Leafs Notebook – March 5

Leafs Notebook – March 5

Photo: USA Today Sports

Since we are almost at the halfway point, I thought now would be a good time to write some notes on each individual player thus far. Here is the close-but-not-quite-halfway Leafs Notebook:

Goaltenders

James Reimer – He’s played very well and has certainly quieted some doubters, but if you look at his career he has always played well when healthy. The problem for Reimer has been staying healthy, and he got hurt again this season. More than anything, he’s going to have to prove he can stay healthy. On the positive side, he has not appeared to be as susceptible to getting beat high glove, and he’s back challenging shooters at the top of the crease again. If there’s one area he could improve in, it’s puck handling. It has gotten to the point where he’s begun coming out of the net less to even try stopping the puck on dump-ins because it hasn’t been going well when he has. Goalies who can play the puck make the defenses’ lives so much easier by initiating quick breakouts.

Ben Scrivens – Most importantly with Scrivens, you have to acknowledge that when Reimer went down with an injury he stepped in and carried the load more than admirably. With the way Scrivens has played, coupled with Reimer’s play, it definitely brings up the possibility of sticking with both not only for this season, but maybe even going into next year as well. The two caveats being that it’s still early, and eventually Leafs management will have to pick one to be “the guy.” Both Scrivens and Reimer are under contract for next season, and it wouldn’t make much sense to trade either at this point unless the Leafs are getting offered something that they can’t turn down, and what are the chances that happens? But that’s a conversation for another time.

Defense

Dion Phaneuf – He has had to deal with a lot of change so far this season. On top of switching from the right side to the left side, Phaneuf broke in a new partner in Mike Kostka, and then another in Korbinian Holzer. Both of those guys were AHL mainstays until this season. Phaneuf has logged a lot of minutes, and he’s always against the other team’s best, but he can be better than what he has shown. Last season, Phaneuf got off to a great start and then tailed off in the second half of the season as the team did the same. I’ll be curious to see if he follows a similar pattern this season after only a so-so first half, or if he gets better as the games get tighter this time around.

Carl Gunnarsson – The main question with Gunnarsson right now is this: how hurt is he? Gunnarsson is actually playing roughly as much as he did last season as he averaged 21:42 per game last season and is down only slightly to 21:12 per game this season. The difference is he was tasked with playing the other team’s best line alongside Phaneuf last season, whereas this season he is anchoring the Leafs second pair against the second top six line. He’s been solid as per usual, and he’s playing hurt. Some will say if the guy is hurt, he shouldn’t play. I’m just going to say I don’t harp on guys who are toughing it out for the team.

Cody Franson – Last year in this space I held steady in my belief that Franson was the most talented defender on the Leafs, surpassing even Phaneuf and Gardiner. I’m glad that’s finally starting to show. Franson is tied for sixth in points by a D-man and fifth in assists. He’s third among Leafs D-men in PPTOI, but he will eventually surpass second place Mike Kostka since he is now firmly entrenched on the top power play unit. Last week he got burned by Kyle Okposo one-on-one which led to an easy tap-in for Josh Bailey; on the kind of play it makes you hesitate to declare him a future top 4 D-man. He’s big and has shown a willingness to take the body this year, but the skating isn’t there and he can be beat wide as Okposo showed. At the very least, if he’s going to play in the top 4 regularly, Mark Fraser isn’t the partner to do that with. Carl Gunnarsson presents probably the only plausible partner for him in that role, so the defense dynamic would have to change quite a bit to facilitate that.

Mark Fraser – Having watched Fraser closely with the Marlies in the AHL playoffs last year, I wasn’t sure he would be able to stick in the NHL for two reasons: puck skills and skating. To his credit, he has improved both. His skating is most notable when it comes to pinching where he has been able step in and dip as low as the hash marks in order to win races and keep the puck in play. It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing because it extends plays in the offensive zone and keeps the puck out of the Leafs end. The second is that he isn’t a liability with the puck on his stick. Nobody is confusing him for a guy who will go around opposing forwards and rush the puck up ice, but he keeps his game simple and looks for the easy outlet all the time. He also leans heavily on giving the puck to Franson and having the skilled guy make the outlet pass instead. It’s not a bad strategy. I think the Leafs would love to have a Mark Fraser equivalent up at forward. For now, they really like what he brings and he’s quickly becoming a guy who could be a regular on the Leafs in some capacity for years to come.

