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After a letdown in Winnipeg, is it time for Jake Gardiner—and some roster tweaking—in Leafland?

Now, more than ever, is when the blue and white need their fans to focus less on criticism and more on good old-fashioned support for the team.  This is not to suggest we, as fans, aren’t allowed to be frustrated when the team struggles.  We all observe things with our own eyes, and like to play armchair coach or General Manager.  That’s fine. As you often hear me say, this is all part of the fun of being a fan.  We think about line configurations, matchups and possible trades all the time.

It’s in our blood as Leaf fans.

For my part, I’ve been following this franchise for well over fifty seasons.  I’ve worked with many players and NHL coaches in a professional capacity, and I’d like to think I have some understanding about a few of the nuances of this sport.  But I would never, ever think that I have enough knowledge to truly believe I know anywhere near as much as a coach.

So when Randy Carlyle (or any other experienced NHL coach) makes roster decisions and in-game spur-of-the-moment moves, I fully trust that he is utilizing years and years of experience that I—and most any fan—could and will never have.

Could he make “mistakes”?  Of course.  But I’ll take Carlyle any day over we fans, however much we may think we know about statistics or anything else. (Trust me, coaches are well aware of all the stats.  They may downplay how much they rely on them, but in this day and age, coaching is a combination of experience, psychology, history, roster awareness, and yes, all the accumulated film study and data that coaching staffs pore over every day…)

Through 27 games, the Leafs have played, in my view, a better brand of hockey than they did in the second half of last season.  I realize that’s not much of a bar to surpass, but the team is better.  I sense the attitude is strong, and while they are a flawed roster and make a lot of mistakes, they usually play hard and try to do the little things needed to win.

That they don’t always succeed is, well, to be expected.  They aren’t the ’77 Habs, after all.  What NHL team—even the elite squads— win every night, or even play well every night?

That said, on the heels of this mini-stumble, fans naturally wonder about certain moves made by our coach.  I don’t question Carlyle.  In fact, I think he has done wonders with a still-limited roster.  I don’t believe our talent level is all that high—not when I switch channels and watch what I consider to be truly elite NHL teams play.  But our roster is OK.  Some nice players, some skill, some grit.  Maybe a few guys perhaps playing over the head and a few not playing as well as we would have hoped.  The Leafs have done OK—better than a lot of us thought, even given this still-small sample size. (And hey, would the Leafs have won against the Jets if Grabovski had scored right after Kessel tied it up early in the second period?  Instead the Jets come down the ice and score themselves.  Not scoring on the five-on-three didn’t help…)

But I do ask this question:  is it time for us to get Jake Gardiner back into the lineup?  I know this is, as I keep saying, an experimental year for Carlyle.  We’re playing with house money in the sense that no one expected this crew to make the playoffs.  Don’t forget, a lot of us forget many fans were on the “tank” bandwagon so we could acquire one of those tremendous-looking for prospects at the draft in June.  And I’m sure any one of those top draft-eligible guys would help the Leafs down the road.

Still Morgan Rielly is already on the way, and again, there are some nice pieces here right now.

For now, though, I ask again:  waiver considerations aside, is it time for Gardiner? 

If you were in Carlyle’s shoes, what other tweaks would you consider?  I like Kadri playing where he is right now (less pressure, lower expectations, not facing the best checkers, etc..) but would you move him up?  Would you move some other pieces around, just to see if there is a fit?

I know Carlyle is trying to get Grabovski and Kulemin kick-started on offense.  Neither has been a constant threat, at least not as much as we would expect for what they’re earning.  They’re decent players who are drawing tough assignments, but we still do need a bit more, I think.

As much as anything, this is when Leaf supporters have to show their support.  We all know what happened a year ago, and it was not fun for Leaf fans.  This has been a fragile organization for years.  This year’s team has actually played with more confidence, however, showing the capacity to hold leads—and also an ability to come from behind.

Is this our first “crisis” of a, until now, startlingly impressive (although some would ask, “how did we manage to get this far…good luck, good goaltending have saved us…”) season?  A crisis as in, two losses and a tie in our last three games, our first “three- game” (if you include an OT loss) losing streak.  And with the suddenly hot Penguins up next (on the backs of their impressive comeback against the Bruins Tuesday night), the Leafs now face a tough game—and a fan reaction that may begin to see a little panic before the team does.

