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Phaneuf, Grabbo and Kessel: Pleasant surprises and early disappointments for the Leafs this season…

OK.  Did any of us really think this one was going south after the first period against Caroline Monday night?  The Leafs outshot, out-hustled, out-hit and just about out-everything’d else against the ‘Canes.  Frattin continued his opportunistic ways, driving to again put himself in the right spot at the right time to pounce on a Kadri rebound and give the Leafs a 1-0 lead in the first period.

Kessel hit the post and followed that up through the course of the night with several other glorious opportunities, as the legendary Hab play-by-play voice Danny Gallivan used to say.  Somehow, Kessel didn’t find the back of the net—for the 9th game in a row.

I’m not sure who let the air out of the proverbial balloon between the first and second periods, but I’m not quite sure who those guys were as the game went on.  They didn’t look like the Leafs we saw in the first twenty minutes, when it looked like they might win this one going away.  Yes, we could point to Bozak’s goal that was disallowed (would have made the game 2-2 in the second period) as a turning point, and there’s no question that goal would have been a momentum boost.  But things just seemed to spiral downward for whatever reason.

I really liked Reimer’s competitiveness, not that that is ever a surprise.  He always plays hard.  One goal went in off a defensemen’s skate.  The one on the five-on-three power play goal in the third period that gave Carolina a two-goal cushion, he actually made a remarkable save.  The puck barely crossed the line.  I’m not blaming Reimer in any way for this one.  He has been solid this season and even the “bad” goals have been fewer and fewer the more he plays, which should be a good sign from here on out.

But after a 4-1 loss, which sees the Leaf record drop to 4 wins and 5 losses on the season (and not a very nice home record so far this season, eh?), I do want to gauge your view on something.

I would normally wait until we have played 10 games in a normal season to ask you for this assessment, but in a lockout-shortened season, let’s not stand on ceremony.  Here’s the simple question:  9 games in and a road trip beckoning, and with many hopeful and positive things to talk about this so far this young season (as I posted here yesterday), who are the players that have pleasantly surprised you with their play so far?

Conversely, who has disappointed you?

I’ll only mention Kessel in this context:  we can see that the guy can’t buy a goal.  My view on Phil has been consistent for a long time.  I think he plays pretty much the same all the time.  Loves to fly around out there, shoot, make plays, cut to the middle of the ice on his off wing.  And when the puck is going in, everyone is thrilled with Phil the Thrill and what he does.

However, when the puck is not finding holes, fans tend to be less enamored of his play—though I’ll say it again—I don’t often see a difference in how he plays most games, other than on some nights, the puck happens to go in.

TV analysts are now saying he needs a new linemate, or should drive to the net.  Well, on the first point, sure, perhaps give another center a shot. Maybe Grabovski, maybe Kadri.  But on the second point, that’s not the kind of player Kessel is.  He’s not going to stand in front of the net on the power play.  He doesn’t often “drive to the net” in the conventional sense.  He’s a skater, a shooter and a playmaker.  Heck, Monday night, he made a gorgeous pass that not many guys could make in the third period as he was about to go behind the Carolina net, a deft little move, and van Riemsdyk couldn’t finish.  It happens.

Grabbo, well, I need to see more, if I’m being honest.  Phaneuf started the season on fire as he did a year ago.  Some are blaming his less effective play of late on Kostka.  I’m more apt to look at the guy making 6 million a year—the one who can’t shoot the puck low and somewhere where his frightened teammates can do something with his shot.

But this is your forum today.  Who have you really liked so far, and who needs to pick up their game, in your estimation.  Fire away….


Episode 30 of the "Leaf Matters podcast is now available.  The topic:  can the Leafs make the playoffs this season?  You can hear the show on iTunes  or via the Podalmighty Network.


