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The Maple Leafs that divide the fan base

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Leaf season (better than I expected, with a playoff spot in plain view after the win in Jersey), the roster and trying to assess if we could possibly have expected more this season.  I mean, yes, as Leaf fans, we always should expect more than what we have seen since 2005, but I think you know what I mean.  In the midst of the organization’s sometimes confusing ‘hurry up then slow this down’ rebuild approach, did we honestly believe the Leafs would rather handily make the playoffs this season, with a young roster and “unproven” netminding?

But I went one step further in my thinking on all this:  it strikes me that (and maybe this is a function of years of pent-up frustration—or maybe some fans are just chronically unhappy and simply always looking for scapegoats…) fans have, despite the team’s relative success, found plenty of things to complain about yet again this season.  I include myself in that category of grumpy Leaf observers who on occasion find things to moan about—as much as I usually try to keep things fairly upbeat and positive a lot of the time here at VLM.  (To be clear, one of the reasons I try to do that here, while interspersing my own concerns about the direction the team has seemed headed at times, is that I don’t believe the Leafs are good enough to worry about just yet.  By that I mean, it’s not like that 1999-2004 period, for example, when they were good enough that I honestly believed they were fighting for a shot at a Cup every year, not just clawing to maybe make the playoffs.  With a team like this, the bar is so low, just making the playoffs seems like a major achievement…so I don’t fret over every little mistake beccause, well, we’re not exactly in the semi-finals yet, eh?)

So, all that said, what has been part of our discontent this shortened season?  Maybe I should actually phrase it this way:  who are the players that still divide the Leafland fan base?  Despite a nice season so far, there are a number of Leafs who seem to trigger completely opposite perspectives as to their worth, value or what their role on the squad should be. (Quick old-time memory on this subject:  when I was young, in the early and mid 1960s, there were Leafs I just didn't like.  Eddie Shack, while wildly entertaining and immensely popular in Toronto, was one of those for me.  I was always harping that the Leafs should trade him- a conversation that drove my Dad, a Hab fan who could care less about the Leafs, crazy.  He'd tell me to be quiet and just watch the game.  That's Eddie, at right, in one of those wonderful old Harold Barkley photos from the earliesh '60s, in action against the Bruins and a then young Teddie Green...)

Who are these Leafs that Leaf fans can't agree on?  Tell me if you agree with this list:

Clarke MacArthur—some fans like him a lot; others are much less enthralled.  When he scores in bunches (as he usually does) people seem to like him a lot.  When he is invisible as he often is, he is rarely discussed except as someone that fans wouldn’t mind seeing somewhere else.

Carl Gunnarsson—some see him as a steady, reliable defenseman who doesn’t make many mistakes and also makes the other defensemen on his pairing better.  Others see him as not a great skater, not at all physical and an anchor around his blueline partner.

Dion Phaneuf—these days, everybody loves Don. We’re winning games, he’s putting up points and all is swell.  But if we lost a few games, we would hear (including from me) about how teammates don’t follow his leadership and how he would be better suited to being a non number-one “D” man role—despite being paid like a superstar.

Mike Kostka—I’ve liked Kostka’s effort and play most of this season, especially given my low expectations.  But just typing his name, I know a lot of people don’t want him in the lineup. 

Colton Orr/Frazer MacLaren—No one would say these guys can’t fight, but they seem to divide the fan base as a “duo” because many Leafers don’t want them on the game sheet at the same time.  And too many nights, they each average about three minutes of ice time a game.

Nikolai Kulemin—Another classic example of fans seeing two very different pictures. Many fans love his game, think he’s great defensively and that he should not be criticized for his lack of offensive production (and that his earlier 30 goal season was an aberration). Others, like me, see him as not nearly physical enough for a hulking, checking winger.

Mikhail Grabovski—see Kulemin, above.  Adored by most Leaf supporters through his years in Toronto (especially after his concussed goal, after the Chara glass smash in Beantown and subsequent game winner two seasons ago).  Many hate Carlyle for putting poor Grabbo in what they see as the “wrong” role for the offensive-minded Belarussian.  His detractors point (I think fairly) to a huge contract and minimal offensive production while being a minus player. Other second-line centers with similar responsibilities have offense in their game, too.

