It is a little ironic that Dave Nonis left Vancouver this past weekend with an eerily similar problem to the one he faced while GM of the Canucks.
During the 2007-08 season – Nonis’ last with the Canucks — the team had 12 defensemen suit up due to injuries on the back end. Regulars Kevin Bieksa and Mattias Ohlund missed significant time, waiver claim (before the season started) Mike Weaver ended up playing 55 games, and players such as Lukas Krajicek, Luc Bourdon, and Nathan McIver ended up playing a lot more than intended. That’s because ultimately Nonis didn’t make one move (waiver claim, trade, or otherwise) to bring in a defenseman. Although that’s not the only reason the Canucks fell, a team that won their division with 105 points the year before missed the playoffs altogether by three points leading to Nonis getting fired.
At the time it was said that the Canucks could have had Brad Richards for a package that would have included Cory Schneider, and that young players like Ryan Kesler could have been moved to bring in players to help them make the playoffs that year. Ultimately, Nonis passed because he kept the bigger picture in mind.
So the question is: What will Dave Nonis do this time around?
Last week Nonis told TSN:
“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re a lot better than we were. The reserve list is stronger than it was. Our farm team is younger and still remaining competitive. There’s a lot of good things happening, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. I don’t think we could stand up and [say] that we’re close to done. We have a lot of work yet to do and if we want to get to be one of those elite teams. I wouldn’t say we’re a long way away, but we definitely need to continue to improve and add the pieces that those upper-echelon teams have.”
“We’re not there yet. We need to continue to add those pieces so I wouldn’t say we would never move a first round pick or a young player, but if we do at least at this stage of our development it’ll be for another young player; it’s not going to be for an older player.”
Does that sound like a GM that’s going to make a move to bring in a center to help the team out?
Tyler Bozak’s eligible to return November 19th against the Islanders, provided he’ll be healthy enough to play by then. In the meantime the Leafs have games against the Devils, Bruins, Wild, and a back-to-back against the Sabres. That’s not terrible.
Five games isn’t a dramatic enough amount of time to make a knee-jerk reaction, you would think. The Leafs have kicked around the idea of trying JVR at center since they acquired him; with them being off until Friday, he would have plenty of time to practice there if that’s the direction the Leafs decide to go in. Last year Mason Raymond was a part of a Canucks team that had their own center injuries to deal with and he ended up playing some center himself; David Clarkson also mentioned that he, too, has played center.
Even when the Leafs do get Bozak back, though, the problems aren’t exactly solved at center ice. Bolland was acquired to do the heavy lifting for this team. In an ideal world he goes up against the other team’s best players and that frees up the Kessel unit to get easier match-ups, while the unit beyond that runs roughshod on third lines. Once Bozak returns the Leafs will be forced to put the JVR-Bozak-Kessel unit back up against top lines as they had been for a bit already, and that’s going to hurt the offensive totals of those players and force the other guys to step up.
If Bolland is out for only a few months, maybe the Leafs can survive (they have an easy November for NHL standards, and there is of course a little winter break). If Bolland is going to be out until March (four months), the Leafs might ultimately have to look at center options regardless.
For now, Nonis doesn’t have to panic and make a kneejerk reaction to a tough situation. The Leafs just have to continue keeping their head above water, bide their time until Bozak returns, and see what they look like after he does. That will be the time to consider making a move unless something falls in their lap.
It’s a tough situation, but the Leafs are just going to have to fight through it… not expect anyone to come in and save them.
- I understand why a lot of fans have made Colborne remarks in light of all these center injuries (and this was a concern I had as soon as the rumours came up), but I’ll say this for the Leafs: they gave him every opportunity to stick and he was brutal. While it was just preseason and I would have kept him for depth purposes alone, it’s not like he didn’t get opportunities here. Sometimes people need a reality check before they bear down and start realizing their potential, and maybe that’s what happened to Colborne when he was cast away. Or maybe the Leafs just got caught in a cap crunch and are paying for it a bit right now.
- This is a Leafs blog, but if you want to see an example of how not to back-check, watch Sam Gagner chase JVR here before he scored to put the Leafs up 2-0 against Edmonton. And the Oilers wonder why they aren’t a successful team.
- Last season Kadri-Kessel lit up Florida, this season they lit up Edmonton, and apparently that’s enough to conclude those two should be playing together no questions asked. Kadri has more skill than any other center on the Leafs, and it obviously compliments Kessel extremely well, but that line did pretty well nothing against Vancouver and wasn’t very good against Calgary, either. Unfortunately, due to the Bolland injury, we might not even continue to see them together so that’s all we have to go by.
