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VLM post number 1,200: As the playoffs loom for the Leafs, 20 pre-trade deadline blue and white observations

I’ll get to the point today, on the occasion of the 1,200th post here at VLM since the site was launched in September, 2009.  There are plenty of things to like about the current edition of the Maple Leafs—and some things that may still leave folks shaking their heads.  But that said, there is finally hope, rather than despair, in Leafworld.

Now, let's keep our unbridled enthusiasm (to borrow a Seinfeld reference...) somewhat in check.  This is a team that has not won a playoff game in almost ten years.  This is a different Leaf squad, for sure.  But as much as I've been saying for weeks that they can make the playoffs (and now it's clear they will), that is, for me, the low-hanging fruit.  Playoff success is what it's about. That's when real progress is determined- not the make-believe kind against lousy competition.

So as we get down to that nervous time, the hockey “stretch run” and the playoffs, here are some across-the-board thoughts on the blue and white:

  1. As I believe I inferred here recently and also mentioned in a “Leaf Matters” podcast, I’m neither worried about nor fully inspired (yet) by this team.  In my mind they are not quite good enough to “worry” about, nor are they bad enough to think there is no future.  What do I mean?  Back in the Quinn years, I knew we had a pretty darn good team every year, and believed—really believed—that with a few breaks, we could advance to the finals and maybe win it all any given year in the playoffs.  We came awfully close in 1999 and 2002.  In those days I fretted over crucial mistakes because the stakes were truly high.  Right now, they feel high—but in truth, they are not, not yet, anyway.  Now, if they make noise in the playoffs...
  2. On that note:  are the playoffs important this season?  Yes, they are.  It would not have been a colossal failure if the Leafs didn’t make it—very few of us expected they would, after all—but given where they are now, yes, they "need" to make it. And as I've said here all season,  I’ll take playoff exposure for young players over dreaming of a lottery “win” in the draft.
  3. James Reimer has not always been quite as good as I’d hoped this season, but nowhere near as bad as some fans suggested when the Leafs were giving up too many goals a few games back.  No, he hasn’t been stealing us games, exactly, but he has also made some huge saves late in games to save us crucial points. Overall, I like his "compete" and make-up.  Is he in the "top ten" of NHL goalies?  Maybe not, but that list changes year to year in this era, anyway. How many guys are there right now like Brodeur, Roy and Hasek?
  4. On the goaltending note, who are all the flat-out brilliant goalies in the Eastern Conference this season?  Lundqvist in New York?  I don’t think so.  Has Rask been amazing or is he playing behind a good team in Boston? Until recently when the Pens got really hot, people were saying Fleury was struggling in Pittsburgh.  Ward is hurt in Carolina but was not a show-stopper until that point.  Anderson is hurt in Ottawa.  The young guys (Lehrner and Bishop) have had some really good games.  But will they be great in two years?  As we well know, many young goalies start off brilliantly and flatten out, like Mason in Columbus (though I said last season I thought he was too young to give up on…).  My point is:  Reimer and Scrivens are good enough to get us to the playffs.  More than that, I don’t know.  I posted a couple of weeks ago that one of them will have to grab the job and, yes, steal some games for us.  And since then, they have both played pretty darn well.
  5. Somehow Mark Fraser, a slow-footed defenseman, has become one of my favourite Leafs.  He is hardly the poster boy for flashy, but he does little things well, rarely gives the puck away, seems to have a knack for timing his hits to eliminate the man and he makes them count.  Plus, he can defend himself and his teammates rather well. 
  6. Nazem Kadri, right now, is making everyone he plays with better.  Doesn't matter who it is.  (He's done it this season for Frattin, MacArthur, Lupul, and now Kulemin...)  I can’t predict the future, but he is proving his worth right now.  As with Gardiner, the playoffs will be the next big hurdle, to see how he responds to tighter checking and all that.  But he’s been awfully good.
  7. I’m not a Grabbo-basher, but I do feel he has more to offer offensively, and he has demonstrated some of that lately.  A second-line checking center is allowed to score, and many do.  He can, as well—and needs to for the Leafs to really advance this season and do something in the playoffs.
