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We knew Buffalo would be ready, eh?

Whether the Leafs deserved better, I’ll leave that to VLM readers to discuss.  But I think it’s fair to say that we knew going in the Sabres would be ready for this one—and they were.

I say this not just because teams with a new coach almost always play hard and well for the incoming guy, but because the Sabres had brought back one of the best motivators in hockey—none other than Ted Nolan.

Nolan is a master of getting individual players to be their best.  He has a way of connecting with his players like few coaches can, and he inspires performances that go beyond what would normally be considered someone’s capabilities.  His teams generally over-achieve.  To me, he is that good a coach.

So you just knew the Leafs would be in tough in Buffalo.  And I don’t expect Nolan—or his team—to take their foot off the pedal back at the ACC on Saturday night.

Just a couple of notes and observations, and I’ll leave it for you to opine on the contest:

  • This was not the fight-filled affair many predicted.  Some forecast exactly that because of the John Scott pre-season dust-up with the Leafs, the Corey Tropp injury in his fight with DaVane in pre-season and the fact that Scott was back in the Sabre lineup after his recent suspension.  Throw in that Nolan was back behind the Buffalo bench and his guys would want to impress and show him they belong, and fireworks were anticipated.  But I think Nolan absolutely insisted on smart hockey—tough hockey, yes, but smart hockey.  So no bad penalties and no unnecessary fights were the order of the day.  For one night, it worked wonders.
  • Not to harp on an old wound, but Ashton, Orr and McLaren each played about 5 minutes on the night.  Nolan’s fourth-line guys saw more ice:  Tropp played close to 9 minutes; McCormick played just under 10 minutes and even Scott played more than 7 minutes.  Does this tell us anything?
  • Rielly sat for the second time in three games.  Do we make anything of this, other than the obvious fact that Fraser is back?
  • Ehrhoff obviously made  a game-saving block on van Riemsdyk in the dying seconds when the Leafs were applying pressure.  The Buffalo net was wide open but the veteran defenseman made a huge play.
  • Kessel had been at his offensive best through the first dozen or so games of the season.  He has been quieter of late, at least in terms of production, with a single goal and no assists over his last half dozen games. In truth, this has been Kessel’s norm over the years here.  There are always dry spells, though he is often dangerous out there.
  • Franson led the team in ice time, I believe.
  • We haven’t scored much lately, have we? I will assume this is a blip, not a trend. (And yes, injuries are part of the problem, for sure.)

Some fans may be frustrated with a loss against a Sabre team that had won all of, what, four games so far this season?  I get that.  But there is the reality of missing Kadri, Bolland and Bozak.  It's difficult enough to win in the NHL when you have a full lineup.  But it is especially challenging when you have no healthy centres with offensive capabilities.

And I can’t stress enough what for me is the "Nolan factor".  It will make a difference, I believe, for the Sabres the rest of this season. He will have these guys playing. But Toronto had to know the home side would be charged up Friday night.

As for the Leafs, well, not to overblow one game, but given that the Leafs have lost three in a row, I suspect they aren’t keen to make it four at home against what had been a struggling Sabres squad.  I’m guessing Reimer plays—and plays well.

It might be a nice time for the fans to give the guys a boost with a better than usual welcome at the ACC Saturday night.  Not that the Leafs are in a death spiral, but struggling teams, especially one not scoring, can always stand a little extra support at home. They’ve not been at their best, they’re missing key guys, but they could have won any one of their last three games, despite the things we may not like about their game.


  1. Michael,

    I am embarrassed as a fan of this team. I am even more embarrassed for Phil Kessel. The least talented player in the league, a guy with one career goal, tries to maim him in the preseason. His teammates reaction, absolutely nothing. No message sent to Scott or the Sabres. What about all the character and good in the room qualities these meatheads are supposed to provide. This team is nothing more than a gutless bunch of pukes. We only have one superstar, at least that is what everyone tells me about Kessel. Not one man on this team is willing to make sure that liberties will not be taken with the Leafs. There is no way that this team, and more importantly this coach ever win a damn thing in this league.

