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Leafs lose to the Habs: Quick hits on the current Leaf line-up

My game comments will be brief.  The Leafs lost a game that was up for grabs—really up for grabs.  It was not, for me, anyway, one of the more inspiring mid-season Leaf-Hab encounters in recent memory.  I expected more from the Leafs.  Set aside that they are fighting for playoff positioning.  They were (again) well rested, at home.  It was a Saturday night, against their oldest rival—on Hockey Night in Canada.

Price was good, sure, but much of the night he didn’t have to be unbelievable.

Schenn was back to playing low minutes (11).  Lupul was minus 3 on the night—meaning he has been a minus player in four of his last five games.

To the good, that was a sweet goal by Lombardi.

But will Phaneuf have anything left in the tank (about 28 minutes Saturday night) when they need him down the stretch?

Did Kulemin play? (You know what I mean…)

I know I’m in the minority, but could we use “tweener” third-liners like Stalberg or Versteeg now?  (I know Versteeg wanted a bigger role here, but….)

Monster made some big saves, but my guess is we see Reimer Monday night.


I've been wanting to get your thoughts on the current Maple Leaf roster.  To kick things off, I'll provide a kind of "first thing that comes to mind" approach when assessing what each player brings to the table.  I don't suggest this is anywhere near an in-depth profile.

James Reimer- long-term is the most important thing here, not necessarily what’s happening for him right now.  If you believe he can play—and I do—think future, if you’re Leaf management.

Jonas Gustavsson- before he was finally allowed to play a run of games, I’ve posted here often that Monster would be better off being set free to play—with confidence— elsewhere, where he might be better supported and appreciated.  But if he can truly find his niche here—and the brass really does believes in him—that works, too.

Dion Phaneuf- rambunctious guy who usually makes his presence felt. Plays big minutes, has the booming shot.  Makes mistakes but still growing as a player.  A real leader?  Still early to say.

Carl Gunnarsson- finesse player with smarts.  Steady.  Usually makes whatever partner he plays with better. Not a perfect “d” man but I think he will get better.  Should be a keeper, though I know not everyone feels that way.

Keith Aulie- my guess is, while Aulie seems to be all legs and arms at times, we will like him more in three or four years, if Leaf management is patient enough to wait out his development.

Jake Gardiner- hard not to think his upside is indeed, as we have said here (and I’m sure it’s been said many other places) Scott Niedermayer-like.  Smooth and calm are the words that come to mind.  He’ll start to be a big-time point-producer, too, over time.

Mike Komisarek- not many guys with a bigger heart, will be interesting to see if he can handle big minutes/shutdown role if/as needed.

Luke Schenn- hard to believe he is already in his fourth season.  My fear is that if he is ever moved, we will bemoan the loss of physical play at the back end, and some day will be seeking a defenseman just like him.

Cody Franson- Probably a better all-around defenseman than we were led to believe.  Can skate just fine, more physical than I thought, though he can be vulnerable in his own zone.  Can blast it from the point or get a quick wrister off, often low and dangerous.

John-Michael Liles- I really liked him when he first came up with Colorado and I think he has played pretty well at times with the Leafs.  He can skate, pass and make plays.  If he can get back healthy, I look forward to seeing him down the stretch.

Phil Kessel- we all see the skill set.  This season has been a mini-breakthrough.  But for me, the real test will come next season (what does he do for an encore?) and when the Leafs—and he, as the go-to guy—face the playoff spotlight.

Joffrey Lupul-   he is probably playing the best hockey of his career, though I say that with not enough knowledge of the younger, healthier Lupul.  Smart, skilled.  He’s not the best defensive forward on the squad.  What comes next?

Tyler Bozak- has speed, skill, is a creative passer, good on face-offs.  Young and talented.  Management has to determine what his ceiling is.  I think it’s fairly high but not everyone agrees.

Mikhail Grabovski- He seems to have that little extra step in the last while.  Shifty, determined, even feisty at times, though more so last season.  Has had a hard time providing an encore to last year’s coming-out party.  Will he be a playoff performer?

Clarke MacArthur- one guy that I’m still not sure what he is.  Skates better than I give him credit for.  Can finish.  I just don’t know what to make of him.

Nik Kulemin- a year ago I was convinced he was maybe their most consistent all-around forward, because of his size, skating, defensive accountability and offensive production.  Still believe all that.  Has shown flashes this season but not a lot of consistent offense.

David Steckel- we know he’s good in the face-off circle, but don’t you have to do more than that?  Can skate a bit.  Doesn’t provide a lot of offense.  Still not sure he’s a long-term fit here.

