Leafs Living On The Edge With This Core

Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs – Photo by Tim Alamenciak

With what has happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past two seasons, two major questions hung in the air heading into this summer. Can the team buy in and execute what Randy Carlyle is preaching and is the core of this team good enough to compete when the going gets tough with the top sixteen teams in the league?

A colossal game seven flame-out in 2012-2013 followed by a post Olympic crash last season saw the core of this team embarrassed by poor play at the most important times. In short, when things got real on the ice, other teams flourished and the Leafs wilted under the pressure of it all. I don’t measure a season by individual statistics or play as a whole, in the big leagues, you are measured by how you perform and achieve results when the best hockey is played and the Leafs’ core players have failed miserably at “crunch time”, over the past two seasons.

The failures of the past should prompt big changes on the ice for this group of players, yet the only changes that have occurred this summer are “big” moves in the front office. (ie: the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as president and Kyle Dubas as Assistant General Manager) while the core of this team has remained untouched.

In my opinion, the core of the Leafs includes, coach Randy Carlyle, forwards Phil Kessel, James Van Reimsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak. On the back end it is Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly

I’m still not sure which goalie to put into that mix, yes Jonathon Bernier was good when he played last season but he was injured too much for a starter and in the end, was unable to lead the Leafs to the playoffs as the number one man. The Leafs made it clear that Bernier was the undisputed number one over the man that got them to the dance the year before, James Reimer.

These are the Leaf players that must lead the ship to the promised land, and while all others need to follow, they are merely bit players that cannot make a big impact when the best players on the other teams ratchet up their game.

I left last season in the waste bin with one clear message in my head. This core does not have the top level skill or leadership that it needs when the toughest times come calling between the boards. This core must change, and some of these names have to be moved and improved.

It hasn’t happened yet.

The Leafs have made a myriad of moves on the periphery, moving out players like Mason Raymond, Jay McClement, Carl Gunnarson, and Tim Gleason and replacing them with the likes of Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Roman Polak, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik and David Booth.

In my opinion, your bottom line players should be filled with a mix of youthful exuberance and veterans who have been to the dance. The players the Leafs let go were not the issue last year and if they were, they should have been replaced with players who made significant contributions on playoff teams last season. That said, only Winnik and Polak qualify, sort of. Winnick was a role player on Anaheim, and Polak an even lesser player on St. Louis. Both teams failed to reach their self imposed goals last season.

There may be more moves coming before the puck drops on the season but as it stands now, the Leafs are relying on improvements from the same core players. They just signed Gardiner, Franson and Reimer to new deals in the past week, and while they should be able to count on improvements from young Gardiner, how much did he improve under Carlyle last season?

The more things change in Leaf land the more things stay the same, and the management is playing with fire relying on this unchanged core.

  1. I couldn’t disagree with you more. Major changes to the core of this team is exactly what this doesn’t need. After years of shuffling, tearing it apart, and rebuilding, over and over again the Leafs are finally starting do do things right. They have a good young core of players in which to build around. They have, in their first line, one of the highest scoring lines in the NHL. At an average age of 26, they should be productive for a number of years to come.

    The second line has a very young and dynamic centre in Nazim Kadri, who at age 23, is just going to get better. Lupul, if he can stay healthy, does demonstrate some of the leadership qualities the leafs are lacking, while also scoring almost at a point a game pace since he has become a Leaf. The right side of that line has the biggest question mark with pretty much everyone hoping Clarkson will have a rebound year.

    They spent this summer strengthening their bottom 6 guys, an area where they were severely lacking last season. This not only should help make a difference in shots, and goals against, but should also provide the Leafs with other options for a 2nd line right winger should Clarkson not rebound.

    At defence, Gardiner and Rielly should both improve. I am guessing Phaneuf will have a more defined roll on the team going forward. Robidas and Polak provide solid, stay at home play, something the Leafs were definitely missing last season.

    I’m not sure what you meant when you talked about Bernier being injured far too often. He basically got hurt once, in the mini training camp after the Olympic Break, and it never healed. As far as the leafs riding him to wins, what NHL team wins games if their goalie does not outplay the opposing netminder?

    The Leafs have the top end skill to be successful, scoring goals is not a problem for them. They also have the goaltending necessary to win. They need to work on their defence.

    I do agree with you about one thing, and that is leadership. The problem with that is you can pick a captain, but you can’t pick a leader. That has to come from within. That is something that has been lacking. I predict if it does surface this season it will be from someone on the #1 line.

    Reply
    • Dwight Wakabayashi August 18, 2014, 9:19 am

      Good point but only time will tell. The bottom line is with all the positives you wrote, they did not get into the dance. My point on Bernier is that he was not relied on when it counted most, and that was due to injury. The whole article was questioning the leadership when crunch time came

      Reply
  2. When you put forward Franson as part of the core but go on to say your not sure Bernier is, you lose all credibility.

