Six Questions, Six Answers – January 26

Six Questions, Six Answers – January 26

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Photo: sportsnet.ca

I planned on writing about the Liles extension as a preamble into answering these questions, but once I began writing it I realized that it was a blog all on its own. With that said, I’ll be posting an in depth blog soon looking solely at the Liles signing and just exactly what it means.

I narrowed down the questions a little this time around due to the feedback. Hope you enjoy it and as shown, I do read through those comments and take what you guys into consideration, so always feel free to chime in.

1) @Potcy: With the leafs losing again, and on the outside of playoffs looking in when do Wilson, the staff and even BB become accountable?

*Note:Question sent before back-to-back wins against the Islanders.

I’m making this a pretty clear cut, black and white answer. I think the Leafs are a playoff team on paper, and I think Burke does too. Yes they are young, but they have two of the top scorers in the league, one of the better defensemen in the league and a host of depth that’s beginning to get healthy and return to form. Furthermore, this roster is primed to be supplemented and strengthened – barring something unforeseen, IE Burke not acquiring anyone – before the trade deadline.

So Burke has said it’s not fair to judge a coach when you don’t give him a capable roster, and despite this being the youngest team in the league I think we’ve all seen it’s a more than capable group. So with that in mind, I can’t see Wilson lasting past this year if the Leafs don’t make the playoffs. The one-year extension he got is also a sign of that, because if they really had no designs on not keeping him accountable and really loved the job he’s been doing, he would have been locked up long-term like Liles just was.

If the Leafs make the playoffs and they get swept, Burke will still probably keep Wilson because it’s still progress and continuity. If they don’t make the playoffs, Wilson get’s fired and is basically made the scapegoat. With that in mind, bringing in a new coach would probably buy Burke at least two years based on the merit of that alone. A new coach usually does two separate things if done properly: buys management extra time, and gives the team a jolt in the arm.

Realistically, even though some people might think Burke is at least reasonably close to being on the hot-seat with ownership, the team has gotten younger, they’ve stock piled assets, they have some of the leagues best players and are only getting better. I can’t see anyone from Bell or Rogers calling for his head any time soon, and MLSE doesn’t even have a President right now. So who would make that call to fire Burke?

For what it’s worth, I think Burke will be in this organization for another ten years in some capacity and that someone whose currently on this management team will eventually succeed him.

2) @steve_woodhead: Which goalie do you think has the mental toughness for playoffs? Reimer said to be more resilient and can bounce back more easily from a bad goal or a loss, but Gusty is gaining confidence and has been hot.

Mental toughness is a tricky thing for me to assess since I don’t know these guys personally, but I’ll do my best. I think a lot of mental toughness comes from one thing with these goalies, and that’s confidence. Both of these goalies have shown that when they are on their games and something goes wrong, they have the ability to bounce back in a big way. However, they’ve also both shown that if they don’t have the confidence in their game, their mental toughness to rebound from a bad goal is somewhat lacking – in fairness, that’s the case with most goalies (it’s the hardest position in sports for a reason).

So with that said, Jonas Gustavsson has obviously been lights-out for awhile now so if the Leafs were heading into the playoffs tomorrow night and he had a terrible game and the question was whether to start him the following game or not, you do it. Why? Because he’s had a fantastic season and he has a lot to go back on and feel confident about right now. We’ve seen this the last two years – MacArthur, Lupul – where players get hot and then they just ride that confidence to a big season even when set backs present themselves. Jonas Gustavsson was basically left for dead at one point this year as the Leafs third stringer was starting over him, so he’s battled a lot and shown mental toughness that I for one did not think he had. Based on that, I’d be surprised if a bad goal or even game in the playoffs really got to him after such a strong overall year and everything he’s been through this season (and since he’s come to Toronto in general).

It’s also worth noting that the Leafs have 33 games left and even if Gustavsson played every single one of them – which he wont, just to clarify – he’ll only have played in 60 games. So he’s going to have gas in the tank for the playoffs, meaning I don’t think he’d have a mental breakdown due to the grind of the season. It’s not like he’s played a ton.

