Mailbag: 7 Questions, 7 Answers

Mailbag: 7 Questions, 7 Answers

333

Photo: Reuters

As always, thank you for the questions, I really enjoy these.

I wanted to quickly clarify a quick comment from Wendelsway (if you don’t know what I’m talking about and/or don’t want to read, just scroll down to the questions) RE: the goalie situation. At the end of the day, Gustavsson views himself as a starting goalie, not a backup. I don’t know what Gustavsson is thinking – he played well enough to run with the starting roll at one point – but the Leafs still didn’t afford him that opportunity to really run with it. So in his mind, I’m sure he feels slighted because he’s on a different page than management when it comes to his career and his career goals. Which brings me back to the original goalie article I wrote in November; if you want Reimer to be your guy, bring in a veteran who can actually support him and help Reimer’s game grow, not keep around a goalie who wants to steal his starting job, as if the guy needs more things to deal with. Hope that clarifies. I look forward to reading your reply in the comments section.

1) vesku35: My question for you – Burke has admitted before he underestimated how long this process would take. Do you think he underestimated even his underestimation? Seems like there is even more fundamental issues with this team than we thought. You spoke of bottom six issues; does adding a player that can improve the 3rd line make this team much better?

Secondly; does Burke not have to sack up and bury Lombardi? If he’s gonna take on that contract to get Franson he’s got to have the balls to know get rid of him as he continues to drag down the bottom six.

This team is in a playoff spot and if they had good goaltending they could realistically be competing for spots four or five in the Conference, so I don’t think Burke underestimated his underestimation at this point. Tyler Bozak is becoming the player he expected, Phil Kessel is becoming the player he expected, Dion Phaneuf is playing better than expected, etc. If they make the playoffs they are right on track with whatever revised plan Burke probably put in place after the original plan was scrapped. He’s always said playoffs is the first big step in this league, so that still applies. If they don’t make the playoffs, Burke still didn’t underestimate this group, they simply didn’t get the job done. Although that does make his job a lot harder for next season.

There are fundamental issues but a lot of them will go away as two things happens: one, as this team gets older, and two, as this team gets better goaltending. Last season when James Reimer got hot, all of a sudden the Leafs became a team that could win against anyone in the league, a team that could grind out wins, play solid defence and generally play good hockey. I’d be interested to see how this Leafs team looks with some really good goaltending. Look at the Rangers strictly on paper, are they THAT much better than the Leafs? I’d argue no. But they have the best goalie in the world right and sit atop the Conference. This isn’t to blame everything on goaltending though, because this team still makes a lot of young mistakes, be that inconsistency, mental lapses, confidence issues, and so on. But as this group continues to grow together those will be ironed out over time.

When it comes to bottom six issues, adding one player doesn’t make this team that much better, they need a whole new line. Let’s say for argument’s sake the Leafs bring in Steve Ott. He’s big, he can hit, and he’s an intense player who will make a difference. But whose he going to play with him on the third line? Matt Lombardi? Joey Crabb? Tim Connolly? Ott will make a difference, but you want to play a physical player like that with another physical player (if not two other physical players); they tend to feed off of each other and motivate each other to hit and get nasty even more. Sort of like when Brown and Orr used to play together and at least one of them seemed to fight every night. Here’s the thing though, if the Leafs were to bring in an Ott – and I stress he’s only an example – and Colby Armstrong ever found his game, then yes, all of a sudden that makes a huge difference. If you have those two guys running around together and making the defencemen on the other team pay the price consistently with a strong forecheck, then this team will have a whole new wrinkle added to their look and play.

As for Lombardi, here’s what I think. Last year he had a concussion and missed the whole year. He got traded to Toronto in a salary dump, worked his tail off, was ready to play at the start of the year and predictably looked rusty. Just as his game was beginning to turn the corner -coincidentally as he played against his two former teams in Nashville and Phoenix – he gets hurt again. Then he comes back and struggles again. Now, once and awhile he shows the odd flash of the player he was. So what does this all mean? I think Burke sympathizes with the situation. He’s missed hockey for a year. The Leafs are giving him a chance this season and they certainly don’t want to bury him in the minors and force him out of the NHL permanently, yet. He could still be used in a trade after all.

