Leafs Notebook – March 12

Leafs Notebook – March 12

Photo: NATIONAL POST STAFF PHOTO

Right now is the easiest possible time to dump on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke, Phil Kessel and anyone associated with the organization in general.

Call me crazy, but there are a ton of reasons to be happy moving forward.

The fact is, when Brian Burke came to Toronto, the Leafs were a terrible team (roster here. In comparison, here is the Nashville Predators EXPANSION roster) . Some may argue they still are, and that may or may not be valid.

But let’s look at what Burke started with compared to where they are now before we conclude his tenure has been a total disaster.

Their leading scorer the year Burke took over was Jason Blake with 63 points, he had 41 points the following season and 32 after that. He has 11 points in 33 games this season, which prorates to 27 over a full season.

Their second leading scorer was Alex Ponikarovsky, who had 61 points. The next year he put up 50 points, the year after that he had 15 (15!) and this season he is on pace for 33.

Their third leading scorer was Matt Stajan, and I’m not even going to bother going through what he’s done the last few years.

Of the top 10 scorers, only two were not diminishing assets (those two are Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin). Every other Leaf player who was the tenth scorer or better on a 23 man roster was a player who was getting worse, and/or who was on the downside of his prime.

Tenth on that scoring chart was John Mitchell. He might not have been getting worse, but he sure wasn’t an asset either.

On that edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there were four players who are still worthy of being considered roster players on a Stanley Cup contender – Grabovski, Kulemin, Schenn and Ian White.

Prospect wise, Brian Burke didn’t inherit much either (the Hockey Future’s listing can be found here). The top rated prospect was Luke Schenn, who we’ve already accounted for. The second ranked prospect was Nikolai Kulemin, who we also already accounted for. After those two, there were/are seven other potential NHLers. They were, in order of ranking: Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman, James Reimer, Matt Frattin, John Mitchell, Korbinian Holzer and Viktor Stalberg.

For a rough comparison, the Buffalo Sabres also had nine players in their system that are NHLers in 2009. Except those guys were players like Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Chris Butler, Zack Kassian, Jhonas Enroth and Luke Adam. (Sidebar: Let’s give Burke that prospect group to start with).

So what are we looking at here? He started off with four players who are legitimate players – two of which aren’t even that this season – and then seven other players who turned out to be decent prospects but none of which are actually full-time, difference-making NHLers yet. (Stalberg’s a full time NHLer, but hardly a difference maker).

Of all the Toronto Maple Leafs that Brian Burke started with, of everyone in that organization he inherited when he signed on to become General Manager, there will be one player who scores over 40 points this season, and he’s already done that, and his name is Mikhail Grabovski.

I can’t stress enough how dreadfully pathetic the organization was when I can only find one player who is scoring over 40 points four years later.

Phil Kessel is on pace for 40 goals this season.

And Phil Kessel, is a great place, of course, to start the conversation about Brian Burke’s first full official season as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He oversaw a draft that yielded Nazem Kadri, Kenny Ryan, Jesse Blacker and Jerry D’Amigo, among others, and he brought in a young sniper in Phil Kessel.

Let’s repeat: He brought in a young sniper in Phil Kessel with the potential to be a perennial 40 goal scorer. Not a franchise player, not a future captain, not Jesus himself. He brought in an elite goal scorer.

In Burke’s first full official season he signed Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Colton Orr, he won the Jonas Gustavsson and Tyler Bozak sweepstakes in the summer, and things looked like they were on the upswing. That ended rather quickly with a brutal start as Burke and his staff made a huge initial mistake in thinking Vesa Toskala was a goalie who could save a puck and that there was any sort of depth to this organization whatsoever.

So what did he do when he realized that mistake? He blew it all up. Traded nearly half the team for Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Fredrick Sjostrom and JS Giguere, and he got rid of everyone else he possibly could. Remember, there are three players who have been on the Leafs for the entirety of Burke’s time here: Kulemin, Grabovski and Schenn.

The Phil Kessel trade left the Leafs without a first or second round draft pick heading into the draft so the Leafs weren’t going to improve anytime soon via the draft.

