Leafs Notebook – January 9

Leafs Notebook – January 9

Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images

Forty one down, forty one to go; the Leafs have shown a lot so far this season but now is when we really begin to see how far they have come.

There used to be a substantial difference between the top teams in the league and everyone else within the standings. Crunch time in the season would begin with around 20 games left in the season.

Not anymore.

There is too much parity, too many points on the line, and one bad week could bring you from contender to pretender status at the snap of your fingers. From here on out, it’s all about results. One bad week takes two good weeks to recoup.

Of course, some will say that it always was important to get points – and it was – but near the beginning of the year you experiment with a Phillipe Dupuis on the roster, or you have a David Clarkson come back home, buy 40 tickets for his family and play hero on a lazy November. Not anymore.

Playoffs begin in January now, that’s the new NHL. Getting one out of six points from Florida, Carolina and Winnipeg is now going to get magnified even more.

Now is when we begin to separate the men from the boys.

For their part, the Leafs understand that this is when they need to begin to find another level with their game. Joffrey Lupul admitted as much after the Detroit game saying,”This is where the stakes kind of go up, this is the more fun part of the year. This is where you want to play your best hockey.”

Well, the Leafs had a great week and got the results. Beyond that, they came out and worked their tails off all three games which is a sign of them beginning to gear up for this critical run.

Throughout the year we have discussed at length player development and player growth, but now the focus will begin to shift. Those things still matter and will be included, but I’m now more focused on things like player matchups, what players are being used in what situations, whose getting what ice time and so on. You experiment in the first half of the year, the second half is where you’ve established who is doing what and you move forward with those players. That especially holds true for a Leafs team that is extremely young and unestablished and has had a rotating door of players.

For their part, the fans have begun to step it up as well. The ACC was rocking on Saturday night and Toronto is beginning to get that buzz going. This isn’t the Leafs needing a miracle playoff run, this is the Leafs playing well and showing they are a team to be reckoned with. The fans are going to begin picking up now vocally, and that’s worth noting because Toronto is not a fun place to play when that happens. The Leafs used to be a near-automatic win at home on Saturday nights and that kind of success in Toronto would greatly benefit them this season.

Every hockey season is forever an ongoing process full of twists, turns, ups and downs but from here on out it’s time for the Leafs show us what they really can be.

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The Leafs had a great week, going 3-0 at home, and now play six of their next seven at the ACC. This is a crucial stretch for the Leafs to separate themselves from the pack with the schedule they have ahead of them.

– There are currently four teams in the East Conference’s top eight that have a positive goal differential. The Leafs are one of them. People like to point out that stat while excluding the Leafs-Bruins totals, but you know what? They happened. Those games count. The bottom line is that the Leafs are shoring up their overall play and other than their penalty kill, they are not only a playoff team on paper and on the ice, but they are becoming one statistically, too. They sport a 10-10-1 record on the road, but an 11-5-4 home record. If you’re splitting your results away and winning the majority at home you’re doing pretty well for yourself.

– There was a lot of talk about the Leafs dressing Keith Aulie over Jake Gardiner, but here is what really counts there: The coaches love the pairing of Aulie-Dion Phaneuf. Ever since Keith has been back up, they’ve thrown him right back there and they use them against top lines every night. Yes, the pairing is suspect skating wise but they are big, they clear the crease, and they take the body. Aulie’s skating can be pointed out all day, but honestly, when you’re 6’6 and you have the reach that he does, very little is getting by you. Should someone beat him, he’s able to pivot and still poke the puck off of the opposition. The Leafs also wanted to match-up their two big defensemen against the big bodies of Bertuzzi and Franzen, who were on a line together Saturday night.  Wilson and co. put on Aulie-Phaneuf almost every time that line was out but they couldn’t find a forward line that was capable of playing against them, and tried a bit of everything (the Leafs are in dire need of a real checking line). That’s why they’re dressing Aulie – for the “shutdown pairing – and that’s why it was Gardiner that was taken out against Detroit. Cody Franson has earned his spot on this blueline for the rest of the year and after that they aren’t going to take out a veteran for Gardiner. So it’s not really anything Jake did necessarily so much as it’s a numbers game.

