Odds & Ends

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    Good to be back! It’s been a little while since I’ve had the opportunity to post anything.

    The following are some random thoughts I’ve had of late, including Luke Schenn’s banishment to the press box, the Leafs‘ recent winning ways, the status of the trade front, and more.

    Sitting Schenn
    I fail to understand all the drama (much of it manufactured) that surrounded Luke Schenn’s relegation to the press box. It seems to me that not so long ago many fans – and certain media members – were suggesting it might be a good idea, and yet when it happened a near-panic arose. My question is, what makes him so special that he should be exempt from the same lesson that countless veteran players have been subject to before him? So what if he’s young? He’s a pro, and spending some time in the press box when you’re not playing well is … wait for it … a part of being a pro. How he handles it will be the true litmus test as to whether or not he is ready to be an impact player in the NHL.

    Speaking of which …
    Through all the panic, did anybody actually bother to ask Schenn how he felt about getting scratched for a couple games? I asked a source affiliated with the team, and the response was that Schenn actually took it quite well. Was he disappointed? Sure, but more in himself than in the actual decision (which by all accounts he understood why it was made). I was told that Schenn took it upon himself to turn it into a positive, and was looking at it as an opportunity to experience a new perspective on the game. And do you know who else had that exact same attitude when he got benched? Ian White. I’d say that worked out pretty well, wouldn’t you?

    The Poor Start
    Remember when the Leafs started the year 0-7-1, and were written off as a non-playoff team with no hopes of making up any ground?    Remember all the doom and gloom in the media, the prognostication of how it would be impossible to get x number of required points to make the playoffs the rest of the way, the write-offs of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson, and the agony over the 1st round picks headed to Boston?

    25 games later, the Leafs sit 2 points shy of a .500 record, with 31 points in 33 games.  That’s enough to be tied for 10th in the conference and only 2 points out of 8th — with 49 games yet to be played.   In other words, the Leafs are doing exactly what most expected them to do following the offseason: contending for a playoff spot.

    Moral of the story?  There is something to be said for patience, after all.

    Recent Success
    There are a number of factors to the Leafs recent run of success, but much of it is tied to a stronger effort defensively in five-on-five situations. The degree to which a team plays poorly or well is cyclical in nature; a single unit (goaltenders, defensemen, forwards) cannot win a game by itself. Rather, all three units have to be functioning for the team to have success.

    Good defensive play reduces the amount of odd man rushes, and the amount of quality scoring chances by the opposition, and also creates turnovers leading to offensive chances.   The ability of the forward units to sustain pressure in the offensive zone leads to both increased scoring chances for the team, and decreased opportunities for the opposition. And a goaltender who is not shell-shocked by weak defensive play will stand a much better chance of stopping the opposition when they do get their chances, than one whose confidence (and thus, willingness to challenge shooters) has been eroded by lacklustre effort of the players in front of him.

    The Leafs‘ recent defensive improvements in five-on-five play has led to dramatic improvements across the board for all three units mentioned above.  The special teams remain a work in progress, but as Ron Wilson said the other night, so long as the team is winning, the PP and PK percentages are not as large a concern as many would make them out to be.  So long as the 5-on-5 units continue to play well, the special teams will not play as key a role in wins and losses, which will in turn alleviate much of the pressure to get those units sorted out.

    The Checking Line
    As mentioned in the theory above, team defense is key to the team playing well as a whole. This does not only apply to the defensive pairings, however. Perhaps the most important (and overlooked) factor to a team’s chances for victory is the play of its checking/shutdown line(s). The role played by the line of Kulemin-Primeau-Stempniak should not be overlooked when analyzing the team’s much-improved play.

    A good checking line does not simply shut down the opposition (which this line has done quite well). A good checking line will also generate offensive chances, and most importantly of all, will sustain pressure – and retain control of the puck for extended periods of time – in the offensive zone with an effective forecheck. This not only equates to less time that the opposition has the puck, but more importantly wears the opposition down while enabling the scoring units to catch a much-needed breather, which leads to those units being fresher and more effective toward the end of the game. This line, to date, has excelled in each of those facets and may actually be the best 3rd line in the NHL at the moment.

    The Trade Front
    Obviously nothing is happening right now, as Brian Burke’s holiday roster freeze came into effect last week.

    Some have wondered, however, why no moves were made prior to the freeze. The reason is twofold. First of all, the Leafs were, for a time, desperate to find ways to win. As a result, they had no leverage with which to make a deal that would work in their favor. Simply put, when other GMs know you are desperate, all offers that could be deemed ‘fair value’ get thrown out the window (the exception being a salary dump scenario, which is not applicable anyway as the Leafs are fairly close to the cap ceiling themselves). Secondly, the team started winning, and like anything there is minimal impetus to mess with something that is working.

    Now, does that preclude a deal from getting done in the New Year? Absolutely not. The Leafs, like any team, are constantly exploring options to improve their hockey club. What their recent winning ways have accomplished, however, is the re-establishment of deal-making leverage. As long as the team is winning, the Leafs do not have to make a deal, and are thus less likely to get bent over the proverbial barrel when kicking tires on players who may become available.

    Don’t let the recent run of success fool you. The long-term plan remains the focus for this team, and if a deal that fits the framework of the long-term vision for the team presents itself Burke will not hesitate to pull the trigger.

    And Just Because …
    Matt Stajan. 10 points (5 G, 5 A) in his last 10 games. 19 points (8 G, 11 A) in 21 games since Phil Kessel joined the lineup. Just saying.

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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