  1. Who I like so far:
    Kadri/Frattin/Komarov - the whole darn line. Each player brings something unique, and they've been the #1 line so far, to my way of thinking.
    Kulemin - the fire is back, he's making his presence felt. I think his 20+ goal year was an aberration, but he's a valuable part of the team.
    McClement - I think he's earned his spot on the second line. Has made some terrific defensive plays, and isn't afraid to forecheck with gusto.
    Franson - I feel we're seeing the guy we thought we'd see last year.
    Kostka - a feel-good story, yes, but I think he's played remarkably well most of the time, and made few mistakes.
    Reimer - he's done all that could be asked of him.
    The PK - overall, a vast improvement.

    Disappointments so far:
    Gunner - but maybe that's because he's injured.
    Scrivens - I still don't think he's ready for the top spot.
    JvR - inconsistent, should be using his size more and should be getting more chances.
    The PP - I can't believe that at the NHL level, the Leafs could have such a lousy power play for so long. It's cost us games this year already - at least two. Disgraceful.

  2. Exactly what I was looking for- thanks Gerund O'.

  3. Michael,

    I have really liked Frattin, Franson, Kadri, Kostka, Reimer, Fraser. I guess that I am pleased with how all the kids or newcomers have played so far. Komorov has been as advertised, VanRiemsdyk is getting goals, and chances. Like Kessel, I think JvR is always going to be more of a perimeter guy. That is fine with me, as long as he produces.

    The guys that I am disappointed with are a lot of the incumbents on this team. Phaneuf, drilled JvR above the waist last night, when JvR was in front of the net. The disappointing part is that he is a veteran and the captain. Yet, he seems too stupid to realize that hitting your team in the arm, or head is not a good thing. He broke Lupuls arm, didn't change his behaviour. That is worrisome. Does he not listen, not care? Not realize no one is going to go to the net for him? Stupid is as stupid does.

    MacArthur when he is in the lineup is only slightly more effective than when he is not. Sad statement for a veteran leader of this team. No on ice presence at all, barely notice that he is playing. Before the injury as well as last night.

    Liles. I could re-write a lot of what I just wrote for MacArthur. Veteran guy, big contract. Supposed to be a stable presence on the blue line. I do understand that he is being moved around a lot, with different partners. Veterans often have to show the new guy the ropes. He needs to pick up his play, get something going. I guess I expected more from him after he had a considerable time to recuperate from last year. Perhaps it will come for him, hope so. If not Gardiner might as well be playing in his spot when healthy.

    Carlyle. I am not surprised that he continues to do the one thing in the game that time has passed by. He continues to have guys on his roster whose only contribution is fighting. I'm sure Orr is a good guy, I would like to see him get a pension. The problem I have is, he is not a good hockey player. Neither, is the new guy McClaren. The Leafs as a team, in my opinion, would be better served playing Ryan Hamilton and Mike Brown. I think this disappointment needs to be shared by Nonis. If guys in the NHL need to fight, I am ok with that. My wish is that they should also be able to play hockey. The obligatory fight in the first five minutes, then sit on the bench till garbage time, kind of player should be no more. Not only do we have one of these guys, we have two. Enough said.

    That is enough disappointment for one morning. I am really pleased with the kids, this cannot be overstated today. They are playing great. Off to Washington and the Capitals. Are we going to hear the tired refrain '2 games in 2 nights while our opponents rested' today and tomorrow? Or do the good guys step on a discouraged Capitals team and steal two points in their barn? 7pm on Leafs TV. I'm a sheep so I'll be watching, sound off, naturally.

  4. Here's my take on things to date

    The good:

    Kadri and Frattin have been excellent, but Kadri needs to stop making backhand cross-ice passes in our own zone.

    Reimer seems to be saving shots instead of standing there and beeing hit by them and looks more focused and into the game. I like goalies that move.

    Kostka for all the known reasons.

    Kessel is flying, shots off posts, off crossbars, off goalies and posts and making great passes. It´s just a matter of time (if he doesn't get too frustrated).

    The not so good:

    Kessel does his thing on auto-pilot. So it´s very predictable. Cross the blueline, snap-shot from the top of the circle. On the PP, fake pass to the point, 2 steps in and snap-shot. Every game. Every time.

