NHL realignment, more Burke & Wilson vs. Cox & Simmons, new owners and, oh yeah, the Leafs played some hockey games, too.
Quite the week and a lot to discuss, so we’ll get right to it.
The most important thing to happen this week, believe it or not, was not the new ownership change, it was NHL realignment.
The Leafs will of course be playing the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning six times a year now, each. They already play four of these teams six times a year, but now they’re adding 12 more division games. So you play 44% of your games within your grouping (I’m calling it that for now) and you only make the playoffs based on your point totals compared to those other teams.
While the percentages are roughly the same when it comes to making the playoffs – 4/7 or 8/15 – it narrows the margin for error against the teams you see the most. Right now the Leafs are 3-6-0 within their division. That isn’t a massive deal, but if you’re only competing for playoff spots with those teams then it magnifies a significant amount.
The best way to make the playoffs is going to be dominating your division and splitting the difference against the rest of the league. You’re only playing the other teams twice each, so nobody is going to be feeling ultra comfortable against their opponents. A lot of that play will come down to which teams are a good match for the Leafs and timing against them and so on. But the teams you’re playing six times a year you should be able to write a book on. This is a down the road matter, but the Leafs are going to have to be a lot better against the teams that they play the most.
Grouping games will be more intense and there will definitely be a playoff atmosphere in regular season games against these teams, which is a good thing. The rivalries should reach a new level and it should elevate the play of every team across the league as far as I’m concerned. The Leafs haven’t played the Habs in the playoffs since 1974 and the fans still don’t get along. Now there’s a very strong chance they could meet in the playoffs every year, imagine what that will do to the animosity.
I could sit here and compare the Leafs to the teams in their groupings, but considering how much these teams will change before the start of next season, it will have to be an article for another time.
While the Leafs will travel more, it’s not as if they’ve benefited from a soft travel schedule lately, so it’s doubtful that it will hurt them significantly anyways.
Either way, the big thing about realignment is the tension it’s going to grow amongst these groupings, and the intensity that it should bring about. Division games as it is are important, but now they will be much more electric and important going forward, and that’s a good thing. Playoff-like games and atmospheres in the regular season? Who doesn’t want that?
I wrote about ownership last week and, frankly, not much has changed since. Rogers and Bell will pump money into the Leafs just as the teachers did because they know they will be crucified if they don’t. This is a money deal obviously and the media powers have a lot of money to cash in on.
They no longer have to pay for the Leafs’ broadcasting rights, so they only make money off of charging advertising during games and I’m sure they have some sort of television plan down the road that will begin to take place as current TV deals begin to expire.
For now though, this deal doesn’t effect much. Yes, Steve Simmons is on TSN’s “The Reporters” and also does some work on That’s Hockey Tonight, while Damien Cox appears on Sportsnet and The Fan 590, but realistically this changes nothing of the dynamic between Brian Burke and those media members.
Unless the Presidents of Rogers and Bell are directly calling Burke, Wilson, Simmons and Cox telling them to smarten up, everything remains the same in that regard. Why wouldn’t it? It gives them “news” to report, draws rating and frankly, it can be interesting.
The one semi-big concern I have is: where do they draw the line in coverage? The Leafs are already covered an inordinante amount as it is and now they are owned by two companies who can easily take it to the next level. Unprecedented dressing access, every practice on TV… Leafs everywhere, all the time. The players won’t like that and neither will the coaching staff.
The word “content” was thrown around quite a bit at the introductory press conference, but the question is, what kind of content are we talking about? If it’s the status quo, fine. If it’s more, then maybe there’s some issues. This is a hectic market where every tiny Leafs detail is analyzed. The last thing anyone needs is more fuel thrown on the fire. More coverage, different coverage, and even more things to analyze about this team.
As long as there’s a divide between what’s right for the team and what’s right for the media, everything will be fine. If all Rogers and Bell want is better TV deals, let them have it. At the end of the day, that means nothing to the state of the Leafs. But if they turn the Leafs solely into a brand, and forget that they are still a hockey team, issues will surely come about.
