Leafs Notebook – February 6

Leafs Notebook – February 6

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It’s a week of celebration, but it has nothing to do with the current Leafs team. Mats Sundin is back, and this is the week to remember him.

This upcoming Saturday the all-time leader in points for the Toronto Maple Leafs is deservedly having his number raised to the rafters.

Surprisingly, there are mixed feelings on Mats in Toronto, but when it comes right down to it he gave everything to this team on the ice and that’s all that matters. You know the numbers by now, you know the playoff runs, the overtime goals, the consistency; but above all that, Mats had a special aura about him.

Even today as the Leafs have three of the best players in the league – Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf – none of them have that presence that Sundin had where he just received so much respect from everyone throughout the league. Teams use to create lines for single games just to match up against the big Swede, and when the game was on the line everyone expected Sundin to step up, and he regularly delivered.

For me, what was always special about Sundin is the way other players talked about him. Guys like Clark and Gilmour have lamented that Sundin isn’t loved by the fans as much even though he should be, Salming has continuously lauded his play, when Gretzky spoke of respecting Europeans he mentioned Mats Sundin right away, the general way that players young and old were in awe of him; that’s the stuff that legends are made of and that’s why I was always proud that he was a Toronto Maple Leaf. He represented us, our city, and he did it with class.

Toronto can be a tough place to be a star, especially for a guy like Sundin, who was never big on showing emotion the way Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour did, but he competed hard nightly despite an oft-perceived less than adequate supporting cast.

Now, there’s a time to complain about things, and there’s a time to rise above that and appreciate the sacrifice and effort someone put into something. This is one of those times. If you love Mats Sundin, great, I think you should; if you don’t, I’m not saying you should, but for a week put it aside and recognize what Mats did for this team, and city, and applaud it.

He’s earned it.

Thanks for the memory Mats.

***

I’ve been talking about veterans lately and I thought I’d chart out just how much playoff experience this team has.

Matt Lombardi (40GP, 3G, 16A, -4). Played on Calgary team that went to Cup, but got hurt in second round off a Derian Hatcher hit. Did have 6 points in 7 games last playoffs he was in with Phoenix

Joffrey Lupul (39 GP, 14G, 9A, 23PTS, +9) All he’s done in the playoffs is have a game seven winner in OT, a four goal playoff game and been to the Conference finals twice.

Tim Connolly (36GP, 5G, 18A, 23PTS, +5). Hasn’t scored a goal in last 28 playoff games. Ruff has said if he didn’t get hurt, they would have went to Cup in first year after lockout (11 points in eight games)

JM Liles (36GP, 4G, 7A, 11PTS, -3). Has been to the second round three out of years he’s been to playoffs, but never passed that.

Mike Komisarek (29GP, 1G, 2A, +1), Been to the second round once where the Habs lost in five to the Flyers.

Dion Phaneuf (25GP, 5G, 7A, 12PTS, -12). Nine of those 12 points came on the power play. Wilson said they picked on him, and even when he had 7 points in 7 playoffs games, he was -2.

Dave Steckel (24GP, 4G, 3A, -1). Passed the first round once in his career, in which the Caps overcame a 3-1 series deficit to the Rangers then lost to the Pens in seven the following round.

Cody Franson (16GP, 1G, A, 7PTS, +1). Last year was his second playoff and first time advancing, he had six points in 12 games but played sheltered minutes.

Phil Kessel (15GP, 9G, 6A, +8), Point per game both times. Healthy scratch by Julien first time time in playoffs.

Mike Brown (13GP, 0G, 2A, 2PTS, EVEN). This is Mike Brown in the playoffs (all games were one year).

Colton Orr (12GP, 0G, 0A, 0PTS, -2). Couldn’t find anything noteworthy on Orr playoff wise – no fights and he averaged under 5 minutes per game.

Colby Armstrong (5GP, 0G, 1A, -1), Armstrong’s impact in the playoffs. Worth noting: Armstrong’s won a memorial Cup and scored the IIHF 2007 winning goal in the gold medal game.

