Custom Search

10 sobering thoughts for Leaf fans at the 20-game mark

The Leafs found their skating legs and played their guts out in the third in Carolina, falling just short in a 3-2 loss.  (Still not sure what the rationale is for a 5pm start on a Sunday on a "football" day in the U.S., but it didn't seem to boost ticket sales any in Raleigh...)

  • Sports is so often, as I've discussed here, a matter of 'split seconds', inches and timing.  Connolly made that slick move but was thwarted by Ward when the 'Canes were clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third.  Within seconds, Franson and Liles, in their eagerness to help the cause, both pinched and Staal took off on a breakaway.  Scrivens made a great save, but Skinner calmly waited and tucked home the rebound to give Carolina their 2-goal cushion back.  (Skinner certainly looks like a poised young hockey player.  Imagine the fuss that would be created around him if he played in a market like Toronto?)
  • Kessel's two goals give him 16 on the season.  Does he look confident, or what?  That release sets him apart from a lot of other offensive threats.  And Connolly was in on both Kessel markers.  Can he stay healthy and continue to put up points?
  • Kulemin, on the other hand, is at the other end of the confidence spectrum from Kessel these days.  There are times when he is in a really good position to shoot, and he passes.  When he does shoot, he hits the goalie.  Confidence is a fragile thing, even for elite professional athletes, eh?
  • One 'Cane I'm happy to see play well is ex-Leaf Jay Harrison.  He is a thoughtful young man who worked his tail off to make it to the NHL.  Sunday night he played more than 22 minutes on the Carolina blue line for former Leaf coach Paul Maurice.

The Leafs played well in Nashville, overwhelmed the Caps and came up just short in Carolina.  Two points of out six, but they played better than that.


If you haven't visited the site for a while, you might have missed some recent posts, including on the possibility of American ownership of the Leafs, Gustavsson and whether the Leafs have enough overall team toughness to be a factor come playoff time.  I also commented on the "controversy" around a reporter contacting Reimer's mother to get an update on his health.  Click to check out any of those columns...


The Leafs showed a lot on the weekend, hammering Washington and almost creating another third-period comeback in Carolina.  There are things to be optimistic about, absolutely.  In fact, you may recall that not that long ago, I posted here (click to see that story) that Leaf fans have a number of reasons to be optimistic about the club’s fortunes going forward.

Most of those “positives” I talked about still hold true.  But I also noted at the time that I could just as easily pen a column outlining why things could be very difficult going forward for the blue and white.

Today is the day for some sober reflection.

The 20-game mark (the Leafs have now actually played 21) is generally a good time to do a reality check.  So here goes:

