Leafs Notebook – November 28

Leafs Notebook – November 28

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Glove tap to Mislav for the new Notebook graphic.

Something very interesting is unfolding with the Toronto Maple Leafs and it has nothing to do with anything they’ve done on the ice, or any of their players for that matter.

On November 19th, Brian Burke joined his friend and co-worker Ron Wilson by entering the Twitter world. They then proceeded to have a now-notorious exchange with Sun reporter Steve Simmons. The interesting thing here is not the exchange – that was immature, pitiful, funny, take your pick – what’s intriguing is the new dynamic Twitter is creating and the paradigm shift that is beginning to take place.

Now, I should preface this by saying that maybe Brian Burke and Ron Wilson simply got Twitter because they want to interact with the fans and they think it’s fun, maybe they are naive to the potential long term ramifications here and the trend they could be starting. But then again, Ron Wilson is a Providence College graduate and Brian Burke has a degree from Harvard, so they probably put some thought into this.

Perhaps more than any other management group that has hit this market, these two men have constantly made their thoughts known about how they feel about the Toronto media and the scrutiny the Leafs face on a day-to-day basis.

They’ve told goalies to hide the fact that they are starting, they’ve blatantly told off reporters, and in general, they’ve made the media’s lives as miserable as possible whenever they’ve been awarded the opportunity to.

What if they could minimize the amount of times they had to deal with reporters, though? No questions on off days, no questions after morning skates – the somewhat insignificant stuff – and so on.

Earlier this year, Wilson tweeted out why Mike Brown and Colton Orr were absent from practice. James Mirtle, amongst others, had to be shuttering as they said “As per Ron Wilson’s twitter feed…” because really, their jobs are to be reporters. What’s the point of them if we can hear directly from Wilson himself through a fast medium that takes us literally seconds to decipher?

Well, I would never say journalism is dead, but I’d definitely agree that it is in decline. Frankly, it would be tough for anyone to say otherwise.

Now, with Twitter, players are breaking their own signings, interacting with fans on their own terms, and anyone within the sporting industry is able to make light of their personality however they wish without the media’s involvement in any way. It really is an interesting dynamic. Stephon Marbury, a frequent Twitter user, said it best: “we are the media.”

Essentially, Twitter is eliminating the middle man. What’s the point of Steve Simmons if he can’t even view Wilson’s and Burke’s feeds personally because he’s been blocked?

Realistically, we’re years away from anything dramatic happening in terms of pre-game interviews being eliminated and the like, but it is a rather fascinating thought – who would you rather interact with about the Leafs transactions and roster decisions? Howard Berger, or Ron Wilson?

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Anyways, onto this week’s Leafs Notebook. The Leafs had an excellent week in which they went 3-0 on the road after losing to Carolina. Luckily, that Canes game was apart of last week’s Leafs Notebook, so we can focus on the wins.

- Out of sheer curiosity, I looked over the save percentage stats of the starting goalies from top 12 teams in the Eastern Conferences. I picked the top 12 teams because I don’t think the other three teams (Jets, Canes, Islanders) have a shot at the playoffs. Here’s what I found: Only one team in the top eight has a worse save percentage than Jonas Gustavsson’s .901 and that’s Ilya Bryzgalov with an .897sv%. You should note, however, that the Flyers are the highest scoring team in the entire league. In fact, within that top eight, other than Bryzgalov and Gustavsson and Tomas Vokoun’s .905sv%, the next lowest mark is the .922sv% mark of Jose Theodore.

The average save percentage between the top 12 teams – excluding the Leafs – is .915sv%. If you take away the four teams not in a playoff spot right now (NJ, TBay, Ottawa and Montreal) that number in fact increases to a .921sv% mark (again, excluding Gustavsson’s save percentage).

Toronto has not seen good goaltending in such a long time, that sometimes perspective can be ruffled. Take this week for example, has Gustavsson played better? Yes, and nobody should say otherwise. But they scored seven goals against Tampa Bay and they played an Anaheim team that had only one line capable of getting out of their own end. Even against Dallas, he had an .897sv% on the game which is consistent with his general numbers, and well below league average.

This isn’t to discredit what Gustavsson has done – I give him full marks for the way he’s battled this week in the net – but when you look at the big picture and the other teams slated to make the playoffs, these are their goalies: MA Fleury, Tim Thomas, Jose Theodore, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller (I used Jhonas Enroth’s stats since he played more games) and Tomas Vokoun. That’s a very accomplished group. For a young Leafs team, they are going to need really good goaltending, and clearly they aren’t even getting playoff average goaltending.

