It’s like déjà vu all over again.
And no, I’m not talking about “The Slide.”
Last season, the Leafs went into the year with moderately low expectations. Many had hoped the Leafs would be able to squeak into a playoff spot, but few experts and analysts actually predicted them to make it last season.
But when the Leafs got off to a hot start last year, led by career seasons from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, expectations grew for the team quickly and playoff fever started to rise in Toronto. Of course, we all know how the story ended when the Leafs suddenly went on a 17-game stretch where they won just two games, falling all the way to fifth last in the standings. At least they drafted Morgan Rielly, which looks like a sort of happy ending.
Not yet a full year later, most of that story should sound familiar. Most pundits and writers did not have the Leafs making the playoffs this year. Heck, on this site all but two writers picked the Leafs to miss the playoffs.
The story is not the collapse, the story is how hot starts have risen expectations to unrealistic levels compared to where they were just months earlier.
I had the Leafs finishing 11th overall in the East, citing that I thought their defense wasn’t very good, that none of the AHL guys challenging for spots were legitimate top four D-men, and that there are still holes in the roster. I thought at least one of Reimer or Scrivens would emerge and that the Leafs had a playoff-calibre group of forwards.
I’d say that’s pretty bang on, thus far.
Now, I’m not writing that to toot my own horn, what I’m saying is – what has changed for the Leafs to be in a playoff position at this point?
The Leafs have played well all things considered and reasonably deserve to be where they are at this moment in the standings. Kadri has probably exceeded expectations; JVR is proving he is the real deal; while there has also been nice surprises such as Mark Fraser, the goaltending and Cody Franson.
That aside, and it was noted because I don’t want to take credit away from the Leafs, let’s look at the rest of the Eastern Conference. It tells a surprising tale. The Rangers, Flyers and Capitals, who all made the playoffs last year, are each decidedly mediocre. That doesn’t mean none of those teams can’t turn it around (I definitely expect Brooks Laich to make a huge difference for Washington when he returns soon), but for now the performance of three teams in particular has helped boost the Leafs. Add in a fourth playoff team from last year struggling, the Florida Panthers, and that’s four open spots.
So as much as Toronto has helped their own cause, they’ve also been helped tremendously from the teams around them.
That puts the Leafs in a precarious position. They’ve been buoyed by excellent goaltending to a degree thus far, but no matter how they got here you have to look at the landscape in the East and believe there is a reasonable chance they can hang on to make it. At this point, the team probably only has to play 500 hockey from here on out as 9-9-1 would give them 53 points which is right around the likely cut off.
Even with all that, let’s not forget what we thought of this team to start the season. I wouldn’t say making the playoffs is “gravy,” but this was always a development year. The Leafs ice the fifth youngest team in the league every night. While that can’t be the main excuse with the Sens and Jets are actually younger than them on average, it does have to be kept in perspective.
For his part, Nonis has consistently reiterated that he is not going to mortgage the future in any way for this season. So it seems the Leafs still have the big picture in mind, too.
At this point it might be fair to say the Leafs would be blowing it to not make the playoffs, even though few had expected the Leafs to make the playoffs to begin with. Excitement is clashing with expectations and it’s causing for a rush of emotion both good and bad throughout the fan base.
All I’m saying is let the chips fall where they may this year. This was always a season about development and hopefully that turns into a playoff spot. The real growth of this franchise is about players like Kadri, Reimer, Franson and JVR, and that growth has been excellent thus far.
Play Breakdowns of the Week
One Goal For: The Leafs team speed and skill combines for a beauty against Pittsburgh.
There are a lot of things to like about this goal if you’re a Leafs fan.
The first thing that went unnoticed is Bozak getting back in the play defensively to put a stick on Dupuis. That caused him to rush his shot and put it over the net. It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing.
The next point is what teams should fear the most about the Leafs: They can kill you on the counterattack. All Dupuis did was miss the net wide, and suddenly that turns into a 2 on 2 which eventually became a 4 on 3. The Leafs’ team strength is still their team speed, and it showed here. They hurt teams a lot like this last year.
Kessel often releases the zone early, but usually goes up along his own wing (Note: his breakaway goal against the Jets). On this play though, he recognizes the situation, namely JVR being flat-footed, and he cuts across to make it an easier play for the winger. By doing that, it bought him a little space and he didn’t have to go up against Brooks Orpik purely one-on-one. When Orpik tries to skate over to close off the gap, and Kessel stops, it buys him more time because Orpik has to change direction again.
At the same time, as was noted by many, JVR made a great play by simply driving the net, which provided not only a screen but also opened up space.
From here, the Leafs were really helped out by Dupuis and Crosby deciding to change lines instead of back-checking. That allowed Franson to join the rush and have as much time as he needed to make the play.
