Last season Brian Burke boldly stood in front of the media after trading Tomas Kaberle and made it clear, â€œGetting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team here.â€
A little under a year later and 32 games into the next season, it’s fair to begin evaluating whether the Leafs are playing hockey that would make them competitive in the playoffs or if they’re doing just enough to make it and subsequently get their “ass kicked in the first round.” At this point in the season, it seems a lot closer to the latter.
Systemically, the Leafs play to outscore the other team, instead of playing to win.
Now, those sound like the same thing – technically, they are – but here’s the difference: Instead of the Leafs playing tough defensive hockey, taking what’s given to them and capitalizing on it in order to win, the Leafs are willing to concede some scoring chances against in order to get good scoring chances for themselves. In essence, they play a style that means a lot more 4-3, 5-4 games instead of 2-1, 3-2 games.
Ron Wilson has been on record as saying it’s fun and exciting. He says the players like it, the fans like it, and it’s a great brand of hockey.
But since when is hockey at the NHL level purely about fun and excitement? It’s about winning games, which should be all the fun and excitement you need.
The book on the Leafs is pretty simple and teams are beginning to figure it out across the league: clog the neutral zone, don’t allow them to gather speed, counter attack them and draw penalties. The Leafs aren’t able to consistently dump the puck in, wear you down, win battles, take the body, and cycle the puck. They rely on the rush, a quick strike offense and an awesome powerplay.
Headed Â into a game against the Leafs, Â the opposition is thinking two main things – shut down the Kessel line and get on the powerplay, because the chances are strong you’ll win if you do those two things.
Take the two games against the Washington Capitals, for example. The first game, the Leafs broke it wide open, traded chances with the Capitals, but their depth came through and they ran them out of the building while aided by a strong powerplay. The second game – under a new coach – the Capitals played a trap game, waited until they got powerplays, and then capitalized. After the game Wilson and the players talked about how they dominated 5 on 5 but dumb penalties and a bad penalty kill let them down, but really they played into the Capitals hands because Washington negated their neutral zone speed, didn’t allow many odd man rushes, and then they scored when the Leafs got penalties.
This week, we saw an almost the replay of that against the Buffalo Sabres: very wide open first period, the Leafs even got a lead, but the Sabres bode their time until they got some powerplays and then pulled away. Obviously these are both simplistic views, but that’s what it boils down to.
The bigger issue revolves around the Leafs playing the really good teams in the NHL because the Leafs open up the game and want to role their lines all the time with the idea that their attack will come in “waves”, one after the other. The problem is, while the Leafs are relatively deep, they aren’t that deep or that good. It’s not like Vancouver was worried about rolling lines against the Leafs (in fact, they did a better job of it). All their lines played regularly and Ryan Kesler led all Canucks forwards with 18:54 (showing all Canuck forwards were playing regularly); the Leafs had three forwards top that. The same thing happened against Boston and both teams top lines dominated Toronto because the Leafs have gotten accustomed to rolling three lines of offense instead of creating a pure shutdown line.
The free-flowing game is nice when the Leafs play teams like the Jets, Canes, Habs, and so on because the Leafs are a superior team on paper. Against the teams that are better than Toronto on paper, those opponents have generally had favourable results (Flyers, Bruins, Canucks, etc.).
What is mind boggling is that the Leafs have one of the best powerplays in the game yet they don’t play a patient enough 5 on 5 game to simply allow their powerplay to win games for them (similar to what the Habs have done at times, or the Leafs game against St. Louis). Instead it’s always go-go-go even though the Leafs don’t always have the horses to pull that off against some teams in this league.
For example, the Leafs would have to have a lot of things change if they ever wanted to roll three scoring lines against a healthy Pittsburgh Penguins and win. All good teams have shutdown lines and units.
In many ways I equate this to basketball and the full court Phoenix Suns offense. It’s nice and exciting, but at the end of the day half court offenses with grinding defense wins championships.
