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Do you like how the Leafs are trending?

Not many things in professional sports are predictable, but I’m pretty sure Maple Leaf fans knew before last Friday's game against the Flyers that the Leafs would play a lot better than they had a few nights earlier, when the LA Kings ran over them 6-0 at the Air Canada Centre.

There was no guarantee the Leafs would win against Philadelphia, of course, but you knew that Mike Babcock was not going to allow the Leafs to play a listless game against the Flyers in front of their home fans after the less-than-stellar effort against the Kings.

And play better they did, with a number of Leafs getting on the scorecard, including Hyman and Komarov (both with their first of the season). Marner netted his fifth of the young campaign—and I suspect that a lot of Leaf followers who supported his selection in the draft a coupe of summers ago are feeling good about their instincts on that one.

Kadri continued his generally strong play; Rielly had four points, but most importantly, it was one of those games that saw everyone contribute in a bounce-back type of effort—which was certainly good to see.

That of course set up the visit to Pittsburgh—the second night of a back-to-back and on the road, to boot. How would the Leafs follow up their work from Friday night?

They started off nicely, with Hyman netting his second in two nights.  But they were playing the defending Stanley Cup champions, and while on any given night the underdog can take out the champ this wasn’t any given night.  Crosby and the Penguins were too much for the Leafs, outshooting them 45-35 and ultimately outscoring Toronto 4-1.

We’re probably still a few games away from where we can be a bit more comfortable making an early season assessment of just what we think the Leafs “are”.  But my guess is many of you have already developed some thoughts as to whether the Leafs are meeting (or surpassing?) your expectations—at least to this point.

My question for those of you who check in on VLM this week—are you pleased with all the “kids” who have earned ice time early this season?  Or, now already 15 games into the season, have any of them begun to struggle a bit in your eyes? Overall, are the Leafs tracking the way you had hoped?

Maybe most importantly, what do the Leafs still need to do to become a factor sooner than later in the Eastern Conference?


  1. There's nothing like playing the second of back-to-back games against the defending Cup champions to remind a team of what it takes to succeed in this league. So far this year, as a whole, the team has had some bright moments, but mostly a lot of humbling experiences like this and the Kings game to remind them of how far they need to come still.
    Individually, yes I do like what I am seeing of the young players. I include Zaitsev in the group that of course includes Matthews, Marner, and Nylander as the primary prospects that will hopefully get this team where it needs to be. All four have shown reasons why they have been considered blue chippers, they all clearly show traits and skills necessary to evolve in to dominant players in the league. All four, particularly Marner and Nylander, have also shown signs of inexperience, which is just fine with me. As we have kept our expectations of this team grounded, they have made the ill-advised drop pass or fancy move to get themselves knocked around and made to look silly. They have endured these games against tough teams that are currently teaching moments. I do believe this will all serve them well as they round their game out.
    To your direct question, what do they need to do to become a factor? Besides what we believe but hate to say out loud, which is be patient and wait, the organization still has work to do. Beyond Reilly and Gardiner, defense absolutely needs to be addressed. This team will never join the upper ranks of the league without adding a couple top end defensemen. This I believe would take too long to draft and develop at this point. It may be a question of working out a trade. As our young forwards continue to trend upward, and the next group hopefully develop as legitimate NHLers (Soshnikov, Brown, Kapanen, Johnsson, and maybe Leipsic and Bracco), I think it is time to trade some of our forward assets to land a solid defenseman, and use cap space cleared by the inevitable expiration of old contracts to sign a free agent if one becomes available.
    So 15 games in and the team sits a couple games out of a playoff spot. They will not be helped by a decidedly strong Eastern Conference as a whole this year. They may make the playoffs if they learn to hold third period leads, and if they do so, it will show a sign of improving team maturity. I hope for them to make the playoffs only from a standpoint of experience, it would be nice to see the team face that this year. Either way, they are a couple years away still.

    1. Hi Pete- I agree that Zaitsev certainly deserves to be mentioned in the group of emerging youngsters. As good as the kids are, it's still a big jump to the NHL for most young players, and it will naturally take some time to become accustomed to the grind. But they all look to have the ability to be consistent contributors- stars, in some cases.

      Yes, the defense corps, while willing, is under-manned it seems at this point. It's usually pretty tough to acquire really good defensemen, so I'm not sure how the Leafs can go about this. But they do have a stable of prospects as you referenced. And that's one of the reasons teams stockpile picks- so they can utilize those assets to trade for what they need.

