Custom Search

Leaf lose to the Sharks at home, but still a lot to like almost 30 games into the season…

Really, what is there to complain about when it comes to the Maple Leafs so far in the 2016-’17 NHL season? They are on the outside looking on when it comes to a playoff spot, but who was assuming they would be in the playoffs in any event?

Most of us have been looking for a sense of direction, of progress. And we're seeing that.

This is a young, emerging team with (finally) plenty of assets. They are well coached. The management team brings a wide range of views and experiences to every major decision. The future is hopeful, indeed.

In terms of the standings, well, only 28 points in 28 games does not tell the whole story. They’ve been in virtually every game—and have often held leads against some top teams but not always being able to close the deal, as was the case Tuesday night at the ACC against the visiting Sharks—last season’s Cup finalists.

They’ve beaten Boston twice (including once in Boston this past weekend), Nashville, Philadelphia and Washington—all highly regarded teams.

Most importantly, they look like one of those teams that will be a lot better in two years than it is now.  No one is expecting a championship this season. But there is an expectation from the fan base that within the next two or three years, this will be a contending team. They may well be.

Some thoughts as the Leafs head toward the Christmas break:

  • There were concerns around Frederik Andersen early on this season, because he was struggling a bit with his new club. But he has played some good hockey in recent weeks (at times much better than good), providing the Leafs most nights with the caliber of goaltending they will need to contend when they turn the corner for good.
  • I know Auston Matthews is not a cruncher like Eric Lindros, but there are some ways the Leaf rookie reminds me a bit of the former Flyer leader. He moves awfully well for someone his size and gets places quickly. He’s smart, and seems to know where the puck will be. Hard to believe sometimes he really is only 19.
  • I saw that Babcock stressed recently how well he thought Jake Gardiner has been playing and how much he has improved. My concern with Gardiner over the years has always been his play in his own zone and around his net.  He’s always been an excellent skater with good offensive skills. (I once opined here years ago he had the ability to score 20 goals a season from the blueline.  I’ve not been prophetic on that one…) That said, we’ll see if he really can continue to consistently develop the defensive part of his game over time.
  • I would not have forecast at the beginning of training camp that Zach Hyman would be providing what he has to the Leafs—being that solid checking forward with just enough offensive punch to make him a two-way threat.
  • It’s good to see Roman Polak playing pretty regularly. He’s not a big minutes guy, but he brings the kind of grit I like to see. He just seems like a big hearted, rugged, team-first individual, the kind of player every team needs.
  • I’ve always liked Leo Komarov as a Leaf. Like Polak, he has always been a hard driving, determined player who is hard to play against. That said, I do wonder if he would bring something useful in a trade at the deadline. He may mean more to a contending team looking for a third-line grinder. My concern is that Komarov may not be able to continue to play the hard-driving style he has in the past by the time the Leafs are a contending squad.

There are many other players we could talk about who have made contributions already this season.  Kadri, for sure. But in short, doesn't it seem as though just about everyone is pulling their weight?  Who of the kids—Nylander, Brown, Marner, and the aforementioned Matthews and Hyman—hasn’t continued to show us something most nights?  They will all no doubt hit rookie walls throughout the course of a long season, but they are helping make the Leafs fun to watch again—which is not something we have said too often here at VLM over the past few seasons.

Sure the team has flaws, and still needs some upper-tier defensemen, I think. But making roster adjustments is all part of the building process.

Over the past couple of years especially, as I have posted less often here, it has often felt as though there has not been that much to write about. And VLM contributors have often suggested they weren’t even watching the Leafs as regularly any more, because the games weren’t enjoyable, and the team was seemingly headed nowhere.

My guess is that’s no longer the case. Every Leaf suppoter knows there’s still a long way to go—but maybe before too long, we can talk here about more than just hope, but instead about a team that is on the verge of doing something that longtime fans can get genuinely excited about.


