Leafs Notebook – March 5

Leafs Notebook – March 5

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1-0, baby! (Photo: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Going to cut right to it this week. This was a hard Leafs Notebook to write. Where to start? Talk about why Wilson failed? What’s good about Carlyle? How they actually played this week? How about the trade deadline?

There was a lot that happened in a short period of time, so I broke it up accordingly: There is a chart on the teams who finished seventh and eighth since the lockout, that I highly recommend you explore, then I talk a bit about what went wrong for Wilson at the end of his tenure, draw some comparisons between he and Carlyle, talk some lineup changes under Carlyle, and throw in some Don Cherry, just for fun. Enjoy.

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The Deadline

Year Teams Players Acquired Round Eliminated Following year standing
2005-2006 7 Tampa Bay Nobody Round one 7th
8 Montreal Downey, Simpson, Aebischer Round one 10th
7 Colorado Dowd,  Theodore Round two 12th
8 Edmonton Spacek, Samsonov, Tarnstrom, Roloson Stanley Cup Finals 9th
2006-2007 7 Tampa Bay S. O’Brien, Ward, Stewart, A. Roy Round one 15th
8 New York Smyth, Bergeron, Zednik, Robitaille, Meyer Round one 13th
7 Minnesota A. Hall, D. Moore Round one 3rd
8 Calgary Conroy, W. Primeau, B. Stuart, Hale Round one 7th
2007-08 7 Ottawa Stillman, Commodore, Lapointe Round one 11th
8 Boston Auld, Hnidy Round one 1st
7 Calgary Vandermeer Round one 5th
8 Nashville Hlavac, Bochenski Round one 10th
2008-2009 7 New York Antropov, Avery, D. Morris Round one 9th
8 Montreal M. Schneider, Metropolit Round one 8th
7 Anaheim Brookbank, M. Brown, Ryan Whitney, Wisniewski, Christensen, Nokelainen Round two 11th
8 Columbus Gratton, Vermette, Jason Williams Round one 14th
2009-2010 7 Philadelphia Leino, Leighton, Krajicek Stanley Cup Finals 2nd
8 Montreal Pouliot, D. Moore EC Finals 6th
7 Nashville Boyd, Grebeshkov Round one 5th
8 Colorado Mueller Round one 14th
2010-2011 7 Buffalo Boyes Round one 11th (right now)
8 New York McCabe, Wolski Round one 1st (right now)
7 Los Angeles Penner Round one 9th (right now)
8 Chicago Frolik, Campoli Round one 6th (right now)

This chart was a real eye opener:

- Out of the 24 teams to finish seventh or eighth since the lockout, five have won at least one round of playoff hockey. That’s a 20% chance of advancing. Ten of those teams went on the make the playoffs the following year as well, or 41%. Boston is the only team who finished in seventh or eighth in an upswing and actually had it lead to a Stanley Cup since the lockout has passed.

-  I assumed the teams who finished in seventh and eighth acquired at least a couple of impact pieces each year to help them merely make the playoffs, and potentially upset a round or two. But that wasn’t really the case at all, as you can see.

- Second, the turnover from finishing seventh or eighth each year was interesting. At the end of the day it was really based on where the team sat age wise. Younger teams like Boston and New York ascended the standings while teams in limbo such as Minnesota and Calgary fluctuated.

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Willy Went Home

- Ultimately, Ron Wilson’s time here will be deemed as a failure, and technically, it was. However, when you look at his his teams and their standing year-by-year, this is really the only season they didn’t really play to expectations. And up until 11 games ago, he was coaching this team above expectations. I don’t know if it’s too simplistic to say eleven bad games cost Ron Wilson his job, but honestly, when they tore apart the Senators in Ottawa on Hockey Night in Canada at the beginning of February, they were 4-0-1 in their last five games, Reimer looked like he found his groove, and the team was suddenly healthy for the first time all year. Then things just went south.

- It’s actually somewhat interesting to look at the rest of that month in retrospect. After spanking Ottawa they went on to beat Edmonton, then the complacence set in. Losing in Winnipeg seemed almost inevitable (and, if you recall, Chris Thorburn scored a pretty bad goal to tie it after the Leafs scored first). Then they lost in Philly, then the Habs come into town on Mats Sundin night and handed it to Toronto, who follow that up with a Western road trip that didn’t go well. Once they got home they battle hard against New Jersey, only for the Devils to score in overtime on a shot going wide, and it just continued to escalate. Before you know it, everything they’ve worked hard for all season seemingly went down the drain.

