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Some early-season Maple Leaf highlights…

A quick look at the current NHL standings in the Eastern Conferences shows the Maple Leafs, not surprisingly, hovering near the bottom of the list. While they have certainly been in games almost every night, we all understand that they lack some of the ingredients that would see them playing at a higher level.

But given that our expectations were so meager heading into this season anyway, I’d rather look at hopeful signs instead of trying to parse all the things that need to be better. As we have discussed here before, by the time this team is (presumably) ready to “contend”, it will be a very different roster than the one we are viewing this season.

So what’s gone well?

I guess most of us have liked what we have seen from Rielly and certainly Komarov.  I’m not sure I should mention Reimer as a surprise, but he has indeed played well enough to deserve credit for fighting through a fair bit of hockey adversity the last few years. He’s done enough to make an impression on Babcock, who seemed to be looking more Bernier’s way when the season began. (One side thought on Reimer: hopefully his day-to-day lower-body issue doesn’t become something much more significant. We often see teams announce that someone should be back fairly soon, only to discover over time that the player is not responding to rest or treatment, and suddenly it’s a more concerning injury—and a lot of unexpected missed time.)

I don’t think the individual stats mean much this season, again, in the sense that this is a stop gap/hybrid transition year that is simply bridging us to a younger and more talented roster down the road.  That said, especially for a guy who supposedly wanted out of Dodge very badly ten months ago, Phaneuf has done his job. The Captain leads the team in points (again, this all relative, as the numbers for most Leaf forwards are quite modest), but he is also ‘plus’ player and still logs significant minutes, though not the kind of time he did years gone by.

Bozak and JVR lead the forwards in terms of point production, and Rielly, as I write this, is right there with Dion, though his plus/minus is on the wrong side of the ledger by a fair bit. But both he and Gardiner are playing over twenty minutes a night and my guess is Babcock is quite pleased with their progress. It’s very much time for Gardiner to make his move, and Rielly is still trending as everyone has hoped.

But the guy for me who has probably rekindled a bit of Leaf-related enthusiasm is Komarov.  He is the kind of throwback player I’ve always liked. (I was always a Bert Olmstead, Brian Spencer, Bob Gainey, John Tonnelli, Terry O’Reilly kind of guy. Olmstead, a key cog on the 1962 Leaf Cup winner after years with the Montreal Canadiens, passed away recently...) Komarov was as advertised his first year in the NHL with the blue and white, coming out of relative hockey anonymity to create havoc everywhere he went. He finished his checks and was a steady, irritating presence, the kind of wonderful agitator really good teams need. (I'm not suggesting Komarov is in the same league as the players I mentioned, but he gives everything he has, which is what I have always expected from anyone wearing the Leaf crest.)

We were all disappointed that he went back to the KHL that next season, and he was missed, for sure.  The seemingly innocuous hit from Ovechkin a while back sent him backwards for quite some time, but he is back to his irritating self while giving the team a bit of an edge again. He is getting ice time and putting up points to boot, so he stands for now as my most impressive, encouraging-to-watch Leaf—though I recognize that Reimer may belong in that discussion as well.

Other Leafs that have had their moments?  Kadri, for sure, despite not having much luck around the net so far.  Holland as well, after his early season Babcock-induced absence from the lineup. Hunwick is playing over 22 minutes a night; he has been a nice acquisition. And Polak has been steady after seeming to be a press box candidate earlier in the year.

Others have made a contribution to making the Leafs a generally grittier, harder to play against bunch, which is not something we have always seen in recent times (though, in fairness, they were also harder to play against in the lockout-shortened year when they made the playoffs…). But I guess my focus today is on some of the players who may well be here when that (inevitable?) turnaround occurs.

Who have been pleasant Leaf surprises for you so far this season?


  1. Garret Sparks was a very pleasant surprise tonight, although the names on the list of other goalies who had a shutout in their NHL debut were a sobering reminder that it was just one game.

    Komarov is on pace for 34 goals! I don't expect that to continue, but I didn't expect to be able to say that either.

    Sticking with reality, I think Kadri has impressed me the most. We know he can score, and I'm not particularly troubled by his recent bad luck. I have noticed a few huge defensive plays. He seems to be turning into quite a well-rounded player.

