Custom Search

Here’s a small Maple Leaf alarm bell

On  Monday I was made aware of a new Leaf blog and asked to give it a mention.  I'm glad to do so.  The link to the TMLs Hockey Blog is here:

While the Leafs dropped the a game via shootout against the Kings at the ACC Monday night, it is encouraging that they continue to be (most nights) a very strong third period team.  They have a penchant for coming from behind with and playing pretty stellar third periods.

Despite not exactly providing a complete 60-minute effort, Reimer earned a point for the Leafs with some exceptional goaltending.  One thing is clear:  The organization wants Reimer to be the number-one guy.  They are paying Reimer to be the number-one guy.  And if they plan on using Reimer as the guy to lead any playoff drive.  Full stop.  Gustavsson- along with his playing time and confidence- remains a secondary priority for Wilson and Burke.

I must mention Frattin again.  His drive to the net gave the Leafs the tying goal and his outstanding defensive play in overtime temporarily saved the game and gave the Leafs a chance to earn a second point.


A couple of days ago I posted here on the teams I thought would be the legitimate contenders for the final couple of playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.  I included the Leafs in a category of 6 teams who I thought would be in that “contending” position, and further projected/identified four teams, again including Toronto, who should actually battle it out down to the wire—all things being equal.

For all the off again, on again optimism around the blue and white this season, I sense most Leaf fans, while thinking this year’s team is definitely better and wanting to believe, still tend to fall back on familiar levels of doubt and despair when the team looks even temporarily out of sync—or loses a couple of games, as they now have.

A win and there is at least relief, if not joy—and certainly boosted expectations—in Mudville.

One disconcerting thought, however.  The Leafs had a pretty good start to this season.  It was better than last year, when they started impressively with four consecutive wins but then sank like a stone in the standings over the next several weeks.

This season, their early-success success lasted much longer and was more broadly evident.  (Heck, there's even talk of an extension for the coach...)  They won some games that could have gone either way, sure, but everyone does.  They’ve come from behind.  They built up a nice nest egg of points.  But now the collars are getting a bit tight.   Fans will be talking possible trades.

A couple of wins would erode the short-term insecurity, but my guess is most Leaf supporters, while acknowledging the obvious roster improvements, still recognize the need for further fine-tuning.  Whether that’s more grit, overall team toughness, a front-line center or a shutdown defenseman (aren’t we already supposed to have a few of those), the feeling is Burke’s original blank canvas has been filled in, but certainly not completely.

But one disconcerting thing that did cross my mind earlier today was simply this:  at the beginning of the season, I honest too  goodness figured the Ottawa Senators would be in tough to win 20 games.  I mean all season long.  They have no goaltending to speak of (not if you’re talking about a serious “playoff” team).  They are awfully inexperienced through much of their roster.  Alfredsson, while an honorable elder statesman in the game, is aging.  Their “leader”, Spezza, is not a classic leader.

I just figured they would work hard for (yet another) new coach, but they would hit quicksand before the season even got serious.  I still think that will happen once the better teams start ramping up in the second half of the season, but clearly I have been very wrong about the Senators.  For reasons that only someone close to the team could effectively convey, when I peaked at the standings Monday morning, they stood at 34 points in 33 games.  Certainly respectable and certainly better than I ever expected, but not what you would consider tremendous if you were just looking from the “outside” and didn’t know they were working with an under-talented, young squad. But if you project those point totals through an 82-game season, they would fall short of what we would expect teams will need to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But here’s the alarming thing:  snuggled in, yes tucked in along with the Sabres, just one point ahead of the expected-to-be-stumbling and in disrepair Senators, were our Maple Leafs.  They had wedged themselves into 7/8th place, that one narrow point ahead of Ottawa.  After the shootout loss against the Kings, the Leafs are now two points up and have played the same number of games as the Senators.

What does this tell us?

Here we have Ottawa’s scatter-shot roster, which wouldn’t scare anyone, with a first-year, first-time NHL head coach behind the bench.  A team that was a Cup contender a few short years ago, yes,  but a team that went badly south, suddenly, and then ultimately wouldn’t play for a series of new coaches.  They have gone from potential champion to also-ran.  Yet here is this eager, playing over-their-head bunch now virtually neck and neck with the Leafs?

The Leafs are young, too, and have worked like mad to improve their roster (in fairness, so has Bryan Murray).  Toronto, though, is in "year four" of its rebuilding effort, with a coach, coincidentally, in his fourth year behind the bench- and with decades of NHL head coaching experience behind him.

Yet you can barely separate the two teams, as we approach the Christmas break.

Should we be concerned?

You tell me.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  1. I'm saying this as a Sens fan; the leafs should make the playoffs. The bottom 8 teams in the eastern conference are mediocre and one of them will squeak in, the leafs have the talent to be clear of them. What the leafs cannot afford is an injury to Kessel, their offensive depth evaporates quickly without him.

  2. Wilson admitted that injuries forced him to mostly play 3 lines last night. It's part of why they were flat.

    They need to win at least one of the next two.

    They have called up Boyce and Steckel might play next game.

    Both are more usefull than Orr.

    Let's see how it turns out

  3. anonymous is on to something there mike... the leafs have talent, but aside from kessel/lupul, who is producing goals? i wish grabs/kulemin/mac would find their magic again.
    i think the leafs are in a decent slump, but they ARE a streaky team... they'll come on strong for five-six games, and we'll start feeling a bit better.