The best part about the puck on Franson’s stick is that when he gets it he has his head up and he’s looking right at MA Fleury. Remember, Franson scored on Fleury not even a week prior at that point http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvjYpN7U2NI and that has to be going through Fleury’s mind a bit. At least enough to hesitate for a second, because Fleury did read that pass across but was a second behind it.
After that, most assume that it was an easy play for Bozak. It wasn’t difficult, but it’s worth pointing out that he went upstairs and made no mistake. How many times have we seen players have open nets and elect not to go shelf with the puck? Too many. So good on Bozak for finishing strong there.
One Goal Against: The Leafs miscommunication leads to a game winner.
Earlier in the year I broke down this goal scored against the Leafs off of a 3 on 2, which was the result of a miscommunication.
The unfortunate thing about this goal, besides it being the game winner, is that when you boil it down it was a 3 on 4 and Pittsburgh scored. Not only did the Leafs outnumber the Penguins, they still managed to give up a wide open shot in the slot. Let’s look at it.
They start off the play okay. Bozak takes Kunitz off the rush, Holzer lines up with Crosby, and Phaneuf is patrolling the left side of the ice where Dupuis is coming down (though he’s already cheating towards Crosby).
The thing is, Phaneuf clearly doesn’t trust Holzer. It was only a few plays earlier that Holzer got beat by Kunitz in the corner, which resulted in the game tying goal. If he trusted Holzer, he wouldn’t have tried to assume his responsibility (even if it is Crosby, you can’t have two guys covering him when he does NOT have the puck).
Frankly, they are both to blame for that. Holzer proved to be a liability on that pairing which caused Phaneuf to assume more responsibility than he can handle. At the same time, Phaneuf has to trust his teammates and ensure he takes care of his responsibility first.
D-men are supposed to have their head on a swivel, but Phaneuf was clearly locked in on Crosby despite Holzer being there (at the very start of the video, you see that Phaneuf is already right near Crosby and not paying any attention to Dupuis). Because of that mistrust, that leaves Dupuis free to roam.
The issue then snowballed into Kessel not realizing that Dupuis had to become his man. Phaneuf may have thought Kessel would take Dupuis, and Kessel definitely thought Phaneuf would take Dupuis.
Instead, neither of them did and he was left wide open in the slot to crank home a shot.
It’s also worth noting that Kessel had no real reason to skate towards Kunitz after he spun around. Bozak was right on him still, and he presented no real danger to the Leafs from where he was located. My guess is Kessel was looking to pick off the pick and turn it up ice quickly for another counterattack. But that’s just a guess.
At the end of the day, this goal is best summed up by Holzer and Phaneuf not having any chemistry or trust with each other, and then Kessel and Phaneuf not communicating with each other to see who was covering who.
Somehow, this goal became all Holzer’s fault that night according to many. He played a part, sure, but he was not the by and large reason the Pens scored this game winner.
- That’s two straight Saturday’s the Leafs have gone into the third period in need of a big goal to tie the game and had Phil Kessel deliver. He still consistently gets criticized, but Kessel generally brings it when the game is on the line. The thing with Kessel is that he only needs one chance. It doesn’t have to be anything special and he can create it all by himself if he needs to. That’s why he’s a game breaker.
- It kind of went under the radar, but Kessel only played 16:17 Saturday against Winnipeg, which was his second lowest of the season. His lowest was 15:40, which was the night he went -4 when Montreal came to Toronto. In the Leafs top nine, Kulemin played the highest at 18:30, and Frattin played the lowest at 15:21, which tells you that they’re rolling the top three lines pretty evenly because their best strength is depth, not high-end talent.
- Kulemin always seems to have his name pop up in trade rumours, and it’s confusing. How many wingers on the Leafs are good defensively? How many of them can kill penalties? Forget his 30-goal season. He’s on pace for nearly 40 points over a full season, playing primarily defensive hockey with 18:01 of his 489:39 minutes this season being on the power play. It’s been a long time since the Leafs have had players who do thankless work. You know how to know for sure that it’s thankless? Because people actually want him moved.
- You can throw Gunnarsson into Kulemin’s school of thankless workless as well.
- I went back and re-watched the Leafs 5 on 3 against Winnipeg that really turned the game in the Jets favour. What I didn’t originally notice was that, when Phaneuf had his two slap shots blocked, he had Kessel wide open for backdoor passes. Kessel banged his stick the first time wanting the puck and was pissed when he didn’t get it, then was really upset when Phaneuf got blocked the second time, smashing his stick on the ice.
- Phaneuf does a lot of things right, but those are the kind of plays he makes that fans remember. After getting blocked once on a 5 on 3, he took the puck from the blue line and just skated in the middle of the ice to try and wind up a slap shot and score? In the NHL? Players aren’t just going to part like the red sea and watch that happen.
