Custom Search

Is this Leaf surge a mirage? Not necessarily….

We Leaf followers are famous (infamous?) for over-reacting to every little good (and bad) thing that happens in Leaf world.  So we can only imagine what critics on the outside are saying and thinking about those of us who, after almost a decade without any discernable success (and still only 13 games into a new NHL season) might dare to publicly espouse any sense of optimism and hope about how “good” our Leafs might just be.  I can understand the external cynicism—they’ve seen us go down this road before.  In fact, as recently as last season when things were going very well, I remember saying in this space that while we should all hold our collective Leaf breath, things, well, felt “different”.

And we all know what happened exactly a year ago—February came and before we knew it, it was April and we were on the outside looking in, again, when it came to the Eastern Conference playoff picture. We went from excitement about Ron Wilson’s ‘run and gun’ offense and how fast we looked most nights compared with the opposition, to wondering what the heck just happened.

So it’s natural for some of us to withhold, not our hopefulness so much, but maybe our “all in” optimism, when we have been let down so many times before.

Look, I recognize that we can always find “negatives” and all kinds of reasons why the Leaf record (now 8 wins against 5 losses) might be a mirage.  The Habs have looked awful in the games we have played against them.  Winnipeg is hardly a power in the East, wildly inconsistent as they are.  The Flyers have struggled mightily on the road.  So before you know it, we can try to minimize what the Leafs have done thus far.  Throw in that people are now more and more picking on Mike Kostka (I won’t. I still like what he’s doing.  Why must we always have a scapegoat player—in the old days it was someone like Larry Murphy and more recently Toskala, Raycroft,  Gustavsson, Lebda, Schenn, now Kostka.  This is when I don’t like Twitter. It’s just so unnecessary) and injuries to key players like Lupul and now Reimer, and I suppose we could be negative.  But why?

Part of the fun of being a fan is allowing ourselves to enjoy the good moments.  Not many (any?) of us are expecting a Cup this season.  I do think, as I have stated here since before the lockout even ended, that the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East.  And they can.  And based on the (albeit still early)   returns thus far and the evidence I am seeing many nights, they will make it not simply because of my longstanding “the East is weak” thesis, but because the Leafs are simply playing a lot better than many teams in their Conference right now.  And last I checked, it doesn’t matter when you earn your points, or against whom.  What matters is winning games.

So why this turnaround?

I have no expert analysis, but I will comment on a few obvious areas:

  • Carlyle is a new voice, and for whatever reason—maybe because this group is young and still fighting for a job most nights—the players are responding by adhering to his “system” and how he wants them to play.
  • At this point, they are definitely a more physical team than they have been in recent years.  I’m not just talking about fisticuffs. I’m referring to driving to the net, and fighting those ever-important corner and board battles.
  • Reimer has played some awfully good goal for this team all season. (Hopefully his injury is short-term only and Carlyle suggested as much after the game.)
  • Kadri is emerging as a very nice player.  I don’t want to honk my own horn, but some of you will recall that, long ago, I wondered why this young man was playing on the wing with the Leafs when he had been a center through much of his career.  Now he is blossoming as an effective middle-man.  He may already be one of our best when it comes to finding ‘soft’ spots in the defensive zone, and also in terms of his vision and ability to find the open man.  Yes, I know he still has a long way to go to “prove” himself at this level, but he has certainly demonstrated he can play here.  As with any young player trying to make his mark, he will have to overcome hurdles, including what kind of player he is when the games get tough, and during the playoffs.  My guess is he will welcome the challenge and respond.
  • While I’m still in a ‘wait and see’ mode with van Riemsdyk, how can I miss the numbers?  He is producing points, spends time in front of the opposition net, and is contributing as well as we could possibly have hoped.  While he is one of those guys that may leave us wanting more at times, he brings a level of production that we have needed on the top units.
  • Komarov has brought an edge that this team has missed for many years.  Is he Darcy Tucker without the over-the-edge antics?  It’s far too early to tell, but he clearly has potential as a fairly high-end agitator.
  • Franson with two more points gives him 8 already on the season, and he has spent some time in the press box, which makes his point totals from the back end all the more impressive.  We all see that he gets his shot through to the net more often than not, something even Phaneuf seems to be picking up on, based on the captain’s goal Monday night.
  • Those who follow VLM know I said last season that I projected Frattin as more than just a replaceable extra part.  I said he could be a mini power-forward.  He is willing to go to the net, and while he has a tremendous shot, most of his goals (7 already, is it?) this season have come not from firing the puck but from putting himself in a good position by going to the net.  That he can be a powerful guy bursting in from his off-wing, a la Kessel, just adds to his effectiveness.
  • Liles, the “veteran”, is drawing over 20 minutes a night and he has quietly played better and better most nights since the beginning of the season.
  • How can I not mention Colton Orr?  I’m not trying to sound like Don Cherry, but when you work as he did to earn a shot, then takes advantage of limited playing time, I have to acknowledge that.  I don’t know what his role can/will be come spring and a playoff match-up in the East but for now, I cannot deny he has contributed.
  • McClement may have been one of the team leaders when it comes to playing with tenacity and now everyone (almost) is on that energy train.  McClement helped the penalty-kill unit right away, and things have improved for him since, and he has been rightfully rewarded with minutes when needed.

