Leafs Notebook – February 13

Leafs Notebook – February 13

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Photo: 98.1 CHFI

Funny how a week changes everything.

This time last Monday, the Leafs were coming off handling Ottawa easily and two very good efforts against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They took it to two teams who are in the same playoff clout as them and fared very well.

Fast forward to the present moment and they beat a bad Edmonton team, lost to the Jets in Winnipeg, the Flyers in Philadelphia and then at home to the Montreal Canadiens on Mats Sundin night… so naturally, they suck now.

The truth is though, they are essentially right where we thought they would be all along: in a dog race to make the top eight.

Realistically, if at the beginning of the season the Leafs were told they could start the year right now clinging onto eighth spot by a point, they would have taken it and ran.

The Leafs are still 5-4-1 in their last 10 games. The aforementioned Ottawa – who, again, is ahead of them by just two points with two less games left on their schedule – are 2-6-2. Washington, who is directly behind them, is 3-4-3. Winnipeg, who is the only other team within a reasonable distance outside of the top 9, is 4-5-1 in their last 10. In other words, the Leafs are the only team in that hunt to get to seventh – not eighth – playing over five hundred hockey lately.

And people are wondering if the Leafs should sell.

This was never going to be easy for Toronto to make the playoffs, and nobody ever thought it would be. This isn’t time to jump ship nor is it time to sell the future to bring in immediate help. What it is, is time to see what this team is made of.

There’s no quick fixes coming. Brian Burke and co. aren’t trading Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin or any other very good young assets for a quick-fix Ryan Malone, or whoever. That just isn’t going to happen.

The Leafs have been clear from the start, there is a plan in place here to become a perennial contender and they aren’t going to make the mistakes we saw happen over and over again with previous management regimes.

Of course the Leafs need more size, of course they need another veteran or two, and obviously they need a lot more toughness. But the assets that Burke is playing with and willing to deal from his end aren’t many. The players who are without question expendable are Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, Joey Crabb and maybe even Colby Armstrong (based on the healthy scratch). So it’s not as if he’s trading from the high end of bargaining power.

That said, the Leafs appear more than willing to do a hockey trade. By that I mean moving an over abundance of assets in one area to fill a need somewhere else. Last year, for example, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars completed a hockey trade by exchanging Alex Goligoski for Matt Niskanen and James Neal. It wasn’t about getting younger for one team, or shedding cap, or selling off a pending UFA; the Pens needed a winger and the Stars needed a defenceman.

That’s the kind of deal the Leafs want. Obviously Luke Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk is a hockey trade involving two young assets. I’m not going to speculate what other possible moves could be made, but the point is, that is what Burke and his management team are looking to do. If they could somehow package a number of these pieces together and get one really good player back, they’d love to do that too.

Overall though, there is going to be no selling for selling’s sake – the Leafs are too deep into the season and in a playoff spot for that to make sense. They aren’t going to be extreme buyers either – they aren’t close enough to seriously competing for a Cup and almost none of their assets are in their primes for that to make sense either. They are right where they want to be as an organization: young, on the rise, competing for a playoff spot, and with a plethora of assets to eventually develop and weed out until they find the perfect mix.

The goal of every season is the Stanley Cup  - and Brian Burke will probably come out and say that’s still the goal of this team at some point – but realistically, making the playoffs is fine for this season. The playoffs is a completely different level of hockey. You cannot quantify the level of hockey that is played in the playoffs, but it’s special and it’s at a level far beyond the regular season. The Leafs need to experience that, they need to see what it’s like to be in hostile environment with the season on the line. They need to find out what it’s like to play in a real playoff series with real playoff adversity. They need to truly gauge themselves against the best teams in the league when those teams are playing their best.

This group has shown they can compete against pretty well any team in the league this year, is that enough to win a series? Maybe, maybe not. But at least management will know what kind of character they show in that situation. If they fold like a cheap suit in four games, then they might be in store for some bigger changes than we think. If they battle and push whoever they play against to the limit, then Burke will add to that core and grow it.