Korbinian Holzer – Holzer is already second among Leafs defensemen in short handed ice time. If you’re looking for a reason as to why he’s been sticking around with the big club, it’s because they like him on the penalty kill a lot. In Holzer’s 15 games, he’s played more than 20 minutes four times (only once since February 11th, on the Saturday game in Ottawa). Even with reduced minutes, the fact that Holzer is playing with Phaneuf means a pretty tough workload, plus his ample penalty killing time. In other words, even though he is a rookie, he is being played as a top end defensive defenseman which is something he isn’t (at least not right now). Because of this, everyone needs to be patient with this kid as he’s going to make mistakes when he’s breaking into the league and being put into that role. With Gardiner and Rielly most likely on the team next season, it makes sense to want to have a sturdy defensive guy to partner at least one of them with, and Holzer as a righty can be that guy.

Mike Kostka – The surprise guy in camp has slowly begun to regress as the season has gone on. In his first 10 games with the Leafs, Kostka’s lowest ice time was 22:59 (and that was the first game of the season). In the 13 games to follow, he has played under the 20 minute mark six times. He was also on the first power play unit but he has been passed by Cody Franson and is seeing spot duty on the second unit. The positives about Kostka are that he’s poised with the puck and makes a solid outlet pass, but his skating isn’t the greatest (leading to an inability to join the rush), and his decision making can be slow. Numerous times he has hesitated to make outlet passes leading to open men to eventually get covered. He hasn’t been terrible, despite some calls for his head, and in fact has played pretty well overall but if they’re looking to add in Jake Gardiner he might be the odd man out.

John Michael Liles – The recent healthy scratch really hasn’t been put into a position to succeed this season. Liles started the year on the second power play unit despite QBing one of the league’s best PP’s last season. The noted point producer from the backend was playing a two-way role, and I still don’t think anyone is sure why. In 15 games he averaged a little over 20 minutes a night, and put up 6 points which isn’t all around awful. The issue with Liles is that he’s expendable due to their youth, and he’s also good for a nice giveaway up the middle or two a game. He’s in a tough spot right now and it will be interesting to see if the Leafs keep him, trade him, or buy him out moving forward.

Forwards

Phil Kessel – Phil is always up for debate with Leafs fans, so I figured I’d write about him first. At this point I have accepted Kessel for what he is, a very good scorer who isn’t physical, or great defensively, but he will back-check reasonably well (against the Habs last week he chased back the second trailer, traditionally a player forwards don’t bother to stick with, on one particularly nice piece of hustle) and put in an effort. Kessel does avoid the corners, his game against the Flyers is probably the best example, but I don’t think he’d stay as healthy as he does if he did battle in the corners. Since his game isn’t really predicated on grinding it out, I think he gets a general pass there. That said, there are times where, if you’re the first guy in a corner, you should be going in and getting the puck to make a play, and he shies away from that. My stance on Kessel has for the last two years has been that he’s a great player and easily the Leafs best player, but the day that he is their second best player is when they will be true Cup contenders.

James van Riemsdyk – Considering JVR’s play on the top line, in which he has made that unit a little better defensively plus is scoring, added a net presence on the power play, and his play on the penalty kill, he’s making a case to be the Leafs best all-around player at the moment. Taking into account how good Lupul was in front of the net last season, the idea of having both of them in front of the net on the power play at the same time is a tantalizing prospect for when Lupul gets healthy. The Flyers have done this and gotten success by putting Simmonds and Hartnell in front at the same time.

Tyler Bozak – He’s definitely bulked up and gotten stronger, as you can clearly see he looks bigger out there and is able to fend off checkers and grind on the wall better than he ever has before. This also helps to explain his boost in the faceoff dot as he’s now physically able to win draws (Bozak wins a lot of draws, especially on the power play, by tying up the opposing center and having the wingers come in to scoop it up). In the process of getting stronger though, it looks like Bozak has lost a step skating-wise as he doesn’t have the kind of burst and extra gear he entered the league with. He’s sixth on the team in total shorthanded time on ice, and is one of the main cogs on a rapidly improving unit, which has to be recognized. During even strength, though, he force feeds the puck to Kessel (one play last week he had the puck with speed coming out of his zone, and opted to pass it to a standing-still Kessel who had no idea what to do with it) and it makes you wonder if he’d get some of his creativity back by not playing with Kessel. The pending UFA does have some value to the Leafs as a faceoff whiz and penalty killer, but will that be enough to get him resigned? We’ll see what direction they go with for Kadri first.