Heck, it was only a game ago that we were thrilled with the comeback against the Penguins.  And before that, Carlyle felt his team played about as well as they have all season in Boston.  So it is precisely after games like the one in Winnipeg when fans have to stay the course.  I’d like to think the Leafs would receive an old-time standing ovation when they hit the ice against Sid and the Penguins on Thursday night. 

Personally, I trust management—and Carlyle—to make any adjustments as they see fit.  I’ve said here for some time we’ll see Gardiner when injuries mount.  We can debate whether he should have already been here by now, but the team has more than survived without him, just as they have survived without Lupul. (We should recall that Gardiner was here last season when the team went south, though he was a bright light.)

Now is the time for the Leafs—the players, Carlyle and Nonis—to prove they are in fact better than last year’s version of the blue and white.  Whether that means believing in what they already have and sticking with the status quo, altering the roster somewhat, moving in Gardiner, whatever, let’s play our part as fans. 

When times get a bit tough for a team is when they need help more than ever.  And now is the time to help make sure 2012-’13 doesn’t finish like 2011-’12.


  1. Michael,

    That was another disheartening game. I am not sure that they need any more support than I am already giving them. I watch, I cheer when they score or do something good. I swear at them when they don't. Maybe I should send them a gift, or small token of my appreciation.

    I think you are falling victim to the same ailment that a lot of Leaf fans do. The next guy is always better syndrome. There is zero reason for Gardiner to be in a Leaf uniform at this point. He is doing ok points wise, but not tearing it up so to speak. I am sure that Eakins hasn't run out of things to teach him. Is this your thought on the matter? Doesn't Liles deserve a chance to play himself into the lineup, if someone needs to sit? At least to improve his trade value? Besides who gets to sit, if Gardiner comes up? You have extolled the virtues of Kostka all year, Fraser is a coaches favourite, Gunner is playing better, maybe it is Phaneuf you would espouse sitting?

    You are usually a voice of reason with respect to rushing the kids into the big leagues. Why Gardiner, and why now, most importantly?

    As to what else Carlyle can do in order to tweak his roster. Why not sit some of the forwards who still can't make a decent effort in their own zone. I am so sick of hearing how talented these forwards are offensively. They are unlucky, or snakebitten. They wouldn't need to score so often if they would make even a cursory effort to keep the puck out of their own net.

    As a final thought, I don't really see any correlation between fans being positive and the performance of their favourite team.

  2. I think it's fair to say there is no correlation between, as you say, fans being positive and the team's success. But I'd like to see the crowd at the ACC try to pump these guys up. Confidence is a fragile thing and fan support can't hurt.

    The Gardiner thing is an interesting discussion. I'm not a fan of changing rosters for the heck of it. I'm not sure if any one defenseman should be "benched" or demoted based on their play of late, but I do wonder why a guy who was one of our best all-around performers last year is not even good enough to be in the lineup.

    I'll trust Carlyle to tinker with the roster. A win Thursday and Leaf world will look and feel better! Thanks Jim.

  3. Carlyle seemed to be sending a message to the team when he pulled James after the Kane goal... Reimer had given the guys a chance, but the finish wasn't there (beyond Kessel tonight).

    Given that we saw some strong play in the previous games (if not for 60 minutes, then at least enough to receive some praise from the coach), it would be hard to make a significant change in the lineup. On the other hand, the inconsistencies plus 3 losses may provide the justification to do just that.

    If Gardiner comes up now, he won't be going back down again (with only 2 or 3 more NHL games til he'd have to clear waivers on the way back down. Has Eakins accomplished everything he can on the defensive side? Would a few more games make a difference in that regard?

    Gards seems back to his former level, so the short term pain for long term gain trade-off may just be the reason we haven't seen him yet.

    Does this give a legitimate reason to bring Liles and Komi back into the lineup, both as a reward for their work and attitude AND to show the rest of the league scouts there might be some reason NOT to dismiss the idea of a trade?

    Perhaps a few games in the pressbox wouldn't be such a bad idea for Holzer (and maybe Kostka)... it really helped Gardiner mid-season when he seemed a bit overwhelmed last year!

