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Is there an indispensible Maple Leaf heading into a new season?

I’d have to go back and check to be sure, but I believe that almost a year ago, I suggested here at VLM that the one guy the Maple Leafs could ill afford to lose for any length of time was Dion Phaneuf.  I know Phaneuf, for many Leaf supporters, has never quite hit the mark they were hoping for, but I would still make the argument that he is certainly a key figure in this lineup.  He would be sorely missed if he was absent for a prolonged period of time.

So fast forward to a new season, with last year’s experience behind us—but still in our memory bank.  There was some good in the team’s play last year, but we were largely overwhelmed (even when the Leafs were winning) by the sense that their good fortune could not continue, that ultimately, being outplayed and outshot would catch up to them.

It did.

So the question I am asking myself today, with the exhibition games set to begin this week, is this:  is there a singular, truly indispensible Leaf—someone whose absence from the lineup would mean we are just not the same team?

As I scan the projected roster this season, that player, for me, is Jonathan Bernier.

We all know the names in this competition:  Kessel, Phaneuf and maybe even Lupul because we do seem to miss him when he isn't in the lineup. 

We need those guys, yes, but it was Bernier who almost got us to the playoffs last season.  His late-year injury thrust Reimer into a tough situation, and the former Leaf ‘number-one’ simply could not overcome a season long battle with eroding confidence—and consistency.  He struggled to the finish line, and it was no shock that the team struggled mightily as well.

So as I try to project what this roster can be (and I recognize that we don’t even know what the real regular-season lineup will be at this point, and it will no doubt change even further as the season moves forward), it just strikes me that as important as Phaneuf is, and Kessel is up front, the success of the team will ultimately fall on the goaltender.

Fans know that all eyes are on Carlyle, of course.  Will he adjust, adapt, whatever word we want to use? Will his new system work? (Or will it really be his old system?)

Will the incoming assistant coaches make a difference in how players embrace the coach’s message? Will new players (Winnik, Robidas, Polak, Kontiola, Santorelli, Booth, maybe even the kid, Nylander…) bring energy to the lineup?  Will we finally have some kind of discernable identity by the way we play? Will Clarkson bounce back? Will Gardiner and Rielly take that next step? Will an unexpected prospect make a push for a roster spot and become a difference-maker?

Heck, will we be able to hang on to the puck this season, and give our goaltenders a manageable numbers of shots to contend with most nights?

All these things matter, for sure.

But at the end of the day, a team on the bubble—and in my mind, the Leafs are very much on the playoff bubble—needs a goalie to stand on his head.

Bernier did for much of last season, and there is no reason to suggest he won’t play that way again.  If anything, he should be better—a year more familiar with his team, the system, and returning defensemen like Phaneuf, Franson, Rielly and Gardiner.

Reimer may think he’s battling for the top spot in net, but everyone knows it is Bernier’s job. He’s the guy.  He knows it and should be fully comfortable in that role.  And I suspect Reimer will be motivated to play well as the back-up to ensure he has marketplace value outside of Toronto come the summer of 2015.

So while it’s easy to predict success in September, I do think the Leaf backstops will do the job this year.  And that falls primarily on Bernier to be good—really good.

If Bernier is, then the Leafs will be in a position to contend for a playoff spot—and maybe more.


  1. Michael,

    Since I know that we both love baseball, I don't think you'll mind. Thanks for dragging me away from the monotony of listening to Buck and Pat drone on and on about something or other on the Blue Jays telecast. From the constant restating of each others points, to the need to teach people about baseball, I can't take any more of them this season. The losing would be a little more tolerable if the Jays broadcast at least tried to be entertaining. Tell me something I can't see on TV, please I beg of you Sportsnet. At the very least offer me the option of listening to the game with only the crowd noise and PA announcer.

    As to your well made points about the Leafs and who is indispensable, I have to put my vote in for Kessel. His talent on the ice is rare, as well as being something that the majority of the players on the team, or in the League for that matter, just aren't capable of doing. Phils talent with the puck is rare, extremely rare.