- Noted this before when watching the Marlies during the lockout, but Gardiner is really developing a bomb of a shot. I don’t think the Leafs would ever take Phaneuf off the first unit power play, but Franson-Gardiner would offer a bit of a different dynamic more suited to the forward skillset – IE: cross ice passes, quicker puck movement, players not being static, etc.
- A second note for that 5 on 3: It was hard to get a read on what exactly the Leafs were trying to do. Whenever Kessel got the puck, he was trying to set up the backdoor play. Whenever Franson and Phaneuf got the puck on the point, they were looking to tee up shots. It just didn’t look like a cohesive unit. Their power play has thrived lately because they’ve been giving the puck to Kessel on the half wall and he’s either shooting it, passing it cross ice, or giving it back to the point for a shot. But, it was always clear that the power play was going through Kessel. On this particular 5 on 3, it felt like the forwards and defense were on different pages.
- One last thing on power plays in general: The zone entries haven’t been talked about much, but this week the Leafs went 0/9 (two of them were admittedly short) on the PP and it illustrated some issues with their entries. What the Leafs have been doing is lugging it up ice with the D-men either skating it in himself, or dropping it back to a trailing forward who tries to gain the zone. Usually penalty killers are able to pick that up, so the Leafs player has an outlet option if it is and that outlet is a winger standing still on the blue line. Pretty well every time that winger is on the left side of the ice and is either left winger JVR or MacArthur. The winger’s job is to skate up the half wall, and when pressured drop it back to the D-man who sets up the power play. It’s worked quite well so far this season, but teams adjusted last week. Both the Penguins and Jets would have their D-men pressure MacArthur or JVR, and then when they dropped it back to the point, the PK forward would trail on the play and pick it off easily before dumping it down the ice. This happened a few times against Pittsburgh in particular. The next logical progression for the Leafs is to have a forward race into the zone and go to the left corner of the offensive zone. That way the winger gaining the zone along the half wall has another outlet option to establish the zone and maintain possession.
- That was a hell of a backhand by Bozak to spring Kessel on a breakaway to tie the game against the Jets.
- I would have liked to see Kessel on a breakaway instead of Komarov in the third period against the Penguins. You can’t blame a guy for not scoring on a breakaway, but that one hurt. Pittsburgh of course scored shortly after to take the lead.
- Another play that hurt was Grabovski missing an in-tight breakaway against the Jets right after they tied the game. Of course, the Jets came back and scored right after. How different would those two games have been if those two respective goals were scored? Funny what the difference between winning and losing can be sometimes.
- If the Leafs are going to play Holzer in part because he’s a big strong guy, he has to play like it. In other words, he can’t lose that battle as easily as he did against Chris Kunitz leading to Dupuis’ opening goal. Kunitz is a tough player, but he’s 6’ and under 200 pounds. Holzer is 6’3 and over 200 pounds. That just can’t happen.
- Let’s acknowledge Colton Orr getting in on the forecheck to cause a turnover that led to a Joffrey Lupul goal. A year ago his skating would have had him around the top of the circle as the defenceman retrieved the puck. Now, he’s able to get in on players and create some physicality. If Orr is on a fourth line with Komarov and McClement, he isn’t going to be a problem, or a huge liability for this team.
- Disclaimer: If they ever want a fourth line that can handle some defensive responsibility, which probably makes sense considering who the other two guys are, he would be a liability.
- On Saturday, the Leafs more or less iced the line-up that everybody wanted to see. Lupul was electrifying with Kadri, MacArthur got bumped back up to the Grabovski line, Gunnarsson played with Phaneuf, Holzer had a reduced role (played only 15:19), and basically everything but Gardiner playing happened. They still lost. That fact should serve as a reminder that this is still a fundamentally flawed team on paper. Their defense is weak (Jake Gardiner improves it, but he isn’t God at this point in his career), they are still susceptible to getting dominated for long stretches of time, their forward group still needs some refinement, and their goaltending still needs experience.
- The point is that, as much as fans have been clamouring for line changes, different assignments, call ups and what not, it still can’t be forgotten that this isn’t a great team. The Leafs were never a lock to make the playoffs no matter what their lines were.
I’m sure if there was Twitter and MLHS ten years ago, fans would have routinely lost their minds at Pat Quinn’s line combinations and ice time (Sundin played how little, with who!?). Good teams win due to good players playing well above all else. Simple.
