Happy holidays, everyone!
In light of the holidays, it seemed like a good time to thank everyone for the warm reception I’ve received since I began writing here. Half way through writing the first Leafs Notebook I ever drafted for MLHS, I remember apprehensively wondering how would it be received and if I would get ripped apart, but you guys have been great. I enjoy the conversation and for those of you who don’t comment, I appreciate the time you put in to read it.
Due to being out of country I won’t be writing the Leafs Notebook next week, and with that I won’t be around to wish everyone a Happy New Year, so I’m doing that now. Happy New Years! I look forward to continuing with the notebook tradition in 2012.
This is a short(er) edition this week, but nonetheless there’s hopefully some good tidbits to take out of it.
Enjoy everyone, and I apologize if I’m not able to respond to any comments directed my way seeing as my flight leaves in the afternoon.
The Ron Wilson contract is going to be a point of contention until his tenure is eventually over and can be fully judged, but for now I’ll say this: as individuals, he gets the most out of his players. There are no players who immediately come to mind who have left the Leafs and have become better players the way MacArthur, Lupul and Dion Phaneuf have since arriving, to name a few. And let’s give some credit where it is due, he scaled back Dion and now Phaneuf can play defense, Wilson was right about Kaberle all along (and I for one haven’t forgotten the flak he received over how he treated Tomas even though Ron had no personal connection to Tomas), and Wilson had faith in Lupul when Randy Carlyle didn’t (the same Carlyle who people want hired over Wilson, the Carlyle who told Lupul he didn’t have the talent to play left wing in the NHL). There have been numerous positives developments under Wilson’s watch – and there are also negatives – but the bottom line is this: over the last three years the Leafs have continuously improved and it can’t be denied that he has been a big part of it. That doesn’t mean he deserves the contract extension just yet, especially not with the worst PK in the league to his name, but there’s also no reason to freak out about it either. What’s the worst that could happen? The Leafs fire him this summer or next season and Rogers/Bell has to eat the contract? I’m not losing sleep over that.
The argument that other teams have fired coaches based on similar performance is simply irrelevant. The only point that needs to be made is – since when do the Leafs base their personnel decisions on how other teams are operating? We have all taken note of the firings that have occurred this year, but as far as the Leafs are concerned, they shouldn’t care at all, nor do they. It has nothing to do with them and how they run their team and that’s how it should be.
So again, judging this tenure in its entirety when the rebuild isn’t even done yet is fool hardy and premature. We still need more time to evaluate. Barry Trotz didn’t make the playoffs in his first five seasons with the Predators and that turned out alright. Let’s show a little faith here.
One thing I wanted to point is how Wilson manages his players. A lot of people have criticized him for his handling of Nazem Kadri, but Wilson has said from day one that Kadri is going to be an elite player in this league. If he thought he was ready, why wouldn’t he have had him up earlier? It’s as if people have this warped, twisted idea that Wilson wants Kadri to fail. It goes without saying, but he doesn’t. Wilson is the first person to rip into a guy, but he’s also the first to reward a player too, and that’s one thing Wilson should be given credit for. He has given Kadri a tough ride, but everyone saw the shoulder tap encouragement he gave to Nazem against Buffalo. He’s clearly getting through to him. Dallas Eakins gave Kadri a tough time too, the same Eakins who is apparently a players coach while Wilson is not. Ron is not paid to be best friends with the players, he’s paid to be their coach.
It’s also worth mentioning how he’s handled Phil Kessel. Phil clearly isn’t the most open guy in the world, and Wilson has shielded him quite a bit from criticism, but he’s also pushed him when necessary. After two years, he’s clearly getting through to him. If Wilson didn’t think Kadri could take that verbal criticism, he would have treated him like he did Phil. He pushes his players’ buttons, knows how to communicate with his players, and he rewards them when they play well – that’s what coaching is in a nutshell. Look at teams like Washington and Anaheim, they quit on their coaches and essentially stopped trying. This Leafs team consistently works hard and never quits, so who cares if the players hate him or love him? They work hard and they are improving, that’s the bottom line.
Think about the extension this way – while the extension may seem premature and undeserved, Wilson doesn’t deserve to be fired, either, so why have a lame duck behind the bench? It isn’t good for the coach or the players. There’s a reason Burke wanted to have this sorted by Christmas. You send a message to the players – Wilson’s here to stay, now make the playoffs. If it doesn’t happen, call it the cost of doing business.