    I don't think I can place enough empahasis on something that I don't feel gets the proper credit from fans, or from the media. When you had a player on your team and you replace him with someone new, you do not get the talents of the player you are bringing in, so to speak. What the team gets is the difference, both good, and bad. Replacing Colton Orr in the lineup will only have a marginal difference to the team, even if the replacement is Ovechkin, if the minutes and usage remain the same.

    The differences in ability between goalies in the NHL have never been smaller. Every team has at least one guy who can be thought of as one with elite ability. Winnipeg comes to mind as the caveat here, but we are always hearing about a trade for a young stud goalie in the making. Reimer is incredibly capable of being the go to guy. I don't see a lot of difference in ability between him and Bernier. They are both able to be the guy here for a very long time. They both need to stay healthy as well as positive during this time of transition for the Maple Leafs.

    1. I've had a love affair with baseball since I was a youngster, too, Jim. But I'll refrain from commenting on the Jays, other than to say they played "meaningful" games in September, which is a good thing for fans!

      As for the Leafs, you are right about how the lines are utilized. Carlyle will presumably select twelve forwards who can contribute every night, and divvy up ice time accordingly.

      About Kessel: a genuine difference maker on offence, no question.

      The goalies? I think Bernier is the guy, but like you, I think both can do the job. Thanks Jim.

  2. I couldn't agree more with Jim - I don't think Bernier is as important to this team as Kessel. Bernier brings something that Reimer can replace - I really don't think there's much of a difference between the two - Bernier is slightly better but also less experienced and an unknown when it comes to pressure situations (i.e. playoffs). Reimer is a good goalie and hopefully we won't be relying on goaltenders as much this year as we've had to in the past.

    I think you were right to offer up Phaneuf as indispensible last year because last year he was indeed all we had on the back end - the kids were too young and there was no supporting cast - definitely noone who could replace his minutes. This year, with the additions of Polak and Robidas, some serious depth with the young guys (Holtzer, Granberg, Percy, Reilly, Gardiner) and most importantly a real defensive coach in Peter Horachek I'm not as worried about losing the Captain.

    I'd have to go with Kessel this year - I just don't think there's a guy on the Leafs roster that can step in for him and provide that threat that he poses offensively and replace his production. There's simply not a talent of his caliber here. We're so incredibly lucky that he has been healthy so far. It is the fact that he's always been there that makes this more of a hypothetical question and that's a good thing.

    A more realistic fear I have is that Bozak will go down and this eventuality is what scares me the most - I remember our centers going down last year and Kessel's production going way down. We now have a lot more center depth but depth does not replace the skill and chemistry that Bozak (next to Kessel) brings. Bozak is already hurt and, unlike his winger, has had some injury problems over the years. I really hope he stays healthy this year. That top line (or that top duo to be precise) is our greatest weapon and if either goes down I think the Leafs will be screwed.

    1. Kessel and Bozak have been the Leafs best line (with varying wingers) for some time now, agreed, leafdreamer. And I hear you on Kessel's importance to the Leafs. And it's a good point that he is taken for granted, in that he has always been in the lineup.

  3. It's funny, Michael, but, though the Leafs will certainly be in trouble if either goalie or Phaneuf is out, my vote goes to Phil Kessel too. I don't think we appreciate what we have in him yet he's the one player we most likely could never replace. There were so many games where the Leafs won simply by out-scoring the opponent and Kessel was the reason. He is the one player on the team that makes me move to the edge of my seat when he has the puck.
    So, I say the unique, under-rated and irreplaceable Phil Kessel. I just can't imagine the Leafs without him. Colleen

    1. He is certainly a difference-maker, Colleen. And no, we couldn't replace him. He may well be under-appreciated in this market.

  4. Bernier get my vote. So far in scrimages Reimer hasn't looked good. Antoine Bibeau has looked better.

  5. Hi all, enjoyed all your comments. I am new to VLM so you dont know my Kessel song : love him, wicked shot, not a leader. Dion, Michael said it best... not lived up to expectations. him when healthy...

    I am going to take a flyer here on who is indispensible.... Robidas will make life better on D and Komarov will make everyone play with more emotion... I dont think they are the best but I think they will provide something missing last year which will elevate the Leafs game.

    Finally, non player.... Shanahan has to provide stable, wise guidance without creating who is the GM sideshow, and Carlyle... ohh so many things to think about Thanks Michael for your great blog.