We’ve all seen this happen in hockey, too. The Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres are just two examples of teams who played exciting, up tempo hockey only to get to the playoffs and learn the hard way that what wins games is tough, two-way hockey and smart puck management. Both teams have taken years to recover since making that switch. (NOTE: Buffalo may have been able to win a Cup but they had maybe the best two-way player in the league at that time in Chris Drury, and Tomas Vanek was on their third line.)
Now, the Leafs aren’t in the same class and situation as either of those teams, yet, but they’re trending towards a team that’s high octane offense with little defense and that’s not championship hockey.
If the goal really is to do more than just “getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round,” then something better change, and fast.
** Two things to note here: 1- I still think Burke has at least one big move up his sleeve this year and that could drastically change the teams outlook. 2- The Leafs were terrible all over the ice for the first half of last season, but really tightened up defensively, so nobody is saying that can’t happen. This is purely directed towards how they are playing right now and the style of hockey they have been preaching.
The Leafs didn’t have a terrible week by any means, and other than their penalty kill there were a lot of positives, but at the end of the day the Leafs didn’t get anything in two games this weekend and lost yet another division battle. Toronto is now 3-7-0 versus the Northeast and only the Carolina Hurricanes’ 1-6-2 mark versus the Southeast is worse in the Eastern Conference for records within the division. Considering there are still 14 more Northeast games for the Leafs to play, something better change.
- Jake Gardiner, Joey Crabb and Phillipe Dupuis were the only players against the Canes that did not record a shot on net (although I distinctly remember a Dupuis shot on net in the second period where Steckel failed to tap in the rebound). Either way, that’s the kind of depth the Leafs are looking for – where every line is rolling and creating. As a team, coaching staff and fan base, that’s something to be excited about because a couple years ago the Leafs had whole lines incapable of getting out of their own zone. Against the Sabres, only Gardiner, Dupuis and Colby Armstrong didn’t record shots on net. For Vancouver it was Gardiner, Dupuis and Aulie. Most teams usually have around six guys that don’t get shots on net per game, so it’s nice to see the Leafs getting most guys involved in the action.
- Against the Sabres, the Leafs got all four of their lines out on the ice before the game was two minutes old. That depth is nice.
- On that note of shooting, one player who stands out is Gardiner. You can’t be an offensive defenseman and go three games in a row without getting a shot on net. Shots on net build confidence, it’s often the reason you see good players skate down the wing and fire shots on net that realistically don’t have a chance at going in. Phil Kessel does it all the time. Last year Gardiner had 140 shots on net in only 40 NCAA games, this season he’s on pace for 69 shots on net in 80 games. It’s no coincidence that he hasn’t scored yet. While his job is first and foremost to play defense, they have given him the green light to join the rush so he is expected to create offensively. Nobody’s saying he should have a 40-point rookie year, but he should be getting involved offensively more than he currently is.
- Sticking with Gardiner, he played his worst game as an NHLer by far against the Sabres and it has me wondering if it might be time to scale things back a little. They have a veteran in JM Liles who has seen his minutes hover around the 18-19 mark lately even though he’s having a great year, so that they can play a fresh rookie whose coming essentially straight from college – meaning 40 game seasons – over 22 minutes a night. It just doesn’t make sense yet. The games haven’t even begun to get really tough, and we’ve already seen numerous games where Gardiner has just look fatigued. There has to be better long-term planning by the coaches because right now they are a little enamored by Jake and their judgment appears a little clouded.
- Conversely, I wonder if they’re trying to preserve Liles’ minutes for the time being. I’ll definitely be monitoring whether they increase as time goes on because right now it seems strange to me that a solid veteran, who played over 22 minutes a night last year, is generally being played like a third pairing defender and powerplay specialist.
- Up until the last two games, Liles only played over 20 minutes once in his past seven games. Frankly, even right before that he only played over 24 minutes against Dallas because the game went to overtime and Carl Gunnarsson left in the second period. He played over 20 minutes the game before, which was the Tampa Bay spanking. I can’t answer whether the Leafs are preserving Liles right now or not (we’ll know if his ice-time starts to increase in January) but compare that to Gardiner, who only played under 20 minutes against Vancouver for the first time since that same Dallas game.
