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Bolland absence has made the Leafs grow up quickly…

Some of you may recall that not that long ago in Leafland, many of us were bemoaning the loss of former two-time Blackhawks Stanley-Cup champion Dave Bolland.  The veteran center had provided the Leafs with some solid all-around play as our “third line” center early on in the 2013-’14 NHL season, and he was versatile enough to play on more offensively oriented lines as well as needed.

While no one was suggesting Bolland was going to be our long-awaited first-line pivot, he seemed to bring a certain...let's call it....attitude. He certainly had the hockey pedigree, coming off a brilliant junior career and having been a significant contributor to those two championship runs in Chicago.

So when he went down with a serious injury so early in his time in Toronto and the Leaf ship began to lilt, for a time it appeared as though the ship may in fact sink altogether. But somehow, this roster has dealt with the loss of Bolland (to be clear, as we say here all the time, every team has serious injuries to deal with every season; the Leafs are hardly alone in this regard) in a most impressive fashion.

We’ve heard for years (and it is largely true) about how young the Leafs lineup is. At some point, of course, that future promise has to turn into performance.  And I think it’s fair to say that the Leafs have matured as a group this season, overcoming what appear to be systemic flaws (e.g. being outshot  so often) and managing to rise to third place in the overall Eastern Conference standings.

I have no way of proving this, but it seems to me that this is a sign of a young core that is indeed growing up right before our eyes.  Even the Sunday afternoon loss in Washington, from my perspective, was encouraging.  Yes, it was disappointing to see the Leafs come out so flat after  a big win in Los Angles and a couple of days to rest, but that Reimer and his teammates battled back on the road showed us something.

In truth, we should expect a fair bit from guys who have been in the league a long time, like Phaneuf, Clarkson, McClement, Gleason and Lupul. They have a lot of experience and are paid to perform—and also to be leaders on this squad. 

While the Leafs are still fairly “young”, most of them have played a lot of NHL hockey already despite what their birth certificate says.  Look at Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Franson, Gunnarsson, Raymond and Kulemin. They are in their hockey-playing wheelhouse, essentially in the prime of their careers.  They can’t really be considered “kids” any longer—certainly not in today’s NHL.

The only guys we can fairly say are truly youngsters might be Kadri and Gardiner (and Ashton and Holland when they are in the lineup), and of course the precocious Morgan Rielly.

But though there is a fair bit of experience here, they are still considered to be a relatively youthful squad.  And that’s my point: no, this team does not have a lot of proven, winning (e.g. in the playoffs) experience.  That can’t be argued.  They just don’t.  They aren’t a team of ‘greybeards’, a team filled with 30 something guys who have won when it matters.

So we need to put things in context.  For this particular Leaf team, it has been noteworthy that, after stumbling through the early days of the Bolland loss, when we wondered if they could recover, they have seemingly thrived. They so obviously missed his presence at first, but have righted the ship. And that’s to their credit, whether you want to consider them a young squad or not.

This is not to deny the squad’s obvious flaws (many of those flaws on display yet again early on against the Capitals on Sunday), but then, we should not deny the reality of where they are in the standings, either.

I would argue (albeit in retrospect—always much easier to do) that the Bolland injury has been a blessing in disguise.  It has ensured that Kadri was cemented as the second-line triggerman with no fear of losing his spot but more importantly, made it a necessity that everyone in the lineup to pick up their game and fill what at one time looked to be a glaring void in the lineup. It has also allowed Dave Nonis to think through his longer-term needs up the middle, when it comes to deciding how indispensible Bolland is (or isn’t) going forward with contract talks on the brass’ agenda.

Most Leaf supporters would, I’m sure, welcome Bolland back with open arms at any point this season. (We are, after all, playing with only 11 forwards many nights.) But it’s good to know the Leafs, rather than fold their tents, have done what good teams do: work through the challenges that all NHL teams face during a long and grueling season.  

In sports, we have often heard athletes say, “We found a way to win”.  It’s not always a thing of beauty, but winning teams somehow get it done more often than not.  This season, despite often being outplayed and through some serious injuries as well, the Leafs have demonstrated a much-needed “next man up”, no-excuses approach.

It strikes me that this is all part of this team’s ongoing learn curve.  They are learning about themselves, learning about each other.

And learning, perhaps, how to win when it counts—even on the nights when they have no business winning.


We’ll know more about how much they’ve “learned” in May.

16 comments:

  1. Ironic that we've actually done OK without Bolland - and Clarkson, some would say - making the contribution that was expected at the start of the year. I think you're right about seeing the team maturing - I don't think it's my Leaf-coloured glasses that have me believing the defence has improved since the break, that Ranger looks like he belongs, and that the players are gaining confidence in each other. That LA game might be a key rallying point for us going forward.
    They still need a second line that can score, though, or it will be tough sledding if they make the playoffs. And I hope Bolland can get back in for some meaningful ice time before long - although we've done OK without him, I'm certain he'll make us more formidable.

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    1. I have to believe the Leafs could only be better with the additional security (and depth factor) of having Bolland around, Gerund. If the expectations are modest when he returns, he could certainly help.