Now this will be the time where someone says “That’s why they should never had made the trade.” Well, how many draft picks turn out to be top five scorers in the NHL? Phil Kessel is one of them, and Brian Burke paid the price to get him. There are holes in Kessel’s game, and he’s far from a complete player, let alone a perfect player, but as far as doing what he’s supposed to do, he does it. At this point, it really is what it is. You might not agree with the price that it ended up costing the Leafs – and that may or may not be valid – but as far as Burke’s assessment of Kessel as an elite talent? The numbers speak for themselves.

Also, why is Dougie Hamilton considered a future top pairing defenseman as a ninth overall pick, while everyone is already writing off seventh overall pick Nazem Kadri as a bust altogether? I digress.

That summer of 2010 the Leafs brought in some supporting cast pieces to help bolster their depth. Players added included Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg (ironically, the same people now complaining about the Leafs trading Versteeg for a first rounder are currently complaining that the Leafs didn’t trade Clarke MacArthur for a first rounder). Impact players available that summer were Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Gonchar and Evgeny Nabokov, who signed in Russia for six million dollars a season.

During the season, the Leafs began to see tangible improvement. After another horrid start to the season, James Reimer arrived, the team found their groove, and they moved up the standings en route to finishing 10th overall in the Eastern Conference. On the way to that finish, Burke shipped out Francois Beauchemin for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, two players who are arguably better than anyone he inherited (add Kessel and Phaneuf and that’s four players who are dramatic improvements over anyone he was originally given). He also finally cashed in on Tomas Kaberle, acquiring Joe Colborne, another first round pick and a draft pick that turned into John Michael Liles.

Of course, Reimer had a fantastic end to the season and looked every bit the number one goalie this team so desperately needs. What were their options? They had Jonas Gustavsson signed to a contract, and they wanted to explore Reimer being a number one goalie, not start him 35 games as a backup (ironically, he won’t even start 35 games at this rate… he’s sitting at 28 right now).

The Leafs used the summer to add the aforementioned Liles, as well as Tim Connolly, Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi and David Steckel. They had two first round draft picks this time around and added Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy to the prospect stable. Meaning, between the three drafts Burke has presided over, the Leafs have basically added Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy. They’ve also traded for first round draft picks in Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton.

This season they actually did look like a playoff team for nearly 60 games of it. Yes this team will probably finish lower than last years edition, but herein is where the ever so slight improvement comes into play: last year this team thought they were in a chase to make a playoff spot, and theoretically, they were, but realistically? We all knew they were a long shot at best.

This season though, the team was actually in a playoff spot for a significant chunk of the year. They failed when games increased in importance. Yes, they failed. There’s no getting around that. In every single way possible in February, they failed. It cost Ron Wilson his job.

But now they know what it’s really like. They just experienced the fire, and they got burned, but it is a learning experience, and a real one. Last year’s lesson was that you can’t take the first third of the year off and still expect to make the playoffs. This season? They learned what battles to make the playoffs are really like and what it’s like to have teams breathing down your neck.

In essence, the Leafs went from being down right terrible in year one under Brian Burke, to playing roughly 40 really good games last year, to nearly 60 good games this season.

You won’t see it in the standings this year. And everyone is going to call for Brian Burke’s head this summer and Phil Kessel is apparently a terrible hockey player, and being ninth in scoring and ice time for a defenseman makes Dion Phaneuf a brutal blueliner, and the sky is falling and this team will never make the playoffs ever again.

But the sad fact is that Brian Burke acquired a near expansion-like team. You won’t find a soul who calls the Nashville Predators a terribly run organization, and it took them until year six to make the playoffs. This Leaf team should have made it this season, but lessons were learned and through clearing out some contracts and some upgrades – both internally and externally – plus a new Cup winning coach and a year more experience out of James Reimer, this team should take five.

There’s no question Brian Burke has had quite a few misses in his time here, but the plan is still in place, and things are coming along. Unfortunately for Leaf fans, nothing is coming easy to this team and there were no quick fixes.

***

– If there was ever any doubt, Randy Carlyle made it pretty clear this week who’s in charge of the team now. The fact that he bag skated these guys is actually pretty wild, especially when he wouldn’t even give them 10 minutes of rest while the zamboni cleans the ice (he brought them over to a clean ice pad and kept skating them). Really think about it for a second, this team collapsed in February – perhaps the biggest collapse of any team this seaso n- they bring in a new coach, and he skates them to death. The interesting part is that Carlyle thinks this team is out of shape. There’s no way this can be proven by any of us, but you have to wonder if part of the reason this team collapsed is because they ran out of gas from not being in great enough shape to compete at this time of the year. Being physically tired leads to mental mistakes, and there have been a lot of those over the last 16 or so games.