– It is worth noting that Aulie was victimized on Kronwall’s goal. The Leafs played a bit more of a zone defense against Detroit because you could tell they did not want to get caught chasing. On the 3-2 goal, Johan Franzen takes the puck down Aulie’s left side of the ice, goes all the way down low and around the net with Aulie right on him, then Aulie releases off Franzen, who drops it to Kronwall. The problem was that Aulie bailed and skated back to the slot, where Dion Phaneuf was already covering someone. So the commentators are blaming Connolly and Kessel and everybody else is blaming Dion Phaneuf, but they all had their zones covered. It was really Aulie who should have just stayed where he was and cut off any lane Kronwall had to the net.

– There was a lot of talk about the fact that Detroit had long stretches of total puck domination in the Leafs zone, but at the end of the day, they do that against every team they play. I watched them play in Chicago the next night for a bit, and it was the same story. So with Toronto gaining a three goal lead early, there was obviously going to be some push back by the Wings. It was bound to happen. Does that make it okay? Not entirely. That said, some perspective is needed there and it’s not like anybody should be viewing that puck control in the Leafs zone as a long term problem now. The positive to take from it is that the Leafs rarely got caught chasing the puck around and scrambling all over the place. They played a bend-but-don’t-break zone that was sort of a “box +1″ format. That means you’d have your standard box, and then you’d have your center roaming around and picking guys up in the slot. Against a team like Detroit you can’t afford to panic in your own end, and their goal was to have the forwards come deep and make the defencemen’s lives easier when it comes to getting it out cleanly. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as the Leafs struggled to get it out all night no matter what line was on. Luke Schenn in particular could not make an outlet pass.

– If we’re looking at the real concerns defensively, it has to be the fact that the Leafs have nothing close to anything resembling a true checking line. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are not high end two-way players, but they have no choice but to match those guys against the other teams best with the idea that they will out score them. The Leafs really need some shutdown forwards who will free up Kessel and Lupul to focus almost exclusively on producing offense. It would make them a much better team overall. The Leafs are at the point where they’ve assembled a ton of talent and are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but they might want to consider a trade where, on paper, they might not get the best player but they get the right player. Without naming names, the Leafs could move a player whose on pace for over 45 points this year and receive a guy who won’t even sniff 40 points, and get a guy back who can help shutdown the other teams top lines nightly. It’s something I’m sure management is considering.

– Speaking of defense and shutting guys down, Luke Schenn played a team low -not defense low – 11:55 against the Wings. He’s had some highs this year, but most of the season has been disappointing. With this being his fourth season in the league, there’s no excuse for his struggles despite his age; at this point he’s established in the league and should know it well by now. To play a team-low as a defenseman is just flat out embarrassing to be honest, and even against Tampa Bay he only played 11:28 in a 7-3 win.

– Conversely, Carl Gunnarsson led team the team in ice time against Detroit with 25:38, 10:33 of which came solely in the third. Now that he’s fully healthy again, the Leafs are doing much better, which is no coincidence because he really solidifies his own end. At the end of the game against the Wings, it was Gunnarsson, not Aulie, who was out there to protect the lead with a minute left. You can bet management and the coaching staff have taken note of how much they struggled when Gunnarsson was playing hurt after the Dallas game. And for those who don’t know, Gunnarsson said this past week he had been playing hurt and just recently came around to feeling healthy.

– The Leafs, when healthy, can role four lines as good as anybody in this league. Joffrey Lupul led all forwards in ice time at 16:42 against Detroit, and Mike Brown was the lowest at 12:11. It’s pretty incredible that they did that good of a job of spreading out the ice time evenly. The other two games this past week – Tampa Bay, Winnipeg – don’t concern me nearly as much in regards to ice time as Toronto won both games handily and that always muddles that stat.

– Another roster change that got everyone’s attention was Matt Frattin’s demotion. That really came down to Joey Crabb vs. Frattin, but not in the way you think. If Frattin were to stay all year, he had to capitalize on playing on Grabovski’s line and he simply didn’t. Frattin is already a better player than Crabb, but Joey meshes better on that line because he doesn’t need the puck on his stick very much, whereas Frattin likes to dominate the puck. Grabovski and Kulemin – Mikhail in particular – like to pass it around quickly and move off the puck while keeping possession. Conversely, Frattin likes to keep control and fire it on net, which is why that line wasn’t exactly panning out. When that didn’t work out, Frattin got pushed to the fourth line, and you aren’t going to have him playing fourth line minutes at this stage in his career. That all said, he will eventually be back up this season and I don’t look at this “demotion” as a big deal in any way.

