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Is the “progress” of the Maple Leafs real—or imagined? Here’s how I see it…

One of the things about being a Leaf fan:  there is an endless opportunity to debate any and all issues.  Of late, the social media debate has been centered on whether this team has “really” improved from last season.

Some feel the progress is obvious.  After their shootout loss at home against the Penguins Saturday night, the Leafs are solidly in a “playoff berth” in the Eastern Conference, based on the current standings (though we know they were last season as well, until they hit a wall from February on.  I believe they have about the same number of points as they did after 26 games a season ago).  A new coach has demanded a smarter, simpler break-out game, with more defensive structure—at least on paper.  The goaltending has been better, as has the penalty killing (yes the two are inter-connected).

Now those who take an opposing view suggest Carlyle is being credited with far too much; that the Leafs remain a sloppy squad, prone to mistakes.  And the claim seems to be based on some statistical evidence (chances given up, scoring chances, etc.) and the conclusion appears to be that the difference between last season and this is simple:  the goaltending is better, therefore the team has had good results. (There is also the criticism of Carlyle's roster deployment.  But I'll leave that discussion for another day.)

For me, this is a very different Leaf squad.  Oh, I’m well aware the faces in some cases are obviously the same.  And I can’t miss the give-aways and fretful moments in our own zone.  Heck, if we’re honest, even the goaltending, while much improved, has been uneven at times.  (It certainly was in the early going against the Penguins on Saturday night).  We're not all sitting back in our rocking chairs relaxed and feeling like "it's all good" every game, that the goaltending will be flawless and the team will play mistake-free.

But how can we say this is the “same old Leafs” when, for example,  Kadri has emerged as a legitimate "secondary" impact player in his first  full season with the team?  (On that note, how many times, whether he gets an assist or not, does Kadri make a pass in the offensive zone and it leads to a goal on that shift?  He has a knack for finding the dead spots in the defense and getting there at the right moment, and also finding open teammates in the same fashion.  The young man anticipates awfully well.  He's had a stellar start to this season and plays with an edge, too.)

Can we say it’s the same old Leafs when journeyman Mark Fraser has suddenly become a steadying influence on the backline?  And he is exactly that—a calm, sure presence on the back end.  Is this the same bunch when we see how Jay McClement and Leo Komarov have provided more grit, more of an  edge and have finished more checks than we have witnessed in these parts in almost a decade? 

Throw in that as much as people want to slam Mike Kostka, the guy continues to play significant minutes and acquit himself well. If he’s only “an AHL player”, then let’s admit that there are a ton of serviceable but yes, replaceable players now in the NHL, among defenseman and the forward ranks, right across the league.  Check any 5/6 defensemen on virtually any NHL team, and you have players who most NHL coaches would rather never see on the ice, but someone has to play those minutes.

In Toronto, I like what Kostka has done.  He’s really 3/4 defender now and I think he’s been fine all season, not just lately.  Bumps along the road, of course, but c’mon, the guy had never played in the NHL before.  Who cares how old he is?  It’s an adjustment for anyone.  That he’s still here and playing as much as he is tells us Carlyle sees something.  And I’ll say it again:  I’m not afraid to criticize coaches, but I’ll admit the obvious:  I’m no coach.  And in this case, I’ll respect the notion that Carlyle may know a bit more about what he needs on his blueline than folks who study zone charts and graphs in their spare time to determine if someone is “NHL worthy” or not.  I say Kostka is—right now.  He doesn’t panic, is pretty darn good with the puck.  He’s not showing the “flair” he did earlier in the season, but that’s OK.  Will he slide back?  Who knows.  Let’s talk in a year.

Against the Penguins in the first period, McClement helped killed off a potentially dangerous five-on-three.  Would we have felt that was even possible a year ago against the skilled Penguins, led by a determined Sidney Crosby- much less have it happen?  But we killed it off.

Yes, Reimer struggled at times, but name a goalie this season that hasn’t some nights.  Heck, Luongo looked great over many games, but blew up a few days back.  It’s been the same with just about every other netminder in the league.  Not many guys pitching shutouts every night. 

Rebound control?  Glove issues?  Sure, Reimer fights the puck sometimes, but he also fights.  So does Scrivens.  No one figured we had Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent in goal this season.  But for now, we should be pleased with what our goaltenders have done.  I am, anyway.  And I’ll say it again:  when the game is close, Reimer has a knack for not giving up the “next one”.  That was a trait of his rookie season, and he has shown that crucial capability again this season. With less than five minutes to go, Neal (I think it was Neal) was at the crease all alone and Reimer made a huge save.  The Leafs went down the ice and scored the equalizer.  That’s big time goaltending at key moments and it gave us a point we needed badly in the playoff chase.

