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Maple Leafs quietly doing more things right…

It was difficult to know for sure if the Leafs played really well on Saturday night or the Capitals were just a tired hockey club after having played the night before.  Nonetheless, the Leafs have now earned seven points in their last four games, against some pretty good opposition—Tampa, Detroit, the Pens and Washington.

It’s always good to see different players contributing on the scoreboard. On this occasion, it was Bozak, Clarkson and Lupul along with Rielly and Franson. (It rarely hurts to have your defensemen chip in offensively, eh?) When various lines are contributing, things obviously tend to go a lot better for any team.

My sense is this may well be what we can expect to see this season—a team that goes on these mini streaks, one way or the other. I guess it’s the nature of a long, 82 game schedule—along with the parity that is so evident throughout the NHL.  We can look at the Sabres and Habs this past weekend.  Montreal was in first place heading into that back-to-back matchup, and I’m sure most observers assumed they would sweep the Sabres.  But Buffalo gave Montreal all they could handle both nights.

We should be accustomed to the ups and downs of Leafworld—and not just this season.

I remember so clearly how this used to happen all the time when I was following the Leafs so fervently in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  I’d get my hopes up after we beat the Habs, say, in a mid-week game (Montreal games were pretty much always mid-week encounters back then) and it always seemed as though the Leafs were about to turn the corner for good. In the early ‘70s, like today’s Leafs, we had some awfully good players, like an emerging Darryl Sittler (right), but consistency was an issue even then.

We’d look great, then we’d lose to the California Golden Seals or whoever and it was a sudden return to reality.

In any event, the Leafs are making their way up the standings.  Considering so many Leafers were expecting the coach to be fired not long ago (and that story line may return yet again), for now, they seem to be a club like many others in the East: capable of making the playoffs, but nothing should surprise us.

**

My question for the day has to do with Alex Ovechkin.

We all remember when Ovie broke into the league.  What a dynamic player.  Fast, physical. He had a shot like few others (still does).  He seemed to be in constant motion, ever dangerous.

For that matter, with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the Capitals were a fun team to watch. Then came that playoff series against Montreal when Halak stood on his head. There’s no way Washington should have lost that series, but ever since then, they changed their style, and became a team that was (in theory, at least) supposed to focus on defense first—because that’s what the “successful” teams were doing.

The Caps have never had that much success again (briefly under Dale Hunter, as I recall), and they, to me, still look like a team seeking an identity they are comfortable with.

Maybe they’ll find it under Barry Trotz, a very good NHL coach.  But I wonder if they can ever win with Ovechkin in the lineup. It’s not that he isn’t still an elite player.  But while he is capable of scoring 40 goals or more a season, what’s the cost, I wonder, to the psyche of the rest of the team?

For years he has been a guy that collides with coaches. His shifts were too long, he seeed to withdraw when he’s ticked off and play less effectively. 

He is the captain of the team, but I wonder if Trotz can get the Caps to play the way he wants them to with Ovie playing the way he does. I loved watching the old Caps play, but I guess “defense first” is the way of the world.

I don’t see the Capitals enough to make a fair assessment.  So it’s just an outsider’s perspective, based on what I see having developed over the past few years.

Can they win with Ovechkin?

And closer to home, are the Leafs actually improving—or is this just the mirage we talked about a while back here.  Thoughts?



20 comments:

  1. I'm not a gigantic Ovie fan by any stretch, but I wonder sometimes if he suffers from the "not a good ol' Canadian boy!!" syndrome, as Donald S. Cherry might say. It's fair to say that he's definitely weak and disinterested (sometimes) when he's on the wrong side of the puck, but I do wonder if the same level of vitriol would be seen if he was a North American boy. Alex has decent hit totals every year, and that's definitely a stat that's acquired while on the wrong side of the puck. Not trying to be an apologist for him, but being one-dimensional is a bit easier to swallow when you net 50 goals a season. I agree though Michael, that the Boudreau coached Caps team was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

    I agree with your article title about the Leafs "quietly" going about their business, or at least being as quiet as you can, in this circus of a marketplace. Carlyle is offering a lot less public chastising of players than in past years, and certainly a lot less than Ron Wilson compiled. I think it's a measured response that comes from Shanahan, as he doesn't seem to have the appetite for bluster that Burkie obviously did. Other than "Stickgate", there hasn't been too much non-hockey noise this year.

