Leafs Notebook – Season Opener Eve: September 30th

Leafs Notebook – Season Opener Eve: September 30th

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Only three teams in the preseason had more points than the Leafs (Boston, Washington, Dallas), and you know what’s the best part about that? Nobody really cares.

It was only a few years ago that some kids named Bozak, Stalberg, Kadri, and Gustavsson wowed Leafs Nation with a strong preseason and had fans thinking “hey, maybe this team is better than we thought.” We all know how that ended.

This preseason though, nobody has really bothered to drum up the Leafs results or tout it as some big accomplishment and momentum boost heading into the season. Maybe it’s because the Clarkson ten game suspension really dampened the mood, but I think it’s more of a testament to how far the team has come.

There wasn’t much to get excited about camp-wise this year. At best the storylines were: the Leafs had an interesting NHL veteran trying out (and it was quickly apparent he should be signed), there was a goalie battle between the two guys we knew would be on the team, an unsigned key player in Cody Franson, and a high draft pick trying to make the team.

In other words, there really wasn’t much left to the imagination this training camp. Had the Leafs been unable to resign Cody Franson, we would have had a conversation about how the defense would all fit together. But he did sign, and we already knew Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, Ranger and Fraser would be on the team anyway.

The forward group was more or less set in stone. The top six was set heading into camp; Dave Bolland, Nik Kulemin, Jay McClement and Colton Orr were all but guaranteed spots in the bottom six. So there were basically two spots in the bottom six to fight over between a group that included Raymond (again, it was quickly apparent he should be signed), McLaren, Ashton, Colborne, Bodie, and a few other Marlies.

This wasn’t a thrilling camp and that’s the way it should be.

There wasn’t any wondering if a Mike Komisarek would finally have a good camp and become productive on this team. There was no looking toward a young kid to seize the opportunity and step right into the top of the line-up and make an impact (Rielly’s in a lesser role and it’s unclear if he’s with Toronto to stay), there was no AHL journeyman becoming the Leafs third line center, or concerns about the goaltending.

Camp was what it should be- an opportunity for veterans to shake the rust off, and a depth roster spot or two up for grabs for potential youngsters to snag. The Leafs still have a lot of work to do and this doesn’t change that, but it’s nice to be a team that finally has some pedigree to it and isn’t looking to youngsters and grinders to give them the world.

The Leafs aren’t where they need to be in terms of being Cup contenders – something Nonis has mentioned — but they are taking steps to get there. This camp was indicative of that.

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Notes

- Last week, my first note talked about how Colborne has been bad, but the Leafs lack the center depth to justify getting rid of him. Alas, they got rid of him. When you breakdown the Leafs depth chart though, it’s pretty clear as to why they did. The four centers on this team are clear: Bozak, Kadri, Bolland, McClement; Colborne is not better than any of them. The four left wingers on this team are JVR, Lupul, Raymond, and Ashton; Colborne is not better than any of them either. The four right wingers on this team are Kessel, Clarkson, Kulemin, and Orr; Colborne could probably be better than Orr, but the Leafs value that role and it only plays five minutes a night anyway, so it’s really a wash. With a full roster, Colborne doesn’t make the team. The Clarkson suspension means the Leafs have to bring up another player with no cap relief and basically the Leafs have no cap room to afford that. Colborne got traded for something versus being waived for nothing.

- At the end of the day, it really comes down to this: Ashton beat Colborne for a roster spot and is one of the main reasons Colborne is no longer a Leaf. The other reason, of course, is that Colborne had a really bad preseason; there’s no sugar coating that. Ashton also fits the Leafs a lot better – he’s a natural winger, he’s been groomed as a penalty killer and grinder (he’s better than Colborne in a bottom six role), and he plays with more of a mean streak.

- Against Detroit, Ashton had a nice forecheck where he dumped the puck in, raced down to the corner, bodied a guy off the puck (didn’t hammer him, just moved him), regained possession, and started a cycle. That’s what he brings to this team. When I saw him last year with the Marlies in the playoffs (I attended their final game of the playoffs last year), the Marlies were pressing to tie and he did the exact same thing to get the puck and create a scoring chance. Ashton isn’t really going to forecheck and put opponents through the boards, but he’ll get down there, mix it up, and get the puck back for the Leafs. Along with Jay McClement and Colton Orr, I’m excited to see what that fourth line does.

- Have to give credit to CBC for their excellent segment with Barb Underhill. They showed a before and after with Carter Ashton skating wise (the before picture was from his time in Tampa!) and it was night and day. The Marlies basically use an NHL training facility (same as the Leafs, although different rinks within the arena), the team brings in world class instructors such as Underhill, they run an exchange program with teams in Europe (I believe D’Amigo went to Germany this summer?), and more. Nobody can say this team doesn’t put money into developing their own.