Mikhail Grabovski – Obviously he’s been charged with the toughest task on the team in having to go against the other team’s best players every single night. Some see it as a waste of the team’s highest paid forward, but on the flip side, why not give your highest paid player the most responsibility? It would be nice to give Grabovski some relief once and awhile, but injuries have caused the lines to be juggled and that hasn’t helped. Just getting MacArthur’s scoring touch back on his wing will make Grabovski a better player because McClement, Kulemin and Komarov are all pure grinders at this point and that hasn’t helped Mikhail create offense and put up points. Considering what his role is though, he’s hung in tough and done it relatively well.

Nikolai Kulemin – There isn’t a player on this team who has a harder, more under-appreciated role. At least Grabovski gets power play time (1:47/game) and no penalty killing time (18 recorded seconds of SHTOI), whereas Kulemin also plays against the other team’s best lines every night and then he adds another 2:15/game shorthanded (with :48/game on the power play, which only really happened because of the injuries otherwise he’s not touching that unit). The norm seems to be looking at Kulemin for goals, but in reality he’s turning into one of the best checking wingers in the league. Considering the Leafs aren’t short on wingers who can score, that’s a valuable asset to this team.

Clarke MacArthur – MacArthur was pretty quiet to start the season, but as injuries have mounted he has stepped up his game. The pending UFA who wears an ‘A’ has nine points in his last eight games, and has been clicking with Kadri on a productive third line. At this point we pretty much know what MacArthur is – he’s a streaky winger who will disappear completely at times but also get hot and carry the offense at others. He’ll get his jersey dirty and he’s able to break out of his zone cleanly. The only questions here are whether the Leafs want to resign him, for how much, and if not, what are they going to trade him for? I think he can get $4M+ if that’s what David Jones, PA Parenteau, and Ville Leino are making, but if he only wants $3M/year I think resigning him is a no-brainer.

Nazem Kadri – Kadri-mania is in full force right now. Even with that, it’s kind of under the radar that he’s second on the team in goals. His 18% shooting percentage is a little high, but the noted playmaker is showing he can do more than pass. Since watching him a lot with the Marlies, and even London, I’ve always thought he was at his best when he was looking to score himself, and then either taking the shot or dishing it once defenders over commit to him in order to get the puck to open wingers. There are two things I’ve been most impressed with about Kadri so far this season. The first is how much stronger his core is; he no longer gets dominated physically in the corners by defenders and he can actually hold onto the puck. The second is his cut-in move off the rush in which he streaks down on his off wing with the puck on his forehand and gives a little shoulder shake followed by flicking the puck to the middle of the ice and cutting in to get a shot off. I’ve said this before, but the move is practically unstoppable. If the defender cheats to cut it off, Kadri will pull it back through the guy and beat him on the outside easily; if the defender doesn’t cheat, Kadri will manufacture himself the space to cut in and get a good shot off. I keep waiting for him to slow down, but he hasn’t, and if anything he’s gotten better as the season has gone on.

Leo Komarov - He’s come as advertised, technically, but I think he has exceeded expectations. Komarov hits everything that moves, literally, and has been driving team nuts already. The really interesting thing with Komarov is that he’s only played most teams once and he has still found ways to get under the skin of the opposition, so imagine the second, third, fourth and fifth time he’s playing against a team. Or even better – a playoff series. Komarov has also proven to be adept at breaking out of his zone, as he loves to pick the puck off the wall and curl toward the middle of the ice looking for his center to be streaking through. Considering he’s already 26, there was some immediate pressure on him to prove he belongs in the NHL, or else he might not ever have gotten another opportunity. He’s definitely proven he has belonged, but considering he’s played with the likes of Kadri or Grabovski all year and still only has 5 points in 23 games, he might be best suited for the kind of fourth line role McClement finds himself in right now, where he’s a fourth line staple who moves up the lineup whenever necessary. Komarov isn’t a big-bodied fourth/third liner, but he’s the kind of guy every team loves to have.

Matt Frattin – Frattin is another older player breaking into the league (and by old I mean he’s 25, so not actually old but by NHL standards he is) who had to start proving himself almost immediately. Last season he flashed his potential, but wasn’t quite able to bury as often as everybody would have liked. His biggest issue last season was taking too long to wind up and get his shot off. Frattin went down to the Marlies and lit up the AHL playoffs, and really hasn’t looked back since. I don’t think anyone believes he’s the point per game player he was in his first 10 games with the Leafs this year, but he is a strong guy who can get physical and score, and the Leafs really lack players who can do both of those things. The important thing with Frattin so far this season is that he’s finally showing he can produce at the NHL level, and that everything is starting to click for him. There’s been a lot of debate on what his ceiling is, but to me the important things are that he’s a good player who can be trusted in any situation and has shown he scores big goals. There’s a spot for him in the top 9 anytime, and that’s all that really matters.