    What I find encouraging is that the TEAM is actually winning games, as opposed to it just being some super-human goalie anomaly, that we've seen has a way of correcting itself over time. That Pittsburgh game was one we virtually never saw from the Leafs, the past few years.... down a couple of goals early on, then being tenacious and pulling a much needed point out of a potential disaster.

    In the hunt for a playoff spot in a tough division..... I'll take it right now. For perspective, check out some Flyers or Oilers fan blogs, but make sure your kids aren't close by, so they don't learn some salty language!

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    1. I think you're on the money when you refer to the Leafs winning (when they do) as a team, Russ. Last year we often talked about needing absolutely tremendous goaltending to win, and being outshot and outplayed. So this may well be progress.

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  2. I imagine if Lafleur could hit like Ovechkin, he may have been more popular, but it doesn't seem like he was much different than Kessel is for us. It may well be a case of wanting more from a player who does something you need, but not having a supporting cast that hides the 'deficiencies' of such players. We all know the excitement they bring, but somehow they don't inspire the same sense of appreciation that Wendel Clark, Sittler or Keon can garner. A well-rounded game seems to be what we want, but we don't always embrace a 'Mogilny' when some giveaway *cough-Carolina-cough* is more etched in our minds than a thunderous check may be.

    When those hits come from behind... that's more grist for the Ovechkin mill. He certainly did nothing to avoid Komarov and even seemed to 'lean into' the 'opportunity', though I haven't seen anyone mention that Leo seemed about to change direction just before the hit. It appeared as though he was just moving (even accelerating) to his left and that made the hit that much more devastating. I suspect that's why there is no suspension (despite the cries of favoritism towards a star), and am hoping Leo has no lasting detrimental effects from the collision.

    I enjoyed watching a 4 line game and am glad to see contributions from all four lines... it starts to hide the deficiencies of our top line... perhaps we'll be a little less critical if the balanced efforts become more consistent (is that what management has been waiting for with all the off-season tinkering?),

    I started to wonder if the likes of (Toronto guy) Simmonds from the Flyers might be a potential trade target if the LTIR with potential salary retention on the one year contract of Kimmo Timmonen was in the mix to 'balance salary'... keep hearing Lupul departure speculation and started to consider 'possibilities'.

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    1. You're so right, InTimeFor62- balance is so crucial. If the Leafs can find that consistently, that will help. (That's likely what the Caps need, too- more offensive balance!)

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  3. Hi Michael.

    Things have been a lot calmer, haven't they. I don't know if "stick-gate" had something to do with it or if it's just the overall improved play and some wins. I think fans are starting to realize that the media often drives a wedge between players and their fans. I agree with Russ that anything negative said about a player becomes the next big story and is quickly blown way out of proportion. Why not say what a player has done right, where he has improved? This season media and fans were panicking in spite of a fairly good record and one which most say is very sustainable. I never thought we'd see four lines without a coaching change, but here we are. A work in progress still, with more to do, but we are seeing progress. We're moving forward finally. The caps out-chanced us in the last game but scoring from four lines has been a blessing.

    There are teams a lot worse than the Leafs. I think we are now in a position to feel a bit sorry for Oiler fans. Is it 11 first round, some first over-all, picks and no improvement at all? The same sort of stubbornness we've endured for years as Leaf fans except the Oilers kept their picks instead of trading for what they needed, we traded picks instead of developing our own prospects. Edmonton, with some very good assets and cap room, has been in a better position than the Leafs to build a competitive team but they refused to do it. A team of young talent with no defense or veteran support. You'd think they would have changed the plan by now.

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    1. It's nice when things are calmer in Leafworld, for sure, Coleen. We fans are part of the issue, but the media sure makes it even more of a challenge for the players and the organization.

      Well said about the Oilers. I was among those who thought they'd have the hockey world by the tail by now.

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    2. I agree, Colleen, and maybe that's why Kessel is the perfect elite player for this market. Scores his goals (a lot of 'em), and gets criticized, sometimes legitimately, and other times just one of our many Leafs' centered sports writers pouring fuel on the flame. Regardless of the criticism or praise though, Phil pretty much seems to be indifferent to it, which offers no juicy sound bites, but lets him play his game without wading into all the other garbage. Same goes for Komarov, as his style of play would make him a media favorite, but he isn't biting on that big fish hook of notoriety. Leo is apparently fluent in four languages, but instead of talking, he just hits everything that moves, forechecks hard, then puts his suit on and leaves the building. I think Kadri might be well served to back off and not engage with the media as much, as he loves to talk, and I'm worried it's not serving him too well.

      Overall, I'm cup (not THE Cup) half full right now, as this has been a pretty decent season to date.

