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Phaneuf stays, Gleason arrives and the Leafs win the outdoor classic: hope in Leafland?

My observations around the “Winter Classic” are none too analytical:  it was great football weather.  But the fans on hand must have loved it.  I’m not too sure that we can make many firm pronouncements about what the outcome means for either team, but it clearly provided the entertainment and interest that the NHL was looking for.

The hockey itself?  It had its moments.  The goaltending was top notch, which was impressive given the conditions.  Just being able to focus in such a different environment—the weather, the sight lines, it was all so unusual for the players but maybe especially the netminders.  Howard and especially Bernier were superb. The Leafs survived a couple of defensive miscues that helped lead to goals (all forgivable given the inclement conditions) and took the game to extra time.

In the end, the Leafs held on and won in a shoot-out, which gives the good guys three much-needed wins in succession.  The victories (and the points in the standings) come at a particularly helpful time, given that, a week or so ago, Leafland was in the emotional doldrums a bit.

Set aside for the moment the reality that the Leafs won against two bottom-dwellers and then in a game that really doesn’t tell us much because of the conditions. Wins are wins, eh?  (Though, yes, it could certainly be argued Toronto showed character by earning a win on the road after playing for four hours in the freezing cold.) They have kick started their season after a horribly sluggish December.  They started the second half (that was game 42 on the year) with a victory over a Conference (and traditional) rival, and that can only be good.

Part of the current storyline around the blue and white of course is that the Leafs, as fans all know by now, have locked up the captain for seven years.  The price tag was hefty and it the deal will no doubt be a source of debate if things go south down the road, but for now, the brass decided they needed to run with the guy who plays the hardest minutes on this team every night. As I’ve said here not long ago, Phaneuf is, in my view, the player theLeafs would miss the most if he was ever injured for an extended period of time.  They would survive, but he would be sorely missed.  He may not be everyone’s vision of a true first-line NHL defenseman, but in these parts, he is ‘the man’. It cannot be denied that he is relied on to play the role of a top-tier first-line blueliner, and that’s no small task in this market.

The trade for Tim Gleason is something I can’t say much about, because I haven’t honestly seen Gleason enough in recent seasons to know if he will be an impact guy here, or just another serviceable defenseman.  A trade for the veteran rearguard has been talked about openly on social media for weeks, so someone knew something was up.  VLM readers can no doubt tell me more than I can tell you about what Gleason may potentially provide at this point.

I’ve said (and I’m hardly alone) that you need to be ten-deep on the blueline if you have any serious thoughts of advancing through four rounds of the playoffs. At any given time you will be missing two defensemen due to injuries, and/or someone will be struggling.

So if management believe Gleason fits the bill better than Liles, I’m fine with that. With Reilly solidifying his spot on the roster, and Fraser now the “7th man”, we are close to having the aforementioned depth needed to look at a legitimate post-season run.

Just like locking up Kessel and Phaneuf provides the Leaf faithful (and the organization itself) with a sense of stability and continuity—and that the “core guys” are here to stay and build around—the arrival of a newcomer like Gleason always brings hope as well that he may be a missing ingredient in the months ahead.

We’ll see.

Bolland should return at some point. Bozak is back already.  Guys will start to see their roles cemented a bit more and that solidified role alignment should be a good thing, considering many were calling for Carlyle’s dismissal just days ago.

As I said in a recent post, a few wins can change the mood around the team pretty darn quickly. And it can shift the attitude of the fans just as quickly.

Oh, there will still be questions, of course.  The Leafs have locked up their “core”, but is their core really good enough to be Cup contenders?  We give up so many shots most nights.  We still can’t seem to win games often enough in regulation. Some guys are still under-performing at times but that’s the way it is with every club, every year.

So the Leafs win, obtain a new player and lock up their leader.  All in a week’s work. And yes, three wins is a streak. (Two is not, in my mind but three, sure…)

If you were at the game, by all means drop a line here and share your experience with those who check in on VLM.  Watching from the comfort of my home hardly compares with the excitement of being there in person. That had to be a fantastic experience for everyone on hand.

While I don’t have the same sense of optimism I had about the team at the beginning of the season, I’ll stick with what I have said consistently all season: there is no reason the Leafs can’t compete with the best teams in the East, and be one of the top teams in the Conference.

Until the next speed bump, let’s “think positive”.



11 comments:

  1. Some things to be positive about:

    Tyler Bozak may not be a superstar or the number one center that many want, but he is a useful player. I am starting to think of him as Patrice Bergeron lite. Bergeron isn't what you think of when you think of number one centers but he wins face offs and does all the little things right. His career high is 73 points and he can still have a good year with 50 points, but you can win with Bergeron.

