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Hard not to be pleased with the Leafs’ record, but are you satisfied with their overall play?

With another point in hand after a shootout loss against the Wild, the Leafs find themselves in a relatively unusual position.  They are sitting close to the top of the overall standings in the Eastern Conference, now fully 18 games into the regular season. (With two games upcoming this weekend, I should add, against the struggling Sabres—though Ted Nolan’s arrival behind the bench will ensure the Buffaloes are no longer a team to be taken lightly…)

With 23 points, even the most optimistic fan would surely not have forecast that point total at this stage before the season got underway.  And this, despite some significant injuries and suspensions, being outshot many nights (again in Minnesota) and a propensity for playing without the puck way more than successful teams generally should.

Yes, much of their ‘success’ was generated through an auspicious start in early October, but they have avoided prolonged slumps—at least in terms of results.  Bernier continues to provide stellar netminding, and so has Reimer.  Reilly returned after his game off to help create Raymond’s opening scoring salvo Wednesday night. Special teams rebounded with a stellar effort, including a shut out of the Wild on power play opportunities that totaled 13 minutes.

Kadri had an even more eventful evening than usual, including an assist on the Leaf goal; a crease collision that knocked Backstrom out of the game and a hit on Granlund that sent Nazem to an early shower. (At least he got the hot water in the shower after the game.  By the way, the first guy I heard use that one was longtime Red Wing announcer Buff Lynch back in the 1960s, after a Detroit player had been tossed from a game after a fight. I was listening to the game on the radio and thought that was a great line at the time.  I'd never heard it before.  Maybe humour was simpler back then...)

It looked as though the Leafs’ ‘bend but don’t break’ defensive approach would be sufficient in this one. (I’m not sure that is Carlyle’s philosophy or intent, but it is the way things seem to unfold many nights.) But we were felled by a broken breakout and an odd goal.  On Minnesota’s late-game marker, the Leafs had two forwards back in their own crease area working to prevent a scoring chance, but an unfortunate bounce provided the home side with a tally they didn’t have to work too hard for. (By the way, can we “blame” our defensemen for being up ice so aggressively before the puck had cleared our zone, as they were protecting a slim 1-0 lead?  I’ll leave that to the paid analysts to determine…)

In any event, I will wait until we hit one of the key mileposts along the NHL regular-season “track” that is always important to me—the 20-game mark, to provide a bit more of a breakdown of where I feel this club is at.  But for now, I have a simple question for you:  beyond their win-loss record and where they sit in the standings, are you satisfied with how the squad is playing so far this season?


  1. Not so much tonight, Michae!
    I thought we might see something more after that tremendous penalty kill in the third, and Clarkson was working hard but they didn't seem to be working as a unit. The passing was awful and often rushed when all they needed was to turn back and start again. So many wild, blind passes throughout the game. Again the forwards were often moving out of reach of the defense and causing long passes which were picked up by the Wild. It was easy for them with the unit split in two, they just had to move into the middle. I'm completely flummoxed. I really thought they had figured this out. Basically the whole game seemed disorganized to me, as is my brain at the moment.
    Worse, we risk losing Kadri. I liked his energy tonight and I think the hit was okay but...then again he also took out the goalie- the one we wanted to be IN for this game.
    I am hoping others saw this game differently than I did. Maybe I'm just pessimistic tonight.
    Thanks Michael. C.N.

    1. That was indeed a very big penalty kill mid-way through the third period. It almost felt as though that would be enough to get them a win.

      It's true, C.N., just when you think they "have things figured out", they sometimes revert to old ways. Again, it was good enough (against a pretty good team) to get another point, in part because Bernier was very good.

      Kadri is a guy who plays on the edge and sometimes goes over. Harding is one of the stories of the year, for sure.

      I don't think you're pessimistic, just being honest about how they played. Thanks C.N.

  2. Michael,

    If you had asked me before the season started if I would be happy with this number of points thru 18 games, I would have said yes. If you had asked me before the Minnesota game if I would be happy with a point, the answer would have been yes. I guess I should be pleased so far this season, but the play of this team is depressing.