Most of the Leaf goals against the Flyers came from either going to the net or someone being in front of the Flyer netminder.  That approach is a recipe for success and it has helped propel the Leafs up the Eastern Conference standings.

For van Riemsdyk (just like Reimer must have felt vindicated with a shutout in Montreal on Saturday night, where he was injured more than a year ago) I’m sure he got a kick from scoring against his former team.  Any athlete wants to do well against the team that traded them.  That he scored off a neat feed from Kessel and drove past Schenn (the man he was traded for) just added to his celebratory mood, I’m sure. 

(Quick aside:  I don’t see Reimer as being brittle, as was suggested—or at least  alluded to by the Sportsnet panel during the broadcast.  C’mon, the guy plays goal.  It’s a high-risk position.  He was concussed last season.  Against the Flyers, he appeared to wrench something after making a series of excellent saves, continuing his string of solid play.  I just don’t see how we can say the guy is injury-prone.)

I think VLM readers know that I’ve been following this team for decades, and am not inclined to become unduly enthralled with short-term success.  I’ve seen that movie many, many times over the last forty years.  I’m usually wary.  Four wins doesn’t make a season.  But at the same time, as I said above, why not enjoy this?  These moments have been few and far between over the last ten years, so hey, I’ll stick with my earlier assessment:  in the East, there is absolutely no reason why this team can’t make the playoffs.

Winning always makes it seem so, but am I wrong in sensing that these guys like one another?  That can't hurt.

In any event, every win likely attracts more believers (“Be-Leaf-ers?).  Where are you right now?


  1. Feeling really good...

    There is only one guy you missed: Mark Fraser

    The guy is a heavy-weight fighter and seems to be the simple defensive guy that stabilizes Franson. If Fraser and Franson and Fraser are your third pairing, perhaps the defense isn't so bad.

    The most amazing thing about Fraser?

    Take a look a league leaders for plus/minus...Mark Fraser is tied with Saku Koivu for the league lead at plus 11.

    If one of your heavy-weight fighters leads the league in plus/minus...gee whiz that's a nice role player.

  2. Agreed DP- there's a reason I didn't mention him in this post. Stay tuned!

  3. I don't think it's a mirage. The Leafs have been playing very well as of late, and the biggest aspect of the Leafs game right now is something we really haven't seen in the past 4-5 years.

    They are sticking up for each other. Kostka fighting the other night is a prime example of that. Grabovski trying to take a bite out of crime is also a good example (yes, I know that was bad).

    Even if Reimer is out for 1-2 weeks (I don't know if that's the case, just an example), I hope that the team rallies around Scrivens and keeps on playing solid defensively in front of him.

    Finally, there's one guy that is not getting any publicity so far, and that's assistant coach Dave Farrish. The defensive poise that the team is showing right now I believe is in large part due to Farrish's teaching.

  4. I really like your point about Farrish, Robert. As in the NFL, assistant coaches can have a huge impact.

  5. Looks like Rick Dudley was right on last May when after signing on with the Habs and no longer a Leaf employee he said that he truly believed the Leafs were close to being a very good competitive playoff team. He also said he knew fans would not believe him because they were not seeing the team improve in the standings but he had already been in identical situations in Tampa and the Chicago.