- Gardiner’s holding his own, but he isn’t lighting the world on fire with his play. There’s nothing to suggest that he deserves to be logging over 22 minutes a night consistently when they could easily play him a little less and increase Liles’ time and also play Franson a little more than they currently do. Good teams usually make players work their way right through the lineup (like the Leafs are doing with Frattin) yet the staff is gifting wrapping minutes on a plate for Gardiner.
- For the record, Cody Franson’s minutes are beginning to creep up. He’s producing and he’s strong on the puck, so it was only a matter of time.
- How Komisarek factors into the defense when he returns is anyone’s guess. The coaching staff most likely isn’t thinking about that at all right now – probably taking more of a “let’s see whose healthy when he returns” approach – but there are some things that Komisarek did bring to the lineup that are missing. First and foremost, Liles-Komisarek was a solid second pairing, and they were playing much better than the current second pairing of Gardiner-Schenn because they were just more steady and kept things a lot more simple. Komisarek also mixes it up after the whistle and gets other teams going. He’s one of the only players who will plant a guy on his butt after the play is over because he’s touched the Leafs goalie. It sets a tone and it wakes everybody up, the Leafs really miss that. For example, on Saturday night, Tim Connolly of all people had to get involved with a guy after the play for going hard into Gustavssson. No offense to Tim Connolly, but he’s probably the most fragile guy on the team. Good on him for stepping up, but he isn’t the one you want doing that. Little things like that define team toughness, and it’s something the Leafs lack overall.
- Komisarek also made for a much better penalty killing unit because he paired with Phaneuf and then Gunnarsson paired with Luke Schenn, which is better than their current setup (Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Gardiner-Schenn). The Leafs had an improving unit when he was healthy and while they didn’t begin to dramatically sink as soon as he got hurt, he does make a difference because Komisarek is big and strong for the front of the net and he understands lane clogging. He’s no penalty killing saviour, but he helps.
- The worst faceoff man against the Canes was Tim Connolly, who went 5/10. Other than that Bozak went 13/18, Grabovski 9/15, Steckel 5/8. For a young team, it’s essential for them to have the puck on their stick as much as possible and often faceoffs are the way to do it. It’s no coincidence that the Leafs usually win when they have the edge in the dot.
- Against Vancouver, Mikhail Grabovski was the only faceoff man with a winning percentage in the faceoff circle as he went 10/18. It seems every night it’s anyone’s guess who will produce faceoff wins and who won’t. Before Steckel got hurt he dominated nightly, but other than that, Connolly, Bozak and Grabovski are all streaky, which does make it tough to game plan. That’s the something that the coaches have to identify from the start of the night- who is doing well at the dot and who isn’t. Faceoffs can be so helpful for your team if you let them be.
- Bozak hammered Tyler Ennis on Friday and he got a good chunk of one of the Sedin brothers on Saturday. I can’t say enough good things about him as he’s just gotten so much bigger, faster and stronger. His goal against Vancouver was special as he batted the puck down out of air and maintained great body/puck control.
- In the second period against the Canes, JM Liles pinched, Phil Kessel tried to feed him with a pass and the play was broken up. Staal broke away with the puck on a two on one and Liles was at the goal-line as Staal started skating from the top of the circle. Liles caught him. Gardiner rightfully gets a lot of attention, but Liles is one heck of a skater. He doesn’t get enough credit for how fast he actually is.
- I said Joey Crabb struggled when Armstrong returned last season and so far he played 7:51 against the Canes and he wasn’t a regular penalty killer. Joey Crabb looked like a roster mainstay before, but he needs to figure out a way to impact a game positively in limited minutes if he’s going to stick. One thing to like about Crabb is that he provides some offense from the fourth line. But realistically, if this keeps up, Mike Brown will replace him in seconds once he’s healthy and the Leafs won’t think twice about it. Against the Canucks he did see a bump to over 10 minutes and killed off more than half of the Leafs’ only penalty. It will most likely come down to a decision between Dupuis and Crabb.
