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After watching the NHL (and AHL) playoffs, are the Leafs “this much away”…or are they “that much away”….?

Some recent Leaf posts that might be of interest as we wait for the new Cup winner and the beginning of some real activity around the Leafs leading up to the entry draft....

  • A Kadri post from a year ago that I think may still be relevant....
  • When NHL stars actually got paid more to be guest analysts on TV than they did to actually play in the NHL playoffs...
  • Remembering what it was actually like when the Leafs were in the Cup finals....


Some Toronto fans, I realize, don’t watch the NHL playoffs much because, with the Leafs absent (yet again), it’s hard to get cranked up without a personal rooting interest.  I understand that.  Other fans, though, just love good hockey and find solace in watching successful teams play with heart and a ton of grit at a time of year that, admittedly, wasn’t exactly made for indoor sports like hockey.

I’m kind of in the middle.  As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I get a big kick out of the first round of the NHL playoffs every single year.  I find something singularly appealing about 16 teams fighting like mad for every inch of ice, underdogs and favorites alike, for a seemingly (at least when the spring dance begins) distant shot at hockey’s holy grail:  the Stanley Cup.  It’s captivating stuff.  The hockey is inevitably tough, skilled, exhilarating—until bodies and teams begin to break down under the wear and tear as the playoffs wear on.

What observing—and to a certain extent “assessing”—the playoffs does does, however, is provide a window into what other franchises have done to get to this rarified place, where competing for a championship is more than just a shot in the dark.  What have we noticed?  Well, we’ve seen the Capitals go from run and go over the past couple of seasons to numbingly defensive; the Rangers build a team full  of guys who block an inordinate number of shots in front of the world’s best goalie; a Bruin team that is pretty tough (though also skilled) but didn’t have enough to get back to that elusive final stage of the playoffs a second season in a row.

We’ve also seen a Red Wing team that is excellent across the board every year but no longer has the depth to go all the way; a Nashville squad that, on paper, seems built for ultimate success but somehow lost its way this spring.  Then there is the Canucks, a favorite to win it all every spring because of Luongo and a ton of talent and depth.  The Blues rode a coaching change to regular-season glory and a top seed.  And we haven’t even talked about the two clubs that are still in the finals, the surprising (for me) Devils, and the resurgent (until a couple of days ago) Kings—who both who rely on skill, yes, but also very much on system play (doesn’t everyone?), great goalkeeping and a work-ethic built around tenacious checking and being hard on the puck.

So, having observed these 2012 playoffs, and also the long march of the Marlies to an (almost) Calder Cup championship (the poor Marlies must have felt like, by AHL standards, they were playing the 1977 Habs in the finals…the Admirals were pretty good) what is your honest sense of how far our Maple Leafs are from a) the playoffs and more importantly b) serious Stanley Cup aspirations?

Are we “this far” (hold your thumb and index finger an inch apart)?  Or are we “that far” away (hold your hands about a foot apart)?

This may be a question better asked in October, when the 2012-'13 NHL season beckons for real.  I recognize that, for now, we await some fairly important considerations:  the entry draft of course (though I’m not sure we will witness any immediate pay back regardless of who we select…); free agency, as well and the always-important summertime trade scenarios.  That will undoubtedly tilt the playing field quite a bit in the days ahead, though, as I often suggest here, it’s not as though the Leafs are the only team looking to improve—every other NHL organization has the same intention.