If you consider Burke’s plan a five-step process, the first step was gutting this team down. Done. The second step was stock piling assets. Done. The third step is making the playoffs, the fourth is building a team who can go far in the playoffs, and the fifth is putting the finishing pieces on this team to go all out for the Cup (no matter what it costs).

So, as the Leafs stand today, they are the exact team we thought they were. Young, exciting, inconsistent, still numerous big holes, and right on the playoff bubble. So now we separate the men from the boys as we wait to see who steps up and takes control down the stretch here, and whether or not this team rises to the occasion or crumbles before us.

Don’t let a bad week of hockey cloud your judgement on this team. This is the team we knew they’d be to start the year.

***

Don’t want to talk about Mats Sundin anymore here – obviously, that horse has now been beaten to death on MLHS and Twitter – but I did want to point out what an excellent ceremony the Maple Leafs organization put on for the overall production of the jersey raising. For some reason, the Leafs have always taken a lot of criticism for their pre-game ceremonies, and frankly, if you ask me, it’s a media-made complaint because they want the game to be over with and the ceremonies delay them going home. But maybe that’s just me.

Either way, it was a great presentation, Mats had a very touching speech that definitely hit a soft spot when he referenced all the recent deaths that have occurred within the Leaf family and the hockey family in general, and it was everything you could have hoped for. Excellent job all around.

- The game against the Oilers didn’t provide much to talk about. Edmonton simply isn’t a very good team and their team defence is absolutely atrocious. The Oilers wanted to play a speed game against the Leafs and Toronto more than obliged. The Leafs, top to bottom, might be the fastest team in the league, so if a team is going to play wide open against them they will gladly play give-and-take hockey. In other words, the Leafs are content with giving Edmonton some quality scoring chances because they’ll take the odds that they will simply outscore the other team. It’s worked numerous times this year – Tampa Bay and Washington games come to mind. And it works for the Leafs because they have scoring depth and a solid amount of skill, but to me, that’s not hockey, it’s a race to see who can score more (and no, those two aren’t the same thing).

- There were a couple things worth noting in that game though. The first is that Dion Phaneuf could not handle the speed of the Hall-Gagner-Eberle line. He really struggled against it and looked overwhelmed throughout the game. Hall in particular beat Phaneuf wide on one play and missed a great scoring opportunity. The coaches said in the second intermission they were happy with the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf match up against that line, but Jake Gardiner was getting ice time against them in the second period while the game was still somewhat close. For Phaneuf, it was a sign of things to come in the week that was. Funny enough, he had two points in that Edmonton game.

- Jordan Eberle scored a great goal against the Leafs that you can see here. That goal was a primary result of the back check by Colby Armstrong. You notice he actually does work hard to get back into the play, but Taylor Hall, who is coming down on Luke Schenn, slams the breaks on and Armstrong skates to Hall. That’s Schenn’s man. Luke fronted him all the way through the neutral zone, so obviously when he stops that’s Schenn’s responsibility to stop with him and he did that. Armstrong stopped too, however, which is why Petry was wide open for the give-and-go afterward. There are two reasons why that’s Armstrong’s responsibility; one: the game is going way to fast for Schenn to possibly be able to read Hall stopping, Armstrong stopping too and then somehow identifying Petry and pivoting to cover him. That’s just not possible. The second reason is that as a back-checker it is your responsibility to pick up the open man and cover him. Since when do forwards double-team guys when there are as many attackers as defenders?

- For Armstrong it was also indicative of the week to come.

- Since I’m on Armstrong, I might as well continue talking about him. He was weak along the boards getting the puck out on this goal by Hartnell too. Was it the greatest pass by Phaneuf? No. But if every pass was perfect from defencemen to forwards, then forwards would just be told to release from the zone altogether. Armstrong knew he had to be better than he was there as evident by his facial expression after the goal. If a defenceman is going to a dirty area, winning the battle and putting the puck up the boards, you better breakout cleanly, simply get it out, or run over whoever is in your way as a fourth liner. He did neither, and wasn’t able to block the point shot either.

