Leafs Notebook – February 26

Leafs Notebook – February 26

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After 20 games this season, the Leafs record is 12-8-0 for 24 points.

After 20 games last season, the Leafs were 11-7-2 for 24 points.

This year’s team has scored 57 goals to this point and allowed 46. That’s a +11 differential.

Last season’s team scored 60 goals and allowed 66. That’s a -6 differential.

Five of the Leafs losses to that point in their last season were by three goals or more (6-2 BOS, 7-0 BOS, 5-1 FLA, 5-2 OTT, 4-1 NSH- in fairness Nashville scored an empty netter here). They also almost blew a four goal third period lead against Ottawa in the second game of the season, eventually winning 6-5. Conversely, Toronto blew out Washington 7-1 and easily beat Columbus 4-1.

The story lines at the time were the hot play and chemistry of the Lupul-Kessel duo, Phaneuf and Connolly’s hot starts, the Leafs highly-ranked power play, Gustavsson holding fort for the injured James Reimer, and the Leafs run and gun style of hockey.

Yeah, Toronto was off to a hot start then, but they outscored the majority of their problems and were handily beat in a quarter of their games.

Let’s compare that to this year.

The Leafs have lost three games by three or more (7-4 NYI, 5-2 NYR, 4-1 CAR), with only the Ranger game truly showing them to be overmatched by an opponent. They handed it to Montreal 6-0, and also beat the Penguins 5-2 during their home opener.

Last year, Toronto won 12 of 45 games against playoff teams (12-26-7) and were outscored 163-112, as playoff teams were 33-10-2 against Toronto.

So far this season, the Leafs are 4-5-0 against teams currently in playoff positions (beat the Sens, Habs twice, and Pens; lost to Tampa, Sens, Canes twice and Bruins) and have actually outscored them 22-16.

Narratives this year have been based around Carlyle’s defensive system, a more physical Leafs team, JVR’s emergence on the Leafs, and Eakins’ boys stepping onto the Leafs and making an impact (Nazem Kadri, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, etc.).

The power play isn’t quite as elite as last years, but their penalty killing is hovering in the top half of the league. Additions Leo Komarov, Jay McClement, JVR, Holzer, Fraser and Kostka have all played an important part in that, so too has the improved goaltending and new system of penalty killing (less fronting, more of the “T” system that I have discussed numerous times here).

Their point totals after 20 games might be the same, but the team is not. Last year’s team was a one-dimensional team that was simply run and gun. This season’s team has shown an ability to grind teams down, cycle the puck low, and battle out wins. Of course, that’s aided tremendously by the top-end goaltending they have received so far; but replacing Lombardi, Connolly and Crabb with JVR, Komarov and McClement has definitely paid early dividends in making the Leafs a more complete team that’s tougher to play against.

There’s still a long way to go, but Lupul, Reimer, and Frattin re-entering the line-up will help them, and Jake Gardiner is bound for the big club to stay sooner than later. That will also create some expendable pieces for the Leafs to maybe even turn into players who can help them make a legitimate playoff run.

But as stated at the top, it’s early, and this team has the same amount of points 20 games in as last years did and we all know how that turned out. It’s a different group yes, but there’s still a lot to prove.

***

Play Breakdowns

One Goal For: Phaneuf blasts one on the power play.

Three things discussed in this space earlier happen and the result is the power play dynamic and spacing paying dividends here.

The first thing is simply playing Cody Franson on the top unit. Even though he and Kessel don’t line up side by side in conjunction as a lefty and righty who can set each other up for one-timers, Franson’s quick release is so hard and good that opposing forwards have to respect and follow him right away. They can’t cheat off him at any point because he has a rocket that he will easily get through. He doesn’t hesitate to shoot if he has a lane, either.

The second thing is Bozak playing in the high slot. This was mentioned in one of the first Leafs Notebook’s of the season, when people were wondering why the power play was struggling. Instead of playing down low, Bozak hovers around the high slot looking for deflections, rebounds, and tip ins. You can barely see it on this goal, but in the very first second or so, Bozak takes a shot-pass from Kessel and puts it on net. It’s important because when the Leafs retrieve the puck right after, Pominville covers Bozak instead of getting back into their penalty killing formation. That leaves Phaneuf wide open. (Also, here’s a different goal of Bozak scoring off of roving in the slot this year).