    If we're considering not signing (or actually trading) Bozak then a mix might be good to try before doing whichever deed. Bozie could try the shutdown role, Kadri could try 1C and Grabo could have a little fun on the 3rd line, ready to trade with Kadri if he's over his head there.

    Seems a little mix and match might help, though I wonder if it's wise to do against Pittsburg (since we just had a significant comeback in the last matchup). Of course, we'll probably see Lupul in the next week, so things are gonna' change anyway. Maybe one more game to show we can play a full 60 minutes with Pittsburgh, is the last shot for the present configuration. If Randy disagrees... we'll see changes for the Penguins game.

  4. There's no question once Gardiner returns he's here to stay, InTimeFor62. As Jim says no one is "the answer" and I'm not sure this team needs an answer as such. The same players that won before can and will no doubt win again.

    Mostly I'm wondering if Carlyle will indeed tweak things a bit. I still believe he is watching and assessing, and seeing what he has - and doesn't have, for when he really wants to go for it- and that is next year and beyond.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Not panicking yet but there should be some adjustment made. I am however not advocating getting Gardiner up just yet. Although I think he is the best D not playing right now, I think the reinsertion of Lyle should be done first. Barring a trade, it would be hard to bring Gardiner up without some bad optics and team morale given that Lyle and Komosarik is sitting patiently throughout the season. Lyle is similar player and I think it definitely gives the leafs a much better transition game with someone like him in the line up.

    As for Kadri, I think he can handle the assignment being on the first line however I don't think it would be in his best interest to do so. He's still learning and building his game. He needs to continue to develop and protected. What I'd like to see though is his insertion on 1st line PP. Kadri is much more creative and dangerous and will still be protected. Don't get me wrong, I like Bozak as he is very versatile but in terms of skill-set, Kadri is much better.

    All in all, the Leafs slide haven't been that bad....yet. It is simply that they have not executed when opportunity presents and the other teams has unlike when they were winning consistently. Watching the Boston game last night clearly show that elite teams rarely make mistakes and they execute when opportunity arises.

  6. I sense a number of Leaf fans would like Kadri to get more PP time, Lukas. I'm with you, I'd like to see him continue his growth arc without the burden of first-line expectations.

    You make a fair point about Liles waiting his turn, and the optics of Gardiner being parachuted into the lineup ahead of him.

    They're still in good shape. Standings will be fluid, I imagine, the rest of the way!

  7. Anyone else have an uncomfortable "deja vu all over again" experience last night?
    From where I sit, line-up tweaks aren't going to do it. I've been asking for a while now - when was the last game you saw the Leafs dominate another team? Like the Jets did to us last night? I can think of maybe three games this year where we've been dominant. Otherwise, the team compete factor required to get to the next level isn't there. Last night was a great example of what we've seen many, many times: Ladd runs a lot of our guys and no-one takes him on until he trips Phaneuf and Dion fights him. From that point on, the Jets took every opportunity to hit Phaneuf, with no rebuttal from our guys. Where were the rest of the Leafs?
    This isn't about fighting, this is about having some fight in your game. A guy playing in Junior who's pushed off the puck even at that level is not the answer, despite his skating and passing ability. (And let's not forget - it was Carlyle who was coaching the Ducks when Anaheim let him go). Last year it was Kadri who was going to help - but look how he benefited from his time with the Marlies. Frattin, too. Why rush Gardiner now, with no possibility of sending him back? I agree with those who think Liles or Komi should get a shot - if for no other reason than to showcase them for the April trade that will inevitably come. (By the way, I'll bet that #FreeJakeGardiner tweet from his agent didn't go over well at Leafs HQ).
    I keep reminding myself - breathe. This year we're a "work in progress". As other teams are starting to find their game, we're starting to look a little unravelly.
    I agree with the thought that this year is a free pass for Carlyle. Expectations are low. He has 42 games to clearly delineate what we have and what we need. That's why not making the playoffs won't make this an unsuccessful season for me. This year. But I sense the honeymoon is ending for him with the fans here, and if we don't see results next year, it's going to get downright Wilson-y!

    1. Agreed on team toughness. It should never be acceptable for any to run or take a shot at your teammate. I'd be willing to go short handed every single time to ensure that the opponent is aware that it would not be tolerated. Colton Orr or McClaren cannot be on ice all the time so everyone must step up. Team toughness is not one or two players but as a whole.