    It has been so long since I have seen them play a good game. You know, the kind where the Leafs dominate the play, in terms of shots, possession, scoring chances. I can't recall one time where after the game I have thought that they were simply the better team and deserved to get the two points. Its been some mixture of great goaltending, outstanding special teams, and burying the slim chances they got. This desperation hanging on to get the win is awfully hard to watch. I really can't think of many reasons to be optimistic, other than maybe that trends will continue.

    I am really glad that they continue to get points for mediocre efforts. But be honest, is this the middling team that you hoped Carlyle would provide? I have often wondered if the other team had bothered to ice a goalie for all that we see of them on TV. Are we really expected to have faith that Phaneuf will play great, goaltending will be superb, penalty killing will be lights out, and the PP will be adequate as our only source of goals?

    I am going to assume that Kadri gets at least two games in the pressbox for his running of the goalie and later check to the head. Is two games the right suspension, too harsh, too lenient? Its fair to point out that when Reimer gets run, Leaf fans scream from the rooftops for justice. I see no reason not to suspend Kadri here, dangerous hits need to be removed from the game.

    Very nice of the Sabres to make huge changes right before a home and home agains the Leafs. New coach and management team to impress. Scott back in the lineup, in a place where the Leafs have historically been awful. Giving the Sabres motivation to impress could have waited a week in my opinion. Two pretty easy games just became a whole lot harder.

    1. I think you raise fair points, Jim. With the improved roster from two to three seasons ago, and a new coach with a plan and a system, one would think we wouldn't be life and death most nights or, as you say, hanging on to try and win. Obviously we won't run over every team we play, but in a pretty middlish Conference, making the playoffs should be the very least we expect by now. And yes, we should be consistently better in terms of actual performance (the results have been fine) at thius point in the team's development. What are we in, year six of the original 'plan'?

      Patience is great, but Leaf fans have a right to expect high-end performances on a consistent. basis. Good goaltending is part of being a good team, for sure. But you need the whole puzzle working, at least most nights, not just special teams, as important as those are.

      Interesting timing indeed regarding the Sabres. I tweeted about that yesterday. Nolan is a master of motivation. The Sabres will be ready both nights. This won't be a cake walk for the blue and white. Thanks Jim.

  3. I just wanted to add: Five on five play has been discussed a lot of late but how many minutes do the Leafs, or most teams for that matter, actually spend playing five on five. It seems they are either killing a penalty or they are on the powerplay. It's no wonder that special teams are winning games. Someone is always in the penalty box. The best, most exciting games I've ever seen were fast-paced with few or no penalties at all. It's been quite a while since that type of game. C.N.

  4. Trade Kessel!

    ...just kiddin'

    Jokes aside, I don't remember Kessel having a bad game in a Leaf jersey. Tonight may be the first. I really hope this is not a sign of things to come. I guess not even Phil can play without a center... read on for more clues as to what I'm trying to say here...

    I think the Leafs' season so far can be broken down into two distinct periods - the first one being characterized by a winning record and the second one in which the team's been breaking even.

    In the first ten or so games the Leafs weren't perfect but were good enough to prevail most nights led by the by now established trademarks of a deadly first line, great goaltending and great special teams. The defence was a bit out of sorts but the goals against were prevented by the responsible defensive play of our forwards led by Bolland who you Michael very astutely complemented as out most important offseason acquisition. I thought you were out of your mind when you wrote that but I was very quickly convinced that the guy really did come here to make a difference.

    The second part of the season so far begins with the fall of Bolland and Bozak and the return of Clarkson and Kulemin. In goal, nothing has changed - Bernie and Reimer are still great. Our defense is, I think, getting a little better with the return of Fraser and as Ranger, Reiley and Gardiner are settling behind the very good first pairing ('very good' but not amazing because Gunnarson is not a great defenseman and Phaneuf becomes a problem after almost exactly 25 minutes on the ice). Our PK is getting back up to where it belongs - at the very top (Kuli and McClement are soooo goos at it!). It is our offence that is the problem now - this experiment with JVR centering the first line only shows how much we miss Bozak who, although he's no Crosby (which is what a lot of fans here seem to expect of him) is still a very good player and a natural center, defensively responsible, quick and smart and, most importantly, familiar with Kessel and always able to spring him from the defensive zone. Clarkson is good, hard working and the goals will come but he's just not making the kind of impact that Bolland has made. He's also new to the team and his linemates are changing nightly and within the games. Our offence is simply not what it has been with Bozak and Bolland (or Grabovski last year). I guess centers are important. Our power play is not what it used to be with Bozak and Kessel anchoring it.

