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I admit, I’m pretty happy going into the new Maple Leaf season: reviewing some things I like...

OK.  The season is here at long last.  The Leafs are back in action.  They are playing their first meaningful game in almost a year, given that the last 20 or more games of last season were basically a write-off in terms of any serious playoff chase. And to start things off with some urgency, we play a traditional “Original Six” rival, the hated Habs, in a great building to play in, an arena we usually play well in.   (Even if the Leafs were rolling out a roster full of guys off the street, many Leafs supporters would still be excited for opening night.  It’s been that long since we’ve had NHL hockey.)

As much fun as it is to have Leaf hockey back—albeit after a messy and agitating labour dispute—once opening night is over, we are back to the reality of a tough grind over the remaining 47 regular-season games.  Like every other Eastern Conference squad, the Leafs will need to be ready and will be looking for that much-discussed “quick start” to their season.

So will everyone else, of course.

Are the Leafs a playoff team?  You know what, they just could be.  I say this not because I am wearing Leaf-coloured glasses.  I’m well aware that this roster is still a work in progress, and there are all kinds of things that can go wrong.  But because the East is not that strong (four “elite” teams, if that?) no one really knows what a new season (and after a long layoff) will bring.  Also, this will be a “short” regular-season, so a bad stretch could make it very difficult for otherwise playoff-worthy teams to make it.  To me, it’s wide open in the East, and the Leafs are in the mix just as much as most teams.  (Let’s exclude, for the sake of debate, Philly, Boston, Rangers and Pens.  We all expect them to be top seeds.  The Caps?  Borderline elite, in my mind—at best.  They could just as easily go backwards.)

I honestly believe even those four “top” teams have vulnerabilities.  Regardless, we’re talking about, say, eleven teams fighting for the last three or four playoff berths.  Are the Leafs that much worse off than all the other pretenders? I really don’t think so.

Again, this is not to suggest we have a great team, or even a very good team, on paper.  But there are reasons why I choose to be hopeful, and positive.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Nonis will rein back the bluster—and unnecessarily high expectations.  He’s already done it.  His way of interacting with the media is less harsh.  There are no bold pronouncements.  It’s mostly just calm, seemingly realistic reflections. 
  • That alone does not make him a high-end GM, of course.  But his early moves have already distanced Nonis from his predecessor.  Gone are older players with big contracts who did not seem to have a role here (Lombardi, Connolly).
  • I don’t love Carlyle but that is more about his tone than ability to coach.  He is already a bit less sour than the man who held the job before him.  And I sense he will demand accountability from every player on this roster. He clearly wore out his value in Anaheim, and was not a “player’s coach”, that’s for sure.  But most coaches need a change of scenery when they lose their team, just as players sometimes benefit from a new environment.  I’m prepared to give Carlyle some time to see if he can blend his approach with the apparent limitations of his roster.
  • Rielly is back in Moose Jaw.  I will not belabor the point here.  Those who follow VLM know my feelings on this subject.  If he returns for a Marlie playoff run, fine.  But in my view, the organization did the right thing by the young man—and by the big club.  Lots of players under the supposed “meritocracy” approach deserved a shot here before an 18 year old.  His day will come.
  • It finally looks as though Kadri is a Leaf, period.  Hopefully this also means no more shift-by-shift obsession with what he doesn’t do well—or right—and instead, letting the kid play like he can.  He’ll make mistakes, but everyone does, not just young players.  I’d like to see him get a run with the same linemates over a period of games, and some power play time as well.  If that happens, I’m satisfied.  If it doesn’t work, then we’ll know.  But he needs ice team and has earned it, in my mind.
  • I know Frattin is gone but I believe he will be back.  I recognize that not everyone is high on him, but some of you know my views on Frattin.  Poor man’s power forward, with some speed and a nasty shot that can bust in on his off wing.  He should be here.  A 5-day “camp” in the middle of his season was not the fairest way to judge him, in my mind. But if this demotion triggers an edge in his game, great.
  • I like that they have kept 8 defensemen (9 with Gardiner).  Fraser and Kostka truly earned a longer look at this level. I’m guessing at some point one or two of they and/or Holzer will find their way back to the Marlies, though I don't know all the waiver restrictions in those scenarios.  While I would not say this is a star-laden defense, they are all guys worth having a look at.  Isn’t Kostka a nice story?  (And I admit—to me, he was just a Marlies’ roster-filler when he was signed. I was wrong.)
  • I don’t think any Leaf fans are surprised Komarov is here.  He seems to be precisely the type of player that Carlyle will not be afraid to use in various circumstances.  If he is as unpleasant to play against on the road as he is apt to be at home, all the better. We need to be a harder team to play against, especially on the road.  Komarov should help.
  • Komarov, van Riemsdyk and Kadri is a pretty interesting forward line, eh?
  • I will need to see McClement in action but based on the positive attention he has received this week (I realize we usually have to divide by two when listening to pro-Leaf assessments) but he does seem to be a guy who can fill a fourth-line slot.  Face-offs, penalty kill and hard minutes. 
  • Will Orr be on the roster for long?  Well, if he really is the new and improved Colton Orr, who knows? Goodness, if he can play some, in addition to being a protector, we could use that, right?
  • Brown and Orr have big hearts, and by all accounts, so does McClement.  I can understand why Steckel has been bumped down a slot.  And I get why Frattin needs to show he belongs to be here going forward.  I think there is room for Frattin to play his way back here.  It would be remarkable if the Leafs went without an injury for the next three months.
  • Yes, I know, I have not discussed the goaltending yet.  I’m something of a Reimer guy, for all the reasons I have cited here before.  I think it will be important to see him without Allaire over his shoulder.  And healthy, too.  Scrivens is a gusty guy, and seems to have a ton of “compete” in him.  Can they be like Bester and Wregett in the ‘80s? My preference is that Reimer be at least the nominal  “starter”, but Carlyle has made it clear he will go with the guy who is playing well.  Can’t really argue a lot with that.  I would start Reimer Saturday night, and be ready to bring Scrivens back Monday.  But I’m guessing Scrivens will actually get the nod in Montreal.