As for Reimer, basically he’s the opposite of Gustavsson right now. James is this big, structurally sound goalie who challenges shooters and dares them to beat him down low or side-to-side. The only way you can play the Allaire system – or really any goalie system, but particularly this one – is if you have the confidence to do so because you need that self-assurance to trust your angles and yourself since his style of goaltending isn’t so much based on instinct and being acrobatic as it is based on belief in positioning.

When I was at the game against Ottawa in which he started, he just did not look very confident or imposing in the net. Now Reimer could easily get hot and make everything I just wrote all for not, but for this season only, if we’re looking at a goalie who can battle back from a bad game, it has to be Gustavsson. He’s feeling good about his game right now while Reimer isn’t and Gustavssson looks focused out there, as if nothing fazes him to the point where he loses his game. For example, he was noticeably upset after the Isles shorthanded goal, but he really buckled down and played great after that. He also came up big in that overtime after a really fluky goal with 15 seconds left, we haven’t seen that from him before.

It’s worth noting, however, that I think Reimer has a great personality to handle the playoff pressure in this market because things roll right off of him and he has a really level head. He just needs to rediscover his game first because more than anything, the ability to bounce back from a bad game is based on how confident you are in yourself, and right now, Gustavsson is clearly more confident in his game than Reimer.

3) @highoncloud09: Team toughness. Is this something that can be fixed internally w/ coaching or do you think BB will have to explore a trade?

I went through every Ron Wilson coached team since 1997 and almost every season his teams were top 10 in the least penalized category and usually middle of the pack in fighting majors. It’s been well documented in general how little Ron Wilson-led teams spend time in the box so with that in mind, he preaches a clean game within the rules and really harps on things like stick infractions and unnecessary penalties in general, so I do think it’s a mind frame with the coaching staff. The fact that the Leafs can’t kill penalties consistently only compounds things, although I think Wilson preaches better stick work more than he tells players not to be aggressive.

That said, you can’t make lemonade out of oranges. This isn’t a tough team and there are very few players on this roster that strike fear into the opposition. When you look at it, Mike Brown plays a tough game, Colby Armstrong looks to lay the body when he’s healthy and Nazem Kadri head-hunts once he gets hit in any given game. While on defense you have Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Mike Komisarek to worry about hypothetically. Although all four will probably never play a game together, and Phaneuf has toned down the physicality while Schenn and Komisarek are hit and miss (pun intended). In general, we’ve rarely seen the Leafs take a good, hard penalty for being overly aggressive or physical and that falls on the players more than anything. It’s not like Claude Julien made the Montreal Canadiens or New Jersey Devils physically imposing in his time there, but look at the Bruins now. You work with what you’re given, that’s all you can do as a coach.

Furthermore, the coaching staff can emphasize for players to finish their checks and look to take the body a little more, but no coach in the world is about to make guys like Phil Kessel and Matthew Lombardi physical. Take that one step further and you can’t make players tough; they either are or are they aren’t. That said, you don’t need to be tough to lay a big hit and you don’t need to be tough to win battles, which is really what the Leafs need more than anything right now. They have the talent, but they need to be able to win games that don’t revolve solely around talent. They need to win games due to grinding teams down, taking the body, and so on.

If they want more toughness throughout the lineup, they are going to need to acquire players who are tough. By all accounts, they’ve been linked to almost any player who will willingly take the body, so I’m sure this isn’t lost on Burke by any means as he’s been talking about adding size and toughness for awhile now.

4) Rustynail: With Army, Liles and Boyce due to come back after the ASG, what roster and line up changes do you see?

This is a tough question to answer, but I’ll take my best shot at it without cheap-ing out.

We’ll start with defense first. In terms of fitting JM Liles into the roster, that’s easy- they’ll send down Keith Aulie down. When it comes to the starting six, that’s a little more complicated. Ideally they just officially announce the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf tandem is back together (they are playing together when it matters anyways). After that, I’d have to think there’s an inclination to reunite Liles-Komisarek as a tandem. On a young team, they make a lot of sense as a veteran pairing whose been through some of these battles before and they looked good together before injuries hit both of them. That leaves Gardiner, Schenn and Franson. It goes without saying that Jake Gardiner is not coming out of the lineup. They clearly sat him cause they thought he was wearing down in the NHL grind but even with a break in between, he’s played no lower than 20:03 in his last nine games and his last three games have seen him play 23:49, 23:32 and 26:12. So process of elimination leaves us with Schenn and Franson. In a perfect world it’s Gardiner-Franson as the third pairing, but in the big picture I can’t see them sitting Luke despite his poor play. He’s still a “golden boy” in this organization who they have locked up long-term and who everyone from the coaching staff to management seems to love. Does Franson deserve to play over Schenn? Yeah, probably. But that’s sometime how the NHL goes. Nobody’s ever said hockey doesn’t come with its politics.

