With only 5 points in six early season games, the Leafs are hardly going on a run but neither are they so far off the pace that a couple of wins this week (Isles, Sens and Bruins on the agenda) won’t make things look a whole lot better.
That said, I’m more interested in how the team is actually playing than how many points they have. Of course, points are just as important in October as they will be in March, but I think we have all been waiting to see if, once the games meant something, the Leafs would play with the urgency and discipline required to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
We’ve talked here at VLM about a number of “needs” regarding the Leafs in recent years. These include better coaching and utilizing the roster better, for sure. But it also includes leadership, experience, work ethic and being hard to play against.
We’ve added players that should help in a number of these areas. Robidas certainly provides experience and leadership, and Komarov adds urgency and that ‘hard to play against’ factor.
You still need, even in this day and age of skill and speed, an element of toughness, which I’ve referred to over the years as ‘team toughness’. To me it’s a mindset that goes through the team. So I was pleased to see Brendan Shanahan talk a while back about his definition of toughness—it seems to fit precisely with what I’ve been writing about here for years. For me, toughness, including “team toughness”, has to do with a willingness to engage and do the tough jobs all over the ice—including in the corners and in front of both nets. It’s about taking a hit to make a play. It’s not simply about being willing or able to fight.
Shanahan believes in analytics, but he recognizes you also have to have some grit and legitimate toughness to win. He wants players who will rise to the occasion at what he called the "big moments". That has to do with with skill, with "will" and mental toughness, too.
I’m not sure there have been a lot of “big moments” just yet to be able to judge whether the team has improved in the above areas. This group still seems to be finding its way, which may be understandable to a degree.
Reimer was good in his first two games but struggled in his third consecutive start against the Wings at the ACC. Bernier was not himself the first two games of the season but certainly held the Leafs in at the Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night. If they both play the way they can, we should be OK to pretty good in goal.
On the blueline, while we were better Saturday night, I can’t say we have been really good in our own zone. Friday night we saw Red Wings getting goals when their forwards were wide open. (The fourth Red Wing goal, the tap-in at the edge of the crease, I think it was, seemed to symbolize the way the Leafs played in their own end.) Of course the forwards play in role in that, but I’d be hard-pressed to say we have a defenseman who has truly excelled consistently in the first half dozen games.
Rielly has looked pretty good at times but is a minus 3. Gardiner was scratched in two games and game back pretty strong but remains a minus 4 on the season. We know Robidas has yet to play to his reputation, given injuries, etc. Franson had an offensive impact after his return from but has struggled at times defensively. Polak has had some nice moments but was a minus 3 on Friday night. Phaneuf has had to play his off side, but still plays significant minutes and is a plus player despite working in new partners. Percy has looked quite good, and had a night off Saturday as the designated healthy scratch, to get Robidas back in the lineup.
I’m a bit uncertain about the work we are seeing from the forwards. In broad terms, the first line, despite some early goals from Bozak, has not been overly productive. That can change in a hurry, I realize, and if so, these early games will be forgotten.
I like Komarov and the work he has done for the most part with his linemates on the third line, but I guess I expected more from the second line in the back to back games against Detroit. Kadri has nary an assist through six games and I have not liked his work defensively at times. People have talked about him becoming a first line player but the jury is out. He’s a cagey player with fine hands and great offensive instincts, but this is a big season in terms of his development.
Again, it’s awfully early, and these are just idle observations. As we have discussed here, I’ll be much more inclined to feel more definite about how the Leafs “look” once we’ve hit the 20-game mark.
But I do think some guys are already not pulling their weight. There were issues on Friday night at home, and while the team played better overall in Detroit, should the coach already have to talk about being frustrated by a lack of performance (effort?) this early in the season. Are there so many stars on this team who have had so much success at this level that they can coast when they feel like it?
The Leafs are still largely a team with players who haven’t won a thing, and should be determined to wear the sweater with pride every night.
For me, inconsistent preparation and effort is not just on the coach—it has plenty to do with the players, too.
Hey, scoring only one goal over the course of two games against a solid team like Detroit happens. No big deal. But overall, I would have thought this team would at least start the year by playing with consistent determination. They haven’t yet, and while there is still lots of time to right the ship (look at the Bruins), some teams, like Montreal, are already beginning to separate themselves, though their reality can change very quickly, too.
Are you satisfied with what you’ve seen so far?