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Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on the Leafs…

Some of you will recognize that I borrowed my headline today from the legendary Satchel Paige.  The Leafs sure don't seem to be looking back, as they continue to surprise many of us with, well, a record we simply did not anticipate.

I’m not suggesting the Maple Leafs are beating teams that look remotely like the ’77 Habs these days, but hey, they are winning.  And at the end of the day—and at the end of the current season—that’s all that will matter. As much as I’ve followed this sport and this franchise for well over fifty years, I’m not sophisticated enough an observer to be able to break down all the reasons why the team is having success so far this season,.  Whatever the reasons, they have managed to quietly compile a record of 10 wins and 6 losses and a rather remarkable road record of 7 and 2. (C’mon, 7 and 2 on the road...that would be good if they were playing you and I and some friends, but in the NHL?)

I will say this:  decent goaltending helps.  Reimer was pretty darn sharp most nights before he was hurt, and Scrivens, if anything, is getting better the more he plays after some earlier shaky moments.  (That save in the opening minute after the Gunner gaffe set the right tone against the Panthers.)  I thought the Leafs would be a dull team, and while they aren’t spellbindingly fun to watch a lot of the time, winning trumps a fancy team that loses a lot, eh?

They are far from perfect (this is the Eastern Conference we’re talking about, after all), but our guys are playing their “roles” awfully well for the most part.  Those who are supposed to finish their checks are doing that. (Everyone is supposed to do that, but you know what I mean.)  The scorers are scoring, or at least setting up somebody else when they aren’t.  The checkers are checking and the fighters are fighting.

Not much of an analysis, I realize.

Significantly, one of the things I preached about here for ages at VLM was the lack of a Leaf identity, and a related lack of “team toughness”.  I’m not sure we have an identity quite yet, but his particular Leaf team is not allowing itself to be run over.  If anything, this business of having three “tough guys” or “fighters” in the lineup at the same time, in a Conference where not many teams are exactly star-studded, seems to be working—so far.

We’re not getting blown out.  We’re pretty physical, with McLaren, Orr, Brown, McClement and Komarov taking turns demonstrating a nice nasty streak.  Our defense (as now constructed) plays a system such that it doesn’t seem to much matter who is back there.  I mean, Gardiner was supposed to be our budding star this season and take the world by storm.  He may still yet this year, but in his absence, others have filled in just fine, thank you.  Monday night, Liles took his turn sitting, with Gunnarsson back in the lineup.  Komisarek had fought his way back into the 'top-six' on the back end a while back but now can't get back in.  Holzer got his shot and now doesn’t seem to want to give it up.  Before him it was Franson missing time, who similarly is making it very difficult (occasional miscues aside) for the coach to ply his butt to the bench.

I mean really, did any of us, honest to goodness, figure Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka would be two players that Randy Carlyle believed he could not do without?  Heck, Gardiner has been ready to rejoin the big club for a while now (he had an outstanding game with the Marlies on Monday afternoon), but that means that not only will high-priced veterans Komisarek and Liles possibly sit, but guys who, in fairness, have not done anything to be demoted to the press box -or the Marlies- will lose ice.

Again, I’m not implying that we have Robinson, Savard and Lapointe back there, but then, neither does anyone else these days.

I don’t know what to say.  Phaneuf seems to have listened to the moans of fans who have been calling on him to stop blasting bullets off the back glass (or his teammates).  Maybe he just started watching Franson.  Whatever, his smart shot selection has helped him put up points in five successive games now.

Up front, Kadri continued his generally sharp play and helped wake up MacArthur against the listless Panthers.  (Funny guy MacArthur.  He’s a guy I don't get, but just when I think he has no future here, he does something that makes me take a step back.)  Theodore still hasn’t located Kessel’s first period missile.  The Leafs are scoring enough to win, and prevent the opposition from generating a ton of offense a lot of nights.  Is it all Carlyle’s emphasis on defensive awareness?  That the club has some legitimate toughness for the first time in a while?  Is it as simple as the goaltending being a lot better so far this season?  Special-team improvements?

It’s all of that, I guess, and probably a bunch of related things that we may not always notice but make teams better than they might otherwise be.  Chemistry is one of those things that winning teams simply seem to have and losing teams wish they could find.  Right now, this Leaf team is responding to the coach, getting solid goaltending, seems to like playing together and while they aren’t always exciting to watch, as a fan, you feel like they’ll be in just about every game.