Bottom line, as games get tighter and the season gets closer to the end then the beginning, better goaltending will be needed. We could sit here and commend them – and part of us should – but at the end of the day they’ll need to be even better. And yes, goaltending is more than just the guy in net, but no, not one Leafs goaltender has any sort of pedigree resembling anything close to the other playoff goaltenders resumes.

On the positive, it’s a testament to the entire Leafs team that they can play this well and win this many games while receiving goaltending that is below par. Should they receive good or even great goaltending, they will be that much scarier.

- Can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a Leaf team this confident on the whole. They went down 1-0 in Dallas and in Anaheim and weren’t phased at all. They are playing like a team that believes that, if they stick to their game plan and do their jobs, they are going to win games. They’re buying into what the coaches are preaching and they are believing in themselves. Kudos to everyone involved.

- Ron Wilson did a great job incorporating Mikhail Grabovski into the mix against the Ducks. He played 13:40 and even though he started on the fourth line, he had some jam, created some opportunities and had a noticeable jump to his step. It was also interesting to see the Leafs use Clarke MacArthur, Grabovski and Tim Connolly together as the second powerplay unit towards the end of the game. There’s potential there. Grabovski was also 7/10 in the faceoff dot – the best of any Leaf on the night. Plus, he took Steckel’s minutes on the penalty kill. Along with Kulemin, he’s easily the Leafs’ most versatile forward.

- In general, Wilson and his staff managed everyone’s minutes nicely in a generally speaking easy win against the Ducks. Phil Kessel, Liles and Tyler Bozak each played under 19 minutes, Lupul played 19:29, Wilson brought up the playing time of Crabb (he logged close to 15 minutes), and he had three other bottom six forwards on the night log over 13 minutes in Grabovski, Frattin and Colborne.

I bring that up because Wilson has been playing the heck out of his top guys lately and it was nice for the team to get a win like this (especially after the TOI distribution against Dallas), where they could rest the big guys.

-  Against the Ducks there were two plays that really stood out in terms of the confidence level some of the Leaf players are currently playing at. The first occurred at the beginning of the second period, where Luke Schenn had the puck just inside his own blueline and he connected on an outlet pass right up the middle to Clarke MacArthur, nearly springing the winger on a breakaway. First of all, I didn’t even know Schenn had that pass in his arsenal (it split two defensemen. Secondly, he’s not the most talented of players, but for him to have that self confidence to even try that pass – let alone connect on it – shows that his game is starting to round out.

The second play actually resulted in a goal this time. It was the Joe Colborne saucer pass to Luke Schenn, which resulted in Joey Crabb’s goal. The talent that Colborne has to throw that soft of a pass right on the tape speaks for itself. But to do it with Ryan Getzlaf of all people between you and your target with a mistake resulting in an easy breakaway, is ridiculous. Obviously Colborne believes in himself and his abilities.

- Against Tampa Bay the Leafs more or less shutdown their PP, but most importantly, they took away Stamkos. Whenever I’ve spoken about penalty killing, I’ve always said it’s okay to get beat, just don’t get beat at what they do best. Against the Lightning Carl Gunnarsson hovered between Steven Stamkos and the front of the net and effectively took away that one-timer.

- On Joffrey Lupul’s goal against the Lightning, this is all Tyler Bozak did that shift: First, hop off the bench, drive the net and fire a shot that just missed the far side corner on Roloson. Then, as the puck moved back up, he finished his check hard on Eric Brewer, causing the 6’5 defenseman to go down, and had a give-and-go with Lupul who missed the net. Next, Bozak went to the slot as he corralled a bouncing puck and set up Joffrey Lupul, who then wired one home.

Bozak has taken his fair share of criticism in this market and I’ve always struggled to grasp why. He’s a heady player, and what really stands out about him right now is his speed and the confidence he is beginning to show. I was watching some old tape of his first season, when he did things like this. While he really hasn’t shown that sort of creativity for a long time, all week he was driving hard to the net, attempting to slip the puck through guys’ legs, and looking like a shifty center. He was highly coveted for a reason and, if his confidence continues to grow, the Leafs could be looking at quite the player.

Last season Bozak looked like a player happy to being playing with Phil Kessel, this year he looks like a player who believes he belongs there.

- Speaking of development, against Boston early in the season Franson idly sat by as Chris Kelly scored this goal. But against Tampa Bay Steven Stamkos jammed at the puck hard while Jonas Gustavsson had it covered and Franson just thundered him onto the ice. It was great to see that after what I thought was a pedestrian effort against the Bruins, one the coaches were more than likely not too pleased about either.

