Leafs Notebook – October 7

Leafs Notebook – October 7

1415

It seems like the Jake Gardiner talk just won’t go away, even though an immediate trade seems extremely unlikely.

Elliotte Friedman got the ball rolling on Gardiner rumours early last week in his 30 Thoughts piece, where he wrote:

19. I see Carlyle. I see Jake Gardiner. I hear what they say about each other and think, “Well, 50 per cent of all marriages do end in divorce.”

On the weekend, the Satellite Hotstove panel discussed how the Leafs were open to listening to offers for Jake Gardiner. Of course, that blew things out of proportion.

Here are some of the things we should keep in mind right now as it relates to Gardiner:

- Reporters such as Pierre LeBrun were saying Gardiner is more or less an untouchable during the summer, when apparently everyone else on the Leafs was on the table.

- Nonis has repeatedly said that he’s willing to listen to offers for anyone. Jake Gardiner is no different than any other player in that regard.

- It’s probably safe to assume that other teams are aware Gardiner isn’t playing a ton and are circling the Leafs like vultures trying to poach him.

- Trading Gardiner would be a blockbuster deal, and when do those ever transpire early in the season? Especially when a team is off to a winning start? Moves like this are generally reserved for during the draft, trade deadline, or when a struggling team is trying to shake things up.

- It might not seem like a big deal, but the TSN clip showing Gardiner and Carlyle talking pre-game with the iPad was important to me. Last season, we knew Grabovski and Carlyle weren’t on talking terms, and that’s usually the writing wall because if your coaching isn’t talk to you; it’s either him or you going eventually. It doesn’t matter if Gardiner and Carlyle like each other, as long as they have an open and continuous dialogue that’s all that’s important.

Usually where there is smoke there is fire, but in this case most of that smoke has been media created. Randy Carlyle was asked a loaded question in preseason on whether or not Gardiner is in playoff form (because players typically play at a playoff level in preseason…) and that stirred all of this up. Friedman, as great as he is, was speculating more than anything. The Hotstove panel made no implication that Nonis is involved in any sort of trade negotiation, just that he’s willing to listen; isn’t that part of Nonis’ job?

Sure, the Leafs have a ton of young defensemen in the system, but we’re seeing right now with Jake Gardiner how long it takes for them to really develop into stable top four workhorses. Do the Leafs really want to restart that process with even younger/less experienced defensemen at this point by clearing him out? Is the Leafs defense good enough to move out Gardiner?

The answers to those questions seem pretty obvious.

Maybe the Leafs do eventually move out Gardiner to fill a different need should they deem that Rielly makes him expendable, maybe he and Carlyle can’t coexist, and maybe it is worth moving him, but right now it doesn’t seem like a move that is in the cards. For now, the biggest concern with Gardiner is him getting his game back because the Leafs are going to need him to be at his best if they are going to go far this season.

***

Notes

- Paul Maurice had the best analysis I’ve heard of the “goalie controversy” thus far. He explained how it’s not a controversy if both goalies are playing well, in which case the Leafs can just rotate them. If one goalie is playing well, it’s obviously not a controversy, either; you just ride the better goalie. Where the Leafs might have a controversy is if both goalies are struggling. Within the locker room, the guy not starting is wondering why he isn’t in net if the other guy is playing just as poorly, and it just sort of snowballs. I thought that was a great take on it. I’d also be pretty surprised if Bernier and Reimer each struggled at the same time over an extended period.

- It goes without saying, but it really is way too early to get a feel for this team. Back-to-back road games to start the season is tough, and the second game in Philly was full of penalties; the Leafs never really got into a flow and basically scratched and clawed for that win. The Sens game on Saturday was something we grew a little accustomed to last season. If the Leafs are down by a few early and teams try to sit on it, Toronto just has way too much firepower to be held in check by an opponent that sits back.

- On that note, it’s also much too early to get a real read on Paul Ranger. Yes, he’s looked bad and it seems as if he’s going through the motions out there, but he last played in the NHL nearly four years ago. Thinking he would smoothly ramp back up to speed was foolhardy, even though he did play in the AHL. Despite his play, Ranger has averaged 20:13 of TOI/game which tells me he’s going to get the Mike Kostka treatment and receive a long look with lots of ice time. It’s just too early to write him off even though he has been making glaring mistakes.

