Leafs Notebook – March 26

Leafs Notebook – March 26

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‘Tis the season for Leafs trade rumours.

Now, I’m not about to dig up every rumour out there on the internet and go through it, but I do want to provide some thoughts on the team, the direction of the organization, and what’s out there before the Leafs do (or don’t) make any moves.

Most trade talk when it comes to the Leafs has centered on a veteran goalie for most of the year, with Roberto Luongo and now Miikka Kiprusoff being named most often.

Even if we ignore that James Reimer and Ben Scrivens’ respective .918sv% and .915sv% are better than the .904sv% and .873sv% Luongo and Kiprusoff are currently sporting, there are still so many issues here. (And imagine, for a second, that the numbers attached to Reimer and Scrivens this year were flip-flopped with what Luongo and Kiprusoff currently have; the heat would really be on to make a deal).

Assuming Luongo and Kiprusoff turn it around and find their form (admittedly no guarantee), the main question here is whether or not the Leafs are a goalie away from becoming legitimate contenders.

Realistically, the answer is no. Some players like Lupul, Phaneuf, Grabovski and Kessel are in and around their prime, but guys like Kadri, JVR, Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are about to enter it or not even in the league. There is still a sizeable hole in the top four D group and the forwards need some help down the middle (whether that comes internally with Colborne or externally, it’s still an area of need that has to be addressed).

So what we’re really talking about here is a group that’s overall one of the youngest in the league, that’s getting better, but is not quite there yet. For some reason, parting with major assets to bring in goalies that are on the downside of their careers – and that may or may not even be better than what they currently have – is being discussed regularly in the media. Vancouver and Calgary (Phaneuf deal aside) certainly aren’t charities, so it’s not like the Leafs would acquire these guys for free.

To this point in Reimer’s career, he’s shown that, whenever he’s healthy, he’s a good goalie. He absolutely stole the Leafs a win against Boston on Saturday in the type of game that, had Luongo done it in net for Toronto, it would have been labelled as the “type of win Leafs goaltending hasn’t stole for them since Cujo or Belfour.”

Reimer just turned 25 eleven days ago, is signed for another year at only $1.8M and it’s time to bring in a guy to kick him out of the net so he can watch games from the bench?
And again, this would be done at the high price of good roster players and/or picks for goalies who are not the missing piece between the Leafs and a Cup run.

If the goal is to simply bring in a veteran to provide some support and stability on a young team, why not pay a substantially cheaper price for a guy like Khabibulin in Edmonton, or Garon in Tampa? Surely that would make more sense considering this season is a win for Toronto if they just merely make the playoffs and prove competitive in the first round.

Even then, why give up on Scrivens? He was great last year in the AHL, has been good in the NHL this season, and even carried the team for a stretch of games when Reimer got hurt. How many young players has Toronto given up on after they’ve shown promise? How many times has that ended up biting them in the ass? Why do we have to have this conversation every few years, then?

When it comes to trading for defensemen, most of the trade talk has centered on Jay Bouwmeester in the Barilksophere. Admittedly, it does make some sense. Bouwmeester is a good skater who moves the puck well and can match up against the other team’s best, providing Phaneuf with a quality partner and pushing Gunnarsson to the second pairing, which would inadvertently stabilize the entire top six, most likely.

Bouwmeester is also turning 30 this year, though. With Calgary about to embark on a long rebuild, they’re going to want kids coming back to them. Are the Leafs in the business of trading young 20 year olds for 30 year olds? Everything Nonis has said and done to this point would suggest no.

It’s not that Bouwmeester is a bad player; it’s just tough to imagine a trade fit.
Now, if we start talking about coughing up young players for a 26 year old Keith Yandle, that’s a different story. But nobody has really tied Yandle to the Leafs so we’ll only cross that bridge if we have to.

Up front, most of the talk has centered around five guys. Those five guys are: Brendan Morrow, David Clarkson (who most would be surprised if the Devils move before the deadline), Mike Ribeiro, Ryan Clowe and Paul Stastny.