    1. I guess the "Kessel as leader" debate will always linger in Toronto, Leafs Fan in Mexico. Tremendously skilled player, we all agree. The "not a leader" perspective is one I've talked about here myself over the years, but I can appreciate the argument that while he is certainly not a Gary Roberts-style leader, he leads by his play on the ice. As with Phaneuf on the blue line (as I've also written here before) it may be that we don't have enough strong followers- guys who take the lead from players like Kessel and Phaneuf and build on their work.

      I agree that Robidas (if healthy) and Komarov can have an impact. I thought we really missed Komarov last season. And yes, Shanahan's work behind the scenes will be key.

  6. Hi Michael,

    In spite of all the talk in the past year about Reimer's place here and the organization's treatment of him, Bernier did prove himself quite capable and I am happy with him as the starter going into this season. That said, I do worry about long-term consistency. Recent history has shown that very few goalies have been able to remain at the top of their game for long. It doesn't appear that there are any Roy's, Hasek's, or Brodeur's anymore that perform that well year in, year out. Most who have displayed gaudy save percentages one season have inevitable let downs the next year. Furthermore, Bernier has still not proven that he can be a workhorse, and early returns show that he plays his best when he gets rest. So my feeling on him is that he is fine for now, but I would not be ready to offer him a six or seven year monster contract.
    Kessel is here to stay and whether or not people like his work ethic or defensive play, he performs his role at a high end level and will continue to for the foreseeable future. Right now he is close to being that indispensible player, but I would still hold Phaneuf in the same position as last year. They say that they are going to try to reduce his minutes, or at least the hard minutes he has been churning out, to avoid burning him out. But as it stands, there is no one there to take his place should Phaneuf get injured. I really like Rielly and his game, and he may be the one we are discussing here in a year or two, but right now, I think the Leafs still need him to play at least a majority of the role he played last year.

    1. I hear you for sure regarding goalies nowadays, Pete. I, too, wonder if there are any Hasek/Brodeur/Roy guys out there. Quick in LA, maybe?

      Phaneuf is still the man on our defense- as you say, who else will adequately log those minutes? Down the road this discussion may indeed be about someone like Rielly.

  7. Just before I scrolled down to read your choice, Michael, I began to consider Bernier (based upon the correlated impact that his absence had on the team last year) as my own choice. But then, I remembered my own perspective on what had happened with Reimer mentally going through the loss of the number 1 role, and with his knock to the noggin right after Bernier was injured. We may never know how his choice to carry on, may have been 'impacted' (pun intended) by that knee to the head. To my eye, he really wasn't the same going down the stretch when he would have dearly loved to contribute at a higher level.

    So, because I believe Reimer will settle in to a 40% role (that will ensure Bernier's full recovery and maintain his options with better play), I think Bernier is 'less indispensable' than last year.

    I also agreed with many points made by Jim regarding Kessel, yet we 'suffer' from not knowing what would happen if he were out for any period, given his regularity in the lineup. Frankly, I hope we don't have to find out, and that is a vote in favour of Kessel.

    However, I'm going down a different road while advocating the role of a lesser light who captured my appreciation 2 seasons ago. A player who was much maligned in many circles for actually leaving the team last year, and whose absence earned him a significant pay raise... namely Leo Komarov. His return has spawned the mention of many small praises concerning the effective nature of his all out play upon the rest of the guys in the room.

    I think his play was the catalyst for our return to the playoffs before he left... and on that note, as much as I hoped he could stay, I can't imagine turning down an opportunity to play in the Olympics and a seriously diminished bank account in order to be squeezed into the Leaf cap crunch. I believe Leo made a significant commitment to the Leafs at a lower pay grade, and even spent some time in the AHL during the early stages of the lockout, before joining the lineup and becoming such an effective role player.

    He certainly deserved a pay raise (and I hope he's truly worth what he got) and I think the effect of this player upon the room is 'contagious'. Therefore, Leo is my 'under the radar' pick for your query!

    1. Komarov was certainly missed last season, at least in my view, InTimeFor62. As an under-the-radar choice, you may be on the money.