Now I doubt that will happen, but hey, I’ve been wrong before. Other than that though, nothing has changed. So why bother continue discussing this new ownership? It’s more or less the same as the old one.
Onto Leafs Notebook after a 1-1-1 week that brought about a ton to talk about:
- Starting with the Leaf who only played one game this week: Jonas Gustavsson. He played fantastic and he’s finally looked as if he’s settled in. As I’ve regularly said, I’ve always questioned Gustavsson’s mental ability, not his talent, but he’s becoming a lot more mentally tough right now. Goalies are a little different than players mentally and all of them have little nuances about their game they use to keep mentally sharp: skate out of your net on every whistle and do a circle around your zone, squirt water in your mouth before every faceoff, hit both your pads with your stick before the other teams gets in your zone, etc. Gustavsson always seemed a little out of it mentally, but now he’s doing something that’s rather interesting and I’ve never seen him do before. When they show him right before a faceoff now, every single time he gets his glove and sort of taps his goalie mask with it a couple of times right before play resumes. It might seem silly and useless and it’s obviously not the only reason that he’s been better, but it is something that maybe helps him stay a little more focused during games and keeps his mental edge strong. He’s certainly tracking pucks better than he ever has in Toronto and his rebound and body control is excellent.Â All goalies do something that keeps them sharp in games. Perhaps Gustavsson has found his “thing.”
- Everyone – myself included – has been quick to point out that Gustavsson might not be picking up on Leafs goalie coach Francois Allaire’s style, but he sure is looking like an Allaire goalie now. Francois’ style doesn’t negate athleticism and spontaneity, it limits the moments where it’s needed because he coaches you to be in perfect position at all times. Goalies only make diving or desperation highlight saves when they get caught out of position in the first place.
- Not sure what to make of Reimer’s starts yet, but it’s definitely not the time to hit the panic button. The coaching staff is in a bit of a pickle because they need to get Reimer back up to speed, but Gustavsson is playing well. Eventually you have to ride the hot goalie though and the Leafs have probably reached that time. James had an okay game against Boston, he played better against the Devils, and then regressed a little against the Capitals. One thing is noticeable though, he isn’t anywhere near as confident as he was prior to getting hurt. The main way to tell is how far in his net he’s been. Clarkson’s OT goal and numerous Wideman goals show him in his crease challenging shooters, which wont cut it. Reimer’s at his best when he’s making himself big, coming out of the blue ice and really cutting down angles. He’ll get there, but he isn’t there right now.
- The best game a player had this week for the Leafs had to be Joffrey Lupul’s play against the Rangers. He scored, had seven shots on net, played 21:43 (the most and Leaf forward logged in a single game this week) and just flat out dominated the game. In that game he had a one on one against Dan Girardi and toe dragged him and almost scored. And Girardi is not some second-rate defenseman. I was watching some old tape of Lupul and he’s so much bigger physically out there now and he’s learned how to play off of it. Physically, he’s a beast. A lot of the times he just pushes the puck out wide, drops his shoulder and drives the defender. Considering he’s a lanky 6’1 and nearly 210 pounds, it makes it nearly impossible to take the puck off of him.
- With a little over 10 minutes left in the third against the Rangers, Luke Schenn had the puck in his zone with time to skate it up to center ice and dump it in, and instead he shot it into the bench. The Leafs hadn’t been winning a faceoff all night, it’s a one goal game, and now they have to take yet another faceoff in their own zone. Those are the kind of mental mistakes that will kill the Leafs in the long run. Schenn has to identify that situation and make a better plays. These are the type of things that killed them against the Bruins.
Worth nothing that minutes later he had a great heads up play to spin around with his stick in a “360″ and block a cross ice pass to a streaking Marian Gaborik.
