Wednesday, April 24, 2013

10 Playoff Thoughts for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Blue Chip Prospects started churning out articles in May of 2010.  When we first started out, the blog was more general hockey-related stuff and we spent a fair bit of our time just making fun of other teams and their fans.  Over the years, we've become increasingly focused on the Leafs and, in my opinion, found our niche in one of the best blogging communities the internet has to offer. 

Before I get going, I'd like to say a quick thank you to the guys over at Pension Plan Puppets, Maple Leafs Hot Stove, Vintage Leaf Memories, and Hope in the Big Smoke for all of their support.  In addition to the work going on by the group at The Leafs Nation, the guys who contribute on these sites are all bright, insightful individuals who have pushed me to understand hockey in a more complete way and they've all shown BCP a tremendous amount of support over the years, for which I'm tremendously grateful.  The community of Leafs bloggers is a group that I'm very proud to be a part of.

When I started blogging 4 years ago, this was the post that I wanted to write: A collection of thoughts on the state of the team as they head into the playoffs.  It was pretty clear at the time that I wouldn't be writing this post about the 2010 Leafs, but I sure didn't think I'd have to wait until 2013.  As I put pen to pad (or finger to keyboard) the Leafs have three games remaining before facing what looks like either Boston or Montreal and I think I can safely speak for all of you when I say, "PLAYOFFS!!1"

Here are a few things that are on my mind as we inch closer to hockey's second season.

1) Doesn't Mikhail Grabovski strike you as precisely the kind of player who was made for playoff hockey?  Grabbo is, for my money, one of the better two way centres in all of hockey and he's the kind of guy who would put his face through the boards if he thought it would help his team.  On a Leaf Matters podcast a little while ago, Anthony Petrielli said that he thought Grabovski was the toughest player on the Leafs and I have a hard time arguing the point.  I worry that he may continue to get under-utilized in the playoffs but if he gets the icetime that I feel he deserves, I think he'll emerge as a more mainstream hero among Leaf fans.

2) James Reimer has been stealing games for the Leafs all year and I wouldn't be surprised if the Leafs' playoff run lasts longer than most expect because of it.  You don't need to delve too deeply into the aforementioned blogs to find a post that laments how badly the Leafs have been outshot this year which means the reasons they're in the playoffs are 1) a lucky shooting percentage, and 2) James Reimer being one of the better goalies in the NHL this season.  I've written more extensively on Reimer here so I wont go on a long diatribe but suffice to say that in addition to being an A+ person, James Reimer has developed into a goalie deserving of our trust.

3) Does size matter in the playoffs?  As often as we're reminded that the Leafs are among the league leaders in fighting majors, the Leafs' skilled group of forwards are still undersized relative to many of their potential playoff opponents.  I've often opined that team toughness is more important that lobbing a line of face-punchers over the boards for 6 minutes a game and I think the Leafs are still outclassed in this regard.  If we play Montreal then I'm not terribly worried about it but a seven game series against physical Bruins, Capitals, Rangers or even Pittsburgh would be a real challenge for the group.  I'll be interested to see how they cope.

4) Phil Kessel's reputation in the mainstream hinges disproportionately on what he does in the next few weeks.  Legends and goats are made in the playoffs and Kessel's detractors, for want of statistical evidence, usually turn to the tired "disappears in big games" trope.  I've often argued that not getting results against Zdeno Chara and historically excellent goaltending doesn't make a winger a choker and this may be Kessel's chance to put those fears to rest.  Kessel's competitiveness is really underrated in a lot of circles and I think that barring a first round matchup against Chara, Leafs fans will be pleasantly surprised with what we see from our All-Star.

5) Wherefore art thou, defense?  All year I've been whining about this and all year James Reimer has made guys like Fraser, Kostka, and to a lesser extent Franson look better than they are.  With the spotlight on every move that this team makes, I wonder if the Leafs' D might finally get exposed for the liability they are.  If the Leafs are eliminated early, I suspect it will be this and not their lack of experience that's the cause.

6) Entitlement or experience?  Hope in the Big Smoke recently wrote a piece about how the whole "end of the entitlement culture" narrative that some have been preaching is more of a myth than a reality.  Carlyle strikes me as a guy who favours experience and as HITBS suggests, he certainly has his favourites.  I'm not the type to discount the value of experience and the effect that it can have on a team full of playoff first timers but I do hope that Carlyle makes better judgments on the guys who are actually making valuable contributions.  If Kadri and Gardiner play up to their capabilities, I sure hope that Carlyle notices and rewards them for it.

7) Duck, duck, goose.  Guessing which tough guy and how many of them Carlyle will put into the lineup in the playoffs is an important question but it's anyone's guess at this stage.  Dressing fighters in favour of roleplayers seems especially costly when the games are so important and mistakes are magnified.  I don't mind the idea of putting one of Orr or (preferably) McLaren in the lineup but I think it's a mistake to play both.  And, to my way of thinking, better to have those guys take an instigator on a guy who's taking liberties with Kessel or Kadri than to square off with some comparable scrub on the other side.  When Orr grabbed Kaleta against Buffalo, it really did seem to straighten him out and with our PK as effective as it's been this year, keeping our skilled guys healthy is probably worth the two minutes.

8) The playoffs are a war of attrition.  The Leafs have been a relatively healthy team this year but Lupul has missed significant time and is just getting his legs back under him while Gunnarsson has been playing hurt all year.  Having those two on the top of their game and keeping the rest of the guys healthy will be crucial to the team's success.  If Dion Phaneuf should happen to get hurt at any point in the playoffs, I'm loathe to think of who on this team would be responsible for his minutes.

9) Home ice advantage?  We all know that for a packed house, the ACC isn't exactly the loudest building in the NHL but this team hasn't been in the playoffs for so long that I wonder if we may see people wearing their ties more like Brian Burke than Gordon Gekko.  The price of tickets will probably keep a lot of "real" fans out of the building which is a shame but surely it wouldn't be seen as crass or vulgar for some of the lower bowl to let loose a little bit, given the occasion.  I could see things going either way on this one but I really hope it's more ScotiaBank Place Leafs fans than Quiet Night at the ACC Leafs fans.

10) The atmosphere.  It's hard to remember exactly what it was like when the Leafs were last in the playoffs.  The thing that I'm probably the most excited for is to see the mood around town on game days; the people wearing Leafs jerseys on their way to the office, the flags whipping in the wind on the 400.  This is a celebration of hockey and I really hope that we haven't forgotten how to enjoy the party.

1 comment:

Rosscoe said...

I was at the game when Nieuwendyk scored against Ottawa. The crowd noise afterwards was not your typical goal cheer - it was a guttural, inside-a-hurricane kind of noise. I will never forget it.

That's what it is going to be like. There are no more fervent fans than ML fans. They will show up AND they will cheer. Its gonna be fun!