Leafs Notebook – February 11

Leafs Notebook – February 11

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The Leafs may have shown the hockey world what they are capable of when they get rolling on Saturday, but one game does not make a season or an identity.

It was only a few weeks ago the Leafs pulled off a fantastic 5-2 win against Pittsburgh on the Pens home opener and things were looking great. James van Riemsdyk said at the time, “We’re a little bit of an unknown, not really picked by anybody. But you’ve got to go out there and prove it every game.”

The next night they lost to the Islanders at home 7-4. Two nights after that they lost to the Rangers 5-2.

A few weeks ago the Sabres beat up the big bad Bruins in their barn. Buffalo noticeably beefed up their roster in the offseason, adding players such as Steve Ott and John Scott, and redemption for Ryan Miller was finally expected. The Sabres delivered. Scott marked up Shawn Thornton, and the Sabres came back from a 3-1 deficit to hand it to the Bruins 7-4.

It was supposed to be the final redemption on Boston from a year ago. A weight lifted off the team’s shoulders that would propel them to great heights moving forward.

Their next game? A 6-1 loss to the Habs.

Their following game? A 4-3 loss to the Panthers in which they blew a two goal lead in the third period.

Just for good measure, they lost their third straight game after that with the same 4-3 score to Ottawa.

This isn’t being said to rain on anyone’s parade, but there’s still a lot of hockey left this season and let’s not forget the Leafs did start 9-3-1 last season.

That same Leafs team from a year ago handled Ottawa, a team that was also in the playoff hunt, a 5-0 shellacking in their barn last season. They followed that up by losing 10 of their next 12.

There has been a lot of talk after the game Saturday about message sending, a change in culture, and so on. There’s a case to be made there. The Leafs have not been this physical since 2004. They have had some lopsided wins since then, but do any come to mind where they not only dominated a team on the score board, but also physically as well? None that this guy can remember.

It’s one thing to do this once though, it’s another to do it consistently. Last season the Bruins dominated the Leafs once, and you heard talk about the Leafs wanting to get back at them. What did Boston do? They dominated them again, and again, and again. The Leafs play Montreal February 27th next and you can expect them to be pissed off.

That will really tell us something about this Leafs team.

As the old saying goes, you’re never as good as you look when you win big, and you’re never as bad as you look when you lose big.

The Leafs showed us all what they can do when they’re rolling, but now the real test is showing us what they can do consistently.

***

Play Breakdowns of the Week

One Goal For: Three emerging Leafs combine to tie the game against Winnipeg.

This goal, to me, highlights why Kadri is a consistent threat offensively. He isn’t afraid to take chances and try things.

Phaneuf makes an excellent and hard outlet pass to Kadri cross ice to kick start the rush. The Jets are making a change, and for some reason nobody stayed where their bench was, which is where the puck went. That left Kadri not only wide open for a breakout pass during 5 on 5 play, but it gave him enough time to receive the pass, look up and begin to survey his options.
He gains the blue line and then beats the first checker on him. It’s Chris Thorburn and while you don’t encourage players to try dekes at the blue line, down a goal with 5 minutes left and the fact that it’s Chris Thorburn, you kind of expect Kadri to beat him and create something. In the first period, though, maybe you expect him to dump that in instead.

Once he beats Thorburn, he tries to feather a backhand pass through a Jets player to a streaking Jay McClement. The chances of that pass actually getting through have to be under 20%, and that’s being generous. But he tries it anyways. Now there are times when you scold low-percentage passes, but there are also times like this when you have to just go for it and leave worries behind.

Even though the puck bounces off into the corner, Kadri remains relentless on the puck and sticks with it. When he gets it, he tries another low percentage pass with Jay McClement wide open. If you pause the video at the 14 second mark, you see that McClement circled back to the top of the circle and is actually wide open for a one-timer. Kadri instead throws it to the front of the net hard hoping something will happen. That isn’t a play where he’s necessarily trying to get the puck to Frattin, he’s just throwing it in front as hard as he can hoping it goes off someone and they get a bounce.

The Leafs do get a bounce, but it’s probably not what Kadri expected. The puck goes straight through everyone, which is why it was important Kadri centered the puck so hard, and bounces right to Cody Franson.

Franson, who has a bomb, has the same idea as Kadri here and just puts it to the net as hard as he can. I’m hesitant to say that was a pure shot, because I do believe he saw Frattin and tried to put the puck in his vicinity. Whether you want to call it a slap-pass, or a shot for deflection, it makes no difference to me.