  1. Matthews plays like a player far more experience, it seems like the sky is the limit for him. Nylander is showing no ill efffects from the recent Xenophobia from press and fan base that every non CHL player from Salming to Sundin seems to have experienced. Freddy Andersen is the Real Deal. Only a matter of time before Marner finds that extra gear to make the next step he always does. We need one more elite D and a significant upgrade on the Hunwick/Polak duo, although this year the endless loop of Leafs getting trapped in their own zone is practically nonexsitent thanks to the D skill of the rookie forwards.

  2. Couldn't agree with you more, Michael. As I was noting last night, we're no longer out-skated by any team. That alone is cause for celebration! It seemed to me that we'd be a playoff contender next year, and I still have that hope. Babcock has been remolding the team, and we knew that would take time. But what we've seen so far this year is the template for a Leafs team we've longed for - for over a decade!
    The glass here at O'Malley Manor is more than half-full, and there's been a lot less desperation drinking - although those third period collapses do take a certain toll!
    We have a team that competes pretty well every game, across every line. It's a matter of a couple of years worth of experience for our kids, and a few more key additions, and we should solidly be in the playoff mix. And as you say, the games are fun to watch!

    1. Not surprisingly, we're on the same page, Gerund O'- it's just a better, more exciting team to watch. We've seen glimpses of teams that could skate, etc. over the past half dozen years or so, but this group should only get better- and hopefully stay together.

    2. We are going to have to start being careful clinking glasses in a cheers Gerund as we might spill some of the nectar from them. There was no risk of that in the last decade :))

  3. Part I

    Dear Michael,

    It's so nice to hear your sober reflections on our new Leafs. It's nice to hear a perspective that is not bound by a particular 'narrative' that all the facts have to conform to as is too often the case, I find, in our blogosphere.

    This team is shaping up to be a good one. And I'm not surprised given the fact that we have, for the first time since 1960s managed to assemble a truly elite front office with a 'carte blanche' to do as they please with all the riches that this rich franchise possesses. They are indeed the best and the brightest and the best paid and it is truly astonishing that it took so long for this to become a reality. But now it's here - 'Shanny-plan' is in full-swing and with Hunter hunting for diamonds-in-the-rough across the globe, Pridham finding money and loopholes in the system, Dubas crunching numbers with his stats-boys and the best hockey coach on the planet teaching the kids to play 'the right way' I really don't think our front office could be more stacked. With all the money going into science and research and development and anything under the sun I find it hard to imagine that we're not getting some kind of competitive advantage on the rest of the league. As we should. The only mystery that remains is why it took 100 years for this to become a reality. Stable ownership and stable management finally - it's half of the battle won right there. Duh.

    I'm impressed with the kids. They all look like NHLers and, on many nights, look like they are carrying their lines as if they are the veterans showing their veteran line mates the ropes. The talent of the top three is out of this world - their production is on par with many elite players across the league who are in their 'prime' and their defensive play and positioning is impeccable most nights. It's been a long time since I've seen the puck follow a Leaf like it follows Marner, or a guy enter the zone with speed and protect the puck like Nylander, not to mention our crown jewel's ability to create space around the net and stickhandle and score.

    If, instead of the second-tier prospects like Soshnikov, Brown and Hyman, these kids were all playing with serious NHLers, I have no doubt that we'd be at the top of the league in standings. In other words, I am already tempted to 'go for it' by acquiring a few of those in exchange for the wealth of the amassed good prospects that I'm sure many of the teams in the league would love to get their hands on. Good thing I'm not in charge of the team. Of course we need to wait it out and let Babcock teach and not get frustrated by the fact that not all of our kids are of the same calibre as the top three.

  4. Part II

    People underestimate the value of veteran presence on our team. They forget all the little plays that players like Polak and Hunwick, Komarov, Ben Smith and Martin make that keep the puck out of our net and zone. Take those guys out of the equation and replace them with Corrado or Nylanddr, Laipsic or Gauthier and there would be a lot more pucks entering our net. Our penalty-kill is up there with the best in the league and that is not insignificant.