  8. I realize Bozak does some important things for this hockey club.  That said, if we have to spend five million this summer to sign him before he cbeomes a UFA, then I’m living in a different hockey world than I knew.  Maybe he can change my mind in the next few weeks with his play, and again, I see the good things he does.  I’m no cap expert, but how much do we want to spend on a player who brings what he does?
  9. I want to see Kessel put up enough points in the weeks ahead to convince me he is a guy that needs to be here long-term.  (Not at any cost, but at whatever is a reasonable contract…)  I’ve long said I think Kessel plays and exerts much the same effort pretty much every night.  The difference is sometimes the puck goes in, or his linemates score, and therefore fans think he “played” well.  But for me, the only difference is usually outcome, not effort.  It’s more good or bad fortune than indifferent play a lot of the time. So if he can score some big goals in April and into the playoffs (and back check once in a while), that will make me feel better.
  10. Phaneuf remains a head-scratcher for me.  He brings quite a bit to the table, obviously.  Team captain and all that.  He does hit sometimes, leads the team in minutes played.  He has mentored less experienced defensemen most of the season.  Puts up points.  Yet he has been a minus player (minus 2, which is much better than he was not that long ago).  Don’t know what to say.  Some people absolutely love him. Others don’t.  I’m almost….indifferent.  I know many will vehemently disagree, because they see Dion as our indispensable leader and key guy on the back end, but....I’m not sure if it's that I would prefer a different number-one guy, or would simply be happy if he was a really good “number 3” defenseman here on a better team.  I must have some kind of 'mental block' about the captain.  Maybe I just need to see him lead us on a playoff run for me to be a true "believer"? Don't mis-read what I[m saying.  He's a fine player, but he leaves me a bit blahhh at times.
  11. I think Carlyle has brought way more good things than not, regardless of what his critics say. Yes we give the pick away and give up too many shots some nights, but he has helped the squad, I sense, build on what they began to develop in the first part of the 2011-'12 season.  There seems to be a 'belief' around this team now.  New players have helped, for sure.  But he has seemingly shifted the mentality a bit, and that's worth something.
  12. While I will always struggle to see Nonis as something other than a quieter version of Burke, or at the very least a Burke “guy” (let’s face it, he has followed Burke everywhere—Vancouver, Anaheim, Toronto).  I like the small things he did regarding Connolly and Lombardi, but he now has a chance to begin to really put his stamp on the team.  I’m watching and waiting.
  13. I do much, much prefer the less toxic atmosphere around the team.  The previous coach and GM brought hubris and, in the case of the coach, public negativity to levels I was not comfortable with.  I much prefer the quitter administration we seem to have now.
  14. On that note, I also prefer the focus on the team and the players, not the General Manager.
  15. I appreciate very much what McClement has brought to the Leafs this season.  I was among those who wondered if he wasn’t just another middle-of-the-road center to add to last season’s glut of bottom 3/bottom 6-type forwards.  But he has been more than that—much more.
  16. That said, I would still like to see Nonis infuse the team with some legitimate veteran leadership at the appropriate time.  A couple of mid-cost, early 30’s guys who have been through the playoff battles.  Maybe we can get by without it right now, and even next season, but I’d be surprised if we can.  Someone has to lead.  I’m not sure Lupul is enough.
  17. That said, can someone tell me how many playoff games this group of Leafs has under their belt?  It feels like we don’t have many guys with significant experience in the big games in the spring.
  18. I’m hoping Rielly is allowed to develop quietly with the Marlies through their playoff run. I know there will be a rush to see him in the Leaf lineup next fall, but I can wait.
  19. He has been injured of late, of course, but we can’t ask much more of Komarov.  He is as advertised.  I believe the goals will come over time, as he learns the league and grows comfortable in his surroundings.
  20. I know there is this Luongo talk again, but I'm not sitting here hoping or thinking Nonis is going to make major moves at the deadline.  I could be wrong, maybe he will do something significant and shocking.  But sometimes less is more- and he may be prepared to go with what he's got, rather than move any young futures pieces...