- So Jay Rosehill was on the ice when Ryan Malone hit Gustavsson, did absolutely nothing when Gustavsson was hit, and then proceeded to take a holding penalty on the same shift. If he’s not going to stand up for your goalie in that situation, then what’s the point of playing? Colton Orr might not be a lot of things, but he would have made a statement that what Malone did was not acceptable, because it wasn’. Yet, Rosehill did nothing and ended up taking a two minute holding penalty anyways. I like Rosehill, but he has to understand his role.

- What a smart play by Joey Crabb to realize that Kari Lehtonen was struggling playing the puck.  As Crabb crossed center ice, he saw Colborne had a step on the far side defenseman, so he wired it around the boards hard and went to the net. Colborne easily wins the race, puts the puck back to Phaneuf and the guy who started the play – Crabb – scores the goal off the tip.

Joey Crabb is one of only four forwards being used as a penalty killer and overall he’s playing solid hockey. He’s tough on the puck, finishes his checks and chips in offensively. Crabb’s averaging 12:14 a night and he’s reliable. Bottom line, there’s no justification in sending him down at any point this season if he continues to play like he is.

- Another interesting lineup note is what’s going on in the top six right now. Bozak is playing well between Lupul and Kessel and deserves to stay there for the time being. Meanwhile, the second line has meshed nicely with Tim Connolly centering Clarke MacArthur and Nik Kulemin. The added dynamic of putting a right handed shot between the two lefties opens up a lot of options out on the ice. Plus, MacArthur and Connolly have played with each other before in Buffalo. There’s no reason to break that line up right now either.

Essentially, they are looking at Mikhail Grabovski centering the third/fourth line for the time being and that’s not a bad thing. He could play with any sort of combination of Frattin, Crabb, Dupuis or Colborne. If Grabovski on his own playing against the weaker lines of other teams, he’s going to cause the opposition headaches. Either Tyler Bozak is the real deal and he stays up on that top line, or he comes back down to earth and drops to the third line. Either way, no harm, no foul. Let’s allow this to play out.

- Would Sheldon Souray absolutely destroy Phil Kessel in a fight? No doubt. But did Kessel back down or look for his teammates to defend him when Souray confronted him hard after a whistle? No. You have to respect that.

-Wilson’s going to be tough on Cody Franson, that much is clear. Against the Stars in the first period he pinched in at the blueline, the Dallas forward chipped it around him and Franson was catching up on a 3-on-2 going the other way. Obviously, as a defenseman you’ll never keep the puck in every time you pinch, but you are able to make contact with that forward who just got the puck by you, meaning he shouldn’t be skating freely all the way down the ice like Benn was. Coaches teach that at an early age. Franson didn’t play very much after that mistake, but when Gunnarsson got hurt he was given more ice time out of necessity. He only played 11 minutes and that’s fine. Franson is still raw, there’s going to be a ton of nights where he plays minimally. The payoff with him will be a year or two from now, not this season.

In comparison, the Leafs will stick with Nikolai Kulemin because the pay off with his production will come at some point this year.

- When I was at The Hockey News, I overheard Kris Versteeg talking to Andrew Ladd and Ladd asked him about Toronto. To paraphrase what Versteeg said, he basically said it was crazy because you’d go on a goal drought and then you’d have 10 reporters asking you how you feel, to which he quipped to Ladd, “how do you think I feel?” And that’s coming from a guy who loves the sound of his own voice. Can’t imagine what’s running through Kulemin’s head.

- Looking at the defense, this is what the top four played against Dallas: Jake Gardiner – 28:34, Dion Phaneuf – 27:09, Luke Schenn – 27:00, JM Liles – 24:04. They all looked dead tired when overtime was going on, but it’s a testament to them that they battled hard and got the job done.

- How about Joffrey Lupul? Led all forwards in ice time against the Stars, playing 23:55, and he was all over the ice. A lot of ice time for a forward is 18 minutes, and Lupul played nearly 24 in a tight game between two good teams. Considering this is his first full season since 2008-09 (which is crazy by the way) it speaks so highly of the work he put in this summer, the determination he has to be the best he can be, and how motivated he is right now. In that near near 24 minutes, he had an assist, five hits, two shots on net and, of course, the shootout winner to win the game.

Second in ice time amongst forwards? Tyler Bozak at 22:15.