- Another little thing that Boston was killing them on was repeatedagainst the Rangers. Joe Colborne at the end of a shift tried to skate the puck in on a 1 on 3. Instead, he turns it over, New York heads up ice, dominates, they almost tie the game, but the Leafs catch a break when the puck deflects out. It was almost identical to Clarke MacArthur’s mishap that resulted in a Johny Boychuk goal. You simply cannot do these things if you want to be a good, consistent team. You just make it easy on your opponent doing things like that.Â Colborne played only a couple more shifts after that and that’s the beauty of the Leafs depth. Two seasons ago Ron Wilson and company didn’t have that luxury.
- In regards to Joe Colborne’s overall call up though, you have to walk away impressed. He was able to cycle the puck very well and he was creating scoring chances. Foot speed will always be an issue with him, but he’s able to manufacture “zone offense” as opposed to “off the rush offense” much better than most current Leafs. As long as he goes back down to the AHL and continues to dominate throughout the rest of the season and playoffs, there really wasn’t much of anything that suggested he won’t be ready for full-time NHL duties next season.
- In the Rangers game, Tyler Bozak had a 360 pass to Joffrey Lupul that was just ridiculous. It drew a powerplay, and it really showed Bozak’s talent level. Bozak got the puck in the corner, quickly glanced at Lupul, drew a defender, and performed a 360 with just his arms and stick to deliver a tape-to-tape backhand pass. That’s really tough to do.
- He has the abilities to play in a third line role – namely due to his hockey sense and faceoff abilities – but really, his talent is more than capable of sufficing in a top six spot. Prior to last season he worked out a ton and gained a solid 15 pounds or so in order to bulk up properly to handle that first line role. Of course it didn’t go over so well, but he did pick it up towards the end of the year. Just speculation, but I think it took him quite some time to adjust to his body mass out there and it threw off his game. Years ago we saw the same thing with Matt Stajan – gain weight from working out, have a terrible year, then turn around and have a great season – who, in 2007-08, dropped to 33 points when everyone expected him to breakout before rebounding with 55 the next. The NHL is too good of a league to not feel completely comfortable in your body and still succeed. Bozak’s looking as comfortable and physically able as he ever has.
- The Leafs played to Lundqvist’s weakness controlling the puck. They rang the puck around the boards all night and used their speed to win races which led to a lot of puck possession. Against Boston and the Devils, their goalies could play the puck and that hurt. In cases like that you have to flick the puck high up in the air and into corners to have a hope of retrieving it. Generally speaking, the Leafs really out play teams with goalies who can’t handle the puck very well. It allows them to put their speed to work on the forecheck.
- One thing you have to take away as a positive from the New Jersey game: The Leafs came out terribly, but the way they built back momentum was via their physical play. Luke Schenn had 10 hits, Cody Franson delivered a big hit and the Leafs really built off of that energy. There are games when you just don’t have it and you need to find ways of swinging the game in your favour. That can’t always be done solely on the score sheet and the Leafs have been a team that’s struggled to find other ways to generate momentum, so it was nice to see.
That’s a sign of maturation by the Leafs. They aren’t fully there, but it will come if they keep doing things like that. The Bruins in particular are fantastic at getting fired up during games they aren’t playing great in. It doesn’t always take big hits either. You can fight, you can have a strong shift of cycling, you could block a big shot, get a big save, etc. That’s why hockey can’t always be measured in stats, things like these are what really matter in the heat of the battle. They’re often what sway momentum and cause game changing moments.
- The ACC is often quiet now, but honestly, other than goals, the Leafs rarely give fans other things to cheer about. The old Leaf teams would start games off by dumping the puck in and just hammering defensemen, getting themselves and the crowd into the game. The Leafs’ slipping 6-4-3 home record is evidence of that lack of use of home ice and crowd.
- By the way, Luke Schenn played 20:51, 23:51 and 18:41 this week. So it’s nice to see him rounding into form. I’m also pretty confident in saying that he was out of shape coming into camp. Because his conditioning was awful, he couldn’t handle the ice time and his skating was poor. He’s still a kid, so the Leafs aren’t about to throw him under the bus and announce that to the public – especially in this market – but if that was the case, he has to be better. His physical game is a good sign of his conditioning being back up to snub. When you’re out of shape, you aren’t going to waste more energy and time hitting a guy when you can be staying fresh not doing so. It’s worth noting that Schenn worked out with Shea Weber this summer and gained a ton of weight – around 15 pounds. Even if it is muscle, that’s a hard adjustment and it takes some getting used to (as mentioned with Bozak and Stajan). He’ll be better off in the long run for it, but early on he struggled mightily, and a large part of it was probably due to that.