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  4. The leafs are improving. More specifically, they're improving defensively because of Peter Horachek. I know I've said this a few times before but I'll say it again: the man developed Suter and Weber -two best defensemen in today's NHL.

    Franson and Polak are already playing more and better than ever in their relatively young careers. I don't think Rilley and Gardiner are far behind. More importantly, the forwards (very few of whom can be considered 'defensive specialists') are backchecking like never before.

    Our forwards depth has also improved dramatically - there's a bunch of young players and cheap depth players here now that are playing a very solid two-way game. Most importantly, since they are on such bargain contracts there's so many of them. Panik, Kozun, Ashton, Holland, Winnik, Booth, Santorelli, Carrick, Smith, Lievo - that's 10 solid players for 6 spots! The Leafs management finally got it right - you can't be spending big bucks on depth players - take the guys that nobody wants and let the young guys play and you'll get determination, commitment and compete.

    I wonder if that 'defensive' style of play that Nashville was famous for didn't have more to do with Horachek than Barry Trotz?

    I haven't seen much Capitals this year so I may be way off here but I don't see their team defence being any better than ever - in fact, they seem slower and less organized than few years ago when Caps were pushing for the Cup and Halak got in the way.

    Their problem is not so much Ovechkin I'd say as the fact that there is no supporting cast - other than Bakstrom (who luckily for us had an off game on Saturday), there isn't much there. Chimera is getting old, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer are supporting players, goalies are less than average and the d-corps are lacking true studs.

    Ovechkin is amazing - he sent a tonne of shots on goal on Saturday and set up a few golden chances for his linemates. It's too bad the management in Washington never supplied him with teammates that can help. It would really be a shame for such a great player to play out his career alone and never get that ring.

    Wild dreams here but I sure wouldn't mind if the management in Washington saw Ovi as the problem. Perhaps he can be had for a price? Gardiner, Kadri, Lupul, Nylander and a first? I'd pull the trigger and not think twice.

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    1. You said it, leafdreamer- determination, commitment and compete. Those things do matter.

      I sense Horachek has indeed helped. The only thing I would say about Trotz is that he started the "Nashville way" and built that team's identity before Horachek arrived. While Horachek was a very good assistant there, I think Trotz deserves credit for building that foundation.

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  5. I agree the Leafs are on the right path of improvement. And i agree with Dreamer that Horachek has had a big part in this. The tweaks to the defensive system and to the neutral zone system are starting to show they will work. You talk to any player or coach and they will say it takes at a minimum 25-40% of the season to learn a system to where it becomes more natural and less thinking "where am I supposed to be now". I think that is the reason we have games like the last few where it works and games like the blow outs where the players think too much, things go sideways, and they revert to their old ways. I suspect we will see less old ways and more solid play going forward.

    I also believe Colleens comment about stickgate has merit. I think for at least the core of the team it was a galvanizing deal where it was "them against everyone". Scotty Bowman used to run his teams where the team would mesh against him directly..on purpose to bring them together. We can argue whether what they did was pretty dumb all we want (most would say it was and that it was also media overblown like normal) but in the end if it did something to bring the players together then there was a silver lining.

    The bottom line is the last four games have been reasonably solid. And yet we didn't have all world goaltending and Phil didn't score 50% of the goals. The lines were much more even on minutes. They still give up too many shots at times but are better than last year. There will still be hiccups but I feel a LOT better about the overall makeup of the team, the system being used and the reduced chance of a late season melt down than I did at the start of the season.

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    1. You make a great point, Pep, when you talk about players getting used to a new system so it becomes instinctive- not something they have to "think" about first. That automatically puts them in the right places on the ice and saves a split second here and there, which makes a huge difference.

      We might be having a different conversation in a week, but for now...

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  6. Michael,

    I honestly don't know what to make of this years incarnation of the Maple Leafs. They are both the team that got shellacked by Nashville 9-2, and the team that just handled Washington. This isn't really news to any real fan of the team. I remember them beating Chicago a season ago, when yours truly assumed the worst was coming. I also continually watch our boys lose in Buffalo to a true bottom feeder. The Leafs make me say, Why not both?

    They are to use your words, middling. Not good enough to be considered elite, and not bad enough to draft elite talent. The part that bothers me I guess isn't so much the wandering in the desert wasteland feeling that the team gives me. That in and of itself, I could manage. I was a fan during the Ballard era, I can take anything this regime is willing to dole out. If I can do my best to narrow it down, the lack of flexibility going into subsequent seasons is what has me the most concerned.