The Leafs need more weeks like the 2-0-1 one they just had. The Kings loss wasn’t ideal, but at the end of the day, if you’re the Leafs you can reasonably say “we lost in a shootout and both of their goals were ridiculous: one lucky bounce off a stanchion, the other shouldn’t have even counted.” So all in all, a good week. The best part about it? They allowed seven goals in three games. Opponents aside, that’s what they need to do more of.
- We’ll begin with Jake Gardiner, who I mentioned was playing less and beginning to struggle. The next game he played 16:39 against the Kings including no minutes in overtime and very little in the third period. Part of it probably had to do with his missed assignment on Dustin Brown on the Kings powerplay goal (bringing up the common sense theme again as Gardiner was standing in the slot by himself and inexplicably did not cover Brown, who was the only person remotely close to him). But on top of that, he just hasn’t been as assertive on the ice lately, making the strong outlet passes and joining the rush like he was early on in the season – as I mentioned, he had zero shots on net the week before. If Schenn, Gunnarsson, Liles and Phaneuf are all going, the Leafs have generally went with them regardless of how Gardiner’s playing, as they should. You always take experience over a rookie.
- Of course, he was scratched the next game and like I said, they were just throwing too much at him too fast. It was nice to see them sit him out for a game and try to reset him a little bit. He played 18:41 and was as dangerous offensively as he’s been all season in his game back.
- Just wondering out loud; if Schenn’s game continues to get back to where it should be and Franson keeps playing well, would the Leafs consider sending Gardiner to the Marlies once Komisarek returns? Much like they did with Matt Frattin briefly so he could get some offensive confidence back. As of right now that’s extremely unlikely, but stranger things have happened. If the Leafs don’t make a roster move to clear this log jam (especially with how Aulie’s beginning to play), then too many guys won’t be dressing per game.
- For the record, sending Gardiner down would not be a step back. In fact, this happens quite often as you bring a guy up to show him what the next level is really like and what he has to work on when he eventually goes back down to a level he can dominate. The Leafs have done this with numerous players including Kadri, Aulie and D’Amigo. It works.
- In the second period of the Kings game, Phil Kessel made a nice little play where he stopped and curled inside the offensive blue-line and fed Lupul with a backhand saucer pass for a great scoring chance. LA turned it up the ice and dominated the rest of the shift for over a minute in the Leafs zone. The Kings carried that momentum into the next shift and finally the puck comes up the boards to Clarke MacArthur, who has all the time in the world to get it out and even make a play, yet he gives the puck away and LA continued on in the Leafs zone. Last season, MacArthur was the best Leaf winger at getting the puck out cleanly whether it meant winning a battle to get it out, feeding Grabovski with a strong outlet or simply flicking it up and out. This season, he has struggled tremendously in that aspect of that game.
- MacArthur has hurt both of his shoulders this season and he’s been suspended, his old line has struggled and, he has too as an individual. I wonder if he’s ever gotten fully healthy; frankly, I doubt it. He hasn’t physically engaged nearly as much as last season, when he had 114 hits in 82 games compared to the 40 hits he’s on pace for this season. Last year MacArthur was really tough, physical and passionate (remember this), but now he is far less willing to engage. Kulemin and Grabovski take a ton of the blame for that unit’s decline, but MacArthur is just as guilty as anyone else. Forget the point totals of last year, most didn’t think he’d duplicate that anyways, but there’s no excuse to stop being physical, dominating the boards, and breaking out of your zone strongly. For a Leafs team that lacks size and physicality, that’s sorely missed.
- His talent is still and always will be evident. Note the way he sucked in four Sabres and dropped Kadri a nice little pass for the game winner, or his quick hands in tight to score against the Islanders. As he continues to heal up and find his groove, MacArthur should get back to the consistent play from last season and a big part of that will be based on improved physicality.
- There are two main differences between Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak when it comes to playing between Kessel and Lupul, and in general for that matter. In the defensive zone, Bozak is more aggressive in the way he chases the puck around. Connolly is more sound and relies on his positioning in his own end, a more economical defender who chooses his movements wisely and gets the most of it. So Connolly is more of a field general (to be expected as a veteran) and Bozak is more of an in your face defender who uses his work ethic and skating to get the puck out.