So there it is.  I’m happy.  (I didn’t say ecstatic.)  Could I write a piece taking an entirely different perspective?  Sure.  But it's a new season.  So let's be positive.  Management will not be on the front page every few days.  Youth, to a degree, has been served.  We have not made any desperation trades, giving away solid young players.  There seems to be some balance on our lines.  We have some roster flexibility going forward. And if I’m not mistaken, we may have some cap flexibility if things evolve such that Nonis wants to tweak things at the deadline for any reason.

I sense, though, that Nonis will be the patient gardener as he oversees the team’s growth.  He knows what he has, and what he needs.  He will wait for Rielly and others who are still at the prospect stage.

But for now, it’s opening night Saturday in Montreal.  Let’s enjoy some hockey.


  1. Michael,

    The season is upon us and I hope that the Leafs are as excited to be playing hockey, as I am to again have the privilege of watching. There is no need to temper your enthusiasm for the good things that the Leafs have going for them, it is in a word, infectious. Go Leafs Go!

  2. Agreed, Jim. It's a day for optimism and hope. We will return to reality - and regularly-scheduled programming- soon enough!

  3. I am pretty happy:

    Nonis seems business like and competent. I like how they handled the Morgan Rielly situation.

    Sending Conolly down to the minors could work very well. We helped the development of Kadri and gave him a chance to develop chemistry with other skilled players, but we can also call up Conolly and Frattin if there are injuries. How many teams will have 2 bonafide NHLers like that ready to go?

    I am a little annoyed over Orr, but it might work out ok for a year. 235 lb Broll had another 2 points in the OHL tonight so that's 39 points in 45 games. Both Biggs and Broll play the PK, so maybe in year they make the team and our 4th line is Broll, McClement and Biggs. That line might outscore Brown and Orr...and Broll is 25 lbs heavier than Orr.