    Not sure why our coach continues to dress fighters who don't bother to fight. Just another one of his mind boggling decisions, in my opinion.

    1. Jim- see C.N.'s note below...he seems to be on side with your thoughts about the Leafs not responding, in this case, regarding the Scott hit on Ranger.

  2. Hi Michael,
    I wasn't disappointed by the effort tonight, I thought they had some good moments but seemed to be playing the perimeter too much.
    I am surprised that not one story or report I've read mentioned Scott's elbow on Ranger near the Leaf bench. There was no call and Ranger had to leave to have his nose packed. I thought SOMEONE would step up and take care of Scott with both Orr and McLaren on the ice tonight. Most of them saw it. They showed Scott sitting on the bench laughing right after it. Is this not the very reason why we dressed two enforcers? They not only let Kessel down, as Jim stated, they let Ranger down tonight. Maybe they were hoping Clarkson would hold on to Scott and try to reason with him again. I have no doubt Ashton would have reacted immediately, as he did with Kessel, had he seen it --without any regard for his nose. C.N.

    1. Well see if the Leafs respond in some fashion tonight, C.N.

  3. I really wasn't surprised by the lack of fighting or revenge in this game, in fact, I suspected that Nolan would put Scott out there and order him NOT to fight. I think his strategy was to make the Leafs spend the whole game pre-occupied by it. In the end I don't think it was really a factor, other than, as you pointed out, we once again had two face punchers out there who could not be counted upon to put up any valuable minutes. I agree that this is a complete waste of a fourth line. I'd really like to see the Leafs bring up some of these Marlies who have been on the fringe, and let them put a physical (clean) game out there for 7-10 minutes.

    All during the game (as I resisted the urge to fall asleep in boredom), I kept thinking about all the talk about being outshot all season and how it was going to hurt the Leafs eventually. What we saw last night was a reversal of fortune. The Leafs outshot an opponent (yay), yet they never really threatened. Isn't this exactly what we have been watching opponents do all year? Weak perimeter shots, good rebound control by our goalies, and the Leafs make the most of their supposedly lesser opportunities? Last night felt as if Carlyle had caved into media pressure and played the game the so-called experts want, and it did not look like the Leafs we know.

    That said, of course these aren't the Leafs we know. They are completely out of synch with the injuries at center. I've never been a huge supporter of Bozak, but we are suddenly seeing just how much chemistry is missing without him. It's often said that you can't use injuries as an excuse, but I will say that it is a long season and I am hoping the Leafs can avoid bleeding to death until Bozak and Kadri are back in the lineup. We are nearing the 20 game mark, the point in which you have been wanting to do a grand assessment of the season so far. I'm about ready to assess this team as they were a few games back already, before the injuries (and suspension) began. It remains to be seen how long Bozak will be out, and whether or not Bolland will return at all this year. If the flood of injuries subsides, I still like this team's chances going into the playoffs healthy.

    One bone to pick about last night, by the way. I am well aware of your feelings on Rielly and whether or not he should be here or back in the WHL. They made their choice, why oh why is he a healthy scratch? Has he looked that bad to the coaching staff? I just haven't seen it. If nothing else, he brings speed on both ends. As much as I have hoped for Ranger to come back fully to an NHL level, we have seen him look stuck in wet cement far too many times while odd man rushes develop. I just can't imagine that Rielly would be more of a liability than him right now. They need to give this kid some minutes.

    1. It was indeed a reversal in fortunes, Pete. The Leafs had more shots, but could not score enough to win.

      I guess the bigger question for me is, even taking into consideration the significant injuries the club has worked to overcome, have they played enough solid, 60-minute games with every guy pulling his weight? If we did that kind of assessment, what would the true number be? And if it's a low number, why is that? It's not as though this club is filled with guys who should just be putting in time during the regular season, since they always go well into the playoffs and are proven "contenders". This group is supposedly young and wanting to prove themselves.

      I'm not saying they don't play well at times. I keep pointing out they have more points in the standings, despite the injuries, than many would have forecast. But I'm talking about determination, tenacity, and real toughness. Those are things any player can bring every night, regardless of whether the puck is bouncing his way or not in a particular game.