- Take Joey Crabb’s goal against the Islanders as an example: Bozak goes down low, shoots the puck in the corner, wins the battle, and makes the play. Nobody is saying Connolly wouldn’t do that, but he’s more likely to get that puck and shoot it straight out.
- Offensively, it’s more of the same thing. Bozak is more aggressive on the forecheck and will be the first man in. Even on John Michael Liles’ goal against the Kings, he dumped the puck, went in and got it, then he threw Liles a pass. Connolly, on the other hand, is a player who will usually stop or curl at the top of the circle, survey his options, then throw a pass – notice his calmness on setting up Carl Gunnarsson for a one-timer goal. They both have their strengths, particularly for Phil Kessel. Connolly will draw in defenders and create space as Connolly himself plays a high-end skill game. Bozak will work the corners, use his speed and strength to win battles, and then feed Kessel. Because Bozak does that he is often very deep in the offensive zone while Connolly is usually up high and picks and chooses his spots to go in on the attack. That’s why the Kessel line scores a ton with Bozak, but also gives up quite a few goals as well. It’s risk/reward. Connolly is a little more steady in both zones.
- That’s not a knock or a positive for either guy, it’s just an observation on how they play. As a coaching staff, Wilson and co. have to love it because they have two versatile options that offer different, yet similar things.
- Connolly led all Leaf forwards in ice time against LA with 23:01, including over seven minutes of special teams ice time for both the PK and PP. His importance to this team cannot be stated enough.
- Grabovski has had a pretty tough start to the year, and then you see him throw a pass like the one he gave Matt Frattin for a tap in goal against the Kings. It gives you hope that he’s going to reach the level that he did last season, eventually.
- Against Buffalo, Phaneuf got the puck on the point and threaded the needle perfectly cross ice in the slot to Grabovski. The first thing worth noting is the pass, because it’s simply something I didn’t think Phaneuf had in his arsenal. He’s shown he can throw heat on his passes, but he’s rarely shown finesse passing ability. It’s something to keep in mind. More importantly though, Grabovski receives the pass, has some time, but elects to bring it to his backhand in an attempt to open up more space and score an easier goal, which is a clear sign of a lack of confidence in his offensive abilities right now. Watch his goals from last season a lot of them were simply shots, because he has a great one. He’s gotten away from simply entering shooting zones and letting them rip. The good news is that Grabovski has shown the tendency to get hot once one or two go in. Even better news is that he’s continuing to work hard and he isn’t sulking.
- Found it very interesting that Ron Wilson put out Matt Frattin, not Nikolai Kulemin, with Mikhail Grabovski in overtime. It was even more curious considering Frattin only played 11:15 on the night. Little things like this is how minutes begin to change.
- One big reason for the Leafs powerplay success, and Phil Kessel’s success, is the net presence of Joffrey Lupul. For years fans have been hollering for a guy to plant in front of opposing goalies and Lupul is it. Standing in front of the net is a skill. A lot of the time people say “just throw ____ in front of the net since he’s big” but it’s so much more than that. I used to have a coach who called the slot the SHIT Zone because Stuff Happens In This Zone and it’s true. Lupul deals with it all the time without much praise.
- At the NHL level the slot is a war zone, there’s so much going on there: guys are battling for position, slashing people, chirping, etc. and through all that you have to be able to screen the goalie, potentially tip the puck and be able to identify the puck off rebounds to bang it home. You have to be doing that every single night. It hurts to go in front of the net and it’s not a fun job. Consider a guy like Nik Antropov, who is a massive 6’6 with great hand eye coordination, but was never much of a net presence. Lupul’s received a ton of credit for his offensive output this season – as he should – but rarely do people point out his net presence. It’s a big part of his game and the success the Leafs have had. Full kudos to Lupul for being a player with a ton of talent who’s sucking it up and going to the net. He could easily hang around the boards and fire off shots like Kessel.
- Even though Rosehill and Orr didn’t even combine to play eight minutes, they had an impact against the Kings. Wilson put them on after every goal, which is something he’s regularly done with these guys in order to get momentum back. Rosehill had a fight after the first Kings goal – restoring some energy – and they also drew a penalty after another goal. People don’t think these guys have an impact, but I’ll always give them their due. They hit, they scare people and they get dirty. These guys aren’t good enough to play 10 minutes a night, but when they are on the opposition takes notice.