Then of course there is Frattin, who hangs around the net hoping for something good to happen, and it does. Franson fires the puck, Frattin gets his stick on it, and Pavelec doesn’t have a chance.

Kadri is relentless on the puck, Franson uses his shot and vision, and Frattin goes to the dirty area to get a goal. That’s what each of these three players need to do to help this team, and they did it to combine for a goal here.

One Goal Against: Washington scores a PP goal to get within one.

This goal is a highlight of why David Steckel has been in and out of the line-up. Carlyle wants his fourth line to be energetic and lean on people. Those are two things Steckel hasn’t really done in his career as he isn’t overly physical or energetic due to his lack of speed and mean streak. He’s a faceoff specialist, as most of us know.

On this goal Alex Ovechkin goes behind his net to wind up with the puck on the power play. The Leafs penalty kill, as has been explained in a previous Notebook, calls for the Leafs to line up three players along their blue line, and then one player in the neutral zone guiding the puck carrier to an area where the Leafs can take it off of him or create a turnover, and beyond that generally make life difficult for the team on the power play to gain the zone.

In this example, it is Steckel’s job to create havoc. The problem is, he doesn’t. Ovechkin skates from behind his own net to inside the Leafs zone without getting touched. Since he was able to generate so much speed, the Leafs D-man, Korbinian Holzer, couldn’t possibly stand him up directly at the blue line or else Ovechkin would have easily chipped it off the boards and went around him for a mini breakaway.

It has to be noted that, in fairness to Steckel, he was coming on for someone who changed. So he never had a chance at getting all the way down into Washington’s zone and challenging Ovechkin from the beginning. It’s fair, with that in mind, to think that Ovechkin would be able to wind up at least from behind his net to basically his own blue line.

The neutral zone is a different story. At the 31 second mark, you can see Steckel turns the wrong way when he skates down the ice. Ovechkin is streaking down the left wing, and Steckel’s U-turn is to the right wing. Steckel’s not a great skater as it is, but now he’s making a U-turn and chasing while looping over to the far left side of the ice to chase Ovechkin. That’s just a basic mistake right there. Steckel will never catch Ovechkin that way.

Holzer, as noted, respects Ovechkin’s speed and has to back up and cede the blue line. That same Steckel who turned to the right is now caught up to Ovechkin and they meet him together at the top of the circle. So Washington already has a man advantage, and now the Leafs have two players covering one guy. If you pause the video at the 35 second mark, Ovechkin is stopped at the boards, so are Holzer and Steckel, and nobody else is even remotely close to them. That means it’s a 4 on 2 now with one pass, and Ovechkin obviously makes that pass.

The problem only compounds from here though. When the pass goes to Brouwer in the middle of the ice, Komarov pressures him. The Leafs were lined up along their blue line in this order: Holzer-Fraser-Komarov. So Holzer is already out of the play, and Fraser is still in the middle where he always was, and where the puck now is. That means Brouwer is in his space. When Komarov comes over though, he leaves Fraser out to dry and in no man’s land, because once again the Leafs now have two players covering one.

The best angle of this video is to stop it at the 40 second mark. The Leafs literally have one player at the faceoff dot right of Scrivens, one player on the right hash mark, and then the two forwards are directly above them at the top of the circle. When the puck goes to Ribeiro he has the entire half of the ice and a mini breakaway basically, and he buries. Not much Scrivens can do there.

Literally all Washington did in a 3-1 game in the third period is have a player skate up ice, and two easy passes later had a mini breakaway and now a one-goal deficit instead of a two. Thankfully, the Leafs closed out the game strong afterward.

***

Notes

- I Was watching Colby Armstrong struggle with the Habs on Saturday and it reminded me of the players that were on the Leafs bottom six last year. Armstrong was joined by players such as Joey Crabb, Tim Connolly, Matt Lombardi, and Dave Steckel, none of whom are regulars now. Instead, the Leafs have replaced them with Leo Komarov, Fraser McLaren, Colton Orr, Jay McClement and Nazem Kadri. I don’t think the second group has more talent overall than the first, but boy are they physical and what a difference that has made for the Leafs early on. It’s early still, but it says something when your top lines remain essentially the same, but the bottom goes from skilled to nasty and your team looks way different (and probably better). Good goaltending has helped a lot too, though.

