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The other shoe hasn’t dropped…yet…for the Maple Leafs

I’ve been planning to post, but kept waiting for the team to hit what I thought would be an even more difficult period than their early-season record showed.

I'm still waiting.

I was evidently quite wrong (at least for now) about the team.  I had been planning to reflect on the fact that this roster, as currently constituted, probably does not inspire most Leaf fans.  But somehow, without much in the way of front line talent, they are battling, competing, grinding…whatever term we want to use, and putting up points in the standings.

I guess I’m impressed.

Given that I’ve shifted the initial premise for this post, I’m now mostly interested in your thoughts as to where you see this club going.  As expected, Babcock has put his imprint on the club. They have a system, stick to it and play pretty hard. And they’ve started getting results, against some pretty good teams (Dallas and Nashville on the road, Vancouver on the weekend at the ACC). Even before that, they were hanging with teams better than many of us expected they could.

What are we seeing?  Kadri emerging (re-emerging?) as a player with not only skill, but drive.  Reimer being Reimer, but the better, more-like-the-old-days confident Reimer. Rielly, as we expected, becoming a star in front of our eyes. And, a cast of characters that seems to know their job, and are doing it rather well for the most part.

Of course this could all change quickly. The Leafs are not likely to be confused with a Cup contender. I’m not even sure we should be talking about playoffs. 

But is it enough for you (for now) that the team is playing hard and seemingly, becoming hard to play against?

The games may not always be exciting, and it seems unlikely we’ll end up with anyone in the “Top Ten” (Top 50?) in individual scoring, but is that a good trade-off if the roster is being re-built on the fly the “right” way by Shanahan, Lamoriello and company?

Hey, there are re-builds that work: Pittsburgh did it twice (once in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s after they had hit rock bottom and were able to build with Lemieux and Jagr, and more recently with Crosby and Malkin) and the Blackhawks, who were really struggling themselves a decade ago, have been awfully good over the past few years, with three Cups on their resume. When Wirtz the younger took control of the Chicago franchise, he seemed to establish a different tone and bring different values.  Since then, with the help of Seabrook and Keith, Toews and Kane and some outstanding role-players, they’ve become a mini-dynasty. (It helps that management and coaching have been stable, with Talon/Bowman and of course Quenneville in charge.) Their success is all the more impressive given that they have accomplished so much in the cap era, when rosters can't be kept together.

Then there is the Oilers. They hit bottom a few years ago and stayed there. As a result, they've had a number of very high draft picks to work with, the latest being the now injured Connor McDavid.  They may yet turn the corner, but something still hasn’t quite clicked for the organization. They aren’t an example of a successful re-build.

Maybe the Leafs will re-boot like the Penguins or Blackhawks. Regardless, for the moment, they have established a work ethic standard that Babcock will no doubt insist they reach most nights, whatever the results on the scoreboard.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I'm happy with a good effort and a win here and a win here and there.
    I've been a Reimer fan right from the beginning so I've enjoyed seeing him play but I have no delusions at this point. They like Bernier and will give him every possible chance to take the net. Even today Lou said "hopefully, it's Jonathan..." Why? This really burns me and I will never understand it.
    The first poor game from James and he'll be out, a good game from Bernier and he'll be in. I thought things would be different--they are not. It's the same double standard we've seen all along. I hope James goes to a good team at the deadline because they don't want him in Toronto. He will remain my favourite goalie and one of my all-time favourite Leafs.

    1. I admit I'm a bit baffled as well when it comes to Reimer/Bernier, Colleen. We've discussed this here now for quite some time. It seems the current management team is leaning toward Bernier.

      You know my view has long been that Reimer would be better off elsewhere in many ways. But credit to him for fighting through a lot and still (for now) playing pretty darn well again. Thanks Colleen.

  2. We're awfully close to that "20 game" mark, aren't we, where we can get a sense of what we've got on the team. They've certainly improved after the first 10 games or so, but I don't think I should be dusting off my parade outfit quite yet.
    We've seen a bunch of diligent workers on the rink, playing a much more disciplined game than we've seen for years. That's a good thing! And they don't give up when things go against them, which is another good thing. So the rebuild has definitely begun.
    And yes, I'm content to watch them - because I have no expectations for the team this year. It's a bit like watching an experiment in Grade 11 science - fascinating to see how the various elements react together, but not all that enamoured of the end result in the test tube! They're solidifying their defence, which was job #1 from last year, I'd say, and I suppose they'll get around to the offence sooner or later. The goaltending is not top tier, but at least Reimer keeps us in games. It seems churlish not to like the perennially positive Reimer, but he's frequently out of position, or flipping and flopping in the crease, and he makes me long for a goalie who feels like he's in control. Maybe he'll get that way if he plays more continuously - I hope so! Bernier looks as if he's lost it. There's no fire or determination in his eyes - and two of the goals against the Rangers were simply brutal.
    So to answer your question above, yes - it is enough for me at the moment to watch a team that plays hard and is hard to play against. But it's a dispassionate watching these days. There hasn't been one game which has felt as if we're dominating the other team. Rather it feels as if we're luckily just squeaking out points here and there. But it hasn't felt as if we're being dominated, either - and there's the flickering flame of this Leaf fan's hope being stoked... yet again!!!