    Phaneuf needs to make a highlight reel big hit to get back to beeing himself, and perhaps, maybee, hit the net with a shot. It must be the curve on his stick. When there is a shot of him on the bench I always notice how awkward the curve is. It seems to slant upward, just horrible.

    Grabbo needs to be more confident like past years. He seems to be playing it safe and therefore not as effective.

  5. We probably both feel we have had this conversation before about Phaneuf, Jim. (We have.) I don't know what to say. You said it for both of us.

    I agree on Liles, too. I don't like to pick on one play (we all have bonehead moments) but his "effort" to block the shot on the last 'Cane goal was, well, it remind's one of what we see in local beer leagues. Kind of an "ole" as he half-heartedly tried to block the shot. All he did was screen Reimer. Again, just one play, but he's better than that.

    I appreciate the effort that Orr has made to improve, but every night I look at the stat sheet and see four minutes played for two of our players. As important as it is not to be pushed around, and to have a presence on the team that will protect Kessel and others, it's tough when you have players with such limited capabilities. Clearly, Nonis has to be looking for guys who can play bigger minutes and do more things for the team- or Caryle has to be willing to play them more nights than not.

    Can't argue with your "positives" when it comes to the young players. Thanks Jim.

  6. All apt observations, portuguese leaf. Kadri does make high-risk plays at times, but that often seems to come with vision and creativity and the desire to make something happen. He can certainly improve in that regard, though they shouldn't try to stifle him too much. Goodness knows we need some flair!

    As I said to Jim, I don't know what more we can say about Phaneuf. It's not just the shot thing, but it's part of the frustration some of us feel, for sure.

    Yes, Grabbo needs to be better- full stop.

  7. Hi Michael
    My take on Leafs is very based to what I read from VLM and your supporters. Here in Atlanta, we get to see the Hurricanes and Predators on Sports South. Thus, I was really looking forward to seeing the Leafs as opposed to reading about them. How disappointing - two mediocre teams which if merged would be a good team. Eric Stahl top notch center, Jeff Skinner (Markham boy) and Ward is quality goalie would look good with Leafs.

    I was looking forward to seeing the improvement, but not sure it was evident. Biased Carolina hockey announcers thought Canes played great, but not sure I saw that either team did.

    1. Leafs are not good enough to make bone-headed plays. I hope Carlyle notices these.
    a) First goal - Looked like atom hockey - four Leafs in corner watching pass to uncovered Cane forward.
    b) Penalty for snow spraying - If referees are calling it, why do it.
    c) Getting 5 on 3's is definitely bad - especially if first penalty for unnecessary push into boards, and second for stationary defensemen totally beaten and requires trip.

    2. Reimer - played well.

    3. Kessell - I have protected Kessell in past and see no reason to change. He is the only Leaf that I see as being dangerous. When he gets the puck, I feel like something good might happen. Shame be on Leaf management, not Kessell. In fact, what Leafs have is a gunner and a playmaker who plays wing (like Kovulchuk). It is apparent that he must miss Lupul. As you pointed out, Kessell may have limitations. However, it is management's job to complement his skills. What does this mean:
    a) a playmaking center - Esposito also had c)
    b) a mucker in the corners (Olmstead, Dickie Moore, Gary Roberts type)
    c) in your face goalie harasser (Andreychuk, Ciccarelli)

    4. Keepers - Kadri, Frattin, McClement, Grabbo, Kulemenin, Kostka)

    5. Gardiner - I was hoping to see him. Sounds like point man team needs on power play.

    6. Four minute players - Everyone seems to agree this is waste of manpower.

    7. Phaneuf - Perhaps he could be the stand in front of net player on power play as his shot from point seems to be major liability. At least, might be good lesson for him?

    8. JVR - where is the player who starred in playoffs two years ago? At the time, he was a big, strong puck carrier who went to the net. Similarities to Kessell may make him poor fit as linemate.