- Those were probably two plays that stuck out in the coaches minds when they decided to make him a healthy scratch. He was costing them defensively and he wasn’t providing very much spark or energy to the lineup with his on-ice play. One thing Armstrong has shown to be fantastic at in his career is cycling the puck in the other teams zone and dominating the boards in general, which is a huge boost to the Leafs when he’s on his game. The Leafs lack big bodies who can grind out shifts in the oppositions end, and even though Armstrong is a guy who can do that, he hasn’t been.

- Coming back in the middle of the season is hard for anyone, but especially as a role player. If you’re talented, you’re talented. So you can probably get away with things like not being in the greatest shape because you still have your natural abilities. Whereas Colby’s game is all about work ethic and simple, good old fashioned hard work. He’s clearly not in great shape and that’s not his fault; you can’t workout when you have a concussion. Armstrong’s going to have to battle through this and really make a statement that he wants to be playing important minutes this year by working his tail off and cranking up the intensity.

- One guy who did work hard this week was Mike Brown. Against Edmonton he had a shift where he blocked three shots in a row to get it out with the game got tight in the second period. Against Philadelphia he had a great fight versus Zac Rinaldo and he was the only player who showed up and played hard against the Habs (he had seven recorded hits, also stood up for Kessel).

- I don’t mind Wilson as a coach, and I’ve always said that. He’s not a John Tortorella type who wears his heart on his sleeve behind the bench nightly – which could have changed the tone of the Habs game on Saturday – but I can appreciate that there is more than one way to skin a cat and with a young team he tries to stay composed and professional behind the bench. Again, I can appreciate that.

- But the way they played against the Habs, there’s no excuse for the overall lack of any sort of dramatic change to the roster mid-game. The lines more or less remained intact and nobody’s ice time was really out of the norm.

- With social media the way it is, I know everyone is always quick to criticize and question things now and it’s generally a pet-peeve of mine to hear people criticizing Ron Wilson’s in-game decisions as if coaching in the NHL is easy. However, on Saturday they had absolutely nothing going for them as a team. He complemented the fourth line saying “I thought (Boyce) was excellent. He finished all his checks, got pucks in. That was our best line in terms of where the puck was and where the responsibilities were.” Yet, they all played 10 minutes on the night. A game like that, a situation like that, the little effort that was put forth, and you run the lines like normal? Reward the fourth line. They were the only guys who cared Saturday, I’d argue they should have been double shifted and commended for actually having some passion.

- Wilson and his staff were probably trying to get the top power play unit out there because they’ve struggled lately and he wanted to give them opportunities to snap out of it, but you get to a point -and that game certainly got to this point – where they simply don’t deserve to be out there, and they shouldn’t be. Ron always takes a ton of heat the second he benches a player in Toronto, but compared to a lot of other coaches in the league, he is much more resistant to pulling the trigger and taking away someone’s ice time for poor play. If anything, he always gives his players chances and opportunities to work out of their funks. There are all sorts of reasons to bench guys – to try and spark a player during the game, to reprimand them, maybe they are a liability – but this was a game where after the second period it should have been like “I’m looking for 10 guys who can play hockey this period because this is embarrassing.” It’s one thing if you’re on the road – maybe the travel there was rough and you simply just want to get out of that city/state/province/whatever, so you roll the lines – but they were at home, on Saturday night, against a rival on Mats Sundin night. I’m sure they got bag-skated to death Sunday or Monday, but some in-game benching would have been nice instead of simply strutting out players who were playing awful.

