Custom Search

Has that elusive “team toughness” finally arrived in Toronto—and now do you believe the playoffs are in sight for the Maple Leafs?

We’re now 12 games into a 48-game regular season.   The Maple Leafs have a record of 7 wins and 5 losses after the rather impressive 6-0 whitewash of the hated Habs on Saturday night.  If we never had to play at the ACC, what might their record be?  (I’m kidding, obviously, but my guess is that as this team gets more comfortable in its own skin, as it were, their home record will be much better as this season moves along…) For what it’s worth, the Leafs are solidly in a playoff “position” in the Eastern Conference right now.  Will it last?  I think it can.  And yes, I’m well aware of what occurred only a year ago.

It's a different time, a different coach, and a different team.

Some of you will know that I’ve been saying here for weeks now (even during the lockout, when we were waiting and hopping for a hockey season) that the Leafs can make the playoffs this year.  I’m not making a prediction, just stating that in the East, where so many teams have uneven rosters and glaring weaknesses, there are an awful of of “bubble” teams.  The Leafs are one of them.  And the fact is, based on the first segment of the season (with 25% of the schedule completed), Toronto, while hardly home and clear, is in a position to do something they have not been able to do since 2004:  get into the NHL playoffs.

If you’ve been at or following the games, you know what’s going on.  Reimer has solidified the goaltending to this point.  (And it had to mean something to the young Leaf to go back to Montreal, the scene of last season's injury, and pitch a shutout...)  The overall defensive structure, while still mistake-prone at times, seems sturdier than it has been (at least consistently) for some time. Kostka has been a nice surprise.  Phaneuf, while hardly mistake-free, continues to be the guy Carlyle relies on. Heck, guys like Franson, Fraser and now Holzer (all of whom have been "healthy scratches" at various points this season) have contributed.  Jake Gardiner is not even in the picture right now, and the Leafs don’t seem to miss him most nights.  Would we have forecast this six months ago?  One month ago?

Up front, Kessel has scored the last two games, which has to help even more, eh? Komarov netted his first in Montreal but more importantly, seems to be getting accustomed to the NHL game and is, as advertised, an edgy, crusty guy to play against most of the time.  I've been a tad slow to warm to him, but he brings something, for sure.  Newcomer van Riemsdyk has been spending more and more time in front of the opposition netminder, with some significant results so far. McClement has emerged (it’s still early, I realize, for coronations of any kind) as a more than useful forward who can help any line, in virtually any role.  Bozak keeps winning face-offs and scores enough to keep us from complaining too much about needing a number-one center.  (That will have to be addressed before the Leafs get to that ‘next level’, and I think we all understand that, but for today, we’re competing without that bonafide top-line pivot.)

I won't go through the whole roster but the bottom line is we are getting contributions from a lot of different players.  We aren’t getting hammered and are usually in close games- Saturday night at the Bell Center notwithstanding.  (Honestly, did we look really good, or was Montreal just awfully flat after giving up a last-second goal and then losing in overtime in Buffalo on Thursday? That kind of loss can be awfully deflating for a fragile team, and I sense Montreal, despite their surprisingly strong start, is not yet a confident group.)  Our roster, on paper, is no worse than many teams in the East, and we’re playing better than quite a few of the clubs we need to stay ahead to make the playoffs.  And we're winning games on the road.  Am I missing something?

You know what’s interesting to me?  At various time over the past twelve months, especially since the Leafs hit that wall a year or so ago, I’m willing to bet that a lot of Leaf fans, myself included if I’m honest, would have entertained serious thoughts about trading any number of these guys (and we will again, I realize.  In fact I’ll be posting soon about a persistent rumbling out there along these lines…).  Many Leafers were prepared to include Reimer, for example, in a deal for a goaltender.  Others would have packaged Franson, Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Grabovski, Liles, Kadri, Frattin, even Gardiner.  (This is not to suggest that the Leafs themselves, in fact, have not entertained the idea of trading most of the players on that list.  I said for ages going back some time that I believe Kadri was on the table in any number of possible trades the past year or more.  I still don’t think we have many “untouchables” on this roster, and improvements will be needed, but for now…)

My point is not that Leaf fans are wishy-washy (though we have certainly been accused of that);  it is simply that, at this point in time (pending a three-game losing streak!) I’m sensing a majority of fans would not be quite as eager to dispatch most of these guys.  They’re a pretty like-able bunch, it seems, starting with Reimer, which doesn’t hurt, from a fan perspective.

