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A win is a win; its “value” depends on the next two weeks

If you haven't visited lately, here are some posts that might be of interest….
  • Is Schenn worth more to the Leafs or someone else? (Posted in September, let me know if this still applies...)

The Minnesota Wild and the Ottawa Senators are both a reminder of why premature judgments are often inaccurate.

If we stepped back in time to November, many would have surmised at that point in the NHL season that the Wild were on their way to a shockingly good season.  They were atop the Western Conference standings.  Their new coach was the latest hockey genius.

The Senators, on the other hand, were struggling to gain some equilibrium after a particularly unsettling start.  Yet, also under a new coach, they have now forged a new identity (very different from their "lots of  starts, but soft..." make-up of some years ago) as a grit-infested bunch of underdogs who do what it takes to win games.  And they have made a significant move in the standings.

The Wild, though, have retreated not only in their overall play, but in the standings.  They haven’t played well at home or away from home.  Which brings us to the old Harry Neale line, uttered when he was the coach of a poor and struggling struggling Red Wing team in the 1980s (and I paraphrase): “We can’t win at home and we struggle on the road. Our problem is finding a place to play…”.

Despite their poor play in recent weeks, who knows, by March, the Wild may be hot again, eh?

In short, what I’m saying is we, as fans, should probably be ever-cautious in making any dramatic pronouncements, or at least making them too soon.  Ottawa and Minnesota are just two teams that show it’s often too early to start naming playoff teams, also-rans or MVP’s, etc. now, much less one month into the season.

I have a similar feeling when watching the Leafs.  As a fan base, what I sometimes feel like I’m seeing (and I’m part of it) is we get drawn into thinking that certain guys are worth more than they really are, or playing better than they really are.  A guy scores a goal (even if it goes in off his back side) and we start to think, maybe he's playing pretty well after all...

Oh, I know this is a long-time Leaf ‘thing’, that we tend to “over-value” guys who play in Toronto.  I suppose it’s that, but it’s a bit more than that, too.

Coming off three losses, we all expected the Leafs would jump out early against Minnesota, as they had earlier in the week against the Sens. The Leafs were at home and playing a team that hasn’t scored much on the road in over a month.  And the Leafs did put the petal to the floor. 

And he has been a nice player. Short-term euphoria (on the heels of a goal in a game you feel the team needs to win), tends to create more generous than might be realistic assessments of a particular player—or team.

When Kadri and Crabb put the Leafs on the board, it naturally gave fans something to cheer about, and that’s always good.  But here’s the thing.  Yes, Crabb is a workmanlike third-line player.  He works pretty hard, scores some goals and can play the body.  He's a nice player. 

But for me,  that "reaction" is a sign of what ails the franchise.  When things go well, and the puck goes in the net (sometimes against pretty mediocre opposition), we take the next step and think, “We can win with these guys…”.  And maybe we can.  But if we step back and make a hard-edged, sober assessment, the truth is we need more from a lot of guys.  More rugged play, more consistency.  Smarter play.

And all that is needed against really good teams, more often than not.

Presumably, the Leaf management team takes a much more disciplined approach to all this, and is not "won over" or misled by a win against a team that is reeling.

I continue to believe that the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East, as I posted recently. There is room to move up in the standings, for sure. (Washington and Philly just lost to the Islanders...)

But to be a really good team, to be the kind of team that we all want to see, the truth is that, for all the changes that have already been made, for all the youth, the speed, this is a team with serious flaws, with holes throughout the line-up.  The “top-six” isn’t good enough, nor is the “bottom-six”.  The defense is young and loaded with talent and potential, but it isn’t yet (and we can’t expect it to be) an elite group, in terms of actual performance.

And the goaltending question is just that, for all of our hopefulness: still a question.

This is not to paint a sour picture.  Not at all. It is simply to say this:  we should indeed enjoy when Lombardi, for example, scores a goal, as he did against Ottawa.  We can hope that a bad goal between the other goalie’s legs (like Lombardi's) means a guy is out of his “slump” or is indeed playing better.

But long-time fans who have seen this familiar movie many times before recognize that wanting it, hoping for it, isn’t enough.  Individual players—and a team—have to bring it every night.  And even then, you don’t win every night in the NHL.

Over the years, I’ve seen many "improving" Leaf teams play with gusto just often enough to make me think they would be pretty good.  And some years they were.  But the closest the Leafs have come since 1967 is, as we all know, the semi-finals.  And more often than not, the Leaf team in question wasn’t consistent enough to compete with the very best teams in the league when the going got tough- in the playoffs.

So yes,  these Leafs look awfully good some nights.  Sometimes that’s because they are flying, playing fast and smart and receiving tidy goaltending.  Sometimes, though, it’s because the opponent played poorly, or, in the case of Minnesota, just isn’t very good right now.

A win over Minnesota, at least this month, is what it is.  Two points—but nothing necessarily more than that.  If the Leafs can turn it into something more, then it will have been meaningful.  By then, the Leafs may be on the wings of a winning streak, the goaltending will be superb and a playoff spot will look certain.

But even if that were to happen, I would hold back on the celebrations.  In the "new" NHL, things change very quickly these days.

1 comment:

  1. Funny - I was thinking along these exact lines as I was watching last night's game. Despite enjoying the energy of the new lines, it just feels like we aren't "there" yet. The question is: where the heck is "there"? To paraphrase a comment one of the VLMers made the other day - on paper, how different are the Leafs from the Rangers? If the answer is "not very", then what's missing from the Leaf equation? Is it a coaching matter, or a player one?
    I'm definitely feeling that we're underachieving, given our line-up, and that our sights are set too low. And even games like last night's can't change that.