Obviously Morrow has already been moved, and that should set the tone for some of these other guys. Morrow, who at this point is probably the worst actual hockey player of those five, cost what was basically a first round pick or tier-two prospect. By tier two, I mean a guy who you wouldn’t consider a top line or top D pairing guy, but a prospect with top four D or top six potential.

If we are using that deal as a basis, that means a guy like Clowe, who is turning 31, probably costs Percy+. What that means long-term is, as Clowe continues his decline in play (yes, continues, because it’s already began), the Leafs will be getting better and Percy will potentially be breaking into the league as a young prospect (and Percy is only an example).

It seems like it would make more sense to simply wait for the Leafs to develop into the team that needs a Clowe type to go far in the playoffs and acquire him when the roster is actually ready for it.

Ribeiro cost the Capitals Cody Eakin, who is a good young player. That means, if they’re going to flip him not even a year later, they’re going to want a good return to save face. Is Ribeiro worth an arm and a leg, and a long-term contract extension, when you have Kadri emerging, Grabovski locked up, plus Colborne playing well in the minors?

At least Stastny is turning 28 this year and has been a 20+ goal scorer in every full season of hockey he’s played. He offers the Leafs production at the top line center spot, even if the Leafs have a guy who already looks like he can give them production in that top line role.

Besides, Colorado is a complete mystery to everybody. Logic says they want a defenseman and the only reasonable guy to expect them to ask for in return is Carl Gunnarsson. Is that opening up one hole to fill another? Would that completely push Grabovski off the team? If that’s the case, is Kadri-Grabovski-Gunnarsson worse than Stastny-Kadri – and whoever they replace Gunnarsson with?

File Stastny as a, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and we’ll take it from there if we ever have to.

Simply adding a veteran or two on the cheap to help out the fourth line (more on that below in 5 Things I Think I’d Do), or on the defense, would be nice tweak by Nonis. If there’s a no-brainer trade to be made, or a good player that is worth giving up assets for (again, Yandle is an example), then it’s worth exploring for the Leafs.

The Leafs don’t have a perfect roster, but it should be good enough to make the playoffs this year considering the landscape around the rest of the East. This isn’t the time to make a major move considering there are 15 games left. This is definitely not a buyer’s market, and the Leafs are a young team on the rise.

If there is a move too obvious to avoid making, by all means the Leafs should go for it. Otherwise, it’s just more prudent to hold onto what they have and see what they do here down the stretch before making any major decisions.

Nonis has said all year that he isn’t selling off the future for the present, and that means most of the options fans are going crazy about aren’t even a possibility.
It’s not the sexy thing fans want to hear, but it’s the right thing for the team.

***

Notes

- The shot count between the Leafs and Bruins was a topic of heavy discussion, so that seems to be a good starting point here.

- Yes, the Leafs did get outshot badly – 13 to 33 – but a few things are worth pointing out. The first is that the Leafs left shots on the table against the Bruins. Some examples of shots that the Leafs could have had but didn’t take: the Bozak-Kessel two on one, Kessel getting tripped by Chara after he stopped and cut in, Gardiner had a shot blocked in the slot after Grabovski wheeled around the net and fed him because he waited too long, Kulemin hit a post, Bozak botched a three on two, and that’s just a few examples. Does that close the huge discrepancy in shots? No. But it’s something to keep in mind.

- Furthermore, the Leafs held a lead for most of the game, and their main concern was clearly protecting the lead more than anything else. They sent one man in on the forecheck all night, tried to minimize big mistakes, and were content to sit back on their lead.

- For the first half of the game in Boston, the Leafs sat back, trapped, and worked the counterattack. At the end of the game Boston had four more shots than the Leafs this time, instead of 20.

- The Leafs aren’t exactly built to cycle teams down low for long stretches of the game, so they have to play some variation of the trap; otherwise, the game turns into what happened in the last 10 minutes of the second period in Boston: a pond hockey game with lots of back and forth, which ultimately resulted in Boston scoring and gaining momentum.

