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Are the Leafs one key injury away from being an also-ran?

Funny game in Buffalo Friday night.  The Leafs had their skating legs early but a peculiar run of penalties in the second half of the second period obviously turned the game momentum in Buffalo’s favor.

I’m not sure the Sabres played an outstanding game, or that Miller was unbeatable.  The Leafs simply had to spend so much time on the penalty-kill and it was difficult to maintain any offensive flow in the second frame.  I thought they nicely overcame losing Phaneuf, and were it not for Reimer kind of losing the fourth goal, they would have had a momentum-changing penalty-kill throughout a prolonged five-on-three.

Kessel continued to show the kind of intensity I haven’t really noticed in previous seasons.  When it was 4-3, he just willed the puck away from Roy in the Toronto end and led a dangerous rush into the Buffalo zone.  A missed cross-check penalty call later, Buffalo had regained their two-goal lead.  Even at that, the Leafs fought hard until the final whistle, closing the gap to 5-4 and almost tying the game.

Maybe the most important thing of all (long-term), however, was Kulemin’s confident stride, move and finish on his third-period penalty shot.  Who could miss the relief in his face after he buried that one?  Followers here know I’m a Kulemin guy.  He has needed something—one going in off his back side, a fluke goal, whatever—to get him going.  A great goal is even better and may be a harbinger of more productive days ahead for the young winger.

Still, it was an odd night.  I can’t say the Leafs played poorly.  They worked, hit guys, made plays, created chances.  Reimer made a few great stops.  One “bad” goal and almost a great comeback.  

Just another night in Buffalo, a place that has been a wasteland too many nights for the Leafs since 1970.  But last night was not one of those nights.  The result just wasn’t a good one.


As we were all watching (or listening to, depending on one’s access) Friday night’s game in Buffalo, it was clear that Lupul and Kessel some nights are almost in a league of their own these days.  I’m not talking about all-time greatness, simply that these two guys are clearly playing with a ton of free-wheeling confidence.

Lupul is back to his early days, an all-purpose winger who can hit guys, make plays and finish enough to be an awfully dangerous player.

Kessel is one of the fastest things on skates, and I’m not sure that anyone in the league right now has a quicker or more dangerous release.  Friday night’s first goal was yet another example of just how dominant these explosive wingers been much of this season. (As an aside, both guys are doing well in the All-Star voting, and while I take fan voting with a grain of salt, in this case, it is a well-deserved bit of recognition.)

Now, the Leafs are more than just Kessel and Lupul, of course.  They have a generally solid if imperfect young defense corps and a host of hard-working forwards. But here’s the thought that kept coming back to me as I was watching the Leafs in action: what happens if one of their “big guys” up front, Lupul or Kessel, is felled by some kind of injury for any length of time?  Can the Leafs handle it?  Do they have the depth to overcome a key player loss and still make the playoffs?

We all know the NHL is in the midst of seeing a number of teams facing what would appear on the surface to be insurmountable injuries.  Last season the Leafs were so fortunate compared with most other Eastern Conference teams.  This season, yes, the Leafs have been hit by some short-term injuries, but it still pales compared with what some teams are facing.  Pronger, the Flyers' most important guy, is gone for the year in Philly.  Crosby in Pittsburgh? If running into his own teammate was enough to send him back to the injury list, we know his future is, sadly, hazy at best.  Markov has been gone for so long in Montreal I forget he is even on the “roster”.  One of Boston’s best players, Savard, has been out of action forever and we don’t even think of him any more.  Chara is now gone, too.   Zajac, a key guy in Jersey, has been out all season.  Star defenseman Marc Staal has been absent from the Rangers line-up.

The list goes on.

My point simply is that in the NHL these days, to be a really good team, you have to be able to somehow fight through injuries and still win more often than not.  (That’s always been the case but it is certainly so especially now.   The size of players—and the equipment and speed of the game—means that injuries often result.   With the growing awareness of how to deal with certain types of injuries and the time it takes to come back from them, teams often miss players for longer periods of time than ever before.)

From a depth perspective, we can say, “oh, we’ll just bring up Kadri or Colborne…” and that’s all very good, but we all know those guys are years away from being the performers that Kessel and Lupul already are.  It takes time to get to that level.

So again I ask the question:  if one of the big guns go down, how will the Leafs fare?

Right now, I’m not absolutely certain they have the depth to overcome an injury to one of their best forwards.  On defense, maybe, because they literally do have guys like Aulie (sitting upstairs), Komisarek coming back and players in the system with NHL experience.

But up front, as much as they have some promising youngsters, the answer is not so clear.  The much vaunted “second” line that many of us thought was really the  best Leaf line a year ago (Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur) while having some nice moments, has largely been broken up after a tough early part of the season. (Friday night’s coming out party for Kulemin and Grabbo may trigger an outburst, which would be timely…)

These guys may re-unite and catch fire, but for the moment, it’s difficult to see where the offense would come from if we lost either Kessel or Lupul.  (And honestly, there is no way, six months ago, I thought I would be writing about Lupul this way.) I love what I’m seeing in Frattin and Bozak has stepped up. It’s good that Armstrong is back in the line-up, too, but none of those guys, at this point, are not necessarily big number-producers.

The ideal scenario is that this never becomes a potential issue and that Lupul and Kessel fly through the rest of the season without setbacks.  But how do you see the team’s capacity to handle the loss of a key player?  Could they handle it?  Could they still make the playoffs next spring?

I look forward to your comments.

1 comment:

  1. Hard to know with injuries - we've done pretty well so far, with a number of first stringers out. Sometimes the other guys step up their game when a major player is lost (think Sundin in the Ottawa playoffs a few years ago). But Lupul and Kessel are playing at another level right now - one we haven't seen in Leafland for quite a while. In fact, the creativity and speed of the offense in general, including our D, is really exciting to watch. I'm not sure we could survive and prosper with the loss of either of our two big guns.
    To be honest, I don't think it's the loss of a key player we have to be worried about. I think we're in danger of being an also-ran if things stay as they are. The Buffalo game is a good example: a weak goal at a key moment, poor PK, too many missed opportunities... these are the elements that have bedevilled the Leafs for the past few years, and are now doing so again. We've lost the last two games because of the PK - I'm beginning to wonder when the decision gets made to fire the coach who's responsible and try another approach. We certainly won't be going to any "dance" if we can't address that particular problem.
    The drop-off of the old Grabovski line members is also terribly problematic. And, like you, I admire the hustle of the new young guys, but if someone besides the first line can't start putting the biscuit in the basket - one of my favorite hockey phrases - then despite the improvements we've made, we're right back where we've been since the lockout, knocking on the door, looking for the key.