Leafs Notebook – February 4
The Leafs have had a lot of positives to start this season, but the power play isn’t one of them.
Last year, Toronto’s power play was a team strength finishing tied for ninth with Colorado in the league clicking at 18.4% over 82 games. After eight games to start this season, the Leafs are currently converting 14.3% of their man advantages, which is 22nd in the league.
The Leafs top scorer on the power play last year, Phil Kessel, is still on the team. So is their leading scorer from the point in Dion Phaneuf. In fact, of the top 10 point getters on Toronto’s power play last year, the only guy who hasn’t technically returned is Tim Connolly. However, Joffrey Lupul (3rd in pp scoring) and Jake Gardiner (8th) are also not playing at the moment.
Even missing those key scorers though, it has to be noted that the team has added JVR who has four goals in eight games, and their leading scorer is a guy who only played 21 games last year and contributed exactly one point on the power play last year in Nazem Kadri. So while Lupul not being in the line-up does hurt the PP, the additions of these two guys should, at minimum, be able to hold the fort in his absence.
On those basic facts alone, we should be able to agree that the power play’s struggles are not due to a personnel problem. The Leafs can ice talent when they get the man advantage, and its talent that has shown it can be very productive.
So what has changed?
The most obvious thing to note is that, while the Leafs have by and large the same players at their disposal that were apart of last year’s units, they are not playing the same units from last year. Mike Kostka is in for Liles on the point of the top power play unit. Dion Phaneuf has shifted from his one timer side on the right, to now playing the left side of the point which is something we rarely saw him do pre-Carlyle. Joffrey Lupul is obviously hurt, so JVR has now replaced him up front as a big net presence.
Ice time wise from last year, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Tim Connolly were the next three forwards who garnered power play time, while Gardiner and Franson were the next two D-men on the point.
The Leafs have had a few injuries throw a bit of a wrench into who they put out there for the power play at the moment, but lately the Leafs have been trotting out Kulemin-Grabovski-Kadri on the second unit with Liles and Franson on the point. It’s probably safe to assume MacArthur replaces Kulemin once he’s back; in other words, Kadri replaces Connolly, and Liles is replacing Gardiner for the moment in comparison to last year’s unit.
So there has been some change to the units, but it shouldn’t be enough to affect them this dramatically. Last season the Leafs power play was able to keep them in games and even win a few. This year? They are struggling to even create chances or generate momentum through their power play. If anything, it’s arguably hurting their overall game by sucking the life out of them due to how much it has struggled.
There are some basic clear differences between those power plays and the Leafs’ current ones. The main difference starts at the top, where Liles quarterbacked the top unit last year. You can see examples of his movement off the puck in his give and go with Grabovski for a goal versus Tampa Bay, and the saucer pass he gives Phaneuf before Kessel ultimately buries against St. Louis. Liles did an excellent job last year of moving the puck, roving with and without the puck to create space for others, and even shooting. This season, the Leafs have elected for Phaneuf to be the quarterback. He’s been playing at the top of the Leafs umbrella with Kessel flanking him to his left, and Kostka flanking him to his right. The results so far have seen no goals from Kessel or Phaneuf, when the assumption is that they are side by side on their off wings to tee each other up for one-timers. Kostka has also missed quite a few chances in the slot, as well as backdoor feeds from Kessel.
Last season there was lots of puck movement and player movement on the power play. The Lupul goal is an example of Kessel cutting across the zone during the power play to create the play. To this point so far, Kessel has remained static on the half-wall, while the rest of the team has by and large watched him handle the puck as he does it.
Furthermore, Bozak made a living roving through the slot last year. Many will likely remember how Kessel and he would one touch the puck between each other from Kessel along the boards, to Bozak in the high slot, and back to Kessel in order to create space. Bozak was in the high slot to direct the puck to the net on the video of Kessel’s goal against St. Louis. This year, Bozak has mainly been down low in the corner and he really hasn’t created anything.
If you’re going to play down low in the corner on the power play, Kyle Wellwood’s time on the Leafs is a good example of how to do it.