The right path with Lombardi is let him play out the year here. He’s still a veteran and he still has some game; he could surprise everyone for all we know as his last appearance in the playoffs he had six points in seven games. When this season ends they should make it clear to him though, “If you’re still on this team come training camp, you’re going to have to earn your spot on this roster. We gave you a throwaway year because of circumstance, but next season we will bury you in the minors.” And then take it from there.

On a personal note, I’m happy they’re giving Lombardi a real opportunity. I hated what the Ducks did to Lupul and it would be extremely bothersome if we all had to watch Lombardi play very well in another NHL city simply because the Leafs never believed in him or never gave him a real opportunity. It goes beyond hockey what he’s been through. It’s life. But as I said, next season it’s a completely different story. He comes to camp and can’t even make the team, then you bury him no questions asked.

2) leafsforlife: A lot of people are calling for the firing Wilson and saying he doesn’t have a system. Do you agree with firing Wilson? And does he actually have a system in place but the players are not executing it? My understanding is that they play the same system in the AHL with the Marlies? Who would be best to replace Wilson based on our current roster and young players?

Since the start of the year, my stance on Wilson has been this: The Leafs have given him a roster that should make the playoffs. If he gets in, great. Extend him. If he doesn’t get in, then you bring in someone new next year.

Firing him with what little time is left in the regular season would make no sense. Plus, they are still actually in a playoff spot.

Of course Wilson has a system place, he is an NHL coach after all. The Leafs don’t appear to have an extremely specific system though. A lot of it revolves around generating speed, criss-crossing to fill lanes, trying to create odd man rushes, and utilizing the defence within the attack. Some teams ask for simple, specific things from each night – like Vancouver – but the Leafs game plan really reaches out to every line and more of a “free flowing” style of hockey. The Leafs are at their best when they are dictating the pace and opening the game up, but as with any young team, they are struggling to adapt to pushing their game on much older, more experienced groups at the moment as the games are now tightening up in anticipation of the playoffs. Having goaltending that the team doesn’t always trust hurts as well, that really throws off any and everything you do as a coach.

The Marlies play a similar to style to the Leafs, but there are a lot of differences, too. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say this: The Marlies have some big bodies. Between Frattin, Mueller, Deschamps, Colborne and Hamilton, they have good players who have size and skill and are able to cycle the puck down low and create using puck possession, something the Leafs are rarely able to do. But they are similar it comes to things like power play, penalty kill, neutral zone formations. But the Marlies and Leafs have different kinds of players so they do different things really well.

Finally, as for whose the best coaching option? It depends whose available. If the Sabres actually do fire Lindy Ruff, then it’s Lindy Ruff. No questions asked. Of course, the name everyone wants to hear is Dallas Eakins, who I’m sure will get a really good look, too. Let’s see how the Marlies do in the playoffs first though. They are one of the best teams in the AHL this year so if they make it all the way to the finals or even win it all, then that will obviously help his cause and really open some eyes. Whereas if they get upset in the first round, he’s not looking so great all of a sudden. So we’ll wait and see on him; I think how they perform in the playoffs matter, but maybe that’s just me.

Of course talk of a new coach is premature. We all know if the Leafs make the playoffs this year Wilson is going nowhere. If he does get fired though I’ll run down 5-10 candidates in depth here.

3) @Burtonboy12: Is the lack of aggressive play and push back from the Leafs caused by coach’s insistence to take less penalties due to poor PK

This is a good question, and seems to be one that a lot of people wonder out loud about.