From my perspective, here are a few basic thoughts (forgive the obvious nature of many of these observations):
  • We lack a game-breaking goalie like Quick, Smith, Lundvquist, what Brodeur has been (still is?), etc.  We just don’t.  We all know it.  I know the term “game-breaker” is usually reserved for players who can break a game open offensively, but goalies have the same impact at the other end—and an inspirational one, to boot.  Goaltending is that important, though it doesn't work in isolation.  Many Leaf supporters desperately want Luongo.  For me, he’s not the answer, but he would no doubt provide a regular-season upgrade.  I still think Reimer can play but I acknowledge the clear question marks around him.  And while I know Ben Scrivens will get a big push after his performance with the Marlies, I’m not convinced he’s the guy, at this point. Can he be some day?  Maybe. Regardless, whoever plays goal, improved team play in front of him will make the goalie that much better.
  • We do not have a stud defenseman who can take a game over.  No Doughty, no Pronger, no Chara.  Neither do the Devils—and they’ve done just fine, I realize.  But I do think we miss that “big guy” who we can count on at both ends of the ice.
  • Like many of you, I am awed by Jake Gardiner’s poise and skating ability, but I saw a lot of things in his game throughout the AHL playoffs that he needs to improve upon.  If I’m an opposing coach, I’d just have my forwards keep pounding him because he will cough the puck up.  (He probably played too many games this season.)  He’s young, and will obviously get bigger, stronger and more experienced.  He may become an All-Star.  But like most young defensemen, he has holes in his games that bear watching.
  • I know people want to move on, but I’ll say it again.  I think we traded away a solid young “d” man with size and toughness in Keith Aulie.  Somehow he went from being good enough to play with Phaneuf at the age of 21 to a minor-leaguer.  I’m not suggesting he will be an All-Star, but overall I really liked his game against the Marlies in the Calder Cup finals—smart with the puck, moved it well, not many giveaways (at least from what I saw).  And he didn’t stray out of position often, while showing he could win important puck battles around net and along the boards. Everyone says we have lots of young depth on defence, so we could afford to give Aulie up, but I'll believe it when I see it in action at the NHL level.
  • We are so weak in the middle compared with good NHL teams.  We just are. Bozak, Grabovski, Connolly, Steckel?  Grabbo a gutsy little guy, and I like him, and Bozak has some skill.  Steckel wins draws.  OK.  But that doesn’t really compare with what most elite teams throw out there every night.  I recognize that people want to build up Colborne, but I just don’t see the fire in him.  Some vision, some skill, yes.  Size and strength (when applied), obviously.  Now, if he could be Dustin Penner on Penner’s best days, that would be something.  I fear he may be more like Penner—in Penner’s less inspired moments.
  • What size up front do we have to win the hundreds of battles you have to win to advance at this time of year in the NHL playoffs?
  • Where is the team toughness that a few of us have talked about here for the past couple of seasons?  I’m not talking about simply dropping the gloves and fighting.  You can always pick those guys up in the summer, and Burke has already wasted money on that.  I’m talking about players with the drive that is needed to compete at the highest levels in the playoffs.  We still haven’t had a roster (despite Burke being on the job going on four years) that competes hard enough, consistently enough to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference.  (It’s either lack of will or lack of skill in Burke’s roster, take your pick…)  So if we haven’t been able to even make the playoffs, what makes us think this roster can quickly be at a level above that?
  • There are some nice-looking youngsters with the Marlies but honestly, which ones are sure-fire NHL impact players?  I think Frattin is a keeper, but is Holzer an improvement over what we already have?  Is D’Amigo ready?  Would Colborne (projected to be so with the big team here) be a "second-line centre" on any other NHL team?  Is Kadri as good as we think—and hoped?
For me, the above just scratches the surface.  (I haven’t even touched on whether the Leaf “skill” guys are going to be solid playoff performers, because I have no clue…)  This is not to be negative, simply to provide, from my end, a perspective on where the Leafs are "at".  My bottom line thought is they are actually a long ways away, not just “one or two players” away from being a top team.

How do you see it?


  1. The last good goalies the Leafs had were Potvin, Joseph, and Belfour. That was a long time ago. I still think Reimer can get the job done but I think he needs someone that can "take his job away" if needed. Carlyle needs an option that he isn't afraid to use instead of Reimer.

    Unfortunately for Scrivens I don't see him getting a shot this year unless he flat out outplays both Reimer and "to be determined" in training camp. I just don't think Burke has the leash to not go after a proven commodity. Scrivens has almost nothing to prove in the AHL after stellar numbers for the past 2 years so his time with the Leafs is fading.

