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Maple Leafs lose, but they are already playing the style required to make waves in the playoffs…

Maybe the best thing about the way the Leafs are playing so far this season under Randy Carlyle (I say so far because most of us, while eternally hopeful, can’t help but think back to what happened a year ago…) is this:  the team is already playing the style they will need to, to be competitive in the playoffs.

(I’ll only make a brief comment about the loss in Tampa:  the guys gave what they had left in the tank, but it wasn’t enough.  Scrivens made some saves but ran out of gas, too, on the second night of a back-to-back after delivering some sterling netminding since taking over from Reimer.  Phaneuf struggled on a couple of plays beneath his own goal line; Grabovski did a drive-by on the Stamkos goal that gave Tampa the lead in the second, when he could have stopped and fought for the puck.  Guys had to be playing on fumes and the outcome was not a shock. As we all know, Tampa has some talent and if you give them time and space, as coaches like to say nowadays, you’ll probably struggle.  We did on Tuesday night, though the late Kessel goal jolted the lackluster Leafs to life for a late push.  All that said, did you like Kadri’s feistiness when he took on Hedman in the third period?)

What do I mean when I say the Leafs are already playing the way they will have to in the playoffs?  Simply this:  as far back as I can remember, the playoffs have always been a different kettle of fish.  They just are.  Whether you finish the regular-season on a high, or go into the playoffs on a losing streak, momentum starts with what you do in Game One of the first round. (Even “Game One” is not a tell-tale sign, of course.  In our last Cup year, back in 1967, the Leafs limped into the playoffs in third place in the old six-team NHL.  They had to play the first place Blackhawks and were hammered something like 6-2 on the road in the first game of the series.  But the Leafs went on to win in six games.  Same thing happened in the next round against the hated Habs.  The Leafs were lit up in the first game, but rebounded to win the series in six games. I just have to mention that sometimes—it makes me feel good, even 45 years later.)

The point is, the playoffs are a new season.  But more than that, everything changes.  Checking is tighter, much tighter.  Open ice is harder to find.  There is precious little fighting in the modern era of playoff hockey, but toughness is still the order of the day.  The willingness to fight through checks, take hits to make plays (I became a Lecavalier guy the year Tampa won the Cup, when I saw him take a smash to the mouth to make a pass which turned into a goal.  I'd never thought of him in those terms before, but that’s what you have to do in the playoffs—take serious physical punishment to make plays that most often, won’t net results. But you have to keep making the effort...)

Yes everything is amplified.  Teams like the Rangers that block tons of shots block even more shots.  Players who won’t normally go to the net will make that extra effort.  Everything is just that much harder.  It’s 60 minutes of maximum effort—and more, some nights.

But here’s the thing:  the Leafs are playing that way right now.  Oh, I know the temperature will be raised come April and the playoffs, but essentially, all those things I’m talking about—playing it close to the vest, finishing checks, fighting for every inch of ice—are part of the blue and white Carlyle arsenal. So it’s not as though they will go from being a regular season team that relies on their superstars to score a hat-trick every night to a squad that suddenly relies on defense.  They are already doing so many of those tiny but important things that often lead to success.  Playing hard and smart is imprinted on—and in—their psyche.

The lights will be brighter and the competition will be better, for sure, in the playoffs.  But the right mentality is already in place.  And if we can get some of the wounded guys back, and add someone with Gardiner’s talent to the mix, is it possible that we might just surprise some people? When healthy, we have three lines that many nights are indistinguishable in terms of their ability to score goals and apply pressure in the offensive end.  We have blueline depth (you’ve heard me say here many times that teams need to be 10-deep in the spring if they want to go deep in the playoffs), given that useful veterans like Komisarek and Liles are available, in addition to our current starting six—and Gardiner will likely be here so, too.

