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The Maple Leafs at (almost) the half way mark: surprise, possibilities—and a real future?

Over the past decade, the Leafs have sometimes teased us with a great early start to the season, or a surprisingly high ranking in the NHL standings at various points through the schedule. We’ve seen times in the past when we were impressed with the goaltending or with the team’s speed and/or transition game.  There were times when we spoke about their grit, or about being hard to play against.

Unfortunately, despite an exhilarating playoff series against the Bruins a few short years ago (it feels like forever, now), the positives we saw every now and then did not, in the end, amount to all that much. We’ve had some very talented players, but the mix inevitably seemed to be just a bit off at the end of the day. When things went south we blamed the systems, the coaches, the lack of “compete” by the players, such that by the end of last season, many Leaf supporters were feeling kind of disenfranchised.

But Shanahan seems determined to get things right. Bringing in Babcock was a coup. I initially had some modest reservations about the hiring. Not that Babcock is not a tremendous coach; it's simply that we have tended to over-blame coaches in this market for years.  But it’s clear the guy has made a difference so far. (I will say this: we are still in a honeymoon period, and it’s not a surprise that a roster filled with a lot of guys who have a great deal to prove—or are at the end of their careers—would respond to his coaching. But he has triggered an apparent turnaround, nonetheless.)

My guess is most Leaf supporters are still mostly looking to the future and the young players who may eventually become impact players here. But it’s still fun to cheer for a team right now that plays hard and wins their share of games—playoff-bound or not.

I won’t try to “grade” players based on their work in the first half of the season but my overall view is this: the team has surpassed my minimal expectations.  Reimer’s return and solid play in Anaheim suggests the team now has two goaltenders that can win games.  Of course it has been this way for years now, but it feels as though we may be at a point where both Reimer and Bernier are capable of playing their best hockey, if healthy, at the same time. (We can probably set aside the 7-0 result against the Sharks. That was likely a one-off for Bernier and the team at the end of a tough western swing.)

Numbers aside, both goalies have demonstrated that they can play well, and that will help- either in terms of what they can do for the Leafs, or with regard to their perceived trade value.

Kadri has seemingly played some of the best hockey of his career lately. Consistent effort and production from him is good to see. I don’t know if Komarov can or will maintain his current offensive numbers, but I think his biggest impact is just the way he plays. That kind of effort tends to rub off on other players.

The Leafs are led, point wise, by JVR, and he is another player who we all thought so highly of in his early days in Toronto. He is still young, and can still be, on a good team, a significant player who has an impact.  News today of his injury means others will have to step up, though finding a way to make up for his offensive production won't be easy.

Peter Holland seems to have moved up on Babcock’s depth chart—and in terms of trust. But realistically, our forward group is largely made up of experienced but replaceable role players—Boyes, Parenteau, Matthias, Winnik, Grabner, etc.

Phaneuf is still the leader of our defense corps, but Rielly is the future.  For his part, Gardiner continues to make strides. I had wondered where Gardiner would fit under Babcock, but he may well stay a Leaf if he continues to round out his game. Polak seemed to be an afterthought back in October, but now plays 19 minutes a night as a regular part of the rotation. Hunwick has been a solid contributor, playing a lot of minutes along the way.

Again, though, it really is all about the future—and the kids who are in the system or on the way to trying to earn a spot with the big club. You all know the names. It’s a question of development now—and time. The draft (depending on where the Leafs finish this season) may yield another talented prospect or two.

Bottom line:  the Leafs are, to use the clichĂ©, a work in progress. They have some skill guys but other than Rielly, I wonder how many players from the current roster will be here in two years when the club is expected to compete for real?

Who do you see being on the roster when this team is ready to contend?


  1. Of all the Leaf teams through the last four decades that I've noticed, this season feels different. There has been, of course, hockey seasons where the team was just awful on the ice and expectations poor for the future.

    But I've always looked forward to watching all the Leaf games even if I felt dread at the time.

    This is the first season that I don't really care how the team is doing on the ice but feel positive about the future of the team. I'm not even watching that many games for the first time and it's not because I've given up on them or fallen off the bandwagon.

    I just feel that the team is not so watchable now but I'm optimistic that it's going to be very competitive in the near future. I believe that the team of Babcock, Hunter, Shanahan, Lou, etc, really know what they are doing.

    For a long time Leaf fan, these are happy days.

    1. Yes, it's always a good thing when fans can feel good about the future, drgreg. The organization seem to have the pieces in place on the management and coaching end, and some players to build around going forward. And while it's nice to see them over-achieve right now, another high draft pick would be helpful, too.

  2. Micheal,

    In the game. Every game. That's all we can ask for and the way I see it, Shanahan's first job is to establish an ethos, a culture of what it is to be a Leaf and that is, to be in every game! Not since the early 1990s have we had a winning ethos. To be fair and as you have noted, we have seen great players come and go over the years, but I would argue that we have rarely seen a true team come together for more than short periods of time in the interim.

    Very few clubs can manage to be a complete team, so we should not be surprised that Toronto with its (previously??) dysfunctional and or disinterested ownership was never really committed to what the true long suffering Leaf fan needs: a team that plays hard every day and is respected.

    From this perspective we already have a contender. But to answer your question more specifically, I suspect it will take another five to seven years to flush out the old and build a Chicago like franchise (which is where I hope things will go - aka strength and consistency from the bench right on up to ownership). A bunch of pieces are missing and there are many unknowns especially among the smaller skilled guys in the pipeline. A big question is how the game will look in that time, for as we know, about every five years or so we see a shift in strategy (e.g., from run and gun, to neutral zone trap, to puck possession etc). Also, while I agree current goal tending is mostly solid, but how likely is it Reimer nor Bernier are long term team building assets?