    9. On the whole, team seems to lack intensity, fire. Questionable whether staged fights are answer? Does defensive style take away from a take-charge style?

  8. Thanks Ralph (RLMcC). Yes, whatever their broadcast team said, Carolina was no great shakes early on. The Leafs were much better in the first period. They sort of reversed roles in the second period. But overall we made too many mistakes, like the one you cited on the first Canes goal.

    You make an excellent point about Kessel. And it's an issue that has been discussed for the years he has been here. We made the move to acquire an elite offensive player, but we still have not filled in the roster holes around him to complement his skills, whether five-on-five or on the power play.

    Not sure where we are with Gardiner. I would assume he is healthy and in shape. What has't been discussed much, if at all, is whether, in his short time here, he did not play the way Carlyle wants him to, and so his move was in fact a demotion, not just a conditioning thing. Not sure on that.

    The urgency/intensity question you raise is a crucial one. Being defensively aware and responsible should not completely inhibit offensive prowess. Kadri shows some smarts and nice moves, and for me, he has been one of our dangerous guys, along with Kessel. (I see Frattin as being more opportunistic than great in an all-around sense...)

    Good stuff- thanks RLMcC.

  9. Michael:
    Their broadcast team was gushing about Cam Ward in the first period and how he kept the team in the game. "The real Cam Ward" much like you have been looking for "the real James Reimer".

    They interviewed two Ontario boys in intermissions, Brent and Skinner. They seemed to be enjoying themselves playing in front of their friends and relatives. I get sense from VLM, Leaf players don't get same enjoyment?

  10. Yes it's funny, RLMcC, ex-Leafs and guys from this area seem to enjoy playing here more than the actual current Leafs do. No doubt there is less pressure when you are not wearing the blue and white!

  11. The good for me is pretty limited I'm afraid.

    I have really enjoyed watching James Reimer prove me wrong, I think he has looked like an NHL starter most every night. What a relief.

    It looks to me like Kulemin is rediscovering his mojo, which is very exciting, and in my opinion is only not doing better because of my main concern...

    The bad for me is simply, the Lupul injury appears to have utterly disrupted any sense of co-ordination our forwards had in their lines. The resultant promotion of Frattin back onto the big club has worked, admittedly, and his line with Kadri and Komarov has been successful but as for the rest? Our most skilled and expensive forwards appear to be all at sea.

    I thought the JvR-Grabbo-Kulemin line looked like it had clicked and was going to be a cracker, until Lupul's reversion to form as a Splodey Bones pushed him up, up and away. Opposing teams can effectively ignore 2 of our 3 top line forwards and we wonder why Kessel is under-performing? McClement has been pushed all over the place as well as a result, sometimes even out of centre unless I'm mistaken.

    In summary, I think we need to bite the bullet and go external for another top line forward or risk being an unco-ordinated mess like we were all night against Boston all season long. Let JvR drop down to play with Grabbo and Kulemin again; accept the good fortune that has been discovering the Frattin-Kadri-Komarov chemistry and at least pretend like we want to be a winning team by buying Kessel some help.

  12. Your point about the forward lines makes me wonder, KiwiLeaf, if Nonis is indeed exploring what could be done to address adding a forward. We have a lot of defensemen, some who may be considered expendable if a trade possibility arises that could indeed help.

    I do wonder if van Riemsdyk may best be served back on the second line though again, does that just confuse the line combinations again? Hopefully each line will find a comfort zone going forward...

    1. I can only assume that some holdover, pseudo-ethical distaste for Offer Sheets from the Burke era is stopping them from launching at Ryan O'Rielly. Dude projects as a top line centre as I understand it and is handy enough now to be a significant upgrade on Bozak. Might cost us picks I guess but saves up all the trade-bait on the roster for a play at a serious left wing. It's not like they don't have the money.

  13. My guess KiwiLeaf is that Nonis feels the Avalanche would simply match any offer the Leafs make, so it would be a case of building up the hopes of Leaf fans only to be let down. Has there ever been an 'in-season' offer sheet, I wonder.