      As for Rielly, I'm a bit confused. A game off here and there I get, for sure. He's young and a long NHL season (even though he played a ton in junior, too, unlike college players) is just that- long. Not sure what the staff's thinking is on that. But as I've said, if he won't be a regular in the lineup and they have the temporary Team Canada option, that surely would be an idea. Thanks Pete.

  4. Well we are now at the quarter pole and I think we can start making some assumptions about this team. The big one I get is once again goaltending is the single biggest reason why the Leafs are in the playoffs as of right now. Both Bernier and Reimer have been outstanding. This team is not very good defensively and they can score goals. However, I must say it is getting a bit depressing watching this team night after night failing to put together a complete game. The second period against Boston was a thing of beauty and gives us a glimpse of what they are capable of just too often this year the Leafs have long periods where the goalies are under siege and thank goodness they have lived up to the challenge.

    The big thing that worries me is the fact that they haven't played a lot of divisional games yet. People need to stop saying being in the top 8 is good enough. It's not. Ottawa right now is in 8th place yet they wouldn't qualify for the playoffs because they are 6th in the Atlantic. Divisional play is where you have to make your mark and so far the Leafs have been putting up points while not playing their best and the tough part is still to come.

    As for last nights game, I wish people would stop fixating on John Scott. Regardless, if someone fights him or not it makes no difference to the outcome of the game. The Leafs lost last night because they failed to put many difficult chances at the Buffalo net and had a couple of breakdowns defensively that cost them. Kind of like the way they have played since all the centers went down. Scott did not elbow Ranger on purpose it was clearly a follow thru from trying to shoot a bouncing puck and the fact that he is 12 feet taller than Ranger.

    So far the big takeaway I have had from the first 1/4 of the season is the same one I had during the offseason. Why did the Leafs try to fix a position of strength (goaltending) while not addressing an obvious lack of depth at center ice?

    Secondly, why are a lot of the same guys who jumped on Grabovski and Kulemin for lack of scoring so quick to defend Clarkson? Basically, Kulemin and Clarkson are the exact same player except Kulemin is paid far more reasonably than Clarkson. I want to hear all those same arguments that were used against Grabovski such as he is paid difference maker money to be well a difference maker. He gets paid to score so he should you know score. So far to me anyway he ranks as the single biggest disappointment on the Leafs this year.

    1. Good to hear from you, Willbur.

      My instincts suggest Nolan will put the clamps on Scott, and have him go back to being the player he was earlier in his career- tough, but not a guy who is expected to fight all the time. That may well help the Sabres.

      In a way the Leafs did upgrade the centre position by acquiring Bolland, but clearly there are depth concerns with him out. I do tend to agree with the view that any NHL team would suffer if two of their top pivots were out for an extended period. With Kadri's temporary absence, the issue is even more pronounced.

      I guess I'm trying t give Clarkson rte benefit of the doubt. I don't think anyone expected him to score 60 points. He has already had, it seems, his "career" year. But if he can play smart, tough, two-way hockey,, he should help. The issue seems to be what Nonis paid- and for how long. Thanks Willbur.

    2. To be fair I don't really have a problem with Clarkson. He is what he is and its not his fault the Leafs wildly overpaid him. My biggest beef is a lot of people who couldn't wait to run Grabobski out of town and dump on Kulemin seem to give him a pass for not scoring. To me Kulemin and Clarkson are basically the same player except for two things, Clarkson fights and is Canadian. Other than that they play the same way, are both former 30 goal scorers who don't score much now. I just wish people could look past birth certificates and treat guys the same way.

  5. Hey Michael,

    I didn't get to see the game much - but funny enough caught three of the four goals scored (One by Smith and the 1st and empty net by sabres).

    Can't blame Bernier on 1st goal during the leaf "PK"- that was pretty much how Reimer got scored on in Boston - too many leafs and opposing players right in or around the blue paint. Bernier made up for that goal by making quite a few good/excellent saves.