– I have pointed this out before; when Lupul gets the puck in his own zone, he looks right away to hit Kessel in motion in the neutral zone so he can take off. You saw the same thing with Tim Connolly, who knew almost right away that Kessel was going to release and the Leafs got a penalty shot because of it. Later in the period Lupul just missed Kessel cutting across the Detroit blueline for another breakaway. In the neutral zone, Phil Kessel is like an elite wide receiver – you throw it to an empty space and just let his speed take over and win the puck. It’s fun to watch and it probably hasn’t been talked about enough, but Kessel looks a lot faster this season than in previous years. He’s in much better shape, too.

– Mentioned this on Twitter, but with the Leafs up 7-3 against Tampa, Kadri got the puck at the Leafs blue line, looked up, had one Tampa defender to beat and two other Tampa players close to him, so he gained center ice and dumped the puck in. That’s an excellent sign from Kadri. Last year, he would have viewed that as a perfect time to show off his dangles and score a highlight reel goal. If he had that opportunity in London, he would have went end-to-end without thinking twice. So it’s a nice showing of maturity and comfortability. Remember last season, when Don Cherry harped on the Leafs for making Kadri feel uncomfortable by forcing him to play defense? Well, now he’s looking settled in and as if he doesn’t feel the need to do anything crazy to impress the coaches.

– He did have some long shifts that need cleaning up. There was one shift in particular where he created a good scoring chance after a long shift and the rest of the line changed. The puck came out to Steckel, and Kadri was hitting his stick on the ice frantically, calling for the puck to try and get another scoring chance. Steckel looked at him then dumped it down deep and looked to be yelling at Nazem to get off the ice. Kadri went off. Nazem’s not perfect and nobody should expect him to be, I just thought it was a good little moment between a veteran and a kid. He’s learning and that’s the important thing.

– When Paul Maurice was the coach here, Jason Blake had a shift that was over two minutes and the next practice the entire team stood and watched him get bag skated for however long that shift was (skating as hard as you can for two minutes plus is unbelievably hard). Point is, it happens to everyone.

– One last point on Kadri. Against the Jets, Dion Phaneuf pinched down all the way to Winnipeg’s goalline and Kadri identified it, looked for the open forward – who was Kyle Wellwood – and stuck to him all the way down the ice, making it a clean 2 on 2 that the Leafs stopped. In previous years Kadri would identify Phaneuf pinching and see it as a better scoring opportunity. But against the Jets, without hesitation, he knew that it meant he had to cover someone. Inevitably people will say that Kadri should have been up all year, but he needed that time to grow and mature as a player in order to do these things. I’m not going to sit here and say they called him up at the exact perfect time, but he did need to play in the AHL this season and he benefited from it.

– I pointed out in my last notebook that Grabovski just needed to score one off a shot to get going, and this is the one that got him rolling. Including that game, Grabovski has seven points in six games and 12 shots on net in that span.

– During December, the Leafs generally went with two pairs of penalty killing forwards: Bozak-Crabb, Connolly-Kulemin. Now they’ve gone to three pairings which had success right away: Boyce-Steckel, Connolly-Kulemin, Lombardi-Crabb. Part of that is because Steckel is probably healthy again now and his 12/19 night in the faceoff circle against Tampa is showing that his hand is a lot better. He absolutely dominated the dot. He also won a great draw on his off side with a minute left in the Detroit game, which was obviously huge. A healthy Steckel makes such a difference. It’s also great to have three sets of forwards for the penalty kill because the Leafs often gave up goals late in their penalty kill because the players were gassed and making mental mistakes because of it.

– One other player whose helping the penalty kill is Carl Gunnarsson, another guy who said he’s finally becoming healthy. The Leafs only went with Phaneuf-Aulie and Gardiner-Gunnarsson on the penalty kill against Tampa Bay. Against the Wings it was the same thing, except Komisarek took Gardiner’s ice time.

