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With the opener around the corner, how high is the ceiling for the Maple Leafs this season?

Over the past few weeks, in the lead-up to the beginning of the regular season, we have covered a number of topics at VLM.  The subjects here have included:

We wondered aloud if there would be a surprise or two in camp, as in players who make the roster unexpectedly. (The answer, as I write this, may be Leivo and Kozun, but we’ll see…) We’ve discussed how long the coach has to keep his job, and whether we really are better than how we finished a season ago.

We have a few nicks (Kessel, Clarkson, Bozak, Leivo, Franson and Robidas with assorted injuries) but we seem to be starting the season in reasonably good shape.  The opening night roster is not always the group that teams move forward with anyway, but it’s usually an indication, at least, of what they will have going forward.

Typically I don’t make many preliminary judgments until the Leafs have played ten games, and don’t try to make much of an assessment of how things are going until the 20-game mark or so. 

In fact, the Leafs have started well (either the first few games, or even longer) a number of times over the past few years, dating back to the Wilson era. But at the end of the day, only once have we actually made the playoffs, and that was during the lockout-shortened season—though the Leafs came so close to exterminating the Bruins that spring, we had to feel somewhat hopeful after that.

I know there has been some angst as pre-season comes to a close as to what kind of roster Carlyle will want heading into the season.  But I choose to believe that even if fans don’t like all his roster choices (we should know more my Monday mid-day), we will still see some new faces that should be able to contribute—though they may be different faces than what we had originally anticipated. Players like Frattin and Ashton, who I assumed would be here, may not be, for example.

Nonetheless, the goaltending will be as planned, as will the defense corps.  We should have a competitive bottom-six forward group, and while we may be lacking one more skill player to be part of the top two lines, we are better off than some teams in the Eastern Conference, I sense.

But having discussed the topics that we have here in recent times, and with the regular season about to kick off, I have a simple question:  how high, realistically, is the Leaf ceiling this season? 

I’m not a fan of predictions, but I do wonder if there are reasons the Leafs can’t make a run of sorts up the standings in a Conference that continues to be middlish, at best.

We will all look at this particular picture a bit differently, I’m sure, but I’m interested to see what your level of optimism or pessimism is as we start a new year.  Do you really feel the blue and white will make the playoffs?  If not, what will be the stumbling blocks?

If you think they will make it, will it be because of a new “system” of play, because Carlyle has “changed” or because our stars are in their prime and the youngsters like Kadri, Gardiner and Rielly will make huge strides? Maybe the seemingly enhanced third and fourth lines will be the key.

I doubt one or two roster choices will necessarily tip the balance in our assessments of how the Leafs may do this season, so let me know your thoughts.

The Leafs always keep us guessing—and interested—at least…


  1. I was just reading the "Down Goes Brown" assessment of the Leafs, and it sure ties in nicely to this article. Sean plants the Leafs firmly where a lot of us do, in the "who the heck knows" category, where the upside and downside potential seem a lot more extreme than with most teams. As far as your list above Michael, here's my Canadian "two cents" thrown in on a few of your bullet points. Which now gets rounded to zero at Tim Horton's, which might be an indication of the quality of my thoughts!

    I think Reimer is actually a big piece of the puzzle this year. Assuming Bernier stays healthy and lands himself about 60 starts with reasonable success, the difference between 86 and 92 points in the standings would come down to our likable backup.

    Even if Clarkson bounces back, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for TOO high a bounce. Besides his statistical anomaly of a year with the Devils, I really think he is what he is, and hoping a 30 year old shows gigantic leaps with his offensive pop might be dreaming a bit too much.

    I don't understand why they kept Carlyle, and I don't expect him to be around very long. I fear coaching turmoil might be another distraction, and ultimately an excuse to put the team in transition again if the coach needs to be turfed.

    Even an ever so slightly better Gardiner is a fine hockey player, to me. My only beef is that he got knocked off the puck pretty easily last year, in corner battles. Maybe just playing a bit meaner would help out.

    I really hope Nylander doesn't make the hop up to the big club this year, for a few reasons. Talented for sure, but not the most robust build you're ever going to see, so he might get eaten up physically over the long haul. If he plays for the Marlies, he can play in a "man's league" still, but with the benefit of it being a development project, as opposed to delivering MUST needed results.

    Looking forward to reading comments!

    1. I share a lot of your views, Russ. Reimer does have a key role, because, as you say, a few points will likely make a difference in April.

      I think we all have modest expectations for Clarkson this year.

      You make a good point about the coaching distraction. Unfortunately, it is exactly that. Maybe it will work out, but while we all wait, there will likely be endless speculation unless the team starts well.

      We all know Gardiner is talented. Can he become a harder to play against defender? He doesn't have to be overly physical, I don't think, but has to be hard on the puck around his net and in the corners.

      I'd like to have Nylander in the pipeline for when he is ready- and we really need him. Thanks Russ.

  2. I have tempered my expectations through the pre-season (as planned), yet if there is any sense of optimism about the coming season, it actually began to 'bud' during the last game against Detroit.