This organizaiton has been pretty lucky the past few seasons when it comes to injuries.  A lot of other teams in the East had to fight through major injuries and Toronto didn’t have to work through as much as many of their opponents did (yes, losing Reimer clearly was devastating a year ago).  But this year, we lost Gardiner, Lupul and Frattin, and have continued to win games and put up points.  Could we have done that in previous seasons?

I’m hardly ready to pronounce this squad an elite team.  But I keep wondering:  who can’t we beat?  The Penguins have given up an absurd numbers of goals.  So have the Flyers.  And going into the season, they were considered two of the top teams in the East.  Sure, the Rangers will likely be tough down the stretch and into the playoffs, and the Bruins have been our nemesis.  But that’s only two teams.  Who else aren't we incapable of beating, even in a playoff series, if we get decent goaltending—and if, in turn, we help our goalie out?

We have three lines that can score goals; we kill penalties better.  We hit more.  The power play looked pretty darn good against Pittsburgh. 

Sure the team makes mistakes.  But nowadays, as much as coaches talk about minimizing mistakes, the truth is that it is a game of mistakes.  That’s why goals are scored.  Every team in the East has major roster flaws and are eminently imperfect.  They all give up plenty of goals, including the usually defensively sound Devils.

The Leafs make their share of mistakes, of course.  We can all see that.  No system prevents all human error.  I could write a long story about the things I think they need to do better, and I’ll likely do that before the playoffs get underway.  But right now, we’re talking about regular-season hockey, and the Leafs are getting results despite not playing a complete 60-minute game very often.  Whether that means they are a “good” team or, as I’ve said all year, that the East is pretty mediocre, you tell me.

But for me, the Leafs are better than they were two years ago, and better than they were last season.  I see a different team.  I see that we have several players who can score, can make plays (Frattin, Kessel, Kadri, van Riemsdyk, etc.) and those who have that nasty element to their game as well, including the aforementioned Komarov who hits anything that moves.  And players like Kulemin and Grabovski and Bozak are being asked to do a tough job—and most of the time, they’re doing it.

Our best players are playing pretty hard (yes, Kessel sometimes is not as intense as we might like, but he is what he is—if our stars were as disinterested as Malkin has been most of the time in the games against the Leafs this season, we wouldn’t be very happy…).  The worker bees are working. (For the record, I thought Gunnarsson played his heart out Saturday night…)

A great team?  No.  But better than they have been in recent years?  Yes.


  1. Well I think the Leafs are benefitting from some pretty lucky bounces this year and I credit a lot of their wins so far this year to much better goaltending. All that said I do think they are progressing. I don't think they are as good as they seem right now but as I have said repeatedly they are on the right track. In a couple of years maybe even next year this team is going to be good maybe even very good. So while I am not as bullish on the team right now as you are Michael, I still believe that they are better and getting better.

    As for Kostka, I was one of those guys who wasn't all that keen on him at the start of the year. I though he was playing way to much and in all the wrong situations. I also said that as the year went on I suspected that his ice time would diminish and he would settle into a servicable 4-5 defenseman. Which in my opinion is exactly where he is being played now. No longer being played on the top line or on the first powerplay unit he is a perfectly good depth dman. Exactly what any team that wants to compete needs to have.

    I'm really not sure about Carlyle as of yet. He does seem too be fairly rigid in his thinking sometimes, such as force feeding Holzer on the first line just so he can have one right shot, one left shot even though Holzer is clearly not up to first line duty (Holzer is another guy who would be perfectly fine as a depth 5-6 guy not so good on number one line). I know the Leafs are winning but I think the old adage applies here, show me good goaltending and I'll show you a good coach. Oh well they are doing better than I hoped they would this year and I'm really excited about next year when Gardiner and Rielly are here.

  2. I guess I fall back on my standard thought of late, Willbur. This year doesn't really matter. It is an experimental season for Carlyle. I mean, it does matter in the sense that I do feel it's crucial that we make the playoffs if only t provide this group with a taste of what it will be like to play tough games against decent teams when it matters. Right now, they are playing a fairly pain-free stretch of opponents, including Pittsburgh, who give up a lot of goals.