Tyler Bozak—maybe the poster boy for this Leaf fan syndrome:  when he scores, people say “look at the skill- and he wins face-offs and kills penalties, too…”.  When he is less visible, we wonder what life would be like with a true number-one center in Toronto.  Is he simply miscast (has been for years) as a number-one center, when that really falls on management?  Regardless, he divides the fan base like few others.  Just wait 'till he asks for 5 million this summer….

I recognize that it’s probably this way in every NHL market.  Some fans like certain players, others don’t see the player’s value at all and would trade them in a heartbeat.  But in Toronto, the debate always feels so dramatic...

Oh, as a cousin of this phenomenon, there are, yes, always 'whipping boys' in Toronto.  Our history over the past couple of decades makes that pretty clear (Larry Murphy, Raycroft, Toskala, Gustavsson, Schenn to name just a few…)  This season it has been Kostka and Holzer and, of course, coach Randy Carlyle.

I’ve seen more than one person write that Carlyle is a terrible coach, “stupid”, and should be fired.  I’m not sure if this is driven by the “advanced stats” crowd or by a love affair with likeable Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.  Regardless, Carlyle clearly polarizes Leaf world, and heck, he’s only been here for a calendar year—not even close to a full 82-game schedule. Doesn't take long, eh?

I guess these kinds of things are, as I often say here, part of the fun of being a Maple Leaf fan.  We don’t agree on much—except that we pull for the Leafs.

Except sometimes, we’re all pulling in a slightly different direction.  Come to think of it, maybe we’re the problem…


  1. I guess I'm that random fan who thinks we kept Grabo at a decent price, Dion is a decent captain and plays decent defence if he's not on the ice for about half the game with an anchor as his partner and Kulemin had his aberration of an offensive season but contributes where we need him to. I can't stand Kostka, Holzer isn't much better and I favour McLaren over Orr and am next to distraught when they're both in the lineup. Oh, and between MacArthur and Bozak, both tend to be miscast as are a lot of the Leafs not named Phil. Give Reims the reins and lets go. We're not going to win the cup for a few years, but we are good enough to get in this year.

  2. Thanks sportsgrl- some Leaf fans love those players for the reasons you mention, others not so much!

  3. You left out Phil Kessel, who many fans feel should be traded for... I've never figured out what. I guess an elite scorer and playmaker who's a constant threat and who can also take the body. And fight. Or something.
    As one of the only occasionally (I like to think) grumpy fans, what amazes me is the fickleness of Leaf fans in general. I think it's gotten worse in the past twenty years or so. Partially because there are so many experts on TV who can highlight every mistake made on the ice, and replay them over and over, and partially because it seems many citizens have a state of mind that goes something like: Toronto, being the biggest and best city in Canada, should have only the best teams, ie the winningest. Always. Anything else is unacceptable. And some player must pay. (This goes for every major sport in our town, by the way).
    The guys I haven't been wild about are guys like Domi - players who could hurt their team as much as help it - or underachievers like Connolly. I would have said the same about Kulemin earlier this year, but his play is improving on the Kadri line, despite the occasional brain cramp or egregious giveaway. But there I'm being a typical Leaf fan, because there always certain players who are given a pass for mistakes other players would be vilified for. Hello Shackie!
    I'm with you on this season, what I expected, and what we've achieved. It's really been thrilling to watch this team evolve and, well, become a team. There really aren't any players I dislike, but there are one or two I don't really care about one way or the other like MacArthur, Gardiner (I know, I know), Kostka - but I'd be just as happy if they could find their game and stick with the big team.

  4. I did leave Kessel out, Gerund O', but I didn't want to list the entire team!

    You're absolutely right about the the "experts" who micro-analyze every little play as though it was life and death. (I recall Pierre MacGuire doing that very thing in the first Leaf exhibition game of the season a couple of years ago about a play Komisarek made at the very beginning of the game, his first shift- I mean, c'mon...)

    You caught my intent- thanks Gerund.

  5. You nailed the breakdown for each player. I guess it comes down to each one's personal "likes". Diferent people like or dislike diferent players for diferent reasons.

    I do have pet peaves about some of our guys. As I´ve written here before, the way Reimer stares at the ice motionless for a couple of seconds after being scored on (as if to be totally surprised someone could actually do that) and the way he ducks on high shots. Also, lately he loses sight of the puck more than before, 3 or 4 times a night, has no idea where it is.

