Home MLHS Notebook Leafs Notebook – December 5

Leafs Notebook – December 5

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Photo: Toronto Star

If the Toronto Maple Leafs ownership group was one person, it would be pretty safe to say that win or lose, that one person is not losing any sleep over it at night. I’m okay with that. And you should be, too.

Full disclosure is necessary, and that’s to say the John Ferguson Jr. hiring was terrible. There is no hiding behind that, and it is far and away the worst decision MLSE has ever made.

To their credit though, they turned it around and signed one of the premier General Managers in the NHL to follow that up, Brian Burke.

Whether you like Burke or not, from an ownership perspective, they’ve done their job. Beyond hiring Brian – who is not only a big-money acquisition, but one with a worthy resume of managing the Leafs – they’ve also stepped up financially in almost every department of Leafs management.

Francois Allaire is one of the – if not the – best goalie coaches in the world right now. He’s helped them land Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, and he’s coached James Reimer to a “T.” That doesn’t come cheap.

They’ve allowed Brian Burke to surround himself with his team: Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle, Rick Dudley, Greg Cronin, Dallas Eakins, and Scott Gordon. A lot of these guys are in positions far below what their credentials say they should be doing, yet management has stepped up to the plate.

That particularly applies to Dave Nonis, who is paid like a GM even though he’s the assistant. How many other organizations – especially those with the big name owners everyone craves – have that luxury? If you’re wondering what Nonis’ value is, he put together the deal for Dion Phaneuf – and Keith Aulie in particular – so that should sum that up.

Without a meddlesome owner in the mix, Brian Burke has one less headache to deal with as well, which can’t be overlooked. Then, on top of that, he has the money to go right up to the cap, a very generous amount to spend on management, and so on.

I’m not saying this is the best ownership situation in the league – it isn’t – but it’s far from being the worst one. If the owner was one person, they’ve had done their jobs: Hire a qualified, worthy individual for GM? Check. Be able to spend to the cap limit? Check. Allow your GM to surround himself with his management team, regardless of price? Check. Fork out the money for coaches? Check.

At the end of the day, MLSE might not care about the Leafs record (and I say that in moderation, because playoff revenue certainly matters to them), but Brian Burke does. That’s all that matters. Burke doesn’t sleep when the Leafs lose. Burke isn’t happy when the Leafs lose and Burke wants to do whatever he can to get the Toronto Maple Leafs back to winning. You don’t need anything more than that. He’s the President of the organization, he has had one heck of a career and he certainly knows what he does in Toronto will make or break him. He’s a brilliant hockey man motivated do his best.

Certain hockey journos and some fans seem to have this warped idea that, because the team does well financially, ownership is not doing their part to make the team better. But their hiring of Brian Burke and the money they’ve spent afterward says otherwise. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t being spending to the cap, they wouldn’t be using their money to essentially pay two GM’s, and they would cut a lot of expenses.

At the end of the day, the Leafs will go as far as the players take them. Regardless of whether it’s the Stanley Cup or the first overall draft pick, it won’t have anything to do with ownership, it wont have to do with fans in the stands, and it won’t have to do with the Leafs’ financial standing.

It’s not like the Buffalo Sabres are lighting the world on fire in Terry Pegula’s first full season as owner, which also saw a massive spending spree happen.

It’s the players that play the game and, for the first time in a long time, the Leafs have put together a team that on paper should be qualifying for the playoffs. It’s in their hands. Not MLSE’s, not Larry Tannenbaum’s, not Richard Peddie’s, or whoever else you can think of. From Brian Burke on down is what matters, and from Brian Burke on down is becoming a very formidable organization.

Onto Leafs Notebook. Everyone should keep this in mind – “You’re never as bad as your last loss and you’re never as good as your last win.”

***

- Sometimes there are teams that you simply can’t beat. For whatever reason, they have your number and no matter what you do, no matter how you play, you can’t beat them. For the Leafs, Boston is not that team.

Boston is a better team on paper and nobody is doubting that. They are playing the best hockey in the NHL over the last month, so right now they are the best team in the NHL (plus they just won the Cup, obviously). Nobody is denying that, either. But for as well as the Bruins played in the two games – this particularly applies to Saturday game – the Leafs did not execute properly. For all the Bruins size and structure, which makes them very successful, the Leafs made a lot of young mistakes (with Reimer on the team right now they are the youngest team in the league) when it came to giveaways, not getting the puck out properly, and poor positioning. This team is still in a learning process.