    I do see the same backline as you next year, Willbur, with Rielly and Gardiner, Phaneuf and Fraser and a lot of other decent guys to choose from for the other two slots.

    And yes, good goaltending is import an.t Great goaltending even better.

  3. have you ever gone to work Michael and everything you did went wrong? well like all of us these guys can have off days, they make mistakes and are not perect. the team did not quit tonight and battled hard to get the point. After the first period I said I would be glad if they were able to get the point. Reimer looked a bit shakey early but he battled and helped us get that point and isn't that what you want to see? When we don't see their A game and yet they find a way. You mentioned Gunnerson but I thought Franson was good and Kessel played his best game this year,wanting the puck and wanting to be the difference maker. I was glad to see him get the tying goal.It was an exciting game against an elite team. Five out of eight points available this week, I'll take that any time. We have a good team which is going to be there this year,lots of chsrsvter guys that won't quit. Lets enjoy it!

  4. I guess you kind of answered your own question, Michael. They can't beat the Bruins. They aren't getting dominated by them any more, but they are definitely still a step behind. So moving forward, any progress and changes in personnel they make has to be with the thought in mind that they can beat anyone and everyone. After all, you don't build a team that aspires to second place.

    I too remain optimistic with what I have seen. I also certainly don't have the time to break down corsi stats and all that. I do get gut instincts however and I think they count for something. What those instincts tell me is that a lead is a lot more safe in the third period this year, and by and large it has been true. My instinct watching last night was not of panic as they fell behind, I just knew they'd get their chance to catch up.

    I don't think last night's game was particularly strong for Reimer, and overall he has proven to be fairly steady if unspectacular. But that is all he and Scrivens have really needed to be. In the past few years our goalies have had to steal too many games stopping odd man rushes that you'd need two hands to count. That isn't the case anymore, and that to me is indicative of a team playing defense in front of their goalie. As I am not a coach either and watching on TV maybe doesn't give me a full perspective, I still have to rely on unconventional means to rate our defensemen. That is, I hardly notice them out there, yet they are doing the job.

  5. Well said, purch. It's been a fun season already, for sure. Thanks for chiming in.

  6. Nobody looks at more film, studies stats and all that than an NHL coaching staff. They are well aware of who does what in certain circumstances, who matches up (usually) best against whom, etc..

    In addition, they have and utilize their own "instincts", like we do as fans.

    I trust that Carlyle knows what he's doing. His choices may not always work out, but he still, let's be honest, has a somewhat limited roster. There is a decent blend of skill, smarts and grit. They are winning games, playing the same teams as everyone else in the East and doing OK. We're seeing what we need to see in a year with no expectations- and probably more than most expected. Thanks Pete, solid post as always.

  7. Hey Michael,

    Progress. That's a word I feel that gets kicked under the rug when it comes to talking about the Leafs' current state. Goals against are down, goal scoring is presumably up, and our even strength game has improved.

    I took a look at the last several years of even strength ratios and this is what I get from

    2008-09: 0.89
    2009-10: 0.94
    2010-11: 0.94
    2011-12: 0.86
    2013: 1.06 (it was at 1.3 about two weeks ago)

    Top teams generate roughly 1.3 ratio over the course of a season just for context. Of course, when you factor in the Leafs tepid penalty kill over the years, it snowballs.

    However, the penalty kill has hidden a lot of our issues. Flying Spaghetti Monster bless Jay McClement -- that man has been a horse. The Closer, The Wolf, Mr. Everything, etc. Just clutch when we're short a man. As a whole, we are now 7th overall in penalty killing proficiency and we have Mr. Everything to thank for that. When you got a closer like McClement eating up the short-handed minutes and giving the team a chance to get back into that game, how do you even contextualise his value to the Leafs? Just a terrific signing on so many different levels. To me, progress can be found directly through McClement's body of work this season. The trickle down effect he provides as a penalty killer and a shutdown specialist gives the top lines more breathing room to get away from having to face the opposition's first line every night and constantly having to produce short a goal or two. We're understaffed, but we're making the best of it.

    I have never liked the defense as it stands right now, but that opinion is generally due to the lack of a finesse puck mover who can skate or pass his way out of dangerous situations. We don't have that at the moment. I mentioned on twitter not too long ago that I would like to see how Rielly and Gardiner change the complexion of the way we defend. I feel that puck possession, while important to scoring and generating chances, also limits chances against. Many of you remember classic Kaberle post-Janssen and will recall his ability to elude forecheckers and shut down a team's dump and chase method. Well, we don't really have that today. Gardiner and Rielly would be two defensemen who could offer Carlye a way to adjust to offenses trying to take advantage of our defense's inability to defend against different systems. As of today, the Leafs are 26th overall in shots against per game. That has to change. We're not going to be successful attempting to short pass our way out of being hemmed in our own end.