– Mike Brown was Mike Brown in his return, hitting anything he could and skating very well. He actually played his fourth most ice time of the season at 12:11, which was all five on five play, but the great thing about him is that he is the only forward who will consistently punish the other team physically and keep guys honest. It’s the same story with Mike Komisarek on defense; he looks to take the body every shift and will go out of his way to make a hit. Komisarek played 21:53, which was his second highest ice time of the season. Obviously both these guys were healthy and Wilson threw them right in the fire. You have to respect the fact that he didn’t hold back and went with the guys he thought were playing well. Both Komisarek and Brown teeter that physical edge and you need a couple of guys like that to get in the opposition’s head. You think twice before cutting through on the Leafs net, or you giveaway the puck in fear of being hammered.

– Lastly on the injury front is Matthew Lombardi, who has actually formed a surprisingly effective line centering Kadri and MacArthur. Lombardi has been responsibly hanging back and taking care of business in his own end, which has allowed Kadri and MacArthur to freelance a little more offensively. The lines biggest reason for success though is how easily they’ve been able to breakout and generate speed in the neutral zone. The Leafs have constantly put them out after they’ve been scored on, which shows how much they respect the two-way game on this line and its ability to generate offense. The best example was after the Wings tied the game 3-3, when Wilson sent Lombardi’s line out. Kadri did a 180 and on his back hand made a pass that sprung MacArthur on a breakaway (Howard stopped it). When you get scored on, you need to come back the next shift and re-establish some momentum, and they did just that. By the way, the fact that Kadri went tape-to-tape with that backhand spin pass is a testament to his talent level. He made that pass look easy.

– Against Tampa Bay there was a faceoff in the Leafs zone with under 30 seconds left in the second period, Lombardi lost the draw to Steven Stamkos cleanly, and Marty St. Louis one-timed a shot that went off the post. You simply cannot lose that draw that cleanly in that situation. Going into the third period up 5-3 versus 5-4 is a monumental difference. Even if you aren’t going to win it, tie up the guy or do something, and it’s not as if Stamkos is a faceoff wizard by any means. Lombardi is a seven-year veteran in this league, he has to know better than that.

– So if you’re Leafs management, this is what you have to be thinking: we’re finally getting healthy and we’re winning. Do they need to upgrade certain parts of the team? Without question. But I find it hard to believe Brian Burke is dying to make a trade unless he can acquire someone he absolutely loves (you can play the name game here).  General Managers are always looking to improve their teams no matter what, so rumours are always going to be around, but there is a lot to like about the team that is already in Toronto. I’m sure management knows that too and isn’t exactly eager to start moving four or fives guys off of it as some are suggesting.

– Very interesting to see the Leafs go with Steckel to take the draw on the 5 on 3, and then use him as a net presence. It’s a really good idea, especially with the way Connolly works the point. Lupul on the far post gives Kessel a nice back door option too.

– Against Detroit the Leafs had Connolly take the draw for the powerplay, but fall back and play on the left point once the puck was in play. The player they had with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul was Clarke MacArthur of all people. Toronto only had one powerplay in the game, and they scored seven seconds into it, so there was no opportunity to see how they planned on setting that up. That said, if they stick with this five man unit they now have a right shot and a left shot on the point, and a lefty up at forward too (Bozak and Connolly both shoot right). In that sense, they are creating more room for one timers which is what all the good teams do (consistently create lanes to blast one timers). I think the Leafs have always wanted to play Connolly on the point with Phaneuf but he started off the year hurt and Liles did such a great job that they just ran with it. But Tim has the best vision on the team and he thinks the game very well, not to mention he has an underrated slapshot, so there is a lot of potential there. Look for Toronto to start incorporating a lot more back door passing to Clarke MacArthur now as a left shot on the right side. Phil Kessel loves to thread the needle cross ice but most of the times it’s to a streaking defenseman who struggles to handle the power he puts on his passes.

– More on Connolly, who played the most of any Leaf forward against Tampa at 18:56. Phil Kessel was right behind him with 17:20. Connolly is the only forward on this team who consistently plays both sets of special teams, not to mention his role five on five. There were a lot of complaints when the Leafs signed him to the contract they did this summer, but there shouldn’t be many anymore.

– The Leafs have clearly told Dion Phaneuf that he can’t fight because they can’t afford for him to be in the box for five minutes. When he was jostling with Steve Downie, it was nice to see Keith Aulie come across and take matters into his own hands. It’s not a knock against Carl Gunnarsson, but he simply can’t do that. Aulie, on the other hand, would have man handled Downie and he knows it. Also, fantastic to see Daryl Boyce get in there and get dirty too. If he’s going to stick in the lineup as the team continues to get healthy, he’s going to need to play on that edge and get his nose dirty out there. Pun fully intended.