      The East is indeed stronger than it was a few years ago. So the playoffs, while not out of the realm of possibility, is not a cake walk. It will be interesting to see how this group develops. Thanks Pete.

  2. Here at O'Malley Manor, the mood is definitely jollier than it's been for many a year, and the Leafs glass is well more than half full. Game after game, we've seen many examples of a level of skill that we feared might never appear in our lifetime. I think all the rookies have shown that they belong. In the early going, Marner looks like he could be an extraordinary player, and Matthews - while not lighting the lamp as much as he deserves - has also shown a very high hockey IQ. Brown and Hyman are doomed to be under the radar, I fear, though Brown's four points last night show that his potential hasn't really been revealed yet at this level. One thing I particularly love is the play of the rookies away from the puck. Marner and Matthews, particularly, seem to almost always be in the right place.
    We have to temper our enthusiasm with the reminder that they haven't even played 20 games yet! As our vets round into form, it's tempting to project a rosy future for this year's squad.
    But, as they say, there's many a Cup won in November - particularly in Toronto, where a modest win streak qualifies for major celebration. How we'll do after the New Year, when skating room starts to shrink and the hits get harder, remains to be seen.
    Our weakness, to my eyes, is our defence. The coverage has been too loose in many games, and we could really use a couple of guys who play a physical game. Polak may be prone to gaffes, but he lets the other teams know he's around. I don't think we can expect significant success until this is addressed.
    Overall, we're on pace for the bottom playoff spot, I believe. I don't think we'll get there, but I hope we do. As you say, Michael, the experience would be good for our group. And in two or three years, watch out!

    1. Hockey is very much about "being in the right place" as you mentioned, Gerund O'- the ability to see the game and then be able to make plays or take space away when you have the opportunity separates a lot of players. So if the kids already have that in their game, it's huge.

      I love Polak, too, but I think you're right- we will need some additions personnel-wise on defense to get to that next level, I suspect.

      I'm glad the Leaf-related mood at O'Malley manor is as it should be- I'm sure we'll connect after the Leafs get past that 20-game mark!

  3. Hello Michael. I've had a chance to see a couple more Leaf games since you posted this article. I've been encouraged by the increased offensive tempo and creativity from our team. No doubt because of a jolt of young, talented rookies.

    Alot has been written on the Leaf defense and how it needs to improve. There seems to be many rumours about potential trades on better defenseman, especially right handed ones.

    I believe even if we had better defensemen, we would still be struggling to keep above .500 hockey. Why? At the NHL level, I think it just takes time for a team to gel. The team has so much offensive young talent, it only makes sense that the team would be suffering on the defensive end.

    I think that it's just a matter of adjusting to the grind and fast play of NHL hockey. A team just can't rely on scoring all it's goals on the fast break. There needs to be a mechanism to switch to cycling the puck as well. A completely different skill set.

    I believe these young players can adapt but it takes experience and time as a team playing together. When Los Angelos Kings played the Leafs, they cycled the play off the boards almost immediately after witnessing the youngster's breakaway speed.

    The King's player's didn't panic when they saw all that speed coming at them. They just switched mode and grinded the Leafs to death. The team is well experienced together and have seen all kinds of different types of teams and talented offensive schemes of attacks.

    Last year, the Leafs had very little offensive talent but their defensive game kept them competitive. Just bad enough to lose by one goal frequently.

    The defensemen this year are pretty well the same. In fact, with the addition of the Russian rookie on defense, I say we are even more talented than last year.

    But last year's defense sure didn't have to cope with the offensive game that we have this year. The game plan is completely different now. And it'll take some time before the defense adjusts and that the offense learns to play in the NHL.

    After losing Kessel, I was a little scared that we might not get a talented player of his ilk for another decade or so. I'm so happy (and relieved) to witness again high hockey talent on our Leafs team. Surely Babcock can eventually get the team to gel in the future?

    We pay our coach so hansomely because he is one of the best. It wouldn't make sense that he couldn't figure out how to stitch together a competent team out of this talent. It's just a matter of time and patience.

    1. You've expressed it well, drgreg- it will take time for the Leafs to really become cohesive. We will continue to see the talent shine through, because there is skill on the roster. But really good teams that stand the test of time (we can look at Detroit and New Jersey for that 20 or so year time period; Boston, Chicago and LA more recently) build that approach to the game over time. You generally have to build with solid management, and keep the GM's and coaches in place. It's organizational culture that influences the dressing room in a good way, and helps maintain that level of excellence.

      As you say, the Leafs are still adjusting to their new level of talent. They have been very competitive most nights, and should only get better over time.