A Call For Reason

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    0-2-1 after 3 games, and the sky is falling.   Or so chicken little would have you believe, anyway.

    3 games in and panic?   Seriously?   You’d think the Leafs just traded away a handful of high picks for a relatively-unknown goaltender with an injury history.   Wait, scratch that — they did that a couple years ago and as I recall the move was far more heralded than denounced, at the time.

    Which is exactly my point:  you can’t know, early on, exactly how things will turn out.

    Simply put, the ever-growing population of panic button pushers in the Greater Toronto Area needs to calm the #&!$ down.   The world isn’t going to end because of a couple of close losses and one bad one.   In an 82 game season there are going to be multiple losing streaks for every single team.  It’s not out of the norm.

    Further, starting slow is not out of the norm either.   How many of you really think this year’s surprise slow starters New Jersey, Detroit, and Vancouver will end up in the playoffs?   Relax, it happens.

    First off, we’re talking about a team in flux.   Three new bodies on the blueline, none of whom have played with each other previously, requires a certain adjustment period.     The loss to Montreal is a perfect example of this.

    Secondly, there is a goaltending concern.   We knew coming into the season that Vesa Toskala would have some rust following two consecutive surgeries, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he has struggled.   While you can’t hang the loss to Montreal  on Toskala, his brief outing against Washington left few doubts that there still remains much room for improvement in his game.    The onus is on him to find that game, especially with young Gustavsson performing well in the limited duty he has received early on.

    Third, and perhaps most importantly, punch up front has been acutely lacking.  Not scoring punch … actual punch: edginess, chippiness, fiestiness, whichever word you prefer.   One of the more glossed-over issues, during all the talk of truculence and pugnacity, was the fact that most of the physicality added to the team was added to the blueline.    Against Ottawa, the blueliners performed admirably; unfortunately, the forward units shied away from the dangerous areas, preferring to skate behind the net as opposed to in front of the crease, and not standing up for each other when the opposition got chippy.    Again, how was this unexpected?

    I am not sounding the death knell here, nor pushing any sort of panic button.   What I am saying is this:

    “Why is everyone acting so surprised?”

    Fans are clamoring to pile on about the team’s start, and yet — we all knew exactly where this team would struggle from the outset.   All it took was one look at the roster.    But still, people are pushing the panic button anyway, sounding off as if the team just got eliminated from making the playoffs even though we are only entering the second week of October.    What is it about this market that erodes any semblence of patience, or of reason in terms of expectation?

    This team will struggle at times; all teams do.   Are the Leafs a serious contender?   Probably not.   Can this team compete at a high enough level to make the playoffs, an expectation created when this year’s 1st round pick was included in the Phil Kessel trade?   Absolutely.   A lot can happen in the span of seventy-nine games … much more than can happen in the span of three.

    The defense will get better.   If the Ottawa game was any indication, this unit is starting to come together.    It takes time for players to acclimate, and for a team’s on-ice product to gel.   This isn’t NHL 10 where you can put any combination of players together and have them play well because you happen to be good at the game.   There is a reality to how these things work.

    As for the goaltending, yes it is a concern.   But I think it’s far too early to call for Toskala to be demoted or traded over one bad performance.    He played well against Montreal, unfortunately his defenders decided to mail it in after the second period.   The Washington game, on the other hand, was atrocious.    But that still only amounts to one bad start out of two.   When you’re paying a guy $4 million, you’re going to give him more than two starts to find his game and recover his confidence.

    And no, they will not pull a Rios and dump Toskala off for nothing.   As Gus mentioned previously, the organization gave up a lot for the guy (previous regime notwithstanding), and will look to maximize his value before moving him.  It’s not just the smart move to make — it’s the only move to make.     Gustavsson, to date, has had one start.   You still don’t know what you have in him, and won’t until he’s had at least ten.    In the meantime, Toskala needs to see game action if the team is going to have any shot at moving him.   In his case, the minors will not be an option (when was the last time a goaltender making over $2 million was sent down?) as that will not showcase his abilities enough for any team to develop an interest.

    The point is this: as the defense improves, so will the goaltending.   Which, in turn, will create value for Toskala as the team approaches the deadline.    Don’t forget that Toskala won 33 games in 2007 with a far worse defensive unit in front of him.   Once this year’s unit develops some chemistry, Toskala’s game will improve.

    As for the forward units, much like last season goal-scoring won’t be a problem this year, and could actually improve from last season if Kessel is able to find his game upon returning to the ice, and if Grabovski and Mitchell can build on last season’s strong rookie outings.   The concern here is the intensity of a group widely perceived as soft.   Will this group stand up for itself?   Will these players go into the corners, and take abuse in front of the crease?   Or will they be content to play the game from the safer areas along the perimeter, or in behind the net?    The answers to those questions could be as crucial to the team’s success this season as those surrounding the defense and the goaltending.

    Bottom line: the Maple Leafs are three games into the season without a win, and certain problems which need to be remedied in order for the team to be successful have been identified.   Now the challenge is for the coaching staff, and by extension the players, to figure out the necessary steps to resolve those issues.

    The good news is, the defense looked as though it was coming together against the Senators.   If they can maintain that level of play as a unit, life between the pipes will get a lot easier for the Leafs‘ goaltenders, and the bandwagoners will all be able to breathe a sigh of relief (and start planning their parade speeches after the first three-game winning streak, as per usual).

    Three games in, and what have we got?   One OT loss that should have been a win had the defense played a full 60 minutes.   One loss that was bad all around.   Another one-goal loss that could have gone either way, had the forward unit bothered to show up.

    In other words, two close losses out of three.    An improving defense that plays with an edge, inconsistent goaltending, and a soft-but-skilled forward unit.    To borrow a line from Dennis Green, the Toronto Maple Leafs are who we thought they were, entering the season.    A team that will take time to develop chemistry, a team that will struggle for stretches, and a team that will be facing an uphill battle to get into the playoffs.     But also a team whose scoring prowess (10th in the league last year, with Antropov replaced by Kessel) will give the club a decent chance to make that climb, so long as the defensive unit continues to improve, which will in turn benefit the performance – and the confidence – of the goaltenders.

    It’s early; far too early to write this team off.   Wait until they’re at the 15- or 20-game mark, and then we’ll talk about whether or not the playoffs are a feasible/realistic expectation this year.   Once the trade deadline has passed, at that point we’ll be in a position evaluate whether or not the price paid for Kessel was too high.   There is no crystal ball; some things you just cannot know right away.

    To push the panic button three games in, however, is a stretch.   It is also indicative of – dare I say a microcosm of – the bandwagon atmosphere running rampant through the streets of Toronto.   Watch the 180 that happens when this team reels off five straight wins; whoever is hot during that streak will be elevated to God-like status, talk of contention will dominate the airwaves, Wilson will be up for the Jack Adams and the parade route will be planned in full detail.

    Such is the life of a sports fan in Toronto.    I’ve said it a few times, and I will say it once more.   We’re 3 games in, folks, with another 79 left on the docket.   Better get comfortable, because there is a long way to go; we’ve barely gotten past the opening credits.

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