- Speaking of Kostka, I got a kick out of a passage of this ESPN article: “As much as Kostka appreciated his opportunity with the Maple Leafs, he didn’t feel like his entire skill set was being utilized. He wasn’t given much offensive freedom in Toronto, and that was something he thought he could get more of in Chicago.” I guess starting the season on the Leafs top power play unit isn’t a good enough opportunity.

- Against Montreal, Mason Raymond made a play where he dumped the puck in but did so in a way where the puck bounced to the Leafs forechecker, in this case Troy Bodie, for a great scoring chance in the slot. This is a play he learned from the Sedins in Vancouver.

- Although the line juggling was done more in response to poor play and elevating those who deserve it, it was nice to see Carlyle work the lines and roles of players a little bit. Last season, a lot of fans and pundits criticized Grabovski’s role, but to me that always made sense because the Leafs didn’t have any other center capable of doing it. The problem was always having him in that role… doing that night-in and night-out is extremely difficult. Players need the break that comes with mixing it up once and awhile. Moving around guys like Kadri, Bolland, Raymond and so on is a good sign to me as it keeps players hungry and doesn’t pigeon-hole them.

- Lupul-Bolland-Kulemin were out to finish the Habs game, and Kessel-Bolland-Lupul were on when Bolland scored his power play goal to ice the Philly game. It comes as no surprise that Bolland is being relied on to close games, but Lupul is a bit of a surprise. We’ll see how Clarkson factors in there once he returns.

- One of the most underrated plays of the first three games came right before the last minute of play against Montreal. There was a scramble in the Leafs’ slot, Briere emerged with the puck, and then Kessel swooped down and pick-pocketed him before skating the puck out and dumping it down. He’s become a lot better at identifying where he needs to go and what he needs to do in his own zone, and that’s why he gets trusted in those situations now.

- A lot has been made of the smaller pads leading to more goals between the legs, but I really believe that Philadelphia’s goal was a great example of the shallower nets coming into play. Lecavalier was able to pull the puck around the net unbelievably quickly and Franson was a split second late in getting over to block the pass.

- The Raymond-Bolland-Bodie line grinded for an extended shift in the Habs zone, protecting their 3-1 lead as they cycled the puck. There was no recorded “possession” in terms of shots, but they ate the clock and did what they had to. Those are winning shifts.

- The Leafs really suffocated the Habs in the final ten minutes before a bad bounce occurred and all of a sudden it’s a mad scramble to the finish. Sometimes the puck does that. However, Gardiner has to be more aware, with the score being what it was, that he has to get in the way of his opponent if the puck gets by him. Playing the puck is secondary in those situations, every time.

- In the second period of that same game, Eller had a step Gardiner and Gardiner wheeled around and caught him, so maybe that’s why he did what he did.

- The nice thing about Phaneuf’s goal against Montreal is he didn’t try to rip the puck by Price, he simply picked a corner and placed it. Phaneuf gets into trouble when he goes for the big windup and tries to obliterate the puck.

- Phaneuf also made a great read on Ottawa’s two on one at the end of regulation to help send the game to overtime. There was just no way Erik Condra was going to take the shot instead of passing it over to Spezza on his one-timer side; frankly, if Condra did shoot anyone would take their chances Bernier would make that save. Phaneuf read the play, backed off a little, and waited for it.

- That Bolland toe-drag in overtime sure looked familiar:

- This will fall on deaf ears, but last week I noted how Lupul had a rough preseason in 2011-12 and that people got on him for it (particularly in the media). He proceeded to have a career year. This season, the person in question was Dave Bolland, as a lot of people felt inclined to note “he didn’t look that great.” I don’t know how his year will go (I’m guessing well if he stays healthy), but I think it’s pretty safe to say he’s looking good. This is why I dislike commenting on preseason.

- The best thing to happen to Morgan Rielly was the team going down 4-2. With the game a little out of reach, he relaxed a little and started playing his game more by joining the rush, skating with the puck, and trying to create offense. He was really tentative to start the game; when it’s HNIC, the Leafs home opener, his first NHL game, and all eyes are on him, it’s a big stage to just go out there and play his up-tempo, offensive game as a defenseman. Let’s see him play a few more games before we start picking his play apart.