That’s 290 games, 46 goals, 77 assists, and 123 points total.

To put that into perspective, these are Jaromir Jagr’s career playoff stats: 169 GP, 77 G, 104 A, 181 pts.

No player on the Leafs has been to a Cup final (and played in it – Lombardi) whereas the Bruins have their entire Cup roster from last year except for two players, Benoit Pouliot and Joe Corvo.

The Rangers made the playoffs last year, so save for rookies, their entire roster at least has a taste of the playoffs and they have a Cup winning coach along with Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko and Mike Rupp who have all won it before.

Even Washington, for all their struggles, has at least been there before so they know what to expect. Those are the teams the Leafs will most likely play, should they make the playoffs.

This isn’t a knock on the Leafs‘ inexperience. After all, every young player has to start at some time. But it’s safe to say the veterans the Leafs do have are only going to be more important down the stretch here as vocal leaders and examples. They might not be the tough, gritty, desired veterans, but they do bring a level of experience that can not be disregarded as the youngest team in the league continues their march.

When the Leafs had the kind of loss that they did against Pittsburgh this week that they did, then rebounded the next night with a big win, I have no doubt it’s the veterans in that room – Liles, Armstrong, Lombardi, Steckel, etc. – that stepped up and made sure everyone erased that from their memory and focused on the task at hand.

***

It was an excellent week for the Leafs, one which sent a bit of a message that this team is for real. The Penguins won that first game, but they knew they were outclassed big time, which speaks volumes considering that was their eighth win in a row. If anything, the Leafs are proving to themselves they can compete with anyone in this league, and believing you can win every game regardless of the opponent is a big step for a young team.

- The Leafs looked as if they have settled in on their lines with this current group. The only feasible changes that could happen are Colby Armstrong swapping with Joey Crabb from the fourth line to the third line (probably will happen), and Tim Connolly switching with Tyler Bozak (might happen once and awhile, probably won’t last when it does though). Barring injury – or trade – the only other roster move would be Mike Komisarek coming into the lineup for Cody Franson.

- Of note with that, each current line has its role and brings something unique to the roster. Kessel’s line is big offensive unit, Grabovski’s line gets the tough assignments against the other team’s best, Connolly’s line is a two-way unit that’s expected to chip in offensively once and awhile, and then there’s an energy line with Dave Steckel and Mike Brown. At this time of the year you want every line understanding exactly what their role is and what’s expected of them, after that it’s up to them to win their respective match-up each night.

- With about three minutes left in the second period of the second game against Pittsburgh, Phil Kessel sent a relatively weak pass from his wing cross ice to Joffrey Lupul on a breakout at the end of his shift. The puck got turned over, Carl Gunnarsson was caught up ice, and Kessel turned on a dime to back check and catch Pascal Dupuis on a quick turn around two on one. He started the bad play, but it was nice to see that defensive effort from Phil at the end of a shift. Especially when he was in a scoring “slump.”

- On the note about Phil Kessel and defense. Remember at the beginning of the season how the coaching staff was using Kessel to close out tight contests? That’s not happening anymore as the games really tighten up and intensify. Don’t think it’s completely on Kessel as much as it is a coaching strategy. Kessel went from being used essentially not at all defensively a year ago, to a little defensively this year, and next year it will probably increase a little more. Hockey is still a learning process and sometimes we forget to keep big picture in mind in these kinds of scenarios.

- Almost every team has these kind of agendas. They try players in certain situations early in the season as teaching experiences, or to see how a specific players responds to something, and so on. The best example I can think of is with the Marlies. Last year Eakins was under instruction to develop players. So with the game on the line and protecting a lead, he would put on a Nazem Kadri to win a big face off and see what he does. This summer, they told him to still develop players, but that winning was the number one priority. So, with that same game on the line, Mike Zigomanis is now taking that faceoff.

I’m not suggesting that Wilson and the staff were putting development completely over winning, but it is clear they wanted to match Kessel up against the oppositions best and see how he responds.