- Interesting thing in the New Jersey game when Jake Gardiner had a horrific turnover while trying to skate the puck out that resulted in a great scoring chance for the Devils. Now, I wasn’t at the game but Justin Bourne (who runs The Score’s blog) was and he tweeted out that nobody on the Leaf bench said a word to him when he came off. For a young guy, that’s incredible. That demonstrates the confidence they have in him to make the right decisions and come through. Because really, there isn’t much to say to a guy after a brutal turnover other than yell at him and/or scold him. They already trust Gardiner enough and think highly enough of him to just forget about it and put him back out there.
It should be noted that if Gardiner had giveaways consistently it would be a different story, but as it is now he logs a ton of minutes and does it well. He rarely coughs the puck up and more often than not gets the Leafs out of trouble, not into it. So it’s a sign of respect that the coaching staff has for him.
- Another sign of Gardiner’s growing role and trust level within the organization is seen through the powerplay. At the beginning of the year he was on the second unit with Carl Gunnarsson and he’s still the puck rusher on that unit (with Cody Franson now). Before it was Gunnarsson. Once you play in the NHL it’s an ever-changing, growing process and this is a small step in what will likely be a big career.
- One thing that’s worrisome about Gardiner is how he approaches pucks that have been dumped into his corner. If you watch, he skates back and he sort of knifes at the puck with one hand, opening up his body, and pushing himself against the boards. It’s really awkward and he’s putting himself in a position to get a serious shoulder injury with how his body is exposed. Hopefully he doesn’t have to learn that the hard way, but I’m just surprised nobody has mentioned it from the Leafs side. Looks dangerous.
- Bourne also had a note about Ron Wilson barely talking on the bench, and even though he painted it to be more of a negative, I think it’s a positive. These guys are professional hockey players who have all been playing hockey, in most cases, for 15+ years. They don’t need to be reminded of every little mistake or detail, nor do they want to be. Wilson treats the game professionally, he tells everyone their jobs going in, they practice, then they play games. You play well, you get more ice time; you struggle, you sit. He really tries to simplify the game and that’s just the way he coaches.
- Maybe the best person to listen to within the Leafs organization is Dave Poulin. The former Flyer captain was a great player, and he’s going to be a heck of a GM one day. Anyways, he was on Leafs TV this week and he discussed the professionalism that JM Liles, Tim Connolly and Dave Steckel have brought to the table. A lot of hockey is about mental preparation. That’s why you hear of a lot about routines because they want to keep everything the same when they play well in hopes that it will translate to the next game. One interesting player Poulin said this had an effect on was Joey Crabb. Even though he’s 28, Crabb hasn’t been an everyday NHLer and these pros have taught him how to properly prepare for games and do the little things outside of the rink that translate in the rink. You can never quantify what a quality veteran brings to the table as they are so valuable.
- Even though Crabb had a rough game against the Capitals, he’s played fantastic hockey and should be commended for his efforts and generally strong play. He played under 8 minutes against the Capitals, but had 16:56 against the Devils and 14:29 against the Rangers. The coaching staff is definitely beginning to believe in him; last year he wasn’t getting that much ice time this consistently when he played well.
- That said, last year his ice time – and more importantly his play – decreased significantly once Colby Armstrong returned, so I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if that happens again this season. Hopefully that Washington game was just an aberration.