    On the post game show tonight Stellick said Burkes' biggest mistake was keeping Wilson too long. My thinking is maybe it is good that he did because it meant a team that should have made the playoffs last year will be a lot better next year with a player like Rielly. Could be Burkes' biggest mistake will actually help the Leafs win a Cup.

  6. I recall Dudley's comments as well, Alton. That said, I also remember him all but guaranteeing Colborne would be a second-line center here as early as this season. So while I respect his views as a skilled personnel guy, I also think he was partly saying the expected positive things after leaving. (Colborne may emerge...and the Leafs do look solid now, but despite our optimism, it is still early.)

    My comment on Burke-Wilson has long been not the loyalty thing that many mention, but that a GM would retain a coach for years that he had a fundamental difference with about what type of team (how physical they should be) they each wanted.

    Either way, yes, the Rielly pick should indeed help the team down the road!

    Thanks for visiting, Alton. Good stuff.

  7. I can't help but feel some excitement during this current run. Yes we all know that a four game winning streak can be all for naught quickly. Any little streak means much more however, during a shortened season like this.

    Like you, I'll accept a little credit for pushing for Kadri at his natural center position and giving him the chance to flourish. Unlike you, I am pleasantly surprised at Frattin's productivity. I did not make that prediction, I saw him as more raw and one dimensional. Komarov has also surprised me. Maybe I just grew weary of all the no-name college free agents the organization tried to sell us as big steals. I don't even see him so much as the "agitator" he is always described as as much as I see him as an intimidating checker that the opposition needs to be constantly aware of.

    Overall, I see a team that has been bringing a good combination of speed and toughness. I was annoyed at an article I read after Saturday night's game, criticizing the Leafs as well as the Habs for gooning it up. I don't buy it. I loved Carlyle's defense of his team after the game. The last two games have shown that they can win convincingly with or without the extra curricular activity. They simply are able to rise to that challenge when provoked.

    I noticed something last night I haven't seen in long enough that I can't remember. The crowd got loud, even rose to their feet, getting behind the team after killing a five-minute penalty, and they kept their loud support behind Scrivens when he was pressed into duty. It's little things like that that might just keep pushing this team to play as they have for the fans, for their coach, and most importantly for each other.

  8. MIchael,

    I am really impressed with a few things about the team. First, they are playing like a team. They stand up for each other, and have an all for one type of attitude so far this year. I also like the way Carlyle sets the tone for his team. At the end of last nights game. Rinaldo of the Flyers, was running around and took a run at a defenceman. Pretty big check laid. Nothing illegal or dirty, just hard. Next shift, Orr, McLaren and McClement are on the ice. Not only are the players looking out for each other, the coach is as well. I like the no one is going to take advantage of us mentality. The 4th line played a lot during the garbage time at the end of the game. Nothing came of it, but our players were protected from any shenanigans. Wilson never did this, he didn't want those guys on his team. I think this made it harder for guys like Kessel to thrive.

    A little more love for Mark Fraser is in order. You can't imagine how important it is for players to understand their role on a team and make sure that they fulfill it. He makes the short, quick easy play with the puck. He clears the front of the net, and always takes the body. He willingly has taken on all comers, in defence of his team mates. Great guy to have on the club. I really thought Komisarek was going to be this type of player. He still could be, heck Colton Orr found something in the minors. Maybe Mike could as well.

    This paragraph could be titled 'The Kids are Alright' Kadri, Frattin and JVR. All three of them are playing so well right now. I am impressed with all of them. Doing what the coach has asked of them, without complaint. This is a good thing. And easier to do when there are positive results. Lets all hope this train keeps on rolling. Clarke MacArthur got a beauty set-up on his goal. A little more energy out of him and that line could really be a dangerous threat for the rest of the season. I think other teams are going to have a hard time matching the skill of our top 3 lines. As a group of nine, they lack the one great scoring line. But, as a group they seem fine right now.