    Reply
    • Dwight Wakabayashi August 18, 2014, 9:16 am

      Good point on Franson. It was a slip, but my cred is my cred and I do make errors just like the Leafs blue line thx for reading

      Reply
  3. It wasn’t the core that led the team to an excellent record but ran out of gas at the end because they were overplayed by a coach who used a fourth line for three minutes a game. It wasn’t the core that employed a system that gave up more shots that any other team in history. The core is young and still promising. The coach?…..

    Reply
    • Dwight Wakabayashi August 18, 2014, 9:15 am

      That is exactly what weak core players do blame the guy who doesn’t lace em up and also on being tired I am questioning the core until they get it done in the playoffs.

      Reply
  4. I couldn’t agree more with Dwight. The core players on this team are clearly not capable of getting it done. I think the core players on this team are simply not good enough when compared to elite teams. The problem with Toronto, in my opinion, is that no one wants to play their. And, who can blame them! Too much media, specualting about everything.
    In addition, ownership has clearly done nothing to justify the constant increasing ticket prices. I think ownership is more concerned with making money than winning games.
    Toronto’s playoff rebuild died when they got rid of Burke. Burke was the one that made some great moves and started restocking the marlies. He got rid of crap contracts like Toskala, Beauchemin, Hagman, Stemniac etc. (Pardon the spelling on names.)
    I like Nonis, however, Nonis has not done much to change the core of this team. When Toronto made the playoffs, that was Burke’s team. And, they only made it because it was a shortened season.
    Lastly, I know Reimer had a rough season, but look at what he had to deal with. He played outstanding when they actually made the playoffs and the leafs still went out and made a trade for Bernier. They have needed a number one centre for ever, although, I do like Bozak.
    Overall, it is tiring being a leafs fan. They will start off hot this year and probably lead the division by end of October. That is when everyone else catches up and the leafs begin to drop!!!
    I could go on for ever!

    Reply
  5. You also are saying Bernier didn’t take them to the playoffs. He was in a good playoff spot when he was hurt. When he came back there was no chance for recovery.

    You think there’s question marks about who’s the number one? You need to watch more Leafs hockey. Bernier is our number one.

    Reply
    • Dwight Wakabayashi August 18, 2014, 5:40 pm

      yes I did say that and mentioned that he was hurt too much. It’s all true. There is no, they were in the playoffs when he got hurt you either get in the playoffs or you don’t and being hurt is part of it. You have to be able to stay healthy to be a true number one. The jury is still out on Bernier. One year as a number one, one year out of the playoffs and injured much of the time

      Reply
      • Bernier played in 55 games and was sharing some starts with Reimer early in the season. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

        Reply
        • Well, two things have become clearer to me after reading these comments. 1. Leafs fans are passionate. 2. No Leaf fan knows what they’re talking about.

          That’s a friendly jab by the way.

          Personally, I could have swore Reimer was re-signed to be quickly traded. In my opinion, Reimer has to go, and I think he will. I’d watch for him to split several starts with Bernier earlier in the season, with the Leafs knowing the playoffs are no sure thing this year. Management will hope he shows well early, and then deal him to any team with a floundering or injured goalie before Christmas.

          Reply
  6. A complete core blowup, in my opinion, is what’s needed. That however, really only comes through a rebuild, something the Leafs, at least until now, have been completely unwilling to do.

    Brian Burke botched things so badly, and emptied the Leafs’ prospect cupboard. It would be easy to say “if” Phil Kessel never joined the Leafs, and “if” Tukka Rask was never traded, the Leafs would already be annual contenders. Even arguing these trades now are pointless. GM’s make decisions, and that’s that.

    The current Leafs’ core however, featuring the one dimensional Kessel (as consistent as his production is), Kadri, who disappears in big games and can’t handle the NHL’s physicality well enough to face contending teams, Bozak, who has always been consistent, but never used in the role (third line) he belongs, et al. These guys are quality NHLers, but as a core, they aren’t good enough. I won’t even start on the blueline where the Phaneuf contract locks one of the league’s most overrated defenders as the backbone of a flimsy unit, which banks on the rapid development of a youngster like Morgan Reilly (sounds like a recipe for his destruction doesn’t it? No? You forgot about Luke Schenn already?)

    Here’s what I like about the Leafs: Bernier. I believe he’s an NHL #1. Van Reimsdyk. Just keeps getting better.

    I completely agree with what you’re saying here Dwight. The core needs to change.

    I’m not a Leafs fan. I think they have some skilled players, but need to go back to basics. Draft, leave players in the CHL, then the AHL, and shrewdly sign supporting players to help the youngsters develop.

    It may seem like a stretch to say this about a bottom dwelling team, but I think the Buffalo Sabres are farther ahead than the Leafs. They blew it up, and are building from the ground up.

    In Toronto, where fans pack the house regardless of the standings, it baffles me why a complete core rebuild, trading the old, and developing the young, hasn’t happened.

    Great read Dwight! A problem many NHL teams face, but the Leafs seem completely stuck in.

    Reply

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