- The first thing that has to be noted that is lost on so many people is the fact that the Leafs are missing three critical players for their roster that would help drastically against the Bruins: Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown and Mike Komisarek. All three are physical and they play with a mean streak and get dirty, which was something the Leafs really lacked in both games. In Komisarek’s case, while people still criticize him, he solidifies the Leafs blueline at this time because he’s a better option than Cody Franson to pair with JM Liles. Armstrong and Brown add much more grit than guys like Joe Colborne, Phillipe Dupuis, and so on.

- There’s also Matt Lombardi, who played his best game of the season versus Phoenix, right before he got hurt against Nashville. That’s a guy capable of scoring 45-55 points on any given season, that’s on the Leafs third line. So let’s not lose perspective on that. That’s not an excuse for the Leafs’ play and failure to get any sort of positive result against the Bruins, but it is a fact and something to be kept in mind.

- This is coupled with the fact that the Boston Bruins are 100% healthy right now. So, while CBC wanted to sit there and marvel at the Bruins depth all night and basically anoint them the greatest thing since sliced bread, everyone should take a step back and consider those two things. Am I saying the Leafs would have won if they were completely healthy? No, not on my life. But I am saying that the games would be closer, particularly because Armstrong makes a substantial difference in games against the Bruins.

- There’s one more player who I think would make a huge difference and that’s Colton Orr. That’s probably not who you thought I was going to say, but there’s a reason for this and it came to fruition towards the end of the third period on Saturday night when CBC showed a clip of Shawn Thornton before the game. To paraphrase Glen Healy, he stood at the center ice line and heckled the Leafs players during pregame. In the clip they showed he was mocking Dion Phaneuf and telling him whose house he was playing in. As that was happening Luke Schenn skated by and Shawn Thornton said clearly, “What the (expletive) are you looking at.” This might not be a clear cut, “black and white” thing to everybody, but a fourth liner stood at that line all warmup and ran his mouth to the captain of the team and one of the young core pillars of the organization, and nothing happening to him.

- That might not seem like a big deal to the outside observer, but within that Leafs dressing room and on that ice surface, it’s a huge deal. In the Broad Street Bullies documentary, when they were discussing the Flyers road to their first Stanley Cup, there is a moment where Philadelphia is playing the Rangers and no expansion team had ever beat an original six team at this point in history. In game seven, Dale Rolfe fought Dave Schultz, Schultz just hammered him, and no Ranger did anything to protect his teammate (remember, at this time there was no rule against third man in, bench brawls, and so on). The Flyers players said on the HBO documentary, that would never happen if someone beat up one of their own players. It was then that they realized that these guys didn’t care about each other and that was when they truly felt they were going to win.

Is this that dramatic? No, not even close. Nobody even beat up a Leaf player. But the point is that players should not be allowed to intimidate Leaf without retribution, let alone two of its primary leaders. It’s very clear in how these guys interact with each other that they care about each other as a team, but sometimes they struggle to show it on the ice. This even goes back to the Gustavsson bump. Some people disagreed, and said it didn’t matter and that Rosehill didn’t have to do anything. You were right, he didn’t, but it is the principle of the matter. Otherwise, you become the Buffalo Sabres and have your goalies getting run like a bad habit. The Bruins learned this lesson themselves at one point too when Cooke hit Savard and nobody responded. Now, nobody has gotten hurt to that degree on the Leafs, so I don’t want my words misinterpreted, but the Leafs have to do a better job of supporting each other and not letting other teams walk all over them.

The Bruins are a team that feeds off fear, they thrive off it. To see Shawn Thornton sit on that center ice line and run his mouth freely and to know nobody is going to step up on the Leafs end…. That team is laughing when they play the Leafs and its clear in their body language, how they assert themselves all over the ice and how they never appear to be worried or self-doubting during the game. Now, Colton Orr throwing down with Shawn Thornton at the start of the game might not change all of that, but it sure gives the Bruins something to think about and it sets the tone from the Leafs’ end. At the very least, it shuts Thornton up and it brings up the Leaf bench. A lively fight always elevates the spirits of the team and really is a momentum booster. Especially when you have an opposition player running his mouth.

- I know that won’t resonate with some people (how two players who really don’t mean anything to the scoreboard fighting matters) but on the ice it is a different sentiment. What excited me a lot about Brian Burke’s hiring was that Toronto would no longer be taking crap from any team in the league. Not only is this team soft, but the organizational message is concerned with getting away from that kind of physical, fighting hockey for speed and finesse now.