- Wilson rolled the lines quite a bit throughout the year, but now you’re seeing a consistent match up when it comes to Grabovski’s line and Gunnarsson-Phaneuf playing against the other team’s best. In a lot of ways, the coaching staff probably saw how good of seasons Kessel and Lupul were having and decided to match them up against the big boys to see how they fared. They found out they can score against them, but they can’t play defense against them, so it’s a wash. Now we’re seeing a much more settled in lineup where you can almost predict at home exactly who is going to go on in every situation. That’s a product of a young team. We’re still finding things out about these guys as they continue to mature and grow.

- It was the littlest play, but it told me Colby Armstrong was back. In the third period with around 11 minutes left in his return against Pittsburgh, Dustin Jeffrey of the Pens was skating the puck to center ice and Armstrong caught him from behind, lifted his stick, took the puck, then got it in deep and took a hit. Those are the kind of second effort plays the Leafs have come to expect from Colby, and they make a difference. He’s obviously had a tough year, but I think a little pride and seriousness kicked in here after this last injury. He got hurt on December 17th against Vancouver, since then he’s tweeted once and it was to promote Coke Zero Ambush.

- Every guy has their pride and Armstrong’s was probably hurt a little when he was essentially deemed useless by everyone in Toronto following a second injury this season and after doing very little when healthy this year. Everyone in Toronto loves a funny, outgoing player, but at the end of the day all everybody really wants is results. He has a little chip on his shoulder in his return here and a motivated Colby makes a huge difference. He only played 10:47 in his return, but with the game on the line protecting a lead with under two minutes left, Armstrong was out there eating away time in Pittsburgh’s zone.

- Not overly concerned with the Leafs loss against the Penguins. They played great for the majority of the game but then when they let it slip, what, exactly happened? Jake Gardiner blows a tire and falls and the Pens score off that. Are people going to get mad and freak out over something that can’t even be deemed a mistake? The third Pens goal was soft, but then they score off a shot that wouldn’t have hit the broadside of the barn after it went off Malkin’s body and in. Lucky bounce, whatever. Then the best player in the world scores in a shootout to win it. What’s there to complain about? Hockey isn’t always fair. It happens. The Leafs moved on and picked up the two points the night after in regulation against the Penguins and that’s all there is to it.

- Found this goal by Phaneuf to be very telling. First off, you see the value of Liles. The original breakout did not bring about a clean entry into the Sens zone, but Liles demanded the puck back, regrouped on the fly and reset everything. In his absence, a lot of guys got frustrated and tried to do everything themselves to enter the zone (which obviously rarely worked). That alone shows some of what Liles brings to this team as a leader and presence on the ice. What I liked more than that though was the overall cohesiveness of the unit. When Phaneuf skates the puck down below the goal-line, he throws it around the net knowing someone on his team will be there to get it. Lupul got that puck and threw it to the sideboards, knowing Kessel would be there. It’s not like Lupul was already behind the net calling for it, or that Kessel was in perfect position either. But that sort of quick puck movement and awareness of where everyone is going to be gives everyone a little extra time once everything is settled. Kessel gets that extra second to hold the puck and really thread the needle, then Phaneuf gets that extra second to stop the puck then snap it, rather than force a one-timer.

- The Leafs haven’t allowed a power play goal this year, yet they still ranked 29th overall in the league in that department. The coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for regrouping everybody and saying “Our overall rating is going to suck no matter what now, but from here on out we can have a strong unit and do what we need to do.” Here’s an interesting look at the Leafs penalty kill by month:

October – 72%
November – 82%
December – 64%
January – 100%

So they’ve been embarrassingly bad for two months, had an 82% rating that would rank them between 14th and 17th league wide in another month, and then the 100% proficiency that speaks for itself. Now that the Leafs are finally healthy, chances are when they come back to reality, they fall somewhere around that 82% they posted in November.

- One subtle change they’ve made that hasn’t been talked about enough – they’ve stopped fronting shots in front of the net. The forwards, or even defencemen, will challenge the shooters from the top of the circle or so, but in front of the net the defencemen are either boxing the forwards out, or they move out of the way to let the goalie see the puck then closing the gap to negate rebound opportunities. At the 20 second mark of this video, you can see two examples of that on Jason Spezza shots from early Senator power plays.