- Paid particular attention to Cody Franson this week to try and see why he is so effective with the puck on the point. I realized something that he does that no other Leafs D-man does – when he has the puck on the point, he slides like a QB in a pocket to try and create holes to fire the puck. There was a perfect example against the Jets, in which he was on the top power play unit with Phaneuf and the Leafs were trying to tie the game in the third period. He got the puck on the point and there was a Jets player in the shooting lane (Franson was at the top of the blue line in the middle of the ice). So Franson ever so subtly dragged the puck and his body a few feet or so to his left and let a quick wrist shot go to the net. A mêlée ensued in front of the net, and you probably best remember this play because MacArthur missed a wide open net to tie the game.

- Last Friday, Phaneuf was commenting on his lack of production and said, “[Shot blocking is] one of the biggest changes in the last three or four years is that guys block a lot more shots. It’s even tougher to get (shots) through now. But when you get ’em through, they’ll go in.” I think everyone on the point would be served well to watch Franson and how he creates space for himself in order to find proper shooting lanes and get pucks on net. He’s now playing PP1, too.
How about Franson playing 20:02 on Saturday, which was fourth on the Leafs defense and included penalty kill time? If he keeps this up, the Leafs will eventually have to give him a shot at playing in the top 4. Perhaps with Gunnarsson when he returns.

- At the end of the first period against the Habs, Plekanec emerged with a puck, made a beautiful 360 pass to Brian Gionta, and Montreal’s captain failed to bury. The CBC commentators spoke at the time about how the Leafs needed to close out the period hard and were almost caught napping. They missed the boat. Nobody talked about it, but Plekanec made one hell of a play, and although this is a Leafs blog, this has to be highlighted. Plekanec purposely lost the draw. He didn’t even try to win it. Noticing that the Leafs loaded up guys along both hash marks, and that he was facing a very good faceoff man in Grabovski, Plekanec literally just put his stick down, and as soon as the puck was dropped he just jetted by Grabovski and caught Mike Kostka off guard (who was at the inside hash mark on the draw) and retrieved possession of the puck. Sure, Kostka could have reasonably expected Grabovski to win that draw, but that hard and that quick? Nobody expects that unless you actually knew what Plekanec was doing, and why would he know that? From there, the Leafs just became discombobulated. Kostka chased the play, Phaneuf took the pinching Subban, and suddenly Gionta was able to spring free because Grabovski still seemed confused about what just happened. Sure CBC can get on the Leafs for not finishing the period strong, but at the end of the day sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a great play, and that’s exactly what Plekanec had done.

- I will give CBC props on their replay of Leo Komarov holding back an upset Mikhail Grabovski after receiving a late hit in front of the Habs bench and clearly wanting redemption. What makes Komarov so frustrating for the opposition is this. While he is aggressive, he is always in control. He hits you, and then has that little smile on his face, and it just drives you nuts.

- When you watch the Leafs play, I really encourage you to monitor the line matching and what Randy Carlyle is attempting to do. He goes into every game with set match ups in mind, and his players abide by it. There was one shift against the Habs that particularly made me laugh in which Randy tried to get his fourth line in for an energy shift starting inside the Habs zone. When Therrien saw this, he put out one of his top lines. The Leafs obviously didn’t have last change so there was nothing Carlyle could do. What happened though? McClement won the draw and cycled the puck down low all by himself. As soon as this happened, Colton Orr and Fraser McLaren went straight off the ice and the Leafs got JVR and Kessel out there. Soon after, McClement went off for Bozak. That’s a well coached team where players understand their roles. As soon as the fourth line saw those guys coming on, they knew they were coming straight off.

- Carlyle said earlier in the year he is an 80-20 guy. As in, he’s 80% concerned about his team, and 20% concerned about the opposition. He fights to get his match ups all game, and believes that if his players do their jobs, things will work out for the best. So far, so good.
Compare that to the Habs and Capitals who had their top scoring lines (Ovechkin’s and Pacioretty’s lines) against the Leafs top line, when they got them away from Grabovski’s unit, and watched both get burned repeatedly. JVR scored twice against Washington and once against the Habs, and Bozak also scored against Montreal.

- Lots of story lines from the Canes games. I read about how the Leafs out chanced them, couldn’t kill penalties, and even saw something suggesting the big Staal boys dominated them, but the only story line that emerged for me was the Leafs unravelling after the disallowed goal. Don’t know if they showed this on the original broadcast, but being at the game I saw Leafs players go up to the refs yelling at them after the period ended, and then again when the third period began. They clearly lost their composure and let that disallowed goal get to them. It was game after that. It was a bad a call, I get it. Seeing the replay numerous times, I thought for sure it was a goal. They didn’t get the call and it sucked, but they have to let it go and move on. Instead, they were noticeably flustered, the next shift Phaneuf makes a bad pass to Kostka that forces him to take a penalty, and then right after Holzer tries to step up on a guy in the neutral zone. It was 2-1 at that point and time to bear down, not fold.

