Leafs Notebook: Ample questions headed into new season

Leafs Notebook: Ample questions headed into new season

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Line combinations will be discussed ad nauseam in the coming weeks as the season kicks off and the Leafs try to get off to a winning start in a shortened season. The general speculation will surround who should play with who in order to maximize results.

While winning is of course the main the goal of why lines are the way they are, they can tell also tell us other things that are arguably just as important as winning in this 48 game season.

Coming off a season that saw the Leafs in a playoff spot for the better part of the first 56 games before collapsing, Leafs fans expected changes and heads to roll in the summer. A head eventually rolled, but the lineup still remains largely the same.

Out went Luke Schenn, Jonas Gustavsson, Joey Crabb and Colby Armstrong, in came James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement, and eventually some Marlies transfers. More or less though, this is the same group that netted the Leafs the fifth overall pick last June.

Some will call it the rearranging of the Titanic deck chairs, others will say it’s moving forward with a team that was often the youngest in the league last season. Either way, it’s Randy Carlyle who is in charge now, and just what he does with the lineup to start will be a fascinating insight into his mind frame going into the season.

There are certainly options.

The Carlyle line building of a top line, shutdown line, scoring line and energy line can at least attempt to be made by having the Lupul-Bozak-Kessel line as the top trio, Kulemin-McClement-Frattin as the shutdown line, JVR-Grabovski-MacArthur as a scoring line, and Komarov-Steckel-Brown as an energy unit. It’s not perfect, but it would be a clear indication that the Leafs as a whole are trying to employ Carlyle’s system to a ‘T’ immediately while trying to see who fits his mould and who does not.

Maybe that’s partially what Carlyle meant when he said earlier this week that, “We’re looking for some people to step out of their comfort zone, We’re going to push this group a little bit harder in some areas where they’re not used to being pushed.” Whether those forward groups help the team win or not, at least it would allow the Leafs to see who is worth investing in for this style of play and system that they believe in, and who is not. It would also coincide with James Mirtle’s recent article regarding McClement being ‘the stopper.’

That said, when it comes to making lines to try and maximize what’s been given to win right now, it might be more sensible to try and create three scoring lines. The Kessel line is all but a lock (see Jonas Siegel’s tweet) to start the year no matter what happens, so we don’t need to keep repeating that. Carlyle could follow them by putting the Grabovski line back together (which would represent a two-way shutdown line of sorts), followed by a sheltered line of JVR-Connolly-Kadri and then some combination of Komarov/Lombardi-McClement-Frattin on the fourth.

If we consider Carlyle’s comments to be clues into what he is truly thinking when it comes to line building, his remarks regarding Connolly (see Mirtle’s tweet) make it appear that this three scoring line theme is what’s most likely. If that wasn’t enough, this should further support that notion: “I think we have a chance to put some people in different situations up higher in our lineup and move some people around and that should give us balance and three lines of some form of offence,” he said. “The one thing we looked at is our fourth line is going to have to play. Everybody is going to have to make a contribution.”

Carlyle has also noted that, “You stay true to the statement we’re going to take the 23 best players and take them and go forward with that group. If someone earns an opportunity, that’s the life of pro sports.”

Then there is the little decisions, such as – will he push Nazem Kadri into the roster and finally give him a real and extended shot at proving his worth? Will he dress an enforcer? Will Steckel make the lineup now that McClement is on the team? The list goes on and on. We could sit here all day thinking up questions and line combinations.

Answers will start coming soon enough, but we won’t just be finding out if Carlyle has the magic touch to create winning lining combinations, we’ll also be finding out about what kind of team he’s putting together, the statements he is making, and how he views this roster.

Ron Wilson, for example, attempted to fight fire with fire last year for long stretches by playing Kessel’s line against the other teams top lines. Will Carlyle try the same? As maybe the most strict match-up coach in hockey, he probably won’t; but who will he trust to play against the Crosby’s, Giroux’s and Stamkos’ of the East? Grabovski or McClement? How much offense will he sacrifice in order to play at least adequate defense? There really are so many questions about this team at the moment that we don’t know the answer to but are about to begin finding out.