There’s always more to chat about, but that’s what was on my mind today, when it comes to where the Leafs are "at”.  Have your say.  And to those who have become semi-"regulars" here at VLM over the past three and a half years, thank you. I like to think this is a place where thoughtful Leaf fans come to visit and to share views.  

A special thank you to those who post here and make such a huge contribution to the dialogue.

If you've never posted before but enjoy the site, I hope you'll consider posting a comment and adding to the level of discussion here.


As you gear up for the playoffs, some VLM posts you might have missed...


  1. First of all, congratulations on the milestone, Michael! I know keeping a blog going is not an easy thing to do, and you've succeeded so well that VLM is a must-visit site for me. I always enjoy the varied points of view that are expressed here.
    For me, this season is already a success. It really feels as if we've turned the corner as a team. Whatever happens from hereon in, I'll be happy. Of course, making the playoffs would be a huge advance for us, and getting some invaluable playoff experience can only benefit us going forward.
    As you may know, I'm a Phaneuf supporter. I think his intensity and dedication have inspired his teammates, along with the support of some of the other veterans. He played most of the season with rookies, has put up huge minutes, and plays it tough and clean. He doesn't just 'talk the talk", and I like that. I'm not sure what else fans expect of him. Same goes for Kessel. Realistically, what more do we want? He's setting up goals, getting chances every night, is always a threat, and has added defence to his game.
    Reimer? As James Mirtle pointed out today, his numbers are pretty darn good this year. Do we really want to bring in Kiprusoff or Luongo? Or do we let him grow along with the rest of the team? I'm obviously of the latter state of mind, as you are. We're seeing improved performance from him and improved performance from our D and PK. I'm good with all that!
    Kulemin has found a new home, and he looks better every game, doesn't he? What a line that is - really fun to watch. We now have two lines that are legitimate threats to score - how long has it been since we could say that?
    As you can tell, I like where we are right now. Can we improve? Sure. I think our major need is a top tier defenceman. (I keep thinking we're going to see Bouwmeester sooner or later.) And I agree that another experienced veteran wouldn't hurt. But I think this year is the year for us to see what we have, and how far we can go with it.

  2. Good thoughts, many I agree with, so here's the ones that stand out to me:

    #5 - Fraser brings a lot of good things to the team, but he's also a liability in that he can't bail anyone out because he's too slow, doesn't see the ice well, and while playing sound positionally, he flounders if he's forced to react. That said, I think he's a good 6/7 d-man swapped in and out with Kostka (in an ideal world).

    #7 - Grabbo is not being put in a position to succeed as a scorer. He's being given non-scoring-talent wingers, put out against the players on the opposing team that are best at driving possession, and getting very little time on the power play. He's defensively sound, and does a great job forcing turnovers and pushing the puck up ice; he can ALSO score. But he can't do both at the same time, especially when he hardly gets to start in the offensive zone.

    #8 - Bozak shouldn't get more than 3.5mil/per, but he will become someone will over-value him.

    #9 - Phaneuf is a tremendous player for us, and not because of leadership/captaincy stuff. He's holding the fort on a defense that is, to put it lightly, below par. He's always been an offensive d-man who can hit and play above average defence; that's what he still is, but he's being asked to take on incredibly tough minutes with a revolving door of bad or injured (Gunnar) partners. There are very few defencemen in the league who would have better stats with the partners he's had and the less-than-stellar job Carlyle has done with his bench usage.

    #11 - Speaking of Carlyle... I didn't like his hiring; not the timing and not the choice. I still don't. I think it's interesting to hear him note in recent interviews that he's had to change his style somewhat, and that's good. But the numbers bear out that this team is not playing good team defence and primarily looks improved from last year thanks to above average goaltending (which has little to do with Carlyle and lots to do with an uninjured Reimer and a maturing Scrambles) and improved penalty killing (which Carlyle definitely DOES have a hand in). They give up way too many shots, don't generate offence consistently, over-use their top players early in games so they're tired in the third, and oh wow that defence corps has been so mismanaged. Carlyle should get credit for the PK improvement, for ensuring hardwork and discipline are team values, for providing leadership to a young group. But most of the improvement in this team is goaltending improvement and puck luck.

