I hope everyone is starting to feel a little better this morning. Plenty of eulogies were written and the last couple of days have been brutal to say the least. I haven’t seen the Game in 6 or any of the player interviews. I barely have any idea what’s going on in the playoffs right now, even as two two-way titans, Toews and Datsyuk, square off in the West.
Two things in my mind were abundantly clear following Monday night. You know that cliche players like to use after a tough loss? “Oh yeah, that was a character building game for our team…” Monday night was a character building game for Leafs Nation. In one game, we were subjected to the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. The conclusion of the series had us scrambling emotionally, grasping for answers and words that just wouldn’t come.
Although we may have experienced heartbreak, they do say that one must know bitter defeat before one can saviour the sweetness of victory, and there’s plenty of historical examples across the world of sport that attest to that adage. For a young team like the Maple Leafs to start their comeback from 3-1 down and yet find a way to ultimately throw the series away, it now has a better idea both of what it takes to succeed in the playoffs while being dealt the harsh lesson that it’s going to take that little bit more.
In deciding what I wanted our writers to focus on this week, I thought it would be best if we combined some retrospection along with a future outlook. I believe just as many questions arose as were answered through these playoffs and in case you haven’t checked out Anthony’s latest post, be sure to do so. He looks at the organization from top-to-bottom and asks some pertinent questions that are worth keeping a tab on this summer. What I wanted to briefly touch on was the Centre position.
After the game on Monday, I tweeted that Bozak would not be coming back to the Leafs next season. I was cautioned not to make any hurried statements after coming off of a collapse of epic proportions, but there wasn’t a shred of emotion in my conviction. Here’s what got me started:
Firstly, with the contract situations down the middle the situation at center ice is unsustainable, and if Bozak is asking for anything near $5.000mm a year Nonis is not fulfilling that request. Bozak may get that on the open market, but given all the decisions Nonis has to make this summer (Kadri, Franson, Gunnarsson, MacArthur, etc.), and a lower cap, a $4.5 or 5 million second/third line centre is the last thing this team needs. Some may argue that we could have used him late in Game 7 for face-offs, and I suppose that’s true, but that’s something that can be taught. More importantly, look no further than Kessel‘s offensive outburst in Game 6 and 7 sans Bozak. Bozak factored into zero of Kessel’s points and only assisted on one of van Riemsdyk‘s goals in Game 1.
Secondly, Joe Colborne‘s call-up to the big team couldn’t have come at a better time. Not because we needed him as a game-breaker, but because it was time to see what we had in this kid. Although he was held pointless in 5 regular season games and 2 playoff games, he did not look out of place at all, and even looked dangerous at times. He may not have the same skill as Kadri, but a solid off-season (Gary Roberts!) could make this kid ready to take on the third line sheltered center role. He’s leveraging his size much better and his foot speed has definitely improved.
Thirdly, Kadri’s regular season performance has proven he’s ready to take on a top-6 centre in the NHL. His playoff performance may have left many wanting, but I think we should have expected that for his first playoff experience; he was improving as the series went on, and should have scored the goal that clinched a Game 7 win. If it weren’t for the collapse, I think Kadri would have been one of the most productive players in the following round. Some don’t think he’s ready to make the jump to the first line with Kessel and Lupul, but I’m not one of them. Kadri showed chemistry with, produced alongside and and usually improved the play of just about all of his linemates last season. Despite the early concerns about his weight (who the hell even remembers that…?), Kadri was as physically combative as any of the Leafs’ skilled forwards.
Lastly, Grabovki may not have had the most productive of seasons, and his stat line from the playoff looks especially dismal, but the heart he showed in the playoffs made me a believer (not that I wasn’t before) and this is the kind of guy I want to go to war with. Grabovski was struggling to meet the expectations heaped on him by Carlyle, but in time he should settle into a more suitable role. Even Claude Loiselle, Assistant GM of the Leafs, said in a recent interview that Grabo “came to play in the playoffs…he battled, got hammered, and he was playing like he was two years ago.” His fearless brand of hockey is something the team needs and can win with going forward… the production will return.
All in all, I think life will go on without Bozak. Kessel will still be a point-per-game player and the Leafs will still be average at face-offs. It’s time to turn the page.
Here are this week’s topics:
Who was your Leafs MVP for the playoffs?