- it really appeared the kiss of death for Ron Wilson came down to goaltending. Wilson called out the goaltending a little and said they needed some saves and they’d be fine. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was on Burke to bring in Nabokov for quite some time and that game against Jersey was the final straw. Obviously, Burke didn’t acquire a goalie. I said time and time again there was no way Burke was going to trade his second round pick because he doesn’t have a third or a fourth right now. But that whole situation may have caused a rift in the dressing room. The players responded terribly the rest of the way and that’s when it really looked like Wilson lost the room. Maybe not the entire dressing room, but enough of it.

- Of course, take that all with a grain salt because it’s only me speculating. But some form of that story wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

***

The New Boss

- Randy Carlyle has coached one game with the Leafs, and while the win was nice, nobody should be jumping through any hoops or putting any conclusions down on him. At the end of the day the rest of this season is about the players now. The Wilson excuse is done. It’s over with. What happens the rest of the way is strictly on the players. Carlyle will come in and give the team a kick in the butt and spark some energy, but he’s not about to implement an entirely new system this late into the season. At best he’ll be able to throw in some tweaks, wrinkles and lineup changes to the roster as he begins to learn what he truly has here.

- Carlyle, like every coach being compared to another, does some different things than Wilson, so while there isn’t much to go on based on his one game behind the Leafs bench, there is some things we will begin to see unfold with Carlyle that are worth going through.

- First off, Carlyle is an in your face coach. Ron Wilson didn’t talk to the team after the game, whereas Carlyle does. When it came to Wilson, his thought process was more along the lines of “these guys know what they did right or wrong, they are NHL players.” It’s an interesting way of coaching, because it sort of allows the players minds to roam. But it also shows some level of respect and space to figure things out on their own. Whereas Carlyle is right in there afterwards telling the team exactly what he’s thinking and where he’s at with them.

- The thing is, if you’re coaching Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, what are you realistically going to say to veterans like those after a game that they don’t already know? Not much. But with young players, the Wilson approach might cause players to be a little unsure.

- The Sun had a nice piece about Kessel being sad Wilson got fired. Even though he’s still young, he’s the kind of player who benefits from Wilson’s style. Wilson gave him free reign to play his game, he didn’t bother with post-game team chats, and he consistently spoke highly about Phil to the media. While Carlyle won’t try and reinvent the wheel when it comes to Kessel’s complete game, you can bet he’s going to be much more in his face than Wilson ever was, and he’s going to demand more from him all over the ice.

- Frankly, I see the benefits to both. Pro players don’t want a coach in their ear all the time, because if you’re in the NHL, generally speaking you probably don’t need to be told the obvious stuff like “you guys didn’t come out ready tonight in the first period and that cost us the game.” But in the Toronto market, when you aren’t talking to your team after a game and the players have to hear what you think of them through the media, and as soon as you – as a player – hear what the coach thinks you have to answer questions about those comments, well, that’s going to get tiresome really quickly. That’s how players tune out a coach. Eventually they just stop caring.

- It’s also a microcosm of how Carlyle is much more detail-orientated than Wilson’s free-flowing style of hockey.

- Taking that one step further, Wilson didn’t really talk to the players during TV timeouts, whereas Carlyle is much more active behind the bench during game play and TV timeouts. In general, Carlyle coaches with a little more emotion and gusto. I said this consistently in Ron’s time here – he often tried to settle the team down, allow cooler heads to prevail, and not let emotions get out of hand. Conversely, Carlyle plays to emotions much more which will be great for guys like Nazem Kadri who teeter on that edge and even have their emotions get the best of them sometimes.

- You’ll see Randy get heated behind the bench, you’ll see him chew guys out and make life miserable. Any player-broadcaster whose talked about Randy has said that when the team is losing, he makes life absolutely miserable for everyone, where as Wilson geared more towards calming everyone down and having the players relax and refocus.

- There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and it will be interesting to see how the roster responds to a guy like Carlyle, who’s much more aggressive, scary, and demanding.

- We’ll learn more about Randy as he gets more and more comfortable here, but I did want to shed light and discuss some of the initial differences.

- The lineup differences are when things get really interesting. Randy Carlyle is a line matcher. He goes into every game with everybody having a specific assignment and knowing exactly who they are playing against each night. Wilson matched lines, but he didn’t do it religiously. For example, previously the Leafs might have matched Grabovski’s line against, we’ll say, Spezza’s line. But if the faceoff was in the Leafs zone he would more than likely put out the top line for that draw because Tyler Bozak is better in the dot than Grabovski. Conversely, Carlyle sticks to his match-up more specifically.