    Long story short, I think the Leafs went from being a team that could outscore its defensive blunders to one that is very difficult to score on but cannot score itself.

    My question of the day is whether our offence can recover from the loss of B and B. I know that Kadri can be 'the one' that makes the difference (like Crosby or Stamkos) but I'm not sure he's there yet (and now it looks like he's gonna get suspended for a few games too - he's quickly turned from being considered a skill player not to be touched to being the 'rat' that needs too be put in the cage by the league and that's not good). It will be interesting to see how and how quickly Nonis and Carlyle decide to try to resolve the team's offensive issues.

  5. If I had the magic wand I'd have Kadri center Kessel and JVR and bring up McKegg up from the Marlies or even Gauthier from the juniors to try their luck centering the 2nd line for a few games before Bozak is back. Also, I'd let the 4th line play a little more - Orr's been very good at hockey this season and Ashton is very dependable and may well be able to score if given a chance.

    As is, I'm really not as comfortable with going into the back-to-back with Buffalo as most fans seem to be - Buffalo has always been hard for us to play against - the rat annoys us, the monster is scary and their goalie always shows up against us even when he's struggling against everyone else and now they have this Moulson guy lighting it up to prove he can play without Tavares. They should not be underestimated.

    1. Lots to chew on in your posts today, leafdreamer. Bozak is a whipping boy for many yet he contributes more than most want to concede. Bolland is a huge loss. Kadri is a wonderfully skilled young player but best be careful if he continues to go over the line. He upset some players last year (which is fine; the NHL is full of agitators) but he won't fight his own battles so he is fortunate that teammates pick up the slack for him there.

      Clarkson seems to be working hard so the goals/points will come, or at least his impact should be felt soon. I keep saying he is like Martin Lapointe when he went from Detroit to Boston years ago. A really solid player who signed for a lot of money, thus making fans expect more. If expectations are too high, we'll be disappointed. He is what he is.

      Our defense corps is somewhat limited but OK overall. Can we win (I mean win a championship) with them? I'm not sure yet.

      Buffalo will be a challenge. Nolan will make sure the Sabres are ready. Thanks leafdreamer.

  6. I think Jim summed up what we are all thinking. The last few minutes of the Leafs games ARE very hard to watch and this is no different than what we saw last year. When was the last time we saw any type of offence in the dying minutes of a game? We may complain about our defence but Gosh! They carry a heavy load. C.N.

  7. "...are you satisfied with their overall play?"

    For the most part, yes.

    They are an opportunistic team that has yet to hit their peak. That's much better than a no talent team, playing hard and struggling to stay out of the basement. I remember those years.

    Even with just one of Bozak or Bolland back they could take off on another winning streak.
    I see them playing and at the same time working on their game and I see little improvements all the time. Nobody seems complacent.

    They sure do a better job of clearing the net with Fraser arround. Phaneuf has looked quite good and was throwing his weight around last night. The Wild played much of the game on the perimeter. The only guy to get in close on the Leaf goal with results was...Phill Kessel!

    We will get a much better gauge of the defence over the next 5-10 games with Fraser back. It might not be as porous as some think.

    I like this Smithson. He seems like a good addtion to the 4th line and ideal as a13th forward. Win the faceoff get it out, nothing fancy, but useful. He allows McClement to move up to the third line and lessens the absence of Bolland. The last three games he has taken lots of faceoffs and has been 89%, 50% and 53%. 50% against a good faceoff team like Boston is fine. We could have used Smithson for a faceoff win in the last minutes against Boston in the playoffs.

    I hope we get Bolland back by March. With the addition of Smithson, plus Orr and Ashton playing well, our bottom 6 is rounding out. With Bolland back and everybody healthy we could be very dangerous in the playoffs.

    Talented, imperfect, getting better, plus a good record...yes, I am ok with that.

