Leafs Notebook – March 11

Leafs Notebook – March 11

987

Among certain members of the mainstream media covering the Leafs, there seems to be this idea that won’t go away where Tyler Bozak will name Mikhail Grabovski’s $5.5 million as his starting point if he is going to negotiate a new contract with Dave Nonis.

You don’t need me to tell you it doesn’t make any sense.

Bozak is turning 27 this month, which means he is two years younger than Grabovski. In his four seasons in the NHL, this being his fourth, Bozak has centered the Leafs most talented player, Phil Kessel, for pretty much the entire time.

The fourth season in a player’s career is usually his breakout one, (Also see this, and this). Bozak has started off the year with 14 points in his first 26 games while centering the Leafs’ second and third leading scorers. In other words, Bozak is roughly on a 44 point pace over an 82 game season after putting up a career high 47 last year. He’s also doing this while playing the third most minutes on the power play on the entire team.

That isn’t being said to make him sound like a bad player, but it is being pointed out to show that, at this point in time, it’s fair to say we know what Tyler Bozak is. He’s not a true first line center, obviously, but he is a guy who can chip in 40+ points, win faceoffs and help on the penalty kill. To some, that will peg him to be a second line center, to others it reads more as a third line center.

He’s probably somewhere in between a second and third line center depending on the team, but on a perennially Cup contending team he’s a very good third line center who can easily move up and down the line up.

Let’s compare that to Grabovski.

In his last two seasons he has put up 51 and 58 points. Obviously both those totals are better than anything Bozak has done, and he’s done this playing with players who aren’t as talented offensively as Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and JVR (Bozak’s main line mates this season and last season). Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin are good players in their own right, but they aren’t as offensively proficient or talented as the three guys Bozak has centred in the last year and a half.

Grabovski has also scored over 20 goals in each of his last two years, and overall has had three 20+ goal seasons in his four career seasons. The one year he didn’t, he played only 59 games. Meanwhile, Bozak has yet to crack the 20 goal barrier.

Just those very basic points of context, one could easily deduce Bozak can’t ask for nearly as much as Grabovski. But there’s more.

In the last few seasons, Grabovski has begun to be used against the opposition’s best players. Last year, he was used as more of a two-way center, with Dave Steckel providing some relief and Wilson even giving the Kessel line some opportunities to go head-to-head with the other team’s best, but this year Carlyle has used him exclusively as a match-up heavy checking center.

To put it into perspective and give you an example, if the Leafs are playing a healthy Senators team, Grabovski would play every shift against Jason Spezza, whereas Bozak would saddle up against a combination of Zack Smith and Kyle Turris. And Grabovski does this with line mates who are solid defensively but leave something to be desired offensively, while Bozak plays with the Leafs’ most talented wingers against checking lines and/or second lines.

Yet Grabovski still scores more and puts up more points, plus he’s better defensively. So he’s better offensively and defensively, which are at the end of the day the two main areas of hockey. Really, the one thing you can give Bozak is face offs, but it’s not as if Grabovski is a bad guy in the dot himself (50.4% compared to 54.4%). Grabovski takes the majority of critical defensive face offs and, again, is usually against the opposition’s elite, so I’d argue he’s just as good in the dot as Bozak but is generally facing better face off men in tougher draw situations.

Some will ask why Bozak is on the first line and why Grabovski is where he is, then. Bozak does, after all, average 20:15 minutes per game compared to Grabovski’s 16:54. It is a fair question. Considering the other Leafs’ centers are Kadri, McClement and Steckel, it’s reasonable to believe that Carlyle simply doesn’t trust anyone else in the checking role.

McClement can do it to a degree, but to think he is better than Grabovski at playing against speedy elite East centers such as Giroux, Stamkos, and the like is a bit of a stretch. So more than anything, Grabovski is a victim of circumstance, but is battling admirably despite his numbers being sacrificed in the process.