We’ve had moments in previous seasons where we thought things were finally trending our way, then something went off the rails.  We know that could still happen this season, of course.  But in the same breath, you’d think it would have happened when we lost our best all-around forward (Lupul); or our most dynamic young defenseman (Gardiner); and surely when Reimer (who had finally emerged as a legitimate number-one guy) was hurt with no veteran ready to take over.

Yet is hasn’t happened.  And I’m not saying it won’t, but I sure didn’t think the LA Kings were a great team last season either and they got hot and parlayed hard work and remarkable goaltending to a Stanley Cup.  I’m hardly suggesting that is on the horizon for the Leafs, but my point is that you don’t need, in today’s hockey world, it seems, to have a roster filled with stars.  If you have the right kind of “stars”—leaders who fight for ice and don’t just use their talent—of course you’re going to beat teams that lack elite skill and firepower and just “work hard”, all things being equal.  But teams with toughness, character and just enough skill can win, too.

My theme of the past two months has not changed:  the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East.  I’m still not saying it will happen, but something is happening right now, though I can’t tell you for sure what it is.  But I do know this:  teams that believe in themselves have success.  And whether this group should or not, it has that belief.  And I don’t know for sure if faith can move mountains, but it sure makes you feel like you can.

What the heck, be not afraid.  On to Tampa. 


  1. Amongst the defensemen especially, I'm noticing significant patience with the puck on multiple occasions. It seems to have become the 'norm' and I wonder if a Norris winning coach, reinforcing the teaching of Dallas Eakins, has something to do with 'finding better choices' than we had, sadly, grown accustomed to in the past.

    I am seeing the outmanning the opposition all over the place but especially on the zone break outs... if one man is unsuccessful, he's not alone. There's always somebody else there to 'pick up the slack' (and I don't mean to malign anyone... just noticing the puck slowly making its way to the blue line even if the battle isn't won 'outright').

    There's lots of support and coverage all over the ice and these things make me smile a little every time I notice.

    An interesting observation regarding the interchangability of the defense corps was hearing gunnarson's presence, I never heard who he replaced and kept noting who was playing, but it didn't dawn on me that Liles was missing til midway through the second... I thought that might suggest a less expensive defense corps may be in the offing and despite liking Liles, I wonder if he may be a possible departure with Gardiner champing at the bit...

  2. On the surface you'd think we have too many defensemen, InTimeFor62, but given that, come playoff time, teams need to be 10-deep on the blueline, who knows?

    You're right- patience and better choices are making a difference. And having "back up" is indeed important, as you note. Hard to complain right now, InTimeFor62.

  3. I would chalk up the success to Randy Carlyle and better defensive systems.

    Last year I did not hear Carlyle say anything negative about Ron Wilson except for a little noticed remark that when Beauchemin came back from the Leafs is was like he had forgotten how to play defense. I think we can all agree that Beachemin didn't play great defense here. Take a look at the plus/minu stats. Mark Fraser, under Carlyle is tied for second place with +13. Beachemin is first with +14. I don't think that happens if either guy is playing for Ron Wilson.

  4. Great article, Michael. One concern for me, and one I've heard from the guys over at PPP, is that there are a lot of shots given up each game. Since Scrivens took over from Reimer after his injury, he hasn't faced less than 30 shots in a game...and that includes the Flyers game when he took over from Reimer in the second period!! I only get to see the games on Saturday nights and the odd TSN game, so I'm wondering if a lot of those shots are quality ones from in close or if the opposition is being kept to the outside and the saves are fairly easy for Scrivens. High shot totals can be deceiving, but more than 30 shots against per game might eventually bite us in the butt. That being said, the Leafs are looking good. I have bitter memories of last season, but I'm still willing to Beleaf, foolish fan that I am :)

  5. I had to chuckle when I read the headline. Satchel Paige was a piece of work. I saw him pitch against the International League Toronto Maple Leafs in old Maple Leaf Stadium. It was, I believe, in the 1958 season and Satchel was starting and relieving for the Miami Marlins. He was 50 years old and as a publicity stunt they had him sitting in the bullpen in a rocking chair.

    Last year Darryl Sutter took over a Kings team that, after 33 games were out of a playoff position in the standings. His first order of business was to work on moving the puck out of their own end. He put in his system and the Kings showed a marked improvement.