Then there’s Phaneuf, who has usually just been tasked to either shoot the puck immediately, or pass it, now having the responsibilities of being the focal point QB. Usually, the QB is a pass first guy who works the puck around and looks for open lanes for his teammates, like Kaberle or Liles. Phaneuf’s career suggests he’s a shoot-first guy and should be used as that only. Maybe he can grow into that role of leading the PP from the top, but the beginning has been shaky, to say the least.
On one hand, it’s fair to give a new coach time to employ his systems. It’s not absurd that a new scheme is taking time to be picked up on and it has only been eight games. On the other hand, it’s frustrating to watch a productive powerplay from last season undergo changes the next that have turned it into one of the bottom third units in the league.
As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The issue is, it’s becoming a problem now, and it needs fixing.
- Carlyle spoke about losing the bench a little against the Rangers, which resulted in Phaneuf playing too many minutes against the Rangers. He then proceeded to play Phaneuf 27:41, 28:36, 27:11 last week. In a shortened season, where so many teams are preaching spreading out ice time to all players because of the compressed schedule, Phaneuf is averaging 27:53 – fourth among all NHL defencemen. Mike Kostka is 13th among D-men at 25:39.
- The crazy thing is that, it’s not like the rest of the Leafs D is incompetent. Liles is a proven veteran who’s capable of playing 20+ minutes a night, yet is averaging a shade under that on the season. Gunnarsson’s reduced minutes make sense now that we know about his injury, but when he’s back he can give the Leafs more than the 20:49 he was averaging before sitting out. Jake Gardiner is also another guy who can hopefully cut into the time on ice that Phaneuf and Kostka are receiving. Even looking past the injured d-men, Fraser-Franson is starting to look like a potentially solid third pairing that has size, some skill, and some snarl. They aren’t a future top four pairing, but they are capable of giving the team 15 or so solid minutes a night. Maybe even a little more. That could go a long way towards rounding out the overall unit, finally building some consistency on the backend versus the current carousel that it is, reducing the overall workload of the top guys.
- Speaking of Fraser, it’s early but he’s beginning to look similar to another late blooming D-man in Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engelland. The Pens player made the NHL at 28 after toiling in the AHL for years. He’s 6’2, and a little over 200 pounds, and he gives the team about 13 minutes a night in a depth role and provides physicality in the bottom half of the roster. Fraser is 26 right now; he’s 6’4, 220 pounds and already had 98 NHL games to his name before playing for the Leafs this season. He’s by no means a stud, but he’s definitely a guy who can be physical, keep it simple, kill penalties and muck it up in the bottom pairing. There’s a logjam brewing on the left side of the Leafs D, but there’s also a lack of physical D-men on the team.
- Maybe if Fraser is a regular, the Leafs will be less inclined to play two guys in McLaren and Orr at the same time, too.
- It’s tough to justify, at least to me, dressing those two guys at the same time. It only compounds the matter when they’re both playing in a game where Boston’s one true heavyweight, who is the only player on that team who would realistically fight either, is not in the line-up. To make matters worse, both Orr and McLaren watched Fraser fight twice, and were on for the only goal of the game, which was the winner of course.
- On a team building note, if the Leafs are going to pay a guy like Colton Orr a million bucks a year to do what he does, it sure seems to make a lot more sense to pay a guy a little more than that who can contribute more than just fighting on the fourth line. In the summer there was a lot of debate about whether the Leafs should sign a guy Jordin Tootoo, for example. In addition to his three fights this year, he’s also done things like this. Tootoo doesn’t have a point yet this year and he’s only playing a little over eight minutes a night, but he offers a little more than what McLaren or Orr do in that role. Some potential UFAs this year that fill that role a little more effectively are BJ Crombeen, Matt Hendricks, Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres. Putting a guy like that on a team that could already have Mark Fraser and Leo Komarov on it should easily give teams fits. It’s not like the Leafs are about to be in cap trouble anytime soon, either.
- Matt Hendricks is a personal favourite of mine, for the record.
