If there’s a theme to this weeks Leafs Notebook, it is going to be two things: toughness and desperation.
You can have all the talent in the world, but at this time of the season if you aren’t playing tough, desperate hockey, you won’t be going anywhere except the golf course.
So to talk about toughness, to talk about desperation, we’re going to go back to last season first. When the Leafs went on their run to attempt to make the playoffs we saw a lot of things on display from that group and toughness and desperation were two of them.
Whether that be desperation to prove you are an NHLer – Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb, etc.- or desperation to finally make the playoffs with Toronto – Luke Schenn, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel – or desperation to prove you belong on this team and in the role you’re currently playing – Carl Gunnarsson, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur – there was desperation in the Leafs play.
If that meant you take a big hit just to get the puck out of your zone, you take that hit. If that meant you go down to block a shot, you block that shot. Whatever it meant, you do it and that’s how the Leafs were playing.
At the same time, that ties into toughness. We often talk about toughness in terms of hitting and fighting, but taking a big hit is substantially tougher than giving one out. Idolized players in Toronto such as Wendel Clark, Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts and the like didn’t just dish out the punishment, they took it nightly. All those guys moved on to other teams after the Leafs – and in one case returned back home- and you could see it in their play afterwards that their bodies were worn down from all the punishment, but the bottom line is that they weren’t just tough because they dolled out pain, they received it too.
Continuing on toughness and the Leafs of last year, I went back to look at their noteworthy wins down the stretch in the 2010-11 season and pretty well every single one of them involved physicality and toughness. To refresh your memory – when the Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings, Tim Brent took a run at Jarret Stoll and fought Marco Sturm; against Boston, Mikhail Grabovski got hammered twice but stayed in the game and scored the game winner; when the Leafs beat San Jose, Phaneuf had a huge hit on Heatley; another game against Boston, Jay Rosehill had a big fight with Milan Lucic; in Philadelphia, when Keith Aulie fought Scott Hartnell, to say nothing of Tim Brent’s shot blocking clinic against Carolina. Those were all tough, physical plays that defined those games, and the season. But as the Leafs are rolling through January, we have yet to see that kind of sacrifice out on the ice and that kind of “win at all costs” approach to their game.
Instead, there’s this perception going around that these things don’t matter if you have talent, even though they do. They swing momentum, they energize your team, and when you’re playing at home they energize your fan base. There are other things than scoring that win games in hockey but the Leafs really fail to generate a lot of these other motivation triggers.
The Ottawa game this week was a perfect example of other momentum triggers. The game started somewhat flat, until Mike Brown fought Zenon Konopka. The Leafs got a boost from that and built a two-goal lead. But Ottawa slowly began taking the game over physically. Zack Smith was after Kessel all night, Nick Foligno low-bridged Dion Phaneuf, then fought him, and the Ottawa players in general were physically taking over.
Did the Leafs outplay the Senators? No question. But playing their second game in two nights Ottawa found a way to rally, generate some momentum, claw their way back in the game and do what they have to do. Of course, good goaltending helped as well (another thing that often sways momentum). But Ottawa found a way to build off of that. Like I said, there are other ways to win than just scoring.
If one thing is clear right now, Toronto has become a perimeter team which is the exact opposite of “desperation” and “toughness,” and what they were doing last year. Winning battles, playing the underdog, having a high compete level; it’s what defined them in the second half of the 2010-2011 season and it’s something they are going to have to rediscover.
The Grabovski line built the Leafs an identity in 2010-11. They were a hardworking, grind it out line that did whatever it took to win games. They played well against the other teams best lines, they cycled the puck hard, went to the net and scored timely goals and the rest of the team built off of that as they set the tone. With that line struggling and the Phil Kessel-Joffrey Lupul tandem lighting up the league, the Leafs built around speed and talent this year, playing a wide open “exciting” style of hockey, and neglecting things like grinding teams down, finishing your checks and playing tough, defensive hockey. That catches up to you, and it’s officially caught up to Toronto.
This was the Leafs “gimme” month if there ever was one as they played twelve games with nine at home. Yet they are sitting at 5-4-0 so far with a back-to-back looming against the suddenly hot Islanders and ending with a road game in Pittsburgh. So now it’s time to get desperation and toughness back, because now is the time that veterans around the league begin to gear it up for the playoffs and the play around the league finds another level.
For the first time in a long time, the Leafs have the necessary talent on their roster to be a playoff team. What’s killing them is the intangibles. The importance of winning battles, getting the puck out of your own zone, finishing your checks, blocking shots and so on is lost on them right now and it’s what they are going to need to get back their edge out there and start stringing out wins. This was the easy part of their schedule, it’s only going to get tougher now as 19 of their remaining 35 games come on the road.
