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At the mid-way point, here’s what we know—and don’t know—about the Leafs

When I was a kid, in the pre-1967 expansion days, the NHL regular season was 70 games.  Six teams played each other 14 times a season.  Can you imagine?  It wasn’t hard to build rivalries when you played each other that often, often on back-to-back nights.  And then, you often played six or seven more games against them in the playoffs.

Rosters did not change anywhere near as often back then, so things got just a bit testy when guys lined up against each other (three lines per team, generally four defensemen only) so often.

The schedule increased to like 74 games after 1967 when the league jumped to 12 teams, and eventually has climbed to today’s standard of 82, which brings us to the end of the regular season by early to mid-April- which is when the playoffs would end in the 1950s.

But in the day, as it were, 35 games was when Leaf fans knew whether it looked like a good season was in the making, or not.  That was the official mid-way point of the season.

So as we hit the modern-day mid-way point in the schedule for the Maple Leafs (41 games), here is a look at things we know, and some things we still don’t know for sure.

We do know that:
  • This is an entertaining team.  Overall they are fast, often hard on the puck and can make plays at top speed.  Speed is so important (always has been) and the Leafs have a lot of it when they use it effectively.  Their overall style of play is certainly more fun to watch than say, the Lightning or the Devils.
  • Phaneuf is having his best season since he was a First Team end-of-season All-Star with Calgary a few years ago, when he was still a relative kid.
  • Kessel is playing like a true All-Star, as well.  There may not be a more dangerous player in the NHL right now.  He is playing with confidence, flair, making plays for his linemates and finishing more consistently than ever before.  When he breaks out of his own zone at full throttle he is a sight to behold—unless you are an opposing defenseman.
  • I’m going to say Lupul has been the team’s most valuable player (though I’m happy to hear arguments to the contrary).  I say this because I think he has helped bring Kessel’s game to a different level, and seems to be a guy who hates to lose, who can inspire his teammates to stay strong when things took difficult.  He helps the team believe they can come from behind, something they have done pretty well this season with a number of very strong third-period performances.
  • The penalty-kill has been, well, let's just say ineffective in the first half.  But in the past three games, it has been better.  The apparent improvement comes on the heels of a good old-fashioned on-ice debate (argument?) a week ago at Leaf practise, involving players and coaches.  We'll see if this lasts.
  • Kadri and Frattin, two young forwards, have shown they can play at this level.  Both have spent time with the Marlies, but both have also shown some flair.
  • For me, Gardiner was the surprise of the first half.  (Lupul a close second...but I didn't even think Gardiner should be on the big squad, much less playing significant minutes most nights.)
  • Bozak has taken some real strides in his overall game.  Confidence sure matters.  Experience, too.
  • Gunnarsson, to me, should remain a "must-keep" Leaf, but he may be one of the only trading pieces that would help bring a difference-maker in return.
  • Gabovski has had an excruciatingly middlish start to the season after a breakout 2010-'11.  He has looked more like himself in recent games.  Kulemin is working but still has no confidence in his shot, with only 4 goals at the half-way point. 