- Felt obliged to discuss Dave Steckel for a second. He injured a finger while blocking a shot from Stephane Robidas and considering there’s no fingernail on it and it’s swollen all around, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s broken. Even if it isn’t completely broken, he’s won only 42% of his draws since it’s happened so it is definitely affecting his play. Steckel finishes his checks, he brings size down the middle and he’s even chipped in offensively more than expected, but if he’s not winning faceoffs, he’s nowhere near as important to the Leafs as he should be. I understand playing through pain, I understand players don’t want to sit out, especially for a finger injury. But at what point do you sit there and go, “maybe we should sit him out for a little, at least until the swelling subsides, and bring up a guy whose healthy and more able?” As mentioned, Steckel isn’t all about faceoffs, but it’s the most important thing he brings to the Leafs. If he’s winning only 42%, then he isn’t doing the Leafs much good.
- The dad trip looked like a fantastic time for the players and fathers and it’s always interesting to see how that whole experience unravels. To me, the most enlightening father was Dion Phaneuf’s. All it was, was a grunt. Dion probably had the hit of the year so far this season on Michael Sauer, and when they showed his father he sort of grunted approvingly. Now I don’t expect any NHL father to go crazy and celebrate when their kid runs someone over, but his body language – to me – showed someone who simply expects that from their son. Tells you a lot about the expectations on Dion and probably what he expects from himself as well.
- When Phaneuf played for Red Deer and then team Canada, Brent Sutter, the now Calgary head coach, gave him a tough time and expected a ton from him. When a reporter asked him why he was always on Dion to constantly improve, he said it was because Dion could handle it, and it will only push him to get better. Some players don’t like being poked and prodded – they crumble under it – but Dion answers the bell. It’s a great mindset to have, especially for a captain.
- On the note of Dion Phaneuf, it was fantastic to see him battle with Alex Ovechkin all night. That’s the kind of thing he’ll have to do in the playoffs consistently should the Leafs ever get there and subsequently hope to advance. He can physically dominate most players in this league and to see him do it against an elite player is special. The next step for Dion will be dominating physically and defensively as he showed against Ovechkin, while still being able to put up points and be dangerous offensively. While Phaneuf’s stats are great, a lot of his points have come against teams like the Jets and Habs – clubs that don’t have players who need extra special attention. Phaneuf’s playing like an all star, but he could be elite. Consider Zdeno Chara, who shut down a top scorer in the NHL – Phil Kessel – and still managed to score and be a weapon offensively against the Leafs. Phaneuf will get there, I don’t have much doubt, I’m just pointing out what that step is.
- Matt Frattin had a great goal this week, giving a little glimpse of what he’s going to be all about in the NHL. One of Frattin’s special capabilities special when he takes defensemen wide. He actually pushes the puck up a little, drops his shoulder to make contact with the defenceman, and then finds another gear to turn the corner. It’s a classic powerforward move. Compare that with Lupul, who uses his reach and size but always has the puck on his stick when he’s driving. They are two different ways to drive a net, but both are great to see. Frattin just needs to figure this league out before he can be a great player in it. For now, he’s playing 12-13 minutes a night which is enough ice time per game to grow out his own game and develop.
- Other than scoring against the Rangers, Tim Connolly had a pretty quiet week. He played 18:41, 18:18 and 15:05, firing seven shots on net total this week, but he’s played a lot better in prior weeks. Connolly’s in a tough spot at the moment; they are really counting on him to carry teammates right now as he’s been playing with Crabb, Frattin and Armstrong this week. Ideally you’d like to see him have a lefty on his line because he worked really well with MacArthur, but you’d also like to see him take control of the second powerplay unit. That second unit has consistently had Grabovski and Kulemin with a revolving door of Frattin, Kulemin and MacArthur. In this situation, Connolly is the ideal guy to step up and really lead this group, he certainly has the ability to do so.
- The powerplay in general wasn’t as sharp as we’ve been accustom to seeing this week. The main difference is they’ve gotten away from point shots and are cycling it down low instead looking for cross ice passes and tap ins. You need to make teams respect your point shots before you can work it down low and open up the seams. Even when the Leafs are getting point shots, they’ve been off the mark. For example, Jake Gardiner had a clear one timer against the Capitals, with nobody in his way and two Leafs in front of the net, yet his shot was mid-body height and Grabovski ended up tipping it over the net. You’d like to see shots such as that along the ice so they’re easy to redirect and grab rebounds from.