    Reimer is not on my list of pleasant surprises for the reason you allude to.

    As a long time vocal Reimer supporter, I feel I should make clear that I hope Sparks can build on what he accomplished tonight. It was a good reminder that I'm not a "Reimer at all costs" guy; I guess just objected to the idea of someone being parachuted in and anointed saviour without having accomplished anything. I get the vibe that a Reimer/Sparks duo would be the perfect combination of intense competition countered by unwavering mutual support.

    1. Agreed on Kadri, Oliver. And no, Komarov won't score 30+ goals but if he competes the way he has and chips in offensively, I sense most Leaf fans would be more than satisfied.

      As we've discussed here now for a long time, the Reimer-Bernier situation was ill-handled from the get-go by the organization, and remains an awkward situation. It's unhealthy for goalies to be put in the position that they were- especially Reimer, for all the reasons many of us have alluded to. And yes, Sparks made a great first impression!

  2. Surprises:

    Top line is ok without Kessel.

    JVR, top in team scoring without parking in front of the net. He has become more of a playmaker, (lets Leo go the net) and is developing a more complete game. I thought he would suffer without Kessel drawing attention, but he is on track for 55 to 60 points

    Lupul up until this trip had been healthy and has developed into a 2 way player.

    Gardiner calming his game down and playing smarter under Babcock

    Harrington looks to be a very nice prospect and should be playing.

    Not a Leaf yet but Dymtro Timashov 45 points in 26 QMHL games so far. He is on track for 118 points in 68 games...not bad for a 5th round pick.

    1. Good to hear from you, DP. I'll keep an eye on what Timashov is doing going forward.

  3. I, too, have always liked what Komarov has brought to the table and, even though I hoped he might also have some offensive upside - the opportunity to play with Kadri and JVR (in a top line role) has demonstrated that he can contribute more than I'd hoped. I have always hoped for a balancing of skill and grit on all the lines (unless behind in the game) so like Babcock's 'distribution' of styles.

    A little quieter and intermittent, I'm like Scott Harrington when he's been in the lineup... thinking he may be around for a while if his progression/arc is 'trending upward' consistently. He seems pretty steady and unnoticeable in a good way.

    Like you, Michael, I have been enjoying the opportunity to see James Reimer 'taking the ball and running with it' and am hoping he can be as sharp when he returns. It would be a shame for this injury to linger or hinder what he finally had a chance to show, when given the opportunity.

    On a final, unrelated note, the other day I 'sped through' my first OHL game, between Windsor and London, to try and catch Mitch Marner's shifts (also watching Piccinich a bit when I remembered he was also our prospect - having mixed feelings about him, but he's still young, too). This comment is not about Marner's play, though it is related to him nevertheless.

    Despite missing big chunks of the play as I skipped forward, I caught something interesting as the camera focused upon a man sitting in the top row of the arena. Neither I, nor one of the announcers, even recognized him until the other announcer said it was Steve Yzerman.

    I'm not sure how I feel about the possibility that emerged in my brain (and there could be many other explanations for his presence), but Stamkos has not signed yet and I'm wondering if the Leaf brain-trust would even consider trading for Steven early (so as to sign him for the longer 8 year term) at the cost of Mitch Marner (as a key piece in the deal). I'm really not sure I like the idea and am wondering how you would feel about such a possibility, Michael?!

    Do you think it would actually fit into the 'Shanaplan' - I thought, if we ever signed him as a UFA, that Mitch Marner might be the perfect setup guy to play with a talent like Stamkos... the aforementioned thought process 'throws a spanner in the works'... I'm curious what you'd think if there really were anything (like this) to the presence of Stevie Y at that game. Mostly speculative, I know, but isn't this how trade rumours often get started??? :)

    1. Through the years, the Leafs have had a tendency to acquire really good players a bit past when they were at their best. The idea of obtaining Stamkos would obviously be appealing, in that he is still in his prime years, and still a highly motivated player.

      I don't know what the cost is or would be for such a transaction. And again, we don't know what Yzerman is thinking. We may read soon that he has signed Stamkos to an extension himself.

