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Game-day Monday: quick hits and questions

Some thoughts and questions for a game-day Monday (with the Leafs in Nashville tonight, as an aside, I should mention another a hockey site I enjoy: Preds on the Glass at )

• Leaf fans, myself included, may not be using the correct word when we say the Leafs are “inconsistent”. It’s something worse than that. I’ve posted previously about the Leafs’ ability to beat good teams—on occasion. But it means nothing if these infrequent winning efforts are followed up by several unproductive games. Most observers have given the club credit for a generally strong work ethic—yet that wears thin without some degree of success. This can’t be what Brian Burke envisioned a year ago.

• One forward I continue to see good signs from is Nikolai Kulemin. One night it’s fighting along the boards for a loose puck, another it’s a solid hit, on other occasions a power move or a good set-up or finish. He may well be emerging as a must-keep Leaf.

• Thanks to those who sent e-mails commenting on the recent “Kessel conundrum” post. It’s an interesting debate that will likely last until we see how the top-end kids from the 2010 draft pan out.

• Has there been a Leaf season in recent years with seemingly so little to look forward to? There is no likelihood of a playoff spot, or even a “race” and no top draft choice to dream about. The harder question to face: is there anything more exciting to look forward to next season?

• One wonders if there is an impact free-agent who would come to Toronto this summer…A year into Brian Burke’s regime, are Leaf fans seeing, understanding or liking the blueprint that’s being followed?

• Not a new question but worth asking: how many “top six” forwards do the Leafs currently have on their roster - not guys who play a good game once in a while, but true “top six” NHL forwards? How many will they have in twelve months?

• What’s the over-under on the number of current Leafs who will be on the roster this time in the 2010-2011 season?

• Free agent signings and trades can’t be judged fairly over the short-term. We’ll be well into next season before Leaf fans can really assess whether Komisarek, Beauchemin and some others (such as the Exelby trade) were good Burke moves. It will take even longer to gauge the impact of the free agent college signings.

• This does raise the question: as frustrated as many leaf fans were with McCabe and Kubina over the years, are we any happier now? While sometimes less than stellar defensively, McCabe was a legit end-of-season second-team NHL all-star not that long ago under Pat Quinn.

• If you were a NHL General Manager and you could, without giving up anything, acquire any Leaf you wanted to play what I’ll call “top ten” minutes (in other words, he must fit in to your top six forwards or top four defensemen) on your team, which Leafs would you select? Kessel? Kaberle? White? Anyone else?

• If the Leafs finish between 25th and 30th place this season, it’s hard to imagine Brian Burke, at the NHL entry draft, watching Boston pick one of the best young players in the world, then sitting through the rest of the first round with his scouts having nothing to do. The question is: what can he do to acquire a first-round draft choice? Will it even matter, if it’s not a top ten selection?

• The one thing that was promised was that this would be a “truculent” team. They are hard-working most nights, but I’m not sure “truculent” is the word to describe most Leaf forwards or defenders.

• What the Leafs need more than truculence or fighters are players who can at least compete in terms of physical play. Not everyone can be physically punishing player. It’s not fair to expect that. Not everyone can be Scott Stevens or Mark Messier. Hall-of-Famer Dave Keon certainly wasn’t. He didn’t run through guys. But most night he led the Leafs in “takeouts” and brought so many other things to the rink that he was a tremendously valuable player. Bob Gainey with Montreal didn’t score much, but was a gritty, determined winger. Clark Gillies of the Islanders was a grinder who could score—and fight. Boston’s Terry O’Reilley worked and worked to become a rugged, solid NHL player. My point is: you need guys who bring something different. The Leafs clearly have too many forwards who have some offensive ability but no real ‘edge’ to their game yet—Kessel, Stajan, Grabovski and fourth-line guys who can fight but rarely score.

• Players like Kessel don’t have to be “truculent”, but they must be all-around players who compete all over the ice. Others who may not deliver offense have to be physical, gritty, fight for loose pucks and be hard to play against—consistently.

• On defense, Ian White is one guy who (despite a rough night against Washington on Friday) brings different dimensions to the team. He can skate, shoot, make plays and tries to hit and play tough. It’s hard to say why the Leaf defense is not as strong as it looks on paper. Komisarek is a physical presence, Kaberle brilliant at the outlet pass, Beauchemin a steady-as-they-go kind of defender. White has been solid most of this season. Injuries have hurt, but still, as a group they seem lacking many nights. Is it the forwards not doing their job, too many soft goals or is the defense simply not playing well enough?

• The Toronto Star ran an article yesterday on the upside potential of the Leafs—focusing on Gustavsson, Kadri, Kulemin, Bozak, Hanson, Kessel, Stajan. The players’ quoted in the story stressed that it takes time to build with a young team. True. I’ve seen it many times. The Bruins were doormats in the 6-team NHL until Bobby Orr came along and they traded for Phil Esposito and drafted Derek Sanderson. The Islanders were an expansion team in the early 1970s and used top picks like Denis Potvin, Bill Harris, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies to build a mini-dynasty. The Capitals were a woeful for a time but built their team with youth around ex-Hab Rod Langway and were a great teams for many years in the ‘80s.

Of course the Penguins and Capitals are recent examples—perpetual bottom feeders who turned franchise-player draft picks and wise management moves into become successful squads. Similarly, Ottawa built their squad through the ‘90s and 2000s’ with a series of high draft picks after finishing at the bottom of the standings for a long time.

The question remains: do the Leafs have the core that can achieve that kind of success, or do they still need to draft that core over the next few years? And, are we talking about becoming a playoff contender, or a Stanley Cup contender?

1 comment:

  1. Great Pre-game reading for tonight's game. I always enjoy your stuff.