- In general, I went through saves made this week and the Leafs were doing that on five-on-five too. The Leafs have stopped trying to block shots in front of the net and they are trusting their goalies to make that original save while trying to clear the subsequent rebounds and tie up sticks. It’s the reason Ottawa had 49 shots on net too.

- Looked at the Leafs goals this week, here’s the videos of the even strength goals that happened the past three games (in order of occurrence):

1 – Mikhail Grabovski in front of the net.
2 – Mikhail Grabovski on a wrist shot.
3 – Clarke MacArthur on a quick 2 on 1.
4 – Clarke MacArthur on a backhand-forehand move.
5 – Phil Kessel shots, then hits in puck after its blocked.
6 – Tyler Bozak on a partial breakaway.
7 – Luke Schenn on a far side shot.

The theme among all these goals – save for MacArthur’s first one this week – is a result of generating speed in the neutral zone and scoring off the immediate attack. The Leafs are going to live and die by the neutral zone this year and whether or not they can create odd man opportunities off of it and use their speed to create scoring chances.

As was evident in the back-to-back against Pittsburgh, the first game the Pens were sloppy in the neutral zone and the Leafs created tons of quality scoring chances right off the rush. The second game the Pens really took that away and tightened the game. We’ve seen this happen before, such as the difference between the first time the Leafs played the Capitals and the second time, and also the last game against the Rangers – Leafs got shutout three to nothing – compared to the first two times they played New York and won. The question with the Leafs will be – can they figure out a way to maneuver up the ice, get the puck going the right direction and enter the opposition’s end with speed even when that team is trying to clog the neutral zone and force the Leafs to dump it in? For Toronto, if they aren’t struggling to generate that speed and opportunity, converting on their power plays is going to become that much more important.

- For the record, that’s why Mike Komisarek is not playing and guys like Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner are. They are excellent passers who move the puck up quickly and efficiently, which is a good fit with this roster and what they try to do -  attack on the rush. Gardiner and Franson both had two points this week.

- The most interesting thing to me ice-time wise was that Cody Franson had his biggest game in terms of minutes this week in the 1-0 win against Pittsburgh. That was a tight game throughout and that’s when he played the most, even though he’s a guy whose often considered weak defensively and strong offensively. With that in mind, he did only log 17:02 total.

- In that game Brent Johnson made a great save on Joey Crabb and the puck kicked out to the top of the circle, where Cody Franson and Tyler Kennedy were in somewhat of a race for it. Instead of backing up, Franson stepped in and knocked the puck deep. Had he missed, Kennedy would have had a breakaway from the far blue line. Franson is the best Leaf defender at holding the blue line and keeping the puck in. Sometimes we talk about players knowing how to “use their speed” or “use their shot,” but Franson really understands the benefits of his reach and how to use his stick properly. He’s fantastic at knowing just how far away from the puck he is before he can make a play on it with his stick.

- Noteworthy that Schenn came out and laid some physical checks on Jim O’Brien right off the bat against the Senators. The Sens have had their way with the Leafs physically over the last couple of games, but Schenn set the tone in the Leafs favour right from the start. He had a noteworthy shift against the Penguins in Toronto when he went head-to-head with Evgeny Malkin and really punished his body a couple of times in the first period. When Schenn locks in like that and focuses on shutting guys down, it’s a thing of beauty and he’s a serious benefit to the Leafs. It just hasn’t happened enough. I’ve said this here a ton of times, it doesn’t matter if you or I view Schenn as a defensive defenceman, he views himself as a two-way one. This week he missed an open net against the Penguins, then hit the post, then finally scored against Ottawa when he joined the rush. That’s not what defensive defencemen do. Is there anything wrong with a player trying to expand his game like that? No, not necessarily. But that role has to be understood within the organization and everyone has to be on the same page for that to work. It also has to be realized that he is going to take more time to hit his potential this way.