- In overtime against the Devils, there was only one defenseman who didn’t see a shift, and that was Cody Franson. After the first two pairings played, the coaching staff sent out Liles – Franson’s partner – with Carl Gunnarsson. Of course, Gunnarsson fanned on the puck and the Leafs lost. I’m not saying it’s their fault andthat they should have put Franson on there – you can’t predict a guy fanning on the puck – but I’d be curious to know why Franson was held back. He was having a strong game and his talent is perfect for four on four hockey.
- By the way, Franson recorded 81 hits in 80 games last year. This season he’s on pace for 110 in 67 games. Say what you will about how they’ve handled him, but they are obviously getting through to him. They don’t want a 6’5″ powerplay specialist, they want a well rounded player.
- Grabovski’s had a bit of a whirlwind start. First one of his linemates gets suspended, probably throwing him off a little, then he got hurt, and it turns out his wife was pregnant the whole time and just had a kid. This time off since Friday has probably been great for him and I’m fully expecting him to settle in now and get into a bit of a groove.
For the record, if Grabovski goes on to replicate the season he had last year from this point on, he should start having a kid in early October for the rest of his career.
- A lot of armchair coaches bring up the notion of the Leafs dressing seven defense. I wanted to address that for a second. Bluntly put, the Leafs will probably never do that. They are already tight on minutes to distribute as it is, and adding a seventh to the equation would just be a nightmare. It’s a headache for everyone involved. Coaches don’t want to manage that all game and the players hate it. I’d be surprised if the Leafs ever went to seven D with the group that they have (for some groups it makes sense, but not the Leafs).
- One person did some fantastic work this week calculating percentages, which I think will be interesting to look at. It’s not my work, so I don’t want the credit for it, that belongs to Chris (@folignosleap), who calculated percentages of players being scored on. So he took shorthanded time on ice, counted each minute as a shift, got that total and divided it by the number of goals that that penalty killer has been on for against the opposition’s powerplay. To show that it falls in line with league stats, Zach Parise and Danius Zubrus are two of the leaders he found with a success rate of 95% and 96% respectively.
The much maligned Phillipe Dupuis has an 89% rate while Dave Steckel’s falls around 86%. To give you an idea of comparisons, Dupuis is around the same percentage as Travis Moen and Jerred Smithson, while Steckel is around Dominic Moore and Bryan Little.
This points to a couple of things for me. One, the Leafs’ top penalty killing tandem is generally solid. Their best penalty killer is Phillipe Dupuis -something I’ve been saying for awhile – but after that they’ve struggled to complement them with other penalty killers who can do the job. It’s been a rotating group of Tim Connolly, Joey Crabb, Mike Brown, Matt Lombardi, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and so on. The Leafs still haven’t found that consistency and trust in the penalty kill.
This brings me to the end points of Leafs Notebook this week which are actually brought to – for the majority – by someone else this week. Ben Alavie (@b_alvs13) is a friend of mine and former OHL player for the Brampton Battalions. He played there for three seasons with players such as Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson, but more importantly has a great perspective on hockey. I bounce a lot of ideas off of him and this week he had some points to contribute about the penalty kill. I cleaned them up and also touched them up a bit, but here’s what we got:
- The #1 PK in the league right now, by a pretty wide margin, belongs to the Devils. It’s pretty safe to say that the Devils arenâ€™t playing in front of vintage Marty Brodeur (who has around an .840sv% on the PK), so clearly they are doing something tactically that gives them an advantage. I decided to watch some video on them first, and then compare it to the Leafs PK. This is what I noticed:
- The Devils PK is extremely smart and aggressive all over the ice. They are smart and aggressive, but not reckless. It’s controlled and practiced. They pressure the other team with a purpose, and that purpose is to force them to make passes to difficult areas. Let me illustrate this from the defensive zone:
When the offensive D-man has the puck on the point, the forward from that side SPRINTS to the inside of that D-man, or in the middle of the ice. This eliminates the D-D pass in the centre of the ice and forces the pass to the half-wall. The defensive d-man is reading this, and is already forcing the player on the half-wall before the puck gets there. If that forward cycles the puck down low, the D-man from in front of the net is SPRINTING to that guy, and the far side winger drops down low to cover the front of the net.
