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The Leaf that we need to be the silent assassin when it counts...

There is no question that the Maple Leafs have surprised a lot of people with their play so far this season.  That they were able to fend off an obviously wounded Senator team on Saturday night without too much trouble in a rather blah home game is, if nothing else, an encouraging sign.  That the Leafs are now at 9 wins and 6 losses and well entrenched in a playoff spot in the East (for what it’s worth at this point) and deservedly so is positive.  Their “stinkers” have been few and far between this season.

I’m making no assumptions but those who follow VLM know my view:  there is no reason, in a compromised East (parity, injuries, compacted schedule, roster issues across the Conference, etc.) that the blue and white can’t make the playoffs this season.  Would they thrive once they get there?  I haven’t got a clue.  It’s a hard team to read.  We are seemingly tougher to play against (for real this time) but there isn’t a lot of playoff experience on the roster.  Still, you have to get 'experience' at some point, eh?  I’m ready and I think the players are, too.  We know Carlyle will hold their hand to the fire until the bitter end.

So I’m already looking ahead.  I’m raising the mental expectations “bar” in Leafland.  I fully believe we can earn that playoff berth and I’m envisioning what we need to do—and be—once we get there.

One thing I would like us to have is a guy that other teams fear; you know, that player that, every time he is on the ice, the other side is thinking about us, worrying about our players and what they are going to do next.

I think we have candidates, individuals who can step up and be “big time” when the lights shine brightest at playoff time.   Guys who can make those 'big' plays, score goals at the crucial times—the kind of goals that lift our spirits and deflate the other side.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have our own, for example, Mike Bossy—a player who could change a game simply by his uncanny ability to score a thousand different ways, primarily because he could find open space and release the puck so quickly that the goalie often had little chance to make a save.

Jacques Lemaire was that kind of player for the Habs in the late ‘60s and throughout the rest of his fine career in the ‘70s.  Early on in his NHL career, he scored some key playoff goals in overtime for Montreal and that gave him a “reputation” as a clutch performer.  Later he became the defensive conscience of his mid-'70s line with Lafleur and Shutt, but was still a premier offensive talent who could crush the other team with big plays at key times.

Brett Hull of course had the kind of offensive assassin’s touch that I’m referring to.  Like Bossy, he found the ‘seams’, those weak areas in the opposing team’s defensive structure and then laid in wait—until getting a pass and unleashing his shot with quickness and deadly accuracy.

Those are just a few examples of players who brought a lot of things to their table, but also the ability to change games—and outcomes.  (I suppose Glenn Anderson from those remarkable ‘80s Oiler teams would fit the bill, too.)  And they all had the ability to do it when it mattered, at special times in crucial games.

We can’t expect this young, inexperienced Leaf squad to have that kind of “proven” performer just yet, unless we go out and trade for it.   And we all know that would only come at the cost of some of our emerging young talent—an often harrowing long-term trade-off.  There hasn't really been the opportunity here over the past many years for that kind of player to make his bones.  But as this team grows and matures, wins its share of games and becomes competitive, we will—to get to that “next” level—need and want players who provide that extra layer of,  let’s call it…impact.

We have candidates, in my view.  Who are they?

Well, an obvious one is Kessel.  Do you ever have the sense that  (as much as we say “he is what he is”, as though he will never be more than a nice, sometimes exciting player who will score his 35 goals a year in between lengthy goal droughts) he can actually be more?  That he can be a player who makes a difference at crucial times, with key backbreaking goals when it really matters?  We have not seen that in him yet, but might it be there?

Lupul is hurt right now but there have been times in the last two seasons during his limited ‘run’ in Toronto where you got the impression he was one guy who really hated to lose.  Sometimes it’s those players who either go the extra inch to make a play or hate losing so much that they do something special to try and ensure victory.  It can be a smart play, a big hit or a goal that you didn’t expect against the flow of play.  But somehow they make it happen, just when you need it the most.

Grabovski?  I have this feeling that, just under the surface, something is waiting to break out.  He usually works hard, and we all recall his famous moment two years back against the giant Chara and the memorable outcome that night.  A lot of us really like Grabbo but lately I’ve wanted more.  For some time now, actually.  I think it’s there.  Could he be the guy that becomes a chronic pain for the opposition, something they have to game plan for beyond Kessel, a forward that comes up big at big moments?

Can Komarov bang his way to being a payoff difference-maker?  He has slowly emerged as a heavy-hitter.  He is, on our team (maybe along with McClement) the very definition of, as Howie Meeker used to say, “finishing your check”.  For that reason alone no one likes playing against him, because he is always a threat to ply you up against the boards or hammer you after you make a pass in open ice.  Players like that, like old-time Oiler agitator EsaTikkanen, can be game-changers.

