S-N-D & Company Must Address Blue Line Quickly; Trade a Player like Kessel?
Good luck to Brendan Shanahan, Dave Nonis, Kyle Dubas and company, or as I will identify them as S-N-D & Co. from here on out. There is so much work that needs to be done to at least make this Maple Leaf team playoff-level competitive, I highly doubt that anyone can completely figure it out.
But one thing is for sure; this Maple Leaf team is NOT a playoff team in 2015. There is not hope for right now or in the near future if decisions are not made soon.
This afternoon's 6-4 loss to a Florida Panthers team, made up entirely of free agents and draft picks in a building doused in 90% blue and white with fans holding such signs up as "Traveled 24 hours to see you play, Go Leafs!" sums up everything you need to know about this team and this season.
First of all, why would anyone want to travel 24 hours to see a team that completely lacks leadership and comradery. A team that makes so many mistakes, that even politicians in Washington are more accountable (for my American readers) as I am sure things are in other countries as well. But this is not about politics, more so about the policies of the Toronto hockey team.
The team comradery comes into question again this afternoon, when Richard Panik, after scoring the games' first goal, gets drilled on a vicious open ice hit by Scott Upshall. Albeit a clean hit, Panik obviously dazed and confused, barely can get off the ice himself and did not return. Who responds to the hit? Nobody. Does anyone go after Upshall and at least draw attention to it? No. Not even a guy like David Clarkson, who found it necessary to jump the boards and attack John Scott and the Buffalo Sabres in a silly preseason game a year ago. I hope that was worth the 10 game suspension in a meaningless game. I might as well take this opportunity to voice my thoughts on the big free agent acquisition of 2013-14. Clarkson has been nearly invisible over the past two months since he scored a huge PP goal in Columbus on Halloween night. The only time I notice him is when he is arguing with the referee or trying to start crap with the other team. In my opinion, the Leafs are really overpaying for a guy who is no more than just a third or fourth liner who doesn't contribute nearly enough.
The same deal happened with Leo Komarov, a guy who the whole team says they love and respect in the clubhouse. Komarov gets drilled by a cheap shot to the head by Alex Ovechkin, and still has yet to return to action. In that game, did anyone respond to Ovechkin's reckless play? No. So much respect for a guy who actually plays a solid two-way game and sticks up for everyone on this team.
And who knows how long Panik will be out as a result of another dangerous blind-sided hit. No doubt another tough loss for a guy who has helped fill out the bottom six very effectively.
It was a shame that Jonathan Bernier, coming off a solid 4-0 shutout in Dallas, was not able to go today. Do the Leafs win this game today with Bernier in goal? Even with the poor play in the first and third periods, I am willing to bet that Toronto could have won this game perhaps 4-3 or even 5-3 with an empty netter had Bernier been in net. Your chances of hanging on to this one at least would have been better.
What you see in James Reimer is exactly what you get in him and the rest of the team. The ability to battle off and on, and be on from time to time and also sequences in which the focus is totally lost and he and the rest of the team struggle to regain some momentum. The two quick goals allowed to draw the game even have to be stopped by a professional NHL goaltender. Once again, I must ask does Bernier stop those shots? Maybe and he should.
I recall a few years ago that the Maple Leafs were interested in acquiring Roberto Luongo before they landed Bernier from Los Angeles. At the time I was not that into that idea, but right now, that doesn't seem like a bad idea at all. Luongo is still a very solid goaltender, and a LEADER. There is that "L" word that the Maple Leafs lack in respect of.
Your leader this afternoon, wearing the blue "C" on his chest did everything but "lead" his team. In the first intermission, Nick Kypreos said that what you see is what you get in Dion Phaneuf. Naming him the captain of this team was a huge mistake by Brian Burke. One in a long series of mistakes made by the former general manager that has led this team to where it is now, still playing irresponsible, defenseless minded hockey where the only success the team has is turning the game into complete up and down, run and gun mess of a hockey game that can only be given one proper word: chaos.
In fact, the best blue liner in the game today was Jake Gardiner, who has been in and out of Randy Carlyle's doghouse all season long. At least he tried to make things happen in the game today. But going back to Phaneuf, the 29-year old, appointed captain and #1 defenseman by the organization was undressed by Florida forwards four times, turned the puck over all day like a hot potato, twice got poor penalties in quick succession and worst of all, was not able to round up his troops when the game was a mess early and not when his goalie couldn't come up with a stop early in the third period and let the game get away from them.
