Leafs Notebook – January 30

Leafs Notebook – January 30

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Photo: Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Harry Sinden, the great Boston Bruins GM, once had an interesting quote about the job of being a General Manager and what it’s all about. Said Harry:

“I think the bottom line is pretty simple, who can play and who can’t play. That’s the bottom line. That is the fundamental job of the GM. Most GMs, if they didn’t have to make that call, [anybody] could do it, because administratively, it’s [straightforward]. There is a little more involvement because you have to plan how you’re going to field the team, make such things as a salary cap work, but that’s just mechanics. You read the CBA once and you go through a couple of incidents with it. ‘Capology’– it’s nonsense and a myth to think that that’s the most important part of the GM’s job, it’s definitely secondary… You’ve got to know who can play and who can’t, because you’re held responsible for that, and it’s very risky if you entrust that [to assistants] without having any input at all.”

At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about – player evaluation. Coming into an organization with no personal attachment to the players in it and a fresh, untainted view of the guys on the team makes it easy to clean house and know exactly who should stick and who shouldn’t, and Burke took advantage of that as he cleared out pretty well everyone.

But that parts done now. Burke cleaned house, he hit some home runs – Phaneuf, Lupul, Gardiner – he had some misses – Komisarek (considering how much he’s paid), Versteeg, Stalberg – and he has some works in progress going on (Lombardi, Franson, Armstrong). The difference is, now these are his guys, these are players he worked to bring in, and eventually he’s going to have to move some bodies and tweak this lineup.

The thing is, when you look at this team, they could be a lot higher in the standings if some players were playing to expectations. The Leafs have had two relative surprises in Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel but generally speaking everyone else playing well is within reason (namely guys like Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski). Then if you factor in if, at the very least, Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn were having the seasons expected of them, and this team is competing for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, no question. That doesn’t even include players like Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong who have had below par years for what the Leafs thought they were getting.

So we go back to what being a GM truly is. Player evaluation. What do the Leafs have here? Were Nikolai Kulemin’s point totals an aberration? Was Clarke MacArthur a one-year wonder? What do you make of Luke Schenn? And so on.

Now players are getting healthy and soon the Leafs will have more bodies than spots to fill to deal with. There’s that term again: player evaluation.

What the Leafs do as the trade deadline comes and goes will tell us more than anything what they think of this current group. Do they believe Clarke MacArthur can return to form? Do they believe Colby Armstrong’s return will add the necessary size and physicality to this roster? What role will Matthew Lombardi be placed in? And overall, how willing is Brian Burke to part with the assets that he has worked so diligently to stockpile?

Like I said from the top, player evaluation is what being a GM is all about. Brian Burke’s cleaned house and he’s brought in his own players. Now we see what he’s really all about because it’s time for him to start making the tough decisions.

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With the Leafs having a short week and playing the Islanders back to back as their only games, I thought now would be a good time to look at some big picture items and make some notes on players’ overall play along with how they fit on the roster moving forward. I’m fully aware that the Islanders have been very good as of late, but I only put so much stock into games where the Leafs are playing teams that are far below them in the standings simply because I expect the Leafs to win those games. In fairness, kudos to them for pulling out the four points. But like I said, while a shutout or four point game is very impressive in any NHL game, it’s a lot more special when it’s coming against the Flyers or Bruins as opposed to the Islanders.

- Thought a lot about Joffrey Lupul this weekend and just what, exactly, his point totals mean this year. Then I thought of another player who exploded under Burke’s regime while pairing up with a legitimate star and that is Andy Mcdonald. In 2005-2006 he put up 34 goals and 85 points along with a +24 rating to tie him for 20th in the league with Henrik Zetterberg and Paul Kariya, and the following year he put up 27 goals and 78 points which ranked him 31st in the league. Did McDonald benefit from playing with Teemu Selanne? No doubt. But the moral of the story here is that Andy McDonald was one of the best centers in the entire league, even if it was just for a limited period of time. Fans look at Lupul’s production and say “well we need a real all star,” but right now Lupul is one. Is he going to do this for the next five seasons like a Jarome Iginla? Doubtful. However, where he stands right now, he’s one of the best left wingers in the league and that seems to be getting forgotten here on occasion. Having Lupul and Kessel’s production certainly has to make Burke pause to give up any sort of substantial package of assets to bring in another star, unless he’s certain it’s the perfect fit.

