I was a proponent of the Leafs trading for Roberto Luongo. He may not be the greatest goalie in the league, sure. But, I was around to watch the tandem of Ken Wregget and Allan Bester – and frankly neither their careers nor the franchise were served well by having 2 capable young goalies play behind such a defensively-challenged Leaf team.
It seemed the franchise is more successful with established, veteran, ‘big-name’ goaltending. That stands to reason – most teams do well with good goalies, and with the exceptions of maybe Mike Palmateer and Felix Potvin, the Leafs have struggled to develop their own goalie prospects. So, in the same vein as Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, Luongo seemed a good choice. He’s a good goalie, accustomed to facing lots of shots, and he gives you a legitimate chance to win most every night.
So how is it that, with the Leafs sporting only 2 wins in 5 games, and having surrendered 17 goals (12 in the last 2 losses to the Islanders and Rangers), acquiring Roberto Luongo seems a bad idea now? Frankly, the losses have revealed that Luongo won’t solve the Leafs’ problems.
Goalies Are Not the Issue
Sure, the numbers are unflattering. Ben Scrivens, 1-2-0, 2.96GAA, .881 save percentage. James Reimer, 1-1-0, 3.11GAA, .911 save percentage. And on a few goals this season, these goalies have made some mental mistakes and looked shaky. Neither guy has a ton of NHL experience. Neither is particularly young anymore. And there’s the whole issue of whether former goalie coach Francois Allaire hurt their development, and whether Rick St. Croix can help.
But, really goaltending has not been the major issue for the Leafs’ losses. In fact, Scrivens played well but was outshone by Ryan Miller in a 2-1 Buffalo win. And Reimer looked perhaps more like the goalie who burst on the scene in early 2011 in both the 5-2 win over Pittsburgh and the 5-2 loss to the Rangers. In fact, Reimer was much of the reason the Leafs were still ‘in it’ agianst New York, stopping 37 of 42 shots.
“I thought Reims was unbelievable tonight,” (captain Dion) Phaneuf said (after the Ranger game). “We kind of hung him out to dry.”
The captain has it right. Both Scrivens and Reimer have it in them to make big, timely saves. The new goalie coach wants to accentuate each guy’s strengths to help them do what got them to the pros in the first place. These are decent goalies, but they can’t be left to make highlight reel save after save after save to give the Leafs a shot at a win. The team needs to be better in front of them.
Much of the problem, especially in the losses to the New York teams has been familiar issues that have plagued the Leafs for a while: team defence, team size and team toughness.
Against the Islanders, the Leafs simply forgot to play team defence. Yes, the team pressed for more offence to close out the Isles, but the result was a lackadaisical defensive effort in the second and third periods, and a terrible collapse. The Leafs simply could not stop the Islanders from coming back to win. That is a familiar trait of the Leafs in recent years. Against the Rangers, it was a matter of the Leafs being lucky to lead 2-1 at the end of 2 periods, as the Blueshirts simply dominated just about every facet of the game. Once the bigger, stronger, more skilled Rangers, especially the top line, was rolling, it was over for Toronto.
What’s worse, coach Randy Carlyle seems to have significant issues with his roster. The boxscore of the game versus the Rangers reveals a telling stat. Carlyle played the Dion Phaneuf-Mike Kostka pair over 30 minutes. Carl Gunnarsson played over 21 minutes, and no other blueliner was over 15 minutes. Now that was just 1 game. So far this season, Phaneuf and Kostka are normally around 25-27 minutes, while Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles have been in the 18-19 minute range.
But, Gardiner has struggled a bit this season, and is only a second-year player. And as nice a story as it is for a 27-year-old AHL vet to finally get his NHL shot, Kostka is probably not a guy the Leafs should be relying on for 30 minutes of play. No disrespect to these players, they work hard. But if the coach is relying on a career-AHLer as a #2 defenceman, over Cody Franson and Mike Komisarek and even Gunnarsson and Liles, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. It means this defensive corps is inadequate. An all-star goalie is nice, but even an all-star will start to falter under sustained pressure from bigger, stronger teams. And it seems the Leafs do not have the horses to deal with that.
Lack of Depth from Which to Deal
Consider finally that in almost any scenario where Vancouver trades Luongo to Toronto, one or both of Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri are headed the other way. That scenario tends to involve an additional draft pick moving Vancouver’s way, with nothing but Luongo coming back to the Leafs. The deal has not been done, and Canuck GM Mike Gillis has stated he feels he’s not receiving fair value offers for BobbyLu. That should lead one to think that Gillis wants even more than what has supposedly been offered.
Imagine if Toronto had to sweeten the deal. Would they have to throw in further prospects? Another current roster player? It’s almost a sure bet Gillis isn’t going to be throwing in any significant players from his own roster. That means any ideas of a Ryan Kesler, or Alex Edler, or anything that could help the Leafs should be forgotten.
The Joffrey Lupul injury exposes the Leafs’ dearth of top-9 forwards. If Lupul misses exactly 6 weeks, he will miss 17 games from a 48 game season – significant time. Coach Carlyle currently rolls Kessel-Bozak-MacArthur, Kulemin-Grabovski-vanRiemsdyk, and Komarov-Kadri-Frattin as his top 3 lines. Now imagine the Leafs making the trade for Luongo, and being without Bozak and Kadri tomorrow. Insert probably Tim Connolly for Bozak, and David Steckel for Kadri, because those are the few options the Leafs have. Imagine, even worse, you see another forward lost to injury (MacArthur left the Ranger game, no word if he will miss any time). If all you’ve gained is Luongo and subtracted Kadri and Bozak, is that a better Leaf team? No.
Toronto has bigger issues than need for a veteran goalie. The team is not appreciably tougher with a guy like Colton Orr in the lineup, and that was evident as the team could not handle the bigger Ranger players. And the Leafs do have to play teams like Buffalo and Boston, also teams with good size to them. It’s obvious that Coach Carlyle is having trouble finding the right combination to deal with some of the bigger teams. How long will it take to completely wear out the guys who play 30 minutes every game in a compressed schedule like this? How bad will the team be if the player Carlyle is counting on now break down?
If new Leaf general manager Dave Nonis is thinking about bringing Roberto Luongo to Toronto, he should shelve that idea quickly. It may be an upgrade in the net, but it does not solve the overall team defence issue, nor the issue with the blueline corps, and ultimately it thins out the already dangerously thin forward ranks. The Leafs simply don’t have that kind of luxury to deal forwards away. The deal does not move the team forward.