Moreover, the Leafs had Roman Polak fall asleep at his blue line, as he let a weak pass get by him to Jonathan Huberdeau leading to the Panthers first tally. Morgan Reilly is still figuring out how not to turn the puck back over to red and navy sweaters at the blue line. Stephane Robidas also wins the award for the worst giveaway to start the game on top of all this. For a guy who has been around for such a long time, where is some of the leadership from him? I would much rather have guys like Willie Mitchell or Brian Campbell who lead by example, not to mention some of the solid playmaking from Aaron Ekblad and Dmitry Kulikov who buried the Leafs in the final frame. The simple fact today was that Florida's blue line completely outplayed the Leafs and made them all look bad.
So the problem for the three anointed Leafs ambassadors at the top, it all starts on the blue line. What to do with Gardiner and Cody Franson must be resolved soon. I really do not see this team making the playoffs this season, and I have high doubts for next year with the lack of leadership and ability on the blue line right now.
To be honest, I do like Phaneuf and he does play hard. Today was a horrible game for him and the majority of the team. Like the team as a whole, he is too erratic from game to game, given that his effort in Dallas was outstanding. The acquisitions of Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas I thought at the beginning would help Phaneuf and the others handle pressure a bit better and develop some confidence, but it really has not. Polak will deliver a punishing hit and jump into the play like today and make something happen from time to time. Robidas will make a smart play here and there. But again, it is what it is.
Another place where this team struggles is having forwards who are complete players, guys who play hard and are heads up at both ends of the ice. The forwards who I have questioned about this part of the game are guys like Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland.
Center Tyler Bozak has been chastised as a player who is not a top line center. That may be true, but the fact remains is that he is the only guy on the team who truly is a complete player, a guy who plays hard in both ends of the ice and understands that responsible plays in his own end leads to good things in the offensive end.
Today, Joffrey Lupul answered my questions, as he was by far the best player on the ice for the Maple Leafs. As a subject of many trade rumors (connected to Florida and San Jose per Eklund recently) would it be wise to move a winger of his kind? I would like to say yes, given with the arrivals of guys like William Nylander and Freddy Gauthier in the near future. Lupul this afternoon was all over the ice, making some solid defensive plays, and dished out some nifty passes leading to timely goals. He also has a sense of playing the game with a calm sense of attitude, something that his teammates need.
On the other hand, Kessel and van Riemsdyk are nowhere near being complete players and I doubt it they ever will be. We will see Kessel come back and break up a play once in a while, but we rarely see van Riemsdyk bust his butt back and make a big defensive play to save a goal or a scoring chance. The one guy who has been doing that more and more recently is former first rounder Nazem Kadri, and as a center, you must be able to make plays and be more accountable in your own end. If Kadri is going to become a complete player and most of all a LEADER remains to be seen, but I like what I am seeing so far this season and look forward to what the future holds.
Third line center Peter Holland was awful today. However, he too is still very young like Kadri and will simply have to get better in just his first full season of NHL duty.
Today was a very tough loss to a team that is in the mix with Toronto, NY Rangers, Boston and Flyers for those wild card spots. It is hard to believe that Boston may not make the playoff rounds this season, as it is for the Rangers. The difference again between Toronto and those teams is leadership, responsibility and several more players with experience and forwards who are complete players. The Leafs are not that level yet. It will take time with youngsters like Kadri, JVR, Holland and guys to come in Nylander and Gauthier. The fact however remains, even with veterans like Lupul (31) and Bozak (29), the Leafs are still a very young, inexperienced hockey club, that still is taking is lumps and still learning how to play a more responsible, consistent style of hockey. This erratic, night and day approach has to stop at some point. Perhaps a trade of Phil Kessel or van Riemsdyk would be a good start for this team to turn into something to be taken seriously. I think the team can afford to deal one of those two guys, who seem to me are never going to become complete players in the NHL. Kessel would be the better guy to trade given his competitiveness and ability to remain in the lineup despite not always being at 100%. What should the Leafs look for in a deal for Kessel? Defense! And perhaps a decent veteran backup goaltender with Reimer also going the other way. Another reason to deal Kessel now is because of the arrival of another big time playmaker in William Nylander who also plays a similar style. Will Nylander be a better two-way forward? Will Nylander be a true gamer and never miss a game due to pain? I am willing to roll the dice and see what happens and see the team possibly improve with his addition and the additions of who the team might get in return for a guy like Kessel.
What Shanahan, Nonis, Dubas and whoever else up there must realize that success must start from the back end first. Jonathan Bernier is going to be the guy in the crease. He has made some considerable strides this year after a very shaky first season in Toronto playing largely against Eastern teams instead of more defensive teams in the West. Decisions must be made on guys like Gardiner, Franson and even Reimer soon. After today, I fail to see where Carlyle can trust him again. Therefore, Bernier is going to be a workhorse and he needs to be so that the rest of the organization can be able to determine if Bernier is in fact "the guy" to rely upon similar to what other #1 goalies like Quick, Lundqvist, Price and a few others have shown their ability to carry a team and go on a serious roll all the way deep into the playoffs.