We don’t know:
  • When or if Burke will make a move to bring in another offensive threat- or a shut-down defenseman.  We do know he has depth on the blueline as trade bait—if he feels the team needs an infusion of offense (or that key defenseman) down the stretch.
  • If Reimer will still be the undisputed number-one guy in goal again at some point this season.   Until Gustavsson's most recent string of impressive games, I was steadfast in my belief that the brass, including Wilson, was/were determined to see that Reimer would be number-one. My rationale was simple.  Reimer is the guy they signed as the top guy over the summer, and the goalie who "saved" the team from an even worse fate a year ago. I felt certain Reimer would take the team the rest of the way.  I still believe that's what Burke and Wilson want to see, but they also want to make the playoffs. When the season is over, The Monster may still have to find a new home, but at this point in time, he hopefully will be given a real chance to play well- for himself, and for the team.
  • If what a year ago, as I mentioned above, was the top-performing Leaf line, Grabovski, MacArthur and Kelemin, will rebound with a more productive second half.  It's not that these guys have been terrible, or aren’t generally working hard.  They’ve all scored some big goals, but just haven’t been finishing like they did in their breakout season in 2010-’11 (at least Grabbo and Kulemin haven't).  Imagine how good the Leafs would look, and where they might be in the standings, if Kessel and Lupul had been supported by last year’s Grabbo line?   A resurgence of last year's Grabbo-Kulemin-MacArthur line would surely help.
  • Which defenseman will be the odd man out if Liles returns before too long, now that Komisarek is back.  As it is, the Leafs have 8 guys who have contributed on the blueline capably this season.  And that’s so important heading into the second half of the season- and the playoffs.  Teams generally have to be 10-deep on the blueline to go well into the playoff and with what they have on the farm, the Leafs have defensive depth.  But two guys will have to sit.  Aulie would seem to be one candidate to sit, or return to the Marlies for a time.
  • If there is enough overall team toughness to be successful come playoff time.
  • Whether the penalty-killing units will pick it up in the second half.  Looking at the glass half-full, can you imagine what the Leafs might be able to do if that part of their special teams work kicks it into gear?

We said here early in the season, after the Leafs got off to a nice start (as they had a season ago) that this time it felt different.  And with three straight wins in the past week, including a "character"-testing win against a good Detroit team, I still think things are different—and better.

The team has flaws, to be sure, and I do not believe they are a Cup-contending team as things stand now.  But they are a playoff team.  We’ll find out how much of one in a few months time.


  1. I'm pretty much on the same page as you, Michael. If we ever get another line that can be a scoring threat, look out. (It's interesting to note that both MacArthur and Grabovski are on track for about 25 goals, which isn't that far off last year's totals). The emergence of the Kessel/Lupul tandem has been my most pleasant surprise of the season, and the play of Bozak and Gardiner has also been a real plus. Komisarek's return to form, although evident at the end of last season, and the play of all of our D, has been something else I've really enjoyed. Kulemin is the major disappointment to date, I'd say, because I thought that line would pick up where they left off.
    Overall, I feel better about these Leafs than I have for any of the others of the past few years. It feels like we're building a really good team here.

  2. I was almost psychic in my contention that they should send down Frattin. Maybe Ron Wilson and Brian Burke read my posts...Ha!

    When Bozak comes back I would like to see him on line with Lombardi playing left wing and Kadri playing right wing. Put McArthur back with Grabo and Kulemin and see if it clicks again.

    Boyce looks good on the PK. The PK should improve with Boyce, Steckel and Brown.

    If they want to sit a defencemen...start with Gardiner...just to give him a rest. He looks he has lost a step from the start of the year. This college guy might be having some trouble adjusting to all these games.

  3. I want to echo your sentiment about how much more entertaining it is to watch the Leafs this year. Sure, it helps that they're winning more, but the game against Detroit was a great example.

  4. Thanks for posting Hogie....they are absolutely an entertaining team most nights. be influential, eh! The "new" Bozak line you suggest would be quick, that's for sure. Gardiner should be fine but you may well be right. Long schedule for a young man who has played only a college schedule to this point.

    Gerund O''re right about Grabbo/MaCArthur...stats-wise, they aren't really out of whack from a year ago by much. The defence has been pretty solid most nights and there is no question this is a "better" team than before. Thanks.

  5. This was another great article right up until Michael mis-spelled my favorite player's name as Gabovski. Then I lost it.

  6. Profuse apologies to you and Grabbo, KidK. As I mentioned to someone the other day, too many columns, too little time. I need an editor!