      In short, it's the kind of speculation that makes hockey fun- just hard to know if it can happen. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

  4. For me the most pleasant surprise thus far is that the Leafs have stuck to their game plan, on and off the ice. They may be near the bottom of the standings, but they do not appear to be in disarray. Babcock clearly has a system in place and the team is playing within it. Of course, there has been no panic in the front office either, no sudden veer off course to supplement the lineup.

    Individually, it has been great to see Komarov off to the start he has been on, and how he has meshed with van Riemsdyk. I have hoped for JVR to remain a core player moving forward and he is playing well. Most of our defensemen have played a solid, unspectacular game, allowing Rielly to further his development as the puck carrying force he is becoming. I think in the next quarter of the season we will see Komarov and Reimer cool down but remain steady, while Kadri will begin to cash in on his chances.

    Nothing too exciting right? That's okay. No news is good news for this squad at this point. The clock is ticking to February 29, and if there is no news out of Tampa by then, I think the excitement will begin to take shape here on July 1 as the Leafs make their run at Stamkos and we start to imagine this team including him, Nylander, and Marner aboard.

    1. Next summer may be more interesting than the current season, as the organization continues to build their talent pool for the future. They are developing the kids and as you and InTimeFor62 suggest,they may be looking to land a big-name free agent. Thanks Pete.

  5. Dear Michael,

    The most pleasant surprise happened at the end of the "10 games or so from hell" at the beginning of the season. If you recall, most were expecting, bracing for bad. But not that bad. Most, including but particularly the popular media had been preaching "patience", give Babcock a chance they said. We were thinking a win here a loss or two there etc. But when no wins came, the naysayers emerged en force, particularly, sadly, predictably (?) and voraciously those very same pop media analysis that had oh so wisely counseled patience just a week or two earlier. Wisdom it is said, comes from patience, but apparently it makes for bad press. The pleasant part of all this windy prelude is how the boys settled down, did their hard work, and found diamond in the rough discipline to a system which has since paid some pretty entertaining dividends.

    No one one with long experience playing or watching hockey would dare say the P word and Toronto in the same breath, but we can say this: the boys are bleeding blue again, and that's pretty much all a die hard Leaf fan really needs, that and a dash of hope.....

    As always let me end by thanking you for this place of calm and for the fine arm chair analysts which grace its pages.....

    Leafs Fan in Mexico

    1. Well said, Leafs Fan in Mexico- patience is tough when you've been waiting for....well, a long time for a championship. But we all knew we were in a serious re-build, and that's fine. We can't have low expectations and then be upset when the team struggles.

      You're right, the team is generally playing hard and competing nightly. That they are makes it easier to appreciate what they're trying to accomplish with a roster a bit limited in terms of elite skill.

      Thanks for the kind words- I'm glad you find your way here from time to time!

  6. Well I really like Komarov. That being said there really is not all that much otherwise to like. Komarov is actually playing the way I expected he would while a lot of others especially Bernier have been a letdown. They really have no offence so that is a big problem. I'm really just waiting now for Nylander, Marner and Kapenin to join the team and give them some offence.

    This season is pretty depressing, last year they seemed to have more promise, at least to me, but obviously I have no clue at all as to how good they are. Last year I dreamed they could challenge for a Cup and all the analysts said they sucked. At the start of the year I knew the analysts were wrong - and by mid December I thought I was finally being proven right. Then as the season played out we saw what happened.

    So I don't know anymore. Just hope Shanny knows what he is doing. I think he does. Then again you never know. Still they seem to have some good prospects - Nylander, Marner, Kapenin - but then again other teams do as well.

    I still like watching them play and hope they win but I am not too concerned when they usually lose as I now expect it and hopefully they get an elite player in the draft.

    1. It really does seem to be about the future, Alton. Wins here and there will be nice, but the goal has to be to build a roster with young skill and some grit, and then add some veterans who can lead the way when they are "close".

  7. Timashov with a 5 point night. That puts him 3rd in QMJL scoring with 50 points in 27 games. I would be happy if this was a late first round pick, but to get him in the 5 round is outstanding. Note the NHL level passing, takes a quick look and turns the other way while putting it on the tape.

  8. Pleasant surprises so far? Komarov's scoring touch; the improved structure on the defensive zone (way fewer blind passes up the middle!); improved back checking; improved breakouts through the neutral zone; and finally, the team playing more and more like a "team", something that's been sorely missing for many years. That's about it!