Usually when I’m watching the Leafs something triggers an idea for a post—a question, issue or possibility that hopefully will generate some interesting discussion here. But while wading through Saturday night’s game in Winnipeg, I considered the possibility that there was nothing new to say (at least from my perspective).
I’ve covered off so many questions and issues here—leadership, the lack of a team identity, coaching approaches, the “bottom six”, being hard to play against, whether Reimer should be dealt, etc.—that it feels as though there isn’t a lot more to say.
When the Leafs are allowed to free wheel (and this has been the case for years now) they can make nice plays, score highlight reel goals and, if their goaltender happens to stand on his head when the offense is finding the back of the net, the Leafs can beat anybody. Not long ago they couldn’t lose, it seemed—they even started the just completed road trip well with that Bernier shutout and beat the Bruins, too. They may have deserved a better fate in Minnesota but had little left in the tank by the time they hit the ground in Winnipeg.
While the team has made some basic strides forward over the past couple of years, it’s not as though every other team in the admittedly middlish Eastern Conference is just standing still while the Leafs are getting better. Look at the long woeful Islanders; suddenly (or not so suddenly) they are a team that competes. Washington, a bubble team like the Leafs, is seemingly finding its way in first year of the Barry Trotz era. Even Florida looks much better than a year ago and while Columbus had an awful start and is ten points behind the Leafs in the Conference standings, they have been impressive of late, and have games in hand on a number of teams.
This is simply to say that the Leafs have some good players and can look pretty good some nights—but that can be said for just about every team in the league.
As the Leafs reach the mid-way point in the season on Wednesday night (game 41), my question today is: does anything give you the sense that the Leafs are really more than a playoff bubble team? Is there anything that you can point to about the current roster (not what we hope may be the case in two years) that makes you believe the Leafs are trending in an encouraging direction this season?
My take? The Leafs can certainly take a run at a playoff spot, absolutely. But will they soon be in a situation where their “best” players—Phaneuf on the blueline and Kessel up front—will hit the wall that all players hit? Meaning, have we missed the opportunity to win when they were in their prime? But beyond that, it feels like the same players make the same mistakes over and over, which means that the word that we constantly talk about—accountability—seems to be just a word, as opposed to a genuine commitment that every player has made.
It feels like the Leaf coaches preach certain things, and the players respond when and if the mood strikes.
Again, the team is capable of making a playoff run in the Conference. None of us expected them to win at the clip they were before their road trip. And they did win two games on a very tough trip. So they are still poised for some degree of success.
Some fans look behind the bench and suggest Carlyle is holding the team back. I guess I’m more of the view that, while acknowledging Carlyle has not brought this team to the level fans were seeking, there are too many players on this team that aren’t really prepared to do what needs to be done on a consistent basis to win in the NHL. And this applies to our forwards and our defensemen. Being willing to take a hit to make a play is one of the most important things that players have to do in the NHL. Its about being hard on the puck all over the ice, including in the corners and the front of the net. Those battles often decide games. Do we have the guys who want to win those battles often enough?
Are they capable? I think so, yes. But we’re back to the word I’ve talked about here many times before—do enough Leafs have the ‘will’ to do all the little things that great teams do to win games?
It’s not fair to judge a team by how it plays in the last game of a long road trip. Winnipeg was flying and we were on our heels most of the night.
But we have lately been back to given up a lot of shots, not playing enough with the puck—and that makes it hard to win games.
What are you seeing?