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Leafs Far From A Finished Product

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: A Closer Look: Leafs Grounded By Flyers | Box Score
VIDEO: Game In Six | Wilson | Reimer | Grabovski | Phaneuf | Brown
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Goalie coach Francois Allaire had a word for James Reimer after the Leafs dropped a 3-2 game to the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Ed Belfour lost 200 games before he won his first Stanley Cup,” Allaire said.

Simple enough. There is many a stumble between a walk and a run.

“”Yes, you’re going to scrape up your knees when you take the training wheels off,” Reimer said. “But it’s just not about losing. It’s about how you respond.”

The defeat hobbled the Leafs’ playoff hopes and it wasn’t for lack of trying, and trying, and trying.

But the Leafs have now gone four games without a goal from Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur. Tyler Bozak, assumed to be the team’s number one centre, is goalless in 21 of his last 22 games. Goalscoring is not an option if you want to win and while it is lovely that Joffrey Lupul and Mikael Grabovski hit the scoresheet, you don’t win enough demanding games without a significant contribution from your best guys. As for size, the biggest weapon the Leafs could throw at the Flyers with the goalie pulled was the six-foot one, 200-pound Lupul.

Makes you wonder if the best guys are here yet.

For better or worse, you could look at the game as a barometer of the franchise.

With Mike Komisarek sacked early in the game for a curious boarding penalty on noted thespian Daniel Carcillo (no quarrel from coach Ron Wilson), the Leafs had to get by with their big two pairings, Dion Phaneuf with Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn with Carl Gunnarsson. There is no real blame for them to assume. Wilson mixed in depth guy Brett Lebda and depended on James Reimer who stopped 30 shots but was beaten by a shot from the edge of the circle, behind the goal line and from the top of the circle. A game against the top team in the East reinforced a number of facts.

1. The Leafs look fixed for defence. Phaneuf is enjoying a stretch of his best hockey and Aulie was once again solid. Schenn is entering what promises to be a lengthy prime and Komisarek improved dramatically when his ice time is limited to ten minutes or less. That makes four big, physical defencemen.  The trick now will be to keep the seat warm until junior University of Wisconsin defenceman Jake Gardiner arrives.

2. The Leafs’ power play continues to plague the team. Grabovski’s goal snapped a five game streak without a man advantage goal. The Leafs entered the contest with a 15.7 efficiency rating, good for 25th in the league. Why is this? Good question.

3. The Leafs biggest need isn’t the vaunted power play quarterback. For one thing, the handy Gunnarsson may evolve into the set-up man for Dion Phaneuf and for what it’s worth Tim Brent has been doing a credible job on the point. The Leafs greatest need, and it will never be amplified more than it was against the Flyers, is more size and skill at forward.

Itching for more offence, Wilson slid Kessel beside Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The line did not really click and the search for a bona fide centre continues. The Leafs go-to line this season, Kulemin, MacArthur and Grabovski are not big enough to clog creases and hamstring goalies. They have to get their goals the hard way, with all that skillful shooting and passing.
As the season unfolds there is less call for that fancy stuff.

The Maple Leafs need six-foot-four Marlie Joe Colborne with another year of unfettered improvement. Same thing with Nazem Kadri who while undersized is fast and skilled enough to complement an already hefty crop of forwards.

They do not yet have the pieces, but the Leafs' persistent strong play has shown how far away they really are.

The Leafs have competed nicely to cut eight points off what once a 14-point deficit. Maybe there are more chapters to write this season. If there are no more to come, there is at least a new legitimacy, a new landscape for the team.

It won’t make losing any easier.

“I don’t know how we can try any harder,” said forward Mike Brown. “We just have to find a way.”

Yes, if there is a way to be found.

Or maybe we can adapt what Churchill said when he spoke of restoring Britain.

“This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end,” he said. “But it is perhaps the end of the beginning. “

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