- One Morgan Rielly sequence that was really impressive was against Detroit (Grand Rapids?). He broke the puck out from the corner of his zone, the Grand Rapids defenseman pinched on Devane, and it resulted in a two on one for McKegg and Orr. The next closest player to that rush? Rielly. That’s the speed everyone loves; for him to start the rush, and then be the first guy to catch up, is… wow.

- Couldn’t help but smile when Rielly tried ripping a backdoor pass to Raymond that Mason couldn’t handle on a power play in that game. Rielly loves the backdoor play; it’s his first instinct when he gets the puck along the wall in the offensive zone.

- I won’t deny Kadri and Raymond appear to be clicking, but is there one player Kadri hasn’t clicked with on this team? Lupul, Kulemin, MacArthur, Kessel, etc. all played well with him last season.

- I don’t know if Raymond did this consistently in Vancouver, but he’s excellent at skating up ice, turning defensemen on their heels, then curling back to create space and time for himself off the rush. His puck management has been fantastic in the preseason, and if that continues into the regular season, I don’t see how he won’t have a great year.

- Was happy to see D’Amigo have a good showing in his final preseason game because he was great for the Marlies last year, but needs to start showing the NHL brass that he has what it takes. He’s an RFA after this season, so hopefully he can get into some games and prove he’s worth keeping around in a potential NHL capacity.

- Friday was a good example as to why I’m not extremely high on Ranger. He has all the physical tools (size, shot, speed, passing), but he’s what I’ll probably call all year a “free spirit.” He’ll join the rush on penalty kills, wire slap shots high when there’s a crowd in front of the net, and pinch without regard. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good player, because I think all the ability is there, but he needs to reel in his game. Maybe it was just preseason and he was getting his feet wet in his own unique way.

- I remember the last time there was a preseason Lupul looked absolutely horrible and every single radio station in Toronto was saying, “this is the guy that’s going to play with Phil Kessel?!” I think Lupul had an okay year after that. While I didn’t really rip on Lupul that preseason, it’s a big reason why I don’t really dissect veterans in the games that don’t count. All they care about is preparing themselves for the regular season, and doing what they know they have to get ready for the real games.

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Quotes

“To say that, unequivocally, he’s ready to play in the NHL is a tough question to ask and a tougher question to answer at this point. We know he’s played very well for our hockey club, he’s a talented young man and he’s only going to get better.”
- Randy Carlyle on Morgan Rielly

Well, he’s going to get at least nine games to prove it by the looks of things.

“I slid under the radar my whole life, so I think today was a pretty big game for me.”
- Josh Leivo after his two goal game on Saturday

You won’t be under the radar with a few more of those performances, Josh.

“It’s another opportunity to show the organization and the coaching staff that if need be they can be called upon to make a contribution to our lineup.”
- Randy Carlyle before the near AHL game on Saturday

That game alone might have gotten Bodie the recall.

***

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think Reimer has to start game one. He would have had to been notably worse than Bernier throughout camp for me to have said otherwise due to his play last season. He was actually better than Bernier, so it’s really a no-brainer for me. If Bernier starts Tuesday, that tells us everything we need to know about this “competition.”

2 – I think I’d keep Mark Fraser in the line-up to start the year simply because of his penalty killing ability, plus how he clears the front of the net. I’m not sold Gardiner, Ranger, or Rielly are any good on the PK, plus it’s worth it if playing Fraser down a man means preserving Phaneuf, Gunnarsson or Franson even a minute per game.

3 – I think I’d try Raymond with Lupul-Kadri, and keep Kulemin with Bolland. If Bolland’s line is supposed to be a shutdown/checking line, I don’t think it makes any sense to take the best defensive forward on the team off that line. Now, it’s fine putting Kulemin up (which is what it looks like they’re going to do), if they give that Kadri line a little more defensive responsibility as a result. But to me, when you set out a team system, you can’t let one thing all of a sudden change the entirety of it.

4 – I think, at the end of the day, I’d have Gardiner and Franson as a pairing. The reason is simple – along with Gunnarsson and Phaneuf, they are a part of the Leafs four best defensemen. It’s simple really: your four best defensemen need to play the most and that’s the way to do it; no need to reinvent the wheel here.

5 – I think no matter what happens to the Leafs this week, I won’t be overreacting one way or the other. I haven’t been this excited for a Leafs season to start in quite some time, which would make it easy to jump the gun and start making early conclusions. There’s been such a blend of positivity and negativity that you know, when the light shines on one side more than the other, the one segment of the fan base will be all over it. For now I’m just going to sit back, be happy the Leafs are playing again, and probably enjoy a beer or two while doing so. The twenty game mark is when I think we’ll start having a real indication of where this team is.

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli

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