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The NHL playoffs: a yearly reminder for Leaf fans of what we aspire to be

There is no point turning our head away.  Not watching the playoffs out of a sense of defeatism (as in, “My God, are the Leafs really that far away…?”) or envy (“Why the hell are—insert name of frustratingly excellent team here—those guys so good”?) won’t really help.  We might as well enjoy the great hockey, appreciate what we’re seeing and believe that the Leafs are building, presumably, toward being a serious player before too long when games really matter—in the springtime.

Not to play the same tired record yet again, but what do we notice about most playoff teams at this time of year (besides the fact that they are better in too many ways than the Maple Leafs)?  Well, most have awfully good goaltending—or at least goalies who, while they may not be "all-world", can be remarkably good under the pressure of a playoff series.  (All goalies have bad moments and rough games, but these teams by and large can rely on their ‘keepers, and can expect a top performance most nights to at least keep them in games, as the unpredictable Bryzgalov did for the Flyers in Pittsburgh in Game One of that match-up.)

Beyond that, most playoff teams have real stud defensemen (at least one of two) who not only play big minutes because they have to in the absence of anything better, but because they are so capable and so dependable that the coach wants those guys on the ice as much as possible.  Overall, what we see, generally speaking, are big, physical, yet mobile defensemen who can move the puck smartly and with confidence.

Most of these teams are, it almost goes without saying, strong up the middle.  Some have a lot of size, some have a ton of skill, some have both, but in addition, most have really, really good third and fourth-line players—first-class grinders who do everything they can to outwork the opposition.  And that’s hard to do at this time of year, because everyone is working diligently to do precisely the same thing- outwork the other guy.

The Leafs have some pieces, yes, and some promise for the future.  And sometimes, those young pieces for the future become contributors in a hurry, and that’s a very good thing when that happens.  That said, how many guys who are currently on the Leaf roster (or playing a role with the playoff-bound AHL Marlies) will be significant contributors, capable of playing well in this kind of intense environment next spring?  I really don’t know.  We aren’t exactly flush with players who have had an opportunity to excel in the playoffs.  But there is always hope.

Despite the absence of the blue and white, my favorite hockey of the year is the first round of the playoffs. For me, nothing beats it. Not the Olympics. Not the World Juniors, not the springtime World Championships, as wonderful as all those events are.  No, for me, it’s what we see after a long, 82-game regular-season that is the best hockey around—16 teams fighting like heck to survive to live for another round.  The rest of the playoffs are great, don’t get me wrong.  Winning the Stanley Cup, in my mind, is the hardest championship to win in any sport in the world.  You have to win four rounds and earn 16 victories over those four series.  You might have to play 28 playoff games to win the title- or even to ultimately lose it.

But I love this first round.  Always have, even back when there were only two rounds when I was a kid in the early 1960s.  There was always something special, extra special, really, about winning a playoff game.  I remember vividly waking up the next morning, and running outside (we lived in a small town in a rural area, the paper wasn't exactly dropped on our doorstep!) and up our long driveway to grab the paper (for us, it was the Detroit Free Press) and rush back inside to check out the sports page.  I would right away look for the game report and box score from the Leaf playoff game the night before.  It confirmed what I already knew, of course, but it was a heartwarming moment to see it in print when the Maple Leafs won.

If your favorite player scored a goal, it was such a high.  It was a thrill for me whenever the Leafs won a playoff game, and an bonus if, say, Davey Keon scored a nice goal or had a solid game.  For some of you it might have been Ronnie Ellis (he was more mid-1960s) or Frank Mahovlich or Johnny Bower and Dickie Duff (right), all wonderful Leafs from the marvelous early ‘60s era, a time when the playoffs often meant a Stanley Cup in the springtime in Toronto—and yes, an actual, honest-to-goodness parade—for real. 

(Quick the years went by and the Leafs were not as successful, I was reduced to cheering against teams. Those of you who know this site will recall that I was fervently and devoutly cheering against the Habs- despite being raised in a household of incredibly passionate Montreal fans.  It's just the way it had to be.  I hated the Canadiens.  (Later, the Bruins and Flyers were on my hate list...) Of course, you can't make a career out of just cheering against, eh?  Just as some Leaf fans now maybe cheer against the Senators, for example, and that's fine, we always need to keep in mind that, while we can enjoy it when the teams we don't like do lose, our team didn't even get that far...)

