Leafs Notebook – November 21

Leafs Notebook – November 21

Photo: Getty Images

Phil Kessel is tired of losing, that much is clear.

In layman’s terms, there are two types of hockey players: Those who love to win and those who hate to lose. It took Kessel some time, but he’s become the second one.

Justin Bourne, who now runs The Score’s blog “Backhand Shelf,” discussed this concept last season over at Puck Daddy (view here). In it he says, “Here’s the difference: It’s like putting a cupcake between a chubby kid from a mansion on the hill, and some wiry starving kid from the streets. They both want the cupcake. But our portly friend isn’t fighting to the death over the damn thing. He might take a swing or two, but in the end, he knows if he doesn’t get this one another will come along eventually. And that’s when the wiry punk kicks him in the groin and one-bites the entire cupcake.”

Essentially, there are players who love to win for a multitude of reasons. It keeps the media off your back, the fans are happy, the coaching staff is happy and most importantly, everyone inside that dressing room is happy. It makes hockey fun out there, you’re playing more relaxed and just enjoying the game. I don’t think you’d find many people who would deny it, winning a game and proving to be better than an opponent is a great feeling. Hence, players find it fun to win.

Frankly, it’s something I never understood.

I didn’t enjoy winning, I hated to lose. Losing made me sick to my stomach. It ruined my night, it ruined the morning after, and it basically put me in a bad mood until the next hockey game, the opportunity to redeem myself. At the end of a game if I was on the ice, I did whatever it took to win that game – take a hit, block a shot, whatever – because if I didn’t it meant losing. Winning wasn’t a relief, it was expected.

But this isn’t about me, it’s about Phil Kessel.

When you look at hockey players all over the NHL, a lot of them are very talented, but what separates them is their desires. Sidney Crosby? He hates to lose. At the end of a game, when he’s on the ice, does anyone think he is going to lose a battle to make a key play? He’s not the biggest guy, or the strongest guy, but he hates to lose. You can see it in his eyes and his work ethic (he’s improved one facet of his game every offseason -faceoffs, backhanders, etc.).

Now compare that to Alex Ovechkin, a guy who loves to win. He lives for the highlight reel, the big goal, and he’s a happy, upbeat kind of guy. Now Ovechkin’s bigger, stronger and potentially even faster than Sid, but if the game’s on the line and they are both going into a corner to battle for the puck, who would you put money to come out of that corner?

There are countless other examples of both kinds of players. Love to win: Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and Lebron James, amongst others. Those who hate to lose? Jonathon Toews, Martin St. Louis, Milan Lucic, Michael Jordan.

Of course, we’re all here to talk about the Leafs, and that brings us back to Phil Kessel. In his first two seasons here, he was a player who loved to win. Poach for goals, do it all yourself, and no commitment to defense.

I can’t speak to what ignited Phil Kessel’s fire, but being picked in the All-Star game sure seems to be the sticking point. Phil Kessel probably felt like a really good player on a bad team, went to Carolina that weekend, and found out exactly how his peers valued him. Good for him for showing that pride.

Phil Kessel’s numbers are what they are – fantastic, eye popping, league leading, you name it – but he’s brought his game up to new heights because he’s motivated, because he’s tired of losing. Say what you will, but watching Boston win a Cup without him had to burn him up all summer. The fact that they won without him. The fact that they are, dare he think, happy he left. All Kessel wanted was to be paid the money he felt he deserved and Boston didn’t oblige. Then, they won it all.

He used to be a player that scored when the game was over, a perimeter player and a happy go lucky guy. This isn’t to say his transformation is complete, but it’s definitely well on it’s way. He has a desire to win, he wants it out there and it is evident. He demands the puck from players and drives the net. He’s committed himself to improving his defensive game and to making a difference night-in and night-out.

There are still things that Kessel has to work on – getting the puck out cleaner, his physical game, to name a few – but I no longer see a little kid out there having fun playing the game. I see a professional hockey player who’s out there playing not because he’s happy to win, but because he doesn’t want to lose.

That’s what Brian Burke was banking on when he acquired Kessel in the first place.