- One thing Rielly does very well is follow his pass up the ice. On one play he gave it to Lupul, who fumbled it at the Leafs’ blueline. Because Rielly follows the play up ice, he skated in and took the puck out himself. He really likes to get involved offensively, and throws the puck on net whenever possible (4 shots on net in his debut).

- The Habs dressed Parros for their game against the Leafs, Philly played Rosehill, and Ottawa put in Kassian. If the result of the Leafs dressing an enforcer is the opponent dressing one, too, I’ll take the trade-off.

- I noted that I thought JVR really had his legs, he’s playing fantastic right now. My favourite play from him so far was actually when Bozak missed the empty net to go up against Ottawa in the final 10 minutes. JVR caught Erik Karlsson as he tried to skate away and pick pocketed him. How many NHLers can do that?

- JVR’s goal against Ottawa showed me that Kessel is simply on another level right now. The game has slowed right down for him. He picks the puck up along the boards and knows that JVR is getting a new stick, so he decides to wait it out and go slowly to buy time. The Ottawa player respects Kessel so much that he backs right off. When Kessel chips it off the boards and Methot steps up, Kessel takes a few hard strides, turns it into a two on one, and threads that pass right through. The Leafs score a huge goal to tie the game and Kessel barely celebrates or shows emotion. This guy is worth every penny.

- I discussed McClement’s penalty killing at length last season in this space, so I won’t get into that too much to start the year, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap praise on his penalty killing efforts against the Flyers. He played over nine minutes of Toronto’s near 14 minutes down a man.

***

Quotes

“Now, you know I don’t like diving, but if you’re a Leaf, the next time a Flyer touches you put on your speedo and go diving. We’re running out of time to even up the calls.
- Jim Ralph on TSN radio, after the Leafs killed their seventh penalty. The Flyers only had one at that point.

It was one of those games, Jim, but the Leafs battled through it.

“I knew the Leafs were important but I didn’t know they were this important. I understand the passion for those damn pictures now.”
- Tim Leiweke, on figuring out the Leafs are pretty damn important.

How can you be a part of the hockey world and not understand how beloved the Leafs are in Toronto?

“How could they say something unkind about me?”
- Randy Carlyle’s response to Clarke MacArthur’s critical comments.

I don’t think he cares, guys.

**

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think, short of Bernier playing absolutely lights-out against Colorado, I’d start Reimer Thursday versus Nashville. Even if the needle is starting to tilt to Bernier’s side, Reimer deserves an opportunity to redeem himself and the longer these two push each other in a true up-for-grabs competition, the better both will be. Reimer is a fighter, and you’re out to lunch if you think he will quietly fade into the sunset. He’s going to battle Bernier tooth and nail.

2 – I think I’d put Ashton back in the line-up, because Carlyle obviously didn’t trust Abbott (5:16 TOI), or Devane (6:52 TOI) very much. Plus, I do think Ashton has the ability to step into the top nine and contribute a little offense, cycling, and net presence. Ashton only averaged 5:08 TOI between his two games and will need to assert himself more so the onus isn’t just on Carlyle plugging him into the line-up, but I think he’s better built to give the Leafs decent minutes.

3 – I don’t think I’d shuffle up the D pairings completely, but I’d start throwing out different looks a shift here or there just to see how they work. You know, the equivalent of throwing stuff against a wall until something sticks. It was only one game, but it’s tough for anyone to say they loved the Rielly-Franson or Gardiner-Ranger pairings, so either the plan is to keep them together to build some chemistry or mix things around until something works.

4 – I think I’ll give some credit where it is due: I was skeptical of putting Troy Bodie on the third line with Bolland and Raymond, but he has played very well. Kudos to the Leafs coaching staff for identifying the right fit. He’s only averaging 7:43 a night, so he’s nothing to go overboard about, but he’s been getting in on the forecheck, creating turnovers, showing some skill, along with bringing some nice size to the team at 6’5.

5 – I think I’d be snooping around for a depth forward around the NHL if I was Dave Nonis. Spencer Abbott started in the Leafs top six and didn’t even crack six minutes, and Devane didn’t play much either. I’d say play Ashton more, but Carlyle has to be willing to and it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to give him much ice time just yet. Even when the missing players return, I’m sure others will get injured and the Leafs aren’t exactly flush with NHL depth in the AHL. A younger player such as Jacob Josefson, who isn’t even playing for the Devils right now, would be really intriguing, or a bubble veteran such as Jay Beagle would be useful to have around.