The truth is though, it’s probably a bit of both. The Leafs don’t have many players that play physical and actually get dirty and under the other teams skin. Take it line-by-line. First line? Lupul and Bozak finish their checks and Lupul has shown to be a dirty player on the odd occasion, even willing to drop the gloves, but why would he cross that line when he’s counted on to produce each night on the first line? Second line? Who’s really going to physically punish someone from that line? MacArthur has some jam, but he’s hardly keeping defencemen up at night. Kulemin has size and can work the corners, but unless your name is Patrick Kaleta, he’s probably not going to lay the boom down. Grabovski is Grabovski. The third line is a rotating door of guys like Lombardi, Connolly, Crabb and Armstrong. That more or less speaks for itself. Then the fourth line has two guys who work hard and get in on the forecheck in Steckel and Boyce; both get their noses dirty and cycle the puck well, but neither are particularly intimidating or physically dominating. And then there’s Brown. I think we’d all agree he takes the body whenever he can, he’s given the green light to fight whenever he wants to and he pushes back.

In short, there really isn’t much in there that oozes truculence, pugnacity and whatever else it is that can be linked to being extra aggressive and pushing back against an opponent.

Then the defence has four guys right off the bat we can label as non-physical in Gardiner, Liles, Gunnarsson and Franson (he’s had some gems, but I’d hardly call him a bone-crusher), leaving the Leafs with Phaneuf and Schenn. The Leafs can’t afford for Phaneuf to be in the box so he has to tone it down. If people want to “blame” Wilson for that, so be it. But I’m telling Phaneuf to stay out of the box too if I was coach. Lastly, there’s Luke Schenn. He’s struggled this year, but his hit count is still up (if that means anything to you) so it’s not like he’s stopped taking the body. Schenn has essentially been what he’s been. I doubt the coaches have told him to stop being physical.

All in all, the overall team lacks those big bodies who can punish the opposition. It’s on the roster, not Wilson. Colby Armstrong having the year – or lack thereof – that he is really hurts too, because he can be consistently physical.

Wilson’s not God, he’s a hockey coach. The Leafs simply don’t have the size and attitude within their players to play physical, so he’s doing the best with what he has and playing with speed. The crackdown on taking penalties had everything to do with all the hooking, tripping, interference, lazy, stupid, infractions they were getting called for. They were never overly aggressive in the first place, so it’s not as if Wilson could even hypothetically hold them back even if he wanted to.

4) @The_Real_HurlB: With the Jackets having a fire sale, do you feel like Umberger would be a strong addition?

This gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, but Brian Burke actually drafted RJ Umberger in 2001, 16th overall. You would think that would mean Burke would definitely be interested in Umberger, right? Not the case at all.

Burke and Umberger’s agent at the time, Brian Lawton (yes, the former Tampa GM), could never come to an agreement on Umberger’s rookie deal, eventually resulting in a trade to the New York Rangers. Apparently, in 2003, when the Canucks drafted Ryan Kesler 23rd overall, they signed him to a deal that was $825,000 more than what was being offered to Umberger despite RJ’s draft number being higher, and at the time, probably having a better overall status. They feuded, and as stated, he was traded. The rest is history.

So, do they like each other now? Who knows. But we’ve seen Burke hold a grudge or two in his time here, and whose to say Umberger would want to play here? He doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but do you really want to bring in a player who may not like you?

Even with that all aside, RJ Umberger has a five year, $23 million deal kicking in next season as he turns 30 this year. On paper, Umberger would make a lot of sense as he’s big, can play two-way hockey, he’s been good in the playoffs and provides a lot of depth. But his contract doesn’t appear to make him worth it to the Leafs.

If the Leafs are going to target anyone from Columbus (we won’t talk of Nash or Carter), I’d be more inclined to at least kick tires on guys like Derick Brassard, Derek MacKenzie, Jared Boll or Samuel Pahlsson.

5) @Simply_Dale_OK: what would you do if you were Burke heading into next Monday. Specific moves you would make because we know what the Leafs need.

The first thing I would do is see if there is any way they can rid themselves of any big contract that’s not worth it. Whether that be Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, whoever. If the Leafs do that and nothing else, at the very least they are opening up a roster spot that I’d much rather have a Matt Frattin play in than the current Joey Crabb or whoever.