For the sake of repeating it, let’s be clear that Bozak isn’t a bad player. But he’s not as good as Grabovski. Should the Leafs so choose to negotiate a new deal with the UFA to be and he starts the negotiation process by asking for ‘Grabovski money’ right away, the only thing to debate is whether Nonis should laugh first before leaving the negotiation.

***

Play Breakdowns of the Week

One Goal For: The Leafs do a lot of things right, and Kessel ties the game.

If you skip the live showing of the goal and fast forward to around the 33 second mark, you really get an appreciation of everything that went into this goal.

Reimer makes a solid toe save on Tanner Glass to start things off and then Mike Kostka does a very good job of tieing up his man in front of the net to start to the clean out breakout. If Kostka doesn’t tie up his man, the Leafs aren’t tying the game that play, and maybe not even at all.

From there, Fraser does what he’s been doing well all year: keeping it simple. He sees an open Kessel on the wing and makes a nice easy pass. He didn’t try to force the puck up the ice down a goal with five minutes left, nor do anything fancy; just not a nice easy pass up the boards to an open player.

The next part of the play is my personal favourite part of the entire goal. Kessel gets the puck, headmans it up to Kadri, and then hits the hole hard. Bozak gets tunnel-vision when it comes to giving the puck to Kessel, whereas Kadri is more creative and is more than happy to take the shot himself. With that, I think Kadri is better suited to help Kessel offensively because he’ll hang onto the puck himself and wait for Kessel to create space for himself, and then dish him the puck. Kessel makes things happen when the puck is on his stick, but it would also be nice for him to be able to roam around the zone waiting for guys to set him up. Kadri can be that guy.

Anyways, Kadri slows down the play to give Kessel time to catch up, and although he doesn’t connect with Kessel, he has the right idea down a goal with five minutes left. And Kessel is so good and fast that he draws in both the defender and back checker. Because of that, even though the pass doesn’t connect, it left enough time and space for MacArthur to gather the loose puck and make a play.

When Fraser gets the puck, he makes another basic play. He simply controls the puck, puts his head up, identifies the Penguins forward Brandon Sutter going down to block it, and makes sure that he gets it over him. How many times have we seen player’s shots blocked by the forward closest to them? We only ever hear about it when they get blocked, but Fraser did well to get it past him.

Even though the puck didn’t completely get through to the net, it was a hard and low enough shot that kept the puck in play for Kessel to swoop into the slot, go backhand-to-forehand, and bury it beautifully. Kessel made that play look easy, but it’s not the easiest of things to control a bouncing puck on bad ice with less than five minutes, switch the puck from your weak side to your strong side all in one motion, and snap it up and over the goalie to tie the game. That’s why Kessel is a great player.

One Goal Against: The Leafs have a colossal breakdown giving Boston the lead.

Like the first video, the best way to appreciate this goal is to fast forward to the overhead replay at the 25 second mark or so.

Holzer has the puck with a little bit of time, but not a lot considering there is somebody checking him. He has three options, and picks the worst one. The first option is taking the puck back behind his net, calming everything down, and setting it up. The second option is passing the puck back to Kessel, who was serving as a D-man and giving him an outlet. The third option was throw it up the boards.

The worst part about this goal is that Holzer is getting checked by Chris Kelly, who is at the end of his shift. Watch Kelly; even with the Bruins creating a turnover on the play, he just skated straight off even though he was right there and easily could have gotten the puck. He was gassed. If Holzer takes that puck behind his net, Kelly isn’t going to chase him; he’s going to get off.

The second mistake is that Bozak doesn’t circle deep enough. Even if the puck got through to him, he was basically right beside Chara. What, is he going to beat Chara? Yes, that’s Kessel’s wing, but when play’s breakdown players should easily be able to slot into each other’s roles, especially for neutral zone breakouts. Bozak didn’t comeback far enough.

Then, Holzer tries to correct his mistake by going for a hit, Bozak watches the play, JVR drifts to the center of ice, and when Kessel realizes this he circles wide to cover JVR’s wing. A comical collection of missteps. Hey, breakdowns and mistakes happen, but there were a lot of them on this goal.