    1. Well said, DP- they are getting results and we all know they can play a lot better, so that should be encouraging. Bozak will be back and hopefully Bolland will return as well. That should only help.

      Fraser is needed. Maybe they will play with seven defensemen some nights. Could work.

      And yes, Kessel back checks and it backfires! Go figure.

      Smithson fits the classic category as a useful fourth-line guy who can be in and out of the lineup as needed.

      Your last sentence describes where they're at well. Thanks DP.

  8. In a word: No! While the goaltending and special teams have been excellent, the 5 on 5 play has been atrocious, especially lately. I keep telling myself that this is attributable to the lack of cohesion due to the loss of all our power forwards early and now two key centers. I am hoping that the return of Bozak (hopefully on the 21st) will allow the forward lines to gain some stability and allow Van Riemsdyk to return to the power forward position where he is most effective.

    It is a shame that it took an injury for many Bozak critics to realize his value. Maybe some of the sniping will cease on his return.

    I guess the solution to the 4th line problem is to dress seven defensemen. Ashton played 5:38 and Orr played 3:19 last night. This really needs to be fixed.

    I am more than a little apprehensive over the home and home with Buffalo. I have come up from Atlanta and have tickets for both games. I hope we witness good hockey games and not a debacle like their pre season game. I am sure Nolan will have them fired up and that the Leafs had better improve their play for these games.

    I remember listening to Budd Lynch on clear channel WJR, which we could pick up in Toronto, especially at night. He was one of the few great hockey broadcasters who were weaned on radio. He was a Canadian war veteran, a Foster Hewitt Award winner and the Red Wing's public address announcer after he retired from broadcasting. I believe he passed away last year.

    1. Thanks for chiming in on this one today, Pete Cam. The Leafs have had to work through some injury issues, for sure, but I sense most fans think they can play a fair bit better.

      Bozak has been a lightning rod, for sure. Will absence make the heart grow fonder?

      I keep wondering if the fourth line issue is that Carlyle lacks confidence in who he has slotted in there and he is therefore not giving them a fair chance to show what they can do, or is it that we just don't have the personnel? Again, the fourth line problem may be solved when the roster is healthy.

      Yes, I think Lynch passed away recently (in his 90s?). He was a big part of my hockey listening youth.

      Enjoy the Buffalo games, Pete!

  9. Michael,

    So Nazem Kadri gets three games for running the goalie last night. Sounds about right to me, what are your thoughts here? Secondly, any predictions for the game in Buffalo tomorrow night? I see a gong show, but thats my nature. How optimistic is Leafsworld about JVR, McClement, Smithson, and Smith down the middle for the next week or so?

    1. The NHL suspension formula is always under scrutiny. I don't have a broad enough perspective to know where Kadri's action 'fit' compared with others who are seen to have crossed the line.

      I just know Kadri has been playing on the edge for a while, and he was involved in two incidents in one game. He had no prior "official" history, I don't believe, but clearly Shanahan saw something, and was not convinced by anything Ksdri said over the phone in their hearing. If we are going to complain when Leafs are on the receiving end, then we have to accept discipline when it comes our way.

      I know there have been times when I honestly felt a player tried to hold up when approach a goalie, but still knocked them over and they were suspended. So intent, I guess, is not necessarily part of the NHL"s assessment.

      As for the Sabres, I don't know about fights, but I know Nolan will ave his new team ready to lay hard.

  10. Given that we have yet to see a complete Leaf's squad take the ice, I'm feeling quite comfortable with where they are at. I also feel there is more that can be gotten out of this group by Carlyle, and we'll see come spring when everyone, hopefully, is back from injury.

    As a Sault resident, I'm naturally overjoyed to see Teddy Nolan back in the NHL. As you know Michael, he has a strong following in this city. It does however split my loyalties for the next two games against Buffalo, as I will be cheering for Ted as well as the Leafs.

    1. Good to hear from you, Steve. I will say this, if the Leafs have an extend playoff run, few will remember (or care) how they did in the first half of an injury-plagued season, other than if it helps them get home-ice advantage in the playoffs!

      As for Nolan, he deserves the loyalty he gets from players and fans. He is a coach who brings unique experiences - and therefore approaches - to his work every day. He did a great job in the Soo, and for that matter, in every stop he has had in the OHL, Quebec Junior League and in the NHL. A teacher and motivator. Thanks Steve.