  1. The Leafs are trying to, in Ron Wilson’s fourth season behind the bench, earn playoff spot in a Conference where there is a lot of parity and not many truly elite teams.  So the good news is that the opportunity is most definitely there.  The less-good news is that they are trying to accomplish the task without a bona fide, proven, top-line NHL goaltender.  I’m as big a fan of Reimer as anyone, but even when he returns healthy, he will still not have a full season of NHL service behind him.  As impressed as most of us have been by his emergence (and refreshing outlook), we still have to think of him as “unproven” at this point, until we see him play down the stretch and in the playoffs.  Even then, just like a Carey Price, for example, he will still have to be good consistently, over time, before we can be comfortable with our goaltending situation.
  2. Depth in goal was one of the positives heading into the season, with Scrivens, Rynnas and Owuya all waiting to nudge The Monster aside as the big-league back-up.  While a small sample-size, Scrivens has shown he is fearless and has played some nice games in net with the big club.  I’m not sure, though, that any of our “back-ups” is ready to be the top guy indefinitely, should Reimer’s health not hold up.
  3. The Leafs were fortunate last season when it came to injuries.  Most Eastern Conference playoff contenders had to fight through some difficult roster issues because of serious injuries last year.  The Leafs did not, for the most part.  This season they are clearly in a different situation.  The Reimer “upper-body” setback has been huge, of course.  You never plan on losing your number-one goalie.  But Connolly has also missed time, Lombardi returned but is now out and of course Komisarek (the early season whipping-boy turned productive blueliner again) is now gone.  Throw in Armstrong’s prolonged absence and of course Grabbovski and MacArthur and suddenly our much-discussed and “improved” depth will be put to the test.  Now, if Frattin can break out and Colborne can make his presence felt that would be ideal.  But as much as I'd like to see the "kids" step up, that’s quite a bit to expect from first-year NHL’ers who could still be with the Marlies.
  4. Whereas we saw some timely secondary-scoring earlier in the season (and some as recently as this past Saturday night against Washington), in recent times that part of the Maple Leaf offense has dried up.  If it remains dormant, it is difficult to see the Leafs being able to steal as many wins as they have so far—relying almost exclusively on Kessel and Lupul to carry the day.  We all know what would happen in a playoff series- they would face intense scrutiny and very tough checking.  We’re not there yet, of course.  It’s still just the early part of the regular-season.  But as teams assess the Leafs and prepare to play them, it won’t take much to figure out that if you work to eliminate those two guys, your odds of beating Toronto jump appreciably.  Clearly, the Leafs will have to overcome injuries to some key players (and if we’re honest, some of the injured guys were not overly productive so far this season to begin with) and will need other forwards to step up with timely goals.
  5. While the Leafs are scoring more on the power play of late, and that’s a very good thing, I’m not quite sure we have fully solved whatever it is that has ailed our penalty-killing efforts most of the young season.  While if even one of those two units can improve that will certainly help, but it will be worrisome if the season goes on much longer without a pronounced improvement on the penalty-kill.  We can debate whether the “issue” is personnel or coaching—does anyone really care when we can’t keep the puck out of our own net on the PK?
  6. Having watched our guys now through 21 games, I’m a bit less comfortable with our 6-man defense corps than I was earlier in the 2011-’12 season.  I’m impressed with Gardiner’s smarts and smooth-skating/mobility, for sure.  But I can’t shake the sense that, when the games get tighter and the fore-checking is more aggressive (and physical), that we may see some cracks in his game.  Right now, he can often skate away from trouble, and that’s a huge asset, obviously.  Long-term, we’ll see, I guess.  But beyond that nice surprise, I think there are question marks, though Gunnarsson’s generally steady if unspectacular play (he may well be the team’s best all-around defenseman) is always welcome.  Liles is a veteran who can make plays and does some good things.  He is not, thus far, the defensive liability some might have forecast and he's blocking more shots than I thought he would.  But you know what I’m really wondering about right now?  Phaneuf.  Yes, he has had a great start to the season, playing huge minutes as the key guy on the back end.  But lately his offensive forays have not always turned out well, and I just want to make sure that he remains a steady presence in the defensive zone- his first priority.  Schenn is playing his way back into bigger minutes. Franson flashed good and not-so-good moments this past weekend. In short, I’m not as comfortable as I was with the blueline, but the next twenty-game segment will tell a tale.
  7. The Leafs took on salary when they signed/acquired Connolly and Lombardi this past off-season.  It would be unfair to judge those moves on the basis of 20 games, but it will be important to see a significant contribution from both of these guys (I realize Lombardi is now out for a while) as the season wears on.  Connolly was signed as a kind of 1A center, and no one is expecting miracles.  But when he is in the line-up, we will need to see some pretty consistent production, which was in evidence against Washington and Carolina.  So far, though, it has been impossible to determine much.  Lombardi played on adrenaline in the first couple of games, leveled off and is now hurt.  Connolly hasn’t been able to play a run of games yet, though he is getting points, helping the power play and is capable defensively.
  8. While the Leafs are generally a hard-working team (who isn’t, in the modern-day NHL, when your roster is made up of a lot of players who could just as easily be in the AHL and are therefore fighting for their careers every night?), that’s not quite enough.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I’m not sure the Leafs have what we might call real overall team toughness.  You know, the kind of team that is gritty, has a lot of sandpaper in their game along the boards and in front of each net.  Guys like Mike Brown, Phaneuf and Schenn have that but you need more than a couple of guys who are tough to play against every night.
  9. It seems odd that, entering year 4 of the Burke regime, we are still looking for a legitimate first-line center.  He’s made the deals to get top players like Phaneuf and Kessel and they are obviously key guys here.  But the Leafs still need a strong number-one center.  It’s a lot to expect Colborne will jump into that role any time soon, though longer-term he could earn bigger minutes as a solid two-way center.  I have to believe the Leafs are looking for that missing piece.  Can we spell Jeff Carter?
  10. Coaching.   As good a coach as Ron Wilson has been –and is— (and I’ve said so many times here before)  is he the right guy to take the Leafs where they need to go?  I have a nagging sense that at some point, Burke will determine this particular group of players that he has assembled need a different type of behind the bench leadership.  I don’t know who that is, but it may not be Wilson. 

I could add that the Leafs so far this season have often benefited from poor opposition goaltending, and/or running into teams that have been struggling when they faced the Leafs.  These things tend to balance out through the course of a season.

None of the above “concerns” mean the Leafs are in bad shape or cannot make the playoffs.  In the wide-open East, they certainly can.  And they can no doubt do it under Wilson, and especially so if Reimer comes back healthy and plays like we have seen him play.  They have banked a lot of early-season points.

But as I said at the outset, while, as fans, it’s good to be supportive and ever-hopeful, it doesn’t mean that we can’t observe and question where things are headed.

Yes, it changes day to day.  A win and all is right.  A couple of losses and the fan base is ready to trade half the team.  I get it.  I’ve seen that movie dozens and dozens of times over the past 50 plus seasons.

But a sober assessment is healthy too.  And right now, as much as we have enjoyed a great start  and now perhaps want to bemoan the fates and talk about injuries and lousy scheduling, the issues I raised above are in front of us.  Injuries are part of sports and good teams always have to overcome those setbacks.

Can the Leafs?  The proof will be in the pudding, eh?


  1. I find it remarkable that had the Leafs won yesterday afternoon, they would have found themselves on top of the Eastern Conference. Now, they've played more games than other teams and it's more attributed to the parity in the East, but it would have been quite a feat a quarter of the way through the season. Could Leaf Nation have asked for anything more?

    I'm still tempering my expectations that the Leafs will be a playoff bubble team, but they've certainly been an entertaining team to watch this year, given all the ups and downs they've had. Kessel has played incredibly and consistently well and one hopes he'll continue.

  2. For me, four of the areas you mention are the key ones, and the ones many of us expressed concerns about back at the "prediction" post: goaltending, PK, PP, and secondary scoring. At the quarter pole, it looks like our concerns were justified! Those areas are still questionable, and our success will be determined by how they resolve themselves. Over the weekend, goaltending was fine, PK and PP were solid, and against the Caps the secondary scorers were hot. Last night... three out of the four, I'd say. (Though Connolly had two great chances, and Frattin had another). Kulemin looks bewildered out there - so far, his steady growth curve has turned into a descending one.
    Yes - it feels like a trade is in the wind.
    But somehow... It's difficult for a Leafs fan to be a glass-half-full kind of person, but I'm still feeling good about this team!