    Lupul Bozak Kessel
    Kule Grabo Mac
    JVR Kadri Komorov
    Broll McClement Biggs

    That's not a bad looking team for next year. Lots of skill and sandpaper.

    I am really happy about the Marlie defensemen on the roster. Kostka could be a late bloomer. Brian Rafalski was undrafted and 26 before he made the NHL.

    Brown, Orr and Fraser dressing for games with Boston and Philly could be fun.

    If Kadri works out perhaps we trade Frattin and Franson for Louongo?

  4. I have made this point before but in a team sport, especially hockey, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Last season was so chaotic and apparently dysfunctional that it becomes difficult to evaluate anything compared to last year. My greatest concern is Reimer and Scrivens. However, I am not concerned about their abilities to be highly functioning NHL goalies. I am concerned about the Leafs’ goaltending management. Now more than ever, it is important that they have one goaltender coach and not three or four coaches filling their heads with conflicting instructions, as our goalies obviously had to endure last season. Anthony Petrielli over at MLHS provided an interesting anecdote recently in “Leafs Notebook: Ample questions headed into new season” about how head and assistant coaches need to distance themselves from the goalies. (Let us hope that the Leafs have learned that lesson internally because the assistant coaches will have to refrain from this tomfoolery if Reimer and Scrivens are to succeed.) Petrielli noted: “There was talk earlier in the week about how Randy Carlyle was more or less staying away from the goalies.” I hope so too and that goes double for the meddlesome assistants I am alluding to here. Some readers will get this reference. I think it was former Leaf coach Dan “Snowshoes” Maloney saying to the marvellously instinctive goaltender Alan Bester after defeating the Flying Frenchmen with his butterfly: “Way to stand up Alan!”

  5. Puck drops tonight for that I am thankful.
    Also hopeful for future with redundancy of Brian Burke.
    Exception of JVR-Schenn, no high impact acquisitions, virtually same franchise who finished 26th overall.
    Carlyle's defensive focus will have downward impact on goals scored (11-12 Leafs finished 10th overall).
    Leafs arguably have one of worst defense and goaltending in league, defensive system should help but only marginally.
    I have very little confidence in Reimer and Scrivens, goaltending should have been addressed long ago any marginally competent GM would have done so.
    With above in mind my prediction for this season;
    Leafs 19 wins 23 losses 6 otl 44 pts (4 games below .500)
    8th place team in Eastern Conference will need 54 pts.

    Therefore Leafs will not make playoffs.

  6. Michael,

    It is indeed refreshing to be talking hockey and looking forward to a new season. I am cautiously optimistic. If a number of ideal scenerios fall into place I believe they have a shot at the playoffs.

    Ideally Bozak will continue to improve and Kessel and Lupul will maintain their high standard of play.

    Ideally Kulemin will have a bounce back season and the Grabovski line will recapture their 2010-11 form.

    Ideally the Kadri-Komaron-van Riemsdyk tandem will mesh into an exciting unit that will provide some grit and some valuable secondary scoring.

    Ideally the McClement-Brown-Orr/Steckel line will produce some much need grit as well as shut down defense. It wouldn't hurt if they chipped in with the odd goal.

    Ideally the defense will tighten up and individual defensemen improve.

    Ideally Phaneuf asserts himself as captain, plays steady shut down minutes and provudes veteran leadership.

    Ideally Gardiner recovers from his concussion and continues his development which should lead to him being a top two defenseman.

    Ideally Liles has fully recovered from his concussion and captures his early form of last year, Gunnarsson continues his steady play, Franson begins to assert himself and one of Fraser/Kostka/Holzer steps up.

    Ideally Reimer finds his spring of 2011 form and Scrivens provides solid backup goaltending.

    Ideally the overall defense and the penalty kill improve radically. Goals against drop to at least mid-league averages.

    If a few of the above come to fruition it could be an interesting season. I can't wait for the first puck to drop.

  7. Your point on Rafalski caught my eye, DP. Not to say Kostka will be that kind of player, but sometimes players are over-looked, for whatever reason. Or, they simply get better and better as relative late-bloomers. It happens.