Phaneuf gets caught in no-man’s land, and he’s basically screwed no matter what he does. He tries keeping an eye on Bergeron and his side of the ice while Holzer and Marchand are battling, but once Seguin breaks through with speed, that really leaves Phaneuf out to dry.
At that point, JVR tries to get back to even up things but he’s at the end of his shift and noticeably gassed. He looks frustrated that he didn’t get back on Bergeron with the back check, but really that’s just the tip of the ice berg.

It was a series of breakdowns that easily could have been avoided, and it’s something a good team like the Bruins will make you pay for almost every time.

***

Notes

- It has gone under the radar, but Dion Phaneuf is second in the entire NHL in total ice time, totalling 678:53 so far. He’s seventh overall in average ice time per game. And he’s doing this playing against the opposition’s best while pairing with Holzer and Kostka so far this season. Phaneuf has made mistakes, like every D-man in the league, but he is being asked to do a lot and is hanging in there so far.

- Will note though: He started the Bruins game with an awful pinch leading to a 2 on 1 that Holzer broke up, and then he had a giveaway in that same period where Holzer bailed him out. Against New Jersey in the first period, Holzer went D-to-D to Phaneuf at the top of the circle, Phaneuf gave it away up the boards, and Holzer blocked the incoming opportunity.
Holzer has made his fair share of mistakes, and was certainly out to lunch on Seguin’s goal in Boston when he drifted to the neutral zone, but every mistake he is making seems to be getting magnified, while nobody is mentioning that Phaneuf is making glaring mistakes, too.
Really, the pairing just doesn’t work because Phaneuf needs a good puck mover by his side to help create clean, quick and crisp breakouts.

- I’ll give you an example of Holzer struggling. Against Ottawa with a little over 12 minutes left in the third, Holzer had an opportunity to stop behind the net and setup the breakout. After a few seconds, Alfredsson went around the net to challenge him one way, and on the other side there was another Senator waiting for him. Holzer panicked and shot the puck up the boards which created a giveaway, and Ottawa sustained some pressure hemming Toronto in the D zone. When you’re an NHL D-man and you get an opportunity to stop behind your own net and setup a breakout, there’s just no excuse for giving it away. Guys like Franson, Phaneuf or even Liles, who have been around the league for a while now, won’t get caught making mistakes when they are behind their net and have time to setup. Even if they don’t breakout cleanly, they are cognizant of the situation and at least flip the puck up and out to center ice.

- Phaneuf-Franson looked good because Franson is a great outlet option for Phaneuf to rely on to handle and move the puck out properly. Not sure the skating is there for Franson to handle the opposition’s best night-in and night-out, but they did look very good together in the third period against Pittsburgh.

- Back to ice time for a second: Kostka is 17th in total ice time so far this year.
He got ripped on early in the year, but he’s quietly settled in beside Gunnarsson on a pretty solid second pairing. It helps that he’s playing beside Gunnarsson, who is a rock, and that he isn’t being asked to be play the opposition’s best every shift, and that his minutes have been scaled back. This week he played 18:42, 21:19, 19:43, and 24:20, during games in which you generally didn’t notice him, which is a good thing. Against New Jersey he blocked a great scoring chance in the slot from Adam Henrique with a little over 5 minutes left, but it was barely mentioned, for example.

- If the Leafs are going to put in Liles this week, the only two D to even consider taking out are Kostka and Holzer. Holzer has been overwhelmed in his top pairing role, and Kostka is clearly the better player at the moment. But Holzer offers the size and a little more defensive potential than Kostka, especially in a reduced role. Holzer is a better penalty killer, and Kostka is an option on the power play, although that won’t matter as much considering Liles would be the guy who draws in.

- Comparing their ice time wise this week against tough teams, Holzer played 20:10, 19:39, 15:04, 14:46. That leads one to believe that Kostka is trusted much more at this point than Holzer.

