After an improbable victory (in a shootout mind you folks!) in the Winter Classic, things continue to get worse for a team who is extremely fragile minded. This is everyone's fault, from the ice, to the bench and to the press box.
It has been a while since I have written anything. Been on vacation while on winter break from teaching. I enjoyed the Smoky Mountains. Although those good folks have no idea how to handle winter storms, I still look forward to moving down there in the next year or so.
The Tim Gleason deal was a good move by Dave Nonis. This team needs a strong, stay-at-home style defenseman. Seeing that he is under contract through the 2015-2016 season, he should be a very good fit for this team in the long run. However, pairing him with Dion Phaneuf is a mistake by Randy Carlyle. With Jake Gardiner playing much better as of late, giving him a shot to play with the veteran captain is best for the 23-year old at this time in hopes that he will grow and become a better defensive minded player. Pairing Gleason with an even younger protégé like Morgan Rielly is an even better idea, as he can learn probably a bit more from playing with the former Los Angeles King blue liner during their rebuilding seasons.
As of right now, let's be honest. This is not a good year for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I am sure a lot of the fans, myself included, had high hopes for this team after they were seconds away from ousting the mighty Boston Bruins from a 3-1 playoff series advantage. That did not happen by accident. In that series, we saw the best and worst from the Maple Leafs, and the best almost prevailed. This season has been all about the Winter Classic for them. It is not an excuse for the players or team, nor am I trying to conjure up my own excuses. Having cameras in your face for weeks and weeks, leading up to one, silly game, which by the way is ridiculous to put so much emphasis on ONE lousy game as if it were the end all, be all of hockey games. Sure it was a spectacle and was great for hockey, but thank God that is over. The longer the Leafs have to be put into that situation the better.
Now, we are closing in upon another Olympic tournament. Is that a huge deal? Sure is. I love it. The players love it. All the fans love it. Asking myself as I sit here, watching Jonathan Bernier and the Maple Leafs give away another game, what is more important, the two-week Olympic tournament or the NHL season. Sadly, I must say that the Olympic tournament is perhaps a little bit bigger deal, not only to me, but for the players as well. This perhaps, could be the final time some players suit up for their respective countries and a chance to win Olympic gold, which could be an even bigger prize than the Stanley Cup itself. And I also think that most general managers and owners would agree.
The Winter Classic was without a major distraction for the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, but playing in the Olympics is a great deal better and a wonderful distraction for all teams and players involved. With that all being said, a good Leafs season or a bad Leafs season should not come first and foremost for us. It is a tough pill to swallow, but this is a bad season for the Maple Leafs and pretty safe to say, there will not be playoff hockey in Toronto this April. Still, I believe that things are going in the right direction, but Nonis will have some very tough decisions on his hands after this lousy season is through.
In 2013, we saw players like Nazem Kadri take big strides. At times, #43 would simple take over games, and easily was the best player on the ice and one of the most exciting players to watch. This season, the 23-year old center has slipped in a big way. Kadri has lacked a lot of his confidence, not sure why. He is not playing sound defensive hockey, giving the puck up way too much. And most disappointing of all, has become a player who is constantly trying to embellish things. Tonight, he did so again, but got away with it. Each time he is challenged for the puck, Kadri is always trying to act his way to a whistle instead of manning up, and taking control of the puck by using his body and skill. He simply has not become the player that Toronto envisioned, especially when both Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland went down to long term injuries. His worst game came immediately after those two were lost, taking runs at Minnesota goaltender Nicklas Backstrom and Mikael Granlund deserving a game misconduct. When the Leafs leaned on him, he shaded away, afraid to take the next step. It also seems to me as if Carlyle has lost his respect in a way for Kadri, and not just his game, but in the type of player he has shown himself to be this season. The young center has also become weak with the puck, easily stripped at center ice by a back checking Islander in tonight's game. I would love to see #43 back check and break up a play in a similar matter, but when he has games in which he is a minus four like he was the other night against the Rangers speaks volumes. In fact, just about every top six forward was either a minus three or four that night. Such stats may go unnoticed to several people, but not me. Those are just unacceptable numbers for a professional hockey player and makes me wonder how in the world they made it this far in the first place.