    #16/17 - Phaneuf and Liles each have about 25 or so playoff games in the NHL. Kessel has 15 and has at least won a series. Obviously we lack somewhat in that category, but I'd rather this team learn how to win, together. There's something powerful about that.

    #20 - Please gods of hockey, don't let us screw up a good thing by trading for Lou now. If we ship out Bozak and/or Kuleman in exchange for some combination of good picks or a solid 3/4 dman, I'd consider it a spectacular trade deadline. If we keep everyone we have I'm honestly almost as happy.

  3. At a quick glance, here is what I dug up for number of playoff games under the belts of current leafs: 187gp

    The breakdown:

    Kessel 15
    JVR 39
    Phaneuf 25
    Franson 16
    McClement 4
    Lupul 39
    JML 36
    Fraser 1
    Orr 12

  4. Good stuff, Gerund O'. I don't think most of us thought the Leafs would be where they are, or that they would be as exciting a team to watch as they have been most nights. The emergence of Kadri has helped, for sure, but it's even more than that.

    Even the best teams can always get better. Detroit was always striving to get better in their hey-day, as were the Devils and Avs. The Leafs likely won't over-pay, but they'll be in the mix if there are defensemen available who can help, I'm guessing, whether it be now or in the summer.

    Thanks for the kind words, Gerund. You've helped with the level of discussion of here a lot. Thank you.

  5. Hi Adam- thanks for your post. You've given this a lot of thought.

    I won't go through all your comments. I'll just say I'm much more supportive of Carlyle than his critics are. I believe he is well aware of his personnel deployment, the minutes guys are playing and who's playing with and against who. I think we as fans sometimes look at "stats" (I don't mean goals and assists) and the "science" of the game when these guys live in the real world. I can't conceive that Carlyle has mismanaged his defense corps. What he has is a limited roster, and he has experimented all year long in his first "full" season behind the bench here, to see who can do what.

    Yes the goalies, when they have played well, have made the rest of the team and the coach look better. But that is the history of hockey. Scotty Bowman was a 'genius' in Montreal because he had the three best defensemen in the game and Ken Dryden in goal. Darryl Sutter won a Cup last spring in part because Quick suddenly got hot. Brodeur made a lot of coaches in New Jersey look good. The list goes on. So for me, Carlyle is a very good NHL coach. I won't just say "oh, he's good at the penalty kill stuff, but a bum otherwise". I just don't see it that way, but I respect your view on this. We just look at the picture differently.

    Thanks for visiting Adam, and for a solid post.

    1. Don't get me wrong, I don't think he's a bad coach. I'm happy with him over Wilson; I just think he's limited in that he prefers a system that he doesn't have the personnel for. So yes, he's not in an ideal position; but he also doesn't seem as adaptable as I'd like. I fear that, in a different way than happened early in Wilson's last season, success is covering up some serious flaws. I think the team can can succeed under Carlyle, but I don't think he's necessarily putting them in the best position to do so. Let's put it this way, though: I don't think he should be fired. He just infuriates me with his decision making at times.

  6. I appreciate you're checking on that for me, fog. Some of the guys do have experience at playoff time, which they can draw on this spring. A few of them, like Lupul and Kessel, will have much "bigger" roles and will be the guys the other team will focus on shutting down, but that's to be expected. It will be good to see the young team move forward together. Thanks fog.

  7. I think most of us have frustrations with the coach of the team we follow (in any sport) at any given point in time, Adam. We watch our team so closely, we feel (and to a certain extent we do) we "know" our team's personnel. We have a certain feel for things and when the coach looks through the prism differently, we get agitated. I get it. (I have a long history of my own frustrations with various Leaf coach- 55 years or so and counting...)

    I just figure this guy has a ton of experience. He's a stubborn, old-school guy, but as I've noted here before, he seems to have made adjustments, and he has a better rapport on the bench with players than I ever would have imagined. For now, I'll forgive the things I don't like.

    When my expectations are higher (a championship, not just a "playoff spot"), my bar will be higher. Thanks Adam.