  3. While I've always been a Reimer guy, I do understand your comments about him, Gerund O'. There is a certain comfort in having a goalie who doesn't have to move a lot and plays angles well, etc.

    And as you say, expectations are low for this year, so appreciating their work ethic is a start.

  4. Great to hear from you Michael. I've been checking every day to see when the next post would appear (and I did catch it, I just didn't get around to commenting until now!)

    I don't think an outlandish prediction has much value if you let it sit too long, so I'm going to come out now and say the Leafs will make the playoffs. Obviously I'll go no further than that, but even though I thought Babcock would make a difference I did not expect anything like the improvement we've seen over last year.

    I also wouldn't write off Reimer quite yet. I know management is determined to go with Bernier, but we may be reaching the point now where they might be prepared to (just maybe) reconsider with an open mind. The main reason I say that is because I am conscious of the inverted power dynamic within the organization. It's easily overlooked unless you actively turn your mind to it (primarily because I think it's unprecedented in professional sports, although I stand to be corrected), but you just have to believe that the Fifty Million Dollar Man has the final say over personnel decisions. Babcock wants to win, and if Reimer is the guy who will win then Reimer is the guy who will be here at the end of the year.

  5. Hi Oliver- the Reimer question still remains in play after what now seems like many years, eh?

    He has certainly done everything we could ask of him this season. We all know the history of the past few years since Bernier arrived. It has been an uncomfortable (and I believe, often unhealthy) situation and likely still is, with two guys who want to be number-one.

    If nothing else, Reimer, at least for a time, has demonstrated he can still win games. As I discussed above with Gerund, Reimer is not your classic goaltender in terms of style, but he battles and, given a competitive team, will usually play his heart our and give you a chance to win. He loves being a Leaf, and to me, that counts for something. Thanks Oliver.

  6. I tend to echo the esteemed Mr. O'Malley as I would have said most of he said. Except the grade 11 test tube comment. I would have never thought of that analogy. That was pure gold Gerund :).

    Reimer is a battler and a very nice person which makes everyone like him and want him to do well. I include myself in that group. He has gone on a nice little run here but he needs to do it over a whole season before I will be a buyer on him.

    I have a different take on Bernier with this new regime. I tend to think with Babcock and Lou they are pushing the job onto Bernier to see if he can handle it more so than just "giving it to him" as some suggest. I think their mindset is a more long term situation and not just who can win this month as they are in rebuild mode. They need to see if he can truly take on the #1 job so they can decide how to handle the goaltending situation going forward. My take on Bernier is extremely skilled but soft between the ears.

    Babcock throughout his coaching career has been a "show me' type of coach. He gives players every chance to succeed..until they show him they can't and at that point his mind is made up and that player gets moved on. Look at what he is doing with Kadri so far?? Same thing to me. He is pumping him up to keep him thinking the game correctly even though he couldn't put the puck in the ocean from the end of the pier right now. But rest assured there will come a time before New Years where that message will shift gear from Babcock on Kadri.

    Glad to see the articles again Michael. I realize there wasn't much to talk about until recently so why rehash the same stories over and over. Nice to see there is something a bit different for us to have a fireside chat about again.

    1. As I usually do, I was nodding along with your comments today, Pep. Reimer does, I acknowledge, need to be his best self through an entire season, or at least be very consistent in his play before a lot of people (many even the brain trust) will "buy".

      And you make a very good point about the brass and their seeming desire to have Bernier run with the job. They may well want to see if he can handle it before they decide he is indeed the guy.

      You've hit the nail on the head with Babcock, I sense. He will support his players and talk them up, but only to a point. Ultimately they will have to deliver- and not just for a few games.

      Having fireside chats was really one of my original intentions with this site, Pep- thanks for staying with it. ( VLM has been around for more than six years already.) I hope to post more again over time, and also get back to writing about my first hockey and Leaf love- the "old" days.

  7. Hi Michael,

    I do think most of us have tempered our expectations enough that this mini-streak means little in the grand scheme of things, other than as fans it's nice to see a few victories, and some glimpses of where the team is headed.

    As much as Reimer has seized control in Bernier's absence, all I can say is good for him if it helps land him a good contract and some playing time elsewhere. Not my choice, but I would be happy for him. For the rest of the team, I guess it's hard to get too excited about players that are only spare parts right now and not a building block for the don't-call-it-a-rebuild. I am happy to see the Leafs continue their patience with the prospects, the only bone to pick I have right now is why they made the trade for Grabner. Clearly they were happy to free up a few minor league contracts to make that deal, but this guy is really taking up space that a more promising player deserves.

    Your comparison to re-builds around the league gets me thinking. Marner may still be a couple years from showing his true promise, and Nylander certainly seems to be the real deal. I do equate them (potentially) to Toews and Kane in Chicago, and for that reason, again, I am happy for the organization's patience in not throwing them onto the roster hoping things gel, like Edmonton has done. Obviously the Blackhawks would be a good template for success in today's NHL, so what else can the Leafs do to mirror that? Can Reilly and Gardiner come close to being Keith and Seabrook? Will the Leafs strike gold with a major free agent when they are ready to do so, like Hossa? These questions are still a long way off of course, but it does help us keep focus on the current roster, and what it gives us as fans.