I for one, can’t wait.

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Here are some notes heading into a hectic opening week that sees the Leafs play the Habs, Sabres, Penguins, Islanders and Rangers:

- Carlyle’s comments on Kadri saying that, “It’s not a matter of if he can play in the NHL, it’s a matter of when.” As well as, “Bobby Ryan spent three or four years developing. I think Nazem Kadri is in the same boat. I think he has the ability to play in the National Hockey League. It’s a question of when he is going to be given that opportunity or earned that opportunity. And we’re here about earning it.” This translate to me as, “We want him here right now, but there might not be room for him.” Whether you like him or not, he’s clearly proven he has nothing left to do at the AHL. It’s just a matter of clearing some for him up so that he’ll get a fair opportunity to not only get ice time, but be put in a position to succeed.

- Speaking of Bobby Ryan, Carlyle had him start in the AHL due to cap restrictions before he finally cracked the team for good. Kadri should be with the Leafs, but there’s a decent chance he has to wait just a little bit longer until the Leafs can clear a body or two and make some room for him.
I don’t know if Rielly will play more than the five games rookies are allowed to play for free, but it sure sounds like the Leafs want to give him that five and see what he’s all about. The Gardiner injury just makes it that much easier for them to do so.

- The Morgan Rielly watch has been interesting to say the least, with the majority of fans I’ve spoken to hoping he goes back to junior. The one thing that isn’t talked about when it comes to Rielly, is the fact that he could join the Marlies for a playoff run the same way Stuart Percy did last year. So, if he gets the five NHL games in (six means he would lose a year on his ELC), then goes back to junior, then joins the Marlies for a playoff run only a few months from now, is that the worse thing ever? Plus, of course, he played for Team Canada this year. The question with Rielly can’t be whether or not he helps this team right now, the question has to be how do the Leafs develop him best in the next few months to help the team next year. If they think that’s by being with Randy Carlyle and learning directly from him right away, so be it. But I won’t buy the “so he can get experience” line, because should he join the Marlies he’ll have an opportunity to win a championship in professional hockey this season.

I went through some notes from old Leafs Notebooks back from when Carlyle first got here to help refresh my memory, and write some of these next few points.

- It’s been interesting to hear Carlyle talk about the up tempo game he wants to play with the team and how he wants to use their speed. Last year, Carlyle and the Leafs ran a 1-2-2 quite a bit down the stretch. Most fans may remember the games against Boston in particular where the Leafs attempted to trap them. If he’s combining their speed and the trap, they will become a counterattack team, but it sounds like he wants to make them a heavy forechecking team instead. I wonder if the Leafs plan on sending two forecheckers in, or just one. The issue with one is that the Leafs don’t have many big, physical forwards that are adept at taking the body, overpowering D-men, and creating turnovers, and the issue with sending two is that the Leafs aren’t very great defensively or in net. My guess is Carlyle will play it tight and send in one guy. They do have some strong guys in Kulemin, Lupul, JVR and Frattin, but they have to do it consistently.

- One thing that will work when it comes to generating speed is that Carlyle likes to breakout through the middle of the ice. That means centers such as Bozak, Grabovski and McClement will have to come very deep into the zone, and generate speed, plus the D-men will have to give good crisp outlet passes. This is one way to use the team’s speed to the best of its abilities without sacrificing defensive play. Breaking out along the boards causes the wingers to stand still more, and for only two forwards to really come out of the defensive zone with speed; the winger who has the puck come to his side of the zone is more or less flat footed as he picks up the puck along the boards, and then he has to catch guys who are going full speed. But, if you can get the center the puck in stride in your own zone, the wingers can take off and the whole forward line can move up the ice together.

- At the end of last season, Matt Frattin was getting a ton of opportunity to play with guys like Kessel and Grabovski. It will be interesting to see if he gets that opportunity again. Now, Lupul and Kulemin are healthy, and the Leafs have added JVR. If there’s one thing to give the Leafs, it’s that they are relatively deep on the wing.

