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Pat Quinn returns; assessing the Leaf defense

I’ve had a professional and personal relationship with former Leaf coach Pat Quinn for many years. I have tremendous regard for him.

Pat returns to the ACC tonight with his struggling Oilers squad. It is a team, not unlike the Leafs, finding points hard to come by. Oiler supporters hope things will get better—soon. Youngsters like Gagner, Brule, Cogliano and the incoming Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson—along with a number one or two overall pick in the draft this coming summer—make up what should be a talented core of young offensive talent still not in their prime.

I’ll post on Quinn’s playing career another time. But one thing that I have found surprising is that he is not in the Hockey Hall-of-Fame in the "builder" category. No, he has never coached a Stanley Cup championship squad. That said, he remains in the top four in all-time career wins for NHL coaches. He has taken two teams—Philadelphia and Vancouver—to the Cup finals. He was head coach of the 2002 Canadian Olympic gold medal team and the 2004 Team Canada World Cup champions as well. He led the Canadian junior side to the World Championship gold in 2009 and in 2008 led our U18 team to an upset Gold medal victory as well. On both latter occasions he proved his critics wrong—those who wrote that he didn’t like coaching young players, or didn't know how to coach them.

Interestingly, he had no difficulty with young players like Bure and Mogilny in Vancouver. When he came to Toronto, he played three rookie defenseman in 1998-99, and the Leafs went to the final four.

As GM, he rebuilt what had been a floundering Vancouver franchise in the late 1980s, and did the same when he came to Toronto. While many of his “GM” moves were criticized during his time in Toronto, if you actually look at the draft record of those four seasons, it’s strong. Many of those selections either played in Toronto or were used as assets to bring in the necessary pieces to build a contending team.

Perhaps his shrewdest move as GM was acquiring Bryan McCabe for Alex Karpotsev. Karpotsev barely played after leaving Toronto. McCabe spent seven mostly successful seasons in Toronto, earning an end-of-season All-Star berth in 2004, while helping the Leafs get to the final four in 2002. I would argue that Kaberle and McCabe played the best hockey of their careers while Quinn was coaching in Toronto.

The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since Quinn gave up the GM duties in the summer of 2003.


Assessing the Leafs defense going forward

• I mentioned in a recent post that Kaberle has been playing lately as though he wished he had in fact been traded prior to the deadline. I’m guessing he feels confused right now. Part of him probably does indeed want to stay in Toronto, but his competitive side surely misses not being in the playoffs—yet again.

It’s too early, in my view, to write Kaberle off. I’ve seen too many players over the years look as they have suddenly hit the end of the road, but then have several productive years. He still has all the skills (and deficiencies) he has always had. But something is lacking. My feeling is, if he knew he was here for the long-term—or that he was definitely gone—he would have peace of mind and play to his capabilities.

I’m betting he’s gone—which will leave a hole that won’t be easily replaced by anyone of the current backline.

• I love Phaneuf being here, but he will certainly make mistakes, that much is clear. That said, he brings a badly needed physical presence and will be the team’s new leader come next season. He’s not Bobby Orr but he can skate, has that wicked (if not always accurate) shot. He hits and plays tough. As others have written, and accurately so, he has made a difference to the Leaf penalty-kill, which had been awful for most of the season. Going forward that will be a difference-maker for the team.

• Who’s quietly perhaps the most efficient Leaf defender right now? Maybe Gunnarsson. At +10, he flies under the radar, which is kind of what you want. Lidstrom did the same in Detroit for years, until people outside of Detroit realized how good he was. I’m not suggesting Gunnarsson is in the same league as Lidstrom just now, but he clearly has the potential to be a solid NHL defenseman.

• It’s funny. I like Beauchemin. I know he’s a really solid all-around defenseman. I just don’t feel like he’s played his best hockey this season. I’m expecting a lot more—maybe I should say a lot less, as in not noticing him as much because he will play much better—next season

• I will probably always maintain that Schenn’s progress might have been expedited had management allowed him to play in anonymity with the Marlies for a few games earlier this season. But at least sitting him for a few games (as Tampa Bay did with Stamkos last season) appears to have helped in the long run. We were too quick to jump on the bandwagon last season, and too quick to jump off this season. I really don’t know what Schenn’s full potential is, but he certainly should be a regular, top-four NHL rearguard.

• Komisarek will be in the rotation next season, and I think expectations will be much more modest than they were this season. Like Beauchemin, I feel strongly that he will play like he can and be that physical, punishing defenseman that everyone knows he has been—and can still be.

• Maybe the most interesting thing next season is: if Kaberle goes, what do they get in return? His value may not be what it would have been, but you know some NHL GM’s will covet a d-man who can make that outlet pass like Kaberle still does.

• If Kaberle does indeed move, who will be the sixth guy on the back end? My guess is we’re looking at a free agent signing. I’m confident the Leaf defense core will be strong next season, and with Giguerre and Gustavsson likely to be better than they were this season, it is not unrealistic to suggest that the team’s goals against record will improve significantly.

The risk? Unduly high fan expectations, as usual. But without a high number one draft choice to look forward to, it’s a good time to think positively.

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