***

Onto the week’s notebook:

– Yes, the Leafs only got three of a possible eight points, but in the big picture, there isn’t too much to complain about from the week that was. They outplayed Phoenix badly for two periods and overtime in a game that they deserved to win. With a depleted lineup in Nashville, one that got even more injured during the game, they all worked hard and battled as best they could – in that situation  it’s all you can ask – then they beat Washington badly. With their third game in four nights, when they had to travel to Carolina, they noticeably didn’t have their legs, but did battle to stay in the game (although if I had a problem with any game they played this week, the Carolina one was it for sure).

– That said, and it is definitely contradicting, these weeks cannot happen often if the Leafs want to be in the best playoff position possible. When you have weeks where you play four games, despite their injuries, three points is not acceptable. The good news it that it is still very early in the season, and at a time like this, the process is arguably more important than the result. Wins are important obviously, but how the team is playing and whether they are improving in the facets of their game is what stands out right now. Once January hits, it’s pretty simple: are they winning? Who is the coach playing/trusting? What transactions is management making to correct this? At this point, it is still very much a feeling out process of who fits, where they fit, and how this team moves forward with their best foot.

– In terms of the process, I don’t hear anyone making a big deal out of the Leafs penalty kill going 16/17 this week. It’s still a small sample size to say their penalty kill has definitively arrived, but there are plenty of positives to note. The four man units are beginning to work together and build off of each other as a cohesive penalty kill. You’re seeing a shift from the shot blocking that was being preached to finally, a preach of systematic killing. In one particular kill against the Washington Capitals, Dennis Wideman took a slapshot from the point, and you saw the entire Leafs penalty kill clear out like the parting of the red sea, Gustavsson saw the puck cleanly, the killers boxed their men out, there was no rebound, and the Leafs moved on. It was insignificant at the time, and that’s what made it fantastic to me, these guys are starting to figure this thing out.

– The Leafs have also established a go-to penalty killing tandem in Phillipe Dupuis and David Steckel. One’s a lefty, one’s a right, they can both take faceoffs, Steckel has nice size and Dupuis has got a nice little bounce to his step out there on the ice. They start every penalty kill and really look to be grasping the coaches’ concepts. Other notable penalty killers: Joey Crabb (who might be playing his way onto the final roster), Tim Connolly and Nikolai Kulemin.

– The Leafs’ powerplay also scored at least one goal every game this week, going six for 13 overall. All season the Leafs have had the talent to score once they establish their umbrella, the issue has been establishing the zone and setting up. The players have figured out how to break in using the drop pass method, where the defenseman skates up ice and drops it to a wheeling forward, but the defensemen have also shown great discretion in reading the play and skating it in themselves if the penalty killers are cheating.

– Luke Schenn played his best game of the season against Phoenix, and in overtime he had a one-on-one with Shane Doan in overtime and played it beautifully. Stared him in the chest, kept him to the outside and engaged when appropriate. Very different from how he played Jack Skille just weeks earlier, where he stared at the puck the entire time. Back to basics work, even in the NHL.

– One thing about Schenn though, against Phoenix he tried to kill someone with five minutes left in a 2-2 game, he missed, the Coyotes had a good scoring chance and then Joffrey Lupul had to take a penalty that could have cost them. Love the big hits as much as the next person, but there’s a time and a place.

– Wonder if everyone recognized who killed nearly 1:30 of that penalty kill. Yeah, that would be Phillipe Dupuis. Until people start realizing he is a good player, I’m going to keep bringing up the excellent things he does for this team. He understands lane and defensive awareness. He isn’t an overly aggressive penalty killer, but he does kill space and very rarely do you see the point man he’s covering launch shots because he’s excellent at closing down time and options. The offensive game isn’t there for him right now – and he does need to be scoring at least 15-25 points to truly justify having a full-time spot on this team – but he does bring positives to this roster.

– Loved seeing the fans giving Scrivens a standing ovation after his glove save on Ray Whitney in overtime. When Joe Nieuwendyk was being interviewed during his time in Toronto for his Hall of Fame induction he said, “I say with sincerity that Toronto was the highlight of my career.” This is a special place to play, when the team plays well and the fans get behind them. Right now it’s a mixed bunch of negativity and positivity amongst fans, but I think we’d all agree that when the Leafs are winning, Toronto has such a fantastic atmosphere.