- Wilson didn’t play Franson at all in overtime against New Jersey. Against the Canes, he got one shift, made a strong breakout pass and the play ended up with Connolly getting the game winner. Franson’s going to have to earn Wilson’s trust the hard way, but it’s coming.
- The thing about Cody – and I know what it is with the coaching staff – is that he’s so nonchalant out there. It has to drive them crazy. Any coach would rather throw out a guy whose going to work hard and maybe make mistakes than a guy whose really talented but lackadaisical looking out there. For instance, Wilson puts him out to start the game against Carolina and he casually throws a backhander up the boards that goes out of bounds for a penalty. It’s not necessarily the penalty that’s bothersome, it’s the whole process of it. The caveat is that Franson doesn’t seem to do it on purpose, but it’s just the way he plays. Later in that game, Chad Larose had a direct one-on-one rush against him and tried to dangle Cody. Franson stopped him and as the play was going up ice he gave Larose an additional hard shove down to the ice as if to say “don’t try and embarrass me like that again.” He didn’t have to do it, but he did. That’s because he has pride out there which is good, he just needs to show it a little better.
- Tim Connolly is such a crafty veteran. His tip in against the Canes showed that. But there’s so many little things he does that go unnoticed. For example, he had a two on one with Clarke MacArthur against Buffalo in the first period and he slashed the defenseman’s stick just enough to disrupt him and give MacArthur enough space to get a good scoring chance on net. If the rebound was in a different place, Connolly would have had a tap-in. Either way, it was a great little play. He has all sorts of nifty little moves like that.
- Penalty killing is not rocket science, despite the Leafs best efforts to make it look like that. I don’t want to analyze their penalty killing too much because it seems that’s all I’ve been doing for about two months but I just want to point out and ask: where has the common sense gone? At the end of the day, you can breakdown, analyze, criticize and whatever, but if you aren’t thinking, it’s all for not.
- For example, on Ponikarovsky’s goal to tie the game, Jussi Jokinen gets the puck at the top of the circle, Luke Schenn steps up and puts his stick in the middle of the ice even though there’s no backdoor play in progress, and Gardiner is with Ponikarovsky in front of the net. So what’s that stick doing exactly? The only possible way it can contribute to the play is if Jokinen shoots and it deflects off his stick (which could be good or bad). So Schenn opens up an easy passing lane down low where Staal is positioned, Jokinen feeds it to him (which is where Schenn’s stick should have been in the first place) and Ponikarovsky ties the game.
- Or how about Jake Gardiner going behind the net to chase Tomas Vanek on Drew Stafford’s goal? That’s not even a good play 5-on-5 so why would it be helpful on a penalty kill? Forget coaching, forget pressure, forget everything right now other than common sense. You have to be at your sharpest when you kill penalties, but the Leafs appear to be at their mentally weakest. It really is mind boggling to watch.
- And everybody is guilty of simple mistakes like these, those were just too convenient examples to point out that everyone can understand. You can even use the example of the Leafs struggling to clear the puck. Often players get it, they coral the puck, look up, then fail to get out. It’s a penalty kill, there are no icings, so don’t think about it, just hammer it out. More than anything, it’s the simple parts of killing a penalty that the Leafs really, really struggle in.
- Throughout all of this, I can only imagine what Phil Kessel is thinking. Here’s a guy whose second in the league in scoring. He asked to be a penalty killer, but he hasn’t been. He has a wonderful effort to get the first goal against the Sabres, he’s on when Phaneuf reclaims the lead, then next shit Buffalo ties it. He has one more shift before Buffalo goes on the powerplay for over five consecutive minutes and by the time he’s finally put on the ice during the penalty kill – out of necessity because the other PKers have been on for so long – it’s now 4-2.
- Is Phil Kessel the answer to the penalty kill? Maybe, maybe not. But anyone who has ever played any level of hockey – and I do mean any level – will be able to tell you the fastest forwards are always the best penalty killers. They cover so much ice, they apply a ton of pressure to the opposing team and they make guys rush decisions. Even when they make mistakes, they are so fast that it rarely matters. At this point in time they have the worst PK in the league, Kessel has said from day one of the season he wants to kill penalties and he’s having the best year of his career. All the other teams use their best players on the penalty kill – Giroux, Staal, Parise, etc. What was it that Burke said when he was talking about his change in philosophy? Something like, “If you’re the last to change in this business, you get left behind.”