    Kadri, like Gardiner whom you mentioned, still annoys me with occasional boneheaded plays just as much as the other, but they are getting to be far and few in between, the otherwise very solid effort that he brings to playing the tough minutes against the top lines and occasional displays of brilliance both of them bring. I really enjoy Kadri's interviews - he's chirpy and cocky and brave, not only in words, but also where it matters -on the ice. It seems that Lou and company are ok with that but I sometimes wonder how long is the leash.

    I would be really surprised if JVR and Bozak were still Leafs to begin the next season. I like them but they are not what I consider Babcock players - they are really good offensively (like their former line mate Phil Kessel) but they are not 'hard on the puck' and they often give up defensively as much as they gain offensively. Babcock is not the type that goes for 'surprise attack' and shelter players - I feel like his top priority is having 4 lines that he can count on to not give up many scoring chances. Bozak and JVR are trying and I guess we could say they've been 'just ok' at not absconding on their defensive responsibilities, but I don't think they've done enough for Babcock to want them around long-term.

    Replacing them with 'kids in the system' however, may not be the best idea. It would amount to another 'tank' and I really hope that that's not what the Leafs have in store for us. Please may not be so.

    If there's an area in which we may have to 'cheat' and fast-track the re-built it is on defence. It's not that our kids are not good -it's just that it appears that it takes longer for defensemen to develop and, as we are already, relatively speaking, short on defensive talent, we may need to expedite the process just so the D can catch up to forwards and be 'on the same page'. I'm impressed with the turnaround that our French neighbours seem to have achieved by getting themselves Shae Webber. A great veteran defenseman may well be worth investing in to help the kids come along.

    I'm still patiently waiting for Zaitsev and Carrick to score some goals - both were able to do so in the past - the former in KHL and the latter in AHL. Gardiner spent some time practicing his shot and he's now getting rewarded. Perhaps, after a summer of practice these two will improve theirs and start potting a few. But what if it takes longer? We have to find a way to bring our goals against down. The kids up front will score but can we keep the puck out of the net? Having a defensive anchor who like Webber or Suter, Vlasic or Seabrook would go a long way, I think, in creating room for our younger 'offensively inclined' defensemen to move the puck and contribute while learning good defensive habits. Rielly's still so young - I don't think he's ready to carry that heavy of a load just yet if ever. We need an equivalent of Matthews on the back end. Is there even such a thing? It appears that with defensemen, unlike with forwards, in addition to them blooming later than forwards, many of the great ones are not coming from the top of the draft - they emerge later and turn out to have been picked later - in other words they have to be acquired/traded for after they've finally emerged and that is not cheap. We may have to pay.

    1. I appreciate hearing your thoughtful reflections on where the team is at, leafdreamer. As you note, the organization has invested wisely in building a strong management team, and bringing in a coach that can make a difference. It's been a painful few years but with good draft selections and a bit of good fortune, the club has some impressive young talent up front. There was a time not long ago when we would speak mostly about Morgan Rielly (and he remains a fine young player, for sure) but there is more in the proverbial cupboard now.

      I sense, like you, that management will make sound decisions going forward in terms of determining "when" is the appropriate time to make adjustments to the roster. Now may not be the time to bring in a Weber-like difference maker, but maybe it will be sooner than many think. We'll see.

  5. Hi Michael. I want to say that I liked your last posting about Gilbert Perreault and his dipsy doodling stick handling from end to end during a game. As you said, only Bobby Orr could do that on a regular basis other than Gilbert.

    I was always a steadfast Leaf fan growing up. But in a road hockey game (as a child), if I was playing well and stick handling through the other team, I would often yell, "Gilbert Perreault!" as I pretended that I was a great hockey player.

    To the subject of defenseman and Leafs ability to attain another 'top 4 tier', I have often heard that it's best to wait until after the expansion draft. Created soon because of the 'Knights of Vegas' entry into the NHL.