Yes, it’s asking a lot of a really young team, but it is what it is. The Leafs put themselves in this position, especially when you consider the golden opportunity they had this month to separate themselves from the rest of the rest of the playoff bubble.
I attended the Leafs-Senators game this week and wanted to share a couple of observations I picked up on while seeing the team live. As most of you surely know, the differences between watching a game on television and in person are noteworthy and it’s much easier to see everything that’s going on out there. I’ve seen almost all these players live before, but it’s always interesting to see how far they’ve progressed – or regressed – in certain areas of the game. Anyways, here are some live things I thought were worth noting:
- Nikolai Kulemin has the best first three steps on the team. The “first three steps” are what bring you from zero to 60 on the ice and they are the most important strides you’ll take out there because they dictate how quickly you can get to full speed. Kulemin’s just a big, powerful guy and while he isn’t tough in any way, he’s a strong man. When he goes into the corners he comes out with the puck almost all the time and when there is a loose puck he explodes to it with those first three steps. He has really strong legs which is what makes his first three steps so good.
- In terms of full speed, Matthew Lombardi is easily the fastest player on the team. When he gets going, he flies out there. Remember the goal that Joey Crabb scored this week? Lombardi had the opportunity to drive the net like that twice against the Senators simply because the defensemen couldn’t handle his speed and he had a step on the guy. I bet this happens once or twice a game.
- For the record, that’s been the knock on Lombardi for quite some time: he doesn’t use his speed to drive the net. This goes all the way back to his Calgary days. He has the speed to dominate, he just doesn’t use it to his advantage enough.
- Phil Kessel really avoids paying the price along the boards to get the puck out of his own zone. He looks for the home-run from his own end almost every time (which is what he did on Lupul’s goal where he picked off Cowen). For me, it’s sort of a catch-22 with Kessel in terms of him battling to get the puck out. Simply put, if he’s going to be getting hit regularly along the boards, I – and this is just my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth – don’t think he’d be playing 82-game seasons. There are players who can take hits and dish it back out, and there are players who can’t. Kessel can’t. Especially if he’s receiving passes in his own zone along the boards and having players look to crush him while he’s vulnerable. Sort of the same way the Canucks were hacking down Chara in the beginning of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Bruins tried to use Big Z as a net presence on their power plays.
- At the same time, if you apply any sort of pressure on Kessel in his own zone, he struggles to get the puck out. If I was the opposing coach I would tell my defensemen to pinch in every single time on Kessel, and most teams do. Ottawa certainly was. See what I mean, catch 22?
- Between the faceoff dots Kessel is one of the best players – if not the best player- in the league. Outside of them, closer to the boards, he’s easily one of the worst.
- Cody Franson is really impressive live. His talent level is extremely high and it’s noticeable more than ever when you are in the arena with him. There were two plays in particular that really caught my eye. The first was a play along the boards in the Leafs zone where the puck was hit back to Franson near the corner of his side. With Chris Neil charging at him, he seamlessly pulled the puck back, stepped to the side of Neil and made a strong outlet pass incredibly nonchalantly. Not only could Neil have took it off him and scored, he could have hammered Franson, too. It just spoke to Franson’s confidence with the puck and how much skill he possesses (I’m sure he has the coaches on edge constantly).
- The second play happened pretty quickly. Kyle Turris had a step on Franson to the outside and began to take that avenue to the net. Cody didn’t even fully turn with him to guide him away to the boards. He simply reached back and took the puck from Turris. I know Franson has been indifferent defensively this year and nobody is suggesting he’s a stud or even “good” in his own end, but it compensates for a lot when you’re that big and have that long of a reach. Franson doesn’t really play a game that involves a lot of skating, he’s rather methodical in his movements and tends to rely on his size and ability to be strong on the puck but as he gets older and matures he’ll understand how to best position himself and really be an impact player. Especially with his passing and shooting abilities. His snapshot is probably better than every Leaf defenseman’s slap shot except for Phaneuf and Liles.
- I suspect Matt Frattin is really impressive live as well.
- The only Leaf forwards I thought were noticeably looking to take the body were Tyler Bozak, Mike Brown, and Joffrey Lupul. Speaks volumes about the rest of that group.
Onto notes for the rest of the week. Overall, it was a pretty disappointing week. I thought this was about as easy a week as you could ask for and expected at worst a 2-1-0 week.
- Didn’t really have an issue with Luke Schenn on the Habs first goal. Watched the goal a couple of times and the whole play just developed really fast, the only way he would have began skating back in the first place is if he knew that the Habs were going to cause a turnover down low and put it hard off the boards around him. So he was basically caught in no-mans land and went for it to try and keep the puck in, and I’m not blaming him for that. Then, in front of the net, there were two guys to cover, and he picked the wrong one.