Kadri is still a “kid” in hockey terms, but he is also showing an ability to find open space and make nifty plays out of almost nothing.  He can change the flow on the counter-attack.  He still makes high-risk plays, but no risk, no reward sometimes, eh?  Could he be our “key moment” man?

From the back end, I recognize that we are playing a more structured system under Carlyle, but does Jake Gardiner have the skill set (he showed it last season and with the Marlies in the AHL earlier this year) to take over a game at certain moments and change the tide?  He has, in my view, 20-goal potential as a defenseman.  And having a blueliner that can play in his own end, skate away from trouble and also make things happen on offense are gold in today’s game. 

At the end of the day, could it be van Riemsdyk?  We all remember what an impact forward he was for the Flyers two seasons ago in the playoffs, and he is still just blossoming as a kind of hybrid semi power-forward with the blue and white.  He hasn’t even really found his comfort zone here yet.  Could he be the one that, by parking himself in front of the net (a la Holmstrom all those years), and by being around the crease at the right time, cane score those goals that give us momentum at playoff time?

Maybe, just maybe, it's Matt Frattin.  He is a guy that can be quiet all night and then suddenly score out of nowhere. That's one of the traits I'm also talking about.

I’m just using the above guys as examples.  For my money it would be tremendous if Grabovski could be the "man".  If he was able to not only handle the task of checking the other team’s best center many nights, but also rounded things out by being the man to throw that ‘dagger’—contributing some timely goals at the other end at huge moments.  That would make him a noteworthy guy for us come playoff time.

To be the player I’m envisioning, you don't necessarily have to score a lot of goals, but when you do it matters—a lot.

I know many things can change a game—a huge save, a big hit.  A penalty kill.  It all contributes to overall team success.  But sometimes you need that offensive play—and that one player—who has the capacity to deliver just when a team needs it most with a big goal out of nowhere.

Have we got that guy?  You tell me.


Let me add a quick thought t my piece yesterday on Dave Keon and the ’63 Leafs.  This is what I posted on twitter—and how I feel.

A nice idea to celebrate the ’63 Leafs.  Just a shame that the vast majority of the folks at the ACC never saw any of those great Leafs play.  If MLSE really wanted to celebrate old-time Leaf greats, don’t do it on game night.  Invite those of us who actually saw those players into the ACC for free.  Then we’d fill the place with fans who really cared about those players.   We’d give them the ovation they deserve.

And that’s how I feel.  It’s a nice thought to celebrate a particular old-time team, but it just annoys the modern-day fans who (for the most part) could not, if they’re being honest, possibly care less.  Did you see the embarrassing empty seats in the ACC during the “celebration”?  Did you hear the deafening silence?

These events don’t  have to be on TV.  That’s all phony, anyway.  Do it for those of us who really care and are fortunate enough to still be round.  The players would feel the genuine affection of fans who want to be there and who actually cared—and still do. 


  1. The Leafs have in my mind 3 potential players that you speak of.

    The first that comes to mind is Grabbo. First because he has the skill and has showed the "clutch scoring" before (an OT game versus the habs and the Bruins game come to mind) and beeing a little crazy also helps.

    Second I think Lupul could be our guy. He doesn't like losing as you say and looks like he loves winning even more. Skill and grit are there too.

    The third guy... Kadri. Yes, he is very young and makes high risk plays (at least 2 a night so far) but that's what could make him the guy. His willingness to try something new at any time, and his high confidence (some think too high) could make him the player other teams look differently at.

    Kessel I don't think could fill that role. He's the kind of guy that can goe a whole playoff round without a goal and net 5 or 6 the next.

    Jake Gardiner... no. The Coffees and Bourques are gone from the game now.

  2. We're thinking along similar lines, portuguese leaf. Thanks for posting.

  3. I think that a very under rated part of Kessel's game that has become more apparent lately is his play-making ability. Even last season, to accompany his 37 goals, he had 45 assists. To put that into perspective, that puts him in the same play-making neighborhood (between 45-50 assists) as guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, St. Louis, and Kovalchuk. So even when he's not scoring goals (and his 37 was only exceeded by Stamkos, Malkin, Neal, Gaborik and Ovechkin last year) he's contributing at an extremely high level in other ways.