  14. Well so far the season is going pretty much like I expected. Simply put the Leafs are not a very good team. The funny thing is without Riemer, the Leafs would be even worse off. The more I think back about the Boston game the more I am convinced we escaped a blowout only because of Riemer.


    Frattin, Kadri Komarov line:
    They have been excellent this year. It is quite a change to see some the best players on the team are also the youngest.

    Kulemin, Grabovski MaClement line:
    Excellent. Have been playing against the best lines and coming out even or better.

    Riemer has been excellent. Good to see him come back to form. I have always liked him and am glad to see the Leafs didn't give up on him.


    Not really noticeable out there. Don't really see much of anything from him.

    Liles, Gunnarson, Fraser, Franson:
    No consistency from any of them. Even shift to shift it's complete guesswork as to what your going to get. Need to be better, the problem is I think this it what they are. I don't expect a whole lot of improvement here.

    The fourth line:
    A total black hole. Every single time they are on the ice they end up pinned in thier own zone. Any momentum gained in previous shifts is lost. They need to improve here in a big way.


    Phanuef, Kostka, Kessel JVR:
    Haven't been terrible but rarely great either. Done some nice things but as a whole leaves you wanting more. Need to improve and should be able to do it. I know we are all praising Kessel because he is getting shots but the simple fact is if he scores in the first period the Leafs might have won last night. Ditto against Boston. I'm starting to see the old Phil emerge a bit here where if the going gets tough in the early part of the game he tends to shut it down. JVR has scored but the effort is just not consistent from night to night. Kostka can play in the NHL just not as a first pairing dman. He is just not that good a skater. The last couple of games has seen opposing forwards waltz right by him. At the very least take him off the first powerplay.

    I am excited to see that the young players are taking a big step forward this year. This is a development year no matter what anyone tells you. As constructed the Leafs just aren't good enough to win on a consistent basis. On any given night they can beat any team in the NHL. The converse is also true, that on any night they can be beaten. If the youngsters keep taking steps forward 2 years from now I really think the Leafs are going to be very good, we just not there yet.

  15. For me, Willbur, one of the interesting things will be when we have this conversation at what will be the half-way point this season- 24 or so games. Will the same names still be prominent in our minds? Will those we think might be lacking now be playing better then?

    For sure the emergence of young players (Kadri and Frattin, and hopefully Gardiner as he returns to full health, along others) provides for legitimate optimism. Right now, I'm not sure we could compete against top teams on an ongoing basis, though as you say, on any given night we can win against good opposition. As these young guys develop and mature, things should be different.

    I still believe we will need a tough, shutdown defenseman, a front-line center and a couple of experienced players who have been in the playoffs and can be mentors for the youngsters. But at least there's hope...

  16. Disappointments - Phaneuf, Kessel, Kulemein, Liles, Scrivens, Carlyle
    Pleasantries - Kadri, JVR, Frattin

  17. I've been pleased with the young guns (Frattin, Kadri, McClement)...JVR has been scoring, he's doing what Carlyle has asked him to do however, I expect more from him. It goes without saying that Reimer has been a game changer on this team. He has been solid and so far, consistent.
    The disappointments: Phaneuf, I truly believe this guy should be moved. He's a liability and a non producer and the C was given in haste. In no way do I see Dion as a leader. When I see him on the PP, I shutter.
    Grabovski: Where is he?? This is not the same player that has been with the Leafs prior to his raise and contract renewal. I always loved this guy, he was a workhorse, famous for getting into the dirty areas, battled hard, drove to the net and produced goals as a result. So far this season...he's done nothing. For me, Grabovski is the biggest disappointment.

  18. I have to admit I'm a bit puzzled by Grabbo this season as well (and part of last year, too), Anon. Some people mention his defensive ability, but I expect that, given he doesn't produce 80 points a season....

    I've discussed Dion here as well many times. Still waiting to see how he is a leader. Maybe those of us not in the dressing room are missing something!