- Right now the Bruins are the standard of the NHL and in two games where the Leafs made it known they were using as a benchmark of where they stand, it was clear that physically, they were off the mark by a wide margin. It’s not like the other top teams don’t dress tough, strong players either. Run right through it – the Penguins have Aasham, Engelland, amongst others, the Flyers have Hartnell, Rinaldo, and so on. Look, I could do this list all day. The Leafs aren’t tough enough and it’s pretty clear. Speed and skill is fantastic, it will help you win a ton of games, but the best teams right now do have big, mean, nasty and physical players. I’m sure this isn’t lost on Brian Burke, who has said for awhile that he wants to add size to his top six. The good news is that the Leafs are far from a finished product on Brian Burke’s end, so eventually, I’m sure he will address that.

- One thing the Leafs do have, though, is speed. The first game against the Bruins they actually utilized it. In fact, when it was 2-2 the Leafs were flying, to that point in the game it was a battle between two good teams. The Leafs may not have the size and toughness that I just talked about, but what they do have is an abundance of speed. While they can’t dump the puck in and make you pay physically, they can get the puck in deep, be aggressive, and cause turnovers with their speed. Boston stood the Leafs up at the blueline all night Saturday and the players consistently attempted to skate through to it to no avail, then when they did dump it in they didn’t respect Tuuka Rask’s puck handing abilities at all by ringing it around the boards. Every time Rask stopped the puck behind the net and made an easy outlet pass. Every time. That’s on the Leafs for shooting themselves in the foot. That’s easy for the Boston Bruins.

- Had the Leafs been able to establish any sort of consistent, aggressive forecheck with speed and tenacity, the Bruins defensemen (who are a slow unit) would have been forced to back off and that would have given them the space to gain the zone with the puck. Against teams like the Winnipeg Jets you can score pretty goals like this, but against good teams like the Bruins you have to establish some sort of forecheck and build from there. More often than not, the much more structurally sound Bruins easily stopped the offensive rush any time Kessel – or anyone else – attempted to stop and survey the play off the rush.

- The best part of the two games this week was Jake Gardiner. He was magnificent, playing 23:44 Wednesday and 26:04 Saturday. On Wednesday, he made two very special passes, both in the first period. The first – he was behind his net with a Bruin chasing him from behind and another closing in on him from the front. He slides the puck up through the slot, right on the stick of his centerman for an easy breakout. There’s 15-year veterans who don’t have the guile to pull that pass off. The second was off a penalty kill. The Leafs won the draw in the zone to the corner and Gardiner threaded a diagonal pass cross zone to Joey Crabb, who proceeded to have a good shorthanded opportunity off the breakout outlet. Special passes by a special player.

Furthermore, on Saturday, Gardiner made a nifty 360 on the rush, maintaining control of the puck and creating a scoring chance. It didn’t ultimately lead to anything, but it’s a testament to his skating ability, puck control and confidence right now. He also showed the poise of a 10-year veteran when he walked the line and resisted shooting into shin pads on Grabovski’s goal. Although Gardiner didn’t technically make the pass there (it seemed to be swept by Chris Kelly’s stick), the process of the play was impressive.

- The Leafs’ identity of speed and being one of the faster teams in the league is still something relatively new to them and they are still learning how to consistently use it to their advantage. On Wednesday, they opened things up versus the Bruins and got caught a couple of times. They were burned, because that’s what good teams do. But Saturday they hardly looked like a fast team and were effectively shut down by a semi-trap every time they had the puck in the neutral zone.

- When Phil Kessel went through his scoring droughts last year, there was always one thing to take solace in – he was getting opportunities. In fact, in one of his lengthy droughts last year, he led the league in shots during that time period. Conversely, Nikolai Kulemin did not record a shot on net this week. On Saturday he only played 10:52 and it is becoming very clear that something is wrong here that goes beyond the ice surface. He’s not even noticeable out there anymore. I don’t have first hand information when it comes to Nikolai Kulemin and his life or what’s going on between himself, his teammates and management, so I’m not going to speculate what’s wrong with him mentally, but he needs to take some time away from the rink and get his mind straight.

- The Leafs’, three main catalysts to this point in the season are pretty easy to point out: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf. This week they were a combined -15. Ron Wilson put his best against the Bruins best both nights and they got exposed and ran over. In actuality, it was a nice reality check for the three and it will hopefully motivate them to take their games to the next level. Yes, Lupul and Kessel are leading the league in scoring, but there are still tons of details of their games for them to work on. Some of those things include cycling the puck better down low, getting it in deep in the first place, and being stronger along the boards.

Those are the three best players on the Leafs right now, so they are held to a higher standard than everyone else. It might not seem fair, but that’s the way it is, and, frankly, the way it should be.