- Phil Kessel had 10 shots against the Sabres. He’s getting to the point where he is dangerous almost every shift. That said, the one thing he really needs to add to his game is a bonafide one-timer, which was clear this week, particularly against the Sabres. The Leafs were dishing him the puck consistently. While Miller did make a great save on one specific chance, his one-timer doesn’t draw the attention of the opposition the way other snipers do. On that note, the Leafs have begun to work the puck up high a little too much between Kessel-Phaneuf-Liles and have stopped cycling it down low on the powerplay, trying to score easy cross-ice pass goals and quick shots on net like this goal. If anything, it opens up more shooting lanes up top. Players get shot happy, it happens, especially when you can shoot like Phaneuf and Kessel, but they need to get back to working all angles of the ice on the powerplay.
- One player I gained a ton of respect for this week was John-Michael Liles. The game against the Sabres was huge for the Leafs on so many levels: they lost to Buffalo the week before, they were beginning to slump in general, their division record is bad, etc. And there is Liles, joining the rush and he gets absolutely hammered by Paul Gaustad, but he got up right away. Liles went to the bench, wanted to continue playing, did his concussion test, passed, then came back and played. Was he hurting? No doubt about it. But it was a big game and one that he clearly wanted. When you see a veteran take that kind of hit and get up the way he did and come back the way he did, it jacks your entire team up and raises the intensity on the bench. The Leafs really battled for that win against Buffalo.
- There was one play against the Sabres that was extremely small but extremely important. In the third period, the puck got knocked into the corner of the Leafs zone, and a Buffalo forward was going to get there first. Aulie was going to go after him in the corner, but as he took a step toward the corner he decided against it, opting to continue covering his man in front of the net. It seems small and almost easy, but on numerous occassions the Leaf defenders have been guilty of chasing the puck and leaving guys uncovered in the slot. Francois Beauchemin was the king of that. It was just a nice, solid, defensive play to see and it’s something you don’t notice when Aulie does it, but it’s all over everyone’s mind when he chases.
- In his last two games Aulie has played 17:46 against Buffalo and 19:05 against New York. The one thing you have to like about Aulie is that he forms a mean and nasty tandem alongside Phaneuf. They constantly engage players after the whistle. Big Keith really supports Dion physically as they look to intimidate and/or hurt players.
- The other thing Aulie’s presence does is allow Gunnarsson to slide back to playing with Schenn. To me, Luke see’s himself as a two-way defenseman and not a shutdown defenseman, which is important. It doesn’t matter what you or I think he should be, it matters what he thinks he should be. Playing with Gunnarsson allows him to be a two-way player whereas Gardiner pushes him to be more of a defensive player. Luke has constantly talked about improving his offensive game, his shot, and his ability to contribute in that way. It’s important to recognize. It’s worth noting that Schenn is on pace for 25 points at age 22, and if he can become a 35 point guy four years from now, how do you not consider him a two-way guy? It’s vital for coaches to put players in a position to succeed, but it’s also necessary for coaches and players to be on the same page from what they want from a player.
- The Kessel goal against the Sabres was a great little heads up play by Lupul and Kessel and it shows how these guys are on the same sentence of the same page right now. Sometimes when a guy falls like Regehr did you’re unprepared and pause for a second in disbelief, but Lupul kept his head and made a great play. As soon as Kessel saw Regehr went down he found that extra gear to get to the back post.
- Obviously Kadri is going to be a big subject for the next little while, but let’s be patient here. It’s two games. Did anyone think he wouldn’t come out and provide a spark? Let’s wait a little while before we’ve announced his full-time NHL arrival and anoint him a hero. He played 13:43 against Buffalo and 15:04 verse the Islanders, so he was rewarded with a nice little bump in ice time. He’s being put in a position to succeed because he isn’t on the top line, but he is on a scoring line with talent.
- Kadri has been seeing top six minutes whereas Frattin has been getting third line minutes. For everyone who wondered why Frattin was up over Kadri, it’s pretty clear: they only wanted to give Kadri top six minutes should he be on the Leafs, otherwise they had no problem keeping him down.