“Who else but James Reimer? The single biggest reason that the Leafs took the series to seven games was due to the Morweena, Manitoba native. Despite a scintillating regular season, there were plenty of questions regarding Reimer’s playoff wherewithal. As we saw, Reimer’s .924 regular season save percentage is eerily similar to his .923 mark in the playoffs. That stat becomes more miraculous considering he faced just fewer than 39 shots per game through the series. His ability to weather the Bruins’ bombardment held the team in Games 2, 4 – 7 and was the biggest factor for the Leafs success.” -Michael Stephens (@MLHS_Mike)
“James Reimer. The guy made 111 saves in the 3 Leaf wins, which gave the team strength to come back. .923 SP in the 7 playoff games. Kessel, because it’s the Bruins and all he had to overcome when playing them, gets an honorable mention.” -Mislav Jantoljak (@Xterratu)
“This is a pretty easy answer. James Reimer. I never felt that Reimer was ever at fault for the goals that were scored in the last game. He was excellent from the first game to the last game. There will always be questions about his play given that he’s not a flashy goaltender, but he does he job and he does it very well. A goaltender will always be reliant on his defense to do some of the crease clearing and shot prevention. He was overworked as it is and only some upgrades on the defense as well as experience and maturity will improve his game to game consistency (which is already pretty good). I’m looking forward to a seasoned James Reimer.” -(@mORRganRielly)
“Without a doubt I have to go with Reimer simply for the reason that without him this would have been over in four games. I don’t really know how to elaborate on that, you all saw the amazing saves and the number of times he was required to make them. I’d be disappointed if every single panelist didn’t pick him as their MVP.” -Jon Steitzer (@YakovMironov)
“It’s a three-way tie, and I can’t single one out. Phil Kessel was faced with a nightmare situation and absolutely dominated his former team – any “Thank You” chants out of the TD Garden crowd after this would just be embarrassing (for them). James Reimer validated himself as a frontline goaltender with the kind of clutch saves you need from a playoff keeper to keep you in it. And despite not having totals to show for it, Mikhail Grabovski took – and withstood – an unbelievable amount of targeted, flagrant physical abuse without ever letting it slow him down. ” -Matt Mistele (@TOTruculent)
Which player were you expecting more out of?
“I’d like to think I went into this with realistic expectations so everyone was close to expectations. I expected Kostka to be awful and he was. I expected that O’Byrne wasn’t going to be visited by a power skating genie, and he wasn’t. If there was a player I expected to have a bigger impact and he didn’t it was probably Leo Komarov. I assumed that his pesty antics would have worked better on the Bruins, but I guess that’s what playoff experience gets you, the ability to tune out agitators.” -Jon
“Kadri’s the easy answer, but I hate saying that, because he had a phenomenal year and I believe he is/will continue to be a terrific player. Naz just looked like he wasn’t expecting the “second gear” that the NHL playoffs requires, in terms of both speed and physicality. He seemed lost at times. We saw flashes of impact, but nothing sustained. Having said that, this experience was infinitely valuable for him, and I’d expect we’ll see a completely different Kadri in the next Toronto playoff game.” -Matt
“ This is such a tough question because I can’t pinpoint one player who didn’t give his all on every shift. In terms of production, I think I have to go with Grabovski. I absolutely hate singling him out because his play was as gutsy as we’ve seen in a very long time. However, he made some critical mental errors throughout the series that I think the coaching staff and management will be going over. For one, the icing in game six. In the other games, he was often caught with his head down and not paying attention to the play — he would flip the puck into the bench or make an errant pass going nowhere. A wonderful effort, but he needs to get his mental game together.” -(@mORRganRielly)
“Plenty of candidates for this one, but I’ll go with Nazem Kadri. One of the reasons for the Leafs success in the regular season was that the Leafs were splitting two of the league’s leading scorers and the opposition couldn’t cope. Kadri’s offense bottomed out towards the end of the season, and he had trouble generating anything but turnovers in his NHL playoff debut.” -Michael
“ I have to say that most of the guys played well above expectations and can’t seem to single out any player that I’m willing to criticize after 7 hard fought games.” -Mislav
Which player proved the most?
“This is an answer that deserves two nominees. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. We know the Kessel story. And he more than manned up. He proved once and for all that he was not afraid to throw hits, dig in the corners, and hound Chara. The stat-line shows 6 points in 7 games, but he had two game winners and created countless opportunities for the Leafs to seize control of the series back in game 3 and 4.” -(@mORRganRielly)
“ In my mind, when you have people doubting your status as the No1 goaltender in the NHL and you come up with an MVP-type performance in the playoffs, you definitely proved people wrong. At the same time, Phil Kessel was the “skilled guy who’s easily intimidated and not at all built for the playoffs” so the two end up getting my vote once again.” -Mislav
“Two players stick out in my mind, but since I already talked about Reimer, I’ll say Phil Kessel. For Kessel, the choice is obvious: he outduelled his past and the tired narrative attached to his tenure in Toronto en route to another successful playoff season. Scoring over a point per game the past two seasons, he’s an elite if imperfect player. By exorcising his demons in Boston, he’s silenced even his harshest critics*” -Michael
* HAHAHAHAHAHAHA FAT CHANCE OF THAT EVER HAPPENING!
“With all do respect to Gardiner for proving that he’s not only an NHLer, but a damned good one, and Reimer for proving that he is unquestionably a solid NHL starting goaltender, I think Phil Kessel overcoming his scoring drought against Boston and making it clear that he is one of the elite wingers in the league was the biggest shock.” -Jon
“Again, tough to decide between Phil and Jim. Kessel silenced every detractor with that series (or should have), and Reimer did much the same for anyone who doubted he’s a frontline goaltender.” -Matt
Who, in your mind, is part of the core? Has this playoff performance changed your opinion?