    As InTimeFor62 has noted, the Carlyle system has allowed the Leafs to crisply move the puck out of their end by doing so using a team concept. Too often, under Wilson, the defensemen were left on their own and were overwhelmed by a vigorous opposition forecheck leading to numerous scoring chances.

    Carlyle's team defense system has been a breath of fresh air. If they continue buying into the system they will forge an identity, much like the Imlach teams of the 60's..a tough hardnosed team that no one wants to play against.

  6. Perhaps I'm extremely pessimistic at this point and just not used to consistency, but I don't quite buy into the Buds just yet. Be the hectic lockout schedule as it may, the Leafs have had a tremendously easy schedule so far. Even the rest of February is really relatively quite easy - they're beating teams they 'should' beat but haven't shown me anything against teams perceived as more elite besides Pittsburgh.

    Mind you they've certainly made a habit in recent years of not beating teams they 'should' beat (with Carolina being the exception considering they have historically struggled against them dating all the way back to their Hartford days) so if anything it is one of the many signs of progress, but I digress. March is going to be the real indication of whether or not this team is going to stick around or if they are 'for real.' While they're still playing teams like the woeful Jets or depleted Senators they'll be facing some very stiff competition (Boston, NYR, Pittsburgh, NJ, and I'm going to regretfully include Buffalo in here for Ryan Miller purposes) for half the month's games.

    There is still a lot about the Carlyle system that drives me bonkers (though to be fair he has smoothed things out very well in recent games, particularly with the under and overuse of players though I am still not enjoying seeing Orr out for 10 minutes despite the teams he's getting that ice time for) but as long as the good guys keep on winning I can't complain too much.

  7. Carlyle certainly has the players' ear at this point, DP. He did in Anaheim, too, until last season and then something went off the rails. The team is playing much better under Boudreau, just as the Leafs are playing better under Carlyle.

  8. I just really enjoy watching the team stick up for each other. For years, if the goalie was hit or someone on the team was the beneficiary of a hit from behind, I watched all the players on the ice stand around apparently thinking "thank god that wasn't me". It's hard to get behind a team of players who won't stick up for one another, because obviously they don't care -- why should we?

    Finally we have a team that can respond to bullying and allow our skilled players to do their work. An aggressive team that wins battles for the puck and can 'answer the bell', but doesn't rely on pointless staged fights to spark the team. That game against the Habs was a prime example of a team winning on the scoreboard and able to respond when the other team attempted to instigate the nasty stuff. Of course, the team can't be evaluated by one game, but I like what I'm seeing so far this season. Go Leafs Go!

  9. I agree, Twisted Sittler, that "shots" can be deceiving. I think save percentage can be deceiving too, for much the same reason. It depends on where the shots are coming from, etc..

    I know there are "stats" out there that demonstrate how teams fare in this regard. That said, I expect my goalie to make saves- great saves- most nights. That's part of the package and part of what they get paid to do. Yes, if you "rely" exclusively on your goaltender to bail you out, a team has issues. But I don't think, from what I'm seeing, that is the case right now.

    Have the Leafs caught some breaks and might things balance out as the season moves ahead? Yes, of course. But for now, they are banking points, and have not, for example, relied on Kessel scoring every night or a Hall-of-Fame goalie to make it happen. Thanks Twisted Sittler.

  10. Thanks for responding to the Paige reference, Pete Cam. It's always heartening when someone picks up on certain old-time references and can add something neat, as you did again today.

    It's funny, you're right, in some ways, this team is playing a bit like the old Imlach squads. Not always super pretty, but generally effective. A long way to go and plenty of hurdles ahead, I'm sure, but they seem to have the right attitude to go with a system they can compete with. Thanks Pete Cam.

  11. I thin it's quite reasonable to be skeptical, RJ. As those who follow VLM regularly know, my long-held thesis that the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East was built, initially, on the fact that the East is just not very good. Lots of rosters with holes, and a variety of issues, including, now,some major injuries.

    Carlyle has clearly been letting guys play in different situations, and seeing who "deserves" minutes and who can handle certain responsibilities. It has caused people to scratch their heads at time when you look at how many minutes certain guys are playing, but against the teams they have faced, it's been good enough so far.

    Agree, March will tell a tale. But so many teams in the Conference have issues that the Leafs may be just fine. Thanks RJ.