– Never thought Boyce had that grit and edge to him until this hit and fight against Detroit last season. Obviously Boyce doesn’t do that often, but it would be nice to see plays like this a little more often.

– Boyce also had the underrated play of the week when he got the puck out hard along the boards with 30 seconds left in the Detroit game. With all that commotion going on and a defenseman pinching in hard on you, that is a very tough play and he actually got it out through the middle of the ice which shows how high his confidence is to pull off such a risky play. The boards is always the safe play, but Boyce knew what he was doing and showed he could step up and make a great play in his own end when necessary.

– I have no issue admitting I was wrong about a player, and Jonas Gustavsson is proving me wrong. My bone to pick with him has always been that he isn’t able to come in on a whim and carry this team, and here he is doing that. The talent has always been there, it’s his game between the ears that has always bothered me. There are a ton of people who have disagreed with how this goaltending carousel has been handled, but at the end of the day Ron Wilson has now put himself in a good position. Look, regardless of what you want to say for this season, James Reimer carried the team last season and arguably saved Wilson’s job. Day after day Wilson saw that first hand. So when Reimer starts off well, then gets hurt, comes back and is on and off, Ron is obviously going to support Reimer and give him every chance to succeed. He can now say that, without a doubt, he gave James every chance to take over the net. He hasn’t and now it’s officially fair game. You might not like that as an outsider or as Jonas Gustavsson, but he was fair to Reimer – their presumed number one who is locked up for three years – and now he can sit James for however long and look him in the eye and tell him he gave him every chance possible. Coaches are going to show loyalty to their star players, it happens all over the league. It’s the same with Halak and Elliott in St. Louis. Brian plays lights out, but Halak still has played the same amount. That said, this is Jonas’ chance to steal the net and thus far, he’s doing a good job of it.

– The save he made in the slot on Johan Franzen was one of the saves of the season for the Leafs so far, but to me the best part was his reaction afterward. He got right up, skated out of the crease, and stayed locked in mentally. There was a predictable scrum that occurred once Franzen charged the net, and Gustavsson was having none of it as he brushed it aside and didn’t let it rattle him. More than anything, we are seeing Gustavsson mentally mature as an NHL goalie.

I guess the Leafs’ playoff hopes don’t ride solely on the shoulders of James Reimer this season, like every single hockey expert blatantly said all summer.

– One other note about Gustavsson – it was nice to see how happy the players were for him after his shutout. Last season he was breaking sticks off posts, yelling after getting scored on, and generally looked angry. It was tough to get the sense that the players really wanted to win for him and back him up, and they played much harder for Reimer. Nobody is going to sit here and say NHL players didn’t try because Jonas Gustavsson was in net – that would be ridiculous – but having that extra incentive is always nice. Gustavsson has kept his head down and worked like a dog this year, whether he was playing well, poorly, or not at all. Players take note of that and respect that. Then he comes out and plays a shift without a glove yet continues to battle, and you know that the players love that. That’s also something that rallies the fans in your favour which is always a good thing in this market – ask Darryl Boyce and Tim Brent about that.

By the way, the fans went nuts when Gustavsson made his statue of liberty save on Todd Bertuzzi.

– For most of the season, especially in the beginning, one thing the Leafs did a lot was produce offense off the rush. They still do that a ton, but now they are beginning to manufacture goals. They are dumping the puck in a lot more, winning races for the puck, cycling it down low and creating goals the old fashioned way. Perfect example was Phil Kessel’s goal against the Jets. The Leafs got it down low, Connolly forces a turnover, the puck’s on Lupul’s stick for less than a second, then on Kessel’s stick for less than a second, and it’s in the back of the net. The goals on the 3-on-2s are pretty, and so are the counterattacking, open ice goals, but good teams don’t make many mistakes in the neutral zone. You see it often when the Leafs play the Bruins, Rangers, and Flyers of the East- they’ll get their one goal or so off the rush, but generally speaking, they make you work for it. That’s what made the Grabovski line so key last year down the stretch – they worked like dogs down the stretch and dominated the corners.