- One thing not helping the cycle game is the play of JVR lately. He was benched for the last 11 minutes of the game in Boston – last 6 minutes of regulation and all of OT. He’s a big body the team relies on to cycle the puck down low and grind his way to the net. JVR has done some nice things as a net presence, but it doesn’t matter if he’s in front of the net when you leave Kessel to create either by himself or in collaboration with Bozak. You need more from your top players than simply going to the net all the time.

- JVR has one point in his last six games. That one point was a second assist on this goal, when the puck basically hit him on the boards, causing it to deflect to Bozak who threw Kessel a great breakaway pass for him to bury. In the last six games he only has 10 shots. That’s not nearly enough for a guy playing on the top line alongside Phil Kessel, who draws the main defensive attention.

- If I was doing video reviews this week, I would have picked this Lupul goal against Tampa Bay. The passing play was great and all, but I wanted to note Nikolai Kulemin covering for a pinching Dion Phaneuf and keeping the puck in the zone, which really kick started the play and made it all possible. Those are the little things he does that not enough people notice.

- Was surprised that Kulemin released from the zone early which ended up leading to his breakaway goal against Boston. I can’t recall a single time that he’s ever left the zone early.

- Last year, Kessel released the zone early a lot, and just this week Kadri has done it, resulting in a Kulemin goal against Tampa, and Kulemin has done, too. The common thread? Lupul. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it is a theme worth monitoring. Last year, Lupul noted that he liked to try and get Kessel the puck in the neutral zone as opposed to the offensive zone so that he could carry the puck a little bit and enter the zone with speed and the puck. Would have to imagine he’d want the puck on Kadri’s stick in the same kind of capacity.

- Did want to note Kulemin’s shot this week. When he scored this goal against Tampa Bay, he didn’t even really snipe a specific corner, he just overpowered the shot through Garon. Against Boston, he beat Khudobin cleanly with his writer from the slot, too, but hit the crossbar.

- Monday in Boston marked the first game in the last four that Grabovski wasn’t fourth among Leafs centers in ice time. McClement plays on the PK a lot which boosts him over Grabovski, while Bozak plays all situations and Kadri has been getting more and more ice time as the season has progressed.

- Leafs brass need to figure out what is going on with Grabovski. Paying a guy 5.5M/year to play third and fourth line center minutes is obviously nonsensical. If this is them pushing Grabovski out the door, my biggest regret, if it were to happen right this second, is that we never got to see Grabovski-Kessel in an extended look on the same line. Logically, most teams play their highest paid winger and center together. The Leafs really haven’t. If they play together and we can all unequivocally say that they suck on the same line, then moving on from him probably wouldn’t bug me, but without trying them together there is something left to be desired. Please note: I’m not advocating for Grabovski to be traded, or to even stay he will be moved for that matter. Just putting two and two together.

- Against Tampa Bay, the Leafs changed Grabovski’s role and he ended up playing against Nate Thompson for most of the night, but he only ended up with a shot on net. In the next few games, though, he popped in a few goals that will hopefully go to his legs.

- Did think it was interesting that Carlyle went with McClement-Kulemin in overtime against Boston rather than Grabovski.

- Gardiner being inserted into the line-up really changed the dynamic of the Leafs defense. He adds an element of speed, creativity and puck movement that nobody else on the D possesses. The pass he made that kick started this goal against Buffalo is something only he can do. To say nothing of his pass to Lupul against Boston.

- You can tell though that Gardiner has developed some bad habits from playing in the AHL. He’s very lackadaisical with the puck, and tries things that he would get away with in the A that you don’t get away with in the NHL. For example, on Saturday he tried to keep a puck in the offensive zone by flicking a soft pass up the boards to Kessel. Seguin easily knocked it down and charged out of the zone. Against Buffalo, he got caught a few times holding the puck too long on the breakout resulting in panic turnovers. Luckily, Gardiner is so fast that despite numerous giveaways he’s generally been able to catch up to the play and cover himself properly. At the end of the day, the Leafs are taking the good with the bad with Gardiner for now, but he does more good than bad. Part of that can be blamed on playing in the AHL for so long, because ideally he would have ironed out these mistakes at the start of the year in the NHL when everybody was still getting into the swing of things.