- There’s this old saying that goes “If you have two number one goalies, you really have none.” Having two goalies who are confident and playing well obviously isn’t a problem, but eventually the Leafs have to make a decision and just ride one. It seemed like it was going to be Gustavsson based on him starting both games against the Islanders, but Reimer has clearly made a statement this week. At this point it really is “win and you’re in,” and the Leafs are probably going to wait until they have to make a decision. For as well as Gustavsson has played, the fact that they never really came out and deemed him the true number one for the year probably means that they are going to give Reimer every opportunity here to steal the net back. Is it fair to Gustavsson? No, not at all. But that’s how hockey works sometimes.

- One thing about Reimer: Turris scored this goal against him a couple of weeks ago, and then in his first game back Tyler Kennedy rung one off the crossbar from basically the same spot. It’s concerning when players like Turris and Kennedy are beating him from that angle. Against Pittsburgh this week, James looked extremely rusty – understandably – to start and then seemed to build confidence as the game went on, getting a few bounces along the way. He obviously carried that into Ottawa Saturday.

- Everybody played at least 10 minutes in all three games except Matt Lombardi’s 9:47 in the second game against Pittsburgh.

- On that point, the fact that Lombardi went from playing 13:59 one night then all the way down to 9:47 the following game the night after tells me that he still isn’t 100% comfortable and ready to contribute nightly, probably because he still isn’t in fantastic shape. Remember, he wasn’t able to workout all summer, then he surprised the team and was able to participate in camp. 9:47 is way too low of an ice-time for a player of his caliber, but Wilson and the staff are protecting him and conserving him.

- On Kadri being sent down: Said this before and I’ll say it again, Kadri has nothing left to do in the AHL because he already dominates it. That said, one thing he can do in the AHL is gear up for a big playoff run with the Marlies. There is no doubt that the Marlies are a serious contender to win it all this season and Kadri could be the catalyst for that. It would be an excellent learning experience for him playing pro-hockey playoffs.

- In terms of him getting sent down, I’ll say this. For whatever you think he could be – a late bloomer, a bust, whatever – you can find a player to compare him to that’s had a similar path as Kadri, so to me, those comparisons mean next to nothing. At the end of the day, there was no room for him. I thought, and expressed, that Mike Brown wasn’t yet fully healthy and could be the odd man out for a bit, but that break did him some good and he looks rejuvenated. So with that in mind, given the role difference there’s no way he’s going to play over Brown or Joey Crabb, whose proven himself as a bonafide NHLer this year. It’s a numbers game and he could be sent down without having to go through the waivers. It’s a raw deal for Kadri, but it happens and I’m sure it was explained to him.

- Definitely noteworthy: Kadri did bring some nice physicality against Pittsburgh. In general, the Leafs held their own in the trenches against the Penguins and took the body whenever they could, which is what playoff hockey is all about. Of note, the Leafs finished every check they possibly could against Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, which is an excellent sign moving forward. In the playoffs, the best players have to be marked men that constantly get hit at any available opportunity. You want to wear these guys down. One example of this came with two seconds left in the second period against Pittsburgh in Toronto, when Lupul finished a solid check on Orpik as he dumped the puck out. It had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the game itself, but those kinds of things add up over a long series.

- Building on that, when the Leafs dedicate themselves to battling in the trenches and at least getting involved physically and holding their own, they are a dangerous team to play because they are one of the fastest teams in the league, if not the fastest.

This should be an exciting, difficult week for the Leafs as they play the Oilers, Jets, Flyers and Habs, and honour Mats Sundin. Some things I’ll be looking for this week include how the goalie situation plays out, if Komisarek draws into the lineup at all and what the power play looks like if he does (because I assume Franson would be the scratch). Also – whether any of Lombardi, Connolly, Armstrong or Crabb get some scoring happening from the bottom six. At this point, I expect the top two lines to carry the mantle offensively and for Phaneuf, Liles, and Gardiner (yes, Gardiner) to log huge minutes. This week I’m paying particular attention to the “other guys” to see what they are bringing and if any can get hot, especially since the Leafs had only two lines score this week.

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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