    I like our goalies, it´s these little things that are strange to me. The way Scrivens holds his glove, and thw way he wears his mask, it's down so low it covers his eyes (or so it seems).

    Like I said, you nailed the breakdowns. A lot of our guys are miscast, but I think it's making due with what you have. We really only have 1 guy who would be a top player on any other team.

  6. Thanks portuguese leaf. As I often say here, we, as fans, seem to see the same picture a bit (or a lot) differently. Just the way it is- and always has been, I guess.

  7. I realize, as you pointed out, that you certainly can't list the entire team here. But for the purposes of this subject I would be remiss to skip over Kessel. For reasons beyond his control, there will always be a stigma attached to him here. But then, we've also talked about him and his future pretty thoroughly.

    For the other players on today's list-
    Bozak is simply not a first line center, and most Leafs fans would agree to that. I won't blame him for accepting the role by default. But if he is asking for first line center pay at contract time, well, that just may be the time to get him to accept reality or allow a foolish GM elsewhere to pay him that.
    MacArthur gets his points here and there, but as we have seen true offensive forces with the Leafs (Lupul, Kadri, Kessel) there is a distinct difference. These guys strike fear in the opposition, they create chances left and right. MacArthur is not in that class. He is a player who is quiet most of the game, and if he winds up on the score sheet, well it just isn't the same thing. He is just another forward with little impact in my mind.
    Phaneuf will always be on a list such as this, if for no other reason than he is a brash captain of a high profile team. He is doing a better than average job on the ice, if only an average job as captain.
    Grabovski seems to be having an off year. I do like to hope that it will pick up again for him. He does play with heart. Kulemin always seems to be mentioned in the same breath as Grabovski. In my estimation he has picked his game up through this season. He just needs to find a happy medium between his offensive and physical game.
    I'm not too worried about Kostka any more than Gardiner or any of our other developing defensemen. We have a glut of young prospects and I would like to see them all get some audition time with the big club as they mature.
    I'm sure I'm in the consensus in that we do not need Orr and McLaren both on the ice at the same time. It starts to look silly watching consecutive staged fights. And more importantly, it scares me to watch their three minutes of ice time, the whole time worrying that a close game can always be decided by one bad shift.

  8. You covered the ice well (as usual) on this one, Pete- we see the picture quite similarly.....but not everyone will!

  9. I was a big fan of Gunnarson (and Liles) until now. It's sunk in for me that he's regressed. Could be injury-related, but still, not the same great performance as last year. (As for Liles, it was a head-scratcher that he was benched for long, but I can see Carlyle's point now that he's back in the lineup).

    I had higher hopes for Frattin but he seems to be going sideways at best; but he's still young enough that he could easily turn it around - next year.

  10. For years I was a big supporter of Gunner, too, G Man, and still like him, but find his game has not been what it had been. Maybe injuries have played a role, as you mentioned.

    Frattin seems to have legit potential. Maybe it will click for him. Earlier this season he was in the right place at the right time and scored some big goals. But we need to see a more determined effort on a regular basis...

  11. Hi Michael
    Toronto has always ate certain players alive, many who have gone on to long careers elsewhere. Frank Mahovlich, Mike Walton and one you don't mention Eric Nesterenko could never meet expectations?

    Your example is the undisciplined Eddie Shack. Shack was a top notch winger coming out of Junior. Interestingly, he had five 20 goal NHL seasons, but only one in Toronto. I wonder if the real problem was the coaching, not "The Enertainer".

    Management's job is to place the players in a postion where they can succeed. Based on what I hear from the various analysis I read from yourself and your knowledgable followers, I question Carlyle's ability to do this.

    My long ago memory, remembers a kid on the Maple Leaf defence who acted like "the deer in the headlights", although I gather he succeeded elsewhere (more Torontoitis?). Since Defence is easier to teach than Offence, the best chance to win with an inferior team is by defensive system (and out of his mind goalie). However, this Prevent Defence tends to lead to less possession, being out-shot and spending most time in your own end which ultimately spells trouble

    How does Gardiner go from untouchable to can't get on the ice?
    Carlyle comments today on how good Rangers are because they can throw 4 lines at you, but his love of fisticuffs? results in 3 lines?
    Was he serious about heat created by helmets cause concussions - quite different from what I have heard where brain crashes into the inside of skull?
    Kadri obviously has number 1 center skills but not the ice time?