- The Leafs asked Nazem to work on two things specifically this summer: his skating, and his shooting so he could beat goalies from the top of the circle. So to see him beating Ryan Miller from the top of the circle had to make everyone extra happy. With Kadri’s hands, he will be deadly if he can add a consistent shot and ramp his skating up just a tad.
- Tim Connolly could be the best thing to ever happen to Kadri. Last week I brought up Schenn’s lack of veteran mentor. Kadri has one in Connolly. Both were high draft picks with all the talent in the world, and face extremely high expectations to become offensive forces. The difference between the two is that Connolly was rushed into the NHL. Beyond that, Tim pays excellent attention to detail and his defensive duties so that gives Kadri more of an opportunity to roam, plus they both like to make creative passing plays with quick movements, one touch passes, and the like. Against the Islanders, Connolly gave up a shot in the slot to pass it down low to Kadri, who gave up that shot to one-touch it back to Connolly (the play was broken up). The point is, they think the same. Again, don’t want to get ahead of myself just yet, but the potential and the chemistry is there for them to form two-thirds of a good secondary scoring line.
- Against Buffalo Kadri was a net presence on the powerplay. While I give him full credit for sucking it up and going to the net to be that guy, they shouldn’t be using him in that spot on the powerplay. Not sure if it was just how the play broke down or if it was his orders, but that will be a huge waste of time if he is the net presence on the second unit.
- Furthermore, against Buffalo the powerplay was unsuccessful at the end of the day. However, it did affect the Leafs positively since they created a lot of chances and it helped swing momentum back to the Leafs’ side. They were able to pot two goals shortly after to take the lead. Obviously, you always want your powerplay to score, but if you’re getting chances that’s all you can ask for – it’s still a positive. In previous years the Leafs wouldn’t even get the puck into the oppositions zone and that momentum worked against them. Now the tide has turned.
- It’s funny how a bounce here or there can completely alter the perception of a player or even a team. For instance, last year all the Habs needed was a bounce in overtime of game seven to beat the Bruins in the first round. Had that had happened, we would most likely be looking at a much different Boston Bruins squad, from players to management. Instead, they got the bounce off Nathan Horton’s shot, then went on to win the Cup and have carried that into this season, continuing on as the best team in the league. Think about this for a second, they were that close to a roster overhaul (which was definitely coming, in that first round they were taking a ton of heat).
- I bring that up because, against Buffalo, the Frattin-Grabovski-Kulemin was by far their best line in the first period. Kulemin drew a penalty as he was being hooked on a great scoring chance that just went wide, Frattin got robbed by Miller in the slot off a one timer he got everything on, and Grabovski missed on a couple chances in the slot as well. None went in. Then they give it away for Roy’s tying goal and the line takes criticism. Now, they aren’t playing great by any means and they do need to be better, but the perception would be completely different if this line was getting a couple of bounces and capitalizing on their opportunities like they’ve shown they can.
- In essence, I see a lot of positives out of Kulemin and Grabovski -two guys who need new contracts this summer – the same way I saw a lot of positives out of Tyler Bozak last year. For that reason, I hope they stick with these two guys because they have a lot to offer this organization.
- Cody Franson had a really weak pass along the boards picked off, resulting in an Islanders scoring chance, and fortunately Matt Frattin blocked the shot and it went out of play. The giveaway came with about 3:40 left in the game and Franson didn’t see a shift after that – rightfully so. Those are the things he does that ensure he never logs big minutes, and plays like that stick in coaches minds when they are figuring out who to put on in key situations.
- Against the Islanders, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul played 17:06 and 16:20 respectively, their lowest time on ice since a November 5th game against the Boston Bruins. These guys have played a ton so it was nice to see them get a little extra rest right before the Christmas break. I’m sure they will rest up and come out flying when they are back in action.
- In general, the Leafs had all their talent on display against the Islanders. You saw Connolly put it through his own legs for what could have been the goal of the year, you saw Gardiner’s 360, the ease that Kessel’s line moved the puck around, and so on. It really is astonishing to see how much talent the Leafs have acquired over the last couple of seasons. The best part is that a lot of it still isn’t even developed fully and Brian Burke is far from done in regards to completing this roster. I hope people realize and appreciate the work that this management team has put in so far because it is beginning to pay off.