  4. Thanks anon. I'm in agreement about the relative quality of the teams in the East after the first handful of clubs...

    dp...It will be good to see Boyce again. Hard-working guy.

    Alex C...streaky, indeed. The standings are taking shape. I'm guessing even the players are aware these days of who sits where...

  5. The current Leaf squad is entertaining to watch. Sure, it is disappointing to lose, but such artistry, and even when the artistry sputters, it still bubbles under the surface as potential. The possibilities are tangible, not fifteen trades and five drafts away, but just there, slightly out of reach. In my view, those recent losses feel like they are not far from future wins. Years ago, in conversation, the owner of a health supplement shop referred to the human body as a “machine”. Maybe it was a language thing, as he had a German accent, but I immediately corrected him: “The body is not a machine. The body is an organism.” Similarly, a hockey team is not the sum of its parts. It is not like you add some Ovechkin, maybe a dash or Richards, and pinch of someone else, and voila, a Spring parade. From our perspectives, or even in the rarefied confines of a manager’s mind, you have to approach losses in a Cartesian way, as if there is something missing, as if we just need to replace or mend this or that part. Yet, how many times have we old farts seen a key injury result in a better overall team, those times when less is more? A hockey team behaves more like an organism than it ever will behave as a machine. This makes our “job” as fans, and much more importantly, that of the Burke Think Tank, a subtle, even artistic one. No slight intended to plumbers and mechanics, whose minds I deeply admire, but this work is more suited to the mind of an artist or a poet than the guy who can get your car to purr like a kitten. To win a Stanley Cup: What an abstract assignment! Even without the wildly unpredictable human element, there are so many things to consider, that it quickly becomes, well, unmanageable. A lot of it seems to come down to intuition and luck, the way that a million elements come together or do not come together, recently witnessed as those losses that look like they could have been wins. Do I mean that we should not bother to analyse and search for that critical cog or gear that is missing, or that malfunctioning part that needs to be replaced? You might as well tell the coaching staff to stop coaching. There are always ways to strive and improve; a team is a never ending work in progress. It is never a perfected piece of machinery that you can hang on the wall and admire its precision. The Soviet and Red Army teams came closest to that machine-like thinking, as we all know; a failed experiment. Current day capitalist efficiency might well make the old Soviets blush with modesty, but there is still something to do with heart, the inescapable truth that Phil Esposito has more say about the outcome of a hockey game than Victor Tikhonov does. So, why do I feel good after the last three games? As Wayne Gretzky is attributed to have said: “It is not where the puck is, it is where the puck is going”.

  6. Loved your comment today, Bobby C. You painted a picture for us. Thanks.

  7. I've defended Wilson for a few years now and thought anyone that said to fire him was being premature and stupid. I've moved from defending him to being on the fence about it. He hasn't had much to work with over the years, but the PK is driving me insane!

  8. Brian Burke promised his Leafs would be entertaining, and he's certainly delivered on that! I can't remember when I've ooh'd and ahh'd at so many plays or passes by a Leaf team. Liles could have had 3 last night, with a break here or a touch more accuracy there - when was the last time the D joined in offensively so much? I'm loving it!
    But there's no question that "elusive something" is still missing from the recipe that will transmute our season into figurative gold... an alchemical ingredient that's a concoction of Bobby C's "muckulence", that big power forward so often mentioned, and some consistent second line scoring.
    I don't know if we've seen a completely healthy roster this year - I think not - so on the glass-half-full side, we're still in the hunt despite all the requisite juggling. On the glass-half-empty side, we are, as Michael mentions, perilously close to slipping out of the top 8.
    Ron Wilson said the Leafs are pretty much where he expected they'd be at this point - which in itself may be a problem! I keep feeling they've deserved better over the past 3 games, but here we are, nevertheless. Like Bobby C, I still feel good about the team... but, like Michael, I'm getting that old gnawing feeling in my gut as the losses and missed opportunities start to mount up.

  9. I've also been a Wilson supporter for a long time. I've watched nearly every pre and post game interview and have been studying his personality carefully for the last 3 years or so. RW takes his job in the media seriously and puts his team ahead of himself in interviews. He portrays himself in a way that commands fear/respect and you can see the interviewers desperately trying to phrase their questions so as to be respectful of him and maybe more subtly through that, the team. Wilson will shut people down HARD if their intentions aren't kosher and as a defensive mechanism, adopts a harsh personality in front of the cameras. I think this leads to him being represented in a certain way in the media that doesn't exactly give you the impression that he's a personable, "player's coach" kinda guy. Lots of players have come to Burke personally asking for Wilson to remain head coach, but at the end of the day there comes a time when every team needs a new boss to re energize the group. I'm now on the fence about firing wilson too, but not because i think he's a bad coach. We'll see how long this "slump" lasts, but I dont see burke doing anything about wilson before making a trade of some sort

  10. Gerund O' well said. I absolutely concur that this version of the Leafs is generally an entertaining side, to be sure. A lot of fast-paced action with hitting, great passing, etc. The nagging thing, I suppose is that the bar is set so low to begin with. Just making the playoffs seems to be enough and that wasn't satisfactory during the Quinn era, for example (different time, I realize), when losing in the first round was a disaster. With the East as it is, the Leafs should have plenty of opportunities to jump in the standings in the second half of the season.

    Really good comment, Anon, and I hear what you are saying about Wilson and his self-perceived role with the media. I've posted here many times that he is clearly a good NHL coach. He has the track record to prove it. Whether he is the right fit just now remains the question, I suppose...