- One thing to keep in mind is this: regardless of whether Bozak centers JVR and Kessel or Kadri does, those two stud wingers are going to put up their points. Having Kadri anchor another line isn’t a bad idea because Bozak won’t bring out the best in Lupul the way Kadri will. Frankly, alternating the two seems to make the most sense.
- After the Leafs acquired JVR, MLHS held our annual interviews with management and it was brought up more than a few times how they thought JVR-Kessel would be a great duo for years to come. They spoke so highly of that potential combo that I thought the Leafs weren’t going to resign Lupul. Little did I know.
- I was pretty surprised at all the people taken back by how good Bolland is; he’s always been a good player, injuries have just been his problem more than anything else. In no way is his current injury his fault, but here is hurt again. Such a shame.
- On Stajan’s goal against the Leafs, Ray Ferraro really gave it to Kadri, but it was more Gunnarsson’s fault than anything. Yeah, Kadri lost the draw and got beat by his man along the wall, but Stajan became open because Gunnarsson stepped over and left Stajan in the slot once Kadri got beat to the outside inside the zone; once Gunnarsson left, Stajan he was slipped a pass and scored. Kadri made the initial mistakes and Gunnarsson was trying to cover for him but defense is all about risk management, essentially, and leaving a guy in the slot to pursue a guy in the corner just doesn’t make sense on any level. They both share blame, but Gunnarsson should have held off. If you were wondering, Phaneuf was covering his man in the corner, so it was a clear man-to-man.
- The Leafs getting outshot the way they did this week didn’t really bother me all too much. Against Edmonton, they scored right away and pretty well played like they knew the game was in their hands. Against Calgary, the team was up 2-0 after the first and pretty well put it into cruise control. When Calgary closed within one the Leafs came out a little more focused, shots were only 2-2 to start the third period before the Leafs scored. In fact, shots were only 7-8 in favour of Calgary that period as the Leafs just bore down and did what they had to do.
- The Vancouver game was bad on the shots front, and there are no excuses for that, but that’s how the Leafs play hockey and there’s going to be stinkers like that every so often. The key questions are: Can they avoid the long slumps, and can they start closing the gap on those shot totals? If the Leafs can keep the shot counts within reason, I’ll take their goal scorers and goalies over almost anyone.
- One thing I’ve really begun paying attention to is the mental side of hockey. As long as the Leafs are winning games like they are where they get outshot by a ton and still win, naturally they aren’t going to care about that on account of the winning. But if a few more loses like the one against Vancouver, especially in a row, will really change their sense of urgency in that regard. They aren’t going to change until they have to; last season I think Boston exposed their need to adapt and they did.
- When the JVR-Kadri-Kessel line is dominated by Higgins-Santorelli-Burrows, as they were early on in the Canucks game, it’s not a system thing, it’s not a personnel thing, it’s not a “lack of possession players” thing, it’s a work ethic thing. Period. There is just no way the Leafs top line should be outplayed by those three. No way.
- Really starting to wonder about Carl Gunnarsson’s hip and if it’s affecting him. Against Edmonton, Phaneuf went D-to-D with him just inside the blue line and Gunnarsson turned up ice to pass it, hesitated, and lost the puck. The rest of the shift was spent in the Leafs zone. Against Calgary, Gunnarsson was muscled off the puck by Mike Cammalleri leading to the Leafs getting hemmed in their own zone. When he broke into the league, I got to see Carl live in a game against San Jose and I came away really impressed with how he was able to muscle off Joe Thornton, of all people, off of pucks, and he was always known as a fluid skater (but not necessarily a great one). Now his movement looks stiff and he isn’t as strong along the boards as he once was. Last season it was sort of shrugged off because everyone knew he was playing hurt, but you have to start wondering how much it’s affecting him and if he’ll ever be the same. Gunnarsson has alluded to it being an injury he’ll always have to play with.
- Gunnarsson is only averaging 19:18 of ice time this season, which is down substantially from the 21:16 he averaged last season. In his first three seasons worth of games he had 203 shots on net in 187 games. Adding the first 15 games of 2013-14 to his last season gives him 37 shots in 52 games. So far he’s on pace for five points this year, after playing to a 33 point last season and showing he can be a 20-30 point guy during the seasons before that.
- When Carlyle puts out Phaneuf with Bolland’s unit out to start a game (or any line really), they’re expected to set the tone. Against Vancouver they got completely dominated by the Sedins to start the game and Vancouver just built on that start, translating it into a dominating first ten minutes or so. If you watch the top teams in the league, they usually have a set unit they put out to start the game and get the ball rolling. Chicago pretty well always puts out Toews, Boston plays Bergeron, and so on. Last season Carlyle actually used Grabovski’s unit quite often to start games since they were the shutdown line, and until now it was Bolland this season. They have to begin starting games strong, whoever it is.