    Since I rarely see the Leafs play, I always enjoy the analysis I see in VLM.

  12. Hi RLMcC- I always appreciate your great memory from Leaf days of yore! Yes, hard to think of Nesterenko with the Leafs, since he played about 20 years with the Hawks!

    We have indeed wasted or traded away many young talents in this market over the years, including some of those you cite.

    I'm not sure I can respond adequately to your questions. I'm not as down on Carlyle as some fans seem to be. Leading a fragile team to the playoffs is a minor miracle to me. While I credit goaltending to a certain extent, I think, in fairness to Carlyle, he has created an environment where there are expectations- despite this being an experimental season, as he assesses the roster. The players have by and large responded.

    The Gardiner thing, I think, is that he has defensive deficiencies to work on. I don't think it's more than that. We have a flawed defense and I have to believe he will be needed down the stretch depending on performance and injuries.

    I suspect Carlyle would like to roll four lines but may not like his roster options and feels the need to protect his smaller skill forwards with MacLaren and Orr. I don't like that approach but it has worked to a degree.

    My guess is Carlyle has tried to protect Kadri's role and bring him along, without the expectations of making him a number-one center.

    I have no idea about the concussion comment! Coaches say funny things sometimes. I guess I would, too, if I had to speak with the media every day!

    Thanks RLMcC.

  13. Michael,

    Interesting topic. We all have somewhat different perspectives on what constitutes a successful season. From a team perspective as well as for the individual players. Not to mention the teams management and coaching staff. We have talked about this before, and you touch upon this a little today. The bar for success in this town is so low, it is honestly embarrassing. A playoff berth will be lauded, a consistent 30 goal man, is for the most part given a pass on his lacklustre efforts in the other end of the rink.

    Who we as fans love and who we hate. Is truly, honestly, very often about other things than the individuals involved. I am not sure that I can say any of the team has underachieved. They are solidly in a playoff position with ten games to go. I didn't think they would do this well. I acknowledge they are in this position primarily due to the conferences lack of fantastic hockey teams. But I do give the Leafs credit for doing enough to win, and not folding like the house of cards like last year. For the record, barring a colossal collapse. The team has over achieved. On most nights they have played just well enough to win. I am happy about that, I look forward to the playoffs.

  14. I agree, as you know Jim, that the bar here is frustratingly low. It hasn't always been that way, but it is now.

    That said, winning trumps losing, and making the playoffs beat losing the lottery. Thanks Jim.

  15. Hi Michael,

    I think the player situations are pretty well covered in all the responses--I personally am not down on any of the players, Bozak being the only one I think is in over his head through no real fault of his own.

    It's the shots at the coach that are driving me nuts. At some sites, it's all they're talking about--how useless Carlyle is, how he can't be fired fast enough. But wait a minute--aren't the Leafs winning?!

    A lot of it seems to have to do with the "advanced stats" crowd. The numbers tell us possession ability based on past performance, but really that's only individual capability--and I would argue provides a very incomplete picture at that. To pretend there is no psychology element in sports, or that confidence can't be discussed because it can't be measured numerically, seems asinine to me.

    And it's pretty convenient to omit the best numbers of all--22-13-4--when discussing performance from a statistics perspective. It's really the only number that counts, isn't it? It's a team game, after all, not a skills competition. Who cares if Kostka plays instead of Gardiner because the coach with this record thinks he has a better chance that way? If they're losing, sure, whip out the pitchforks. Until then, why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

    So, I was happy to see you have less of an issue with coaching than many posters. Sorry if I'm off subject a little, but since I have few grievances with the players or team, thought I'd express how i felt about some of the "coaches" out there instead.

  16. Thanks PF- we're very much on the same page on this one.

    Stay tuned for a post on the very subject you focus on today. Thanks.

  17. Lupul seems to divide fans as well... or maybe that's just on ppp? Either way, I love the guy and absolutely cannot understand how anyone does not. Maybe you're the same way?

  18. Lupul has had a huge impact in limited playing time this season, Anon. Same a year ago. Yes, I like Lupul not only because of his obvious skill, but he seems to be a guy that hates to lose and brings some leadership. Those are two qualities you can't have enough of, whatever his liabilities as a player might be.