  11. The short answer to "am I satisfied with the Leafs' overall play?" is no. How can I be - they haven't put together two dominant periods in any game to date. In fact, have they had more than that Bruins' second period? Not that I can quickly recall.
    I know we haven't fielded a full complement yet, but sheesh - that giveaway by Kessel followed by his deflecting in the goal - that's brutal - and it's only one example of their terrible giveaway propensity. And you can't play rope-a-dope every game. Even Ali only tried it once!
    I'm dismayed that we can't get two lines scoring at the same time. Kadri seems like a loose cannon out there - he's flattened both Kessel and Clarkson so far, and he hasn't clicked on any line combination to date. Kessel has had a hot streak, but it seems as if everyone's just waiting for him to score now. He tried the same "Mahovlich" move against the Bruins and got stopped cold before he got to their blue line.
    Like you, I see the 20 game mark as the first major marker of the season. And though we have had many bright spots individually - the goalies in particular - I'm really concerned that the coaching staff can't motivate the players to play a full game. It doesn't bode well for us.

    1. I always look forward to and appreciate your input here, Gerund O'. As you note, there have been many positives when it comes to individual play. But one wonders what would transpire if our goalies suddenly went cold, which tends to happen to even the most capable netminders.

      Let's see how we do against a rejuvenated Sabres squad this weekend...

    2. By the way, Gerund O', I loved your Ali 'rope a dope' reference- though for many visitors here, like a lot of my references, it was before their time!

  12. Hey Michael,

    A point gained in the standings, is a point gained - you can't devalue that.

    However, how a point is gained can most definitely be critiqued - and no one can claim that the leafs as a squad have played a great game yet, but certain aspects of this team that we all know have kept the leafs from losing their top 3 position in the division.

    I am sure that once fully healthy this squad is capable of better and can be great in the playoffs. But for us to reach that playoffs and dream - we have to live the reality of playing the reminder of the season with a not 100% squad and make it to the playoffs.

    The schedule and opponents between November 23rd and December 23rd - are going to be testing the real strength and ability of this team to be able to stand pressure when they are hurting. They face opponents like the capitals, blue jackets, penguins, sabres, canadiens, sharks, stars, sens, bruins, kings, blues, blackhawks, penguins (again), panthers, coyotes, red wings and rangers.

    17 games in 31 days; includes 4 back to backs; This 31 day stretch will go a long way in defining what/how this season evolves.

    Let me know what you think?

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. To a certain extent, we can say the Leafs have already come back down to earth. Their winning percentage of late is obviously not what it was when they were picking up wins as they did early in the season.

      My view, Scarborough Anon, is that the season will have its ups and downs. There will be times when they will play well and certain guys will stand out and we'll be convinced they are on the verge of something really good. Other times they will struggle, give the puck away, not get the goaltending they need and we won't be so encouraged.

      I do think they will survive the schedule you outlined. All teams go through those stretches. If anything, they are accustomed to playing with key guys out of the lineup. So for now, I'm confident they'll be OK. What exactly that means come April, though, I don't know. Thanks Scarborough Anon.

  13. I am always more positive right before a game. I may feel diferently tonight and I sincerely hope the Leafs can ignore Scott for the time being and skate around him.
    I do wish we could have left one top line alone but the loss of Kadri makes that impossible.
    When you see the Leafs in practice and game day skates the one thing I have noticed is that the whole group is very up-beat. They show no signs of "throwing in the towel". To me that suggests strong leadership by several members of this group and gives me hope that they can hang on a bit longer.
    We may dread a busy December schedule but it may work in their favour in the long run. I've never liked the way the Leafs play after too many days off. We'll have wait and see how they meet this challenge. Thanks, Michael. C.N.

    1. I'm certainly not on the "inside", C.N. but I have the same impression as you- this is a tight-knit group who seems to enjoy playing. I would suggest for the most part they like playing for Carlyle, too.

      If I'm an athlete, I want to play, not sit around. I'm good with a "tough" schedule. We can't play the Little Sisters of Charity every day! Thanks C.N.