Saturday, 14 June 2014

Things fell into place for Lars Eller and René Bourque in the playoffs. Was it thanks to Brian Gionta?

What did happen to René Bourque and Lars Eller in these playoffs?  They displayed their skills and abilities, their tools, in a manner much closer to the potential we envisioned for both of these gentlemen.  We can theorize that it's simply a case of greater maturity for Lars, and greater confidence for both that carried them to better results, but even if that's so, what caused the 'click'?

Did playing with Brian Gionta help both of these young men?  Does his quiet leadership and incessant effort inspire René to put out more of an effort, to go from 95% to 98%?  Does it remove the mantle of responsibility from Lars, who instead of over-thinking everything, of feeling the pressure to produce points and manufacture offence, or think of defence when he's carrying the puck?  Could he now just react, just play hockey, and this allowed his speed and talent to shine through?

One big factor I've wondered about is whether the fog of concussion lifted for them, simultaneously.  René got cold-cocked in February 2013 on an NHL-approved hockey play by Colton Orr, after the latter had almost blown out Tomas Plekanec's knee, on another NHL-approved hockey play.  That Colton Orr, what a warrior, what a solid 'team guy', that was worth three Don Cherry open-mouth kisses.  It's a head-scratcher why the Leafs don't win more with players like this on their roster.

René got diagnosed with a concussion belatedly and then sat out the last quarter of the season, and it's open to question whether he finally got all his ducks in a row, was back mentally, and had his confidence back as these playoffs started.

And Lars, he got destroyed by the Erik Gryba hit to the head in the last playoffs.  Was his up and down season the side-effects of a player also coming back from a major brain injury?  A player whose timing and decision-making is off?  Did it take him the whole season to get back in the groove?

It's a little optimistic to believe that both players have now put all their issues behind them, and will now continue to play at that level for the rest of their careers.  We'll see both have ups and downs, but the promising aspect of their showing in the playoffs is that it showed that René is not 'finished', he's not a player who doesn't care and won't put out.  He needs to be in the right frame of mind and surrounded by the right players, but when he is he's a handful for other teams.  And Lars, who has developed in fits and starts, displaying great talent in streaks but then frustrating spells where his production dries up and he makes baffling decisions with the puck, can hopefully start his summer training program with a better frame of mind and a clearer idea of what kind of player he can become.

And as much as my fan-GM impulse is to clear the roster of Brian Gionta to allow the team to get younger and bigger, the effect he had when placed on a line with both these guys gives me pause, and forces me to allow that maybe Marc Bergevin knows what he's doing.  He's stated that he wants us to be tougher to play against, yet he wants to retain the Captain, despite his small stature and waning production.

That is paradoxical.  How can I reconcile these two conflicting indications?  Maybe he has more information than I can obtain from my couch.  Maybe there are more factors at play than a strict transaction, that it's not a mere 'subtract small guy, add bigger guy'.  Maybe it's not as simple as adding cubic inches.  Maybe the mix of the team, the veteranship, the experience, all of that will benefit by retaining the Captain for a couple more seasons.

Is it crazy to think that?  Or is it more crazier that Marc Bergevin hasn't observed that Brian is small and old and therefore worthless?  Because if he'd looked at or watched a game like I do, he'd have noticed that, right?  It's self-evident to this armchair GM, but maybe I'll trust the pros to handle this, the guys who saw a little more value in Dale Weise than I did from my couch.

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