Also in 2013, we saw strong play from James Reimer in goal, and solid backup play from Ben Scrivens. Even before the Jonathan Bernier trade, I thought the Leafs were fine in goal. If anything, it certainly was not one of the teams' weak points going into the 2013-14 season. Toronto may think that Bernier is the answer for the Leafs in goal, but I beg to differ.
Once again, the 25-year old former understudy of Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, and a team which prides itself with a "defensive first" mentality allowed more strange goals in another game that was simply lost due to his efforts in goal. Bernier has played some strong games for Toronto this year, and has stolen a few points for the team, but you have to just stop and think about Bernier's game as a member of the Eastern Conference Maple Leafs.
Three of the four goals he allowed tonight to the Islanders are completely unacceptable for an NHL goaltender to allow. Making mistakes behind the goal and getting beat from the blue line are more head scratchers. But it makes me begin to accept that playing in the Eastern Conference just does not fit Bernier's style or game. He excelled in Los Angeles because the team in front of him played a solid defensive game. It helps to have guys like Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown in front of you, but most teams in the Western Conference also play a slower, defensive first minded game. There are exceptions of course, but just about every team in the West (not including the Oilers, Jets and Stars to name a few) is strong from the goal line out. That is why most teams in the West are much tougher to play against and beat. Boston and Montreal are two teams that come to mind in the East which follow similar to the style of play in the West, thus another reason why those teams are having considerable success.
When it comes to Jonathan Bernier, one has to realize that Eastern Conference play, and the way the Maple Leafs are built just does not suit him well. Seeing him give up the goals he allowed tonight and also in games past makes me feel that the Eastern game is just too fast for him. He expects better defense in front of him, but he just is not going to get that from the Leafs as he did in Los Angeles, where all five guys on the ice are taking care of things in their own end and helping the goaltender out, but the overall game itself is slower and more controlled at all areas of the ice. Toronto won't change their game. They have already committed to Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson (although the last two names are good defensive minded players) while bringing along smaller, but speedier puck moving defensemen in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. For the most part, the Leafs are going to rely heavily on scoring goals rather than keeping them out for the next several seasons. This is not going to be a team that is defensive minded, no matter how many defensive grinders like Nonis can bring in similar to Bozak, McClement, Kulemin or Gleason for that fact. Does this type of hockey really bode well for a guy like Bernier?
To compare, James Reimer seems to thrive on a lot of action in front of him. He proved to me in the short season a year ago that he can handle the job with the team in front of him. Bernier is perhaps the more talented of the two, but this is not about talent. This is about who plays best with the team in front of him, and to me without a doubt that man is Reimer. Reimer has his on and off nights and gives up a couple odd goals himself, but not nearly as a much as Bernier. Bernier's lack of focus and just pure laziness at times has really hurt the Leafs, and it happened again tonight. During the previous two seasons, Reimer also seemed to bring a more calming influence amongst the rest of the team, allowing guys like Kessel, Lupul and Grabovski (wow!) to do their thing and play a fun, speed and attack game. That is Toronto's game, and I am fine with that. But not playing with any confidence and lack of emotion as they are right now is inexcusable. This is on everyone, not just the goaltender.
Another Western Conference player who is struggling mightily this season is defenseman Cody Franson. I pretty much gave in to the thought that Franson, the former Nashville Predator blue liner once teamed up with guys like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, was the Leafs best defenseman going into this season. Similar to Bernier, Franson's game has noticeable gone to hell as well at times. Both of them had awful games tonight. Perhaps he too is better suited for Western Conference play. The game seems to be a bit faster than he expects it to be, and therefore is getting beat way too much or misreading play after play all over the ice. Dave Nonis probably did the right thing at not committing to Franson long term, although perhaps not the same way I see things.