- It didn’t get much attention but Kostka had a play on the power play where he telegraphed a pass cross ice to Gunnarsson that was easily picked off by Peverley, who was off to the races on a breakaway. Gunnarsson anticipated the pickoff and from behind smacked the puck off Peverley’s stick. That’s the kind of play Gunnarsson makes all the time that goes largely unnoticed by the end of the game, but it is what makes him so good. He just quietly goes about his business constantly making smart defensive plays.

- Gunnarsson has 9 points in 18 games this season, too. How many of us are talking about this guy? Almost nobody does unless they are talking about trading him away. Mind boggling.

- Fans talk about players such as Ryan Clowe, David Clarkson and even Tyler Biggs a lot. I thought the final few minutes of the game against Boston was a good example of why the Leafs want/need that kind of player. After bringing the deficit to one, the Leafs never really were able to generate a scoring chance to even attempt to tie it. Boston predictably clogged up the neutral zone and had their D-men hold up the blue line, forcing Toronto to dump it in. The Leafs just didn’t have the strength and power to create turnovers and hold the puck long enough to create scoring chances.

- Boston’s top three D are the 6’1, 210 Seidenberg, the 6’2, 225 Boychuk, and the 6’7, 255 Chara. The Leafs had three forwards on the ice in the final who are listed at 6’ and under in Kessel, Kadri and Grabovski, plus the 6’3 JVR who is listed at 200 pounds. And those guys are supposed to go through a clogged neutral zone, dump the puck in on those big, strong D-men, create a turnover and score a goal? That’s a very tough task to ask of that group.
Compare that to Ottawa, who gave the Leafs everything they could handle at the end of their game this week. Neil crushed Gunnarsson, big forwards like Mika Zibanejad and Colin Greening created turnovers and got the puck back, and the Leafs really got lucky that Ottawa didn’t tie it.

- One other thing to note: It would help if the Leafs didn’t dump the puck in by ringing it around the boards. There needs to be more of an emphasis on flicking the puck into corners. Fleury in particular was stopping pucks all night that were rung around the boards this week, leading to easy breakouts. It’s just giving the puck away when you do that.

- In the Leafs last eight games against Boston, the scores have been 6-2, 7-0, 6-3, 4-1, 5-4, 8-0, 1-0, and 4-2. Obviously, progress is being made against Boston. But here’s a question: In any of those games could you say, “One of the Leafs best players played really good, and they wasted that performance?” I’m not sure you can. I bring that up because when you’re playing the best teams in the league, you need a lot of things to go right. One of those main things is for your best players to play like your best. Against Pittsburgh Kessel was great on Saturday. Usually, Grabovski really gives it all against the Pens, too, which is why the Leafs have been so successful against that team. When the Leafs were beating Boston they got efforts like Grabovski doing this, Kessel breaking out of his scoring slump with two goals, and other great efforts. The Leafs want to beat Boston? They need their best players to be their best players. Rather than “Well, he was OK.”

- Against Boston, Kessel avoided the corners and it was painfully obvious. The next game against Pittsburgh he was getting in there a little and battling hard. One play in particular stood out in the third period, when he went behind the net knowing a D-man was bearing down on him and made a play with the puck before getting hit.

- The debate about Kessel in the corners always seems to be a popular one. Nobody should expect him to be Wendel Clark or Gary Roberts, but he also can’t literally go out of his way to not go in the corners, which is what he does at times. Kessel isn’t very big, and nobody wants to see him getting hurt because he all of a sudden decided to start mucking it up in the corners. At the same time, if he’s first on the puck, he can’t slow up and wait for the opposing D-man to get it because he’s scared of getting hit. He has to pick and choose spots, but right now he’s rarely picking a spot to go in the corners. Even guys like Patrick Kane and Alex Semin, who are considered “soft,” go into the corners when they have to. It was nice to see Kessel do more of that against Pittsburgh, and hopefully that continues. It’s a testament to his talent that he puts up the numbers he does without getting involved physically at all, really.