But again, it’s all about that first round of the NHL playoffs.  Before the injuries happen and fatigue takes a toll on so many guys.  When upsets occur and every guy gives everything they have to win a playoff game, contribute in any small way, block shots, break up a pass and sometimes even become hero- and create a memory for a lifetime. (Just for the record:  I put precious little stock in what happens in Game 1 in any series.  I tend to find that Game 2 and Game 4 are more telling…)

In any event, maybe in a year, the Leafs will be where the Senators, Panthers, etc. are now.  Perhaps the Senators and the Panthers won’t even be in the playoffs next season.  Making it one year doesn’t guarantee success the next, right?  We need to keep hoping.

In the meantime, for those who might be interested, I was invited (as I have been for the past couple of seasons) to take part in the Globe online podcast, a discussion about the Maple Leafs as a sort of “year-end review”.  It's maybe worth noting that we actually mostly look forward throughout the discussion. The podcast was hosted by Darren Yourk, the very capable Globe online sports editor ( Julian Sanchez, PPP of Pension Plan Puppets fame and James Mirtle, the outstanding Leaf beat writer/reporter for the Globe were on hand as usual.  It was a pleasure, as it has been in the past, to talk hockey with knowledgeable individuals who provide a great deal of perspective and insight. (Because of the tremendous people who follow this site and comment here, I actually have the privilege of talking about the Leafs with thoughtful people on a daily basis, and I appreciate that opportunity very much.)

Here is the link:

If you have time to listen to the chat, and have any comments, go ahead and post here as you normally would.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.  Meantime,  there's some great playoff hockey to watch.


  1. To be honest once the Leafs go out I rarely watch hockey. Unless a series makes headlines as particulary nasty or excellent I just can't seem to muster up the energy. I usually tune into the final minutes of the final series to see who wins the conn smythe and just because it is totally awesome still after all these years to see the unfettered joy in these men's faces when they win. Oh and I'll cheer for any team playing Vancouver. I can't stand those guys in any way shape or form.

    I thought the podcast was excellent. The only thing I was hoping was someone would take up Julian on his notion that to trade Kessel is just ludricous. Mrytle did kinda, saying so what if hewas a PPG, they still didn't win. They aren't going to win next year and the chances of resigning him in 2 years I would say right now are less than 50-50. So why not see if you can get one or two building blocks that are hitting thier stride when he Leafs are next ready to compete in 2-3 years hopefully. I would just like to get past this point where if you disagree with a guy about Kessel or Burke your not a real Leaf fan.

    As we all have noted more than once, there is more than one way to build a team. We can all be Leafs fans even when disagreeing.

  2. I'm going to venture a guess, Willbur, and suggest you're far from alone when it comes to the Canucks!

    Thanks for your comments with regard to the podcast. With regard to Kessel, clearly Julian feels it would be, if I understood his comment correctly, a mistake to deal the young winger.

    While respecting that line of thinking, my sense is the Leafs are hardly in a position where they are so good that they don't need to examine every possible avenue for getting better. And that could include moving Kessel, if, to borrow the old phrase, "it makes sense for the hockey club..." as GM's like to say.

    I don't know what such a deal would possibly look like, but as outstanding a season as Kessel had, the bigger picture is also trying to assess, at the age of 24-25, what Kessel will "be" when the Leafs are contenders in two or three years. Will be command 8 million a season? Do the Leafs pay that for one guy, on a long-term contract? And do they do it for a guy who is not a proven playoff performer? Look at the way these games are played at this time of year- how will Phil respond to this kind of checking and intensity?

    You know I agree with you, Willbur- there is more than one way to build a successful team, and Leaf fans can have widely differing opinions on how to get better and still be "good" Leaf fans. Thanks.

  3. To be clear I wouldn't trade Keseel for a guy like Malone. My trade scenario would be something as follows:

    To Tor. R.J. Umberger, Columbus' second overall pick

    To Clb. Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek and Leafs second rounder.

