Those VLM readers who are of a, shall we say...slightly older vintage, may recall a television show from the 1950s and ‘60s. I’m trying to remember the name of the program, but as I recall, the celebrity panel had to try and guess which of the three contestants was actually the person they claimed to be.
At the end of the segment, the moderator would say, “Would the real (name) stand up, please”.
That’s kind of how I feel about the Maple Leafs, at this juncture of the still young National Hockey League season.
Who are the “real” Maple Leafs?
After a neat little streak (four wins in a row, I think it was), there were many positives to talk about, including a more effective “system” of play. I’m sure most Leaf supporters were hoping the weekend would see us move a little further up the Eastern Conference standings, especially with the young and struggling Sabres on the agenda Saturday night.
In fact, however, the Leafs lost ground, losing a close one to the visiting Penguins at the ACC on Friday night, and gifting the hometown Sabres a win in Buffalo on Saturday night.
That leaves Toronto with a record of 9 wins, 7 losses and 2 overtime losses, good for 20 points after 18 games. Not terrible and not great. (If we had won even one of those games, my guess is most Leafers would have been thrilled with 22 points on the season.)
Friday against Pittsburgh, Jonathan Bernier certainly gave the Leafs a chance to win. I’m not sure we could say the same for James Reimer on Saturday. It felt like it was the first game this season that Reimer didn’t at least keep Toronto in a game. Last season, he, like this year, had some excellent outings early on but also a couple where Carlyle pulled him after a faulty start to the game. He wasn’t pulled against the Sabres but it may well have crossed Carlyle’s mind—either because Reimer wasn’t at his best or simply to get the Leafs going in a city that has not been their friend.
I remember, going all the way back to Buffalo’s first season in the NHL in 1970-‘71, that we weren't good against Buffalo even then. In fact, I seem to recall that we got waxed by Gilbert Perreault (still one of the most exciting players I have ever seen; what a talent) and the expansion Sabres during their first season right at Maple Leaf Gardens by a score of something like 7-2. Former Toronto General Manager and coach Punch Imlach (right) was in charge of the expansion Sabres at the time and he was behind the Buffalo bench that night, if I’m not mistaken. It was a victory that would have warmed Punch’s heart.
But even in relatively recent years, while the Leafs have won games here and there in Buffalo, it’s generally been a place where the Leafs come out flat—and stay sluggish—more often than not.
That said, that’s no excuse for Saturday night, playing a Buffalo side that has not won many games so far this season. (The game against the Leafs was their fourth win in 19 games.) Yes, the Sabres have some talent, including young Girgensons, and are well coached, in my view. But that was a game the Leafs needed to win, to keep the positive vibes going in Leafworld.
We knew Pittsburgh would come out and play well Friday, on the heels of their poor showing against the Rangers a few nights earlier. But Toronto's effort against Buffalo was not good enough.
The Leafs are probably where many fans thought they’d be. They’ve had some good outings. Before the Pittsburgh game, the wind seemed to be at their back. And hey, a couple of losses will be forgotten if they can get back to their winning ways against a pretty strong Nashville team Tuesday night at the ACC. It’s a long season, after all.
One of the reasons we often talk here at VLM about not making any major assessments before the 20 game mark is precisely because it’s best not to base opinions on a small sample size. This team can be infuriatingly bad, and conversely, it can make you feel as though they are not that far off from being a strong team.
On any given night, we’re thrilled with our goaltending, and feel good about the play of any number of players. At those times, the top line is skating and burying their chances, Kadri is at his cagey best and the third and fourth lines look better than they did a year ago.
Komarov and Holland have made contributions, solidifying that bottom-six, and those contributions need to continue as the season moves along. But I still have questions: are we strong enough up the middle? Will we get what we need from our second line? Will our third and fourth lines be effective over an 82-game season? Is our defense good enough to compete against really good teams?
Again, on a good night, the Leafs show promise and we feel a sense of hope. But after an outing like the one against the Sabres, it’s hard not to feel rather, well, lukewarm.
What’s your gut telling you? Is this team, as currently constituted, good enough to play with the best in the East? Do we have the leadership to compete?
Most importantly, does this group have the ‘will’? Do they hate losing enough that they will do everything they can to win?
We're not at the 20-game mark, but we're close.
We're not at the 20-game mark, but we're close.