The forwards are even more trickier than the defense. It goes without saying that Darryl Boyce will be sent back down because the Leafs simply have better options than him already playing. That leaves the Leafs with 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies, or in other words, 23 players – a full roster.

Now, to figure out whose going to play is a whole different matter. The top two lines, especially after the last game against the Islanders, will probably stick together, meaning Lupul-Bozak-Kessel and MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin. It also goes without saying that Tim Connolly and Dave Steckel are the other two centers. So that leaves Matthew Lombardi, Nazem Kadri, Colby Armstrong, Joey Crabb and Mike Brown to pick for four winger spots. Armstrong and Lombardi are going to play for sure because they are veterans and they both bring two distinct, but game changing attributes to the lineup. So now we’re left with Joey Crabb, Mike Brown and Nazem Kadri and there’s an intriguing case to be made for each player to be in or out of the lineup at any time. Kadri gets power play time, Crabb kills penalties and Mike Brown is one of the only willing fighters on the entire team plus he’s a physical presence at forward which is a rare commodity for the Leafs these days.

Frankly, when I look at it, in terms of development I can’t justify taking Kadri out of the lineup in any way. He’s dominated the AHL and he’s more than held his own this time around in the NHL, so there’s nothing left for him to do in the minors except get ice time (which might seem worth it, but at this point it’s not). They’re finding out what they have in Kadri right now and they have to continue playing him in the NHL to progress his development. It’s also worth noting that Kadri alone could be getting the Leafs a couple extra points via the shootout down the stretch here and I don’t think that can be taken lightly.

So with that in mind, if we’re picking between Joey Crabb and Mike Brown, there’s a lot of different things to consider. The first is that Crabb has been used as a consistent penalty killer lately and while Brown can kill penalties as well, it wouldn’t make much sense to downgrade there. Secondly, Crabb has moved up and down this lineup seamlessly playing in scoring and checking roles, which is invaluable to a coach when he’s working the bench during the game; whereas Brown is pretty well restricted to a fourth line role. So I think with that in mind we would probably see Crabb and Brown rotate in and out of the lineup – unless someone began to struggle or get hurt obviously – but with Crabb getting more starts because he’s simply more versatile and has been logging more minutes all season. I also don’t think Mike Brown is completely healthy right now. He hasn’t been his fast, energetic self and he just looks off out there. Last season he was consistently running guys over and really bringing the body, but right now he’s simply struggling so if he’s a little nicked up and still sore from surgery, they should be sitting him when possible anyways.

So with that in mind, I see it coming down to something like this:

Joffrey Lupul-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel–> Top scoring line
Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin–> Playing against the other teams top line
Matthew Lombardi-Tim Connolly-Nazem Kadri–> “Soft line” used to score and exploit offensive match-ups
Joey Crabb-Dave Steckel-Colby Armstrong–> Energy line that can chip in offensively
-Rosehill, Brown

Carl Gunnarsson-Dion Phaneuf–> Top pairing matching up against the others best
JM Liles-Mike Komisarek–> Two-way pairing used for oppositions second best offensive unit
Jake Gardiner-Luke Schenn–> Young pairing where each player will move up the line-up depending on how they play each game (with Gardiner realistically logging 20+ minutes anyways)
-Franson

5) @b_alvs13: In my opinion the pairing of Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner has been the best Leaf pairing since they were put together. Their speed and puck moving ability while playing together has masked any defensive deficiencies they might have. With that being said, how long does it take RW to realize that these two guys (especially Franson) need to be their catalysts in offensive situations? With Dion not playing great, and the team desperate for wins, what’s holding RW back?