    For Tor. They are giving up a lot in Kessel but get rid of Komisareks contract which is why they have to throw in the second rounder. I think most of us agree the Leafs are going to be bad again next year so with the chance at two top five draft picks we could really set up the team for 2-3 years down the road. Realistically that is where the Leafs are at in my opinion. Loosing Kessel will hurt but they get a guy back who has something they lack, consistent 20 goal scorer with "muckulence" and two "blue chip" youngsters.

    For Clb they get Kessel an exciting player who could help them keep Nash. They already have LA's 1st round draft pick and this would give them an excuse not to take a Russian with the first pick which could be a factor in a US city that has watched the last 2 Russian picks flame out.

    I think the biggest thing is with two top five picks in one year you could set your franchise up for a decade. Foer a team that is going to struggle next year this would be a perfect time to take one step back to take 3-4 forward. Is that worth giving Kessel up? I think so.

  4. Long suffering Leafs fanApril 13, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    Great stuff on the podcast Mike! It surely can look gloomy when one begins to break the team down into have's and have not's. Yes there is a lot of young prospects in the system, but how many will turn into solid NHLers? We all hope and pray that Jake Gardnier is the real deal on defense. But as Paul Maurice once said about Colaiacovo and White, "no ones knows until after they've played at least 3 season, which is the benchmark for most young players in general". I guess we can say that the 012-013 season will be Kadri's opportunity to prove to everyone that he can play in the NHL as regular.

    It's funny to hear the "spin" from Leafs management that things did not fall apart until February, when in fact an Ex-NHLer (I will refer to him as Mr. Ex) said he could see the writing on the wall back in November. He noticed various weaknesses were beginning to creep out...such as when the Leafs speed was neutralizer they would play a passive game. He went on to point out that there are two kinds of speed...the one the Leafs displayed, and the one that has intelligent players who can quickly jump into little openings on the ice and make things happen. When the gaps quickly closed on the Leafs, the forwards and defense-men had a tendency to overreact in making bad decision in their passing game-drop and hail Mary's became the norm that ended in disaster. Believe it or not, but this was contrary to the system that Ron Wilson had map out for his players. He was right when saying that too often that his players would venture of the game plan and started playing as individual's.

    So the question, who is to be blame? By referring back to Mr. Ex, he said a little of both. The coach is blame in part for communication, and the leadership of the players for not leading by example. It is up to the veteran leadership to stay within the framework of the system (even they do not believe in it) and to reel in those who do not follow. However, we did not see that at all when things started going south. What we did see was a bunch of individualist doing their own thing, which created more stress and loss of confidence in some of the younger players performances. For example: Schenn has the puck he knows he must move it quickly, but a forward is not where he suppose to be. So he does one of two things, flip it off the boards or hold onto it a little longer than he should. The end result-Schenn becomes the one wearing the "goat horns". A real veteran leader on the blue-line who commanded a lot of respect, say a Pronger would have taken the forwards aside and given "the what for!" Mr. Ex said, that this team in his mind, and not dumping on (Phooey) the captain (which in he feel's received the "C" before he was ready), lack veteran leadership. Mr. Ex's said you need at least 4 or 5 veteran's that others will listen too, who can say when things get tough "Hey man I been there!"

    Mr. EX also said that special attention that needed address in the off season are: veteran goalie, a nasty shut-down veteran defense-man, and a couple of forwards that will venture into the dirty areas and create scoring chances. This is no knock on Brown, Orr, Rosehill, Steckel, and Armstrong but facts is facts, they sorely lack when it comes to the scoring part.

    Random thoughts.
    I will be following my adopted team "Nashville Predators" once again throughout the playoffs. Here hoping that they can defeat the much hated "dead things" and go on and reach the Stanley Cup finals! Man...he may play a little to close to edge on the dirty side, but you still gotta love that Shea Weber! Ohhh...if only we could switch captains... sigh :(

  5. Outstanding post, Long Suffering...

    The "Mr Ex" you cite hit the nail on the head. And interestingly, what he assessed is very much in tune with what many of us have been taking about in this space all season long- even in the so called "good" days pre-February 6.