The third thing is Phaneuf playing on his one-timer side and simply cranking shots when he has the opportunity. At the beginning of the season, the Leafs were trying to run the power play through Phaneuf at the top of the blue line. They have a new coach who wants to experiment, fine. Now, they’ve caught on that Phaneuf’s at his best when he’s lining up for one timers and either letting them rip or being used as a decoy. Kessel fed that identical pass to a streaking Mike Kostka I don’t know how many times to start the year. Put it this way, he’d have a few more points if Phaneuf was there the whole season.

So, the goal itself consists of Kessel feeding it to Bozak in the high slot who tips one on net. The Leafs do well to retrieve the puck (the most underrated part), it goes back to Franson who walks the line and opens up lanes for both Kessel and Phaneuf, and once he slides it to Kessel, Pominville is too busy worrying about Bozak in the slot that he leaves Phaneuf wide open and he easily blasts one home. All the while JVR took up his usual residency in front of the net.

One Goal Against: A bad back-checking decision by Kulemin leads to a Sens goal.

Kulemin is a horse defensively, make no mistake there. He’s big, strong, wins battles along the boards, gets the puck out well even though he’s plays on his off-wing, and consistently plays against the other teams best players.

On this play he got caught being too aggressive. Everyone made this goal out to be Gunnarsson’s fault, but he was really left out to dry here.

When Ottawa breaks out, Gunnarsson is in good position with a relatively mild gap against Erik Condra, who is skating along the boards. If you pause the video at the 3 second mark, Gunnarsson is looking at only Condra and squaring up his body to him as he should. Gunnarsson is the left D-man and there is a winger skating down his side who has the puck, so that should be his main concern.

At that same mark, Kulemin is back checking commendably, and is actually closer to his own net than Mika Zibanejad. Instead of simply taking him (which would have left Greening for Kostka), Kulemin skates over to make a hit. It’s puzzling why he did because Gunnarsson clearly had him taken, and Kulemin never really goes out of his way to make a hit (maybe something behind the play happened between the two that I missed?).

Anyways, when Kulemin skates over, that leaves both him and Gunnarsson there to take one guy, and Condra easily slides it over to Zibanejad. The Sens forward sees how this discombobulates the Leafs defense and skates right down the middle of the ice with the puck. Since Gunnarsson was attending Condra, that leaves some space down the middle and because of that, it forces Kostka to take a step over to prevent a breakaway. As soon as he does that, Mika Z flips the puck over easily to Greening which of course means Kostka has to go back to attending to him and is now a step late.

It also means Zibanejad, who is a bulky 6’1 200, has a full head of steam and body position on Gunnarsson skating right down the middle. There’s just no way Gunnarsson has a chance at recovering on him for that kind of play. If Zibanejad tried to control the puck and make a play, it’s possible and maybe even probable Gunnarsson can swat it away, but on a deflection like that, he has no chance of being able to recover and have the strength necessary to lift his stick.

Kulemin does A LOT of things right. Certainly more good than he does bad. But on this play, he got caught.
***

Notes

- A lot has been made of Mikhail Grabovski being the Leafs checking center. My take is this: the other Leafs centers are Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Jay McClement and Dave Steckel. The only other option there to be a pure checking center is McClement. You can make a case that he should be the checking center instead, but with the roster dynamic seeing Bozak and Kadri as the other two top 9 C’s, it just doesn’t make sense to put McClement in that role religiously. Plus, would you rather play McClement against the speedy elite C’s in the East such as Giroux, Crosby, and Stamkos, or Grabovski? It is one thing for McClement to play against big high-end centers such as Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf, but it’s another for him to play against fast elite players. Grabovski also represents some offensive push back and can put other top lines on their heels.