- Schenn’s ice time has again been pretty low this week, playing 16:21 against Ottawa, 17:40 against Minnesota, and only 11:05 versus Habs. As soon as the Leafs go down, Schenn’s ice-time dips dramatically and in general he’s been playing third pairing minutes all season, so this isn’t a surprise. Another thing that isn’t a surprise is his skating – which I pointed out very early on this year. Against the Habs a puck got shot out of their zone and it turned into a foot race between Schenn and Lars Eller and Eller easily won it even though he started at least a couple meters behind Schenn (luckily Gustavsson came out to play the puck). Eller’s fast, but he’s not that fast. Last season Luke had those beautiful, long, powerful strides and once he got chugging, he could really move out there. That’s gone this year. Again, I go back to the weight he put on this summer because he just hasn’t adjusted.
- The Leafs have reunited the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin trio and they have played well, they just haven’t been getting results statistically. Against the Sens the Leafs began by matching up this line almost exclusively against the Spezza unit the Leafs needed a goal. The nice thing about that Grabovski line is that when they are “on” they cycle the puck really well and kill shifts for the other teams top lines because they make them work defensively. The tough thing is that Grabovski can be dominated in the dot (he went 2/11 against Ottawa, Spezza was 14/23).
- Of that line, only Grabovski got a point this week – that goal off his skate against the Wild – but their line generated a lot of scoring chances. Between Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin they had 19 shots on net in three games. Wilson’s in a tough spot with these three yet again because they are playing well and controlling the play, but if they aren’t scoring, and Phil Kessel isn’t scoring (two points in his last six games), then who will? At the same time, you want this line to finally click and get it going because they are doing everything right, they just aren’t scoring. It’s tough to break apart a line whose doing what you ask outside of putting the puck in the net, but it’s tough not to split them up when you are counting on them for goals and they aren’t scoring.
- Found it very interesting that the Leafs matched Grabovski’s line against Moen-Eller-Kostitsyn line. You would think they would play against the Habs best line (Desharnais line) or the Habs best player (Plekanec). Thought that was curious, would love to hear Wilson’s rational there.
- For the record, the Leafs actually had Phaneuf always out against the big guys Cole and Pacioretty, so I guess they wanted to spread it out.
- Speaking of Phaneuf matching up against players, they had him out versus Spezza as usual but then he fought Foligno, sat out for five minutes, and Spezza scored in that time. Dion has to stand up for himself, nobody is questioning that, but you see why they don’t want him to fight. The Leafs are not good enough for Phaneuf to sit out five minutes. I think everyone wants to see him be a little more nasty, but the truth is, the Leafs can’t afford for him to be.
- As far as Phaneuf playing on the left side, he’s a non-factor offensively there. Phaneuf doesn’t know how to create offense on his strong side within the zone. He doesn’t open up his body to receive passes and create plays and he doesn’t walk the blue line to open up space. Dion’s impact offensively is to setup for a one-timer and therefore he must have the puck put in his wheel house. He is much more comfortable at walking the blue line skating forward (off-side) than backwards (strong-side).
- Look at the defense in general now, they have completely gotten away from something that was talked about all summer, all throughout training camp and all throughout the beginning of the season during their hot start: the defense has completely stopped joining the rush, creating offense, and getting involved. At the beginning of the season you had goals like this and this, but they’ve stopped doing it altogether. The Leafs scored seven goals this week, and the defense had two points to show for it (Gardiner and Franson with assists).
- The reason they’ve stopped? Because the Leafs have settled for going for “home runs.” The forwards break from the Leafs zone early so the defensemen attempt to make stretch passes and hit these guys way down the ice. Cody Franson in particular does this a lot, because he’s actually capable of it. I just don’t know why they have gotten away from moving up the ice as a five man unit with proper puck support and passing lanes. For example, against Ottawa, there was a play where Kulemin got a pass at center ice when the next closest Leaf was still inside their zone. He got the puck in deep, won the race to it, but Ottawa had two players against one and came out cleanly with the puck and then broke out of their zone and moved down the ice three forwards strong.
- This is one area in which the Leafs really miss Liles. He’s fantastic at making a short, quick, outlet pass and then skating up the ice with the forwards. Even if he doesn’t get the puck back, he represents an option that someone defensively has to worry about. It’s worth noting that what Liles does is very different from Gardiner, who often skates the puck up himself. We saw in every game this week at least once where he went end-to-end, looped around the other teams net, and then had create nothing of consequence really. Gardiner will learn, it’s just a shame that Liles isn’t healthy right now to really teach him the best ways to use his skills right now.