    So many things go into the construction and evolution of a successful team. Leadership from a number of vets, some legitimate grinders, skill of course and adopting a system that players believe in and adhere to. Of course goaltending is a huge factor as well.

    I have a lot of respect for the Preds organization, too. They've built that franchise from Day One with a lot of class and smarts. Same GM, same coach, who set the tone and make it about the team and the organization, not themselves.

    Thanks for you kind comments on the podcast, Long Suffering...much appreciated.

  6. I just listened to the podcast Michael and as noted in the closing remarks, I did find it a little depressing. However, 2 things stood out for me.
    First, early in the podcast it was stated that Burke's plan had not dealt with any of the issues he was presented with at the time he was hired. He did not get a goaltender, did not get the big defenseman, did not get the big centre and did not get veteran leadership. Well I think he did attempt to do just that. His acquisition of "The Monster" was supposed to be a big coup and solve the problems in goal. He may have thought so but he was wrong.
    He acquired toughness and big defencemen in Komisarek, Beauchemin and Phaneuf. I expect he thought that would solve that issue and again he was wrong.
    He acquired Armstrong presumably for toughness and leadership capabilities on the ice as a truculent force in the offence. Once again, that didn't work out.
    I think he hoped to address the big centre issue via free agency, but as was pointed out in the podcast he was thwarted on that account by the early re-signings and the huge long-term contracts. His attempt to solve the problem via a retread Connolly and/or US College acquisitions resulted in a good player in Bozak but not quite the one the team required.
    Accordingly, I think it is unfair to say he didn't try to stick to his plan and make moves to acquire what the Leafs needed. It is quite fair to say, however, his attempts at least in regard to these issues, were failures.
    The second thing that caught my attention in the discussion was the comments about how it was going to be a miracle for Burke to solve the Leaf personnel problems this summer due to issues with the salary cap and the CBA which expires in September. My immediate thought was that it was going to be a real problem regardless of who is the GM of the Leafs. We could fire Burke and hire the reincarnation of Sam Pollock or the legendary Scotty Bowman tomorrow and he would have exactly the same problems! Other GM's face similar issues so it will be interesting to see what strategies are adopted and steps taken by the competing GM's.
    Let's hope Burke and his staff are up to the task.
    Thanks again for providing this forum for discussing the Leafs. I always enjoy the various points of view.
    By the way, another thought just popped to mind. Your discussion of how Beauchemin was blamed for his poor play while playing with the Leafs, lost his confidence and then rebounding and playing well in Anaheim reminded me of another former Leaf that seemed to experience a similar situation - remember Larry Murphy?

  7. That's a very fair observation on your part, Ed, relating to Burke's efforts to follow the model he had in mind.

    I guess where the criticism becomes fair is, he is supposed to be this outstanding GM, who makes way more solid decisions than ones that turn out poorly. (We all understand that even the famous "Sam" that you cite was not perfect as a GM! Not every move Pollock made with the Habs in the '60s and '70s turned to gold- thankfully, or they may never have lost...)

    So the frustration comes down to Burke suggesting he had a plan- and had no patience for a long-term re-build. He did have a plan, he had no patience, and his decisions in too many cases have proven to be off-base, unfortunately.

    This doesn't make him a bad GM all of a sudden, simply one whose bravado has come back to bite him in a market that, in fairness, expected much more by now from someone with his supposed reputation.

    Your point on the cap reality is one fans will be monitoring, no doubt. Depending on the new CBA, we could seemingly be hamstrung. Not that, as you say Ed, the Leafs would be alone in this regard, but given where were are in the overall scheme of things in the league right now, it's not a hopeful thought.

    And yes, Leaf fans well remember Larry Murphy! Much booing was a blessing for him, as it added, what was it, two more Cups in Trophy cabinet due to his later success in Detroit?

    Thanks Ed, great post.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed the podcast and look forward to more to come. That said, I found the overall tone quite pessimistic. An image comes to mind of the participants a group of passengers being led by a directionless driver off a cliff. While this state of affairs may prove true over time; that is a feeling I cannot afford to share, or instead of pounding the keyboard now I would be scouring the internet for a post graduate job. And of course, I can afford to look foolish. That, in a nutshell, is the advantage of writing in the shadows. I am not at all hamstrung by reputation. I can see the glass as half full and drink it up without concern about choking on my own words.