    I would have to disagree on your statement of Luongo. If he is indeed on the market, he is the best option out there hands down. Could he carry this team much like Felix, Cujo, and Eagle did? I would have to say yes. Could he make the Leafs a playoff team with the addition/subtraction of a couple forwards? Yes. Where the questions come in are Stanley Cup and his contract length. Tim Thomas would be another good option but "38" isn't a number I like long term, that being his age.

    Behind goaltending, centre is the biggest problem. Grabovski is a proven #2. Bozak is an prototypical #3, above average I would say. Steckal would be a good #4. The Leafs need someone for that #1. Colborne would ideally be a #2 in the NHL. I don't think he plays tough enough or consistently to be a #1.

    And to wrap this up - I think the Leafs need to re-vamp the 3rd line at a cost of less than the projected $11.25M in Connolly, Lombardi, and Armstrong. If Bozak can be replaced in the #1 slot it would be good to see him with Kadri and Frattin. That line would come cheap, play both ends, and be a scoring threat in sheltered 3rd line minutes. The problem, for better or worse, is that it may come down to either Kadri or Frattin but not both.

  2. I realize that my position on Luongo is not one shared by many Leaf fans. But I do understand the desire for a "proven" 'keeper in light of what you say, Skill2Envy, that is, that we have lacked a bonafide guy since Belfour.

    I like your idea of Bozak with Frattin and Kadri, by the way.

    Good stuff as always. Thanks for chiming in Skill2Envy.

  3. We could be a playoff team just from the tandem of Reimer and Scrivens playing well next year.

    As long as his injury isn't too bad, Frattin might prove that he is almost a top six forward next year.

    I sure like the idea of D’Amigo and Kadri on the 3rd or 4th lin... add in Frattin and you might get some real scoring from the third line.

    Colborne? The more I see makes me think he's a future 3rd liner. He will never be a 2nd line player on any NHL team.

    I hated losing Aulie.

    Time for Burke to work some trades as there are too many guys coming up.

    Franson, Lombardi, Armstrong maybe throw in a prospect or two... Colborne...Ashton? Surely that would get you something.

  4. Thanks DP- always appreciate your posts here! (Lots of fans are pushing Colborne...I just don't see it...Would people feel that way if he was a prospect with another organization?)

  5. I think the lines should be:
    Forward 1: Kessel , grabovski, lupul
    Forward 2: MacArthur, Kadri (possibly) , D'amigo
    Forward 3: Lombardi , Steckel , Frattin
    Forward 4: Colborne , Connelley and whoever
    Defense 1: Rosehill , Phaneuf
    Defense 2: Lashoff, Komisarek
    Defense 3: Gunnarson , Franson or Gardiner

    That's just me though. I think Scrivens should be starting if there's no other option and put Reimer of Owuya as his back up.

  6. I am pretty sure that we are still quite a bit away from being a serious contender for the Stanley Cup and I am really not sure how you go about fixing it.

    We have committed a lot of money to a group of players that is collectively not good enough to make the playoffs. Have there been improvements? Sure. I would hope there would be after 8 years of no playoff hockey, something that I am sure most of you would never have thought possible.

    In goal I am not sure what we have. Scrivens was the best one in camp last year yet that was not enough to earn him a job with the big team. Reimer had a promising year 2 years ago, however, Andrew Raycroft won the Calder before turning in to a giant sieve so the jury is still out on James.

    Gardiner I am not worried about. He went from playing 30-40 games in college to over a hundred with the Leafs / Marlies. He will be fine. Nick Lidstrom was not big or aggressive and he did quite well.

    Something that bothers me quite a bit is that I don't really know why anyone would choose Toronto to play in given the choice. You would not be going to a contender. The media is way over the top here. Everything that you do is under a microscope.
    With the dilution of the NHL and the addition of the salary cap, teams like Toronto no longer have a competitive advantage financially. So, with all monetary things being equal, if you were given the following choices which would you choose?
    1. You can sign with a contender and have a legitimate chance of winning a championship.
    2. You can sign in a city that allows you the freedom to go out in public and not be bothered, allows you to not have to deal with the media at all and perhaps offers the opportunity to go sit on the beach after leaving the practice rink. The pay is the same as elsewhere however your taxes are less.
    3. You can sign with the Leafs.