    1. Well said, as always, Pete. I agree, we all have modest expectations and recognize that this is a stop gap roster, to be sure. A few wins is nice for the moment, but there is a longer term imperative here.

      The questions you raise at least keep us focused, as you say, on what the Leafs might be able to become- in time.

  8. Hi Michael,

    Its not the name on the back that matters, its the crest on the front.
    To me, this sentiment (thank you Lou!) is what best summarizes the season thus far.

    When I watch the Leafs I see them supporting each other all over the ice. They work as a unit - disciplined, each person doing the job asked of them.

    - You see Lupul putting in max effort in a checking role.
    - You see Kadri working hard on all parts of his game even though personal success isn't there.
    - Phaneuf playing well in his new role as a top 4 defenseman

    I don't see Bernier fitting in well though. He just needs to support Reimer now that Reimer is playing well. Its not the name on the back...

    1. Good to hear from you, apollo678.

      You said it perfectly- it's about the crest on the front of the jersey! The Maple Leaf legacy still matters.

    2. Hello Michael,

      As a true-blue Leafs fan I thought I would never say this but unfortunately, I see this team heading for playoff contention and in the process, screw up their chances at a top five pick in another deep draft and cause me to have to change my screen handle, .

      The "problem" at the moment is that the Leafs are receiving excellent goaltending from Reimer - which is of course good for him but bad for the Leafs draft pick aspirations.

      I've never had a dog in the fight in the Reimer vs. Bernier showdown, but I have to say that to me it seems like Reimer has found something new in his game. Like a switch has gone
      off - maybe the new goalie coach struck a chord?

      The one thing I have noticed about Reimer in this current hot streak for him is that he seems to have better rebound control - something for which he has been faulted in the past. Maybe this is a sign of him turning the corner to become a better goalie?

      Reimer still seems to flop around too much in the crease for some people's liking, but as long as he is getting the results who really cares. Now I'm not saying he is anywhere near the same goalie, but all that flopping around reminds me of Dominic Hasek in his prime.

      Complicating matters further is this little incident today with Bernier's "snarky" comment about "It wasn't Game 7 of the playoffs. Thank God.", I think Bernier might have earned himself a spot in not only Mike Babcock's doghouse, but perhaps the bigger doghouse of the Leafs organization with that comment.

      As we type, the decision to move on from Bernier could have already been made.

      Therefore, if I were the Leafs, I would open negotiations with Reimer and see if I could get him signed for next season. After all, he is the same age as Bernier (27) and could just as easily prove to be the correct solution for the Leafs for the short to intermediate term.

      Even though I think most other players would have become too jaded after the way the Leafs have treated him, I think it would be a true indication of Reimer's character that he would listen to what the Leafs had to say and not tell them to take a hike.


  9. You'e aptly outlined the "problem" with some short term success, Wayne. The organization very much needs to continue to build with blue chip prospects. While we have some, it seems, do we really know for sure (other than Rielly, who is already on the roster, and maybe one or two others) that we have a lots of help on the way? So yes, another top selection would surely help in the building process.

    Reimer has earned his playing time, for sure. What the brass is thinking, I don't really know. Having two guys who believe they should have the same job rarely works, it seems.

    1. Interesting feature on the last HNIC broadcast on Saturday about Reimer and the newest thing in the voodoo world of goalies - head trajectory.

      Reimer put up another spectacular outing on Saturday and shows no signs of reverting back to his old ways. Good for him.


  10. I guess I'm feeling a lot like your experience... I was ready to see some hard working losses and hope for the future to benefit from a high draft pick, yet a few weeks ago, I found myself starting to enjoy games again... cheering some unexpected goals... and even starting to anticipate the possibility of success.

    I'm glad to see James Reimer getting his first legitimate string of games since Bernier arrived and finding his game. I know he came in for the injured Bernier previously when things didn't go very well, but I always thought he was injured (was it in the same game on the west coast?) right after he came in, but, being Reimer, he kept battling for the team (even if he couldn't bring his best). This is the guy I remember when he came up, but better (and more controlled this time).

    I'm more than satisfied to see the team 'buying in' and playing a more enjoyable brand of hockey... it seems more like a team when everyone is supporting one another and providing proximity for better breakouts, etc. Whether the team manages to reach a playoff position at the trade deadline or not, I think there will be a 'sell high' mentality and then see where the chips fall for the remainder of the season. I think the long term 'glasses' are on, but (like Calgary last year) they might have enough to squeak in (though, I think that is unlikely if there are trades).

    All in all, this team has way more 'stability' and structure than we ever saw on the roller coaster of success and failure that we've seen in recent years.

    1. You've hit the nail on the head, InTimeFor62- the Leafs are playing as though they have something to play for, and it looks as though everyone is just trying to make simple plays and do their job.

      We are seeing structure, for sure, and after a rough start, we're also seeing a bit of confidence and therefore unexpected results.