    Prior to that, I saw cause for concern and hoped to see better application of systems as we progressed through the games. Of course, some key players were missing in that Detroit game, but I couldn't help thinking this looked like a group that may just develop some cohesion this year.

    I'm still 'guarded' about the budding optimism (it was only one pre-season game), yet I find myself on the Gerund O'Malley's 'glass half -full' perspective as we enter the regular season (waiting for the quarter pole to see if it has the potential to hold together throughout the season).

    1. We can no doubt expect highs and lows, InTimeFor62- much like the last few seasons!

  3. My expectations were building up all summer long and then went down somewhat watching the pre-season games but they are still pretty high after watching them outskate the Wings on Friday.

    Some of the reasons to be excited did diminish during the pre-season.I had high hopes for Kontiola especially after listening to a Finnish analyst earlier this summer say he was a lot better player than Komorov but now Kontiola is on the Marlies. Frattin was supposed to get his game back and be the player he was when the Leafs originally traded him away but that has not happened. Then there was all the talk of the Leafs having a bottom six that can actually produce some offence but now I am hearing they may still keep Orr to have some team toughness which leave them with a dead weight on the bench. It will be interesting to see what they do.

    So with Kontiola and Frattin out of the picture they have really only added Komorov, Santorelli and Winnik but lose Kulemin, McClement, Raymond and Bolland with a few other changes like possibly Kouzon, Leivo and Holland. Offensively they should be better this season but not because of the new additions. I think Kessel, JVR, Kadri will all have better seasons.

    On defense both Gardiner and Rielly have played well in the pre-season and should keep improving. Robidas looked good against the Wings so hopefully he can stay healthy but they also have a few guys like Percy and Granberg who can fill in. With more experience in Robidas and improvement fom Gardiner and Riellying along with new coaches a new system and a new emphasis on analysis you have to think the defense will be improved. And of course having a healthy Bernier and Reimer playing better can only help.

    As usual I am expecting a fast start this season and making the playoffs and possibly winning a couple rounds. Now with players like Nylander coming up and a lot of skilled young players already on the team the future is looking good.

    1. There is depth in the system, for sure, Alton, and that should put the team in a position to improve. All the things you cite should help, too.

      Goaltending and better overall team defense will indeed be key. It may be that players like Kontiola will help later in the year, and that would be fine. The roster will likely be tweaked as the season moves along. Thanks Alton.

  4. Leafs Fan in MexicoOctober 6, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    Great question.

    8th or 7th place, 6 plausible

    Assuming Eastern Conference competes at about the same level

    Assuming Toronto competes about the same as in 2012-13 and 2013-2014 but without a month long swoon.

    Assuming defense is slightly better.

    Their core is about that good.

    1. I hear you, Leafs Fan in Mexico. We'll know more by December, I think!

  5. Hi Michael:

    Like you, I would like to make my prediction after 20 games, but that is like betting on a horse race after it is 25% complete. My forecast is that Leafs will improve over last year and sneak into the playoffs. After that, anything can happen - that is why they play the games.

    The Leafs were not as good as their record in the first part of last season suggested, and surely they cannot be as bad as they finished.

    The Core
    The team has made minimal to no change to their core (top 11 players). This is area where real growth must happen. Much will depend on systems change and will.

    1. Garage Sale
    I liken most of Free Agency as a big garage sale, where someone else's junk becomes your treasure. However, if the Leaf pickups were truly game changers they would not be available cheaply.

    2. Sun on the Horizon
    Today's roster moves suggests that "The Facepunchers Philosophy is Dead" although I find it difficult to believe this was Carlyle's decision. It also suggests that the Marlies are seen as a true development team, which in the long run is the way to go.

    3 Will Carlyle change?
    I believe that a "Leopard does not change his spots". We will see this in the first 10 to 20 games when we see the actually "new system" deployed and in player's minutes. When the team runs into adversity, and they will, what actions does he take?

    I have come to like the strategy of putting Carlyle and Nonis on a short leash.

    4. Analytics
    Having been involved in the computer business for over 40 years, it seems hard to believe that it has taken this long to take advantage of technology. Any team not using this capability is a dinosaur However, it is only as good as the people using it. We used to call it "Garbage In, Garbage Out". I suspect the Window for gaining an advantage with it may be short, as most teams jump on the bandwagon.

    5. Systems
    As I am sure you remember I have been highly critical of "the Carlyle System" which results in a very poor possession team. On my recent trip to Toronto, I was loaned Herb Carnegie's book, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk". When he played Junior A for the Toronto Young Rangers in the late 1930s. Here were axioms drummed into the team.
    a) Look before you pass the Puck
    b) Never give the puck away and
    3) When you have the puck, the other guy can't score.

    Sounds like the KISS principle still applies.

    Note: Herb was a class act and sounds like he should have been the Jackie Robinson of hockey.

  6. Thanks for chiming in today Ralph (RLMcC)- you've covered some of the key areas we're all wondering about.

    As for Carnegie, you're absolutely right. And the basic principles he and his teammates were taught decades ago still apply in today's game. Possession is 9/10ths of success in hockey, eh? Thanks Ralph.