- The Bruins outshot the Leafs by a lot (34-21). Yes, the Leafs struggled to create or sustain any offense in the first, but after that they got going a bit on offense. Kessel hit a crossbar, missed another chance in the slot, JVR missed a Franson rebound, Grabovski beat a D-man only to stop and lose the puck, McClement and Steckel created chances by driving the net hard. Conversely, while the Bruins did create quite a bit of offense too, they also fired a ton of shots from just inside the blue line. Without those shots, the shot differential was more or less even.
- The Leafs probably aren’t a good enough team to be above moral victories at this point, so it has to be recognized that they hung in there against a team that owned them last season, even though they were missing two top six forwards and two top four D-men.
- There is no doubt in my mind that if Kessel was rolling, he would have passed that puck that bounced on his stick in the slot against Boston, which he slap shot at Rask’s chest. JVR was wide open cross-ice, but when you haven’t scored all season and you’re the team’s best player feeling all that pressure, you squeeze your stick a little tighter.
- Didn’t think it got enough play, but at the end of the game against Boston, Kessel was controlling the puck on the half-wall, sucked in two Bruins players, then fed a great pass through the slot that Bozak missed, right before Kostka took his penalty that basically sealed the game. Two things I glean from that sequence: one, heck of a play by Kessel. We say this time and again, but this guy is a hang of a passer. Two, I was surprised Tyler Bozak was on. The other guys were JVR and Kadri up front with the goalie pulled. Thinking about this logically, and here are some thoughts: JVR is tied for the team lead in goals and is the best net presence on the team right now, so it’s obvious why he was on. Kadri leads the team in points, that’s a no brainer. So is Kessel being on despite not scoring yet; he is the team’s best player. After that though, are you more likely to put out the player tied with JVR for the team lead in goals (Matt Frattin) who has also had a magical week, a player who is more established and tied with Bozak in points (Grabovski), the second-leading point getter on your team who is also a physical hound in the corners (Kulemin), or Bozak himself?
- Wrote last week about how Phaneuf was more susceptible to getting beat wide when he plays on his left side, and then Drew Stafford took him wide and beat him cleanly in Buffalo. Stafford not only got around him wide, but he beat him so quickly, he had a mini breakaway cause he had so much space and time to go after he did. The best example of Phaneuf getting beat wide on his strong side is still Lars Eller’s goal from last year.
- Further, Mike Kostka got walked on by Nathan Horton on a neat little inside-outside move. Kostka did well to recover, but if teams start doing their homework scouting this guy, they’ll realize he’s a below par skater and can be beat wide with any sort of speed.
- That said, let’s recognize a fantastic blocked shot he had in front of the Leafs after Phaneuf gave the puck away right up the middle against Washington. Kostka is quickly becoming a whipping boy due to his playing time, especially on the PP, but it’s not his fault he’s being trotted out there. This is a guy who could give the Leafs an effective 18-20 minutes in a lesser role with the right partner.
- What an effort by Frattin to draw a penalty against Seidenberg after chipping it by him and forcing the B’s D-man to interfere with him. The Komarov-Kadri-Frattin line is fearless when they play as they mix it up in the corners, consistently take the body, and all three of them drive the net hard. Many have complained about the fourth line’s lack of hockey ability, but the way I see it is that if the Leafs fourth line was good, then this line would suffer the most in terms of ice-time because Kessel is always going to get his minutes and Grabovski is going up against the other team’s top line.
- One drawback of Kadri line last week was icings. Against Washington in particular, Matt Frattin had a shift where he iced it a few times in a row and Carlyle was visibly losing it behind the bench as he didn’t have a timeout, and the team was trying to protect a lead. Things like this, where Carlyle now loses the ability to work his line match-ups, are why this line still needs to gain the trust of the coaching staff. One guy who was excellent at chipping the puck out of the zone without icing it, though? Jay McClement. The Leafs have talked about the need of veteran presences, and he’s quickly becoming a fantastic one.