– Already gave him some props, but against the Phoenix Coyotes, Phil Kessel was the best player on the ice in a huge way. What really stood out was, whenever the Leafs were pinned in their zone when he was on the ice, Kessel would literally just go deep into the zone, take the puck, turn it on, and skate it out himself. Against Washington he did this and Niklas Backstrom caught on and wound up to meet him as he came around the net, and Kessel actually read the play, stopped, and made a strong outlet pass. He hasn’t always shown that kind of heads up instinct when he winds up with the puck

- Had zero problem with the Leafs selecting Nikolai Kulemin as a shooter for the penalty shootout against Phoenix. Obviously he’s cold, that’s why they picked them. Sometimes you have to think big picture as a coach and it was a worthwhile gamble on Wilson’s part. If you recall a shootout the Leafs had with Boston last season where Kadri did this, Julien picked Peverley and Ryder both to shoot even though they were each ice cold. Wilson’s not a radical guy, he coaches like a lot of coaches do.

– Also, although Kulemin hasn’t scored, he’s contributing to the lineup. Against Phoenix it was Kulemin – who everyone has been on to shoot the puck more – who wristed one on Mike Smith hard and low causing him to kick out a rebound that Kessel buried home. Then against Washington Kulemin drove the net hard when Joe Colborne crossed the blueline, causing the defensemen to hesitate and providing Matt Frattin enough time to rocket one home. Later on that night he caused the giveaway for David Steckel’s breakaway goal. No question he needs to start scoring, but he is getting things done out there too, to some degree.

– The guy who got Kulemin the puck for his shot on net resulting in the Kessel goal against Phoenix, Carl Gunnarsson, made the underrated play of the week. He skated all the way up the ice, was stood up by two Phoenix players and weaved around both, sliding the puck to Kulemin’s tape. Underrated play by an underrated player.

– For all the flak the Leafs receive over Gustavsson not being an Allaire-style goalie, he sure looked Allaire like on Saturday. He played big, economical, controlled his rebounds, and wasn’t doing anything crazy and acrobatic. Just a solid game. Allaire’s style of play does not eliminate the fancy save, it limits how many opportunities you have to make them. A big save almost always means you did something wrong as a goalie and that’s why Allaire preaches economical movements. It’s a mental thing with Gustavsson, not physical. On Saturday he showed a glimpse of what he could be. Whether it’s too late remains to be seen.

– Early on this season, I caught an interview with Joffrey Lupul, who was discussing playing with Phil Kessel, and he said something very interesting about having to get Kessel the puck in stride coming out of the zone. He said that, because Phil likes to skate the puck in with speed, if it was too late to give him the puck while he’s skating, he should do something else with it. You often see Lupul get the puck when he’s breaking out and just throw it up the ice on the far side to a streaking Kessel. It’s obviously something they’ve worked on a lot and it. The best example of it actually happened earlier on in the season with this goal.

– Very disappointing that Matt Lombardi got hurt, especially coming off of his best game this season. He was really using his speed, going to the net and working the puck around nicely. Lombardi gave Mike Komisarek the pass that got the Leafs on the board but, besides that, he was asserting himself on the ice and looking to be a difference maker instead of being the tentative player he has often been this season. Sometimes all players need is to rediscover what it feels like to be a good player out there and they build off of that and take off. Unfortunately, Lombardi never got that chance to build off of it. Who knows where this brings his game once he returns.

– You know, a couple of seasons ago Colton Orr simply rocked Brian McGrattan, yet I didn’t see him celebrate after that. There’s a time and place to celebrate a victory, but when McGrattan did it, that wasn’t the time. Nothing fight, barely a win and in a game that was ho-hum. Please.

– Will say this, though. As effective as Jay Rosehill can be with his speed/size, Colton Orr has shown a little something over the past couple of games in terms of finishing his checks and effectively eating the puck down low in the offensive zone when he’s had the chance. Also, when Colton Orr fights someone, he does it early on in the game and gets the whole bench jacked up. What purpose does it serve for Rosehill to fight McGrattan when the score is already 3-1 in the third period? Part of being an enforcer is knowing when you need to pick up your bench and fight. Rosehill hasn’t grasped that part yet.