Matthew Lombardi- speed has always been his game.  If you just saw a highlight reel of Lombardi’s best plays, you’d say the guy was an impact player.  As it is, he has moments, but is too often invisible to me.

Mike Brown- some grit, plays hard.  Has speed and can make offensive contributions.  I guess the question for me is:  is he as good or better than other good teams’ third and fourth-line guys?

Nazem Kadri-  everybody seems to love his skill level.  Personally, I’m still waiting to see it on a consistent basis.  In fairness, he’s awfully young and you have to believe he will get better with time.  It just feels like a slow developing movie plot.  (I think he is so pre-occupied with what his coaches are telling him, we’re not seeing what he can do…)

Darryl Boyce- I love his story, and the route he took to get to the NHL.  I’ll never criticize a guy who stayed with it long enough, the way he did,  to make it to the NHL.

Joey Crabb-  Crabb shows some sweet moves at times and is a nice third-line player.  My difficulty is not with Crabb—more that the Leafs have too many guys in his category, that is, “bottom-three” forwards in a league that even the Leafs admit is going to a “top-nine” approach.

Colby Armstrong- I know he’s a popular Leaf.  He’s an agitator, yes.  I’m not sure that he is more than just another third-line player.

I'll keep saying it.  The Leafs have every opportunity to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But I'll want to see more grit, more team toughness, somebody to step up and play with real passion.  They play  pretty hard most nights, but there has to be more in the tank, doesn't there?  You have to hate to lose, right?

Again, these are just quick thoughts.  I look forward to reading any  opinions you might have.


  1. That was an outstanding summary! It will be interesting to see what happens next. I am not sure how deep the recent slide has been, but it seems like a lot of losses punctuated by a win. Is this team ready to compete during the second half and beyond? I am not even confident that they are playoff bound anymore. So, which way does Burke go? Does he feverishly attempt to find the apparently missing parts that will make turn the corner? Or, does he hedge his bets with some upcoming free agents and try to land some future value?

    With the team being so many years out of the playoffs, the pressure to produce now, not later, must be enormous. That fact alone puts Burke in a tough position, making the futures option an unlikely one. Perhaps it is just one or two players that could provide the impetus to right the ship. That is my sense, that one or two key additions, probably those having offensive grit and size, could tip the balance in the Leafs favour. Perhaps, with several teams sliding out of contention, this type of player could become available. The problem is that they will need this player(s) soon or they could end up as sellers once again, when the trade deadline looms.

  2. Ugh. What an ugly game. I think I can finally say I'm comfortable with packaging up any combination of Schenn, Komisarek, Aulie, MacArthur, Lupul (his value will never be higher than right now)and Connolly for picking up our final pieces and a mix of picks and prospects. And I don't mean replacing them with a new set of aging guys.

  3. Interesting you mentioned Steckel with a question mark on his long-term stay. I thought he could be a guy that could fit nicely into the 4th centre role for a next season or two and now I have doubts.

    A better option in my opinion for next year: Sammy Pahlsson. Has a Cup ring. Played under Burke's Ducks, good on the PK, isn't a liability, and can contribute on a regular shift. He may be an over-30, something the Leafs lack, but the leadership would do well with the young guys.

  4. This post is exactly why I read VLM. Thoughtful, well written analysis. It helps too that we agree on pretty much every player. I can't remember where I saw it but I once read that a person judges intelligence on how much much the other guy agrees with your own opinion. All I can say is Michael you are one smart guy, almost like the Einstein of hockey.

    The loss last night was really bad for the Leafs. I know there is a lot of hockey left but after last night I am not confident at all they can make the playoffs. This team is flawed in a fundemental way and over the last 2 weeks we have seen it, they are not mentally tough enough. Starting with the Rangers, they just seem to to want to plays on the perimeter. If the other team makes life tough with hard checking and turns the game into a tight, slogging, hard hitting game where every goal is scored by "greasy" plays they wilt. The last few games have come close to playoff hockey in my opinion and the Leafs have failed miserably. It is almost like they can only score beautiful goals off the rush (and they are pretty), but that is the only way. As the games have got tougher in the second half and the pressure has started to go up, the Leafs just are not responding very well.

    Ps Thanks for the video Kid, I will say this about Tucker when his rattiness caught up with him he did at least fight. Then again so does Kaletta from Buffalo and I can't stand him either.

  5. Bobby C...Thanks. As I mentioned, I realize it was hardly an in-depth overview, just some things that come to mind about each guy. You've well captured the dilemma Burke and his advisors face. I'm guessing they are experiencing some shifting feelings about what path they should take, not that different in some ways from what we fans go through. They have the more important task, certainly, and their eye is on the future, but as you say, there is still the will to make the layoffs this season.