The next thing I’m doing is looking at what it would take to get Jeff Carter. Yes, he clearly shut it down in Columbus. Yes, that looks bad on his character. And yes he has a big contract. Frankly, I don’t want to get into some big argument over a guy whose not even a Leaf right now. At the end of the day, for me, he’s a big number one center who can dominate when he’s on his game. That’s it. We all know that’s what the Leafs need from here on out and for years to come, and here is that asset sitting available. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Unless they’ve found something out about Jeff Carter that makes his personality and general attitude not worth bringing in, I’m pursuing him. And if I’m pursuing Jeff Carter, I’m making sure Columbus throws in Curtis Sanford too as a veteran backup goalie whose had a good little year for some goaltending insurance.

Failing the big move, I’d look to simply upgrade in net. If Evgeny Nabokov can’t be had – it appears the Islanders want him back next season – then I’m looking at Josh Harding as a goalie who can help the team make the playoffs next year, and a guy who can take a lot of pressure off of James Reimer for the next couple of years.

Whether they are able to bring in an impact goalie or forward, no matter what I’d also still be looking to bring in some additional size, too. Particularly that means a Steve Ott type or even a Paul Gaustad or Travis Moen, depending on their price tags. The Leafs obviously need some extra sandpaper and grit, and bringing in a goalie or big name players doesn’t change any of that. You can’t teach size, you have to acquire it.

I know I didn’t make specific deals or offer up players I would move in those packages, but the truth is, I don’t what those teams will ask for in return. That’s just my approach to the deadline with a list of names I would target. I would also consider trading Grabovski for a big return should I think his contract demands are too high and inflexible. But I’d only move him in a scenario where they got a big return, which is entirely possible.

6) @Phillinbig Q for you – is it just because it’s the AHL or is it because its Eakins that guys like Kadri/Colborne/Aulie play a better game?

Well, right from the start, Aulie hasn’t really been better in the AHL, so I can’t give you that one. The other two, however, I can address.

When it comes to Kadri, he’s simply better than the other players in the AHL. Eakins has done a good job of managing him as a person and keeping him focused despite being sent up and down a couple of times, but at the end of the day, Kadri is one of the better players in the entire league and Eakins has even said so. It’s a lot easier to go around Bulldogs captain Alex Henry or Grand Rapids captain Garnett Exelby then, say, Robyn Regehr or Josh Gorges. Nazem Kadri gets away with more at the AHL level and when he makes mistakes he’s generally thrown back out there and still counted on to make big plays. In the NHL, he doesn’t have that credibility, so he limits his mistakes, which also takes away from his creativity. The Leafs and Kadri have talked about this a lot since his first training camp here – it’s all about finding balance. In the AHL that balance is shifted because he’s counted on to score at a high rate and he’s afforded more breathing room should he make mistakes, and he doesn’t make as many high profile giveaways in the first place because the competition is below him.

The Leafs appeared willing to give Kadri that breathing room to start the year, but getting hurt in training camp cost him that opportunity to build up his game in the “soft months” of the season (October, November, December) in order to allow him to play in crunch time now over veterans.

For Colborne, it’s much of the same. He’s more easily able to dominate the corners and the puck with his size in the AHL level than the NHL. The difference between Kadri and Colborne is that Kadri actually dominates games in the AHL. From top to bottom I’ve seen numerous games this year where Kadri was by far the best player on the ice and looked like a player who could do whatever he wanted. Colborne has dominated games too, but not at the level I’ve personally seen from Kadri where every single shift takes you out of your seat. Joe’s point totals are nice, but he can be a player you don’t notice too much unless you’re looking for him… then when you look at the boxscore afterward, he’s picked up an assist or two.

Further differentiating Kadri’s play from Colborne’s is the fact that Colborne is not just adjusting to pro hockey, but Colborne is also learning how to use his size. Power forwards traditionally take a longer time to develop because it’s a lot harder to dominate an NHL defenceman who’s a 30 year old man than it is a 19 year old you just played in the OHL (or in Colborne’s case, a 22 year old in the NCAA), especially when the way you’re used to dominating is predicated on size. While Colborne’s not necessarily a power forward, he does have to use his size more. So in the AHL he’ll show flashes of that which usually result in a goal, whereas in the NHL that flash will turn into a good scoring opportunity (players are way better in the NHL, obviously, so it’s a lot harder to score).