  8. Congrats on the Milestone.

    It's worth pointing out that Kessel is quietly having nearly as good of a season as he did last year (34 points in 36 games), and prior to Kadri's monumental performance on Saturday was running neck and neck with Kadri in terms of scoring.

  9. Congrats on the milestone, Michael. VLM and and Leaf Matters has made a major contribution to Leaf discourse. I hope you are able to continue as long as possible. I do not like to imagine the landscape without these two distinguished features.

    I think that Adam and I may have been watching different hockey games, particularly when it comes to Fraser. I recently wrote that Fraser should be the only untouchable defender, precisely because we could never get an equivalent or greater value coming back. That said, I am not sure how Fraser compiled a +15 with the qualities that are sometimes attributed to him. Perhaps, the stats junkies can help with that one. Maybe it has to do with quantum mechanics?

    I am not sure what to make of Nonis at this point in time. So far his quieter, conservative approach seems to have benefited the evolution of the team. When I glance through various fan comments in the media and other sites I notice a lot of angst about what he will do at the deadline, one writer called the idea of trading for a veteran goalie "insanity". I would have to concur with him, as do a lot of other anxious fans just hoping to get past the deadline without any Burke-like tossing of the dice just when the team is coming together so well. It feels safer to experiment with chemistry where there is none. It feels safer to see this group develop than to radically change the dynamic at this point in time.

    I hope that a high-end defender becomes available at an affordable price and I hope that the Leafs are able to obtain one. It is unusual however to have two young goaltenders of Reimer and Scrivens' quality. I sense that many fans recognize this fact and fear yet another rattlebrained trade along the lines of Rask for Raycroft or possibly even worse. I imagine that a lot of us will be holding our breath until the trade deadline has passed.

  10. Thanks mapleleafmjt!

    It may be a very good thing that, in part because the team is doing better and Kadri's emergence, Kessel can fly under the radar screen to a certain extent in terms of people's expectations. He continues to put up points, as you mention. It can only be a good thing if the team has a few elite offensive performers heading into the playoffs. The opposition can't focus on one guy, or one line, etc..

  11. I've acknowledged here that I have indeed became a Mark Fraser guy, Bobby C. . (You may remember I compared him to Allan Stanley, the man they used to call "Snowshoes". Stanley was considered "slow" but always seemed to get where he needed to go...) I like Fraser's ability to eliminate the man and despite his "foot speed", he thinks the game and as a result can make the smart, simple plays, as coaches like to say.

    It's funny, I feel comfortable that Nonis will not do anything to upset the apple cart. Not that the team could not use another forward, a strong leader, some experience or a stud defender, but if the cost is too high for any of that, I sense he'll just allow Carlyle to keep molding the roster as best he can until opportunities arise over the summer.

    Thank you for mentioning the modest milestone, Bobby and the kind words about the site. On that note, I want to thank you for making a huge contribution to the discourse here.

  12. This is the problem as I see it here in Leaf land. We become to attached to a player that has a decent run of games. Fraser is a decent 6-7 dmen who is good on the PK. As we have seen in the last couple of weeks both Fraser and Franson have played well enough to warrant tougher minutes. They have done all right but their play hasn't been as good as when it was sheltered 3rd pairing minutes. Don't get me wrong Fraser is having a good year but if we decide that a depth dman is untouchable who really is touchable? He can play his 12-15 minutes a night and does all right, he can not move up in the lineup, he just isn't good enough. The same applies to Scrivens. He has played 30 games in the NHL and done well. He is what he is though, a decent back up. Misreading the team is what got Burke in so much trouble early in his Leaf career.

    Both these guys are having good years but neither are untouchable.

    Congrats on the milestone Michael. Still my favourite site by far even if it is populated but by grumpy old men. Wait maybe that's why I like it so much since I am a grumpy old man or so my wife and kids say. Can't write no more, gotta go protect the front lawn from the neighborhood kids.