- The issue is that many expect Grabovski to score consistently as well. Frankly, that’s the job of a truly elite and dynamic center. A guy like Datsyuk, or Jordan Staal, or Patrice Bergeron comes to mind. Even solid two-way elite centers have other checkers do the heavy lifting work defensively. Giroux has Talbot/Couturier. Toews has Bolland. Crosby has Sutter. Meanwhile, Grabovski is a lone-wolf. Maybe if the Leafs ever get completely healthy, MacArthur moves back up on a line with Grabovski and Komarov plays with McClement on a fourth line that gives Grabovski’s unit some occasional relief, but for now Grabovski is being assigned all the tough tasks, and is hanging in there reasonably well.

- A few minutes before Grabovski lost a faceoff to Mika Zibanejad leading to the game winner for Ottawa, he was faced with the exact same situation and won the draw.  Grabovski is winning 50.8% of his draws this year, while Mika Z has been winning 41.7%. Even though Bozak is a better faceoff guy overall, it should be noted the draw was in the left circle – meaning Grabovski could pull it on his backhand, traditionally the strongest move a faceoff man can make – and Grabovski takes the majority of D-zone draws and usually against players that are substantially better than the Ottawa rookie who has 6 points in 14 games. So with all of that in mind, at that time I’d have taken my chances that Grabovski could have done anything but lose that draw so cleanly. Of course, he did. Also, of course: hindsight is 20-20. One thing actually worth questioning though is why he went for the straight up win, instead of just simply tying up the center, considering the situation.

- I know Carlyle took the blame for not taking a timeout there, but I truly believe he was just trying to take the heat off of his team a little bit. As stated above, I’d have been pretty confident putting Grabovski out for that draw, too.

- As for Scrivens mishandling the shot on that goal: the Leafs solid start kind of gives fans unrealistic expectations and makes them believe the team has “arrived.” At the end of the day, this is a goalie experiencing his first full season of NHL hockey. He’s going to make mistakes. The important thing is learning from it and moving on. If Grabovski and Scrivens are out there in the exact situation 10 times moving forward, I’d be pretty surprised if they were scored on again. Despite a .928sv% and 2.18GAA, Scrivens is 6-5. I don’t think he’s been a problem.

- There has been a decent amount of debate as to who the Leafs best D-man is. There is only one D-man on the team who has played against the other team’s best players consistently though, and that’s Dion Phaneuf. He’s second on the team in points by a D-man, and leads the entire team in ice time per game and plays in every situation. Until the Leafs have a player who can do a better job of playing against the other team’s top guys, and put up points, Phaneuf is the best D-man on the team. Some might not like hearing that, but that’s the truth. I have no idea how someone could say, for example, that Mark Fraser is better than Phaneuf when Fraser doesn’t play PP at all, and during 5 on 5 plays against Zack Smith while Phaneuf is going up against Kyle Turris and Daniel Alfredsson.

- MacArthur saved a goal against Ottawa in Toronto when he followed Eric Gryba all the way to the backdoor and lifted his stick at the last possible second. The Leafs have been burned by D-men pinching this year, so it was an especially nice play to see. Things like these usually get lost over the course of a full game, but if MacArthur doesn’t tie him up it would have been a 1-1 game with 12 minutes to go in the first period. As it turns out, Ottawa didn’t even score at all that game.

- Another thing that got lost in translation: how great Scrivens played in the first period against Florida. The Panthers had more than a few quality scoring chances, and he shut the door down. The Leafs could have easily been down a few goals to start that game, instead, it looks like a relatively easy 3-0 win at the end of the day. He kept the Leafs in there against Philly to start last night, too. The Flyers came out with some spunk last night after the Leafs handed it to them a few weeks ago.

- Kostka had a ton of opportunities in the slot over the last week. Against Florida, he was the trailer on a 3 on 2 and was able to walk right in and shoot. Also in that game, he had a clear lane from the blue line in during some zone offense. In Ottawa, MacArthur beat a Sens forward and hit Kostka in the slot who instead of trying to hit Kadri with a backdoor pass, and Kostka elected to shoot and missed the net. In fact, pretty well every game he’s had a quality scoring opportunity in a prime scoring area. It’s puzzling that he hasn’t scored yet because his best asset in the minors was his absolute bomb of a shot. Maybe he needs one to get him going, but for those who watched him in the AHL, they know how hard his shot is, and we really haven’t seen it yet.