– In terms of actual game play, Carlyle has made some tweaks to the team. It’s still early, but like I said last week, it’s made no difference in the final result. After the game against Boston he clearly locked everything down with a sort of mantra “If we lose, we’re going to lose 1-0, not 5-4.” You see a big difference here between Carlyle and Wilson, because Randy is focusing on the process, rather than the result. After the game against Washington he talked about how good defense does pay off, and that’s how winners play. Whereas, to start the season Wilson wasn’t so concerned with the process, as he was more worried about simply getting points in the bank.

– In Boston the Leafs tried to trap, but Boston broke right through it. Carlyle is really hammering home a 1-2-2, and those two secondary forwards aren’t even entering the offensive zone. If you watch a good team trap, the two forwards hang around the center ice line which allows the defensemen to cheat a little and hang just inside their own blue line. Meaning, if the puck gets dumped in deep because the opposition can’t beat the trap, then the defensemen are already closer to the puck since they are in their own zone. Against Boston though, the forwards were closer to Boston’s blue line when the Bruins were breaking out, causing the defensemen to push up and providing a great team like Boston with a ton of options when it came to slicing through the neutral zone.

– There’s a difference between standing in a spot in the neutral zone, and covering a space with a purpose. The Leafs are beginning to find that out.

– Another interesting change is how the Leafs are being told to breakout. Carlyle is emphasizing that the team moves up ice through the middle of the ice. That means the centers have to circle back lower in the zone, generate more speed, and instead of looking for those long beautiful cross ice passes, there will be more short, high percentage passes. You can already see this transformation. The biggest beneficiary of this so far is Grabovski whose been able to generate a lot of speed and fly right through the neutral zone. Against Washington last night you saw him break through on a few occasions (he was tripped on a partial breakaway, you may recall).

– Like I said last week through, Carlyle will be able to tweaks things, but it’s not a huge difference at the end of the day if they are continuing to lose. The rest of the season is really just a learning process full of experiments and tryouts.

– The prime example of that is Carter Ashton. At this point in the season, it just made more sense to bring up Ashton and see what he can do. Obviously they don’t have it all figured out when it comes to Nazem Kadri, but they have seen him play at the NHL level this season, and they have a general idea of where he’s at as a pro player and the possibility of him contributing to the team next season. Ashton? He’s yet to play in the NHL, so it’s a lot more sensible to see what he can do with the season seemingly going down the drain regardless.

– For the record, I don’t think the Leafs would call up Ashton over Kadri if they were truly serious about the playoffs this season. Joffrey Lupul is their second leading scorer and Kadri is a high end talent who has played 49 games in the NHL already, why would they call up a grinder whose never played a game before if they were putting winning over evaluation and development?

– As far as Ashton goes as a player, I’ll offer this: He’s a big body, who looks to assert himself both along the boards and in front of the net, and he works hard. Carlyle is using him as a player to play “safe” minutes. So really, he’s being groomed to be a solid third liner: A guy who will work hard, get the puck in deep, cycle it hard and play high percentage hockey. He’s 6’3 and listed at 215 pounds. Logically, when he fills into his frame a little more, and puts on another five to ten pounds, he should be able to dominate the corners, the puck and the cycle, which is what Randy Carlyle is all about.

– They’ve used Ashton in the third line role where he sporadically gets ice time against the oppositions best players, and that role will probably increase over time next year. The best player for him to play with might actually be Nikolai Kulemin. He’s another big body who can control the puck for long stretches and cycle well down low. They are also both two-way players. Carlyle has put them together for the odd shift and there could be something there.

– Ashton-Kulemin could be the start of some sort of checking line, eventually.

– As for Kulemin playing with Grabovski long-term? Unless he starts scoring again, I’d be surprised. The fact that Matt Frattin was demoted to the fourth line but is still seeing second unit power play time with Grabovsk and MacArthur bodes well for him and what they think about him. Frattin came out under Carlyle and received a ton of ice time game one (18:23), then he’s progressively received less: 15:49, 14:50, 9:27 and then 11:11. But they’ve continued to put him in offensive situations to succeed so they want him for that role eventually. Coaches do this all the time with young players, they throw them a lot of ice time, then scale him back when he appears over his head (which he did against Pittsburgh).