Jay McClement – McClement is going to go down as one of Burke’s best signings with the Leafs. Really, only Clarke MacArthur was better. McClement has made the penalty kill better because he’s smart at identifying when to aggressively challenge puck holders, and when to pressure them into certain passes. At 6’1 and a little over 200 pounds, he’s a strong guy who wins his battle along the boards and gets the puck out, which is huge. (We haven’t really talked about this, but remember last year all the pucks the Leafs failed to clear on the PK that led to PP goals? It was the story for awhile). The nice thing about McClement if you’re the coach is that he comes in everyday and works. He’s the kind that walks into the arena, puts his hard hat on and goes to work. It’s a stark change compared to past Leafs fourth liners such as John Mitchell, Joey Crabb and Frederick Sjostrom. While those guys would show flashes of fitting their roles perfectly, you never knew what you were going to get from them night-in and night-out. McClement is steady, reliable, and can play up and down the lineup.

Colton Orr – Eventually the Leafs are going to have to pick one of Colton Orr or Fraser McLaren to play because the team is getting healthy and the roster bump alone will force at least one out. I think Orr sticks. Every summer you read stories about how guys have improved something about their game (See Mike Komisarek, every year), so it makes it tough to believe until you actually see it. So, I’ll give Orr credit, he has improved his skating by A LOT. Last season he laboured around the ice and it was difficult for him to even get near the puck, let alone finish a check. This season he has been able to get in on the fore check, cause the odd turnover, finish his hits, and even get to the net. The interesting thing is that fans look at Orr and simply see a goon, but I don’t think he’s been ‘gooning’ around the ice all season. He’s actually just tried to play the game, and if the ebb and flow of the game calls for a fight, he has delivered when necessary. That doesn’t make McLaren-Steckel-Orr a good line, but when he’s played with McClement he’s been effective for what he is.

Frazer McLaren – With Colton Orr about to be a free agent, it looks like McLaren has been brought in to fill his shoes for the future. At 6’5, 250 and only 25 years old, he’s a big guy who has a lot of hockey left in him. The Leafs are going to dress an enforcer under this regime, and I think they could do worse than McLaren in the long-term. He has a decent stride for his size/role, and at times has been able to cycle the puck down low and keep it there. Like Colton, he’s not going to give you much more than a few physical shifts a game and maybe a fight, but for his role he’s okay at what he does.

Dave Steckel – Steckel’s best attribute is his ability to win faceoffs, but he has only won 46.3% of his draws this season. I think that kind of sums up how the first half of the season has gone for the veteran who has been healthy scratched more often than not thus far. He was never the most fleet of the foot, but his skating also looks slower this year, as he’s struggled to keep up with the pace of games and get into passing lanes on the penalty kill. It all really starts with faceoffs, though. If Steckel isn’t playing with line mates who are going to make him better, and if he isn’t starting with the puck, he’s not one but two eight-balls. If anyone is interested in the pending UFA, he’ll be gone a month from now.

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – As nice of a combination MacArthur-Kadri has been, I think I’d try getting MacArthur with Grabovski once Frattin returns and shows he’s able to produce again. The main reason would be to give Grabovski a winger who can actually create offense and finish. Kulemin and McClement are great foot soldiers, but they don’t help Grabovski manufacture any sort of offensive opportunities. I understand what Grabovski’s role is, but this guy has been an offensive player all of his life, and now he’s being told to do a complete 180. It’s tough to keep those guys motivated and enjoying the game if you don’t help them out and Grabovski deserves a little help to put up some numbers.

2 – The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to bump Kadri up to the top line once everybody is healthy, and then create a solid scoring line around Bozak, Frattin and one of Lupul/JVR. I get having Kessel anchor one line right now, and Kadri the other, but once everybody is healthy they have the depth to be able to put their two best offensive players together and not lose out elsewhere.

3 – When Nonis traded Brown, he mentioned that they would also like to get a look at some Marlies players. I think this is who I want to see in order of who I’d call up first: Colborne, Ashton, D’Amigo, Acton.

4 – I think for now if I’m waiting to get a decent deal for one of my excess defensemen before calling up Gardiner. I stay patient, but I better know that it’s going to be worth it. If Gardiner is staying down right now because the Leafs are waiting for a deal to come together, that’s fine to me. That makes sense. It doesn’t make sense if he’s down in the AHL because they are happy with the current group. He could help this defense right now.

5 – I think I’d still recognize that this is one of the youngest teams in the league and they are still developing. It’s been a promising start, sure, but there will be bumps in the road with a young group and everyone will need to stay patient.

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