      From where I sit, the leafs lacks this cohesiveness. I remembered Kessel being bowled over right in front of the bench and no leafs came to his immediate aid. You can never let that happen let alone when it comes to one of your best player. Last night when Kessel was mugged thus losing his helmet, the only response was a little scrum. Try that on the Boston team and everyone on that team will kill you.

      I suspect this had to do with Phaneuf captaincy. I don't think he is respected even within the dressing room. When you don't come to other people's aid no one comes to yours.

  8. I have to agree with Jim on Gardiner. Bringing him up doesn't really solve anything, will mess with our D's "chemistry" and someone who has earned a spot will have to go down just because we want to see the kid with the big team.

    As I stated before (and I'm afraid I was sort of right) the players returning from injury made it worse before they made it better. When Gunner came back he needed a couple of games to get his play back, played poorly and we lost. Now the same with Frattin (he's looked very out of place). When Lupul returns will it be the same? Gardiner?

    In no way am I saying we don't need them and aren't better with them, but can we afford to stumble in a short season? Lke I said yesterday about fighting, It's very tricky.

    As for Reimer... I like him. But he's returned to his routine of ducking away from shots and staring at the ice for 2 seconds after something goes wrong. Didn't look confident the last 2 games. He also has to just let the puck go behind the net, he does more harm than good when he goes behind the net (as does Scrivens).

    Re-focus. That's all I think we need. Gather the troops and remind them how it was done before.

  9. I like the "fight in your game" phrase Gerund O'. That's the ticket. We need that in our game every night.

    I absolutely believe (as I've said here before) that this is Carlyle's "experiment" year. Of course he is trying to win games every night, but he also wants to know what he has and what he needs next year.

    Now that the team has had a bit of success, expectations have jumped and that may result in, as you suggest, a jumpstart to the end of the "honeymoon" phase for Carlyle when the team struggles a bit. Thanks Gerund.

  10. I think they will re-focus, portuguese leaf. One good win (Pittsburgh would be timely!) could help trigger better overall team play heading toward the end of the regular season.

  11. That's an issue few want to talk about, Lukas- whether Dion is the kind of team leader that others actually follow. I have my own thoughts but I'll say nothing for now.

    1. It is very strange that this topic has never been raised. When SI came out with the most over-rated player and no.3 was at the top, the local media didn't go do much with it. Whether or not Burke or MLE exerted their influence or not, it was strange that no one really spoke at length on this.

      I don't have a dislike for Phaneuf in a sense that he is a good player bordering on the elite. The problem I see is that he is playing or put in a position that is really not his forte.

      Looking at his stats during his first very successful 3 years in Calgary, we can see that they had a very good group of Defenders. I don't have his average on ice time but I am confident it is much less prior his arrival in Toronto.

      I just don't think he should be playing such high minutes and on top of that, against top lines all the time. He is a probably a victim of circumstances given the roster but I just think he would be much more effective playing less minutes and with a playing partner that are basic positional player. When that happens, I would be betting that we will see a plus player and one that will deliver those devastating hits on a regular basis. When the opposition think twice before entering your zone, you will be that much more effective.

      As for his captaincy, I really think it was a huge mistake on Burke's part to anoint him practically immediately upon his arrival. Leadership is earned and never given. Whether or not your boss thinks you're the right person or not, the opinion that truly matters are those you command. I just don't think the room is sold on him.

      A quote I find fitting in Dion's case is the Wolf from Pulp Fiction:
      "Just because you're a character doesn't mean you have character"

      I don't have any inside information on whether the team is really behind Phaneuf or not but there has been many on ice incidences where there were clear lack of both respect and leadership. As such, the adage applies - where there is smoke, there is fire.

      Whether you agree with me or not, I look forward to your perspective.

  12. I'll post on this in the near future, Lukas. I do remember saying here after Phaneuf was acquired that he would be Burke's guy as captain and that's what happened. For me, he's a good NHL player but I'm waiting to see exactly how he is a "leader". It's possible he will grow into the role, but I struggle to see him as a captain. For someone to be a leader, teammates have to follow. I'm not sure that is happening.