We have balanced scoring and the ability to play tight defensively most of the time.  When I think back to the aforementioned ’67 team, we had superior goaltending with Bower and Sawchuk, but Sawchuk actually had three terrible games in the playoffs.  It’s just that when he was really needed, he was brilliant.  And we had guys who could shut others down, like Keon and Ellis and Pulford.  Character and experience in individuals like Armstrong, Red Kelly and Stanley and Horton.  And we had some offensive flair in youngsters like Jim Pappin and also Mike Walton (left, seen in late '60s action alongside Leaf goaltender Bruce Gamble), who, believe it or not, reminds me in some ways of Phil Kessel.  Walton could really fly, had a great shot and could be a game-breaker.  Can Kessel be that guy?  The good news may be that Phil won’t have to do it alone, based on the way the team is structured now.

Again, am I predicting playoff success?  That’s not my intent.  I’m hardly in that heady a mood just yet.  But I do believe Carlyle has the squad playing a style and a system that will require very little in the way of practical or mental “tweaking” come playoff time.  We’ll just have to do what all teams do: turn up the intensity.

That will be the next measuring stick.


  1. All that said, did you like Kadri’s feistiness when he took on Hedman in the third period?

    Yep, I liked that when we used to see more of that feistiness out of Grabovski and MacArthur.

    I would like to see a bit more of that out of Kessel.

    I think Kadri's competitive nature will eventually make him a star.

    Lets see how they role when everybody is healthy.

  2. Agreed, DP. We're missing some pieces. With Lupul, Gardiner Frattin and Reimer, we're a different (and better) team, assuming everyone else keeps doing their job.

  3. For those who have been lamenting over the number of shots allowed in the past few games they got their wish last night...10 shots over the 1st two periods and 19 overall. I think they lulled Scrivens to sleep. It just goes to show that its not the number of shots but their quality and the quality of the goaltending that counts.

    I agree with you that the Leafs are developing a style of play that will bode well for the playoffs. This team is a work in progress and I am happy with the progress made so far. Hopefully this will provide a feet wet playoff experience this year and lead to bigger and better accomplishments in the future.

    The more I am seeing of Nazim Kadri the more impressive he is becoming. Carlyle has handled his minutes beautifully, maximizing his chances for success. As his confidence grows his minutes will increase. I believe we are witnissing the emergence of a future NHL star.

    In regards to the included picture, Bruce Gamble was later traded on February 1, 1971 to Philadelphia with Mike Walton and Leafs 1st round pick (Pierre Plante) in 1971 Amateur Draft for Bernie Parent and Philadelphia's 2nd round pick (Rick Kehoe) in 1971 Amateur Draft.

  4. Said it before but: Naz has a little Dougie in him. I hope we can nurture that...

  5. I agree, Michael. The stars of teams are still going to be huge factors (just look at the Conn Smythe winners of the past decade), but the "character" players, for lack of a better term, really do the unsung work that makes a playoff team a winner. I love that Carlyle has convinced his team to make the plays necessary at both ends of the ice to ensure success. A great example is Phil Kessel who was very one-dimensional under Wilson but who has shown a more complete, two-way game with Carlyle. He won't be mistaken for a Selke trophy winner any time soon, but he has become more responsible with his back-checking, and it has improved his overall game.

    The biggest change I've seen this year so far is the fact that the Leafs are not an easy two points anymore. Even at their best last year, it was taken for granted by many teams that the Leafs are perpetually beatable. Eventually, they were right. This year, however, the Leafs are a tougher team to play. That has changed the psyche of teams that play the Leafs and a lot of the credit goes to Randy Carlyle.

  6. I'm with you on Kadri, Pete Cam. Almost every game he does something, makes a little move, that suddenly creates danger. Not sure he is a game-changer yet, but he sure is progressing.

    Yes, Parent...I've touched on that here before. That trade was one of the happiest moments of my then young Leaf life. Losing him to the WHA was crippling. Thanks Pete Cam.

  7. Interesting that you say that, Anjin (Anon)- I have been planning a post along those lines in the near future! Thanks for visiting.

  8. All excellent points, Twisted Sittler, but your last sentence rings particularly true: opposing teams don't "look forward", I don't sense, to playing the Leafs any more, because it won't usually be a fun night. A more physical, committed team and yes, Carlyle should get a lot of credit for the shift in mind-set. Thanks.

  9. Michael,

    I am not willing to give professional athletes a mulligan for not having anything left in the tank. All I can think of to say to having to play two games in two nights is, poor babies, that must be so hard on you.