  7. "I doubt one or two roster choices will necessarily tip the balance in our assessments of how the Leafs may do this season, so let me know your thoughts."

    This may be one of the few times I disagree with you Michael :). I think a couple roster changes make a big difference. First, it will truly show us if there is indeed a shift in thinking in the organization or will last years mentality still prevail in regards to lineups. Will the 4th line primarly be a waste of bench space or will it be useful? i suspect change is being forced in this regard and Orr will be sent down. McLaren was sent down late last season so he is a given to go down. Kozun has looked good and Booth can be useful. Certainly both are upgrades over Orr/Mclaren duo. My prediction is our 3rd and 4th lines will be useful.

    IF they are useful that takes minutes off our top line so we don't have Phil looking like a goldfish out of water in the 3rd period and late in the season. That means quality of minutes out of our top line and even the 2nd line instead of just quantity and they should produce better because of it. Plus you get more from your 3rd and 4th lines in regards to actual points scored and less points given up. 2-3 changes in the forwards could mean a pretty big overall change in how the team performs.

    Systems: So far the systems have been tweaked in preseason. Honestly the team looked like a mess last year. And yes it was system but a lot of teams played systems that were not THAT much different. But in the preseason they do not swarm and collapse immediately in the D zone which helps in two ways. It cuts down on stopping and starting as often which was tiring the players out a lot last year. It also means we cover the points and the cross zone passes a little better. Wins all around assuming the players execute and the coaching doesn't revert back to the old ways...

    The 2nd thing I noticed was the defense are not collapsing back deep when the oppositition comes through the neutral zone. This makes it a lot tougher for the other teams to gain our zone with possession of the puck than last year. Last year there was a big welcome mat put out in the neutral zone for teams to come setup their play and or cycle in our zone. Again, if the team can execute this will help a lot in how much time the other team has the puck in our zone.

    So has Carlyle changed? I think he is being forced to, and with help from assistants who actually have a clue about systems from other jobs they have had, the early signs for me are positive ones. And as for lineups, same thing, he is being forced to change. Our 3rd and 4th lines this year could almost be interchangable which is a very good thing to have.

    So where do the Leafs finish? Somewhere between 4th and 12th heheheheh. A lot of variables still hanging out there and Carlyle is 80% of them. If he completely comes to grips with the fact he needs to change or this might be his last job AND the players execute 4th in the weaker east division is achievable. If not a lottery pick is just as achievable if the semi goes off the road sooner than last year. How is that for a wishy washy prediction? :)))

    1. As I was writing the comment about "one or two roster spots" I realized that some would disagree- and you may well be proven correct, Pep. Today's announcement would seem to suggest Carlyle has had to move in a somewhat different direction, and most fans would agree that's a good thing.

      Will he really embrace change? That we don't know.

      As for your "prediction", I think you're just being realistic. It's impossible to know how this team will develop, and I agree, we could finish just about anywhere in the Eastern Conference. Thanks Pep.

  8. Well, with the cuts made today, I would suggest that we may have the best of both worlds at play in the choices made. So many teams have taken the enforcers off their main roster, that it strikes me as unlikely to lose both of ours on the waiver wire. That said, such a player having cleared waivers, will actually 'expand' our roster going forward.

    Should we find ourselves facing a team carrying a pugilist, the Leafs can then call up one of our guys for that match (while sending down a player who doesn't have to clear waivers). I doubt Randy will be lacking such an option if he wants one of them in the lineup.

    At least this way, we didn't have to risk losing players more likely to be snatched up (like Ashton and Frattin) and that provides more time to make a trade without the pressure of the roster deadline.

    I'm glad that Kozun so obviously 'Earned' his way onto the team and Percy sure looks to belong as well. I think the team made some good decisions and I guess we'll have to see what plays out when Booth and Franson are healthy.

  9. Hi Michael,

    I think about this one since sunday. This is a hard one.

    You said you make no assessment before 20 games are played but the last years showed us that we have to worry about the last 20 games.

    The East is so unpredictable that it is very hard to say what will happen.

    The Leafs will make the Playoffs. They are better than last year and they were so close then. The reason for that will be a mix of the possible reasons you mentioned.
    The system changes will have the biggest Impact. I hope they can maintain and improve what they showed in the last game.

    When they reach the Playoffs, anything can happen.

    I have a wish for this season. Last year was really terrible. From the first to the last game. There was nearly no game with a consistent 60 min effort. Yes there were some better games but there was nearly no game that was satisfying. The season before was very diffrent, even when the Leafs were one or two goals behind with five minutes to go in the third I always had the feeling that they could win this. And last year when they had a three nothing lead in the third it was possible every time that they could loose it.

    I want enjoyable games with a consistant effort. And when they can do that they will make the Playoffs.

    Nonis said today that Kontiola had back issues through the summer. He will get propper treatment and will get his legs underneath him in the AHL and will be a force later this season.

    1. I agree, Marcus, that playing a full game on a consistent basis will be key this season. System changes and some new personnel bring hope that it can happen. If attitudes improve that won't hurt, either.

      The East has a lot of teams jockeying for position, and there will likely be a lot of teams on the playoff bubble.

      Kontiola may well help help later this season.