More Maple Leafs follies as the 2014-15 season gets off and running here in October! Plenty of new faces, still the same problems...
However, let me start with some of the good: The team did make several smart moves in the off-season to strengthen the bottom six. Adding veterans like Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik and David Booth (although injured again) brought in a good dose of hockey IQ, grit and a small amount of skill. Moreover, each of these guys have played or been around winning hockey at one point or another.
Second, the trade for Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarsson, I at least thought made this team much stronger and tougher to play against, seeing that Carl Gunnarsson was perhaps one of the softest defenseman in the league.
Then there are the additions of speedy, heart and hustle type players like Leo Komarov, (who's departure last season was another big mistake by Dave Nonis and company) former LA King Brandon Kozun (too small I guess to crack the Kings lineup).
And lastly, the decision to hold onto James Reimer and give him at least one more season to get back to his 2012-13 form was much needed because I still do not trust Jonathan Bernier, another youngster who still has yet to prove he can be a number one goaltender in the NHL.
One of my classic whipping boys last year, Jonathan Bernier picked up right where he left off last season, pretty much sleepwalking through the first two games allowing seven goals, most of which soft and stoppable as usual. In comes Reimer in NYC and gets a six goal cushion to work with before being struck in the head again by another careless flyby by an opponent. The only problem I have with that is that nobody in blue and white stands up for Reimer after he gets drilled in the crease, and this has happened several times now since being ran into by Montreal's Brian Gionta a couple October's ago.
Perhaps Mr. Bernier restored some of the small faith I have in him with his effort tonight in Detroit, but once again the Leafs find a way to lose a close, hard fought game, thanks in large part to some of the same reasons.
Cody Franson has a pretty darn good shot at being my primary whipping boy this season, as well as head coach Randy Carlyle, who cannot seem to get a firm grip on a fairly talented, skilled and decent roster as his disposal. Franson seems to be a guy who does not fit the mold of a winning hockey team. I am tired of his constant off-season contract holdouts, always signing for one year deals, similar to his constant lazy, clueless defensive play on the ice. I don't think he wants to be here and his play on the ice shows it. His decision to back off Detroit's main danger on the ice and allowing him to get a good look and shot off in a 0-0 game with 10 seconds left in overtime is simply inexcusable. It is almost just as inexcusable to see the Maple Leafs' top line of Phil Kessel, James van Reimsdyk and Tyler Bozak (although I have no problem with Bozak's game at all, but would like to see him score a bit more) get outworked and outhustled by the fourth line of any team, let alone Detroit's, a team who is in total rebuild mode for a second straight season.
It was Franson who cost the Leafs several more points and victories with careless giveaways and clueless defensive awareness last season. Tonight and last night, I would say he was responsible for at least 2 goals, and this one tonight hurts the most. If Randy Carlyle is going to keep benching players, like he did Jake Gardiner last weekend to send a message across, then why not send the same message to Franson, van Reimsdyk and even Kessel. My mouth actually waters at the thought of what Toronto may get for the likes of Franson, van Reimsdyk and even Kessel. Toronto really cant afford to trade Kessel because guys like Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul and Bozak have forgotten how to score goals. I am mainly concerned with Kadri, because of his stellar play in the strike shortened season of 2013 when the youngster would simply take over games with his speed and skill and scored huge goals for this team. Now, it seems like the best part of his game is walking a tight rope of diving and trying to draw penalties. He doesn't seem to have much confidence in his game and I believe that Carlyle is to blame for some of it. Toronto just needs more from that second unit, and until they do, it will struggle to score.
But forget the offensive struggles. Getting guys like Kessel and van Reimsdyk to play solid two-way hockey is a forgone conclusion, therefore, this team cannot afford to have those two playing together and playing big minutes. This team must start thinking defense first, offense second...or better yet, good defensive hockey leads to offensive chances, which is the way teams like Boston, Los Angeles and the NY Rangers have played and have had recent success. Unlike last season, Carlyle does have the depth to pull some strings. Many of you told me over the last few years that Tyler Bozak is not a number one center. I never really agreed or disagreed. Truth is, he doesn't have to be, and really nobody has to be on this team. However, in this case, Bozak is your top line center, because he is the most defensive minded forward the Leafs have, at least in the top six. But again, there doesn't have to be a set top six. What Carlyle must do is put together four solid lines, four lines that can stack up against any line in the NHL. Guys like Leo Komarov, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, Matt Frattin, and Joffrey Lupul can and should be paired up with guys like Bozak, Kessel, Kadri and van Reimsdyk at any time or any given game because they have some experience playing in different situations, with several different teams, mostly good teams and can handle the pressure. Those are the guys who are fighting to stay in the NHL, therefore you are going to get a solid effort from them each night. The same goes for guys like Richard Panik and Kozun, who I hope will be back in the lineup very soon.
Simply put, the longer Carlyle keeps Kessel and van Reimsdyk together, the more this team is going to find ways to give up goals and lose games. Those two won't change their game, its the way they've played and they have had some success with it, but not the type of success that is going to make this Toronto Maple Leaf team a playoff winner. Perhaps putting a solid veteran together on the line with Bozak and Kessel will help? Leadership is once again a very key issue on this team, and although I appreciate the heart and hustle and hard play from Dion Phaneuf, he is just not the type of "leader" in which the team is still in search of and I am not sure if the Leafs have one or not still.
Defensively, I think the Leafs are ok. I have been impressed with some of the poise and skill from Stuart Percy. I saw him in Chicago a few times last season with the AHL Marlies, but did not think he was ready. I saw guys like Petter Granberg or even Korbinian Holzer looking as if they may be able to get a shot at the Leafs opening night roster, but Percy has been better than advertised. I would rather lose with him on the ice than the likes of Franson and even Roman Polak, who for some reason seems to have lost all of the hockey IQ and toughness while playing for St. Louis the past several seasons, a team with as much structure and defensive minded play as anyone in the league. Seems like when someone puts on a Leafs jersey, all structure and defensive skills go out the window. I hope he cleans up his game, because thus far, Polak is perhaps the Leafs worst player on the ice. Still, this team can survive without the likes of Cody Franson, and I hope the team can work out a trade for him in the very near future. Until then, Mr. Carlyle needs to get his act together and start finding some better line combinations involving Kessel and van Reimsdyk. The only real good line so far has been the Komarov, Santorelli and David Clarkson trio. Clarkson has played well thus far, but is still not the player he was with the Devils. Why? Toronto does not have that structure like the Devils have had for so many years. Will they? Carlyle does have the talent and depth to find it, but will he find it in time? I say he has til about Thanksgiving in November (American Thanksgiving that is for you Canadian readers!) to figure it out.