- Obviously they miss Liles most on the power play and I talked about it last week when it came to zone entry, so I’ll touch on why they miss him for the actual in-zone part of the power play. Simply put, Liles is unpredictable out there. They have Gunnarsson on the first unit right now and – no offense to him – he’s a pretty meat and potatoes player. Generally speaking when he gets the puck with the man advantage, you can probably already tell where he’s going with it, so if we can see it, you can bet NHLers easily do. Liles moves around like a rover, he cuts in and out of the slot, switches sides with Phaneuf mid-power play, and so on. He also understands the value of a shot on the power play. The Leafs have been over passing as we’re seeing and eventually you get to the point where you need to put a shot on net to keep the other team honest. Even if it doesn’t result in much, you do only create real chances by actually getting the puck on net.
- A perfect flashback result of this is a goal you can see here. Earlier that game Liles took a couple of questionable shots on net, and even had a few blocked. But when you look at the replay he holds the puck for a split second and it freezes everyone so Phaneuf gets that extra space to unleash his shot. Without Liles there, nobody is commanding that respect from the opposition on the point. Instead they have Phil Kessel hanging higher now.
- Gardiner has had some moments on the top unit due to line-changes and I thought he’s looked really good because he tries to make things happen, but they’ve stuck with Gunnarsson. The most puzzling part of that to me was having Gunanrsson on the top unit power play towards the end of the Habs game. Gardiner has elite skating ability and Franson has an elite shot and passing abilities. You have to put one or the other on there, not just a solid guy in Gunnarsson.
- Lombardi went 9/10 in the faceoff circle this week, namely due to going 8/0 against Ottawa. Thought that was surprising.
- Nazem Kadri’s creativity seems to be zapped right now. That’s the danger of reigning a player in. Yeah, he scored against Minnesota, but he wasn’t the dangerous Kadri we’ve come to see regularly. That carried onto the game against Montreal where he actually played more (14:25 versus 12:22). Worth noting that he did have a nice drive to the net against the Habs, even if it did result in a penalty – you want to encourage that, going to the net is a good thing, and most Leafs don’t do it. Anyways, back to Kadri, we’re seeing a lot of crossing the line and playing it safe with Nazem, which is great, but like Phil Kessel before him, when you have talent you can’t always harness it. You have to let it make some mistakes and take the good with the bad. So moving forward either he’ll learn how to make plays within playing safe or he’ll be too tentative and scared to make mistakes and he’ll lose a lot of his creativity. He’s young right now and just wants to stick, so he’s going to play it safe for now, but it’s too early to tell how this projects long-term for him.
- I find it interesting that we all thought the Leafs penalty kill was going to be their down fall, but now that they are actually killing penalties, they aren’t doing much better.
- You kind of forget that Bozak made his return to the Leafs this week against Ottawa. He’s played 17-18 minutes a night which is a little down from what he’s used to and he has also looked a little tentative offensively. Like most players returning from an injury, it’s going to take him a couple games to get going but he helps this team a lot when he’s healthy. He also had a beautiful backhand saucer pass to Matthew Lombardi for the Leafs only goal against Montreal.
- Really liked Don Cherry’s point about Jay Rosehill and any enforcer. Either you play these guys regularly, or you don’t at all. Sit on whatever side of the fence you want about that, but you can’t not play a guy for 10, 15 games, then dress him when you play a tough team for four minutes of ice and maybe expect him to fight for his teammates should something happen. Fighting in that scenario loses it’s purpose. You want players to naturally care for each other and stick up for each other, not fight because they are forced to. It’s just not right.
- I didn’t think Joey Crabb had that kind of power move in his arsenal. That was something else.
- It was also nice to see Phil Kessel just blow by Clayton Stoner of the Wild for a two-on-one with Matt Lombardi. When you can simply skate fast to go around NHL defensemen, you are something else speed wise. Kessel was also the only Leafs forward to exceed 20 minutes of ice time against Ottawa, with 21:26.
- When Clarke MacArthur is dropping down to the fourth line – as he did against the Habs for Joey Crabb – you know something is wrong. He did play 13:22 but it is alarming that the coaching staff feels that Crabb has a better chance of scoring than MacArthur. He’s had a disappointing year to say the least and I still hold that it’s due to his lack of physicality. He was tough on the puck last season and played the game with a snarl. This year, he barely finishes his checks. If you want to see what I mean, pay attention to him tonight and see how often he takes the body. It really is mind blowing.
The second Question and Answer is coming up this week so please begin tweeting me your questions and I will have the answers up for Wednesday.