    I don't think that we can put much faith in what a team says about an injury. Any time they are allowed to only disclose, upper or lower body. Doesn't lead to much credibility. Reimer was playing so well. If this is a long term thing, he may well deserve the fragile monicker. The part that makes me say that is that he was untouched on the play in question. He has played less than a hundred NHL games and has been hurt 3 or 4 times now. If he isn't considered brittle now, he will be next time the trainer comes into the game to help him off the ice.

    This whole season to me will continue to be about accountability. If the coaching staff and the players are accountable to each other. They very well could make the playoffs. Lots of injuries to go around is making the East a wide open affair.

  9. I haven’t followed all of the recent comments about the current win streak; however, I assume that comparisons are being drawn between last year prior to the collapse and this year’s play. As I recall, even in our giddiest moments last season, there was a lot of fretting as well, particularly about an absence of team toughness, and how many of us long-time hockey watchers had never seen a team succeed without that team toughness. We used the ironic term “muckulence” to describe what was missing. The rest is history I guess, as indeed the bubble burst when the tough got going, leaving the Leafs to fall their precipitous fall.

    I also imagine that the current combination of speed and finesse combined with truculence and verve seems distinctly different from last season’s brand of vigor and vim. It is interesting to note how Carlyle appears to have deconstructed and reconstructed the systems. At first, the offence seemed to suffer and become plodding, however once the defence became more stabilized and puck movement and transition from defence to offence became quicker and smoother, then everything appears to have sped up through all three zones. We are seeing the offensive flair that Wilson offered up combined with much tougher defensive zone work, and of course, mucho muckulence. I am not sure if we would have seen a fourth line winger sliding to block a shot in the final minutes of a 5-1 game last season.

    Which brings us to personnel changes. Probably more because they couldn’t bring in the big studs without gutting the evolving talent pool they had set up, management settled on development and tweaking here and there. While Rick Dudley touted Colborne, I believe that statement came with a big caveat as well. He was drawing on Colborne as an example for literal minds but more accurately, he was speaking metaphorically about a farm system. The greater truth comes in team development he seemed to be alluding to if I remember correctly, a deep talent pool of potential NHL ready players developed in a winning cultural context in the AHL. That is where you are getting certain big contributors to the current streak – the Kadri, Frattin, Fraser, Holzer, Srivens and so on. For now, it is working.

  10. You used the word, Jim: accountability. As you suggest, that is a huge part of this early-season "success". Players have a role, and to this point, they seem to be embracing it.

    We'll see how Reimer is...

  11. Pete, like yourself, I sense the Leafs aren't out there to "goon it up" at all and I don't think I'm being biased. I do, however, see them as a team that will push back- which they could not do before.

    And yes, more fan response like you highlighted about last night's game around the penalty-kill (and Scrivens) can only help the team's frame of mind. Thanks for visiting, Pete.

  12. I was actually going to post about the term you created last year, Bobby C., (muckulence- that blend of truculence and old-time mucking) and you raised it today! And aptly so. The way the team is playing, for me at least, rather perfectly describes what you were talking about when you coined that great phrase.

    I hear what you are saying about Dudley- though I will hold him to his specific comments about Colborne! He was going out on a limb and hyping the team (before he left to join the Habs, which is when I heard the comment), and that's fine. He has the right. But f he's wrong, I'll call him on it, too, though I will acknowledge the apparent success of the broader intent of such comments. Thanks Bobby.

    Thanks Bobby.