    Certainly, the need for personnel change is obvious. However, the notion that the personnel cannot be changed owing to onerous contracts and defective players seems, to me, a tad overblown. This being overstated is particularly true if part of the equation involves looking to subtract to make room for the new emerging talent identified in the Rick Dudley interview, an interesting listen in the sober light of day. A lot of teams will be looking to make changes over the summer when their expectations are not met. Player X (not to be confused with LSLF’s insightful anonymous source Mr. Ex) may well be conceived as a better fit to another team, even if his talents did not realize their potential on the Leafs. Think of Francois Beauchemin, whose sincere personality may well have lacked the necessary Teflon to flourish as a Leaf, resulting in underachieving as a Leaf. Think of all of the other players and contracts that might be potentially moved between now and Christmas.

    Here is my first point: We rarely see the deals until they come. Now my second point: A half dozen changes, promotions included, will foster a different Leaf organism, perhaps one capable of putting up more points in the standings. My third point: There is no third point. In the end, we are talking about the unknown.

  9. This all leads us to how the coming summer will be so important. We know some personnel moves are likely. Now whether, as I just chatting with Ed, the changes work out is another issue.

    The Dudley interview can be looked at many ways. As I've said before the guy is clearly an experienced talent evaluator (though I'm guessing there are many other talent guys out there that we never hear about that may be equally adept...) and so his words may indeed mean a great deal.

    At the same time, my penchant for skepticism around corporate message management makes me cautious. Are the Leaf prospects really superior to those with any number of emerging young teams, like the Oilers or Habs? I think it's a fair question and I have no idea what the answer is.

    But you're right Bobby C....we rarely (like the Cujo signing in '99 and more recently the Phaneuf blockbuster) see the moves before they happen. We'll have plenty to talk about this summer!

    And thanks for listening to the podcast. I appreciate your (and Ed's) comment about the pessimistic nature of it. And I do realize fans need to have optimism- or what fun is there in being a fan in the first place?

    I would struggle, though, if I came across trying to put too positive a spin on the team right now- and it wouldn't represent my honest feelings.

    Hopefully if I'm invited to take do another podcast before next season starts, there will be more cause for genuine optimism.

    Thanks Bobby.

  10. I fully agree with your comments Michael. I think it is fair to criticize him for his failures and I think people are more inclined to do so because of his public persona and attitude. However, he has also had a few successes in player acquisitions so we will see where he goes from here but have to hope for more good moves than bad ones.
    The other point of note is that if the Leafs are in a salary cap bind, it is one primarily of his own making. There aren't too many pre-Burke contracts that he can point to as causing him any grief.

  11. There is no question Burke has dome some very good things here. Who doesn't love the acquisition of a young defenseman like Gardiner, for example?

    We'll see if, as Bobby suggests, the cap realities may be a tad overblown, or whether they will indeed cause constraints that could hamper further moves.

    The summer is always interesting in Leafworld....Thanks again Ed.

  12. Long suffering Leafs fanApril 13, 2012 at 9:17 PM

    Just a few more things to consider in evaluating how well Pal Burke has done since taking the helm. To his credit, as many have noted before, Pal Burke has restocked the system with young prospect. He also made a couple of shrewd deals in acquiring Jake Gardiner and Dion Phanuef. Some may say he worked a little magic, and critics will say he was lucky, which is OK since I believe lady luck has her hand in every deal. Do we honestly believe that Risebrough would have dealt Gilmour to the Leafs if he knew that Leeman wasn't going to pan out?

    Getting back to evaluating Pal Burke work, let us first take a trip into vintage land. In 1958 GM Punch Imalach inherit a Leaf team that had been stumbling in the NHL abyss. After 20 games into the 58-59 season he fired Billy Reay mostly because of philosophy differences, and guided them into the finals. After 11 season as we all know, he won 4 cups and made two other appearances. In total Imalch had a winning percentage of .557 in the regular season, while winning another 11 playoffs rounds. The only time the Leafs missed the playoffs under his watch was in the expansion year in spite of a .514 winning percentage which was better then four other teams that made it that year.