- Something that is always evident to me is the inability of the Leafs goalies to play the puck. And to be clear, both of them struggle mightily in this department. There are examples of each from this week making pretty big mistakes. The first one was Jonas Gustavsson against the Jets. With about 50 seconds left he had the puck under his glove and could have held for a whistle with a pretty tired unit on the ice. Instead, he decided to keep the puck in play, the Jets got a chance as the continued to fore-check a tired group, and the Leafs never got out of the zone, used their timeout, or got fresh legs out there. Game over. Gustavsson has to be aware of the situation, including: the time left in the game, the score, how long his players have been out there, and generally what’s going on in the game. That’s part of his job and he has to know better. I suspect that played a part in him not starting the rest of the week. Can’t imagine the coaches were happy with that decision.

- Quickly wanted to point out Grabovski won all eight of his draws against the Jets too.

- Back to goalies, plays like this happen all the time in Leaf games – I urge you to take note when you watch the games yourself – the puck gets wrapped around the boards, the Leafs goalie comes out to stop it, then miss the puck completely and throw off the players. Or they stop it, make a weak play passing the puck, and it gets turned over. Against the Habs on one play in particular, Reimer stopped the puck, hesitated to move it, then shoveled it to Phaneuf as a guy was already on him and the puck was turned over. The Habs buzzed in the Leafs zone for nearly a minute, hit a post and then the Leafs caught a break when the puck deflected out of bounds off a Habs shot. Waste of a minute, and waste of a shift for everyone involved. Nothing drives defencemen crazy more than being hung out to dry, and when a goalie in particular – the guy you protect as soon as he gets touched – is essentially giving you suicide passes, players get upset.

- Beyond that, it just hurts in so many aspects of the game. That line wasted an entire shift caused by a goalie turnover when he tried to play the puck. As a team, you also lose momentum. Nobody is asking these goalies to be Martin Brodeur, but just some basic puck handling abilities from at least one of these guys would benefit the Leafs greatly. Watch a team with a good puck handling goalie, their defencemen barely even go behind the goal line. The goalie makes an outlet pass himself so the defencemen just get open and give the goalie options. In the game against Montreal, Price put on his usual clinic. Pucks dumped down deep on Leaf power plays were cleared by him, he was helping the Habs break out cleanly, he generally controlled the play behind the goal line on any dump in.

- It’s extremely difficult to quantify having a good puck handling goalie versus a bad one, but I’d be willing to bet the Leafs would spend close to two minutes less in their own zone a game if they had a good puck handling goalie compared to what they currently have. Especially with a team that features strong puck moving defencemen in Cody Franson, JM Liles and Jake Gardiner, and a quick group of forwards.

- Against the Flyers the Leafs used Tyler Bozak to take the draw at the end of the game on a night that he went 6/18. Bozak played a great game, but he struggled at the dot, lost that one, and the Leafs never got back in the zone. The faceoff was on the right side and Bozak deserved to be out there, so I understand the decision. I’m just surprised he didn’t go with a more experienced center (Steckel) or the center who was doing the best in the circle (Connolly was 6/9). It will be interesting what he does next time in a similar situation.

- Also interesting that Cody Franson was out there at the end. JM Liles and Phaneuf were on the shift before, then they called the timeout and put out Cody with Dion. Obviously they wanted his shot on the point, but it was surprising they didn’t put a puck moving defenceman out there to lead the attack and to get the puck back up ice should the Leafs lose the draw, which they did. So, again, it will be interesting to see who he throws out there when they are down a goal with a minute left again. The six men this time were Bozak’s line with Grabovski and the aforementioned point men.

- These are some of the kinds of goals the Leafs were scoring when their power play was successful: Here, here, and here. Notice the trend? All three are caused by the Leaf players going to the net and causing havoc. The Leafs have become way too cute on the power play, over passing the puck and looking for the perfect goal. All week they moved it around the perimeter and really weren’t battling in the tough areas. Every team goes through these lulls at one point in the season where they’ve been successful on the power play – like the Leafs have – so they start hot dogging it out on the ice and trying to score really nice goals instead of just getting it to the net and banging away, which is the real reason they have a good power play in the first place.