- It’s a red flag if the team doesn’t come out motivated against New Jersey after sitting on the Vancouver loss all week.
Good chats w/ Bernier + Reimer Friday, both recognize # of chances needs to come down, but wouldn't trade spots w/ goalie at other end (1/2)
— Kevin Woodley (@KevinisInGoal) November 2, 2013
Leafs G know it's hard to watch them pile up saves while getting cold at other end + then Toronto has lots of finishers who only need 1 shot
— Kevin Woodley (@KevinisInGoal) November 2, 2013
One thing not talked about that much is exactly that: the opposition goalie getting cold then all of a sudden getting scored on.
“Winning in this league is all about competing and competing honestly. If you do those two things anybody can beat anyone. You look at some teams in the playoffs who are clearly not nearly as skilled as other teams and yet they find ways to win, why? Because they outwork them; they do little things right. It’s a stupid cliché, but that’s the way it is.”
- James Reimer on competing.
Last season the Leafs got outshot a lot, but I never questioned their work ethic. This season it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, as they’ve really played some lifeless games. Losing is one thing, but not having the compete level as high as it needs to be is a whole different problem. Hopefully the Leafs start to rediscover that work ethic.
“I think it takes time to get used to. I’ve got to get used to the way things are here. I’m never going to change the way I play [or] what made me successful. I’m trying to find where that leash is that I have to get to. But I’m starting to get used to the coaching staff a little bit and the way things are. I think as a pro you’ve got to learn who you’re playing with and learn the role you have to play. I’m just trying to figure that whole role out right now.”
- David Clarkson on adjusting to the Leafs.
Sounds to me like he’s overthinking things. Just play your game, Clarkson, and the rest will take care of itself.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think I’d try JVR at center with Kessel and put any of Lupul/Clarkson/Kulemin on the wing with them (the latter two protect them defensively). My initial instinct would actually be to try Kulemin with the two. I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice to finally get the Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson trio together, and we’ve seen Kulemin take on the center’s defensive responsibilities in his own zone before; maybe he can cover for JVR. The main point of this all is trying JVR at center, as the Leafs play three of their next five games against less talented teams in New Jersey and Buffalo twice. It’s worth rolling the dice and seeing what happens.
2 – I think it’s time for the Rielly-Franson experiment to stop and get back to the Gardiner-Franson pairing that was so successful against Boston in the playoffs. They got burned for a clean two on one goal against Vancouver, gave up more than a few odd man rushes throughout the week in general, and really just haven’t done anything to overly impress as a pairing. Gardiner’s been playing the right side with Ranger; I wonder if the handedness is why Carlyle doesn’t want Rielly with Ranger instead, but Ranger did play right D with the Marlies at times and Rielly did as well with Moose Jaw. If there’s one thing the current coaching staff is guilty of with the defense, it’s sticking with things that don’t work until it becomes as painfully obvious as it can be that it’s not going to work (Kostka, Holzer, etc.). Rielly will probably be better than Gardiner in the long run, but he’s not better right now. I’m not sure why the Leafs are trying to reinvent the wheel; put your top guys together, and give Ranger-Rielly the softest and easiest of match-ups.
3 – I think the player to call up is Josh Leivo. He has the scoring touch, and he can make up for little bit of lost offense from whoever they move to center. Also, thinking long term, the more time Leivo gets in the league right now the better prepared he’ll be next season to takeover when at least one of Raymond or Kulemin leave via free agency. The Leafs have to be loving what they’ve seen from this kid so far.
4 – I think I’d give Trevor Smith a bit more of a chance offensively to prove himself and showcase whether or not he can seriously help the Leafs this season now that Bolland is out long term. Smith has only played over 10 minutes once this season (the Edmonton game), and has mainly played with the enforcers. He has proven he can score in the AHL and he has good size (6’1) to go with a strong shot and decent skating. As mentioned, Bozak will probably assume the top checking responsibilities once he returns, so if Smith proves he can center some scorers that would allow McClement to go back to the fourth line and eat up PK minutes like he’s used to.
5 – I think I’d claim Sutter off waivers from Carolina. He’s a free center who has shown he can play in the NHL. There’s a difference between making a kneejerk reaction (how many people brought up trading Kulemin Saturday night for a center?) and claiming a cheap player for free. Even trading a depth pick for a depth center would be nice just to have some options. The Marlies are weak at center and the Leafs are one more injury at center away from really being up against the wall. Any insurance would be nice at this point, especially for a cheap price like a waiver claim or trading a late pick.