    Since the cap came in we seem to attract players of last resort or we overpay dramatically to obtain players like Colby Armstrong. We have done well in trades but not so much in free agent signings.

    This team may be farther away than we would like to admit. We need a goalie that can steal games, we need 5 or 6 Gary Roberts clones. Not sure where we will find these things.

  7. I pretty well agree across the board with you, Michael. We aren't close right now. It seems to be bred in a Leaf fan's DNA that a fix is just around the corner. But until the Big 3 issues are addressed - the ones that we've all been harping on for years now, and that Burke keeps promising he's going to deliver, it'll be more wilderness wandering for the Tribe of Smythe.
    Some scattered thoughts:
    - Colborne is at least another year away;
    - Ashton has a feistiness we could use. Just don't know how it will play at NHL level.
    - I liked Aulie, too. Sorry to see him go, and think we'll regret it. He tended to come out better when he and Ashton met during the Calder Cup games i saw;
    - neither Reimer nor Scrivens has the side-to-side mobility of Quick, Brodeur, Smith, Lundquist, Rinne... I could go on... Without that in our goalie, we won't be challenging too long in a Cup series.
    - I liked Frattin this year, but remain unconvinced on Kadri. Hard to tell about D'Amigo, and Zigomanis seems out of favour with Leaf brass for some reason. Holzer? I'll be watching his pre-season.
    - bottom line is that there's too much to fix on the current Leafs to expect much improvement next year - barring some amazing and unexpected trades from BB. I said at the end of our season that i think we're 3 years away from contending, and I still think that's the minimum.

  8. Solid post, cbh747. Well thought-out, right on the mark. (I don't disagree on Gardiner, but I do wonder about his ability to handle the physical style of play in the playoffs. Lidstrom is a pretty big comparison!)

    Your point with regard to why players would choose Toronto is a good one, and it is based on fact. What really elite free-agent has come here since Curtis Joseph?

    Great stuff, thanks.

  9. Can't argue with a word you said, Gerund O'.

    Could it happen sooner? Sure, if, as you say, Burke manages some trades that quickly move the needle. But we hang our hat on that every summer, it seems.

    As you said, the "fix is (always) just around the corner...".

  10. If the Leafs run the lines "Jordan" uses I will riot.

    Rosehill as a top pairing D-man? D'amigo on the 2nd line? Where is Liles? Kulemin?

    Just absolutely ridiculous. I'm sorry. I'm no tough guy, I'm Anonymous, but dear lord I couldn't not say anything.

  11. I haven't watched much AHL hockey in the past, but did take an interest in the Marlies in this playoff run. My impression was that the overall skill level on display in the AHL finals and semis was way below that in the NHL playoffs.....missed assignments, inability to control the puck and make crisp passes, skating ability, etc etc etc.....there were times in the final couple of games when Colton Orr's line looked to be the Marlies most dangerous combination, which is pretty frightening.
    I'm therefore more skeptical now about whether great AHL performances from Gardiner, Frattin, and especially Scrivens will really translate into anything significant at the NHL level. I know the AHL experience will all be good for those young players, but let's take it all with a grain of salt; the Leafs need an infusion of good NHL players, and they won't all come from the Marlies.

  12. Regarding the goaltending, I'd happily welcome Luongo. I think even when he starts declining, the Leafs will be fine cap-wise if they avoid signing an albatross in another area of the lineup. However that might be too much to ask if this management group is still around by then. Barring that trade, we've simply gotta hope that one of our goalie prospects works out for a change. The Rask trade still burns me to this day. Biggest mistake since the lockout in my opinion. And every single year a few organizations emerge with goalie prospects who make the jump. Why can't we have that kind of success for once?