- Interesting response from Ron Wilson when it came to beating the trap. He basically said “score first” and loosen up the trap. I’d like to think they have more planned than that – and we’ll find out in the coming weeks as they get trapped more often – because if I’m picking between the Leafs trying to beat a trap and score on a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist first or the Rangers counterattacking and trying to score on Jonas Gustavsson or James Reimer first, well, I know who I’m picking.

- Another way to beat the trap? Use your speed. There’s more than one way to use your speed and the Leafs are trying to penetrate the zone with the puck instead of using their speed in other ways. Flip the puck up in the air and into the corner, then have your forwards use their speed and get on the forecheck. You don’t need big bodies to apply pressure, you don’t need big bodies to be tenacious, you don’t need big bodies to work hard. Their forwards aren’t useless just because they are small in stature. They have speed, use it. If teams are going to trap, get it in deep and start causing turnovers.

- Watch teams like Florida and Nashville play. They aren’t overly big at forward – no bigger than the Leafs at least – but they get the puck in deep and then they put their hard hats on and go to work. So we’ll see what the Leafs do moving forward when it comes to getting trapped, but if they are living and dying by this “score first” motto, then I’m not on board with that.

- And to be clear, most teams are going to play some sort of trap style against the Leafs now. The opposition watches tape too, most of these teams have already play the Leafs once and their speed won’t surprise anyone anymore.

- Paid a decent amount of attention to Tim Connolly this week, and here are my thoughts on him. First off, he’s basically producing as was expected in the grand scheme of things, so that can’t be forgotten. Forty points in 70 games is a little off what most thought, but if he’s playing with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul religiously then that number would probably be closer to 55. Connolly simply can’t play with Lombardi and Crabb. No disrespect to those two wingers, but they just don’t have the talent level that Connolly does and Connolly isn’t able to carry a line on his own anymore. He needs players who move well off the puck and think the game at a high level. Crabb works hard and Lombardi flies all over the ice but they aren’t savvy in how they get open and create lanes. Lombardi is a player who races up and down his wing and Crabb is a guy who works really hard. Connolly can’t create much space for himself, but if he has guys around him that command extra attention and Connolly gets that extra second to look up and make a play, he’s going to do it. This was evident in Kessel’s goal against Edmonton here. Connolly made a great pass to find a streaking Lombardi because Kessel commands extra attention and that gave Tim extra time.

- Connolly is going to play with Grabovski and MacArthur so we’ll see what he can do with better line mates. How he handles himself on the wing should be interesting, but once he gets into the offensive zone he will have a little more time to create and get going. It’s something to monitor this week.

- Found this link that showed the travel that NHL teams goes through year and to no surprise the Leafs traveled the second least of any team in the league. So with that in mind, there’s really no excuse for them to look tired in Winnipeg then in Philadelphia like they did this week.

- On that note, the Leafs looked horrible against the Flyers in Philadelphia and well the overall score probably complimented them, the fact that they only lost by one to a team who was coming off three straight losses and badly needed a win, kind of puts things into perspective that they aren’t that bad. The Leafs need to play better, but if they are hanging around games against pretty good teams when they aren’t playing well, it says something about them.

- And good for Dion Phaneuf to fight Scott Hartnell. A guy scores on you and then gets in your face? You better be showing some emotion, and Phaneuf did. I can handle seeing a guy make a mistake because he lets his emotions get the best of him, but the Leafs are a team that plays more to the idea of remaining calm and letting cooler heads prevail. They aren’t the biggest team in the world and they don’t want to get physically man handled, I can understand that. But after an effort like the one Saturday, I want to see some emotion. Instead after the game it’s the cliche “we didn’t play our game,” “we didn’t get a save,” “we simply didn’t play well.” Nobody is telling these guys to lose their cool, but it’s okay to vent a little, to show a little emotion. They got embarrassed at home and the fourth line was the only group who showed any sort of feeling.

- They dealt with it in their own way by having a team meeting, clearing the air and refocusing. That’s fine too. More importantly now, we’ll see how they respond moving forward.

This western swing against Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver isn’t the season, but it’s a great test. Coming off a bad week, let’s see how the Leafs respond.

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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