- Offensively though, how do you not put Kadri out against Boston during that 4 on 4 after Komarov and Chara took penalties? He got out there in the last twenty seconds of it, but one of, if not the, team’s best open ice player should be a priority play in those situations. Kadri has been working his go-to one on one play early in this season where if he’s on his off wing, he’ll sort of shake his body and then flip the puck in the middle and cut in to create space for himself. It’s almost unstoppable, because if the D-men cheats to cut it off or even reads it as it is happening, Kadri is quick and skilled enough to put it through anybody’s legs and cut back. On his strong side though, he isn’t nearly as effective on one-on-ones, as was evident when he tried to put the puck through Boychuk’s legs but never really had a chance at turning that into a quality scoring chance.
- Have a friend who had the best line on Franson, “with the puck on his stick, he’s the Leafs best D-man, without it, he’s the worst.” Franson flashed his abilities against Buffalo with his half slap goal, and his joining of the rush to create an easy rebound tap-in for Matt Frattin. But he also completely lost Bourque against Boston, when that was clearly his man and a play he should be able to make against a guy who is not a fantastic offensive player (asking him to cover Lucic for example is asking a bit much, but Bourque?).
- That said, how do you justify not only having your fourth line out against Boston’s third line when you have last change and there’s two goons on your fourth line, but also putting your third D pairing out there with them? At least put your best D pairing out there with them just in case something like that rush happens.
- Against Boston, Phaneuf had a sequence where the puck went to him on the point and he failed to go cross ice to a wide open Mike Kostka. Twice. Phaneuf had complete tunnel vision on the play, and then when the puck went down the ice to his own end, he took a delay of game penalty. Those are the kinds of shifts that make it tough to defend Phaneuf.
- Those are also the kinds of shifts that go a long way towards teammates hesitating to pass it to him on the point. There’s no question forwards already took note of the fact that Phaneuf broke Lupul’s forearm. To put it mildly, he has had trouble hitting the net since he got here, but forwards will only put their body on the line so long before getting frustrated. I already noticed a play against the Rangers where JVR had the puck in the corner, looked back and saw a wide open Phaneuf on the point, then dumped it behind the net. I don’t have the tweet from last year, but I also remember Elliotte Friedman stating on Twitter last year that teammates don’t want to go to the front of the net when Phaneuf shoots cause his shots sail high.
- Compare that to teammates visibly attempting to get Franson the puck back on the point. He keeps it low, he gets pucks to the net, and he generally makes great decisions with the puck on his stick.
- One play I really liked from Franson was against Boston, when he intentionally shot the puck wide of the net to get it to Kadri, who pushed it in front to Kulemin. The puck ultimately just missed him Kulemin in front and didn’t result in anything, but it was the right play.
- Grabovski ultimately has to realize that if he’s playing with Kulemin and McClement, he is the primary shooter on that line, and every time he gets the puck on his stick in even a remote scoring zone, he has to put it on net. The best thing Kulemin and McClement will do offensively for him is work the corners and go to the net. That’s it. So it’s on Grabovski to take the lead and start firing away. To this point in the year, he has 12 shots on net through 8 games, which isn’t nearly good enough.
- Kulemin averaged 1.5 shots per game last year. So far this year? 2.25. In 8 games this season, he’s almost scored a quarter of the points he had last season over 70 games. We talked a lot last year about how Kulemin needs to use his shot more, and he is. Hopefully it continues.
- Conversely, Matt Frattin has only 7 shots through 5 games. With his shot, and the way he has been scoring, he has to throw way more at the net.
- Kessel flicked a puck up the middle of the ice, and JVR turned it on to beat both Washington D to the puck and get a breakaway, which was a great example of his wheels. When I was at the home opener, his skating looked a little lethargic, but now he’s getting his legs under him and really beginning to use his wheels. JVR doesn’t necessarily have the best initial burst of speed, but once he gets going, he is a beast to handle because of his stride and how fast he can skate.
Play Breakdowns of the Week
One Goal For: JVR pots in a power play rebound against Washington.
Since I spoke of power play struggles at the beginning of this piece, I thought I would take this time to highlight an actual power play goal from this week to show some of the positive things they are doing, and what they need to do more of.