– From what I’ve seen, at least in my mind, Frattin playing with Grabovski is only a matter of when, not if.

– Also, against Philadelphia with 10 minutes left, Frattin was hemmed in his own zone with the fourth line, and he won a huge battle to simply get the puck out, showing a ton of determination. It’s things like that which will make Frattin a good player moving forward. He’s strong, he works hard, and he understands situations.

– A lot has been made of the relationship between Phil Kessel and Randy Carlyle. The interesting thing, to me, is that had Carlyle coached Kessel throughout his career, he would have taught him how to play defense right away, then slowly peeled him back to allow him to show more and more of his offensive game over time. In other words, what Claude Julien was doing with him. But at this point, Carlyle receives Kessel as a high end scorer, so it’s a little more difficult to simply shut him down offensively and tell him to play defense. Carlyle’s searching for a middle ground balance of asking him to be responsible versus risking his own end for more offense.

– The good news is that Kessel doesn’t necessarily need to sacrifice defense for offense, because his shot is good enough that all he really needs is one snap of the wrist to bury a goal and chip in offensively. But Kessel is in tough without Lupul because Lupul was able to hold onto the puck and make his own time and space. Without him, Kessel has to create space for himself again, and he’s starting to hold onto the puck more to compensate.

– I said last week it didn’t matter who the new coach was, Mike Komisarek was going to benefit from the change no matter what. Against Philadelphia was a perfect example. Early in the third period he had a terrible giveaway right up the middle that almost resulted in a goal. Under Wilson he would have understandably been benched for the rest of the game, but Carlyle showed confidence in him and put him back out there.

– Carlyle is also using him on the penalty kill, which is another long-term move. Towards the end of Wilson’s time here, he only used three penalty killers: Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Gardiner. That is a no win situation that has absolutely no chance of lasting over any significant period of time, so good for Carlyle for putting Komisarek into that role, and identifying the greater issue there altogether.

– Pretty clear Carlyle doesn’t think much of Matt Lombardi, or at the very least, does not see him as a fit for this team moving forward. Against Boston he played 12:52, but the other games under Carlyle? 7:44, 7:09, and 9:54.

– Compare that to another frustrating forward in Tim Connolly, who’s played: 14:07, 18:42, 17:11, 17:53 and 18:53.

– It’s not like Carlyle has anything to lose trying out Lombardi on the first line, but he hasn’t.

– Another interesting player not getting a chance is Colby Armstrong. Carlyle’s stuck him on the fourth line, and he’s played 8:07 in his one full game. Last year he was a leader, and a winner on this team, he just suffered some unfortunate injuries (a sucker punch by Ben Eager and a slash to the hand by Chris Higgins). Now, he’s being left for dead. Armstrong has something to contribute to this team as a big player who can work the cycle and play the occasional shift against the other teams top line. He’s also a pest. He’s only good to this team on the third line with his salary, so maybe they want to give that role to Ashton next year instead – which would be justifiable – but I don’t think Armstrong has suddenly become a terrible player by any means. He’s the exact kind of player they need, he just hasn’t been that for them this season.

– One more person who suddenly didn’t become terrible? Francois Allaire. He’s guided some of the best goalies who’ve ever laced them up, and now the game has passed him by? JS Giguere is having a fantastic season in Colorado, and he still plays Allaire’s style. The only reason he didn’t succeed here last year is because he was hurt (they knew he need surgery in November). Hiller has also had recent success as an Allaire style goalie. Players take time to develop though. If it was as easy as simply being inserted in the lineup and succeeding, the East wouldn’t be such a terrible conference.

– When Ken Hitchcock got fired by Columbus, everyone said the game passed him by and his style was over, now everyone thinks he’s the best coach in the league. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right personnel and things falling into place. The Leafs have brought in a lot of goalies Allaiare likes, chances are at least one pans out.

– Everyone wanted the Leafs to pick one goalie, and Carlyle was told Gustavsson was the Leafs best goalie this year, so he’s letting him run with it. Good for him for giving Gustavsson that opportunity, he’s deserved it this season.

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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