    I know you've had your eye on Broll and Biggs. We'll see if they continue to develop. Thanks DP.

  8. You've mentioned the importance of goaltending management here before, Bobby C., and it is an important point. My sense with Carlyle is that he will not be heavily involved with the goaltenders. Hopefully St. Croix will be involved in decision-making- and be the sole instructor.

    Both of these goaltenders have ability. We've seen it. Can they lead us to the promised land? A lot of that, as you have stressed in the past, will have to do with how the entire team functions.

  9. Today was my day to be hopeful and optimistic, Walter, but I hear you. My hope is that the East is filled with teams with similar uncertainties.

    At least we have NHL hockey back! Thanks for chiming in, Walter.

  10. Isn't that what opening night is all about, PeteCam- hope? As you say, if certain things unfold in an "ideal" manner, things could look good for the Leafs. We all recognize the more sobering realities of what the season might bring, but there's nothing like starting the year off in Montreal. A good game could springboard some much-needed early-season momentum.

    Thanks PeteCam.

  11. I'm excited just to see what we've got.
    Questions to be answered:
    - do we have an NHL ready, game-stealing goalie?
    - to help with the above, will our defence improve with the addition of the new guys?
    - will we have a shut down pair on D?
    - will Bozak continue his improved chemistry with Kessel and Lupul? (I guess I'm alone in thinking he got better as last year wore on).
    - will Kulemin bounce back?
    - will Kadri stick this time?
    - will Komarov and Orr add that needed grit up front?
    - will we see the team commitment that's essential to any success in the NHL?
    - have we finally become the much-ballyhooed "meritocracy"? I hope so.

    No matter how this year plays out, I'm optimistic about our future. And that's a sure sign of a Leaf fan!!

  12. All good - and important - questions, Gerund O'. The answers will only be revealed over time.

    We've been optimistic before! Fool me once....(I'd put a smiley face here but I'm not sure how to do it...)

  13. Nice to be chatting about Leafs with actual games to further the discussion again! I've peeked in at your blog here and there over the lockout, but I've been reading everyday again since the new CBA was ratified--thanks for keeping up the great content through it all.

    Here I'll reply to both of your last posts:
    I'm pleased with Nonis's quiet but deliberate work so far (though, as you point out, Burke may have made the same calls). With Armstrong, Lombardi and potentially Connolly out of the picture, I think Nonis sends a clear and positive message to Kadri and other young, deserving players that they have the coach and management's trust, and that exerts some positive pressure on the youngsters to maintain that trust and build a contending team together.

    On that tip, Frattin will be back. They needed to get the roster down to 23, and Fratts and Rielly are waiver exempt, whereas Kostka and Fraser could be plucked up as Aucoin was. That's a bitter pill for the Marlies, since Aucoin and Kostka are high-end point producers in the AHL.

    I also like a Kadri-centered third line with Komorov and JVR to start the season (assuming MacArthur & Kulemin start back with Grabbo and Bozak is with Kessel/Lupul). Brown-McClement-Orr could be good, with opportunities to insert Steckel or others as needed.

    Defense is hopefully improved team-wide with Carlyle stressing accountability there on a daily basis. Kostka is not a huge surprise if you think back to how he kept driving nails into the Marlies' coffin in last year's championship series. I was surprised he was available for pick up. This year he was outscoring Gardiner before the injury and has taken over PP QB. I hope he keeps it up when Gards comes storming back. I'd love to see them both playing their way into full-time duty on the back line.

    Of course goaltending is the most crucial, but as yet, unknown factor. I like Reimer, and I think he still deserves #1 after his performance two seasons back and pre-injury last year. If he can't get er done, try Scrivens. I don't expect a cup run, so let the kids play and learn.

    Go leafs go!

  14. Thanks for the kind words, Matty D..

    The Kostka promotion is indeed an intriguing one. As I write this, he certainly looks comfortable in his first game with the Leafs. He can play at both ends of the ice, and I admit I knew precious little about him.

    Good to be connected. Stay in touch.