    In 1969 GM Jim Gregory took over a .559 hockey team and guided them through some turbulent times in the seventies. After 10 years, he had a winning percentage of .507/ appearing once in the semi-finals and in all winning 7 playoffs series in 8 appearance.

    In 79, the dark clouds were about to get ugly with the return of Punch Imalach. He too made a incredible deal when he acquired Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive for Tiger Williams and serviceable Jerry Butler. Sadly, Imalach magical days were over shadow by his stubbornness to change with the times. After 2 season at the helm Imalch took a team with a winning percentage of .506 and drove it to .444/ no wins in two playoffs appearance.

    Enter Gm Gerry McNamara under protest took the helm. After 7 seasons his winning percentage was .368/ appearing 4 times in the playoffs and winning two series.

    Gord Stelick had the shortest run from 88-89 with a .388 winning percentage/ no POA

    Floyd Smith took the reins for two seasons (89-91) and his winning percentage was .418/ One POA no series wins.

    Cliff Fletcher (91-97) run was the most successful since the glory days. His winning percentage was 506/ POA 4 with 5 series wins and two semi-finals appearance.

    Ken Dryden held the post for two season. Winning percentage .506/ one POA 2 series wins. Notable transaction hiring Pat Quinn and FA signing Curtis Joseph.

  13. Long suffering Leafs fanApril 13, 2012 at 9:20 PM

    Part two:
    Pat Quinn (99-03) most successful GM and coach with a winning percentage of .592/ POA 4 winning 5 series. He also won 3 more series as coach of the Leafs.

    John Ferguson Jr (03-08) inherit an older team with very little in the system. His winning percentage .560/ POA one 1 series win.

    Pal Burke (08-to present). I will omit his first season at the helm because of his mid-season hiring. His winning percentage is .486 in 3 season which is not what we as fans were hoping for was it!

    OK, I have read the sob stories that poor Pal Burke didn't have much in the hopper. And how there hasn't been much in the free agent market either. True, but I'm still not going to excuse him for such a poor job this far. Peter Chiarelli when taken the job in Beantown in 07 was basically in the same predicament as Pal Burke. The B'S winning percentage was .463 and moral was almost non-extinct. Remember the B'S had made one of their most worst trades in franchise history. In 4 short season, Chiaralli took a team that was in a mess and built them into Stanely Cup's champs! Comparing Pal Burke's to Peter Chiarelli work.

    Pal Burke's transactions: FA signings Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Cotton Orr, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Connolly Joey Crabb, Brett Lebda,Jonas Gustavsson, Richard Wallin, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, and Francois Beauchemin. I know there are others, but we will stick to those that played on the parent club. Trades Kessel, Phanuef, Sjostrom, Primeau, Aulie, Giguere, Lupul, Gardiner, Liles, Franson, Lombardi,Steckel, Colborne, Ashton and Versteeg.

    Now for Chiarelli transactions: FA Chara, Wheeler and Savard. Trades: Rask, Wideman, Horton, Campbell, Peverley, Siedenberg, Boychuk, McQuaid, Kaberle and Kelly.

    When comparing Pal Burke's transaction to that of Peter Chiarelli who do you think has done a better job at identifying their respective team needs? My money is on Chiarelli who when hired at the time, did not own a Cup ring!

    After a close study of the Leafs in the last 54 years and comparing Pal Burke winning percentage to that of the lean years 68-012. One needs to ask the question, why is he still GM of the Leafs? Especially when you consider that he has the biggest management and scouting staff.

    Sorry for the long post Mike. I hope everyone see my point.

  14. Long Suffering...I think readers will see your point clearly. Many Leaf GM's have had to take over difficult situations. Burke is not alone in that regard.

    Similarly (and this is something I've tried to say in this space for quite some team, but you've put the research and details into it to make the point) other GM's have done much more in less than than he has in Toronto.

    As we all acknowledge, Burke has made some nice moves, but the bigger picture, while one filled with "prospects", presents an uncertain window into the future.

    If things progress really well, fans will be thrilled. But there's a lot of work to be done yet.

    Very helpful work, Long Suffering. Thank you.