    Onto the D, I think adding a dependable partner to Phaneuf turns him into a quasi-gamebreaker. He can't be relied on to make every defensive play, he needs help. But give him the stability to patrol the blue line without fear and he will do damage. Gardiner I'm not worried about at all at this point. He needs to add size no doubt, but if he can speed up his decision-making a fraction of a second he's rarely going to get hit. He's good enough to distribute effectively without taking much contact.

    I'm not convinced Aulie is going to be anything more than a 3rd pairing D, and I hesitate to judge him based on his short time with a stacked Norfolk team. They probably made him look as good as he could look, and he still wasn't impactful by any means. I think Percy can be twice the d-man Aulie will be and as for Ashton, might as well put more hats in the ring on the offensive side of things.

    At centre, my goodness what a disaster. Can Colborne please recover from his hand/wrist injuries and not turn out to be a complete bust? That'd be nice. Burke needs a centre at the draft no question. Grigorenko/Galchenyuk/Forsberg, I don't care. Get one of them and let him develop. Burke does need to make a trade for a top 6 C this summer though. If we go into a 3rd season in a row with Bozak on the top line, bye bye playoffs, bye bye Burke.

    I think those 'toughness' pieces are added a bit later on, and we may already have a lot of them in-house with the Frattins, D'Amigos, Holzers, etc. Team toughness to me is about being willing to do more to win than the guy across from you, and hopefully the Marlies gained a lot of that winning attitude during their playoff run.

    To sum it all up, when I look at the gap between us and a team like LA or any of the other big contenders, we're more than a little ways away. We're not Calgary or Columbus levels of bleakness, but we're not too far off. A LOT has to go right this year for that to change.

  13. I appreciate your realistic assessment, hammer22. I think we often get caught up (myself included) in these great "prospects", whether it be Ashton, Colborne, Kadri, etc. If they played in the AHL in San Antonio with another NHL organization, would we think they were all "great" prospects- or just another group of young players who may be OK NHL'ers some day?

    While development in the AHL can be important, for sure, I agree that the level of play is clearly (not that this is a revelation) not what guys will face in the NHL playoffs. Not even close, really.

  14. While we seem to disagree slightly on a few points, I love your post. I like it when Leaf observers are honest and straightforward in judging what lies ahead. It's not all bleak like it is in Columbus, as you say, Mills, but we have work to do. We may have some of the "answers" within the ranks already, but that alone won't be enough.

    Thanks Mills.

  15. Michael,

    Regarding Colborne...just look at the stats and compare them with Kadri and others. Colborne needs to start producing this coming season or those same people will have to start asking themselves: is Colborne a bust?

    Both Colborne and Kadri were selected in the first round...Colborne #16 in 2008 and Kadri #7 in 2009 . In two nearly full AHL seasons Colborne is producing at a pace of 40 points a season. Kadri produces in the AHL at a rate of nearly a point a game! Kadri just doesn't stay for full seasons so you never see the big totals.

    What great center in the NHL was 40 point guy in the AHL for 2 years? I don't think any.

    Speeza was 117 points in his 2nd and final AHL season. Juri Hudler had 97 points in his last AHL season. Logan Couture was better than a point a game and got called up.

    Bryan Boyle, had 62 points over 70 games in his second AHL season. Boyle is a terrific 4th line centre for the Rangers…but he’s on the 4th line. He hasn’t worked his way on to the first or 2nd line.

    Who does Colborne compare with?

    If Colborne starts producing closer to a point a game in his third AHL season...he could match up to Kyle Brodziak , who is a 30 point NHL guy with decent size who has peaked with 44 points at age 28.

    That's what you have...maybe a Kyle Brodziak level player.

  16. An excellent (albeit sobering!) breakdown. Thanks DP.

  17. Great read Michael.

    I would have to agree that a lot of people are pushing for Colborne and maybe putting too much stock in him. I went to a couple Marlies playoff games and watched the odd game on TV throughout the season. I agree Michael, he just doesn't seem to have that fire (injuries aside). Maybe in his mid to late 20's he'll make the team as a third or fourth line centre. I think Brian Burke and the Toronto media (intentionally or not) do a great job of selling players and their potential to the fans when they first arrive.