  4. Very good point, mapleleafmjt and I certainly agree. I've been writing here for some time on that very point, that Kessel is a guy with a talent for distribution and not just scoring goals. He sees the ice well and makes plays at high speed. A very dangerous guy that the opposition always has to be aware of. Thanks for visiting.

  5. My candidate from present lineup would be Matt Frattin. He has a wicked wrist shot that he delivers accurately Kinda reminds me of Gerry Ehman who could thread a needle with his wrist shot.Frattin seems to score timely goals and works well with Kadri. He also adds a physical aspect to his game some of which we have yet to see. He consistently delivered punishing checks in college.

    Randy Carlyle has done an excellent job of managing his players. He has put them in situations where they can not only succeed but shine. Players like Frattin, Kadri, Franson and Fraser have been given managed minutes against selected opposition. This has allowed them to gain confidence and their improvement is noticeable. It is a refreshing change from Wilson sending them out haphazardly and then publicly throwing them under the bus when they didn't immediately produce.

    It is gratifying to see a system where everyone is responsible defensively. Goals against have been reduced and the penalty kill improved. I have the feeling that they have a chance of winning each game they play. I didn't have that feeling previous years.

  6. I like your thoughts on Frattin, Pete Cam. I, too, wonder if he can fit the bill in this regard.

    I appreciate your reference to Ehman, by the way. He was, as you well know, one of those unsung players who were crucial to Toronto's success off and on in the late '50s and early '60s.

    Your point on Carlyle's approach with the young players is a good one. Those guys seem confident and that is no doubt, as you cite, at least in part because they are being played in the right circumstances. Thanks Pete Cam.

  7. I agree a playoff spot can be had, especially now with the Senators losing two star players in Spezza and Karlsson. HOWEVER.... I'm not sold on this Leaf team being primed to earn one of the playoff spots. The last two games were very telling. Against Carolina the Leafs were outplayed and out-skated by a tired Carolina team. The score could have been far worse had Scrivens not played extremely well. Yes Toronto has some injuries, but teams like Carolina are the teams Toronto needs to beat if they want to grab a playoff spot.

    So then Saturday night, Toronto comes back to the ACC, their home rink, and plays a dejected and wounded Ottawa Senators team. The Leafs should have been all over the Senators, and for the most part should have dominated the play. Instead the Leafs were lethargic, and in fact out-shot 34-29, relying heavily on Scrivens to keep their lead. A win is a win, but no one would say we were watching two teams worthy of playoff spots in the east.

    I, like many fans, enjoyed the four wins in a row, but I want to see consistent play game in and game out before I can believe this team can make the playoffs. The last two games were just the opposite of the previous 4 games. Injuries aren't helping matters. Until Carlyle can get these boys playing more consistently, I'm not convinced they will earn a playoff spot.

  8. Frattin...he often makes something out of very little. The team seems very different without him.

    Gabovski seems missing this season. Kessel has yet to dominate a game.

  9. I'd love to see Grabbo be the breakout guy for the Leafs in a potential playoff run too, Michael, but I look to James Mirtle's recent, excellent article regarding the fact that Grabbo is being used as a defensive centreman on the third line. Tough for a guy to be a silent assassin when your job is essentially to shut down the opposition's best line. Still, Grabbo is a small guy that plays with a lot of desire and he's a guy I'd love to see be the man with the golden touch in the (hopefully) playoffs.

    All that being said, my money is on Frattin. He's one of these guys that has, until he was injured a few days ago, has a great "nose for the net". As for his age and inexperience, I think that can be beneficial. If a guy doesn't know what he's getting into (ie. the playoffs) sometimes they perform well rather than feel the gravity of the situation. That plus the fact that Frattin has had the added bonus of playing under Dallas Eakins for a while. It seems pretty clear that Eakins is a great coach and someone that the younger players especially can look up to and learn from. Side note: I hope Eakins becomes the next coach of the Leafs down the road. He's gonna make an impact as a great coach in the NHL and I hope it's with the Leafs. There you have it! Matt Frattin! Mark it down, Michael, and I'll see ya in May! :)

  10. I hear you, Don (TML_fan). They will need to be clicking in all cylinders to be serious playoff contenders. I just feel that the East is wide open. The Conference is not strong across the board. And Carlyle does seem to have their ear, at least for now...

  11. Frattin seems to be a guy people think of in these terms, DP. Can he do it when it really counts? I guess we'll see.

  12. I'll mark it down, Twisted Sittler. (And Frattin seems to be the choice today, if we were keeping tabs.)

    Let's talk on this subject in May!

  13. I would suggest that the "pick of the day" (Frattin) is a guy who has potential to walk in the role you have put forward. His presence with Kadri seems to allow the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts...