Again, if we lose a few, the mood could change quickly, of course.  But fans want to see a competitive team and under Carlyle, we are that right now.  I’m still not sure we are quite as tough as Don Cherry and his fellow Hockey Night in Canada commentators seem to think, but we do seem to play with a burr under our back side more than we have since, well, the Quinn years.  Is it possible that we now have something I‘ve claimed we have been lacking for many years?  In short, I’m talking about  team toughness.   Is it because of what Nonis’ predecessor brought together?  Is it Carlyle's aura?  Is it because of the presence of Orr and McLaren, as Cherry suggests?  Is it Komarov?  Or is it that we have fewer guys like Connolly and Lombardi, good players but more pure skill players, and now have more players with some grit, some push back?  Kadri started playing more assertively with the Marlies last season, I thought, and that seems to be carrying over into his play right now. Is everyone, as Don says, playing “bigger’ because they know someone has their back?

I think regular VLM readers know my view on "toughness".  I'm not a big fighting proponent, but my preference is having guys who can play and, if necessary, are capable of dropping the gloves:  Bob Gainey, Bob Nystrom, Terry O'Reilly, John Tonnelli, Brendan Shanahan, all these guys were tough as nails in every corner of the ice and yes, they could fight, too.  To me, that's real toughness.  And if you have a few of those guys, like the Bruins have had in recent years, it can make a difference in the team's mentality.

All this said, do the playoffs matter to you this season?  I ask, because it’s getting more and more likely that we will be in a good old-fashioned playoff race.  As I’ve said, it should help the young guys to get that experience, playing when it matters in the springtime, when everyone is fighting for every inch of ice.

I’ve been saying the Leafs can make it.  Are they now tough enough?  Will they make it?  Are you on board?


  1. Are they tough enough? Absolutely! Will they make the playoffs? See me after game 48. There are too many good teams right now on the outside looking in. (Rangers and Philly to name 2).

    I certainly want them to make it to the playoffs, but with only a quarter of the schedule gone, it's too early to start singing their praises.

    Having said that, 6-0 tonight against the Habs sure brought a smile to my face...

  2. I hear you, Robert. But I've been saying this for weeks. I'm not suggesting the Leafs are suddenly a well-oiled machine simply because they've won a couple of games, just reiterating that the East is not a strong conference. Lots of mediocre teams, at least in my view.

    You make a good point that some good teams are on the outside looking in and will no doubt be there in the end, but I believe there are some teams ahead of the pack who will slide before this is over. Should be fun, at least! Thanks for visiting, Robert.

  3. Brilliant from start to finish.

    Reimer seemed to enjoy his shutout, and Komarov now has 100% ratio in the goals to game winners category. He felt comfortable enough to start chirping about it, too. Phaneuf managed to shoot without trying to take anyone's head out for once. And Kostka was fired up to cream Brendan Gallagher where he stood, once the challenge came-a-knocking.

    It's just one game, but the most enjoyable one I've watched in recent years. My very new job, and the time zone differences, have kept me from the Leafs as of late, but now that it's a weekend, I'm very happy I tuned in.

    6-0 at Habs is not something that'll happen every day. I especially loved the the way our team grouped up down low once the game was won, but Optimus Reim needed the shutout.

    I'd like to see more of that in every game in the future. But it was a sign of mutual trust, goalie and team. The team wants Reims to be the backbone, and Reims wants to be the go-to-guy when times are tough.