    Another example of progress? Kessel. His effort level is a microcosm of the team's overall buy-in of Carlyle's demands for two-way responsibility. He was a horse last night and out played everyone on the ice.

    Overall, the team has warts, but we're getting closer. We're *somehow* continue to win games and grab points, so I guess the stretch drive to the playoffs will dictate what this team is down the road. Carlyle seems to be 'experimenting' as you pointed out last week, but of course, there are some questionable decisions on his part. Hopefully those decisions play out for the better.


  8. You hit lots of nails on the head today, Anon (MorrganRielly). I can't imagine there is a Leaf fan out there who hasn't come to appreciate McClement. Some have been mentioning him here all season long; others have been later adopters but everyone can see the guy plays the game "the right way"- hard and smart.

    It just proves, I guess, that lower-profile UFA signings can be awfully important. It's not always about hitting the home run, though fans have a natural and understandable tendency to want that.

    My sense is that Gardiner and Rielly will indeed, as you suggest, be here next season. People perhaps forget just how good Kaberle was in his prime at skating away from trouble. And his first pass skills were elite. (He had other issues, but in those areas he was awfully good...) Those young mobile defensemen could change the face of the team. We'd still need toughness from Phaneuf and Fraser and others but it could help.

    Excellent stuff, MorrganRielly. Thank you for visiting on a quiet Sunday.

  9. I was very encouraged to see that JVR is capable of ‘laying on the body’ – wow – what a check on Malkin. If we see a bit more of that, along with what he is already doing, I could get even more excited. In the context of that hit, did you hear the fans?! If this was a playoff game (rather than regular season with its shootout resolution), I think we would have taken the game… we had created the momentum that leads to wins in the playoffs.

    I make this observation at this time because I had previously noted the idea of an in-season best-of-7 series leading to the 'cup' at this point of the season where we are up to the 4th such series (having won the previous 3: 4-3; 4-2, and; 4-3). I was awaiting the true ‘Stanley Cup’ test for this ‘in season final’ against the Bruins and Penguins… though we lost to both, this final ‘series’ is still at 3-3. With Winnipeg in the offing for Game 7 (which is not the same as bringing home the cup against Boston or Pittsburg). I must note, however, that there are no shootouts in the playoffs, so we were ‘in the mix’ for my ‘cup’ hopes. Yes, there is much left to do against the premier teams in the league, but I like the progress we’re making.

    I will focus on one player you mentioned, Michael, and will say I have little doubt that Mike Kostka will begin to show some more flare after he has ‘made the adjustment to the NHL.’ He has clearly shown those instincts in the AHL and I believe he is a character guy that has done his time in the “A” and is willing to do EXACTLY what Randy asks of him. When he has more games under his belt, I suggest we’ll see Mike gain confidence and begin to deploy some of his other weapons. I see his steadiness of play, character and attitude as far more important (in establishing the identity of the team Carlyle wants) than any of the apparent situational deficiencies that his critics would trot out. He does make mistakes… but they are rarely more than the kind we see on a faceoff… somebody has to win and 58% success is considered ‘elite’, so I wonder why so many focus upon apparent failure, rather than the success of the opponent who creates an opportunity.

    In Kostka, I see a very positive attitude (and someone trained in psychology) that may have a greater impact (especially amongst his fellow Marlie grads) than may be apparent to observers who are ‘not in the room’. On the ice, I see a defender who makes many more good decisions than bad… I don’t blame him for the bizarre bounces of that characterize the indian rubber disc we follow, and I believe we have a guy who quickly ‘bounces back’ from any of the supposed failures that we observe. I think we will see more from him and imagine he may play with Gardiner again… we did just see Franson with Phaneuf… perhaps the mix master Randy will try some new tunes shortly.

    This is not to say I am unhappy with Gunnarson or Fraser, just thinking we may see some other combinations before the year is out.

  10. Loved that post, InTimeFor62. I see Kostka, right now, as a player who deserves to be here. And even if we infuse Rielly and Gardiner into the lineup a year from now, (and yes, we will need some toughness on the backline, too), he still may be a fit- for the reasons you so correctly cite above.

    Thanks InTimeFor62.