    Scrivens after 3 stellar appearances had a stinker of a game. Good call, he's allowed in my book to have an occasional rough outing. As long as it is occasional, if you get me. The complete whiff on the Carle goal still has me worried about his glove hand, and the weird way that he holds it. Never seen anyone hold his glove that way. If you were to tell me that he held it that way, I wouldn't believe you.

    So far this year I am really pleased that the NHL is back and playing hockey. I am really, really happy that the Leafs are in the thick of a playoff position. They were last year as well for a time. Then the going got tough, and the Leafs decided they wanted no part of that. My concern is this. I feel that the Leafs are playing as well as they possibly can right now. Carlyle has done wonders. Rewarding the guys who are playing well with ice time. Guys who aren't playing well are in the pressbox. That is new here, and very refreshing. Colton Orr is almost a regular NHL player, instead of the carnival act that some people love to watch. You couldn't pay me to go to the circus and watch a dancing bear. Same feeling at the rink for me. Goal tending has been surprisingly better than I anticipated. I would suggest that it has been better than any reasonable person could have predicted. Reimer and Scrivens are both top 10 in the league. No one, no sane person predicted that. There used to be a goalie coach in town, can't remember his name. Hope the door didn't hurt too much when it hit him on his way out of town.

    Having your top scorer, yes Kadri is right now, fighting is dumb, dumb, dumb. If he breaks his hand on Hedmans visor or helmet he is out for a long time. The whole point of having a tough guy laden team is that he shouldn't be punching people. If a message needs to be sent, McLaren or others could oblige, no? To everyone thinking it is good. Where are the Leafs if he gets concussed doing that? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I appreciate his combativeness, but if I was Carlyle he would be told no fights.

  10. Yes, most observers did not believe the Leaf netminding would be solid, Jim. We will see if they can continue to perform as they have through this first run of games.

    Carlyle has clearly given guys rope, and has determined who deserves ice. That may change, of course, because performance often changes over time. So we will see where that goes.

    As for Kadri, I hear you. I think we all like to see our playing show combativeness, as you put it, but there is a time and place. Thanks Jim.

  11. With your mention of the style of play required in the playoffs, a thought was triggered regarding something Darryl Sutter (I think) did with the Flames over the final 28 games of a season. He told his team that in order to make the playoffs (and be prepared to do the same again), his team must win 4 of each 7 games remaining in the season.

    So, I thought of something slightly different... how are the Leafs doing if we were already in the playoffs best of 7 format?

    Well... we won the first series 4-2; we won the second series 4-2; and we're leading the 3rd series 3-2... we're one game from my lesser/fantasy Stanley Cup series at this point.

    Of course, quality of competition will increase, but we are on a 'learning curve' with which we should be pleased at this point of our development.

    We're just over a third of the way through this compressed (not unlike the playoffs) season, and people have noted that the schedule gets a bit tougher next month... so maybe we can see how the team has progressed on a similar template later in the season. It must feel like the playoffs with games every couple days, so it's great training for the future.

    I'm happy with what I see so far (just like I am when students begin to show evidence that they are learning what I'm teaching) and anticipate further growth as the season progresses.

    1. Quick correction when I noticed the total wins don't add up to 10, I double-checked and found my eye had skipped over the Rangers early win... therefore the 'series results' should be 4-3; 4-2 and 2-2 thus far in the '3rd series.'

      Still a reasonable trajectory to potential future success, though and a preliminary reason for some optimism.

  12. My sense, InTimeFor62, is that Leaf fans are simply enjoying the current run of decent play (I won't say great because, again, we're not exactly playing the '77 Habs lately) and as you stress, seeing the improvement we all wanted to see.

    As you and I have discussed here, it's really mostly about the future- but not just five years from now, maybe starting next season. If this is not a mirage, there is finally hope.

  13. After having apparently correctly analysed the Leaf’s goaltending situation for about a year now, Jim tells me that the reason I got it right was not because of reasoned deduction and experience with the position, it is because I am by definition “insane” (paraphrasing). I am, of course, joking, I understood (or at least I hope) that Jim was talking about an overwhelming conventional wisdom. This “wisdom” was more of a misinformed opinion that by force of repetition became a truth: “The Leafs need an experienced preferably number one goaltender”. Scrivens said it himself the other day in what he did and did not say. What he did say was: “Shutouts are a team stat.” What he did not say: “Save percentage is a team stat.”