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  2. Hi Michael.
    It's been for me a strange season but (knock wood) It looks like the Leafs will be in the playoffs again.
    There have certainly been some extra challenges. I was surprised to see Phaneuf in the line-up today. He was one of several players that have had the flu and he was the worst by far. I've been very happy with Reimer's play but not the slow starts. Goalies are easier to beat at the beginning of the game before they've warmed up so I can't understand leaving them so wide open. They don't have a chance.
    I have not seen anything about Bolland at all lately and hope to hear something positive during the next Gameday skate on Wednesday ( Maple Leafs Practice Edition). He seemed so close to returning and was in the news constantly and then... nothing. C.N.

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    1. I haven't heard much about Bolland's status either, C.N.- but as I mentioned to Gerund, his presence would surely help...

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  3. I'm sure many might disagree with me, but I think the Leafs might have grown past the need for Dave Bolland.

    The Leafs looked good and won with Kulemin on the sencond line and Raymond, Holland and Clarkson on the third line.

    If Bolland wants too much money and term, it might be better to committ to Holland on third line and spend some of Bolland's money to Kulemin and Raymond.

    We will have the remainder of the seasona nd playoffs to figure it out. If Bolland only makes it back for a few games and/or looks shakey or like damaged goods, there is not way we can throw big money his way.

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    1. I guess there's two considerations here, DP- will he be near his old self when he returns, and does Nonis make it a priority to re-sign him?

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    2. One thought: Bolland has an uncanny ability to score key goals in the dirty areas, unlike Kulemin or Holland. That's something we'll need, particularly in the playoffs.

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  4. Hi Michael,

    It looks like the Leafs are on pace for 95 points (that would mean earning 15 points over the remaining 13 games), which should be enough to not only garner a playoff position, but hopefully keep them above the wildcard spots. As I learned from your last Hangout episode, the wildcard teams will play the top two conference teams (ostensibly Boston and Pittsburgh), so it would be great to avoid that.

    As for gaining 15 more points, I think it's realistic. When I look at the schedule, game by game, I see at least 14 more points: one win out of the two games vs Detroit, plus wins over Devils, Flyers, Flames, Jets, Panthers, and Senators; losses may come from one of the Detroit games, Lightning (x 2), Montreal, St Louis, and Bruins. I think I'm being fairly conservative to expect 14 out of a possible 26 points here--the Leafs could get more than that, but I doubt any fewer. Also, as they do, the Leafs could win important against teams like Montreal, Tampa, and Boston and then mess the bed against Florida and Calgary, not to mention pity points from overtime losses. Regardless, I think they can play slightly above .500 the rest of the way to get to 94+ points, and we can look forward to a very winnable first-round playoff series against MTL or Tampa Bay (Montreal would be fantastic, but even better in an unlikely conference final...).

    If Bolland can return soon with his “win or die” kind of attitude and inspire the rest of the team to bring a greater, more consistent, playoff-level effort, this team will do some damage from that point and into the playoffs.

    Yes, their possession stats and goal differentials are awful, but, if last year's playoffs are an indication of the dedication our players can bring to the post-season, the defense will improve, and the Leafs' youngsters will do their best to overwhelm the opposition with fast skating, clean passes, and opportunistic scoring.

    GO LEAFS!

    Matt

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    1. I guess this will always be the reality check, Matt- the Leafs can skate, create quick offence and come from behind, but statistically it always looks like they are on the edge and won't be able to sustain this pace. And that may be true. "Stats" aside, we can see the issues for ourselves most nights.

      Playoffs are indeed a different ballgame. We see that every year- 16 teams fighting like mad to survive and extend their season. This year will be no different, I'm sure. And Leafs/Habs would be fun. Thanks Matt.

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  5. Hi Michael

    I think one of the 3 Ufa's will walk this summer. Whether its Kuleman, Raymond, or Bolland. Unless Nonis can somehow convince each of them each to sign in the neighborhood of 2 million dollars. Even if Bolland does return, we probably should not have any unrealistic expectations of him lighting it up. The recovery for his type of injury most likely will make this season a wash. Regardless it will remain a gamble somewhat to sign him for next year as we really don't know how well he will play in the future.

    Bolland will probably be offered more money on the table by any one of the 30 teams in the league. The decision whether or not to keep him for next year will depend on how well Kuleman McClement Raymond and even Holland if given the chance, perform down the stretch and playoffs (knock on wood). If any or all of them can step it up then the decision to let him walk becomes easier.

    I think with Kamorov and Bodie in the mix as well for next year filling a position on this team. They may be able to fill the Bolland void as easily as Chicago has this year and for less money as well.

    After Last spring, McArthur was not as much a factor at the end of the season as much as the Leafs would have liked him to be and the result was that he let go. Bolland may follow a similar fate not only because of his play if and when he returns but because of how well the others can play and solidify a position on the third line.

    However, If any one or two of them fail then the Leaf management having given up significant picks to acqire Bolland and their anticipated expectations of Bolland may result in him being given a second look for next year and resigned.

    It still remains to be seen.