- Carlyle tweaked the five on five lines, but everything about special teams stayed the same. That will change as he gets to look at guys and begins putting things in place more to his liking. It will be interesting to see who is the first to fall off units. Easy money has to be Connolly being on the power play at all.

- Because the Leafs will be going back to a more role-specific roster, there are some serious questions ahead of this team.

- The two biggest question marks, to me, are Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin. Bozak’s been fantastic this year between Lupul and Kessel, and while his numbers have benefited greatly due to playing between those two guys, he hasn’t exactly been out of place there either. So is it a case of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” or do they look for another guy to center that line? Perhaps even a guy already in the system (Colborne). It’s a legitimate question because if Bozak isn’t a guy they want centering that line, and they do end up re-signing Grabovski, then Tyler isn’t in their top six.

- When Carlyle won the Cup with Anaheim, his top three lines, by ice time, were as follows:  Kunitz-McDonald-Selanne, as the top line, played the most, then Neidermayer-Pahlsson-Moen as the shutdown line played the second most, then there was a “soft” line in Penner-Getzlaf-Perry, who were a group of young kids that Carlyle would use to exploit the other team offensively.

- A “soft line” in Toronto is an interesting thought. The Leafs have a lot of young players who are potential candidates to play on it such as Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Carter Ashton, even Jerry D’Amigo. And those are kids you bet the Leafs are going to want up sooner than later, so it’s plausible we see a third line of, let’s say, Colborne-Bozak-Kadri next season.

- A lot of that is contingent on the Leafs being able to rid themselves of some hefty veteran contracts in Lombardi, Connolly and Armstrong, so that is getting ahead of ourselves. But it could be something to start to look for, especially if the Leafs use their last call-up on either Kadri and Colborne.

- In all of that, one player noticeably absent is Nikolai Kulemin. I’m not suggesting he isn’t a player the Leafs will want moving forward, but I will suggest that he’s currently the most perplexing player on the entire roster. He scored 30 goals last year. To put that in perspective, Joffrey Lupul is on pace for 31 this season. This season Kulemin is on pace for 33 points. Something doesn’t compute. Maybe it’s an off-ice issue, maybe the bounces just haven’t gone his way, maybe his confidence is flat out shot at this point, who knows. But moving forward it will be interesting to see what Carlyle thinks of him. Randy is going to love Kulemin’s size and raw strength, but he’s going to hate how he uses it – which is rarely.

- Like I said, I don’t want to put too much thought into one game, but Carlyle took Kulemin off Grabovski’s line, the line getting the tough defensive duties against the Desharnais line. If the Leafs are going to have a line they’ll want to match-up against the other team’s best, Grabovski is going to be a part of it. So does Kulemin eventually find his way back there, or will Kulemin find himself on a “soft line,” perhaps with the aforementioned Bozak and a young guy in an attempt to rediscover his offensive game.

- There’s this thought that this new Armstrong-Steckel-Kulemin line is the “shutdown” line. Well, shutdown lines don’t play against the other team’s third line like they did against Montreal. Shutdown lines play against the other team’s best, like Grabovski’s line did.

- Complicating matters even further is the fact that, unlike when Carlyle matched Pahlsson against the oppositions top lines, Grabovski can actually score, too. Pahlsson only played less minutes -as a forward – than Selanne and McDonald the year they won the Cup, and he finished with 26 points. That won’t be the case with Mikhail should this be the hybrid role they envision him playing.

- Obviously at this point it’s a lot more guessing, and questions, associated with Carlyle than anything else. There just isn’t a lot to go after only one game.

- One thing I know that caught Carlyle’s eye about Bozak; in the first period Subban got a pretty good piece of Grabovski with an open-ice hit, and then Subban’s next shift Bozak took a hefty run at him (meaning he tried to hammer him). He didn’t really get Subban, but things like that are a great response and are appreciated by everyone on the Leafs bench. And Bozak has done that a lot this year. He gets the fact that if a player tries to hit your guy, you have to try and hit him back. It sounds simple enough, but that’s something the Leafs, as a team, really struggle to do.

- Bozak’s good on the dot, he competes, he has some skill and he’s a good team guy. My stance on Bozak has always more or less been, I don’t really care if he’s a number one center, number two or number three. He’s a good player that I’d find a role to play him in on my team anyday of the week.