    KidK....I think Aulie and Schenn would get the Leafs something in return, as part of a bigger package. Hard to say what the others would bring. Lupul is having a big year, but if he suddenly was someplace else, would his success here (and with Kessel) automatically translate? I wonder.

    Skill2Envy- Pahlsson is indeed a guy with playoff experience and brings value to a team that needs his kind of player. The Leafs have precious little "playoff game" experience. I'd like to know what the total of playoff games played is with this team. Can't be that high....

    Wilbur....You provided my smile for the day! I agree that a lot of us tend to think the people we agree with are pretty sharp! (I'll let my four grown sons know that you put me and Einstein in the same sentence, I'll just take out the hockey part. I can imagine their responses....I'll just ignore them....)

    On a serious hockey note, you touched on a key thing, to me. As the games get more intense in the second half (and of course, in the playoffs) teams need to be able to at least match the opposition in terms of determination. And if you are not super-skilled, you have to out-work the other side. This could just be mid-season "blues", but clearly the Leafs will have to be better than they've shown in the last week. Minnesota is a soft team and not a good indication of what likes ahead, at least the way the Wild have been playing lately...That game aside, the Leafs have not been good enough.

  6. Willbur-
    We always said about Tucker that he was a jerk and a pain in the ass, but he was OUR jerk.

  7. You know Kid I actually liked Tucker at first. Like you say he was our jerk, but his low bridge on Peca really changed my view on him. After that his antics just seemed to get to me.

  8. Michael, terrific summary. Happy to say VLM is now my first source for all things Leafs!

    Can't disagree with any of your assessments, except I seem to have this huge question mark over Franson. Flashes of 'semi-greatness' here and there in an otherwise unremarkable season from him. Of late, MacArthur also seems lost out there. Hope he gets it together. Kulemin, too.

    I share a lot of the concerns like your other readers about whether or not this is a playoff bound team. The lose 3, win 1, lose 4, win 2 and so forth mentality was no more evident than in the loss to Mtl.

    A lot of folks (me, too) used to criticize Quinn for throwing out the same line-up and rolling the same lines each night. But he achieved some success, and the players knew where they stood. Now, the Kadris, Reimers, and Gardiners are nervous and confused. Mgmt can't decide if they want to rebuild or squeak into the 8th spot and hope for the best. Wish they'd ice a team and let it run its course for at least a season. Are you listening, Ron Wilson?

    To me, it's this uncertainty that's causing a lot of the inconsistency and they just can't string together a few nice 5-1 or 8-2 streaks which all good teams need to for success. I really don't want to see any big trades at the moment, as it's debatable just how quickly and what kind of success it might bring. Umm, maybe a coaching change?


  9. Willbur-
    Fair enough. I didn't want anything to do with Domi after that brutal elbow to Niedermayer, either. Leafs gave up in shame after that one.

  10. Thanks very much Caedmon. We're probably early on in terms of determining what Franson "will be".

    As long-time readers know, I have a bias when it comes to Quinn (long-term personal relationship). But objectively (and yes, in an era when the Leafs could spend more than others) he coached a team that was usually (not always, I realize) tough and hard to play against and could still play offence. They let us down sometimes in the playoffs, but gave us a lot of thrills, too and should have made the finals in 2002. Cujo and Belfour didn't hurt!

    I think Pat tried to hold guys accountable but also wanted them to play with confidence, too- not petrified of making a mistake, for the most part. (Some guys had a shorter leash, I know...)

    All this by way of saying that I'm with you, I think Kadri, for example, has been so poorly handled. Gustavsson was so confused for so long here, and for me, it was about Allaire. Obviously the Leafs would say I don't know what I'm talking about, but having observed sports, coaches and individual players closely for 50 + years, you aren't always wrong in noticing little things that seem to impact players. Those who follow this site know I've said many times: just let Kadri play. I'm not suggesting he is the "difference-maker..he's a ways from that, for sure.) Try to make him responsible, absolutely, but he's a kid. Let him make mistakes and do what he does, well. Thanks Caedmon. Excellent post.

  11. KidK, Wilbur- I still feel the Leafs lost that series against the Devils largely because of Domi. Selfish and so unnecessary. Players on the team may say that's not the case (and yes, they did win Game 5 right after that incident) but they weren't the same....

  12. Totally agree about Domi as well (there's that inteligence thing again). He was having such a good series against the Devils. I think he scored 17 goals that year as well. But he was never as effective after that, and really I couldn't have cared less. Like you Michael I entirely put that series loss on him. The Devils were done.

    I like agressive play and players who walk the line like Lucic and occasionaly slip over. But some acts are beyond the pale and unfortunately those too episodes were committed by Leafs and I for one couldn't forgive them.