– One thing the Leafs do with their speed really well is create openings and odd man rushes out of nothing. You saw it on Dave Steckel’s goal against the Wings, where it was basically a two-on-two and Lupul hustled right down the middle of the ice to created an odd man rush that they took advantage of. There were tons of other examples that like that all night against Detroit: Kadri sucked in a defender and fed a streaking Luke Schenn (who mishandled the puck), or when Gunnarsson threaded a pass to Kadri who shot one short side and just missed. The Leafs have a lot of talent now at forward that is spread out nicely within their top nine, but their speed alone allows them to create scoring chances. Just by simply skating to open areas they get defenders out of position because you have to respect their speed.

– When the Leafs played the Blues this season, Ken Hitchcock said the Leafs were the best scoring team off the rush in the league. All week they displayed that, if they can gain some speed in the neutral zone, they are going to create something.

– One thing that bothers me is when people think that the Leafs are playing a certain player in a position in order to up his trade value. For example, at the beginning of the season, many people said that Carl Gunnarsson was on the top pairing so that they can trade him. No, he was on the top pairing because he deserved it. Ron Wilson is coaching for his job and everybody knows it. He’s not sitting there thinking, “I’ll call up Kadri so that teams can scout him and we can trade him” he’s thinking “what can I do to get wins right now because there might not be a tomorrow.” He doesn’t have the time to deal with other things, he’s a hockey coach and Brian Burke’s the GM. Burke said he doesn’t meddle with his coaches, so if we’re taking him at face value, he’s not going to be inserting guys into the lineup. It’s not as if other teams would be fooled by this anyways, scouts aren’t dumb.

– Let’s look at some examples. The Leafs traded three pretty big name players last year: Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle and Kris Versteeg. A little over a week before he got dealt to the Ducks, Beauchemin played 17 minutes on the dot, which was his lowest total of the season with the Leafs. In fairness, he did play quite a bit afterward, but obviously Wilson wasn’t on the bench thinking, “I can’t sit this guy out, we’re trying to trade him.” Tomas Kaberle played under 20 minutes with the Leafs six times last season, the last two were his two last games of his career with Toronto. Clearly both of these players had been coveted by the Ducks and Boston for quite some time so it’s not as if either team was doing last minute scouting on these guys to make or break a deal. When the Leafs got Cody Franson, Brian Burke said he’s been scouting him since junior. These guys do their homework on players, it is their job.

– On a side note, another thing to not waste your time on: When you read “team X had scouts attending this game last night.” I can’t even begin to stress how you shouldn’t seriously look at that. Scouts could be in that rink for numerous reasons unbeknownst to us. For example, George McPhee took in the Anaheim Ducks game last night and it was being reported. What was being neglected is the fact that Washington plays in Los Angeles today. People work in hockey because they love the game, if they have the time to go to another rink and not stress over watching their team play, they take it.

– Back to the Leafs and trading, there’s one more player to look at and that’s Kris Versteeg. He had his lowest ice time as a Leaf the last game he was here. The five games before that he was playing around 14-15 minutes a game, which is far less than the 16-20 he was receiving earlier in the year, plus he was officially on the third line with Darryl Boyce and Colby Armstrong. Again, his trade value was not affected and Wilson was not playing him in any sort of spot to showcase his abilities. In fact, Ron himself stated that he knew Kaberle waived his no trade clause and he began scaling back his ice time and trying other combinations. So if anything, if you want clues to who could move potentially, look at players whose roles are decreasing because I imagine the conversations between Burke and Wilson goes something like this “we’re going to trade X so start getting used to life without him.”

– So the bottom line here is that everyone is getting extremely antsy over some of the names popping up over the rumour mill right now, but it’s really just wishful thinking. Let’s sit back, wait to see what the Leafs do. When they do eventually make a move we can evaluate something of actual substance and see how it goes. Until then, it’s just a bunch of shots in the dark. The only thing you should be thinking about is who do you consider an untouchable on this roster.

– If you’d like to know my untouchables, they are as follows: Kessel, Lupul, Kadri, Colborne, Biggs, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Blacker. For the record, untouchable to me means you don’t trade these guys unless you are acquiring a player who is in the top five at his position. Blacker makes the list because you don’t give up on puck moving defensemen who hit before they even play an NHL game.

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This week, the Leafs play the Sabres twice followed by Rangers (who they’re 2-0 against this season). That’s a big Eastern Conference week and the Leafs could really push Buffalo to an early brink should they beat them twice. Expect some serious battles over these three games.

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