- Gardiner’s puck movement is so good, and he’s so smart, that he’ll learn to minimize his mistakes over the next few years and he will become a force to be reckoned with once he does.

- Mentioned a few weeks ago that Franson’s skating might ultimately prohibit him from becoming a top four D-man in the league by mentioning this goal. Lucic blowing by him for a breakaway was another example of such an instance. Franson has become a lot better at reading the play in his own zone, but when games open up he is very susceptible to getting beat.

- Everybody seems to think that Franson has been in the league for a while, but this is actually only his fourth season in the NHL. The fourth season in a player’s career is usually his breakout one offensively, and Franson is on pace for a 49-point season over a full 82 games. Even if Franson is “only” a good third pairing D-man, he brings you size, offense, the ability to pinch in the top four and can eat up extra minutes if need be.

- This didn’t get much attention, but on the shift that got Lupul suspended for two games, he and Conacher were slashing at each other before the puck even dropped. Lupul was clearly irked by it and looked as if he let his emotions get the best of him the rest of the shift. It happens.

- If Fraser is going to block a shot in front of his net with under two minutes left like he did against Boston, he has to go down and make sure. Instead, Fraser whacked at the puck. The puck deflected off of him and into the net. 3-2.

- Ennis had a power play goal against the Leafs at the end of the first period that helped the Sabres climb back into the game. It particularly hurt because Liles and McClement both bit on the play. Why did that hurt more than usual? The left side of the penalty kill belongs to Fraser, and he was the guy in the box.

- With 12 or so minutes left against Boston in Toronto, Gunnarsson got a penalty and it was Fraser who was put out with Phaneuf at the beginning to kill it off. He hasn’t just become a physical player on this hockey team; he’s become a guy counted on to kill penalties, too. Fraser is averaging almost 2 minutes a night on the PK.

- Forwards out there to protect the lead in the final minute against Boston: Kulemin, Bozak, McClement.

- Was surprised that Frattin was a healthy scratch against Boston because I thought he played well on Saturday. Frattin played nearly 15 minutes, and his line with Grabovski and Hamilton was able to cycle the puck with some success at times against Boston in comparison to the Leafs other lines. With less than 5 minutes left, there was a shift where Frattin won a battle to get the puck out past Chara and he chipped it around him beat him to the puck and ate some clock.

- Frattin’s goal-scoring ability always gets talked about, but more importantly for the Leafs he can be a big-bodied third line winger they can trust. He’s shown some ability to score timely goals and he can play spot duty in the top six. In this day and age, that’s a pretty ideal third liner.

- Was nice to see Kadri take a run at Chara after he roughed up Lupul in the corner a little bit. There has been a focus on sticking up for teammates via fighting this season but, to me, when a player on your team gets hit, taking that guy’s number and hitting him back is just as good.

- Does Phaneuf have a hate on for Marchand or what? He was going after him all game in Boston.

- It is interesting to note how much less physical Boston is against Toronto this year. Last season, HNIC aired a clip of Thornton standing at center ice in warm ups during a game in Boston visibly yelling at any Leaf player that skated by. This year, Thornton was there and Orr came by and had some words for him. Not everybody likes fighting, but it’s clear the Bruins try to use it for momentum and intimidation. It didn’t take rocket science to see the Leafs were scared to go into the corners against Boston last season. This year, right after Kadri scored, the Bruins didn’t put Thornton out there as a coincidence, they put him out there to get the energy going for their team. Instead, Orr beat him in a fight. Did that win the Leafs the game? No. Definitely not. But we’ve seen guys like Lucic and Horton get emotionally invested in games after physical altercations, yet neither were anywhere to be found all night.

- Lucic’s highlight of the game in Toronto was getting planted by Fraser, and even after that he didn’t respond physically.