    All in all, it was just one pretty damn fine game to watch, and hopefully something for the players to measure up to. If you can play like that in Montreal, what's stopping you from doing it anywhere else?

  4. As you mentioned CGLN, these kinds of games have been infrequent in recent years, so let's enjoy it. It's not a day for looking for mistakes. The Leafs had the jump on the Habs all night. Might Montreal re-pay the favour down the road? Maybe so. That's sports. Momentum in sports has a lot to do with the "moment", and Saturday night was all about the Leafs. They won in every facet of the contest.

    Tomorrow could be a very different day, but Leaf fans have been waiting for meaningful wins since we went off the rails a year ago. It's been a good week in that regard. Enjoy. Thanks CGLN.

  5. Reimer completely outplayed his much-vaunted compatriot in the other end of the rink. I'm fine with having a mediocre goaltending overall during the season. I'm not worried if we let in 7 if the opposition lets in 8. And that's why I don't give a Flying Finn about save percentages, bad goals or low GAA:s down the line. Those only come into account once the W-L-T starts to look bad.

    Carey Price is no new Patrick Roy. James Reimer might be new nothing. But he's not only proven he can deflect pucks, he is now proving he'll deflect pucks again, following Habs' Captain Gionta's ratty run at him. And I'm sure the shutout felt sweet for the lad.

    I've my worries over the long run, still. But I'll allow myself to get caught up in the moment, if just for a while. It was just that damned good.

  6. A playoff spot is there for the taking and I'm thinking that even the current bunch are working together much the way Eakins established with the Marlies. An organization-wide 'identity' may well be taking shape. Nobody is entitled to be playing, so everyone is working to get back or keep playing... depth is a good thing!

    I don't think I've enjoyed a game (as much as this one) in a long time... I remember thinking in the 2nd: "Don't go into a defensive shell... keep up the pressure." And, even though we 'bent' we didn't break when James shone through the Hab pressure in the second. I'm seeing lots of little plays where the young guys are 'catching on' to the idea of protecting the puck better... seems McClement is positively 'infectious'!

    I felt like everybody 'had each other's back' in this one... they were acting like a cohesive team! What a pleasure... basking in the afterglow of a long-sought experience - SWEET!

    I sure hope this is a turning point for the franchise - it almost feels like that to me! Glad to be sharing the joy with you, here!

  7. I think, InTimeFor62, we would normally be quite cautious about any definitive statements about a Leaf team. And I'm still obviously reluctant, as I said in my post, to begin coronation proceedings. But it does feel different this season, and good at that. As you cite, and as I've tried to allude to since the season started, it's a lot of little things that are making the difference.

    A more (and truly) unified Leaf squad? Let us hope.

  8. Hey Michael,

    Oh this was definitely a gem of a game, glad to have seen all of it. Yes, it was a team toughness display of the likes that we haven't seen since well, lol I don't know - I haven't watched games long enough - lol, I only started watching since 2001-02 and I don't remember much from those early years - I was 13.

    I am finally believing in Kostka, Holzer I wanna wait and watch, Frazer is playing decent, Phanuef is finally playing better.

    Gardiner is definitely not being missed at this moment but that could change quickly.

    My worry is that we have to play some more "tough" games down the road before I consider this year's version of the leafs a playoff contender. Maybe around the 24-30 game mark if we are in a real playoff spot or real close.

    Hey, the Schenn brothers are in town Monday, now if we win on Monday, then I am a believer.

    Anon from Scarborough.

  9. No question we are a long ways, Scarborough Anon, from being ready for a gruelling playoff series against an elite team. But while there will no doubt be ups and downs, the different ways this team is "winning" (preserving a lead, coming from behind, goaltending, doing the little things, sticking together, being patient, etc.) is encouraging, at least.

    Yes, the Flyers seem to have rebounded from a difficult start. Let's see how that goes...

  10. "Are they now tough enough?"

    Yes, I thin we can see that not so much from this game, but how politely Boston played against them earlier.