    All the teams will be vulnerable and might not be able to protect all their valuable assets and may not want to expose them for nothing. Perhaps in this way, the Leafs can attain a bargain of a good right handed defenseman that Babcock desires.

    It's just as well to wait and see what comes out of this next event. I've come to understand that this is the reason that Anaheim wanted to trade Freddy Anderson to us. I believe this was a great bargain of top goalie. The Ducks were afraid of losing Freddy in this 'expansion draft'.

    1. Perreault was a uniquely talented player, for sure, drgreg. I don't think anyone could stickhandle like he did back in those days.

      I think you're right, there will be a lot of maneuvering as teams get ready for the expansion draft next summer. The Leafs have made improvements, but still have a lot to do, including on defense. (Andersen does look like a relative bargain right now- we'll see how things go over time for him.)

    2. drgreg makes a good point - 'wait' seems to be the name of the game right now. I'm recently becoming convinced that we're in for another 'tank' season as Babs seems to be making personnel decisions that don't look like he's trying to win - he's 'teaching' by leaving Carrick in even though the kid is clearly in over his head (and I'm hearing it may have something to do with getting him to 40-games-played mark which has something to do with the expansion draft) and he's 'sheltering' him on a pairing with Gardiner who inflates everyone's possession numbers (like he did with Phaneuf right before we traded him). He's also playing Bozak-JVR-Marner in a sheltered role to inflate their scoring even though we know he prefers to play 4-line hockey with each line balanced and able to defend as well as attack. I'm thinking Bozak and JVR are gone before the end of the season and we're missing another post-season because of that. Just a thought...

  6. Well written as always Michael.

    Freddy is a real starting goalie and the best we have had since Eddie really. He is calm back there and that helps the team stay calm around him I believe. We all love the battling goalie ala Reimer but really the calm under control goalies always tend to get better results long term.

    Matthews... well, everything as advertised and only 19 years old. You mentioned that he is smart and knows where the puck will be and how he kind of reminded you of Lindros Light. One thing he does that has jumped out at me is how good he is at getting the puck off of others. He is great in corners and not just because of his size. He can use his size when needed but more times I have seen him take 1/2 a step back instead of just bashing the opponent to remove him from the puck. He lets Hyman engage the player and then he then very quickly eyes up the situation and decides what the opponent will do with the puck and his stick flashes in and comes out with the puck. Amazing to watch that time and time again.

    Watch him in front of the net. He goes to that dirty area and scores from there. But rarely does he put his head down and bull into the pile around the goalie. He is almost always 1/2 a step away and looking for where the puck will end up. Again in flashes the stick quickly and out it comes with the puck on it. You just cannot teach that level of hockey knowledge and puck sense.

    Gardiner has looked better but Babcock is a master at shielding players and putting them in a positions to succeed and not fail. I think that is part of his statement when he arrived about protecting players. Maybe assumed he meant the MSM and most likely part of his comment was that but I think a much bigger and more important part was where and when and with who they played. Jake looks good and confident on the offense. A bit lost at times on the defense still and still makes the odd bone headed lack of hockey sense play but less so. I don't project him to be a 1/2 but a good 3/4 in the league and that is fine.

    Playoffs are a year or 2 away as most of us thought. Last year we had worth ethic and no skill. Now we have skill, speed and the players are learning the work ethic if they didn't already have it. They have lost games, and certainly more than their share in shoot outs, but very rarely have they been blown out of games. The future indeed looks good.

    1. Great to hear from you, Pep.

      Agreed on Matthews- you can't teach instincts, and the examples you cited indicate this young man has something special in that regard.

      I sense most Leaf followers recognize it is now just a matter of time before the team is competitive year in and year out- and maybe more than just competitive. I believe the team has had some very good coaches in the past and some talent at the executive level as well, but the organization has seemingly not always been on the same page. The current group seems to work together well, and ownership is maybe not getting in the way- as they have too often in the past.