  7. Like Gerund, I concur with today’s post. My concern, at this point, is to what extent is the whole greater or lesser than the sum of its parts. I think we all generally like the parts. Even if we might like to add or subtract one or two pieces, or try to tweak this thing or that. As I wrote before, a hockey team behaves more like an organism than a machine. Often, when the whole is lesser than the sum of the parts, the desire to make a trade arises, probably in the hope that the new addition and subtraction will increase the whole, by that I mean overall performance and more points in the standings. When things are going well, you don’t “mess with the chemistry” or biology, or whatever the hell it is. For the most part this season, I have felt the potential for performance and results, my optimism largely based on those positives stressed by Michael in today’s post and some of my own, along with a feeling that it would all mesh in some way. A feeling of pessimism crept in once, just prior to the current three wins. Obviously (tongue planted firmly in cheek) the players responded to my challenge and stepped up to the plate with requisite muckulence brought forth by reading my comments, and DPs and everyone else here. By and large, I have endorsed the Burke management team’s team makeover, and to be fair, Leaf fans get a flyer as far as pessimism goes, having been collectively traumatized in the past. For sure, there are many individual performances that glisten to my eye, but there are those, like Joffrey Lupul, that are making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Now, the half way point; is probably the most interesting part of the regular season to date. How will it unfold? This truth of the matter has been summarized before: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That simple truth is what prevents us from switching off this never ending, and always entertaining opera soap opera called the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the time being we can let our spirits soar, because at some later point in time our hearts will surely want to break. Influential or not, like the players, we too get to ride those tendentious waves of passion: Game on!

  8. Great article Michael. Sums up the situation very well. I particularly liked Gerund O'Malley's comment
    "Overall, I feel better about these Leafs than I have for any of the others of the past few years. It feels like we're building a really good team here."
    I have the same feeling. I think the future looks brighter than it has for a long time. It is surely a lot more fun watching the games this year.

  9. So well said, Bobby C., thanks....I guess this is one of the things about being a fan, of any team in any sport. But it certainly applies to long-time Leaf fans. While we all see things a bit differently, we are brought together by a love of the team that we have known for years. We live with (and are accustomed to) all the ups and downs. We can roll with the "slumps" and enjoy the good moments. In the end, it's much like the rest of - and the much more important things in - life. We withstand the disappointments and enjoy those moments when things come together. The Leafs provide an outlet that allows us to express ourselves in forums like this one. We can be supporter, fan, coach, armchair GM, psychologist, whatever.

  10. Thanks Ed. The second half starts tonight!

  11. Bobby C (here comes the kettle calling the pot black) when creating a long post, could you please break it up. It certainly helps with reading the longer post, which I have because famous for lol.

    Mike, the comment in your article that stick out to me is "The Monster may still have to find a new home" (first time I read, I missed the 'may'). Who do you feel would replace him?

    Doubtful Rynnas or Scrivns are ready for the NHL rigors full-time. The UFA list is far from steller once you start to narrow down those that will be retained.

    If every UFA was available I would like the choices of Harding and Emery. Vokoun, Nabakov, Niittymaki, and Leighton are some interesting names among them too but all have had shaky seasons.

  12. Skill2Envy....thanks as always. On the Gustavsson question, my reference point (which I guess I've been making now for quite some time) is that Monster may be best served by finding a new home, given what I have perceived to be his tenuous relationship with Allaire (though no one would ever acknowledge that publicly, of course) and the team's continued reluctance to really give him what I would consider to be a truly "fair" shot at more playing time.

    That even stood true, in my eyes, until his recent string of good play and the organization's apparent decision to give him extended playing time. (We'll see if that continues, or if he gets pulled as soon as he slips a bit!).

    In any event, I like Gustavsson and think he is a talented guy with ability. I've just not been sure he would reach that potential here.

    Maybe if he is able to more firmly establish himself in the second half, the Leafs would re-sign him, and he would entertain returning at a cost that makes sense for both sides. I don't have any thoughts as to who would replace him, though given how a goalie's fortunes can sometimes turn quickly (not always, I realize) maybe Scrivens or Rynnas would get the opportunity....