“The core has changed a bit — I’m adding Franson to the list of Kessel, Phaneuf, Reimer. Gardiner, Kadri, Lupul, and van Reimsdyk. Beyond that, it’s tough to say. But Franson proved a lot this season and deserves to be a considerable part of this team’s next step towards contention.” -Mislav
“I’d say that the core of this team consists of Reimer; defensemen Phaneuf, Gardiner and Franson, with Kessel, Lupul, Kadri and van Riemsdyk up front. For many of the players on this list, it’s a no brainer, but Gardiner and Franson are recent additions. For Franson, he possesses a load of skill, but appeared hesitant to learn the defensive side of the game. His maturation, and Randy Carlyle’s reliance on him, suggest that he’ll be a great Second Pairing + Special Teams-type defenseman for years to come.” -Michael
“I wouldn’t say my opinion has changed because of the playoffs, but think the core remains Kessel, Phaneuf, Reimer, Gardiner, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Grabovski, Kulemin, and Lupul. I don’t know how long any of this will last as the right trade at the right time this summer could blow up the core.” -Jon
“Kessel, Phaneuf, Reimer, and – I’m happy to say – Lupul are this team’s core. James van Riemsdyk is edging the periphery, and if Jake Gardiner’s strong possession play continues into next year, he’ll join the group quickly in my mind, as well.” -Matt
What is Nonis’ top priority this summer?
“My fingers my be crossed that it is replacing Bozak, but practically it needs to be finding a defenseman that eases the workload for Dion Phaneuf.” -Jon
“Moving forward, I’d say Nonis’ priorities will be twofold: signing all of the young talent on this team to reasonable deals while looking to solidify the talent-laden but ineffective defense corps. Kadri, Franson, Gunnarsson and Colborne are all restricted free agents this summer, and could combine to eat up over $10-million in cap space in short order. The overall dollar figure could be most challenging for Kadri and Franson, who hold an abundance of skill and great box stats, but have done so under the veil of the shortened season. Regardless, overspending could critically handicap a team that needs to be future conscious, with lynch-pins Kessel, Phaneuf and Reimer all up for hefty raises come 2014. The second part will – in theory – be easier, as the Leafs’ success into May makes them more attractive to free agents in July. If I’m Nonis, I’m targeting Rob Scuderi, Robyn Regehr and Andrew Ference (I know, I’m a masochist) come summer to bring in some stability, snarl and staunch defense.” -Michael
“This team is building, and it has priorities in two positions. An additional frontline or top-of-the-second-tier defenseman is needed to relieve Phaneuf of some workload, one with enough of a defensive conscience that he can be paired reliably with one of the Leafs’ several offensively-minded defensemen (Phaneuf, Franson, Gardiner, Liles…and Rielly might not be terribly far off joining that group). And, impressed as I was by his performance this year, Tyler Bozak is not a longterm solution at center on Phil Kessel’s line and the organization will need to upgrade that position if they want to take the next step toward becoming a championship team.” -Matt
“ Bolstering the defence. Anchormen, top four guys like Beauchemin (ironic, isn’t it?) would make this team even harder to play against. Depth on defence would go a long way to the Leafs not having to face 40 shots a night, like they did most nights in the postseason.” -Mislav
“ Nonis should focus on finding a defensive partner for Phaneuf who relishes the violence of clearing the front of the net, shutting down the cycle, and supporting Phaneuf’s two-way play. I’m not sure who that is, but it should be the franchise’s utmost priority. We also need another fourth line / third line stalwart who can take faceoffs and play a shutdown game while supporting the penalty kill. That could be Boyd Gordon. Another priority (actually three) will be approaching Reimer, Phaneuf, and Kessel’s agents and work out an extension. I’m terrified of what Kessel’s going to ask for, but whatever it is, he deserves it.” -(@mORRganRielly)
What are you most excited for this summer?
“Golfing, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and finally finding out what’s inevitably going to kill Walter White.” -Matt
“ I’m not too excited about the off-season. It’s going to be a quiet one from my perspective. Other than a potential trade to upgrade the defense, I don’t foresee a big change other than potentially letting Bozak walk and pushing up the grouping of our centres. It will be interesting to see if Kadri can handle first line duties with Lupul / van Reimsdyk and Kessel. I guess I will be more excited if a trade for Phaneuf’s partner is as good as I wish it to be.” -(@mORRganRielly)
“The changing of the narrative. For far too long the Toronto Maple Leafs have been called bottom-feeders, in a rebuild, cellar dwellers and downright lost and terrible. This offseason? The conversation will switch to how to augment a solid core and how this team can go from a playoff hopeful to a contender. That’ll be worth the wait, to me anyway.” -Michael
“As always, the NHL draft predating it. I love watching and analyzing prospects just prior to the draft, making my final notes in reports and evaluations I made earlier in the year.” -Mislav
“Right now so I’m probably most excited to spend some time in these “outdoors” people keep talking about, but as far as things that have me excited for the summer from a Leafs standpoint, probably the draft. With a deep draft there’s good reason to be excited about the top three picks the Leafs. If Curtis Lazar becomes a Leaf it’s safe to say this will be the best off season ever. Also I have my fingers crossed that free agency goes completely ignored beyond reasonably priced depth signings.” -Jon
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