    "Or is it that we have fewer guys like Connolly and Lombardi..."

    I think that is big part of it. Soft, indifferent guys like Connolly and Lombardi have been replaced by guys like Komorov and McClement who battle hard all the time. Dropping the soft guys and replacing them with real competitors changes the average compete level so much.

    "Is it because of the presence of Orr and McLaren, as Cherry suggests?"

    Somewhat...Orr was here in previous years, but the team was not that tough.

    It is the addition of Mark Fraser and Fraser McLaren that really changes things.

    Mark Fraser also plays about 13 minute a game, so we have a heavy weight fighter out there to protect them team for a lot of minutes that we did not have before.

    McLaren plying in Brown's spot is a big upgrade. Brown can hold his own but he does not intimidate in the same way as McLaren.

    Together...Orr, McLaren and Mark Fraser constitute 3 heavy-weight fighters. Not many teams can match that so you see teams like Boston are newly polite.

    Korbinian Holzer is also tough and protects his goalie.

    The addition of JVR, though he is not a fighter...that big body among our forwards also doesn't hurt.

    The big question is whether Orr and McLaren can develop into a more effective 4th line rather than just guys who participate in staged fights. We have seen a few moments of better play from them in the past two games, so maybe it is possible.

  11. Among many good points, DP, your last sentence is telling: we all know, in the playoffs, that fighting is not a factor, so you need to be tough, yes, but you have to be able to play. The jury is still out on that, and some other things, too. But for today, all is well in Leaf world.

    Thanks DP, well said.

  12. Great post Michael. It really got me thinking about what's different this year versus last. While the "theme" of the team may not be not be speedy, high-powered offense like it was to start last year, here's what stands out so far to me:

    1) Reimer. For the first time since, well, his breakout stretch back in 2011, I have near-total confidence in the team's goaltending. Reimer hasn't looked PERFECT, but I have little doubt from game-to-game that he gives the team a chance to win every single night. He is the only player on the team, to my mind, that a) doesn't allow a bad goal to shake him and b) doesn't rest on his laurels with a strong lead or a string of good games.

    2) We're playing with more heart. This is a team made up of a few guys that eeked their way on the roster due to injuries, or came over from the KHL for a last-ditch shot at the NHL, or have something to prove to the chattering Toronto media, or want to demonstrate that they were part of a playoff team all along. Maybe I'm being romantic about it, but I fear less the possibility of a lackluster effort than I do the odd amateur-hour. Given a choice, I'd rather see the team play hard for 60 minutes and fail to better, more seasoned competition than go in evenly-matched and lose because they didn't focus on their follow-through.

    3) Has the team finally found toughness? They aren't the Bruins yet, but they're undoubtedly tougher than in years past. I loved the Komarov signing from the beginning (and boy, he did something to irritate Subban last night. I noticed in the clip he was trailing him around, grabbing at his stick, and PK was getting mighty frustrated. When you can out-Subban Subban, that's a good night). I understand the hesitation to fighting, but it was fantastic to see Kostka defending Reimer, guys like McLaren and Orr putting some fire back in this classic rivalry (which, let's be honest, has been lacking lately), and the Leafs sticking up for each other in general.

    They went into a raucous building against a team that has started the season with a strong showing, that had something to prove after a couple bad losses, yet completely, confidently dominated them from start to finish. They looked like an entirely new squad from the one that played the Islanders a couple of weeks ago, or even the Hurricanes. Let's hope this was a glue game.

  13. Michael,

    I am unsure what to make of the Leafs at this point. I am also tiring of the anything is possible attitude in Leafs Nation. It is the same refrain every year. It doesn't seem to change, only the seasons do. If we take this half of this year and that half of that year, we are a playoff team. We were in 8th until our truck fell off the cliff. To me, a lot of this just sounds like more of the same. The all optimism all the time mantra of Leafs Nation. It will always be better, because frankly, it can't get worse. Or, be this bad. I think this is where all the prospect talk comes from. With the unknown lies hope. And if we are honest, over the last 8 years, hope is all we have had. I'm not picking on anyone here, lots of things are possible. Some are more realistic than others. I have said all along that I feel the Leafs should finish somewhere around 10th to 12th. I haven't seen anything to change that opinion. Montreal has had a nice run of home games, it ended last night. They seemed a lot like the crappy team we watched on opening night.