    I really don't know the answers to much! What I can say however is that some foundation work cleaning out the icky old culture has been laid and that is highly positive.

  3. You raise some important points, Marc. I think you're right, most fans want a winner, of course, but they at the very least want to support a team comprised of players that play hard and represent a franchise that is held in high regard around the league. That means ownership (which made a huge difference in Chicago, as you cite, when Mr. Wirtz' son took over) and developing a culture that breeds success. The Patriots have developed that over the past 15+ years in football, starting with their owner, and the Spurs have achieved that in the NBA. In both cases, the have had the same coach for all that time. The Hawks have done that in recent years in the NHL after an extended period of mediocrity.

    And you're right, how will the game evolve in the years ahead? It's different from the era of "The Flying Frenchmen" in Montreal in the 1950s and '60s, the "Broad Street Bullies" in the '70s and the high-flying Oilers of the Oilers. We've seen the New Jersey defensive style beginning in the early to mid-90s, and efforts to open up the game, etc. in more recent times. The game always changes so the Leafs may have to forge their own path or model for success.

    One thought- I, too, admired that early to mi-90s' Leaf squad and how they played the game- hard and with heart and skill. But I also respected what the franchise achieved in the late '90s and early 2000s under Pat Quinn, when they were a contender every year and gave us some real playoff thrills, also making the final four twice. Thanks Marc.

  4. The Leaf future is starting to look good. This time it actually looks like the real thing and not a mirage. A few years ago there was all the talk about all of the prospects in the system and I had a lot of hope, I just knew they couldn't be so bad forever, boy was I wrong. I remember an interview with Rick Dudley where he guaranteed the Leafs were a lot farther along than most people realized. He mentioned Granberg was expected to be a solid top four d-man and there was Finn who was expected to go as high as sixteen in round one but Leafs were lucky to "steal" at 35. Then there were solid physical guys in the system like Biggs and highly skilled players like Panik. I listened to all the talk about all these players and now a lot of that future is already gone. Really just a lot of hype with no actual top level players.

    The prospects in the system sure look a lot different now with new additions Marner, Nylander, Kapanen to go along with the not quite as exciting bunch of Brown, Leivo, Percy, Gauthier, Johnson and quite a few others that might pan out like Bracco, Dermott and Timashov and a good first overall Marlies AHL team. They will get another top prospect this year and may get the Pens 1st round pick - so go Pens go but only to 16th overall.

    I think Rielly, JVR, Gardiner, Kadri and Holland would be the players to keep. I would trade Phaneuf but that may not be possible with his contract. Phaneuf's play has picked up under Babcock and the Leafs will still need a few veterans so he could be a necessary asset on a young team.

    All things considered I am pretty happy with how things turned out. The Leafs are a young team with prospects and they are no longer handicapped by bad contracts. The Leafs could have been in the cellar for another decade if some of the Nonis attempted deals had been made and a few of his mistakes not corrected. If KesseI was still on the team on track for a 40 point season there is no way they would be able to move him. Then imagine if Dave Bolland had of signed with the Leafs, Clarkson's contract had not been flipped for Horton's and Josh Gorges agrees to a trade to the Leafs and there is no 1st round pick for Franson from Nashville?

    I am not too concerned this season seeing the Leafs lose.The fact is the JVR injury will probably help the Leafs long term as Babcock has the team trying to win every game and that does not help in the draft. Next year when players like Nylander, Kapanen and maybe even Marner are on the big team I will hoping for wins and making the playoffs but this year it is stick with the plan and so far it looks like Shanny is doing just that and that is good.

  5. I was nodding along as I read your post today, Alton- thanks.

  6. I have liked Komarov from the start of his time in the blue-and-white and though he's had a nice offensive run that won't last (now that JVR is out of the mix in the near term) I think he's exactly the kind of guy that the Leafs will keep around to teach others how to play the right way.

    JVR's turnaround (using his size and speed again) and Gardiner not overthinking so much any more, has me anticipating a future for both. Kadri has stepped up his defensive play and has become an all-around better player, but I'm not sure how things play out between him and Bozak. I imagine both will be here for the next year, but it remains to be seen who sticks around after that as more young blood (and a UFA, perhaps) enters the line-up.

    I expect a pending-UFA fire sale as we approach the trade deadline, but imagine we see Lupul and Phaneuf on the roster through year end (there's just too many cheaper options for teams at the deadline). Lupul seems in a funk at this point and Noof seems to have found a mentoring role that could extend a bit longer (unless a trade without salary retention comes along).

    I'm enjoying the ripening process on the Marlies (and CHL/overseas) and will be happy to see some graduates in the coming years... at least they're working out the kinks on a roster with less scrutiny and should be better prepared to make a contribution when they crack the NHL roster (Leivo didn't look out of place today, for instance).

    Happy New Year, Michael...

  7. PS Of course Rielly will be there when we contend (but I thought that was so obvious, I forgot to comment). Still not sure if either goalie will remain, but we'll see.

    1. Yes, Komarov certainly plays like an old-time Leaf, InTimeFor62. And as you note, there are some still fairly young players who are playing well under Babcock. But there's no question the roster will change significantly in the months and years ahead. It will be interesting to see what Lamoniello does at the deadline.

      Happy New Year to you, InTimeFor62!