  12. All good points, Anon. There is not just a nice "edge" to this team so far, but as you note, the willingness to respond if the other team takes liberties. We seem to have just enough skill to make some teams pay. It is, as you suggest, a lot more fun to watch and support a team that cares enough to fight back.

  13. A good article that answers many of the Kadri questions from the past few years:

  14. Thanks DP. A lot of the same points I've raised here at VLM for the past two years. People will pay more attention now because it is said on a "mainstream" site....

  15. After reading some of the comments above and some from other days and other Leaf Blogs, I was struck by their negativity even in the face of a pretty successful Leaf run. On reflection it is very understandable.

    For those of us who lived through the late fifties and sixties up to 1967 we at least have some wonderful memories of Championship teams. From 1967 to the early 1990's, Harold Ballard managed to turn the Leaf Nation into pessimists and skeptics. It became difficult to believe anything he said and the general feeling was that his decisions were based on making as much money as he could and to hell with improving the team; the fans will come out no matter what.

    We had an all too brief period of hope when two fine coaches named Pat developed some exciting teams that were not quite good enough to go all the way, however, if Kerry Fraser had not developed myopia at a convenient time we might have won a cup.

    Post lockout 2004 has been a disaster. John Ferguson Jr. was a train wreck as a GM and Paul Maurice as a coach was a good public relations guy. There was hope again at the beginning of the Burke era but his bombastic nature and his loyalty to Wilson led to his undoing.

    There are many young Leaf fans who have come aboard since 2004. They have never had the joy of rooting for a successful Leaf team. Their cynicism is understandable.

    Somehow, though I feel that this Leaf team and this Leaf coach are giving me reasons to finally feel optimistic. There is a different feel about them than the Wilson and Maurice teams; a feeling of competence and confidence that I haven't felt since the Pat Quinn teams.

    I know that there will be peaks and valleys ahead but somehow I can't help feeling that we will finally be enjoying Leaf playoff hockey in the spring.

  16. I couldn't help but nod along with those comments, Pete Cam. Many Leaf fans have not experienced cheering for a team that actually delivers. Much less Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown time after time in the Peanuts cartoon, Leaf fans will only "believe" for so long based on false slogans and promises. There is a natural tendency to think that disaster lurks just beyond the corner.

    I'm with you, Pete Cam. We don't have a Cup team here, but they are playing hard and for the most part, determined and smart, too. That will get you a long way....

  17. Hi Michael,

    Goal-tending always maketh a winning team. I have not watched Scrivens a lot but have noticed the consistent play in this short week. I didn't watch the Carolina game so my analysis if based primarily on the 3 games which he performed extremely well. Although I give him credit for the performance, his own credit to the team in front of him speaks volumes of the structure Carlyle has put in. Yes, goaltending is much better in a sense that there have not been a deflating goal in recent memory but so is the defence which cyclically make the keeper better.

    I've also noticed aggressive defensive play in particular by the PK and the collapsing of all 4 players when in close. This seem to create a more rushed on the other team forcing them into much harder precision play in order to score. Last night' McClement clearing on the PK was a gem. He took the puck delayed it for a second and cleared it precisely down the ice. In the past, the PK would have panicked and just tried to clear it immediately which would have hit the player directly in front of him. Funny thing about structure it breeds confidence and trust which was clearly evident last night. You just had a sense that they will play that way no matter what and eventually the damn will burst. You could see the team did not panicked even in the early going. Again structure. Credit to Carlyle maybe speaking to his players once in awhile helps.

  18. Goaltending, no deflating goals against, structure, aggressive defensive play on the penalty kill, no panic, confidence. You hit the highlights, Lukas, well said. Thanks.

  19. Some amazing Leaf stats out of TSN NHL player rankings:

    9. Ben Scrivens G Toronto 90.36
    20. Matt Frattin RW Toronto 84.38
    28. Cody Franson D Toronto 81.80
    29. James Reimer G Toronto 81.54
    58. James van Riemsdyk LW Toronto 77.79
    110. Nazem Kadri C Toronto 73.61
    117. Phil Kessel RW Toronto 73.32

  20. "Goaltending, no deflating goals agains"....ooops. The 4th goal was probably because of youth. Hopefully he learns from it and not think too much about the last goal but instead the next save.

  21. I spoke too soon, Lukas! For now, let's call it a "one off"!