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Leafs turn the puck over- a lot - and lose; Kovalchuk a “healthy scratch”- it didn’t take long

It’s never wise to judge a team too soon.  So the fact that so many teams in the East seem to be off their game early this NHL season raises a question:  are teams in fact playing below what they are capable of, or are these Eastern Conference teams simply not that strong this year?

Looking at the Flyers last night, you saw the players who can be difference-makers and who helped lead them all the way to the finals last spring—Giroux, Briere, Richards, Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Carter, etc.— but I’m not convinced they are world-beaters.  They did, we remember, barely eke into the playoffs.

However, in the East, they will likely be one of the elite teams, with the Penguins and Capitals.  But I’m not sure anyone is truly “elite” in the East just yet.
As for the Leafs, well, they had predictable jump in the first period, but still came away down 2-0.  In the second they outscored the Flyers, but got caught once too often turning the puck over and when Philly made it 4-2, it didn’t feel like a Leaf comeback night. (Kaberle didn’t want to get nailed and his awkward pass led to the fifth Flyer goal, just in case some of us were still hoping.)

Versteeg didn’t have his best night.  We all have high expectations for the guy, probably too high.  He was a wonderful support player for the offensively-gifted Black Hawks, who had three high-end defensemen and a ton of other forwards who could also score and make plays.  As I mentioned the other night, Versteeg should be a tremendous second-line forward in Toronto.  Not sure he will be an automatic first-liner.

Phaneuf played hard but not always smart and ended up minus 3 on the night. 

Now, for the same reason that you don’t want to judge teams too soon, Leaf fans need not worry more than usual after three straight losses.  I don’t think we expected they would run the table.

But a game in Philadelphia can be a test of a young team’s mettle, and I’m not sure they passed the test Saturday night.  I’m not suggesting they need to tinker with the line- up (they made minor changes last night.  Lebda and Zigomanis sat.  Mitchell played his first game and Gunnarsson was back in as well.)  But even if Wilson wanted to make personnel changes, what would he do?

The Leafs are still 4-2-1.  (In the real world I used to like a lot, before regular season OT and shootouts, they are 3 wins, 2 losses and 2 ties.) Tellingly, the Marlies coach basically said recently no one is playing like he deserves a call-up at this point. (That said, young Kadri had a big game Saturday, so that may alter Eakins' view.)

There is no forward depth beyond what the Leafs already have.  If we’re waiting for Kadri to come in and light things up at this level, we may be rightly accused of wishful thinking.  But I’m sure that debate is coming soon.

 The truth is, as the saying goes, your best players have to be your best players.  And when you struggle a bit (does this count as struggling?), it’s not usually your third and fourth-line guys who are to blame.  It’s your “stars”.

 So sitting Zigomanis after their less than stellar work against the Rangers is hardly an answer, especially considering he was playing well enough to fill in on the first line in that game.

The fact is, the Leafs are a work in progress.  They experienced some early success.  They may well be better than some of us expected.  But it’s a long, long season.  And they are not a deep team up front.

Reality just set in a bit sooner than fans might have hoped.

It was good to see MacArthur get one.  Sometimes a guy scores a a lot early and then you don't hear from him for weeks.

Giguerre was good at times but didn't exactly steal one.

The power play has lost its steam, and isn't exactly "scary good" right now as Wilson proclaimed at the end of the pre-season.

The term “coach-killer” wasn’t coined by –or created because of—Ilya Kvalchuk of the New Jersey Devils.  But his picture may well be in the sports dictionary next to the definition of that phrase.

I remember when Curt Fraser, a fine NHL player and a good coach with Atlanta when Kovy first came to the Thrashers, would spend time with Kovalchuk to try and convince him he would be a better player— for the team— if he played at both ends of the ice.

Every Thrashers coach since then has had the same issue.  The talented, sensitive, volatile, enigmatic superstar scorer loves to play in the offensive zone.  But unfortunately the ice surface is still 200 feet long, which means it’s a lot of work to get back and play in your own end.

Ten or so years later, the Kovy versus the coach movie is being re-run yet again, only this time with his new team, the Devils.

Those following this site will know that from the day he was dealt to the Devils, I wondered what Lamoriello was possibly thinking.  If ever there was a guy who was the apparent antithesis of a “New Jersey Devil”—you know, a hard-working, diligent, defensively conscientious player who set aside personal stats for team goals— it was Kovalchuk.

When many said the Devils didn’t give up much in that trade, I said at the time that they actually gave up a lot (Bergfors, Oduya, Cormier and a #1).

Then, when free-agent time came around, well, we all know how the Devils went off the charts to keep a guy who just doesn’t fit.

So they gave up good young players who fit the New Jersey mold to supposedly take a run at the Cup, when they in reality had zero shot at it last spring.  And rather than cut their losses, they bought themselves salary-cap misery for years to come, along with an untradeable player (and contract) by signing Kovalchuk to huge money.

And Saturday night, we heard that Kovalchuk was a “healthy scratch” against the Sabres, despite the Devils shutting out Montreal a couple of nights earlier.

We’re not even ten games into the season.  Maybe he was just tired.

How does the team respond to the coach taking a stand about Kovalchuk’s indifferent defensive play?  They get blown out by the Sabres, at home, 6-1—in front of a lot of empty seats.

It’s never easy to coach for Lou.  Does the new coach, in Lamoriello’s world, get blamed now for the 2-5-1 start?

1 comment:

  1. Even in the wins too many giveaways. Puck protection is a weak point for this team, and decision making a close second; how only Schenn could clear the puck when on the PK??