- Not disagreeing with the decision to scratch JM Liles, but I am saying it’s pretty strange to healthy scratch a guy a game after you have him on the ice in the last minute of a game trying to protect a two-goal lead. In fact, in the five games before becoming a healthy scratch, he was averaging a little over 20 minutes per game.  Just strange.

- “Depends where the shots come from.  We worry about the quality of scoring chances and if we can keep the opposition to 10 or under then that’s our goal” – Randy Carlyle.

- Interesting quote from the coach that sheds some light on the Leafs defensive strategy. A lot of people have noted how the Leafs have given up a lot of shots, but mainly to the outside, and it’s obvious that that is what the Leafs are trying to do. There has been a lot written on the distance in which teams are shooting against on the Leafs, and shot quality, and all I’ll say is this: The Leafs aren’t breaking down as a five man unit defensively under Carlyle nearly as much as they were under Wilson.

- By average ice-time, the Leafs top 4 last year was Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, and Liles. The first two were a solid pair, but the second two aren’t exactly known for their defense. The next three D-men were Komisarek, Franson and Schenn. Schenn had a bad year and Komisarek is bad, while Franson was never really put into a position to succeed and his play suffered because of that.

- Compare that to this year: The Leafs have already played 9 D-men looking for the right combination, but their top 4 basically reads to be Phaneuf, Holzer, Gunnarsson and Kostka at this point. Franson and Fraser round out the unit. There’s more of a focus on defense, clearing the net and physicality compared to last year’s group which was built around puck movement and speed. So the philosophy alone gives them a different look and feel, to say the least.

- Then you add that to the fact that the Leafs imported McClement, Komarov and JVR upfront, who are all solid forwards defensively, and there is just natural improvement in that alone. Carlyle has slowed the game down for the Leafs and has forced the team to dump the puck in more, and not play so offensively.

- One little example is last year with Lupul and Kessel together, as soon as the puck came to Lupul in his own zone, Kessel would release from the zone, and Lupul would try to hit him with a stretch pass and create instant offense. JVR, on the other hand, can often be seen getting the puck on the half wall, and actually cycling it back to the D-man… again, looking for a cleaner, safer, breakout.

- Basically, there is a contingent of fans looking for the Leafs to improve statistically in the underlying numbers when really the team itself is focusing on a culture and identity change, with a coach who didn’t get a real training camp to work with the team.

- The team has obviously been aided by strong goaltending so far this year, but they also are no longer a fun team to play against. Last year’s team was a one-trick pony that tried to outscore all their problems. They couldn’t defend, they weren’t physical, and eventually their goaltending showed their true colours. This year’s Leafs team in the early going is much more aggressive, bigger, and has shown flashes of working a reasonable cycle. As an example, last year the Leafs tried to trap Boston, and in time the Bruins broke them and ran them over every time (this is when Carlyle became coach). This year, they played them to a 1-0 battle. Sure, it’s two games worth of example, but it’s a microcosm of the bigger picture.

- Two notes on Kadri. One: Was watching him cycle the puck last night and was paying attention to how well he was shielding the puck and working the boards. When he first got to the NHL he was getting rag-dolled along the boards and wasn’t strong enough to sustain puck control. This is why people talk about young kids needing to bulk up. I think that’s the biggest difference in Kadri’s game from years past. He might not by physically bigger, but his core is stronger. Second: In his last five games he has played 14:58, 16:21, 16:07, 18:09, and 15:59. He is averaging 14:56 on the season. While I have spoke at times about putting Kadri and Kessel together on even strength –something I’d still explore at times- the dynamic of Kadri producing on one line, with Kessel on the other is an exciting thing for the Leafs and both are producing. It gives the Leafs more offensive depth and makes sense to stick with until one or both go really cold. Plus Lupul and Frattin will eventually return and provide those lines even more weapons.