    Interesting game last night. The Leafs have some guys who are tough. Are these guys playoff tough? Are the tough guys on the Leafs, the same guys who will be scratched for playoff games? Lucic and Shawn Thornton will surely be in the lineup for Boston. I assume other teams can say the same. I'm hesitant to say Orr and McLaren would dress for my team in the playoffs. Fraser either for that mater. It would have been fun to have kept Aulie at this point. Solely, so that we could have Aulie and Fraser on the same team.

    More on toughness. I'll let you know how tough Holzer is when he is forced to drop the gloves and defend himself. You can only do the kind of things he is doing for so long before he has to answer the bell for himself. I remember a few years ago Kulemin was getting a little ballsy in scrums, with the pushing and pulling, facewashing and the like. It took Tim Gleason about two seconds to teach Nik a lesson in manners. If you want to play a tough guy on TV, its easier if you are actually tough. Just ask Rene Bourque today. He grabbed the wrong guy last night, and got dropped, like a bad smell. Not that I condone biting as a rule, but I'm not sure Paciorretty will be smothering anyone else, anytime soon. I would really love to ask one of these guys. What did you think that he was going to do when you were trying to smother him and crank his head around? The surprise of the aggrieved party in these cases, makes me smile.

    On to the good things. Komisarek hasn't played in a while. This is good, he is awful. If I have seen him play his last game in Toronto, I will consider that a blessing. Perhaps he could join his friends on the Marlies. Unless, Phoenix has some interest in him. They took Lombardi, so you never know. Reimer with another solid game in net. Maybe even a stellar performance. He got the shutout, so a little extra superlative isn't uncalled for. I am liking a lot of Komarov's maturity as a player. He seems to get that there is a time for shenanigans and a time to walk away. Nice to see a smart hockey player, now and again.

  14. You made a number of significant points today, Steve. In his first year (half-year) here, Reimer often gave up early leads, but usually held the team in the rest of the way. You're right- he always wants to perform. He'll have bad outings, I'm sure, but has (so important for a goalie- any athlete, really) that 'bounce-back' ability.

    For a while, I think a lot of us felt only a few guys like Grabovski showed real "heart" on a regular basis. it's early, but there are, as you cite, some good sings in that regard. (And yes, Komarov might just become that Tikkanen type of nasty piece of business...)

    I agree that the Hab/Leaf rivalry has been wanting of late. That's what happens when both franchises are struggling, I guess. This may rekindle the rivalry, as the Habs will want revenge next time out. That makes things all the more fun.

    Really good stuff. Thanks for dropping by today Steve.

  15. Jim, I completely understand your reluctance to engage in the annual overly optimistic assessing that goes on when the Leafs win a few games. As you know, my point about "the playoffs" has been, from the outset, that the East is weak, and therefore wide open. The Leafs are among many flawed teams in the Conference.

    You raise very fair points about true "toughness". I recognize that we are a long way from finding out about that. That's why I have consistently written here about my own definition of "hockey" toughness, with names to explain- and also that it is an entirely different level of play come playoff time. We are unproven in those situations, obviously.

    Assessing who and what the Leafs really are during a contracted schedule, with teams riddled with injuries, is a mug's game. But I'll choose to look at the hopeful side of the coin for today.

    As for "prospects", as an NHL coach once told me, "they're called prospects for a reason- they haven't done anything yet...". Thanks Jim.

  16. I too was encouraged by the game last night for many of the reasons noted above - Komarov, Kostka, JVR, McClement. I too noted that they were reacting immediately to stand up for one another so that is a good "team" sign to me.