    Carter Ashton seems like a power forward with no finish. But he's young, and I'll leave it at that.

    You also touched on the issue of team toughness. A lot of people like the idea of a Kadri - Bozak - Frattin third line. To me, thats not tough at all. It would be an exciting line to watch in the regular season, but come playoffs I don't think they would match up physically against top lines or be able to shut them down. Look no further than King - Stoll - Lewis of LA as an example. Therefore, I'm not sure there's a spot for Bozak on the Leafs roster in the future, when/if they are ready to contend.

    As for center help, I'd be amazed if Burke can acquire a legit #1C through trade without depleting what little prospect depth we have. I truly believe that this is the hardest position to fill, and should have been addressed through the draft immediately after (even before) Sundin's retirement. Which is why I'm of the mind that the Phil Kessel deal was bad timing. I guess I just feel like elite scoring wingers, as ridiculous as it may sound, become available more often then elite centermen and are usually the final piece you acquire to put you over the top. Not something you build around.

    These are only my opinions of course. I apologize for the long response, but I guess the Leafs have many issues to address. And I never even mentioned goaltending or defensemen.


  18. I was nodding all the way along as I read your post, Mike.

    The old sports adage still applies- the need for "strength up the middle". In hockey terms, that means goaltending, but it also means you need centermen who bring a lot to the table in addition to skill. Playmaking is hugely important of course, but in this day and age, so is the ability and willingness to compete hard and give and take punishment at playoff time. The Leafs simply do not have that at the moment, as much as we'd like to convince ourselves otherwise.

    Kadri, Frattin and Bozak, or Kadri, Frattin and Colborne might be a neat regular-season"kid" line, but I agree with your statement that, come playoff time, there's just not enough sandpaper there. Down the road as they gain experience, maybe. Skill just isn't enough.

    Great post, thanks Mike.

  19. Until we draft better players and develop them, then PLAY them in Blue and White for 5+ years, this type f post will be used each and every month, every year.

    Once we have our own group like winning teams do (4-6 strong players who the Leafs drafted) forget about us winning. LA has those giys, NJ does, Vancouver, Detroit, Bston, Pittsburgh; we have guys other teams drafted and developed in our core (Phaneuf Kessel, Lupul...)

  20. Unfortunately its the same old tune. Were weak at center, our defence has promise but is nothing special and our goaltending is a question mark.

    The Leafs missed their chance this year. It will be much more difficult to make the playoffs next season. Rangers/Flyers/Devils/Pens/Bruins and Southeast winner are more or less locks, I simply do not see Toronto outplaying the Sens, Sabres, Tampa and Washington/Florida.

  21. Anon ("Until we draft better players....")

    Hard to argue with the perspective you just shared. Thanks for chiming in today...

  22. The way you've projected next season, Anon, the Leafs would then be competing with the clubs you cited (Ottawa, Buffalo, TB, Washington, etc.) for two playoff berths.

    It is a similar scenario to this past season.

    If that plays out, it could be a discouraging regular-season, because while a team like Ottawa could certainly fall back (and Florida, too), it's difficult to imagine all those teams going backwards while the Leafs jump over all the other playoff hopefuls.


  23. Interesting article today:


    Maybe he can have a comeback season next year?

  24. D'amigo to me has a shot at being our Dustin Brown. I'll be honest I forgot about JML in there but I think Rosehill could even out with Phaneuf defensively and lets be honest, two of them together? We would be a wrecking crew. Too many goals went off Phaneuf near the End of the year at least I've never been sold on Kulemin and last year I thought we traded him (he was injured right?). Possibly Hamilton as 3rd or 2nd center?

  25. D'Amigo has a shot at playing with the big club at some point, Jordan. He stood out for the Marlies, especially in the early playoff rounds....