- Second that for Joffrey Lupul. The Leafs first penalty was with 7:19 left in the second and they killed penalties the rest of the way for that period, plus another two minutes or so to start the third. Lupul’s having one of the best seasons in the league and he didn’t play at all for nearly 10 minutes. Again, is he a penalty killer? Probably not. But you can’t have your best players rotting on the bench, no matter what is happening. Then, after all that, he is expected to go out there and help the Leafs rally.
- Worth noting: When Burke was with Anaheim he did not allow Randy Carlyle to use players like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the penalty kill because he didn’t want his offensive guys to get hurt blocking shots. When Burke left, Anaheim began using Perry and Getzlaf to kill penalties.
- When Tim Connolly was signed by the Leafs, Steve Simmons wrote this article basically ripping on the guy before he even set foot on the ice in a Toronto jersey. So when Connolly had a big game against the Canes, I thought it was awesome to hear the players really make sure everyone knew how highly they all thought of Tim Connolly and his work ethic. Phaneuf says, “I’ve got nothing but real good things to say about Timmy Connolly, the way that he plays.” Hockey players have long memories, and I’m sure more than a few Leaf players remember the criticism the Connolly signing took and the way he was treated when he got hurt from the start. All before he even played a regular season game.
- Players say all the time that they don’t pay attention to the media, but more often than not they do. Darcy Tucker was on Leafs TV before the season opener and he said one of his greatest memories as a Leaf, besides the playoff runs, was this game against the Boston Bruins because he was taking a ton of criticism in the media for his play the week leading up to that game.
- A lot of people have suggested the Leafs should go to seven defense, and Saturday showed why it’s really a waste of time. Keith Aulie played 7:12, Luke Schenn played 10:44, Franson 16:19, Gardiner 17:42, Gunnarsson 20:04, Liles 22:48, Phaneuf 25:17. It’s not a great breakdown of minutes. Two guys get left behind, two play third pairing minutes, one plays second pairing minutes and two more playing top pairing minutes. It’s a headache on the bench, other than Phaneuf and Liles nobody would like it (Phaneuf and Liles played a ton, so they wouldn’t care), and in general, I think it is a waste of time. There’s no positive to glean out of it other than getting Aulie in the lineup – which was why they did it, obviously. Defensemen aren’t like forwards. Other than a guy like Marc Andre Bergeron, there are few who can specialize at one thing to make it worthwhile. The Leafs don’t have anyone like that.
- One other note about seven D: it makes it hard for the bottom feeders to get into a groove and get consistent ice time. You’re basically sitting on the bench for minutes upon minutes sitting and thinking about your next shift and by the time you get out there you’ve already psyched yourself out because you’ve over thought it. There’s a reason no good team or team in the playoffs dress seven D and have success, because it’s not successful. You have three pairings, everyone understands their roles and limitations and plays within them. Seven defense is not natural and it’s disruptive. Nobody likes it, not even the coaches (coaches don’t because it’s tough to juggle and you are often stuck trying to balance match-ups versus getting everyone out there to give them a chance- Â that’s why you always “lose” players for the game and they play very little, in this case it was Schenn and Aulie).
- In terms of the Leafs’ inability to win back to back games, I’m not positive what to make out of it to be completely honest. It wasn’t as if they looked gassed against the Canucks, they were simply beat by a superior team, not by fatigue. Considering they are the youngest team in the league, it better not be. But one thing I will say, it was disappointing to see them come out the way they did against the Canucks. They lost 24 hours ago, there should have been a lot more desperation to their game. Chalk that up to being a young team.