    I am bothered though by your comment about Bozak not being a number one centre who needs to be replaced and your view that we all seem to agree with this position. I know this has been debated at length last season and during the long pre-season, but I suggest this is another area which deserves a rethink on the part of his many detractors. Consider the evidence: He scores goals (short handed, power play, even strength), he wins faceoffs (and is being used extensively to win defensive zone faceoffs), he is defensively reliable (and even kills penalties), and he is a good passer. Kessell has had the most shots of everyone in the league I think so I'm betting he got more than a few passes from Bozak.
    If his size is a concern, I don't remember Brian Trottier being a giant of a player.
    If Bozak is not a Number 1 centre, what else does he need to do in order to be considered one. What traits is he lacking?
    Just a thought.
    Time to ask the question

  17. You raise a fair question about Bozak, Ed. Here's my thought: he is a nice player, skates well, has some speed, shows some offensive moves, wins face-offs, etc.

    My "issue" is not size or statistics. I go by what I see on the ice. I'm just not convinced he is a number-one type of player at his position. That's why I use the term "nice" player. For those who have followed this site for some time, I have long said here that I like Bozak, and have presented many of the same thoughts you have today.

    But before someone is a proven first-line player, I think they have to have a bigger overall impact on the game. That includes physical presence and being a dominant player. I do not see him as that kind of player.

    If his career arc continues to move along well, could it happen? I suppose. And if he proves to be a great playoff performer, that will help my assessment, too. I'm always open to re-thinking an earlier position, as I did some years ago with Grabovski.

    Thanks for chiming in, Ed.

  18. Hey Michael,

    I take some from the optimistic side and some from the pessimistic side here.

    Let me deal with the negatives first, and those are predominantly numbers.

    The Leafs are playing over .850 on the road. That's not likely sustainable. I agree, they will likely start playing better at home, but I just want to caution everyone. I think playoffs will mean 55 points. The team, even with the gaudy road numbers, are on a 52 point pace. There needs to be significant improvement in that home record, period.

    Also, we should remember that though early in the season, the Leafs have played 12 games this morning. Nine of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have games in hand.

    With that said, there are many positives here, which have been mentioned.

    The offence is basically there. It's not perfect, no. It could be better if Phil scored consistently all the time, and if Lupul was in. But, they're getting some balance with JVR and some pop from the blueline etc.

    I know there's varying opinion on faceoffs, and how important it is (or not) and what it means depending on the zone etc. But it's good to see this team can win draws.

    I think the toughness thing is what it is. They weren't pushed around against Boston, they seemed to push Montreal around... it's kind of early, but yeah I think it's an improved part of the Leaf game. And credit is likely spread wide, to the coach whoi was pretty tough in his own right as I recall, to guys like Fraser and McLaren etc.

    I do not want to rely too heavily on the 4th line, but it's very good to see that while some people maintain Orr and his ilk should be relegated to the AHL, the Leafs are getting some good minutes from those pluggers. I think it could stand the team in good stead in this compressed season.

    For that it's not just about toughness. They are tougher sure. But for the time being, it seems the argument that these guys hurt the team by taking bad penalties or being unable to keep up to NHL level play have been put aside. I'm not saying Colton Orr is now Clark Gillies and Fraser McLaren is John Ferguson. Just that they're actually giving a few quality minutes out there.

    Every game is going to be a test of this team, there's no doubt. And, the positive thing here is that they have banked a few points, and in a shortened season that really could be a great factor in seeing the playoffs, which I think we've all maintained it going to be an important block to build upon.

  19. A very reasoned and balanced view, as I would expect from you, Mark.

    It's early, for sure. We know they won't win all their road games.

    They are a tougher team than before. (Gillies and Ferguson are two more guys on my list of NHL'ers who were true tough guys and could also play the game...thanks.) But as Jim pointed out earlier, there are more challenges along those lines ahead.

    Thanks Mark.