- Against Boston, JVR received a solid hit by Boychuk, and on the same shift he had a physical altercation with Chara and actually pushed him back. Then, against Pittsburgh, he took abuse from Orpik and Niskanen before crushing Malkin. It’s nice to know JVR has that physicality in him when push comes to shove.

- You couldn’t see it on TV, but on one penalty kill against Pittsburgh the Leafs dumped the puck down and Malkin was collecting the puck from his own end. Letang was gliding back into the play at the same time Komarov was hopping off the bench, so Komarov gave him a one handed slash and skated away. Leo didn’t even look at Letang, he just slashed him and skated away. There are so many little pest things he does that aren’t caught on camera and he must drive players crazy.

- Was surprised McClement started the game against Pittsburgh on the fourth line. He had goals in three straight games, yet when the first opportunity arose he was bumped to the fourth line and Komarov was kept in the top nine. That could be a statement that Komarov is a guy they envision in the top nine, and that they really do want Orr and McLaren constantly in the line-up. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

- Loved the clip of Scrivens tripping Lucic.

- MacArthur had a ridiculous between the legs pass to Kadri in the neutral zone against New Jersey. Then he showed his hands again when he scored the game winner that game. Don’t remember his hands ever being that soft.

- Also against Jersey, Reimer had a great cross crease save against Elias with 11 minutes left right after the Leafs took the lead. It felt like it sealed the game. Another great save this week: Scrivens robbing Bergeron with less than two minutes left to at least keep the Leafs hopes alive for a little while longer.

- Kessel had a great play bouncing the puck off the boards to himself and around Niskanen, ultimately getting a good shot off. I want to see more of that creativity from him as opposed to simply crossing the blue line and shooting.

***

Quotes

“Last year, we made a lot of mistakes in areas in games such as tonight. We’d put our tails between our legs and just accept it. Now we’re becoming more of a pushback team, we’re stronger mentally.”
- Cody Franson speaking about his team.

Against the Devils, the Leafs came out firing on all cylinders to start the third, versus Boston they got physical and pushed back once they were down, and playing Pittsburgh they threw the kitchen sink at the Pens in the third. It was a good week against strong opponents, but there’s still a lot of hockey left. We’ll see if the mental toughness continues.

“You want to play hard and I guess the fans liked it. I was just trying to finish a check”
- JVR on his hit against Malkin.

Wouldn’t mind if he “just” finished a few more checks on a couple other superstars.

“Their depth is something that kind of sticks out as far as scouting them. Their depth is a big part of their success and they play a fast game.”
- Sidney Crosby on the Leafs.

I wouldn’t compare the Leafs top end players against the elite teams in the NHL, but I’d put their forwards 1-9 next to almost anybody in the league.

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think I was wrong about Clarke MacArthur, so it’s better to just admit it now. Earlier in the year I noted that it might have been prudent to start shopping around MacArthur and Liles. Liles’ name being in there still holds true as he’s been a healthy scratch and Gardiner isn’t even in the line-up. MacArthur’s recent play though has helped remind me how effective of a player he can be. The thing with MacArthur is that he is one of, what? Three players in the Leafs top nine that can sufficiently play on the checking line, scoring line and top line? The others being JVR and Grabovski. In a league where managing injuries with depth is becoming more and more important, that’s a very useful player to have. My main concern with MacArthur was money, and it still is. I think he can easily command 4M/year, and is that too much to give a guy who plays around 15 minutes a night? The big question might have to be what the cut off number is to sign him.

2 – I think Liles has to draw back in for Holzer. At the very least for one game, because Holzer was way in over his head against Pittsburgh and needs to take a step back. He also needs a reduced role, but that’s a different story. If I were drawing Liles back in for Holzer, the pairings would look like Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Liles-Kostka, Fraser-Franson.

3 – I think McClement has to stick on the Grabovski line for now after the way they got dominated with Komarov on it. If they do that, then I’d draw in Steckel for one of Orr/McLaren and run a Komarov-Steckel-Orr/McLaren fourth line.