- The top 3 leaders in hits by a defenseman for each season since the lockout:

05-06: 1) Zdeno Chara; 2) Brooks Orpik; 3) Dion Phaneuf
06-07: 1) Sean Hill; 2) Mike Komisarek; 3) Brendan Witt
07-08: 1) Mike Komisarek; 2) Brooks Orpik; 3) Zdeno Chara
08-09 1) Brooks Orpik; 2) Brent Seabrook; 3) Stephane Robidas
09-10: 1) Stephane Robidas; 2) Brooks Orpik; 3) Matt Greene
10-11: 1) Luke Schenn; 2) Matt Greene; 3) Brent Seabrook

I consistently hear this argument that Luke Schenn is a keeper and the first thing brought up by whoever arguing it is that he has led defensemen in hits last year and this year. Well, look at the top three list above. There are three players who are worthy of being called keepers – Chara, Phaneuf, Seabrook – and two of them have already changed teams and them being keepers has more to do with their 200-foot dominance more than anything.

In fairness, Brooks Orpik could be a good comparison to Schenn except he was developed properly from the start, understands his role as a defensive defenseman, and is a good penalty killer. All things that can admittedly come in time, but things that Schenn doesn’t do particularly well (he sees himself more as a two-way defenseman and he hasn’t exactly excelled on the penalty kill).

Luke Schenn is the most polarizing figure in Toronto right now. Some think he should be here for his entire career, some couldn’t want the Leafs to get rid of him faster. The truth is though, he’s somewhere in between. He has value to this organization over the next five years as a potential shutdown defenseman who can crush bodies, but he also has to get more consistent from year-to-year because Burke will only stand for this year-on, year-off thing for so long. Schenn should also hold great value in the trade market, so if the Leafs are getting a guy back who is just as young with the potential to put up 80+ points a year, you have to do it because Schenn doesn’t have that high of a ceiling.

- If there’s one actual correction in Schenn’s game I’d like to see, it’s that he needs to beginning using his defense partner more in his own end. There was one play against the Islanders where Phaneuf cut behind the Leafs net from his side and passed it across to Schenn, who took a stride up ice, saw a big group of players in front of him around the top of the circle and tried to force it in there to a Leaf. The Islanders intercepted and hemmed the Leafs in their own zone. Plays like this happened quite a few times over the last two games and he needs to learn that it’s okay to spin back, give the puck back to his partner and just control the play a little better. He played 11:10 that game but followed up the next night with 18:19 and a +3 rating.

- There also seems to be this word going around that Wilson has favourites. Well, obviously. Show me a coach who doesn’t have favourites, and I’ll show you a coach who stands behind the bench and does absolutely nothing. If anyone thinks there is a human being who can spend time directing 23 other human beings every single day for close to eight months and won’t have favourites, they are crazy. If you want to see your favourite player all the time, go watch tennis. In Colorado Daniel Winnik plays more per game than Matt Duchene, in Detroit Jiri Hudler has at least seven more points than Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Cleary yet he plays less, Jarret Stoll has 20 (20!) less points than Justin Williams for the Kings and he plays more than him. Yet some fans are complaining because Schenn is having a bad year so Wilson isn’t playing him as much? Schenn played over 22 minutes a night last season, so did Wilson hate him then too? That argument just needs to stop. The coaching staff is trying to win games and they are putting out the players who, in their opinion, give them the best chance to win every single night. It would be a lot more disturbing to me if Schenn was playing more than Gunnarsson or Gardiner right now.

- Very nice to see Phil Kessel standing up for himself against the Islanders. As a player, there comes a point where you simply have to stick up for yourself and man up a little bit. Players like Mike Brown and Dion Phaneuf will come in there to protect him against the big boys, but they don’t want to put their bodies on the line every single time someone slashes Phil. Even with that, Lupul got straight in to that scrum and so did Dion and it gave the bench a boost. Even with the Islanders scoring short handed after that, the next even strength shift had Dion Phaneuf mixing it up with Brian Rolston after the whistle and Mike Brown engaging Matt Martin. The next shift the Leafs scored, the shift following that Kessel was back on the ice and Tyler Bozak absolutely plastered Andrew MacDonald at the same time Lupul gave Tavares a little shot as the buzzer went off. When players see a shy, reserved and generally speaking “soft” guy like Kessel get emotional like that, it charges them up. You can bet the coaches were going up and down the bench asking everyone why Phil was the only one showing emotion, because up to that point the Leafs looked lackluster.

- Another note on Kessel: When I saw this goal I couldn’t help but think what would happen if that sequence of events was occurring against a good team. On that first rush, Lupul misses a great opportunity after the Kessel set up, but watch Phil on that play; instead of hanging back defensively or stopping and skating back as soon as Lupul missed, he looped right around the net and the Islanders had a great scoring chance. I won’t say a good team would have scored 100% of the time, but chances are Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr or Lucic-Krejci-Horton score on that quick of a transition three-on-two. In the games we’ve seen the Leafs play those top end teams, we’ve certainly seen them make the Leafs pay for neutral zone turnovers or players getting caught too deep in the offensive zone.