That said, on Krejci’s goal on Saturday, it was not Phil Kessel’s fault – as pointed out by Glen Healy – because Carl Gunnarsson didn’t give him a chance on the breakout pass. Zdeno Chara was already skating down the boards, and there aren’t many wingers who are going to get the puck out on the 6’9 defenseman when he already has a step on you. That’s on Gunnarsson to read the play and use a different outlet. He had that outlet cross ice to Lupul, who was beginning to break, which is why he didn’t get back in time to stop Krejci.

-Not including the Dallas Stars game where he got hurt and left, Carl Gunnarsson’s 16:01 TOI on Saturday was his lowest of the season.

- One thing Phil Kessel has to be given credit for in these two games is that he was engaging. Zdeno Chara is not an easy person to physically engage, in fact, he’s probably the most intimating person to do it with actually. But Kessel was not shying away from the match up and he wasn’t avoiding the corners. In fact, on this goal by Chara,├é┬áKessel skated back and got a serious two-hander in on Chara. You can actually see him grimace and reach for his knee after he scores. That’s the edge Phil has to play with, he has to be a little dirty. That’s also a play Phil probably wouldn’t have done as early as a year ago. For Kessel to engage Chara like that and lock horns with him is a good sign for the Leafs come playoff time. It shows Phil won’t back down.

- There was only one player that fared respectably in the faceoff circle this week and it was Tyler Bozak. He went 19/35 overall. Otherwise, these are the numbers we were looking at: Grabovski 3/13, Connolly 7/26, Steckel 9/23. The Bruins have the best faceoff team in the league, but the Leafs are no slouch in that department, either. They all need to be better. You can’t have the youngest center on the team having the best winning percentage against a veteran group like the Bruins.

- Speaking of veterans, Clarke MacArthur is a veteran player on this team now and an expected leader through words and actions. For him to be on for an extended shift which resulted in an icing, the Leafs to then get the puck out after that icing, and for him not get the puck in deep is inexcusable. Not only did he not get the puck in, he got rocked at the blueline by Johny Boychuck, who later scored that shift. MacArthur has to know better than that.

- You win and lose games at the bluelines. At your blueline you have to get the puck out and win those battles, at the other teams blueline you have to knock it in deep. Turnovers at either blueline will kill you at any level and the Leafs lost the battle of the bluelines in both games.

- Last year, when the Leafs had success against the Bruins, they matched up Grabovski’s line against the Bruins top line. Obviously, those three Leafs are not playing as well as last year, but they need to put something together like that line to play against the Lucic line (or Crosby line, or Giroux line, etc.). It hasn’t always been pretty when Kessel’s unit has to match the other teams top lines that contain elite players. There has to be a backup plan.

- Ron Wilson really rewarded Joey Crabb and gave him opportunities to succeed this week. He played 16:19 on Wednesday, which was only bested by Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the night (by forwards). Then he played him with Grabovski and Kulemin on Saturday, which I thought was a good idea and worth a try (although it didn’t ultimately lead to anything). He dropped down to 12:57 on Saturday but along with Grabovski was the only Leaf to get a point in both games. Also, even though his fight amounted to nothing late on Saturday, you had to respect the fact that he had some pent up emotion and frustration and tried to do something with it.

I don’t see any situation where Crabb gets sent down to the Marlies at any point for the rest of this season.

- Another player who had a relatively solid showing was Matt Frattin. He’s a Wilson favourite, too. Both games he played a sizable amount. Frattin does a lot of things that the coaching staff has been harping on Nikolai Kulemin to do. He throws pucks on net (as evident from his goal Wednesday), he attempts to drive the net – he’ll get better at it once he learns the league better – and he uses his body effectively all over the ice. One thing Frattin has to get substantially better at is his decisions along the half-wall in his own zone. He often struggled to get the puck out, made poor passes, and just had a lot of head scratching decisions. Early on in Boston, he skated the puck over the Leafs blueline and tried to push it over to Connolly in the process, it got picked off and the Bruins went right back hard in the Leafs zone. Another, he put a weak pass up the boards and it almost got Grabovski killed by Seidenberg (Grabovski bailed on the play). The good news is that these are things you can teach. Often it’s effective to just flick the puck up and get it out, but young players don’t usually see the benefit to that because they are always trying to impress. In the defensive zone, simple is best.