    What was the other one? Oh yeah, “The Leafs cannot win with a big, frontline center”. We’ll see. I am certainly not going to argue against strength up the middle. However, I think we are getting a collective lesson, if we care to learn from it, about the dangers of groupthink. It becomes difficult to express a minority opinion when the group gets onto a bandwagon and run with it. In fact, I found that even if I came across as crazy and extremist, I in fact muted my position about the goaltending, probably because I was in such a minority position. The problem being, of course, when you are proven right it is not because you are being perceptive it is because you are by definition insane. Such is the nature of ideology …

    It is certainly human to want to fit in with the group, so we either jump on board with the prevailing wisdoms or mute our opinions when they mark us as loony. Truth is, even if no one else was saying that there was no need for a goaltending change, I muted my opinions somewhat about the Leafs’ goaltending situation. The truth is however, the current save percentages are within my optimistic expectations, given the establishment of sound defensive zone systems and an evolution of players from the Marlies organization. No surprise here about the goaltending stats and last time I checked I am not stark raving mad. However, one observation I self-censored a long time ago had to do with something that is now evolving into prevailing wisdom: When I watched Nazem over the years, I saw more than just a little Dougie. I wish I had have said something at the time...

  14. Groupthink is always a problem and can be very intimidating. You've articulated the concern well, Bobby C.. and I appreciate that you have raised this.

    This is one of the reasons I try to provide this forum (and look to avoid most "boards" and related Leaf fan sites): there is no one "right" answer to most life issues, and certainly not when it comes to assessing our beloved Leafs. Do I think it would be a nice idea to have a superb, experienced, cap-effective goaltender in place that costs no one from our current roster? Well, me and millions of other Leaf fans, sure.

    You may recall that I, too, have long said I'm a Reimer guy, and that I wanted to see him get a chance to succeed here. (I'm not a Luongo guy, but I won't blow that horn here. I know he's a fine goalie and all that...) Reimer's recent "success" is great to see but in truth, I have no idea if he can be more than a pretty good NHL goalie. The sample size is pretty tiny.

    What we do know is that while it would be wonderful to have surefire Hall-of-Famers in our goal every night, shy of that, if we play as a team such that we make it hard for the opposition to get Grad A scoring chances on a regular basis, we may just have a shot at winning most nights- just like any other NHL team. So I'm with you Bobby, and I well remember your various posts here on this very topic.

    It is, as you have long pointed out in this space, truly a team effort. I'd love to have Glenn Hall in goal but we don't have that. And even with a great team around him he only won one Cup, in part because those high-flying '60s Blackhawk teams didn't play enough defense come playoff time.

    As for Nazem, we touch on that topic in our latest "Leaf Matters" podcast (out today). Is it hockey heresy to mention them in the same sentence? Not necessarily though we would agree I'm sure that Kadri has a long, long way to go to be that kind of impact player. But there are signs...

    Great stuff, thanks Bobby C..

  15. Last night there was something that I loved. I watched the lightning broadcast abd the guys caaling the game spent the first 7 minutes talking about the leafs. "Great goaltending". "Really tough". "Speed on offence and defence". Good scoring". "Hard to play against" and finally... "One of the leagues better teams". The oposing broadcasters said all if those things for 7 minutes. They sounded like leafs fans. I guess it means that other teams have taken notice, and that says alot.

    As for Kadri, sticking up for himself. Sending the meassage he won't be pushed around is important. People doing things they aren't expected to is great. Like Orr blocking shots the other night and Kadri throwing a big hit. We are definitely ob the right track.

    Oh, and scrivens says he hold the glove like that so he doesn't "fight gravity".

  16. Interesting that opposition team broadcasters have taken note, portuguese leaf. As discussed above, it's likely most teams don't now look forward to having to play Toronto.

    I hear you on Kadri, though I'm sure we don't want him fighting often!

    As for Scrivens, I don't know enough about technique to comment. If it works for him, I guess that's good...