- The Leafs apply good pressure down low. Once the puck is below the hashmarks, the Leafs pressure hard and force turnovers. The problem here is their execution once a turnover happens. I wish there was a stat that showed the amount of failed attempts to get the puck out of the zone on the PK. I guarantee there would be a positive correlation to PK percentage. In general, the Leafs are just too soft on the puck when clearing it.
- This goal by David Clarkson highlights both of these points. The Leafs fail to get the puck out numerous times. Then, when Jersey gets control of the puck, every Leaf player is a step behind in his rotation. which results in Clarkson getting nearly three seconds by himself, in the slot, to score. That’s more than enough time in the NHL.
- The Devils also play their top players on the PK. More often than not, your best players are those who are impeccable positionally. Even Ilya Kovalchuk plays penalty kill. Iâ€™m not even remotely suggesting that he is a good positional player, but it shows the Devils’ attitude. If youâ€™re going to beat our PK, youâ€™re going to beat our best players.
- Conversely, the Leafs – who said last season and this summer that Tyler Bozak was their best penalty killer – have been shying away from that. Instead of allocating even strength minutes elsewhere to ensure that Bozak -amongst others – gets proper time with this unit, they’ve been searching for answers elsewhere. To date, Bozak’s played 15:35 total on the PK this year.
Obviously, Ron Wilson and staff were in a bit of a catch 22 because they had him playing a lot of big minutes in other situations, but you have to prioritize that a little and move players around to accommodate things sometimes, that is part of being a coach. Clearly the Leafs still think highly of Bozak considering he’s been to all the penalty killing meetings all year and will be back on that unit this week, but it should have happened a lot sooner. It’s worth mentioning that the return of Colby Armstrong will help too.
- Dave Steckel is great on draws, but as an actual penalty killer he struggles. In the game against Washington, he was exposed on Wideman’s first two goals. The first he entered the foray in the slot somewhat randomly to fish the puck out, leaving Wideman wide open to pinch on his side and score. The second goal Dupuis had Ovechkin covered, so he had to step up a little more on the point and take that shot away from Wideman. Steckel is best serving the Leafs when he wins the faceoff and the team ices the puck, killing 30 seconds, and then he gets off.
- Most importantly though, the Leafs have little to no pressure once the puck is moved to the point. This is where the danger happens. It doesn’t matter how good of a shot blocker you are, if a defenseman is allowed to make a pass and gain the middle of the ice, you have no hope. All it takes is a pass to one player, a one-touch pass back, and a one timer. The Devils and Capitals really lit up the Leafs penalty kill while the Rangers “only” scored on a 5 on 3. The big difference? Jersey and Washington both have big point shots on their team, so all night they were setting up one timers and launching bombs. Meanwhile, the Rangers don’t really have that one big shot, so a lot of their play was cycled down low and around the hashmarks, which the Leafs easily broke apart.
- When John Stevens coached the Flyers and turned their powerplay into one of the best in the league, he went back and studied all the powerplay goals scored in the league the year before and he calculated that the majority of them were scored off point shots – shots above the top of the circle – that would either go straight in or be deflected or knocked in via a rebound. The Leafs have to do a much better job of taking away point shots and not by blocking them, but by being in position and pressuring them. You cannot allow NHL defensemen time with the puck on the point to sit back and dissect what’s happening and to fire off shots all night. All night you will get burned, as Toronto is finding out the hard way.
The Leafs have a better than okay schedule this week, playing the Canes, Sabres, and Canucks. The Leafs have been playing .500 hockey lately, so they need to get back on a streak if they want to continue competing with the big boys in the standings. It will be particularly interesting to see Connolly make his Buffalo return.