- After the highstick on Joffrey Lupul, Bozak ran a Dallas defenseman hard behind the net and into the boards. It’s a little thing, but when your player gets hit, you have to respond. It doesn’t have to be a fight, but simply repaying the favour always sends a message.

- Along those lines, when Dallas was pressing to tie the game (which they did) they really physically dominated the Leafs. Steve Ott was going after it and finishing checks, and Jamie Benn flattened Franson behind the play.  Shortly after, though, Tomas Vincour crossed the blueline and Luke Schenn just hammered him. Dallas’ physical play noticeably subsided after that. That’s what happens when you have that kind of muscle power in your lineup.

- That said, the defense looks a lot better and more mobile without Komisarek and Schenn in the lineup at the same time. Eventually something will have to give there. I’m sure Burke knows that too, but he’s biding his time until the right deal comes along – which has been his pattern since he’s gotten here (see the Kaberle trade, Jason Blake trade, etc.).

- Along those lines – and I’m not saying that they wouldn’t work together in the same defensive core – but I wonder how well Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie can co-exist in the same roster. Offense from the defense is so key.

- Joe Colborne went 8/14 at the dot against Dallas. Considering David Steckel was the only other Leafs center who won over 50% of his faceoffs, that’s awfully impressive. Colborne will eventually get sent back down once this team heals up, but he’s really sending a message right now that he’s going to be ready and make an impact sooner than people thought. Giving management something to think about.

- Frattin’s been routinely playing between 11 and 13 minutes, I’d have to think if they ever actually get healthy enough that he, too, will be sent down to the minors.

- The Leafs penalty kill took a ton of criticism ten games into the season. Every time a powerplay goal was scored against Toronto fans were calling for Wilson’s head and wondering what’s wrong, even though Greg Cronin is largely responsible for that unit. Cronin’s in his first year with a team who was already shuffling bodies on a nightly basis, without their number one goalie, and taking a ton of heat. With all the scrutiny that unit was coming under, it would have been very easy for Wilson to undercut Cronin, step in, and take control of that unit. Instead, he stood by patiently, took the criticism himself and allowed his new coach time. I said it would take at least 20 games for this unit to come together and it looks like that was right. Hockey is a process and a marathon, it is not a sprint.

- You could say the same thing for the powerplay and Wilson allowing Scott Gordon to implement his systems properly. Nobody seems to have any issues with that unit all of a sudden.

- On that note, often within the first 10 games fans wondered why Mikhail Grabovski’s line wasn’t getting the first unit powerplay time when Kessel’s line struggled. Well, at the end of the day your talent wins you games. The Leafs took the short-term bumps for the long-term gain. That line struggled early on to get comfortable with the man advantage – and they’ll surely struggle again at points – but at the end of the day Kessel is the most talented Leaf forward and Lupul is their best net presence. They need to be given time because these are the guys that are going to win you games when it’s all said and done. Clearly, it’s beginning to pay off.

Later in the season is when you really begin to bench guys and sit units off for struggling. Early on, you have to allow these guys opportunities to gel and get their timing with each other.

- Still on the patience point here. Everyone seemed to think the Leafs already “ruined” Cody Franson and Jonas Gustavsson when they were both not playing for various reasons. Without getting into semantics of either situation, I think it’s safe to say that neither player is ruined. It’s not like Wilson is rooting for guys to fail. If Gustavsson played like he has lately night-in and night-out, I’m sure he’d love to play him as much as possible. It wasn’t happening though. It is now and he’s being rewarded. That’s how hockey works.

- You can apply this same process to Nazem Kadri. When he gets called up and plays well, Wilson and the Leafs will make room for him to play nightly. Until then, he’s in tough. This is also the last thing I’ll say about Kadri until he’s called up. There’s no use talking about him anymore. He’ll eventually be called up and when he does his play will speak for itself. Until then, there’s nothing to say really.

- Felt it was necessary to point out that Tim Connolly far and away has the best hockey sense on the Leafs.

- I’ll end by making a quick point about Keith Aulie. Some players are not suited to play in the AHL. It’s much more disorganized, and there are a lot of weak players that you can feast on. Simply put, it’s a different game and not everyone can play it. Tyler Bozak, for example, struggled in the AHL. Keith Aulie is a player that struggles for that reason in the AHL. Nobody should be worried about this guy at all, he’s going to be an impact player.

Also, Aulie did nothing wrong going down to block the pass on Corey Perry’s goal. That was simply a great play by a great player.

***

The Leafs play two games this week, and both are against Boston. Considering the way the Bruins have man handled them in the first two matches this season, the Leafs have to make a statement and show something this week against their division rivals.

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli

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