I too think the Gardiner-Franson pairing has been surprisingly really good but you can only call them the best Leaf pairing to a degree simply because they haven’t been playing against the other teams best players, or even their second best line half the time. They do breakout quickly out of their zone and they are the only pairing that consistently delivers tape-to-tape passes to the forwards for clean breakouts though.

As mentioned above, Gardiner is getting his ice time, Franson simply isn’t. Part of it comes down to a numbers game because Phaneuf is going to get his 25+ minutes a night, Gunnarsson is going to get at least 21 and Gardiner is playing 23 minutes a night lately, which doesn’t leave much leftovers for the others. Komisarek is still playing okay and he’s been seeing his 15 or so minutes a night and that doesn’t leave a lot left for Franson or Schenn for that matter. Schenn’s barely playing as it is lately – save for last game when he played 18:19 – but you still have to give him ice-time too. So altogether, that doesn’t leave a lot of ice-time for Franson, at least when it comes to five-on-five play and you know he’s not playing penalty kill so that’s out of the equation too. In essence, as usual, it’s a numbers game. Franson is probably a better player than Komisarek and Schenn, but he’s not going to play more than Gunnarsson, Phaneuf or Liles, and Komisarek and Schenn eat up penalty killing time that Franson doesn’t. So that’s why his overall ice time isn’t too high.

As far as offensive situations go, the only reason I don’t think Franson is on the top unit is because he isn’t comfortable playing the left side. Dion Phaneuf is going to play right defense in every power play situation on the first unit. With the fact that Franson doesn’t like the left side and does not excel there, it just doesn’t make sense to put him on the first unit for the sake of putting him there. Also, if you have Phaneuf on the first pairing and Franson on the second pairing, then it gives you two units with a guy that can launch bombs from the point.

With that said, I’m not entirely positive why Gardiner isn’t eating up first unit ice-time on the power play. My best guess is that with him playing so much and the fact that they’ve already scratched him a couple times to keep him well rested, I bet they are just trying to conserve his minutes a little and keep him in check. Even if playing the power play isn’t really tiring, it still adds up.

It’s also worth noting that JM Liles should be healthy now so we should go back to seeing a much more fluid offensive attack from the back end and Phaneuf’s numbers should begin to creep back up. I’m looking for the power play defensemen to be Liles-Phaneuf than Gardiner-Franson. The one positive of Gunnarsson playing on the top unit lately is now that Liles is healthy, you already have some consistency with the second power play unit with Gardiner-Franson because they have been playing together the entire time.

The best chance for these guys – particularly Franson – to see more minutes, especially in offensive situations, is for other bodies to move. But with Liles said to be back, we know who the true offensive catalysts are going to be here. Even though Franson is really talented, that still makes him somewhat redundant to be logging huge minutes nightly.

6) @4evrb1ue: In YOUR opinion (ignoring rumors) who should the leafs trade and who are realistic targets at the deadline. (no Getz, Staal etc) ALSO: @Alcorn_91 – Many people are rightly saying Leafs need top 6 size, but few people are actually naming realistic names. Who catches your eye?

The theme of this trade deadline should be two things: size, and unloading a bad contract or two. Size goes without saying, simply because the Leafs lack it and in a long playoff series you need those big guys to lean on the opposition and make them pay physically. That adds up over seven games in 14 days. So with that in mind, the Leafs need some grinders and bangers. I don’t want to go into too much detail about these guys because this is just speculation, but I’ll throw out some intriguing names:

Tuomo Ruutu is a UFA this summer and with Carolina all but out of the playoffs, he’s sure to be available as a pest who finishes all his checks and can score too.

Ryan Clowe is on pace for 47 points this year which is a little lower than the Sharks have come to expect from him. He makes $3.6mil for this season and next season as well, and he’s a big, mean player. For some reason he’s said to be available and it’s someone the Leafs have been linked to before and I’m sure they are still interested in him.

The last person I’ll name is a long-shot but someone who could bring a lot to Toronto. That would be Shane Doan. He’s 35, but he’s the type of leader and big body that this team is begging for. The Leafs need some war-veterans and Doan is one of the greater ones that could be available. He still has some gas left in the tank too. Whether he would waive his no-trade clause to come to Toronto is an entirely different matter altogether.

Thanks for the questions as usual and I look forward to doing this again in two-weeks time.

Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.

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