- Wilson not announcing Reimer as the starter from the beginning is getting way too much attention. Ironically, Boston did the same thing with Tim Thomas and Tuuka Rask for Saturday’s game, yet nobody seems to be making a big deal about that. As fans, I don’t see why there’s anything worth complaining about in that regard because Wilson’s lying to the media for the good of his team. He obviously wants to avoid the media brouhaha that would have followed announcing Reimer as the starter on Thursday, so he didn’t. I somewhat understand why the media is mad, but why on earth would a fan side with the media (especially one containing some of the writers that Toronto papers do) over the team?

Also, if you’ve been following Damien Cox’s reaction to all of this through Twitter, it’s been really childish. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to comment on this at all, but it’s beyond ridiculous. You can judge his comments for yourself (they’re on his Twitter-feed), but I think they speak for themselves when it comes to what kind of person he really is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most fans don’t really feel bad for Howard Berger or Steve Simmons whenever they get ripped on by Burke and company. Cox is next. Wilson, by the way, had a fantastic Tweet in reply to Cox and the media. Ron has a bad reputation in this market, but he’s actually a very funny guy.

- For my money, Lupul’s goal against the Bruins was the nicest Leaf goal of the season. Tyler Bozak coming deep behind the net and knocking the puck to Schenn, followed by Luke with his head up making a crisp tape-to-tape pass to a streaking Phil Kessel. Kessel then finding an extra gear to get around Zdeno Chara, then the pass and subsequent finish by Lupul. First class goal against a first class team in the Bruins.

- Moving forward, if you’re the Leafs, you have to like that Grabovski is looking good out there. He had some jump in his step and looks to be ready to start handling his full workload (over 18 minutes a night). Grabovski was skating the puck in with authority, he was battling in the corners, and he was looking to make things happen. Because his unit from last year isn’t having success, the second and third lines are a bit of a mess right now and Wilson has to figure out some combination’s that are going to work. Either the coaching staff gets lucky and strikes the right lines from the start or there will be a trial and error period, which is what its looking like right now. Even Bozak had his minutes reduced a little Wednesday (15:50). Not to mention, in all of this, Kadri lurks as a potential callup due to his AHL dominance.

-In other words, the line combinations could be going through the blender for the next little while, save for the Lupul-Kessel duo. One thing to watch for will be how quickly or patiently Wilson allows for the lines to gel each game. He’s usually pretty good when it comes to allotting the proper time necessary to see if there’s something there.

- Interesting quote from Nazem Kadri, thought he summed himself up nicely: “Just being able to recognize danger is the biggest change in my game,” Kadri said. “Turnovers have been pretty bad news for me; especially in junior when I kind of did whatever I felt like doing. Since junior I’m trying to be more of a complete player and I’m limiting my turnovers. I’m starting to be less of a risky player and more of a reward player. It is tough to change. It has taken me some time to adjust, but I think each day I’m getting better. I just keep working hard and if I do that, things will pan out for me.” (Link)

-At least the Leafs goaltending is going to have a chance to settle in now. Both Gustavsson and Reimer probably let in a goal or two they’d like to have back (as evident by their post game comments of admitting that), but they both played pretty well all things considered. What I’ve always questioned about Gustavsson is his ability to be a backup goaltender and now we’re going to get an opportunity to see that, hopefully. Reimer is still the golden boy for the Leafs, so they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed – look at the Halak-Elliot situation in St. Louis as an example – and being able to get consistent starts and play well is one thing, but not starting for weeks at a time and then being expected to come in and play well is a completely different animal. It’s a tough job and it will be fascinating to see how playing time is provided per goaltender.

- Understood the rationale to starting Aulie first – he’s bigger, better defensively and has had success with Phaneuf against the Lucic line. He struggled, so the Leafs tried Franson, who also struggled. One thing that was interesting was that Phaneuf had seven shots on net when paired with Aulie on Wednesday, yet none when he was paired with Gunnarsson. Dion also blasted one that beat Tim Thomas cleanly and hit the post. Thomas is the best goalie in the world right now, so it speaks volumes that Phaneuf can beat him with a slapshot from the top of the circle with no screen in front.

***

Going into this week everyone – the Leafs included – were using these two games as a benchmark. Through and through, I guess you could say the Leafs failed (results speak for themselves, in the third period, neither game was truly in doubt from my eyes). But it is not all doom and gloom. The Leafs have to move past this and continue on with their season. It was a disappointing two games, but it is not the end of the season. The Bruins should be a nagging thought in the back of their minds for quite some time. When they play well against other teams, they should stay humbled by what the Bruins did to them. If they thought they arrived as a true contender (which I doubt they did), then this was a wake-up call. As a young team they learned a lot this week. Against good teams there are certain things you don’t get away with. Let’s see how they move forward this week against an interesting slate of teams in the Rangers, Devils, and Capitals.

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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