- It’s becoming common now, but Franson had a week playing a little over 19, 17 and 20 minutes. He’s quietly becoming a legitimate option to be a top four D-man for this team moving forward. Was watching him against the Jets, and there was a play on Saturday where a Jets forward rung the puck around the boards, and Franson took two strides and finished his check on him. It wasn’t big or anything, nor did the guy go down or even look like he cared. It just kind of stuck out for me because last season Franson wasn’t engaged in games physically or mentally. I suspect it’s because Wilson just turned him right off of hockey last season; regardless, he’s starting to realize the potential so many saw in him. He took 9 shots on net in the three games last week.
- Starting Scrivens on Saturday was curious. He played well against Pittsburgh and maybe deserved a bit of a better fate considering he didn’t have much of a chance on either of the two goals that got by him, but was that enough to start a huge game on Saturday night? Reimer was left out to dry in Winnipeg and got the mercy pull. If he’s your number one, why doesn’t he get a chance at redemption against that same Jets team at home?
- Question: How did the Leafs not call a timeout at any point in that second period against the Jets? There couldn’t have been one soul who didn’t know the Jets were going to tie it after dominating the Leafs for nearly five minutes to begin the period. Then they tied it. Then they scored again. And again. And again. Not one timeout at any point in any of that unravelling? Baffling.
- Good point by @quinnesq on Twitter yesterday noting that Gardiner had 16 goals in 53 NHL/AHL games before his concussion (not including playoffs), and only one since returning in 21 games (albeit he has 13 assists in that time). His shots per game are now under 2, when before they were over 3. Not saying that’s a good reason for him to be in the AHL, but I am saying we shouldn’t pretend there is this superstar-like figure just waiting in the AHL for no good reason.
- I don’t usually note stuff about the Marlies, but it’s nice to see Brad Ross has scored four goals in his last four games. Ross is a second round pick who has had some off-ice troubles, but is the kind of on-ice pest and talented player the Leafs like. Sort of like Leo Komarov, but arguably more skilled. He’s the type of kid I like to root for. I hope he keeps it up.
“We just seem to hit a spot in the game where we just don’t do anything right.”
- Randy Carlye, after Saturday’s game against the Jets.
This is two-fold. One: They still haven’t found a line that they can trust to put out there and settle a game down. Two: Use your timeout and slow the game down.
“Adding Dave Steckel gives us another big body and depth up the middle”
- Bob Murray, after the Ducks traded for Dave Steckel.
Isn’t that what the Leafs are looking for? Don’t mind the trade or think it will hurt the Leafs big, but Steckel could have helped this team if they plugged him in the line-up all season.
“Yeah I agree. But I don’t know how to do that.”
- Mikhail Grabovski, in response to Carlyle saying they need more offense from him despite his role.
As I said earlier this year, there are few hockey players in this world who can play in a shutdown role and still put up respectable point totals. Grabovski’s a good hockey player, but he’s not an elite stud.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think the Leafs need to figure out what the deal with Grabovski is. That doesn’t mean they should trade him, necessarily. What’s his role? What are they doing with this guy? If Kadri is supposed to be centering the team’s top line next season, where does that leave Grabovski? Clearly he’s not a great fit for the tough task of the shutdown line. He hasn’t been terrible in that role, but he’s obviously not happy with it. Are you going to pay him $5.5 million to play on the third line and eat up opposing third lines? Is that good value? I think this story Grabovski-Carlyle story is becoming more and more ridiculous, especially on Twitter, and needs to be dealt with sooner than later. I’d audition him with Kessel and go from there.
2 – I think as much as I’ve said here that they need to keep Scrivens involved, they still need to realize Reimer is their number one and give him the majority of the starts. They have to lean on their guy. Last week they played three games and Reimer started one of them. And the team left him out to dry in that game. Isn’t he their number one?
3 – I think the best way to not get what you want is by trying to embarrass the person you’re trying to get something out of. In other words, what Jake Gardiner’s agent did to the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is just no possible way he thought tweeting that would result in any good. If he did, I hope Gardiner fires him. It’s easier said than done, but moving Liles and replacing him with Gardiner would be ideal.
4 – I think if one game was any indication, with the Leafs having a completely healthy top nine, it really highlighted that their weakness at forward is a shutdown line. One game is obviously not enough time to make any sort of conclusion, but clearly the Leafs are trying to help out Grabovski with that responsibility and are struggling to do so. We know the Leafs can score. We also know they still struggle defensively. The Jets dominated them for nearly half the second period, and the Leafs weren’t able to put together one line in that time that could simply get the puck out of their zone, and effectively into the Jets zone. Since last year I’ve said for awhile that a shutdown line would be my priority. It still is.
5 – I think the next seven games are going to be massive. In order, the Leafs play Tampa, Buffalo, Boston, Boston, Florida, Carolina and Ottawa. Four days after they play Ottawa is the NHL trade deadline. I think that will tell us what we need and where to go direction-wise with the trade deadline.