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    1. You're right about Bolland and the Hawks, BlueANDwhite- they have been able to handle Bolland's loss without missing a beat. (That said, we likely both would agree they are an exceptional squad, and Bolland potentially is a bigger piece here than in the Windy City because of the experience and leadership he brings.)

      As you note, his future "value" here will hinge in part on how others play and whether someone like Komarov is indeed back in the fold next season.

      I agree, the third and fourth line guys should have ample opportunity to prove their worth in the weeks again- and that will help Nonis and Carlyle determine who stays and who goes. Thanks BlueANDwhite.

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  6. You called it Michael - I remember you putting up a post in the summer in which you identified Bolland as the most important acquisition of the off-season. I remember also being a little surprised by it and feeling that he may be one of those guys that, rather than being major contributors to the Cups they won, rode on the coat tails of the excellent teammates that they played with (kind of like Colby Armstrong).

    I was more excited by Bernier and Clarkson at the time. Bernier turned out well - he's come as advertised and had it not been for his great play this season I'm not sure we'd be talking about our chances in the post-season right now. Clarkson on the other hand has been very disappointing. People are saying that he'll come through, that we need to cut him some slack because of suspensions and injuries and so on. I hope they are right. I don't see it.

    We haven't clutched the playoffs spot yet and, as it stands right now, we are without Bolland and Bernier and, far from that having unified and strenghtened the team, I'm afraid it has really put the team in a tight spot. What you're suggesting above Michael, that is to say, is really a big question mark to be answered over the next month or so: either the Leafs can get strong and play through adversity and continue with the winning record and make the playoffs or they will miss these two key guys and fail to make it.

    Perhaps Clarkson will be able to step up and fill Bolland's shoes. Perhaps Reimer can pull one out of his hat like he did last year and not fall apart under pressure. Perhaps Phaneuf has acquired enough experience to be able to lead these youngsters to some victories. Perhaps Kessel can prove that he's truly great and win the battles against the top checking lines and defensive pairings that have managed to shut him down over the last few games. And perhaps Bollnad and Bernier can come back before or for the playoffs and lead the Leafs to the Cup.

    That's a lot of perhaps-es. I honestly don't feel like I can venture a guess as to what is going to happen. I can say that with healthy Bernier and Bolland we have a shot at the Cup. Without them, I'm worried about missing the playoffs.

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  7. I do think Bolland can be a factor (if healthy) down the stretch and into the playoffs, though we can't expect him to be what he was earlier this season. I think he provides a factor we don't otherwise have- a veteran presence that has been a part of winning teams.

    As you say, there still may be adversity ahead, leafdreamer, and yes, a lot of "perhapses"! Those are all key questions that you raise. While the Leafs have had a nice run and a pretty good season overall, the question marks remain. Winning games because of great netminding and the top line being able to score a lot is fine, but not something that necessarily tells us how they will do in the playoffs when open ice is hard to find.

    Clarkson is a wild card. If he becomes the clutch playoff performer he evidently was in New Jersey, that would obviously make a huge difference. Thanks leafdreamer.

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    1. Bolland and Clarkson were acquired specifically to play that checking role on the third line that should fix our shots against problem and the general reliance on scoring and goaltending - that crucial defensive component that we simply didn't have last year with Grabovski and McArthur playing 'outside of their comfort zones'. It seemed to be working for a while - Bolland was a plus player and even scored a bunch (which was not at all expected of him).

      When Bolland fell, Carlyle was forced to, again, play people like Holland and Raymond, Kulemin and McClement as checkers (which also took the edge off their offensive game). Clarkson is a minus player and I wonder if he is at all able to help as a defensive forward but Bolland is missed a lot. I really hope he can recover and return. He is the missing link indeed.

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  8. I think the very fact that the Leafs are playing more consistently is the likely reason for a patient perspective on Bolland's return. Dave has probably garnered some good advice from Modano and Karlsson and realized that the team might only be 'hurt' to some degree if he had come back earlier.

    I'm quite sure he sees the team playing a reasonably mature game and is also noting incremental improvements with every passing day. As a result, knowing that he's not 100%, I feel like he's working a win-win scenario... i.e. while he is improving and finding his skills returning with his tendon improvements, the team is not floundering (or desperate for his return), so why not return to games closer to the player he was before injury? At the same time, it can't hurt his career to take the time to be at his best as his current contract comes to an end.

    The latter comment is more of an ancillary benefit than a motivating factor in my estimation. If Bolland knew the team was on the bubble without him, I feel sure he would have accelerated his return. As it stands, even with limited expectations, I see him making a positive contribution when he joins the lineup (probably 5-7 games before the playoffs (is my guess, tied to re-establishing chemistry and game-shape).

    I believe management would benefit from seeing his value to the team in terms of a deadline rental before deciding on another offer. It may well be that he was always intended as more of a stop-gap acquisition than a long-term piece. If he can fit into the cap with a reasonable deal, another 2 year deal might be in our best interests (but not likely to be in Bolland's mindset :)

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    1. I'm with you, InTimeFor62. I want Bolland to be 110% when he returns to the ice. How often do we hear players (after the fact) say, "I came back too soon".

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