  13. Speaking for myself, Willbur, I like Fraser exactly where he is: a generally modest minutes guy, played properly by the coach. I like his attitude and his simple but tough game. I don't sense the issue is him so much being untouchable as the fact that a lot of us like him right where he is. Maybe the infusion of a new defender would shuffle the deck and bring into doubt his future role. We'll see. But it is evident that Carlyle likes him, so I don't think he's going anywhere. Your 5-6 guys have to be good in the spring in their limited minutes, just like the big guys have to play well.

    You do touch on something we've talked about here: when it comes to the Leafs, what happens sometimes is fans like certain players (Bozak, MacArthur, Frattin, whoever) and don't want that guy moved in a trade. What would happen is you end up with a lot of "nice" players who don't win anything. I don't believe Nonis will worry much about about we fans think. He'll make the moves he thinks he needs to to make this team a contender, whether now or a year from now.

    Thanks as always for supporting VLM, Willbur. Yes, a significant number of older (sometimes grumpier yes) old guys, but hey, we've been around the block when it comes to the Leafs. We may know a thing or two.

    Don't pay too much attention to your better half and kids- I'm sure you're young at heart, Willbur! But by all means get the neighbourhood kids off your grass...that's what we old guys do....

  14. Your absolutely right Michael. I think Fraser has a done wonderful job where he is. The same applies to Kostka. Since he was moved off the first line and off the powerplay he has been pretty good. Steady and dependable. I want to be clear that I dislike neither guy and in fact think they have become valuable pieces on a Leaf defense corps. For that matter so has Scrivens I don't have anything to complain about his play at all. To me though none of these guys would be the hold up in a trade if would make the Leafs better because your right otherwise it's just "nice" guys who never win. In fact their are only a handful of guys I wouldn't move unless it was a blockbuster of a deal.


    To me anybody else could be moved.

    Went out to protect my lawn and remembered here in Northern Alberta we still have three feet of friggin snow. Oh well I guess I get to keep reading and commenting on my beloved Maple Leafs.

  15. I don't think many Leafers would argue with your 'should keep/protect' list, Willbur.

    By the way, I kid you not, we had a dusting off snow where we are today (April 1) just west of Toronto. Not like you guys in Northern Alberta but it doesn't take much to make us complain here...Hang in.

    1. I actually think it is kinda funny we have this much snow still. Then again I'm not a farmer, those guys are going freaking crazy. Other than watching the Leafs that is my next favourite pastime, tormenting farmers. Man they give us grumpy old guys a good name.

      If I had a farm I'd take my sled out and put seed down on a quarter on top of the snow just to see those guys get riled up. It be like a free year's worth of entertainment in one afternoon.

  16. Just to be clear on two points:

    1) When I refer to Fraser as being untouchable, it is not because I woke up this morning mistaking him for Bobby Orr. My untouchable statement has to do with perceived value and actual value. I believe that Fraser's perceived value is much less than his actual value. Consequently as an "asset" he will likely not attract his actual value in a trade proposal and consequently he becomes an untradeable asset (in my mind a good thing).

    2) I have just spent the last week rearranging my basement to get everything off of the floor in anticipation of several feet of rapidly melting Saskatchewan snow. Of course some of this snow is likely to pool on my basement floor in liquid form (as H2O is apt to do). For some reason, that kind of job always falls on the "old man" (which goes a long way to explain our occasional grumpiness). Just saying ...

    1. Funny, my wife and kids went to her parents place for the week end and I had to do the exact same thing. Been a great couple of days. Looking forward to spring too bad it's late up here just means the melt when it comes is going to be fast and ferocious.

  17. I sense Willbur could readily agree with Point 1, Bobby C.. I think we are all much on the same page. Fraser has done a very good job doing what he's doing- and yes, would never get anywhere near in "trade value" return what he means right now to the Leafs.

    Point 2 is a good reason for anyone to be grumpy. You're a very welcome part of the grumpy old man group here, Bobby, as is Willbur....and Gerund...and....

  18. Bobby, Willbur- we've all got to move from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario to somewhere warm...San Diego, Sacramento....

    1. Phoenix is nice. I hear they even have a hockey team.

  19. Phoenix is gorgeous (though, believe it or not, I've only been twice, and both times in June...110 Farenheit...) but the minute we arrived they'd probably move the hockey team....