– Furthermore, in that game Jake Gardiner got run at by Jerod Smithson, although luckily the rookie lost an edge and was on the way down. Then Luke Schenn puts Lombardi in a vulnerable position with a bad pass and he takes heavy contact by Jordin Tootoo. What happened after both hits? Nothing. Not saying the Leafs need to fight after every hit, but at least throw a clean hit in retaliation, do something. These guys have to stick up for each other much better. Especially when a young kid gets run at. That would never fly on a tough team.

– The Leafs really show their youth when they are down a goal heading into the third period. Both loses against Ottawa, then versus Nashville, and again against Carolina the Leafs came out down by one, pressured way too much, then went down 3-1. Whether it be the forwards all going in deep (Ottawa), the defense pinching unnecessarily (Nashville, Carolina) or whatever (Gustavsson’s mishandle against Ottawa), the Leafs need to be better and show a little patience. They often look like a team whose trying to get everything back in one shift. Yes, you can score, but scoring is a process within a game. There’s no need to have Schenn step up to keep a puck in, lose and get burned, putting your team in a two-goal hole with less than five minutes gone in a period. Or for Liles and Franson to both pinch in. They are still a young team so things like this aren’t surprising, but they glaringly lack composure.

– The youth also showed against Phoenix with under two minutes left. The Leafs win a faceoff in their own zone, the puck goes around to Matt Frattin, and he fails to get the puck out. The Coyotes almost scored. Youth is nice, and as put on display against Washington, exciting, but you can’t replace what veterans do and know. Craig Smith also gave a little example of that. So whoever is saying the Leafs need to callup Colborne, Frattin and Kadri and potentially make them a line, take a step back. These guys will all make a ton of mistakes and the Leafs have dependable veterans they can count on before them.

-Bet everyone is happy the Leafs haven’t traded Cody Franson despite all the “rumours.” Don’t think the Leafs ever seriously considered trading him, teams simply called because he was a healthy scratch. Just because he wasn’t playing didn’t mean the Leafs had soured on him or ruined him – as many suggested – it simply showed Cody a lesson for opening his mouth during training camp and to allow him to learn the Leafs’ defensive schemes. As Ron Wilson outlined, the Leafs press the play, unlike the Predators, and they often had Greg Cronin sitting with him during games pointing out how Toronto plays differently.

– Besides Dion Phaneuf, no Leaf defenseman has a better package of overall tools than Cody Franson. He also makes the best outlet pass of any Toronto defenseman. Much like a very good quarterback slings a football like nothing, Franson is able to rocket passes effortlessly. He put that on display for Matt Frattin’s goal, giving Joe Colborne a cannon of a breakout pass. He’s also taking the body more than expected and actively using his stick. Franson is a keeper and the Leafs brass knows it, you can’t teach his natural abilities.

– Just like the Leafs not playing Franson didn’t mean they hated him, apply that same message to Nazem Kadri. Of course they are going to callup Joe Colborne over Kadri, you have to reward the kid for his lights out start with the Marlies. What kind of message are they sending otherwise? Kadri, like Franson, will eventually get another shot, and we’ll see what he does when that happens. Until then, there’s not much to report. It isn’t as if the AHL is a death zone. He still has a lot to gain from developing with the Marlies and Brian Burke has always wanted his prospects to be pro-polished by the time they get to his big clubs, rather than learning on the fly.

– Speaking of Colborne, his speed is noticeably improved. He looks like he can keep up in the NHL which is great news, and he’s shielding the puck like never before. Colborne is fantastic at extending his arms down low and holding out the puck just long enough to suck in the opposition before he dishes it off. It creates a lot of space and causes a lot of mismatches. Don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but when he’s eventually playing with Kessel and Lupul, just the mere thought of him putting pucks on a platter for those two guys is tantalizing.