- One thing never mentioned in correlation to Leo Komarov playing for Carlyle is that Randy had a similar player play under him in Max Lapierre. There could be a number of reasons why he only lasted 21 games, but he only lasted 21 games. Time will tell, but I thought that was worth noting.

- Carlyle took Liles off the top PP unit at times last year and put Gardiner there instead. Whenever Gardiner comes back, it will be interesting to see whether it is Liles or Gardiner, or both, getting PP time with Phaneuf. Before Liles got hurt last season, he and Phaneuf were doing an excellent job together and the PP was getting results.

- Thought this was an interesting quote from Connolly: “Even strength, I think I had my second-highest career points last year. I’d like to improve my play on the power play and play a bigger role. Penalty killing, my individual percentage was 89.7 I read somewhere. I was able to lead the forwards in blocked shots.” While I agree that he probably would have produced around the same rate as Bozak had he been centering Kessel and Lupul plus took his PP time, I don’t believe he was entitled to that ice time and spot in the lineup just because of his contract and veteran status. Sort of sounds like he does. Maybe I just read it the wrong way.

- If the Leafs are truly going to give Mike Komisarek a chance to succeed, the only player they can pair him with is JM Liles. With Gardiner out and Gunnarsson-Phaneuf representing the top pairing, the other D-men in camp are Holzer, Fraser, Rielly, Franson and Kostka. Three of those guys are righties and don’t play the left (Franson was terrible on the left side last year, while Holzer and Kostka don’t play on their offside in the AHL, so it makes no sense to switch them to the left in either of their first NHL season), while the two lefties are Fraser (these two would have been a good pairing 15 years ago) and Rielly. At least Liles is a veteran and can handle the puck so Komisarek doesn’t have to that much, plus he can make strong breakout passes. Thus, if the Leafs are going to play Komisarek and give him a chance, I’d guess the D looks like this come Saturday: Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Liles-Komisarek, Rielly-Franson.

- Last year the Leafs ended the season with Connolly on their shutdown line. It’s also noteworthy to point out he ended his career in Buffalo by playing a checking role. So with that, who’s to say Carlyle doesn’t put together a Kulemin-McClement-Connolly shutdown line to start the year? Obviously Connolly isn’t the big physical grinder many expect for that sort of role, but here are some positives: Connolly is a sound positional player, Connolly can make other teams pay in their own zone, and he can take faceoffs – plus he’s a righty to McClement’s lefty – should Jay get kicked out of the dot. I’m not advocating for this, but it is definitely worth pointing out. This would certainly coincide with Carlyle’s comments about putting Connolly in the top nine, and creating three lines that can contribute offensively. That would leave the second line as MacArthur-Grabovski-JVR, in that scenario.

- Quick story: one year when I was playing hockey we had a goalie tryout for our team that was absolutely terrible. And I do mean terrible. As in, when we were lining up for drills we would call our shots because we were scoring every time. This guy was trying out to be our backup since we already had a very good number one, by the way. Anyway, our goalie coach said to take him because he was the best structured goalie. I thought he was nuts. Lo and behold, we bring this kid in as our backup, and he ends up being the best goalie in the league, carrying us to the Conference Finals. It is at this point I noted two things: one) I know nothing about goaltending, and two) leave the goaltending coaching to the professionals and stay the heck out of their way. I bring this up because there was talk earlier in the week about how Randy Carlyle was more or less staying away from the goalies. Some people were puzzled and questioned it, but I say good for him. Carlyle was a D-man and is an old school hockey guy, how much does he actually know about today’s NHL goalies?

- Finally, I’ll end on this: These guys haven’t played an NHL game since April of last year. That’s almost a full year ago. They are going to be rusty, they are going to make mistakes, and there will probably more than a few head scratching moments in the upcoming week. Let’s give them some time and have some patience. I won’t say it’s a long year, because it won’t be, and I’m sure we all realize the importance of a fast start in a 48 game season, but mistakes are inevitable due to the circumstances. Remember that.

Questions for you all: I’ve been toying with adding “sections” to the Notebook such as Leafs tweets of the week, quotes of the week, etc, and I’m wondering if any of you have anything you’d like to see every Monday in this section in addition to the usual preamble and notes. Let me know. Thanks!

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