    With his faceoff ability and decent defensive play Bozak seems similar. he will never be as good as Bergeron, but perhaps we we grow to appreciate Bozak in similar way. Perhaps we can win a round or two with Bozak this year?

    With the return of Bozak the team seems to be returning to form. We have a bit more depth at forward and aren't putting as much pressure on Kadri and others. We are also a lot tougher to check as we can score from three lines.

    Every time I see him out there, I think Jerry D'Amigo is the guy that has made the NHL this year. I can't see him going back. Good speed and attention to defensive play, you can tell Carlyle likes what he sees. I think D'Amigo could be a long time fixture on the Leafs bottom six for years to come.

    That brings me to my final point. D'Amigo, Bozak, Kadri, Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Riemer, Reilly...what do these guys all have in common?

    They are all Leaf prospects that are now playing with the team. We drafted many. We didn't trade them or ruin them like many past prospects. And there are more playing on the Marlies: Abbott, Ashton, Lievo, Broll, McKegg, Percy.... Sam Carrick is playing tough as nails with 13 points, 54 PIMS and plus 11. Petr Granberg is plus 13 as a first year defenseman in the AHL!

    You have to thinjk somebody from this group will eventually step up for the Leafs, be it this season or in next year's training camp.

    At some point we have to start giving Leafs Management some credit for doing a better job in this area.

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    1. As always, that's a very measured - and fair - post, DP. Not only your referencing Bozak/Bergeron (such a fine all-around player, for sure) and D'Amigo, but your broader point about player development.

      One of my criticisms of the organization at times over the years is that I do think they have failed to help certain players improve, for a variety of reasons. That said, you have written here for a long time now about prospects that you have seen grow and develop through the Marlie farm team, and you have been proven correct in many instances.

      We still may not have the kind of team (but who knows, especially in the East?) that may be absolutely "elite", but there are pieces in place, without question. Thanks DP.

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  2. I was very fortunate enough to be at the Winter Classic. It was quite the memorable experience! Outside of the cold (and I'm shaking just thinking about it) I don't think you could have asked for a better script. Was it a great game? Perhaps not, but it was the perfect mix of venue, fans and drama.

    The venue was perfect. Massive. Just to give you an idea of how big the place was - there was a weird time delay of watching the action unfold and hearing the fans' reaction from the other side of stadium. It's like watching fireworks and hearing the delayed bang.

    We also went to the Alumni game but had bad seats. Comerica Park is nice, but not a great venue.

    I've only been to a handful of live games, but I feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to see this one. When they do another one at The Big House, make the effort to go!

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    1. That's exactly what I was looking for, Hogie- a fan's perspective who was there. It feels as though you captured the mood and the feeling perfectly. Thanks Hogie.

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  3. There has been lots of local mocking of the cold of the game. It even made the front page of a local paper here in Winnipeg.

    How cold is it:

    "The year 2013 drew to a close with the delivery of the coldest December day Winnipeg has seen in 80 years, with temperatures plunging early in the day to -37.9 C. It hasn’t been this cool in Winnipeg in December since 1933, said Dale Marciski, a meteorologist with Environment Canada.

    There has been a cooler New Year’s Eve on record, with the mercury dropping to -38.3 C on Dec. 31, 1884. But that is of little solace to most Winnipeggers enduring a cold that, with the windchill factored in, felt like -48 C.

    According to the Curiosity Rover, Mars reached a maximum air temperature of -29°C today. Winnipeg's high was -31°C...

    Not to mention the North Pole. A photo of the two temperatures side by side — it was 10 degrees warmer at the North Pole — went viral early New Year's Eve."

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    1. That's pretty cold- even for Winnipeg, DP.

      It was clearly really cold in Michigan for the outdoor game. But from everything I have heard from people (including Hogie's account above) it was a blast and an experience of a lifetime for fans- and the players, too.

      My guess is the players will happily, however, return to playing the game indoors!

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    2. Yeah, the temperature at the Winter Classic (around -10 to -12 °C) really wasn't bad if you're walking around or doing some kind of physical activity. But after sitting/standing for 2 hours, my extremities started to get numb. For the Alumni game I hung out in the bathroom for half an hour between games to warm up! Got to chat with Leaf & Wings fans which was great. My only regret of the event was not checking out Chelios' restaurant/bar that was close by Comerica Park.

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  4. Hi Michael,

    I hope that you and your family had a wonderful holiday season. I wanted to write a dozen times over the holidays, lack of time and indecision, won the day. I am really enjoying the podcasts, I look forward to opening iTunes just to see if there is a new one to listen to.

    The Winter Classic sure was a fun afternoon of hockey, I really enjoyed watching them play outside. I have watched all of the outdoor games so far, but this one was special.