As the horn sounds signaling yet another Maple Leaf loss on home ice, these are just some things to think about. If Toronto does get back into the swing of things when it comes to playoff contention, perhaps using guys like Kadri, Bernier and Franson as trade pieces are the best way to help build around guys who just want to skate and score rather than play two-way hockey. I would hate to see any of those three guys go, but offering them for guys who are quick on their feet and can make smart, fast decisions can go a long way. Trading those guys to the Western Conference will also help their game. Imagine Kadri in Los Angeles? I could see him settling down out there and learning how to play the game much better and with a lot more confidence. At least better than Matt Frattin has shown thus far. But not just Los Angeles, but perhaps in Phoenix or Anaheim who have assets the Leafs can certainly use. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is rumored to be on the block and centers Martin Hanzel and Antoine Vermette are stingy centers. With the Ducks, the Francois Beauchemin experiment was a huge failure, but 29-year old Ben Lovejoy has played well in both conferences and young forwards Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bonino have come into their own this year, but doubt the Ducks would part with any of those guys in a deal involving Kadri and/or Franson.
Teams that could look into a Jonathan Bernier should be Edmonton for example. The Ilya Bryzgalov experiment is certainly not a long term solution for the Oilers and Devan Dubnyk has basically proven he cannot handle a number one job, let alone staying in the NHL much longer. Other Western Conference teams like the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, even Minnesota Wild with constant injuries and illnesses to Backstrom and Josh Harding could look into the availability of Bernier. Trading Bernier would be a bold move on Nonis' part, but would have to try and nab a backup in return since the Leafs only have AHL journeyman Drew MacIntyre in the fold behind Reimer. The Wild could offer 23-year old Darcy Kuemper, who will be making the start tonight in Los Angeles along with a forward like Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund in return. And if Edmonton really wanted a long term answer in goal (and they need one!) Nonis should shoot for the moon asking about the availability of Yakupov, Hall, Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins. Winnipeg could decide to part ways with Evander Kane, although I doubt those rumors are true, but something for Toronto to look into. Calgary has John Gillies waiting in the wings, and with Reto Berra filling the void for another team destined for nowhere at the time being, trading for Bernier probably is not first thing on their minds. Plus, the fact that Calgary can ill afford to give up any of its scorers. I still kind of wish the Leafs still had Joe Colborne in the mix. Anyways...just kicking the tires around and offering some solutions to fill some of Toronto's needs.
Mason Raymond is also another trade commodity for Toronto. At age 28, I do not think the market will be as high for him as it could be for Kadri, Bernier or Franson, but that doesn't mean that Nonis should not try to see what he can get in return for the speedy winger.
I am not sure what to do with Toronto area native Dave Bolland. If he wants to stay with the Leafs, he will need to agree to something less than $3.375 million. The Leafs cannot afford to invest any more money or years into a 27-year old who is constantly injured or unable to help the team. For Toronto to have any hopes of making a run this season, they simply needed Bolland, Clarkson and Bozak healthy for the stretch run. It does not seem right now, on January 7th that that will be the case.
Kings on the other hand still cannot seem to stay out of the God forsaken penalty box...No Harding or Backstrom, Kings still cannot capitalize on several in-tight chances against the kid Kuemper.
I plan on heading back to All State Arena in Rosemont, Illinois outside Chicago Friday the 17th to see the Toronto Marlies play the Chicago Wolves. It will give me a chance to see some of the Maple Leaf prospects in action, such as Josh Leivo, Spencer Abbott, David Broll and defenseman T.J. Brennan. Also, a chance to see if Korbinian Holzer or Carter Ashton have gotten better at their game. It would be interesting to see if Garret Sparks plays in goal for the Marlies that night. Sparks, born in 1993, is a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst, and a rival of my high school Lyons Township in La Grange. I am sure his family and friends will be in attendance as well.