    2. So that makes two of us Intimefor62.... of course, and I wanted to clarify, Kamarov is the epoxy that catalyzes the glue which is Robidas, all premised on a) rest of team plays to the level they can and b) Coaching can make the whole function about 40% better than last years. Or maybe just 50% better for the critical moments aka after three losses...


    3. Thanks for your comments LFMex, I noticed your desire to use that nickname (instead of anonymous), and provided some instructions on how to replace 'Anonymous' with your choice.

      Here's what I posted on the 14th:

      For those wondering how to put your name (or chosen appellation), here are some directions:


      Just below where you 'Enter your comment...'

      There is a box beside the words 'Comment as':
      click on the down arrow beside 'select profile'
      then click on 'Name/URL'
      then click on 'Name'

      That will put the cursor in that box and you can then type in your name (or 'Leafs Fan in Mexico', etc.)

      Then press 'continue'

      You will see your name/nickname in the Reply as: box, then

      carry on with 'Preview' or 'Publish' as per normal

      Trust that will help!

    4. Thanks from me too. Hey It worked!

  8. Thanks for the tip InTimeFor62, nice to have a real name!!!

  9. Hi Michael,

    like every sunday I sat in front of my Laptop keenly awaiting your new article.
    I only read the headline and my first thought was: oh my god, there will be some of my fellow VLM followers who really think Bernier is the guy. Then I read the article.

    Golie is by far our strongest position. We have two number ones.
    And I said before, I am not convinced that Bernier can easily repeat that year. His numbers were incredible and if he could be able to keep it up constantly he is the best golie in the NHL. And I do not see him there. All golies have their problems. Reimer can lead us to the playoffs (we need a backup in that situation) if Bernier is injured. If you name three players Bernier,, Phaneuf and Kessel and ask who is the guy we can do without while having the least difficulties the answear must be: Bernier.

    We wouldn't be the same team without Kessel. He is not only the only elite player we have, he was our winning guarantee. If Kessel and his guys did not produce other teams have nearly no problems to defeat the Leafs. We will be deeper this seaso but not deep enough. Kessel is clearly the answear to your question. We do not even know if Bozak can produce anything without playing with Phil.

    But there is another area of concern. I can not pin it on a single player in that case, but our D in this moment is so thin on NHL quality defenseman that we can not miss a guy there, especially on the left side. Yes I hear you that we have a deep talent pool on D and that is correct but we do not have enough NHL ready D-man. And the guys that can step in Holzer and Granberg are both right hand shots. If anybody on the left side gets injured or Robidas is really not ready at the start of the season that will be a big blow.

    You try to pin (at least a bit) the last 14 games on Reimer. I do not like it and I am a bit suprised because I thought we were on the same page there.
    The team was terrible after the Olympic break and Bernier's numbers declined heavily after the break. The people pinning the collapse on Reimer have the wrong end of the stick. The team was really bad.

    1. You raise fair points, as always, Marcus. I've long been a Reimer guy, but do think he was not at his best when the Leafs needed him down the stretch. That said, I have long catalogued here why his confidence had been shot by that point, including the uneven "competition" with Bernier, Leiweke's comments about "the guy we inherited", etc. So I understand how/why Reimer, by his own admission afterwards, did not play as well as he can. (Also, various accounts suggest injuries may have again been a factor.)

      I agree that team fell off, and it was a bad confluence of events.

      As for Bernier, I sense fans will be waiting to see if he can repeat his play of last year, and whether or not he can withstand the rigours of a long NHL season as the for-sure top guy.

      You're not alone in citing Kessel at the key guy! Thanks, Marcus.

  10. I am with you on Reimer and I can not explain why he was great against LA and fell off afterwards.
    Perhaps there was an injury. But he is able to be the number one.

    What do you think of my D thought's because I fear that will be really the key. I think Holzer and Granberg can step in but on the left there is nothing exept Percy and he will need another year.

    1. Yes, Reimer was tremendous against LA, saved the day, but then struggled a bit in the third period against Detroit, I recall and the game just before that as well.

      The lack of left-handed defensemen may well continue to plague us. We have depth, as you say Marrcus, but are we good enough on defense?

      I think Rielly will help, and as we have discussed Gardiner (if he can be coached) should improve as well. Robidas has the veteran moxie, Polak is a guy I want to see more of.