4 – I think Scrivens should get a start this week, even though the Leafs only play three games. This has nothing to do with Reimer, other than the fact that I’d like to keep him fresh, too. Scrivens has had a good season, and although Reimer is clearly the number one in the eyes of the organization, Scrivens has earned starts and can’t be left to rot on the bench and watch Reimer dominate the start count from here on out.

5 – I think the Harlem Shake as the Leafs goal song is an absolute joke. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Toronto has a vibrant music scene, so hold a contest where fans can submit original entries, narrow it down to a top 10 or whatever, and ask the team to vote on their favourite. The winner gets the title of composer of the official Leafs goal song, and maybe even MLSE could toss them a couple grand, which means exactly nothing to that company. It’s a win-win for everybody and the Leafs won’t have an embarrassing goal song anymore, it’s a nice way to connect fans and the team, and I find it hard to believe that a good final product wouldn’t result from it. Disclaimer: The Leafs have been winning with this goal song lately, so you can’t change it right this second.

***

Fans at the ACC

On Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Leafs-Penguins game and thought I would share some parts of it from a fan perspective. I’m sick and tired of hearing how quiet the ACC is, so I thought it was something I had to do. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 as everyone knows, and there have been some extremely tough years mixed in there. At this point fans have become sceptical and reserved when it comes to cheering for the team. Currently in a playoff spot though, the Leafs found themselves in a battle with one of the elite teams in the league on HNIC at home, and the fans responded. Here were some highlights:

- There was some energy in the crowd before the game, but Pittsburgh scoring early on really quieted everybody down. There was some sporadic noise, but the turning point of the crowd was really Clarke MacArthur’s goal, because to that point it felt like the Leafs were barely hanging on, but once he scored, the feeling shifted to Pittsburgh’s goalie and defense not being very good and that the Leafs could win this.

- They played their first “Stomping Tom” song of the night and the fans all clapped and cheered in the second period. It got the crowd sparked up and was a sign of things to come.
Shortly after that, there was a girl on the jumbotron who decided to point at her beer and chug the entire pint, and that got the crowd cheering and rowdy. The puck dropped and there was still a buzz in the crowd, but it had nothing to do with the game. It was a great lead up into a very loud third period.

- The Leafs dominated the period, and the fans respected the effort so they started to cheer louder and louder as the period went on. If you’ve ever gone to a Leafs game, you know at times “Go Leafs Go” chants happen but they’ll happen in only certain sections of the rink. These “Go Leafs Go’s,” however, were the entire rink chanting. You couldn’t hear yourself think in the arena because it was so loud from everybody chanting in unison.

- I took a second to look at the benches, and I saw players on both teams looking around the rink with the body language of “holy crap this place is loud.” I was also sitting in the lower bowl and everybody was watching the game. There weren’t empty platinum sections or fans that went home early. Everybody was there and into the game.

- When JVR just missed tapping the puck in before getting mauled, which is the side I was on, everybody on that side of the rink stood in disbelief making noise. The fans were all involved, attentive, and booed the ref louder than I have ever heard a ref get booed before.
Then JVR crushed Malkin and shortly after Kessel scored to tie the game and everybody just went nuts. There was never more than 5 seconds of silence from the crowd after that. There was a constant buzz and “Go Leafs Go” chants started up all over the place.

- My favourite moment, though, was between OT and the shootout when the Zamboni came on. The ACC played “The Good Old Hockey Game” and I’d say at least half the arena was standing and singing the song as the Zamboni went around the ice. As the song got to the third period verse, more fans started rising and by the end of it the entire crowd was standing and singing and cheering as the song came to a close and the jumbotron had a quote from the legend himself on it. When the song was over the fans continued to cheer and the place was rocking.

The ACC wasn’t playing host to an event on Saturday, it was hosting a party.

RIP Stomping Tom. Thanks for one of the best songs of all-time.

Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.

SIMILAR ARTICLES