The very first thing to note is Phil Kessel gaining the zone himself off the rush. Far too often the Leafs have dumped the puck in, and failed to retrieve it, leading to easy dump outs and a waste of valuable time. The team has a particularly bad habit of ringing it around the boards softly which allows goalies to stop the puck and make an easy outlet play.
The next thing to note is that he starts moving with the puck immediately. Kessel doesn’t stop on the half-wall, and waits for someone to get open (which he can get lulled into doing), he looks up, notices nothing, begins to make his way into the middle of the ice which sucks in Erskine, and then that creates a lane to get the puck to Bozak (who also did well to work his way back to the corner). Then, once Bozak gets the puck, he moves it quickly, knocking it back hard to the point.
It wasn’t a particularly great play by Bozak to knock it back considering Backstrom was right there, but Kostka did something important on the power play that the Leafs have often struggled to do: he won a battle. Good power plays retrieve pucks and win battles. When you win battles, you create PK breakdowns and scoring opportunities. That happened here as Backstrom no longer posed a threat to Kessel once he lost the battle, while Erskine also cheated high.
That opened the opportunity for Kessel to have a nice give-and-go with Bozak, resulting in a high quality scoring chance for Kessel. Even though he didn’t bury, JVR was there to slam it home. Quick puck movement, winning battles and scoring chances in the slot are all things the Leafs have struggled to do early on in the power play this season, but they did all three on this goal.
One Goal Against: Andrej Sekera sneaks in and goes roof on Reimer.
This goal highlights something that has been a serious issue for Leafs forwards so far this season: identifying and covering opposing D-men.
The Leafs are actually in pretty solid shape to start this goal. Liles and Gunnarsson keep Stafford and Ennis to the outside, and force a puck back to the point. If you pause the video at the 6 second mark, each Leaf player is clearly covering a Sabres player. Kessel is on Ehrhoff, JVR is on Sekera, Gunnarsson is on Ennis, Bozak is on Ott, and Liles is on Stafford.
The initial breakdown is really after the original Sekera shot. The puck goes to the side of the net, and Bozak is all alone to take on Stafford and Ott in a battle for the puck. When Carlyle got here, he spoke of his defensive system consisting of out numbering the other team for the puck. The Leafs not only did not have more players there than the opposition, they actually got out numbered themselves. Even after Ott sets a pick on Bozak, nobody else is even close enough to the play to get to Stafford, so Bozak is left to chase him himself after the fact. That gives Stafford time and space to look up and make a play, even on his backhand.
That play is on Liles, who needed to stick with his man and help out Bozak. The puck is in his corner, and his man is there, so there is no excuse for him not to engage in the battle. Gunnarsson is covering the man in front, and the Leafs defensive system calls for them to collapse, so Kessel is there even if they did need an extra man in front.
Once Stafford emerges from the battle with the puck on his stick and starts skating up the wall, Gunnarsson also makes a mistake. He starts watching the puck and floating with Ennis right where Stafford is. There is no need to follow Ennis there because he was literally right beside Stafford. He is of no danger to the team with where he is going, and by following him, Gunnarsson left the front of the net wide open. It’s understandable to follow him to a point, because it’s a clear man defense the Leafs are playing. But you can only follow him so far before it makes no sense to, and it made no sense to here.
Then, on the note of man defense, JVR gets caught watching the play. He actually does well to follow Sekera from half way from the blue line to the net. But then he doesn’t communicate with Gunnarsson and that was the end of that. You’ll notice JVR half way through following Sekera veer off the defender and go to the puck carrier. That is presumably because he thought Gunnarsson would have him covered. As noted though, Gunnarsson was mistakenly following Ennis.
There is a fine line between zone and man defense where eventually you have to say “I need to stay here” because it wouldn’t make any sense not to. Gunnarsson and JVR both got caught watching the play, when between them they only had one man to cover really. Instead, that man got wide open in front of the net with speed and he put a beautiful backhander over Reimer that many goalies would struggle to stop.
