Leafs Are Unlikely to Surprise

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 9) – It is not unusual for media covering – and fans following – the Toronto Maple Leafs to rapidly draw a conclusion. Such a penchant begins with the opening shift of the rookie tournament each September and continues, unabated, through six months of the regular season.

Nothing has changed during the infant portion of the 2013-14 NHL schedule. With a nebulous 3-and-1 record after one week of play, Leafs have shown practically all anticipated tendencies – good and bad. Such ambiguity is unavoidable while hockey teams configure their rosters; their forward and defense combinations, and sort through inevitable early-season injuries. Even with that, the Blue and White has already been “branded” on more than a few occasions. It is a club that now revolves around off-season acquisitions Jonathan Bernier and David Bolland; a team that has more than enough firepower to shoot out the lights, but must play sound defense; one that is inherently sloppy and cannot prevail without spectacular goaltending; a club that will prosper with Bernier and James Reimer “pushing” each other to one that is irrefutably dependent on the former. All in the span of eight days. 

Exactly what the Leafs are won’t take terribly long to determine. Statistics have proven, rather clearly, that NHL teams in firm playoff posture by the middle of November are almost assured of competing for the Stanley Cup while those that fall behind in the opening five or six weeks do not recover. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general rule. Overwhelmingly, Leafs were chosen by pundits to be among the top eight qualifiers in the Eastern Conference this season and a .750 win percentage after four games – though not even remotely conclusive – offers some early pretext. How the Leafs will arrive at their objective of making the playoffs for a second consecutive spring may be a mystery to some, though I lean vigorously toward archetype No. 3 in the paragraph above: that which concludes wondrous goaltending will, again, have to offset ragged defensive execution.

LEAFS NEED DEFENSIVE BALANCE FROM DION PHANEUF AND COMPANY BEFORE A STANLEY CUP IS IN SIGHT. EARLY INDICATIONS SHOW THE CLUB, ONCE AGAIN, RELYING TOO MUCH ON GOALTENDING. PHANEUF HERE ATTENDS TO STEVE DOWNIE OF COLORADO DURING 2-1 LOSS TO AVALANCHE ON TUESDAY AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM  

Given that he’ll be counseling the opposite every hour on the hour this season, Randy Carlyle will neither value nor appreciate my opinion. He will strive with all his coaching might to structure a team that performs efficiently behind center-ice and is not unduly error-prone around the net. But, that doesn’t sound like the Toronto Maple Leafs to me. Nor has it for the better part of 35 years. Through some good and a lot of bad, Leafs have always had to compensate for misadventure. Occasionally, this was achieved by out-gunning a rival (the teams of Gilmour-Andreychuk-Clark and Sundin-Roberts-Mogilny could score). Far more often, however, a vacuum-cleaner between the pipes has provided sole redemption. And, why should any Leaf observer think differently today?

At first glimpse, the current team is strikingly familiar. Too soft on the puck down low and too reliant – at this point – on Bernier. That may prove a blessing in disguise. No matter how it is positioned, David Nonis did not trade Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-round draft pick to Los Angeles for a back-up goalie. As I regularly asserted here in off-season, Bernier was acquired to supplant Reimer. Period. End of story. If management felt Reimer could take the club beyond its improvement of last season, the trade with L.A. would not have happened. Nonis – by moving forward with the deal – told all of Leafdom that Reimer was good, but not good enough. Touted by authorities within the game as a potential star goalie, Bernier has been terrific in the opening week. Though he lost a squeaker to Colorado Tuesday night – and Carlyle has intimated that only winning can assure the next start – it is inconceivable that Bernier won’t be playing at Nashville on Thursday.

So, it appears the Leafs are, once again, what they have been for as long as most of us can remember: a team that requires bailing out almost every night. Back in the day, when Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour provided such assurance, Leafs were on the fringe of Stanley Cup contention. In the absence of stalwart goaltending came the longest playoff drought, by more than twice the previous length, in franchise history. Somewhere down the line – Carlyle would like it to be this year – Leafs will come upon a way of properly balancing defensive responsibility. We haven’t seen that around here since the days of Bower, Sawchuk, Horton, Stanley and Baun; when hockey games were televised, primarily, in black and white. Thus the 46-season Cup famine.

Until then, Leafs will have little choice but to rely on immensity in goal. Bernier, given early indication, should be up to the task.

How’s that for a conclusion?

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