  13. I wish more of the negative Leaf fans would read this article. Nice points, Michael.

  14. Thanks for the kind words, Mary (Merreee1).

  15. Well, I haven't had this much fun for many a year! Even if it's short-lived - and I'm not saying it is - I really feel that that light at the end of the tunnel isn't the playoff-style train that derailed us last year.
    I like your assessment, Michael. I'd add Phaneuf to the mix. His leadership has been questioned by many of us, but I'm seeing things that are changing my mind. Many fans want to see him really lay someone out, as in the old Calgary days, or decry his avoidance of fights. I see a Captain who's trying to lead by example. He's a pretty formidable force in our zone, playing big minutes, and now that he seems to be getting his shot lower, he's becoming yet another offensive force on D. You mention Rinaldo... last night, Rinaldo took liberties with one of our guys, and on the next rush, Phaneuf nailed him, took him down, and sent a message. Watch any game - you'll see him make his presence felt similarly.
    Along with Komarov, and I love your personification of him, what we have now is players on every line using the body on the forecheck. We have to mention Kulemin here - maybe not the scoring threat he was a couple of years ago, but a much improved player. I love that line, by the way! In fact, I think one of Carlyle's greatest achievements so far is his lines. When MacArthur is more attuned to Kadri and Frattin, watch out! Their goal last night was simply hockey beauty incarnate.
    As I've said before, we have to remember that this is Burke's vision, and his team. Kudos where they're due! If they'd played like this last year, would he have been fired or would we have criticized his bluster? Having said that, it's the true meritocracy and the culture of accountability that Carlyle seems to have brought to the rink, that sets this team apart from previous iterations. Listen to the way Carlyle talked about the brouhaha with Prust, or the injury to Reimer - he's a no-nonsense competitor. And I think you can see his attitude spreading throughout the roster.
    Hockey is such a team sport. Team toughness isn't fighting, it's the whole team being tough to play against. That "muckulent" quality Bobby C so memorably nailed last year. That's one of the reasons I think the notion of trading for a "franchise player" is overrated. The team is a sum that's greater than its parts, and along with the scorers you need the guys who open up space and create opportunities, who have that "all-for-one-and-one-for-all" mentality. We haven't seen that on the Leafs for a few years. It appears to be back.
    Granted, we still have a way to go - but for now, happy days seem to be here again!

  16. Excellent post, Gerund O'. Yes, Nonis' predecessor obviously had a significant impact on this team, but I would also point out that the emphasis is now where it should be- spotlighting the players, not a General Manager making bold and unnecessary pronouncements which did not help the team. Nonis also helped Carlyle by moving Connolly and Lombardi, who likely would not be effective in this "system".

    But I wholly agree, Gerund, that Carlyle has had an impact, and accountability and a team toughness (in the right and best sense) are back. I haven't seen it since the Quinn days, and I'm glad it's here. Thanks.

  17. As you said Michael, its only 4 wins, but yes we should all enjoy it. All the things many of us Leaf fans were hoping for this season, we are seeing now. Kadri and Frattin both showing they deserve to be in the NHL and showing some of their promising talent. Franson is finally looking more comfortable, and is showing signs of being the D-man we had hoped. Reimer looks like he's got his game back, and we have some encouraging surprises on defence (e.g. Kostka, Holzer, Fraser). JVR has been a much needed pickup, having size and some good hands. Lastly we have acquired some gritty players in Komarov and McClement.

    I suppose the one game that has given me the most positive sign about the Leafs (despite losing 1-0) was the game against the Bruins. The Bruins have dominated, and often embarrassed the Leafs in the past number of seasons. This game the Leafs battled hard, and although they could have played much better, they battled the Bruins and were competitive.

    The next month or so will be a character test for this team. If they continue to play well and get results, their confidence will grow and they will build strong team chemistry. If they happen to slump, or suffer some additional key injuries, they could easily lose confidence and slide the other way. With this being a shortened season, and games being against Eastern conference opponents only, the Leafs fate lies in their own hands. Every game is important to their playoff chances.

    Here's a thought for you, and your readers..... Many people, have (in hindsight) credited much of the Leafs' success this season to none other than Brian Burke. If MLSE hadn't removed Burke as GM just a month ago, would they even contemplate doing so now given their success this season??

    Another good question may be who would you keep on this roster if everyone is healthy. At some point Lupul and Brown are due to come back. Same with Gardiner, and Gunnarsson. Who stays, who gets sent down, put on waivers, or traded??

  18. Good post, Don (TML_fan).

    With regard to Burke and 'would he be fired now?", I maintain that it was the best thing for the organization. He was too ego-oriented, and it was all about him- not the team and the players. Too much false bravado, too much hubris, a lot of "me" "I" and "my" and too many unnecessary pronouncements that put him out on a limb for absolutely no reason. As I've written before, there were legitimate reasons for a firing based on his record alone; the other factors made it the right thing to do. We now have a calmer presence guiding things in the front office and to me, that's a good thing. (And yes, while the team has had some short term success, we surely should have expected at least that, going on five years into a GM's mandate...)

    The roster issue will be one to watch as well, Don. Thanks for visiting!