    2nd Goal on the 2-on-1 by Foligno was disappointing to see - since that is the kinda of offense I expect out of the leafs and not vise-versa. But again - Bernier tried.

    Overall effort was there but again - when u have a depleted forward group and yet your 4th line is playing around 5 mins and less than arguably a worse 4th line is sad - not sure what to make of it - can you give a further opinion than provided in the article - is the players or the coach what is the bigger issue in terms of 4th line mintues?

    I am upset that we have 2 enforcers dressed in a game and yet the other teams player takes a liberty against your players and you don't respond - again is this the players fault or the coach's instructions?

    If I were to give a grade to these guys based on this game alone - I would give a 6.5/10 - Good but never a good thing to loose a game to a basement team - although it's not like a basement team will never win a game - that too in a situation like a coach's first game.

    Anon from Scarborough.

    1. I really don't know what to make off the fourth-line "situation", Scarborough Anon. Part of the answer may lie in when we are healthy again. But even then, Carlyle will sometimes play his enforcers and sit players who are thought by many to be more useful overall contributors. I don't know the answer to your question- and it's one I raised in a recent post here: does Carlyle have no faith in his fourth-line guys, or is this how he really believes a fourth-line should be used?

      I thought we had a "Carlyle team", and that he had the roster he wanted. That said, injuries have obviously impacted game-night decisions.

      I'll aim to post more over the next couple of days. Thanks Scarborough Anon.

  6. Michael,

    Just wanted to let everyone know that the Leafs traded Jesse Blacker, a third and a seventh to the Ducks for some guy named Peter Holland. Is it too early to start chanting, Hire Wilson, Hire Burke. This team continues to do things that are beyond comprehension. They had a guy like this a few weeks ago and gave him away, now they give up real assets to get someone else.

    I am not impressed by this version of the Leafs. At least Burke was entertaining.

  7. Michael, i think you hit the nail on the head:
    "I guess the bigger question for me is, even taking into consideration the significant injuries the club has worked to overcome, have they played enough solid, 60-minute games with every guy pulling his weight?"
    The answer is no, of course. And that's why tonight's game is the biggest to date. Like you, I always admired Nolan, and couldn't figure out why he didn't get another shot at the NHL. Last night we saw a Leaf team that looks like it doesn't practice together beaten by a team determined to show its new coach that they're better than we've seen to date. Expect a rougher game tonight. (And expect Tyler Myers to return to form, btw).
    What no one has mentioned yet is that Scott was not only a focused-on presence last night, he helped set up a great scoring chance for Tropp by knocking a Leaf flat. I watched the Buffalo feed, and they felt both teams were playing a little cautiously, knowing there might be extra scrutiny from the league. But Scott played what - 7 or 8 minutes? I'd say that's the minimum for a fourth line guy. And he was a presence, as I said. You can't say that about our fourth line guys, although Orr has been a better forechecker this year.
    I think Bozak's value is becoming more apparent as the games without him pile up - on the PK as much as on the first line. I've never understood the dissatisfaction many fans have with him - to my eyes, he's improved every year.
    I know we have to give the team a little slack because of the injuries/suspensions, but last night I saw a team that will not make the playoffs this year - and I don't mean the Sabres. Tonight's a big test for us.

    1. Well said, Gerund O'. Scott was not always a "goon"- earlier in his career he was more of a fourth-line grinder, I believe. He has the right guy in Nolan to get him back to playing simple, useful hockey- if he can do it.

      I like your point on Myers. He may have had success "too soon" in the NHL. Buffalo talk show fans were seemingly ready to deal him a year ago, but I hate the idea of teams trading away young D-men. Do you really want to trade away a (potentially) young Chris Pronger?

      You hit the nail on the head with Bozak. Just as fans are frustrated with Clarkson because he is overpaid for the kind of player he is (and expectations go sky high, unfairly so), Bozak is a nice player thrust into a prominent role. Not his fault if a former college free-agent is not seen to be a star centre. But he sure seems to make Kessel better. So he can't exactly be a bum, eh?

      On to tonight...