few seasons.

      But the probelem is lots of teams have skill, and lots of teams have some pretty good young talent.

      So no, I do not feel everything is terrible, but the difference between between a team that looks really good once in a while and one that actually has a legitimate shot at a championship is the willingness to compete your tail off pretty much every might. The Leafs have as much skill as most teams in the East- maybe more than all but a few teams. But they need to find the missing link, whether that is experience,e leadership, playing together better, whatever. Thanks leafdreamer.

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    4. Please don't misunderstand me Leafdreamer. I am a Leaf fan thru and thru. Over the last decade I have missed less than 15 games. I desperately want them to succeed and would give anything to see them win a cup. That's probably why I am so frustrated right now with this team. This is one of the more individually talented Leafs teams I remember. They have some wonderful young talent, even one who has super stardom written all over him (Reilly). This is the best goaltending in a decade. Yet something is dreadfully wrong with this team as well. It is just so frustrating that this team didn't take a step forward from last year and in fact seems to have regressed badly. Nothing would make me happier to be proven wrong but I just don't see a consistently winning hockey club as currently constituted.

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    5. As one of those who has watched a lot of hockey over the past 55 years or so, and seen good teams and bad, a negative review of the current team seems only realistic. What is it they have - 4 regulation wins in 29 games? That ain't the road to the Cup!
      And having seen teams with grit and teams without, it's only stating the obvious to note that this team doesn't have it.
      I know it's probably depressing to find even the clear-eyed and fair-minded commenters here delivering negative verdicts, but if we were scouting the team objectively, that's what you get. There are other issues which no one's mentioned yet - such as why do most lines (excepting Jvr/B/K) seem to have no idea where their linemates are going to be? Why is there no designated trailer play on a three-on-two? Why do defencemen routinely cover the same side? Why can other teams plug in replacements so much more easily? For me, again, these are objective hockey questions.
      Just cheering for the Leafs because they're the Leafs and I've been a fan all my life - well, my days are good or bad depending on whether we've won or lost the day before. But if improvement is needed, then I think fans have to be honest about it - and demand it. I'm tired of being expected to be excited because we eked into the last playoff spot of a weak division because we're barely good enough. We should be dominating by now, given the time and money that's gone into this team over the past few years. It's really inexcusable that we're still begging for the point-crumbs from other teams' failures.

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  15. Hi Michael.
    There are times when the amount time and thought that go into VLM posts amazes me and this is one of those times. The funny thing is that we all seem to agree completely as far as what we are seeing, we just have different opinions on why certain things are happening. If we picked just one problem with the Leafs this season such as inconsistency we could easily think of several reasons why it might be happening-youth and inexperience, lack of effort, lack of cohesion, using certain players too much, others not enough, lack of leadership, the 4th line....-the list could go on and on. In the end the answer could be all, none or a combination of reasons. (We all may be right!) I think we all do agree that the Leafs are still a work in progress.
    I have learned so much from this site and posters -negative, positive, it's all good reading to me and I find myself often viewing the game with comments read here on my mind. For better or worse, this season and next, I expect we, the VLM Leaf fans, will all be here. Thanks Michael!

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    1. And thank you, Anon. I appreciate the good words. I also agree whole-heartedly with your statement above, that while many fans agree that the Leafs have under-performed at times this season, the reasons we each "notice" often differ from fan to fan. We all see things a bit differently. Fans will always follow the team because the Leafs still matter. Thanks again.

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  16. You're Welcome!! C.N

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  17. It is an interesting point about how as fans most over value their team or individual players. My friend and I tend to go overboard the other way. Even on a win we tend to pick on tendencies that showed up that were negative. And we tend to do it too much. Maybe being a Leafs fan since 1970 has something to do with me being too negative:)

    Lots of great things discussed above so I will not just reiterate what others have said. Gerund O's post was excellent and covered most of what I think.

    When the Leafs hired Carlyle I was hesitant. I tend to be negative remember. But then I thought after Wilson perhaps they need a boot camp guy. It seemed to work last year but with a 48 game season the sample size was on the small side but there was some tendencies that were starting to show. This year those tendencies became the norm. If the East didn't suck so badly the Leafs would be 7-11 points out of a wild card already and pretty much dead in the water for any chance at the playoffs. Without the goalies stealing the show on a fairly regular basis they would be dead in the water in the East as it is.

    Ken Hitchcock talked about how much he had to change when he got his chance in St. Louis. He realized what he did in the past would not work anymore. I am sure he didn't totally change but he bent his leopard spots into slightly different shapes and sizes to adjust with the times. He mentioned how he had to be more of a teacher than he did in the old days. That is what this generation of players requires more and more he said. I found that to be a fascinating incite from a very old school coach.

    Many great points have been made already about personnel usage and I won't state them again except to say, I agree with the points. 24/7 also confirmed something that I wondered about. When you listened to Carlyle talk to the team in the room and from the bench it was totally different than when Babcock did. Carlyle was always talking about a result. Shoot on the net, hit the guy, play smart, etc. Babcock was always telling the players how he wanted something done. We need more shots by doing X and Y. We need to be more aggressive on the dmen by using this system this way. Carlyle preached. Babcock taught. Fact is, Carlyle has not changed from what he used to do. And his way is not going to be even less successful going forward in my opinion.

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    1. Your reference to identifying things in the team's play even she they win just demonstrates how much you support the club, Pep. That doesn't make you "negative", it simply means you know the Leafs need to be better to become the kind of team fans really want them to be. (And as you say, following the club as you have since 1970 means you have plenty of experience regarding how they need to be better!)

      Your Hitchcock reference is noteworthy. I wondered if he would ever really "change". He always had been an excellent coach, but eventually would wear out his welcome (like most coaches do, I realize). So I thought it would be 'same old, same old" in St. Louis. So far he has proven me wrong.

      Can Carlyle make similar adjustments? Right now, the answer appears to be no. We expect players to make adjustments- in between periods, etc. and throughout the course of a season - but coaches need to adapt as well.

      Really good post- thanks Pep.

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    2. Another interesting aspect of the two coaches methods revealed in 24/7 is that with Babcock, it's "we", and with Carlyle, it's "you". "We've" got to be more motivated as opposed to "you've" got to be more motivated. I also think it was clear from the expression on the Leaf faces during the dressing room dressing-downs that coach and players are not on the same page philosophically, if you will. Carlyle's gibe about Bozak getting Kessel to the rink on time was not appreciated, it appeared. As Hitchcock discovered, today's players can't be treated like Imlach-era players. I don't believe Carlyle has figured that out, or perhaps he doesn't have it in him. We'll find out!

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  18. Excellent point Gerund. It was a small snipped of both rooms only in reality but it seemed obvious the players on the Wings respected and liked playing for Babcock. It sure didn't seem to be the same in the Leafs room based on body language I saw. Again, small sample size but I tend to believe where there is smoke there is fire. Good discussion.

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    1. Appreciate you sharing those observations, Gerund- and Pep as well. Thanks guys.

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