On that note, Eakins is a guy who gets a lot of leash from the fans without realizing that his job is much different than Wilson’s. It’s a lot easier as a coach to sit down with a player and say “you can make mistakes here, that’s why you’re in the AHL, to learn. So don’t be afraid to try some things as we’re going to grow your game here and we need you to work hard in what we ask of you to take you to the next level.” In comparison to Wilson’s job which is “we’re bringing up you to play your game and get results. This is your job.” The pressures are completely different. You get paid substantially more in the NHL for a reason, and you’re expected to be a professional night-in and night-out, whereas the AHL is still a developmental league (it’s very good hockey, and professional hockey at that, but for young guys, it’s a developmental league). If Kadri makes a mistake that leads to a loss, it’s a learning experience in the AHL for Eakins. If he does that in the NHL, it’s a lot more than that for Wilson and co.

So, in summary: the league is easier, Kadri and Colborne are way above average players in the AHL. The stakes are a lot higher to produce and the attention and criticism to your game is magnified dramatically when you go from being a Marlie to a Leaf. Like I said, I don’t want to take anything away from Eakins, I think he’s done a great job, has an amazing connection with his players, and is an excellent communicator. But other than keeping a guy like Kadri focused, I think we all knew that Kadri was talented and could dominate. Eakins has taught him things no doubt, but I’d bet he would dominate the AHL at this point with or without him. Same for Colborne too.

7) Alec Brownscombe: How hard should Burke be going after a ‘tender, and how much should he be willing to spend? Is the only option at the moment taking an interim journeyman goaltender with nothing to lose and hoping he takes the opportunity by storm?

Brian Burke and his staff should be moderately pursuing a goalie. They should set out what they are willing to pay for a goalie, and then go and make that offer for goalies of interest, as opposed to searching for a goalie and paying whatever it takes to get that goalie.

Whether we like it or not, they have been very clear that they think James Reimer is the goalie of the future. So it’s doubtful that they would sell the farm for a Jonathon Bernier or Cory Schneider. Instead, management should be saying “what are we willing to part with to bring in a goalie who can help us make the playoffs this year, and potentially return next season to help us as well.” Then shop that offer.

What should that offer be? If we’re talking draft picks, no higher than their second. If we’re talking about prospects, I’d be hard pressed to even give up a B-level prospect unless it meant bringing in Evgeni Nabokov or Josh Harding, because those guys can actually carry this team for a year or two after this. A B-level prospect would be a Jerry D’Amigo, a Greg McKegg, and so on. Like I said, I’d be hard pressed to give up on one of those kids.

I don’t think the only option is a journeyman goalie. I’d understand if they acquired one because the price would be relatively cheap, but if I’m them, I’m bringing in some quality, proven netminding. If the Leafs are going to bother trading for a goalie as their one move this deadline, you might as well get an Evgeny Nabokov or Josh Harding over a Curtis Sanford or Scott Clemmensen.

I still think there’s a chance Reimer turns his game around to a degree and helps this team down the stretch too. Everyone thinks he’s dead in the water, but he’s had some good stints this year and he’s shown he can get hot before, so I wouldn’t be extremely desperate to trade for a goalie, and I don’t think Burke is. They’ll assess the goalie market at the moment and adjust accordingly. I’ve said for a while now that I think they should be supporting Reimer with a seasoned veteran and I stick by that. At the moment though, I’d be more inclined to bring in a guy who can actually carry this team to the playoffs himself right now instead of just a solid veteran backup. But if they’re only bet is to bring in a veteran journeyman due to cost, then I’d probably still do it and move forward.

***

Thanks for the questions again, as always. Just a quick note – Leafs Notebook won’t be up Monday since that is trade deadline day, but I should have something up for Tuesday. Apparently trade deadline day is important or something?

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.