- Gustavsson’s save to end the first period, where he reached back with his stick and cradled the puck before it went into the open net, was awesome. He made five or six 10-bell saves and that game could have very well gotten out of hand if it wasn’t for him. Gustavsson didn’t win, so it would be understandable if they went back to Reimer, but it might be time to give Jonas a bit of a longer look. He’s played well consistently for the last little while, and Toronto desperately needs some wins.
- If you haven’t caught on there’s a strong focus on defense for this edition but the one defenseman who is receiving the most attention – for the worst – is Luke Schenn. Here’s my opinion on him: He’s never had a steady, veteran partner who excelled on the defensive side of the game and it’s costing him. Since he’s come to the NHL he’s generally played with guys like Ian White, Tomas Kaberle, and now Jake Gardiner. He’s always been asked to play with offensive defensemen and compensate for their defensive struggles when he should have been learning from a pro the finer points of playing defense in the NHL. It’s beginning to show in terms of some of his mental lapses, being out of position, some of his decisions with the puck on his stick, and so on. Consistently bailing out your D partners and actually playing defense are two very different things. It’s not a coincidence that Schenn played the best stretch of his Leaf career to date with Carl Gunnarsson as his partner. They kept it simple, Gunnarsson helped Schenn out as much as Schenn helped Gunnarsson, and it just worked as an overall steady defensive pairing.
- Quickly on Gunnarsson: there’s no real bone to pick with him, he’s simply a top four defenseman being played as a top pairing defenseman. He makes some questionable decisions with the puck and we saw the Sedins toy with him a little, but overall he’s an economical player who doesn’t overly exert himself but is still effective.
- Back to Schenn, who, in a sense, it seems as if he skipped that step of learning true defense from a veteran (No, Kaberle doesn’t count, for obvious reasons), and those things come back to hurt you. After Steve Mason’s rookie season, then Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said he expected a decline because Mason skipped the AHL and anytime you skip a step in the process, it always comes back to bite you. We see that with Schenn; he’s not an elite player who made that big jump. He’s more of a solid player who was already physically mature and made that jump.
- One other issue with Schenn is that they taught him to play with two hands on the stick, and it’s just not very effective. This article from Elliotte Friedman last year details it very well. Essentially, when you have two hands on your stick, it is more difficult to rotate from side to side and make strong, natural-feeling plays, plus it hinders your ability to clog lanes. I’ve always viewed a stick as a sort of defensive weapon, you can use it to quickly poke-check guys, cut off passes, bat pucks out of the air, and so on. It’s your best tool to playing defense, and putting two hands on your stick when a guy is coming down on you limits your movements and ability to have an active stick. It’s often the reason you see Schenn trying to block shots straight up instead of getting his stick on them and deflecting the puck wide.
- If you’re wondering why they want him to have two hands on his stick, it’s because it prevents you from having a free arm to take penalties and they didn’t believe Schenn was very strong on the puck when he got here, especially when it came to winning battles. Considering that was nearly four years ago and he’s become considerably bigger and stronger, it might be time to get back to playing conventional defense with one hand on the stick.
- Phaneuf underestimated how fast Jannik Hansen is on that last Vancouver goal. Hey, the Leafs don’t play the Canucks that often, and he’s not a big name player, so you can understand how that happens. He took the wrong angle and that was that. It’s easy to point out some things that Phaneuf struggles with, but realistically, he’s logging over 25 minutes a night, he handles the tough assignments every game, he’s doing a good job on one of the best powerplays in the league, and he’s being a good captain. There might be aspects of his game that are easy to pick on, but honestly, he’s the least of their worries and it would just be nitpicking.
- At the end of the day, if someone came up to me this summer and said through 32 games in the season I could make the Leafs record 16-13-3, I probably would have said do it given the Leafs’ poor starts of recent seasons. Their overall play is a little troubling and quite a few guys are having disappointing seasons, but at the same time more than a couple are having excellent ones. As far as Ron Wilson is concerned, either the team continues this downward spiral and you fire him in January (which would allot enough time to maybe make a late run at a playoff spot), or they hum along and let him finish out the season before evaluating his position with the club.
I truly tried to shorten this article, but it just got rolling and all of a sudden it’s long once again. If the length is truly an issue, let me know.