Of course for all the thousands of Leaf fans today in South Florida, despite another loss and another game with screams of concern from people like me who would love to see the Maple Leafs return to their former glory of years and years past, what an entertaining game! If that is the way you want it, then fine. It is, what it is!
For me, no. I am very happy to see my first team, the LA Kings win the Cup twice in two years, something that I have been waiting all my life to witness...but now I would die to see the Maple Leafs win the Cup just once before my time is up.
Things to consider going forward:
• Should the Leafs look into dumping some salary? Perhaps trying to move Clarkson's or even Phaneuf's salaries? If Phaneuf can be moved, the blue line will have to undergo some serious reconstruction as it already needs fixing. This team will not be successful with the current 6/7 right now. Who goes and who stays?
• A deal for LA Kings center Mike Richards has been mentioned several times according to Eklund. Acquiring his big contract through 2019 will have to result in the Kings taking back another big/bad salary commitment to either a guy like Clarkson or Phaneuf. The Kings could really benefit from the addition of Phaneuf but not Clarkson. The Kings probably do not want to take another big contract in Richards' place, and they shouldn't. I don't see a deal happening here unless the Kings have interest in Jake Gardiner and his big deal.
• Where would the Maple Leafs be without Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik? Both forwards as complete players in my point of view, and can be effective on any of the four lines. Both are on one-year deals and should be resigned, meaning more moves must be made quickly and effectively to accommodate them.
• Changes and decisions must start being made as soon as now. Toronto cannot afford to sit by and let the rest of this season play out without making some moves in the very near future. Guys who should be rumored or discussed are the obvious ones; Clarkson, Phaneuf, Franson, Gardiner and even Kessel or van Riemsdyk.
• Leadership, leadership, leadership! Look around the NHL and see the teams who are always in the mix for the Cup in recent memory...Kings, Hawks, Bruins, Rangers, Penguins, Canadiens...Each of those teams have I would say, six to seven guys who could all be the captain of those teams and others. Now look at our Toronto Maple Leafs, when our captain is in the box for four straight minutes and getting undressed in the defensive zone and cannot settle down a team in the midst of blowing its first lead heading into the final 20 of the season. Toronto should be looking for leaders around the NHL. A trade for Mike Richards would be a nice start, but would be very difficult to accommodate what the Kings are looking for. It also takes time for NHL clubs to develop true team leaders. Teams like the Hawks, Kings and Penguins did not turn into Champions over night.
• Last note on the game today...the refs did make a mistake at the end of the game. Toronto did not deserve to win, despite taking a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes, but not calling a penalty on Nick Bjugstad as he tripped up Kadri heading into the slot for what should have been a pretty good scoring chance and then getting a call at the other end on a very weak and soft hook on Franson was criminal! Of course, this mistake, in a game full of follies leads to the decisive goal.
• Play Chris Gibson in goal tomorrow. This team really has nothing to lose if Bernier cannot go.
• With Panik likely going on the shelf for a while, Carter Ashton gets another chance to solidify himself as a bottom six forward. Toronto needs to figure him out a bit more as well. Also, looks like Komarov will be back soon as well which makes the Leafs a little tougher to play against.
In closing, this team really does have a lot to look forward to...after the blue line is finally figured out. The youth of this team does make the future exciting just looking at the forwards the team has already: Ashton (23), Holland (23), Kadri (24), Panik (23), van Riemsdyk (25), with Nylander and Gauthier also on the way. Bozak will turn 29 in March and Kessel is still 27 as well as Komarov. Keeping veterans like Lupul, Winnik (29) and Santorelli (29) around I think is important as well. I think that the Leafs can live without David Booth, who really has not shown anything, and at age 30, his ice time should be given to someone like Ashton or Panik anyway.
Until the dust settles and S-N-D & Co. finally start to figure things out, expect many more games like today.
How much do YOU LOVE the Maple Leaf??
Oh yes, I was trying to say that in my words...LUPUL did show me a lot last night and when he is in the lineup he does fit some of the criteria of what I am looking for as a leader and should at least wear an "A" on his sweater. 31 isn't that old either, that is my age. This team would really be pitiful if not for guys like Winnik, Santorelli, Komarov and Panik. Really, just think about that. The rest of the"go-to" guys are still very young and inexperienced. It will take time. It took a few years for the Hawks with the emergence of Kane, Toews, Sharp, Seabrook and Keith to turn into something elite. It also took a few more years for the Kings under Kopitar, Brown, Doughty and some of the others on that team to turn into something special. Both teams were rounded out with some free agent signings and a couple trades to round out the supporting cast. I feel that the Leafs have a nice supporting cast with the guys mentioned above, but the core of the team containing Kessel, Bozak, Phaneuf, van Riemsdyk are simply not good enough.