- The fact that Colby Armstrong didn’t play in Carlyle’s debut means something is up. Can’t think of any coach coaching his first game with a team and sitting a well-respected veteran who gets paid a lot of money. So what does this all really mean? Whatever the reason Colby’s not playing, it’s a Colby Armstrong problem, not a coaching issue. Maybe he’s battling an injury, or he’s out of shape, or whatever. But it’s really on him. His last two games played were against Chicago and Washington, and in both games he had good starts to both contests only to dwindle as the game went on. There was one point against Washington where he went to hit someone, and he fell while making contact. You can’t workout when you have a concussion and he looks out of shape. It’s a shame because not only has it been a waste of a year for Armstrong, but the Leafs could really use him.

- A couple weeks earlier I saw Matt Frattin score the exact same goal with the Marlies off a Nazem Kadri faceoff. Frattin and MacArthur even switched sides prior to the faceoff in the zone for that goal to happen.

- Against Chicago there was a shot that bounced behind the net out to Matt Frattin on the far side and he had a wide open net, but he stood there and waited for the puck to come to him, and by the time it did, a Chicago player knocked it away. You can’t wait for the puck to come to you at the NHL level. This plagues Nazem Kadri a lot too. These guys think they have way more time then they actually do. Not only are the players bigger and stronger in the NHL, but their gap control is far more superior. If you actually have some time and space, it won’t be for long, so you have to move your feet and make the best use of it. Carlyle will demand these guys be aggressive, and he will be all over them if they aren’t. Both should become very good players under Randy.

- Not only did Carlyle have Frattin on with Grabovski to end the game, and to start the power play with a minute left. But he started them too. You’d think a new coach with the fifth and sixth highest scorers in the league on his team would start them right away to get a good jump on the opposition. Not Randy. He started the Grabovski line.

- Talked about Carlyle loving Kulemin’s physical package, but another physical package he’ll like is Frattin’s. The difference is that Frattin uses it much more consistently, he drives the net harder, and he has a mean streak to his game that Kulemin does not. Shouldn’t be hard to tell which player Randy will like, and which one he will be all over. That said, Kulemin’s work ethic is impeccable, Carlyle will just be on him to use his size better. The good news is that Nikolai has always appeared to be very coachable. Like I said, Kulemin, to me, is the most interesting piece moving forward.

- Couple minutes left in the game and Joffrey Lupul goes down to block a shot. Can’t say enough about that. Seeing one of your best players, an all star, go down and sacrifice his body for the good of the team really pumps up the bench and it sends a message. He’s not quitting on this season and he’s not taking the easy way out.

- Matt Frattin received a lot of attention for his great game and career high in ice-time, and that left Clarke MacArthur to quietly slip under the radar while playing 19:52 on the night. That was the second highest ice-time of any Leaf forward against the Habs and MacArthur’s season high. MacArthur is capable of playing with the jam that Carlyle looks for in players, but he struggles to do so with any sort of consistency. He obviously brought it Saturday, but we’ll see how he does moving forward. Clarke could very well be a player that goes from playing almost 20 minutes one night to barely 12 the other as Randy won’t be as forgiving on off nights.

- John Michael Liles has really struggled since returning, to put it mildly. You know it’s bad for him when he isn’t even reading power play breakouts properly. On multiple occasions against the Habs he skated up to or around center ice, only to throw a drop pass that was off the mark, or pass it when he has the open lane, or not head-man the puck. Liles’ benefit to this team, more than anything, is his ability to bring the puck up ice. If he’s struggling to do that, he’s going to struggle to find ways to help this team. Lars Eller went through him easily and drove the net in the first period. He only played 17:54 on Saturday, his second lowest ice-time of the season. The three games before that with Wilson in charge: 23:17, 22:32 and 21:00.

- If there’s one player whose going to benefit from the simple matter of a coaching change, regardless of who the new coach would have been, it’s Mike Komisarek. He’s obviously had a tough time here right from his first game in a Leaf jersey, but now he gets a fresh new start of sorts. Komisarek looked a lot more relaxed on Saturday and he wasn’t forcing his game. As opposed to the match against Florida where he inexplicably pinched for no reason, directly leading to the second Panthers goal. He also flat out hammered Chris Campoli. He lifted another grown man completely off both feet with that hit. There’s a chance Carlyle finds a nice role for Komisarek as a third pairing, plumber type defenseman. It wont justify the contract, but it’s better than nothing.