- Then, after the game, Carlyle came out and said that it was a good call on the Leafs no-goal. Do I actually think he believes that? No, it was a good goal. So why did he say that? He’s not letting that kind of thing become an excuse for this team. They called it no goal. Get over it. There was still a game to play, and instead of using that call to motivate them and make them work even harder to score, they let it get to them. This is still a young team, and hopefully that serves as a lesson to them moving forward. It will be interesting to see how they respond next time to not getting a few calls.

- Another thing you probably couldn’t see from the TV broadcast? How crazy Komarov drives people. He finishes every check, and numerous players retaliate against him with little whacks and pushes behind the play.

- Grabovski’s line was out to start the game against the Jets, and they got dominated. Next game against the Habs? They scored. Carlyle put Komarov up there after the game against Winnipeg, but you can probably bet he talked to Grabovski and Kulemin about setting the tone properly. That line starts periods and games for the Leafs more than any other, and when you do that, you have to set the tone.

- I think Kadri remembered Emelin stepping up on him in the neutral zone during the season opener.

- Kostka had a great diving play to stop a pass from Eric Staal to Alex Semin for a breakaway.
Still don’t like Bozak with Kessel, but have to give credit where it is due. He’s a useful player and he contributes. Bozak gets ripped for being the first line center, but it’s not his fault he’s there.

- At what point do the Leafs try Bozak on the wing? Not because he’s a bad center, but because if they want to resign him, and it sounds like they do, he will probably need to play some wing if they bring in a top line center. Grabovski and Kadri aren’t going anywhere, and you don’t resign Bozak (at a number that will likely exceed $2.5M) to play him on the fourth line. So, he would probably need to play some wing. In comparison, I’d suggest looking at guys like Jay McClement and Leo Komarov so far. Bozak is better than both, but he could play a similar role that sees him play up and down the lineup on the wing and at center, plus get ample penalty killing time. We’ll see what they do.

- Bozak leads all Leafs forwards in ice time, and is still only 26.

-Quietly, Nikolai Kulemin is averaging the third most ice time among Leafs forwards. How physical the Leafs have been this year is great, but I really believe Kulemin sets the tone on this team as much as anybody. All he did against Montreal on his first shift was block a shot, win a battle, then tee up Komarov for a one-timer goal.

- Grabovski is one hell of a teammate sticking up for Komarov the way he did. He has to know Prust would take him a fight, but it didn’t matter. You try to take on one Leaf, you have to take them all on.

- Let’s not forget this from last year: Grabovski vs. Neil.

- One thought on Grabovski not getting an ‘A:’ He doesn’t speak the best English and one of the main purposes of being designated a letter is talking to the referees.

- Just an observation, but when Phaneuf clears guys from the front of the now after the whistle, he has Korbinian Holzer there with him. I think that makes a difference.

- Against Winnipeg Phaneuf appeared to have challenged Antropov to a fight, and against the Habs he was into it with Bourque. In the past two years he has declined fights more than initiated them. I think this is a reflection on two things: One, the Leafs defense top to bottom has been playing well. Do you want Phaneuf sitting for 5 minutes? No. But at the moment, with everybody else playing the way they are, it wouldn’t be as crippling. Two, the Leafs have been more physical as a team lately, and that’s getting Phaneuf more into it. There were times last year where Phaneuf was physical, but he was on an island in doing so.

- Saturday was a prime example as to why teams dress enforcers. The Leafs get a huge lead, Montreal gets chippy, and the Leafs send out the goons to end everything. If you’re Montreal, you’re watching Colton Orr one-punch a top six winger, try and run your best center out of the building and take on your captain, while Fraser McLaren is laughing while fighting one of their top 3 D-men.

- Also gained a lot of respect for Fraser McLaren. He could have seriously done some damage to Josh Gorges, but didn’t. The laughing was a little much for my taste, but good for him in understanding the situation and not demolishing a guy who is a few notches lower than him in the weight, height and fight scales.

- It didn’t get much attention, but what a great play by Ben Scrivens to stop the puck behind the net after Washington tried to ring it around the boards with under a minute left in a desperation push. The Leafs got possession, and Washington didn’t threaten again.

- If there’s one thing you have to give Scrivens over Reimer, it’s that he’s better at handling the puck. At this point though, as a Leafs fan, it would be tough to reasonably complain about anything Reimer has done to start the year. He’s giving the Leafs the kind of goaltending they require to compete on a nightly basis.