- It’s only five games, but MacArthur doesn’t have a point in the five games Lupul has played. He gets pushed down the line-up with Lupul there and that’s what makes it tough to justify the money he’ll command this summer when everybody is healthy. But as I’ve noted: he can play anywhere in the top nine for the Leafs, and good 27/28 year old wingers are a rare commodity on the UFA market.

- If it wasn’t obvious, the Leafs have clearly turned their net over to Reimer.

***

Quotes

“In the moment, it’s just a reaction, you just do it. It’s hard to explain why, it’s just that engrained craziness of a hockey player. Honestly.”
- Mark Fraser on shot blocking.

The Leafs looked like the New York Rangers from last season against Boston on HNIC. Turns out they blocked a season-high 31 shots on net, the most a Leafs team has blocked in nearly two years.

“Mike is excited and looking for the opportunity to play games and compete. The Leafs handled the situation very well and we’ll see where things go.”
- Mike Komisarek’s agent Matt Keator.

What an unceremonious ending to a once-lauded acquisition.

“By all means they’re not an invincible team.”
- Nazem Kadri on the Boston Bruins.

It felt like the Leafs were sort of in awe of them last year. Not anymore.

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think you have to spread out the role of playing against the opposition’s top players. There was a lot of talk about Kadri in this role after Carlyle said it was his last week, but I have to ask: Why is this one line’s responsibility? It’s pretty clear the Leafs don’t have the pieces to replicate a Niedermayer-Pahlsson-Moen line. What they do have, though, is four pretty solid lines that can all be trusted to varying degrees when everybody is healthy. Carlyle likes his match ups, but it might not be the worst thing in the world to give the other team’s top lines different defensive looks and to have forward lines alternate getting favourable line match ups. The Leafs’ best asset is their depth. They should use it.

2 – I think I’d strongly consider looking into adding a shootout specialist to the lineup. The Florida Panthers did it last year with Wojtek Wolski. Wolski scored three shootout goals for the Panthers down the stretch (went 3/7), and the Panthers won all three of those games. One of his shootout goals was a winner, too. That’s three extra points. The Panthers won their division by two. Why not have a shootout specialist on the fourth line alongside Komarov-McClement? Some players who fit the bill include the aforementioned Wolski, Matt Hendricks, and Michal Handzus.

3 – I think if Kessel-Bozak-JVR is one PP forward line, and Lupul-Kadri-Grabovski is the other, by no means should one unit be considered the top unit and the other the secondary unit. In other words, just because a power play is drawn, that does not mean the Kessel unit should automatically get to go out there first. Play the unit that is more rested, and eventually, play the unit that is looking better in each individual game. Frankly, I’d argue Kadri’s line is more talented than Bozak’s overall. They could also shuffle the units better, but the Leafs have shown no indication whatsoever that they’re going to breakup Kessel-Bozak anytime soon, so that’s what I suggest with these units in stone.

4 – I think Mike Komisarek, fairly or unfairly, became a major symbol of Brian Burke’s inability to turnaround the team around as quickly as many thought he would. He was signed to a big money deal, and a lot of people thought he would become a key player in the Leafs turning into a tougher team to play against. Ultimately, however, Komisarek became a liability that couldn’t even be trusted enough to play in the top six. By all accounts, he appears to be a very nice person and I wish him nothing but the best on his road to returning to the NHL; on a cheap deal I believe Komisarek can provide some depth value to an NHL defense in a 5-6-7 role. With this all said, Mark Fraser is more or less everything they had hoped Komisarek would be at a fraction of the cost.

5 – I think, building off of the preamble today, unless there is a move to be made for Nonis that is an absolute no-brainer and doesn’t hurt the team long-term, it’s probably best to just stand pat and see how the rest of the season unfolds. This is not a buyer’s market right now, and the Leafs aren’t in a position to say that they are ready to go for it. By all means move a late round pick or expendable depth player if it means bringing in veteran depth that can help push the team forward. But a big dramatic move that significantly alters the roster? This is not the time to do that. Unless, again, it’s an absolute no-brainer.

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