Del Zotto roamed wherever he wanted when the Rangers played the Leafs and he had a huge impact on that game. Even guys like Andrew Ference have joined the rush and gotten wide open shots off as trailers on the play. Here, Sekera is only partially covered by the winger. We talk about the speed of the Leafs wingers all the time, so there is no excuse for D-men to be getting past them without the puck either as trailers off the rush, or during zone offense.
For the first time in awhile, the Leafs haven’t looked as susceptible to being cycled down low for long stretches in their own zone. Instead, there have been issues covering the guys up high. This is something that will need correcting as the season goes on.
“He’s working his ass off”
- Both Cody Franson and JVR on Phil Kessel’s game against Washington.
Everyone knows about Kessel’s goal slump at this point, but instead of sulking he’s working harder than he’s possibly ever worked before. That doesn’t get lost on teammates, and it makes guys want to play with him.
“Now when you do things like this, it forces you to play him, simple as that.”
- Randy Carlyle commenting on Matt Frattin after his overtime buzzer beater against the Sabres.
Frattin played 16:10 that game against Buffalo. The two following games that week he played 11:31 and 15:49 respectively.
“Shooting some pucks after practice, I missed the net a few times and took it out on my stick. Next thing you know, stick breaks and a bunch of graphite goes in my (right) eye and my face. Had to go see the eye specialist. Had to have it removed and have a stitch in the eyeball. Mark that down as a first for me.”
- Mike Komisarek explaining his eye injury.
Imagine if Phaneuf did this after every time he missed the net, too?
5 Things I think I’d Do
1) I think I’d keep Jay McClement on the shutdown line with Grabovski and Kulemin, even when MacArthur and Lupul return, unless that line in and of itself gave me a reason not to. McClement brings some nice size and veteran savvy to that line, and that line has looked much better against the other team’s best players than they did before he got put there. The shutdown line is still a huge part of Carlyle’s system, and it appears he might have a pretty good one here.
2) I think I’d run the top power play through Cody Franson. He has the best shot of anyone on the point, and he consistently gets it through. Franson is also a great passer who not only sees the ice well, but he actually puts it on the tape. Whenever Franson has gotten opportunities, he’s looked dangerous, and it’s just a shame to waste his talents overall. With two potential PPQB’s climbing the organization in Rielly and Gardiner, who are both lefties, it would be nice to develop a right-handed option, too.
3) I alluded to it before, but now I’m saying flat out that I think I’d mix up Kessel’s centers in-game. If they want to play him with Bozak for the majority of the game for the sake of keeping the other lines together, that’s fine. But I’d mix in the odd shift here and there with Grabovski and/or Kadri. He needs to play with guys who can create space for him too, as opposed to a guy like Bozak who just gives Kessel the puck and tries not to get in his way. Kessel’s one shift with Grabovski against Boston on Saturday was dominant.
4) I think I’d start shopping Clarke MacArthur sooner rather than later. It’s not that he’s a bad player, but with Lupul and JVR locked up long-term, Kessel and Kulemin also under contract, as well as Frattin plus Komarov being cost-controlled, it just doesn’t make sense to me to give MacArthur the likely $3.5M+ he’ll likely ask for. It’s basic asset management to get something back for him before he walks for free.
5) I think if they aren’t going to play Liles on the top PP unit this year, I’d start trying to move him immediately, too. He’s a good player that teams will be interested in – regardless of what the Leafs get back – and the Leafs aren’t going to be suffering from a shortage of puck moving D-men anytime soon with Gardiner close to returning and Rielly likely making the team next season. Above and beyond that though, they are really wasting Liles’ talents if he isn’t playing with the top guys that he lit it up with last year on the power play, and the Leafs have also received some surprisingly solid play from a guy like Fraser. That makes me want to give them more ice time and see what they can do. With a log jam coming on the left side of the defense shortly with Phaneuf, Gardiner, Rielly and Gunnarsson all being lefties, Liles was already beginning not to make sense. But now, with the coaching staff not even allowing him to do what he does best and lead the power play? It’s just logical to parlay him into a different asset that can help the Leafs versus a redundant player on the team who is not even being employed properly.