***

Quotes

“I’d say both, but more-so one. I try to use my reach to my advantage and having one hand on my stick allows me an extra couple of feet. I’ve asked a lot of the forwards that I played with in practice what’s harder for them to play against and my sticks fully extended or in tight with two hands rather than one. Most guys seem to say one-handed, just because they have to worry about my gap and how close I am. If it’s not fully extended, they have to be aware, because they know I can reach a long distance. It’s something to think about more than where my body is.”
- Cody Franson commenting on whether he likes to use one hand on his stick defensively, or two.

He, along with the rest of the D, probably never understood why Ron Wilson harped on them to use two hands instead.

“Right now, this is his baptismal. We’ve got to find out if he can play in the NHL.”
- Randy Carlyle on Korbinian Holzer.

I’d say the early returns indicate he can.

“Prust, we know what kind of player he is and he goes out and cheap shots Grabovski, what are we supposed to do? We’re not supposed to play the rest of our players the rest of the night? They’ve got another thing coming, that’s not happening to our group.”
- Randy Carlyle after beating down the Habs in every way possible.

If there’s one thing we can say definitively about the Leafs moving forward, it’s that they won’t be the softest team in the league as long as Carlyle is coaching them.

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1) If I’m the Leafs, I think, as happy as I’d be with Reimer’s play, I’d make sure Scrivens gets a start or so every week if possible. Yes, it’s a short season, but it’s also a condensed schedule and you don’t want Reimer wearing out. He was obviously hurt and only played 34 games last year. Then there was a lockout in which he wasn’t playing actual games. That’s a lot of time off he’s had in a year and a half. Right now he’s on pace for 36 games and I think that’s great. If the Leafs are seriously competing for a playoff spot with a few weeks left and they want to run with Reimer the whole way through, that’s fine. For now though, I think it makes sense to lean on him but also make sure he stays fresh.

2) I think I’d have a long debate about if it makes more sense to play Komarov with Grabovski and Kulemin, or with Kadri and Frattin. Consequently, whether or not MacArthur should play with Grabovski and Kulemin, or Kadri and Frattin. Komarov has looked good with both lines, albeit he played one game on Grabovski’s line. Conversely, MacArthur to me has really only looked good on Grabovski’s line. Maybe it’s best to get the best out of both lines and reunite MGK and put Komarov with the kids, even if I really like Komarov driving the other team’s top players crazy while playing with Grabovski and Kulemin. That said, I’d keep Komarov there to play against Giroux for sure.

3) I think, as much as I loved McLaren and Orr being the bash brothers on Saturday night, I’d start looking at ways to create a fourth line that can play over 5 minutes a game for the stretch drive. There will be times McLaren and Orr are necessary, but there will also be times when it will be nice that the Leafs can roll four lines in a shortened season with a condensed schedule. The top three lines will get worn out and fatigued. There will also be tight games like the one against Boston, where you need all lines contributing and not one being a liability. Maybe Mike Brown makes that line better, although he hasn’t been great either. Maybe it’s guys on the Marlies such as Carter Ashton or Ryan Hamilton. Maybe it’s bringing in a depth veteran via trade. It could be as simple as having Komarov and McClement on that unit once Lupul gets healthy. Even when Carlyle won the Cup, he had a reasonable fourth line with Brad May, Todd Marchant and Shawn Thornton. They were tough as nails, but they could play some hockey, too.

4) I think, when Lupul returns and if the line-up is still the same, I’d play him with Kadri and Frattin. JVR has looked really good with Kessel, and deserves to get an extended stay on his line at this point. Lupul with Kadri and Frattin could be an offensive nightmare for the opposition, and it’s a nice way of easing him back in the line-up. Those lines don’t have to stick, but I’m just not a big believer in a guy getting healthy and walking back to his throne as if nothing has happened since he’s been gone. JVR has played well, and Lupul will still be playing with hockey players that give him a chance to succeed. Once he looks ready, then move him back to playing with Kessel.

5) I don’t know how, but I think I’d find a way to keep Mark Fraser in the line-up once everybody gets healthy. Fraser just does a lot of the physical things about hockey right; he takes the body consistently, battles hard in the corners, clears the net well and drops the gloves when necessary. Holzer and Phaneuf are also bringing a nice physical dimension to the D unit, but the Leafs need both those guys playing. Fraser as a third pairing guy gets a little more leeway to cross the line and get dirty because he’s only playing 11-15 minutes a night.

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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