    The Leafs have indeed locked up their core players. I personally, doubt that this core is one we will ever watch win the Stanley Cup. I am less thrilled with a playoff appearance this year than I perhaps should be. It was a long time between them, and I would like them to be back in the mix after 82 games. It's just this franchise should really be held to a higher standard. We are not a low revenue bottom feeder like Columbus, the fans deserve more than a token playoff run here or there. It disappoints me that this mediocre achievement would be lauded here. The same can be said of shootout wins, frankly. You know that I have watched this team a long time, and hockey in general. Teams that give up more goals than they score, like the Leafs, are never going to amount to anything positive, in my opinion.

    On to the signing, and the trade. Locking up Phaneuf to a long term deal, seems to me like the only option the team had. He is not a truly elite player, but he is awfully darn good. I can't imagine how awful this team would be if they lost him as a free agent. The pool of talent available this coming off-season, is pretty thin. There is, as always it seems here, a desperate need to develop elite talent from within the organization. Too often, that just isn't the case. We seem fixated on reclamation projects from other teams, I'm not sure why. Most of our roster of core guys, are players that other teams have cast aside. I can't see this as a good omen for the future of the franchise.

    I am not the only one I guess, who sees Tim Gleason coming in, and JM Liles going out, as a your bad contract for our bad contract. Or, the guy Rutherford is sick of, for the guy Carlyle is sick of. I am not getting my hopes up for this trade to be of any significance at all. Gleason used to play big minutes, and was an Olympian four years ago. Four years can be a terribly long time in professional sports.

    I am having a difficult time finding things to be positive about with regards to this franchise. The most positive thing for me this season, we have two goalies that I have a lot of confidence in. Both guys are more than capable of getting the team a win, if not outright stealing one away from the opposition. No matter who stays and who goes, there will be no kings ransom for whomever Nonis trades. Cory Schneider was more established, and got one first round pick in return. Thinking that we are getting something great back in a trade, is silly. I would be surprised if it was more than a second or a third rd pick coming back.

    Its nice to pretend that the cupboard is stocked with can't miss impact players on the farm. It's sadly, just not the case.

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    1. I wonder Jim, if Leaf fans are sometimes conflicted between wanting to believe that the future is bright, that there are more excellent young players on their way up through the system, etc. and being frustrated with 'success' that seems to happen in fits and spurts

      I do think you make a very fair point (and I'm sure I've made it here myself over the years, too): the bar for this franchise these days is far too low. Just getting to the playoffs is surely not enough. Winning a playoff round is not enough.

      This is the best market to play in in the hockey world. The organization has nothing but money. They have the option to identify and pay the best coaches and hockey executives anywhere.

      Yet some combination of issues always seems to disrupt real, meaningful progress.

      I know I always harken back to the Quinn years (and his critics will say that was "pre-cap" and it was easy for the Leafs to do well. But plenty of teams had money back then, not all, but a number of teams could spend- and did. Yet the Leafs were always not just competitive but a Cup contender pretty much every year. The playoffs were assumed.)

      After years of a cap system, there is no reason for this franchise not to be further along than they are. Yes, there are some excellent players here and the goaltending does appear to be in good hands. And there is hope with Rielly and Gardiner, etc. But lots of teams have really good young players.

      Having good players and building a winning team can be two very different things. Again, I try to look at the positives here but I recognize there is a lot of work to be done. Thanks Jim. (And thank you for the kind words about the VLM podcast. It won't be exciting but I'll share what I remember from the good old days, and on occasion, try to tie it in with the present...)

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  5. Was at the Winter Classic - what a great experience!
    There were a few issues: concessions (everything was cold including the hot dogs and hot chocolate), bathroom lines, traffic (we were stuck in a car in Ann Arbor for 3 hrs).
    But all of that does not matter.
    Sharing the experience with 50,000 other members of Leafs Nation made it all worthwhile. Leafs Nation was out in full force and at full volume. I am not sure how it came across on TV but the singing of the Canadian national anthem was a spine tingling moment - made me extremely proud to be Canadian singing at the top of my lungs along with everyone else.
    Every "Lets Go Red Wings" was answered with a "Go Leafs Go".
    Every goal was celebrated with unrestrained enthusiasm.
    And everyone was happy...there was no animosity between the fan bases that I could detect. I think everyone was just happy to be there and I think there was a lot of respect between the fan bases.
    I am so thankful that I was able to experience that game live.

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    1. That's a wonderful recap, apollo678. Those types of experiences, in my memory and experience, will stay with you forever. I like the 'respect' that you mention. That's an important aspect of the sporting experience, even when you desperately want your side to win.

      Leaf fans continue to represent the franchise's legacy well, reminding us all that the Leafs still matter. Thanks for sharing how it went.

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