    Kadri seems a bit lost without Frats out there (almost like Kessel without Lupul) - without a guy going where you know that guy can be successful, makes it harder not to second guess yourself (and miss opportunities). I hope Matt's minor knee procedure has gone well and we can see him back in the lineup before he needs more 'conditioning' again.

    BTW, I really think something special could be done at the winter classic oldtimers game, where players from both Toronto and Detroit could be honoured (they were gonna' have two squads from each team weren't they? so even more opportunity to lengthen a ceremony in front of an exhibition game). If we don't see something like you suggested in that context, then I would love to see the oldtimers honoured as you suggested in our own building before non-season ticket holding longtime fans giving our heroes a proper ovation! Great idea!

    Another note on retiring numbers: When I was growing up, dreaming of being a player in the NHL, I would very much have hoped to wear the number of my hero, if I was that kind of player. What could be a greater honour to someone like Keon than to reserve his number for a player of his caliber who would change to that number in a ceremony with both players present. As an example of what I'm thinking, imagine acquiring the kind of player that we all desire... a John Tavares (or even a Jonathan Toews, who Keon himself noted 'especially appreciating' in a pre-game interview) then having that player honour the heritage and historical significance of a Dave Keon and changing a 19 or 91 for the number 14 during a short but significant ceremony that finally raises Dave's 14 to the rafters. It could be quite memorable!

    Perhaps Dave is correct in wanting the Leafs to honour significant contributions like the Habs do, but I just don't see it happening exactly like they do it. I truly appreciate your perspective, too, and wonder if we couldn't have our cake and eat it too!

  14. Yes, Frattin seems to be the "choix du jour", InTimeFor62!

    I appreciate your comments on the question of retiring numbers. Not an easy thing, I well recognize. I'm of the belief that, if the Leafs had done the "right thing" and retired a few numbers (including Keon's) years ago, he would no doubt happily do like Ace Bailey and give his blessing to a worthy player to wear the number again. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

  15. ahh... therein lies the rub! The passage of time compounding the dishonour of the man, his skills, dedication, leadership and the banishment to the WHA (controlling his future without a contract offer) are damages that are hard to imaging 'forgiving and forgetting' when so many media keep poking the old injuries like it's just up to him to solve the problem.

    The organization does have to take responsibility for their 'sins' and do something to make the man whole... if that means retiring his number and asking him to consider a Ron Ellis/Ace Bailey permission in the future, then I think the team should look at talking to each of the other's whose banners fly in the ACC to ensure we don't alienate anyone else in the process.

    The more I think about your points, the more I think Keon is a special case who could enjoy his remaining years with great joy and fan appreciation if the organization would finally make this right. Man... an apology and right behaviour can go a long way to make this world a better place. I'd love to see a smiling Keon with a healing tear in his eye... Bet I'm not alone.

    Thanks for adding so much (with all your articles and comments) to my thoughts on the subject, Michael!

    Do you know anyone currently with the Leafs that you could get on Leaf matters and have a theoretical discussion on the subject... or is that too much to hope?!

  16. Thank you for recognizing my thoughts on this subject, InTimeFor62. I do indeed think Keon is a special case. No other Leaf was the all-around player he was in his era but beyond that, none of the others that helped win those four Cups were treated as shabbily as he was - and that falls on Ballard. Pulford was traded to the Kings and Mahovlich was dealt to the Wings, Horton to the Rangers. etc. but the manner in which Keon -as Captain - was essentially shoved out the door by Ballard was stunning in its lack of class.

    As you say, it's easy to say he should forgive and forget, but when have the Leafs said "sorry"; when did they make this situation "whole", as you put it. He was singularly abused by Ballard. Sittler was traded and so was McDonald, but neither won four Cups, was Cup MVP or played for the blue and white for 15 seasons.

    I think the scenario you suggest would be wonderful, and I'm sure Keon would endorse that, but it won't happen.

    As for speaking with someone from MLSE, I believe we would get the usual public relations spin, and I'm not interested in that. Thank you for some really nice thoughts.

  17. I never really thought about it before, but the Conn Smythe trophy didn't come into existence until after Keon's first 3 cups... he could easily have won in '63, so should be considered even more deserving of honour and respect.

    I started wondering if the Smythe family had Dave in mind when they brought forward the trophy for the MVP... perhaps Stafford's daughter would know (if the genesis of the award is unknown to you, too. I couldn't find anything on the motive for the award when I took a cursory look).

    Funny how one thought foments another!