– Against Washington in the first, he had a nice give-and-go with Joey Crabb down low behind the goal line, resulting in a Steckel opportunity in the slot. Colborne oozes hockey sense and his ability to read the play is already at a high level. There were a couple of times, namely against Carolina, where he tried to go through forwards – especially in the neutral zone – and failed to maintain possession of the puck, which he needs to clean up, but he’s going to be a force once he learns how to keep the puck with men on him.

– On that note, that’s the reason the Leafs shouldn’t be acquiring any players to plug into the lineup despite all their recent injuries. They are already going to get Clarke MacArthur back by the sounds of it, but even looking at their depth chart, the Leafs should feel confident calling upon Kadri, Jerry D’Amigo (whose learning how to use his speed and be a game changer), Marcel Mueller (whose finally learning how to use his body in North America), and Darryl Boyce once healthy. On defense they can still call up Keith Aulie and perhaps even Simon Gysbers, not to mention the already called up Korbinian Holzer. If it’s February and this happens, then yeah, you probably acquire some veterans. But at this juncture in the season with a solid record and it only being November, you see what other players in your organization can do.

– Made a note last week about Ben Scrivens not playing a puck properly against St. Louis resulting in a powerplay goal, and since then his puck handling abilities have only been magnified. The bottom line is that you either come out and make a strong play with the puck, or you just stay in your net. It’s fantastic to see the confidence he exonerates to even come out of his net as often as he does, but he has to be smarter about it. Often he slowly pushes the puck to his defensemen in an attempt to play it safe, but that’s actually the worst thing you can do. Against Phoenix it was most evident when he tried to push it to Mike Komisarek and it almost resulted in a goal against.

– Jake Gardiner doesn’t have a point in nine games, and while he’s playing over 20 minutes almost every night, you’d like to see him make a bit more of an impact on the score sheet. Granted, he’s obviously a defenseman, but would a 40-60 point season as an AHL defenseman be more beneficial? I’m on the fence at this point. He’s proven he can play in this league, but he isn’t playing as electrifying out there as his talent suggests he can. The season is barely beginning to reach it’s grind, it will be interesting to monitor how he progress as the season goes on.

– Tim Connolly is rounding into his game and it’s the same story with him right now. Stay healthy, get on a roll and let’s really see what he can do. Besides Phil Kessel, he was the most dangerous Leaf on the night against the Hurricanes, displaying his talents all over the ice. His penalty killing was in place and he actually had a nice give-and-go rush on it, resulting in a scoring chance. He played 20:55 and he looks comfortable within this roster. With the lineup as it is though, it’s prudent for Wilson to keep Bozak with Kessel and Lupul, then build a second line of MacArthur-Connolly-Kulemin in the hopes that they produce some secondary scoring. Connolly showed his scoring touch against the Capitals, but he’s going to have to take control of that second line because the Leafs can’t rely on Kessel and Lupul every single night.

– Joey Crabb is becoming a routine penalty killer for the Leafs, he offers some scoring spunk and he goes hard every shift. He’s also one of the only players who finishes his checks constantly. Now, Mike Brown does all those things too, except he doesn’t kill penalties as well as Crabb. It’s a stretch and the Leafs are far from being healthy any time soon but when it’s all set and done, do they consider dressing Crabb over Brown because of what he brings to the penalty kill? With their current success on it, how could they not?

– Congratulations to Matt Frattin on scoring his first goal, but he’s a little too shot happy. In college he could beat goalies from the top of the circle routinely, but not in the NHL. He needs to drive the net more and really get dirty in there. We’ve seen him working the corners strongly, but how often do you remember him in the crease jamming at the puck? Against Phoenix he had a partial breakaway and shot the puck from between the hashmarks and the top of the circle. When he starts driving the net, he’ll score more.

***

It was a long week for the Leafs, so it is tough to touch on everything and really get into a ton of specific details, but with a more standard three game schedule this week against Tampa Bay, Dallas and Anaheim, a lot more specific plays will be focused on next week. Toronto has a really tough week coming up, but considering their 1-2-1 week that just occurred, they’ll be motivated to produce.

Looking forward to reading what everyone liked/disliked/thought about this Notebook.

Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.

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