- Pretty interesting: Joey Crabb played more than any other Leaf forward except Mikhail Grabovski in the first game against the Islanders with 18:54. The next night he was dropped off the Grabovski line half way through the game and played 15:08.

- One thing that tells me, Wilson wants MacArthur going, but he feels comfortable playing Crabb if he isn’t. This is the same situation with Schenn-Komisarek. As soon as the coaching staff sees that MacArthur and Schenn are playing their games, they are quick to deduct minutes off of those guys first and foremost. It makes sense when you consider MacArthur started the season paired with Grabovski and Kulemin only for Crabb to be promoted there, while Schenn started the season on a pairing with Liles, only for Komisarek to move up there before injuries hit.

- One thing that’s probably not getting enough attention is the eventual return and impact of Armstrong. He will bring some size and physicality the Leafs have been lacking, and he’s a guy who can control the boards, cycle and win battles. A lot of people have been talking about Travis Moen, but is he better than Armstrong? No. The Leafs are also paying Armstrong $3 million so it’s pretty doubtful they are going to part with other assets to acquire a lesser version of what they already have.

- Other players names I see fans bring up a lot: Paul Gaustad and Samuel Pahlsson, who are fourth line centers. They are brought up despite the fact that the Leafs went out of their way to acquire Dave Steckel before the season. This is someone who Burke said the Leafs had been courting for close to a year, a guy who is 6’6 and is one of – if not the – best faceoff men in the league, and he’s signed through next season. So I have no idea why the Leafs would part with even more assets to solidify the fourth line center position when they are already very happy with Steckel. Maybe I’ll be wrong, I don’t know, but based on everything Burke’s ever done in his career, I’d be surprised if he did acquire one of those guys.

- Also worth noting, the Leafs gave up their fourth round pick this year to get Steckel, and they traded their third round pick for the this years draft in 2010 to pick up LA’s third rounder in that year to draft Sondre Olden. So if the Leafs are getting into bidding wars and they don’t have any of their mid picks, would  that mean they are trading their second rounder (or a solid prospect) for Travis Moen? I don’t think so. Also, I don’t think Burke is going into the draft this year without 2nd, 3rd and 4th round picks. If anything, we could see some assets shipped out this deadline to try and re-stock some picks.

- A lot was made of the Grabovski unit matching up versus Tavares’ line this week. To me, that’s going to be the big story the rest of the year: who is going to play alongside Nikoali Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski and how well will they match up against the other teams top lines. If the Leafs have to match Kessel and Lupul against the likes of Giroux and Malkin, they are going to get picked apart. The Leafs need Grabovski and Kulemin to play those top lines tough, cycle them down low hard and grind them out. I’ve said this a ton, but that lines success against the other teams best last year was the reason they were a good team. They need that to happen again if they want favourable results the rest of the way.

- Talked about desperation in the previous Leafs Notebook, and saw two great examples of it last week, both in overtime against the Islanders. Dion Phaneuf was out there with Carl Gunnarsson and Tim Connolly was up at forward making a rush, which Dion joined. When the rebound was kicked out by Montoya to give the Islanders a near three on one in overtime, Dion just put his head down and worked to get back. He dove to try and block the pass, and even though he didn’t and Gustavsson made a great save, the way he was barely able to skate to the bench on the whistle in a game where he played 30:35 – his first 30 minute game of the year – was good stuff. The next shift was the MacArthur goal to win it, but what I liked was, as soon as Grabovski sprung him on what looked like a one-on-one, he worked as hard as he could to make it a two on one and get the goal to win the game. That’s the kind of desperation and work ethic the Leafs are going to need here down the stretch.

- Nice lesson for Jake Gardiner to score on that goal. Earlier in the game he picked off a pass right up the middle of the ice in the Islanders zone and he cut in, twirled around a little, then passed it off instead of shooting. Then, of course, later in the game he throws a harmless shot on net that manages to go in. Wilson commented after the game that they’ve been on him to shoot more, and you can bet that sequence of events only made them reinforce it even more. Think it’s pretty clear to everyone that Gardiner needs to shoot more.

- Probably didn’t receive nearly enough attention, but Jonas Gustavsson was amazing in the last three minutes of regulation and overtime against the Islanders. He made several big saves, covered rebounds, and even when that bad bounce goal happened he withstood it mentally and came back strong in overtime. Have to give credit where credit is due there.

Apparently the Leafs are essentially all healthy now. With Lombardi finding his game, the Grabovski line coming off of a big game, Kessel and Lupul being Kessel and Lupul, plus the return of Armstrong and Liles, I’m very interested to see what this team looks like. The good news is that they have an excellent test against the Pittsburgh Penguins to prove themselves in. I’ll have a lot more evaluation type notes next week because how they match-up to that team is very important to me. That’s an eight point back-to-back.

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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