- One player who stands to lose a bit directly from the hiring of Randy Carlyle is Cody Franson. Franson finally worked his way into Wilson’s good books and was settling into the roster – even despite being a healthy scratch against Florida – but this move will somewhat put him back where he started. I’ve said it many times here, Cody Franson is really indifferent in his own end and almost lethargic. That isn’t going to go well with Carlyle at all.

- In 2008 Brian Burke acquired Marc Andre Bergeron for Anaheim. He played nine games under Carlyle, received around 11 minutes a night and then was traded in the summer. Franson has more upside than Bergeron as an overall player, but there are parallels to be drawn.

- Jake Gardiner had an interesting week. He played almost 24 minutes against Florida, then he got benched against Chicago after being on for three straight Hawk goals, which led to him playing 16:45. Then Wilson got fired, and he ended up playing 20:04 Saturday. That was the third most of any Leaf defender, but Carlyle is probably going to try and give guys like Komisarek and Schenn more of a chance to impact games and give them ice time. So if they’re each playing at least 16 minutes, there wont be enough ice time to go around for Gardiner to get his 23, 24, 25 minutes that he’s been getting lately.

- Few weeks ago, I talked about Luke Schenn when it came to this goal against Edmonton: he stayed with Hall, and Armstrong didn’t stick with his assignment, and then the puck was in the back of the net. Then against Montreal Saturday, Pacioretty stopped up at the line, and Schenn hesitated to follow him (yes, he bumped into Frattin, but that was after hesitating), Pacioretty had some time, shot it on net and Cole scored. Interesting comparison between stopping with your forward and following him (or not). CBC showed Carlyle getting out the whiteboard to talk to Schenn afterward and as I said in that original Edmonton goal, the NHL is too quick to possibly think you can switch assignments off the rush and keep everyone covered properly. I’d be surprised if Carlyle said anything less.

- Dave Steckel played 15:41 in his Leafs debut to start the season, then he played 16:54 the next night. So him playing 15:08 in his start with Carlyle wasn’t really too surprising to be honest. What will be surprising is if it continues. He’s great at faceoffs and can eat the puck well down low in the oppositions end, but his weak skating ability really limits his ability to actually be able to handle 15+ minutes a night. That said, it doesn’t seem as if Carlyle is fond of either Lombardi or Connolly, so he could very well be logging hefty minutes the rest of the season because they simply don’t like the alternatives. We’ll see how much he plays and if he can handle those minutes adequately. It’s just another thing to monitor. Such is what happens when a new coach comes in.

Like I said from the top, I can only go through so much when a new coach is brought in and I only have one game to go by. But with games this week against Boston, Pittsburgh then Philadelphia, we’ll quickly find out what Randy Carlyle is all about, and what he really thinks about some of these players.

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The Grapes of Wrath

I wanted to quickly touch on Don Cherry’s rant this weekend:

I don’t care if a player is from China, India, Europe, America or the Moon, if he is a good player, he should be welcome on the Leafs. Period. And that’s it. A good player is a good player.

That said, Cherry seems to be a little misconstrued here. Burke tried to undercut Cherry at the CBC, which you know isn’t going to go well with anybody, let alone an old school guy like Don Cherry. And what caused Burke to do that? Cherry going after the coach, the same coach Burke just fired, so that’s just more fuel to Cherry’s fire and very quickly you can see how this whole thing has escalated.

But I think, more than anything, what’s bothering Cherry beyond the fact that the Leafs have nobody from Ontario on the team, is that he had to listen to Burke in an interview with Ron MacLean talk about a bunch of people from Ontario coming home to play and playing with extra oomph to win when they come home to play the Leafs. Look, Burke said it’s not an excuse, but that’s what it’s coming off as at the end of the day. If it’s not an excuse, don’t mention it all. So from Cherry’s end, it seems a lot of that rant stemmed from the fact that here is Burke complaining/talking/telling/whining/whatever about players coming home to Ontario and playing well against the Leafs, yet here are the Leafs with no players from the province of Ontario on their current roster.

To be honest, I think both make good points. Obviously bringing in players from Ontario isn’t easy, but Burke has been here for awhile. At the end of the day though, like I said, a good hockey player is a good hockey player and that’s all that matters. Realistically, the worst part about this entire feud is that neither one is going to back down. You know that saying “it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better?” Hopefully this is the whole lot worse part. But who really knows when it comes to these two.

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli

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