    It seems to me that we are tied to Phaneuf, Gardiner, Bozak, Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Clarkson, Robidas, etc. for more term and dollars than I would give them, if a do-over was possible. Sure, we could trade some of them, this gets pointed out by the likes of Dreger, et al. Would we get back anything of value, and does Shanahan have the stones to tear the team to the ground, for the chance to be great in the future?

    Colleen rightly points out in the case of Edmonton, it doesn't always work. The same can be said of Washington. They seemed so close, then blew up some pieces, had some bad luck, and there they are, reminding me of the current Leaf team, minus the so close part. We as fans, do this all the time. I remember a few years ago talking about whether or not we would miss MacArthur, I said no that he wasn't consistent enough to be an impact player. How truly rare those elite performers are, should be noted. I don't think anyone would rather have Clarkson instead of Clarke MacArthur.

    It's tough being a fan of the middling teams. It's not easy at all. Cheering for the team being in contention feels so much like a participation award, completely unsatisfying as just about everyone gets one. I sometimes want to scream, just making the playoffs isn't good enough. All the while hoping for the future is also ruled out when you don't draft low enough for a realistic shot at the elite players. Bill Murrays' character in Groundhog Day would certainly understand my feelings on this team.

    I hope everyone has noticed that the Leafs are playing a lot of their home games right now. When the going gets tough to make a run for the playoffs, the Leafs are going to need to be able to win on the road.

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    1. As usual, I was nodding along with your insightful post, Jim. And to your last point- yes, good teams show they are good teams by beating other good teams on the road. We'll see.

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  7. Leafs Fan in MexicoDecember 1, 2014 at 8:00 PM

    I agree with most all of you, but my gut still either has yet to adjust or is just waiting for the next meltdown.... but hey in the end I m just another Leafs fan...

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  8. We've talked about the obvious impact Horachuk has had on the team this season but not a lot about Spott. A very positive personality, a former teacher and a known motivator for players who may need a boost of confidence and maybe a little show of faith. Spott went so far as to suggest that Clarkson, who he coached years ago, was one of the reasons he was promoted. He's in the background now in Toronto but he took the Marlies to the conference final last season playing against the best team in the league. With so many rookies, they weren't expected to be anything more than middle of the pack. They are missing him this year. Spott may be more valuable than we realize, a smart, thoughtful move by Shanahan.

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  9. Leafs Fan in MexicoDecember 3, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    I ve been thinking about my very mix feelings on the Leafs lately. They have been playing at the top end of their talent level, and I would even say still have a bit of talent left in the tank.... consistency is key.

    Still I dont feel easy. I feel like a battered dog maybe, always coming back despite the odds.... I really have to get over this and enjoy the good moments...! Maybe that is the definition of a true Leaf fan.

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    1. The Leafs do have a difficult series of road games upcoming, Leafs Fan in Mexico. So while it has been important for the Leafs to garner as many points as possible, how they handle that road trip will impact how a lot of fans view the season.

      By the way, you well defined being a Leaf fan!

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  10. Hi Michael,

    I think we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. Somebody compared the Leafs to Boston two weeks ago but this is a big mistake. Boston has troubles now but there is no way comparing these two teams.

    The Leafs need to play better all around. There are some things better than last year, but they still get outshot a lot and sometimes they don't show up. Sometimes at the start somtimes halfway through the game.
    They loose games against week teams they should win against and in a lot of victorys you think the opponent did not play well and you wonder what happened if they have brought their a game.


    Washington can win with Ovie for sure but there is something wrong with the question or with the way Washington put the Club together and it is the same here with Phil. People say the Leafs can not win with him, that is wrong.
    But you can not build a team around a winger and Washington built their team around Ovie but you need a center to build your team around, your top winger can be the pointleader but you need a center to be the backbone of your team. This Center can be a Mike Richards from 2010 who scores 60 Points but has the requiéred qualities but although Washington has a number 1 center he is not the guy to build around. And the Leafs also lack this kind of Center.

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  11. Michael, I would really like to know what you think about my Ovi comment.

    Thanks

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    1. Hi Marcus- regarding Ovechkin, I tend to agree with you. When I was a kid, there were great leader/wingers like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, and some outstanding wingers in Montreal. But "strength down the middle" was always essential. Montreal needed Beliveau, Henri Richard and others, Chicago needed Mikita, etc.

      It's the same nowadays. As you say with a Mike Richards, ultimately, teams can have great players at any position, but you need to be really good at the centre ice position.

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