- JVR has taken 18 faceoffs this year and has won 12 (66%) wonder if they give him a few more reps there to see if he can keep it up over the long haul (obviously not that high of a number, but at least a 50% clip). The long-term vision of wanting to play Lupul-JVR-Kessel isn’t the most ludicrous thing ever (although JVR does look really good on the wing, and if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it). Guess time will tell. Lupul-JVR-Kessel was PP1 before Lupul got hurt.

- Will definitely be keeping an eye out to see whether or not Carlyle plays Kessel again while protecting a one goal lead with two minutes left after his giveaway against the Flyers last night when he easily could have skated it out. Might make more sense to put a guy like Komarov out there instead of Kessel in that situation next time, but I guess we’ll see how Carlyle plays it.

***

Quotes

“It’s the nature of the game. Those are the breaks. It seems like they’re cyclical at times so you’ve just got to take what you can from it, continue on with the positives and if you can learn something from the negatives do that put it behind you and practice tomorrow.”
- Ben Scrivens after his game against Tampa Bay, not Ottawa.

In back-to-back sets of games, Scrivens has played poorly, and then responded strongly. You have to give the guy this: he has a short memory, and you need that in this market.

“I think if he continues to skate and move his feet the way he did tonight, I don’t think he shouldn’t continue to score if he’s going to stay around the net and go into those tough areas. He’s going to continue to play with our top-six grouping of forwards and he’s going to maintain power-play time, all of those things should indicate he can continue to make contributions. It’s all up to him.”
- Randy Carlyle on JVR after his two goal game against Buffalo.

Not reading anything into that quote, but Carlyle’s wording kind of makes it sound as if JVR still sort of needs to prove himself, despite his play since being promoted.

 

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1. So Carl Gunnarsson admitted he’s basically playing hurt the rest of this season. I think if that’s the case, and the Leafs know the severity of the injury much better than I do obviously, I’d try giving him nights off on occasion to keep him fresh for the long-haul. Clearly, that’s tough to do with the Leafs in the thick of things currently, but they will need Gunnarsson down the stretch and there will be some games that make it easy to swallow sitting him if it helps him in the long run. The last thing they need is running him ragged now, only for him not to be able to finish off the year. There was a play against the Flyers last night in which he was taken wide by a streaking Voracek and he pivoted to keep up with him, but when Voracek spun back Gunnarsson spun the opposite way almost as if he was hindered in turning the proper way. Maybe I read it wrong, but seems to me he’s labouring at times (rightfully so) and some rest once and awhile will probably serve him well.

2. I think if Mike Brown is the latest Leafs forward to be injured, I recall Ryan Hamilton again. Colborne would be my choice for a top 9-role, but I don’t see any point whatsoever in calling up a skilled player to play on the fourth line with McLaren and Steckel. Hamilton has size, has shown he can provide energy, and he can go to the net plus help that line in their end. I would also consider Carter Ashton or Will Acton for that slot.

3. I think I’d toy with the idea of a forward playing the point on the power play for PP2 once everybody gets healthy. Franson and Phaneuf have gotten into a groove together, but Gunnarsson and Kostka leave something to be desired on the second unit. Frattin has played the point before in college and the AHL and would probably be my first choice. The Leafs have an abundance of talented forwards and very few offensive D-men, so I see the merit there. Again, not saying I jump head-first into that idea, but I’d definitely toy with it for a bit.

4. I know it’s still early in the season and the team is still trying to figure things out, plus injuries have happened, but if you’re management you have to sit there and say to yourself, “we’ve dressed 16 forwards and 9 D-men already this year, who is in, and who is out long-term?” What’s the big picture here? Who do you keep moving forward, and who is deemed expendable enough to exchange or maybe even package for another asset? That’s where my thinking is right now if I’m in charge (as opposed to is this sustainable, can we make the playoffs, etc. Etc.)

5. More of a note for the league here, but I think I’d strongly consider shortening every season. Maybe not as low as 48, but probably not as high as 82 games. It’s much more fun to watch hockey as a fan when literally every single game seems to matter and every win is that much more gratifying.

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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