Game Preview: Center-poor Leafs trudge into Buffalo

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Photo: Getty Images via NHL.com

I’d say at least it can’t get much worse, but I wouldn’t want to tempt fate.

With Nazem Kadri sidelined by suspension, the Leafs find themselves in a position where their best active natural center is a player with one point in 17 games.

We’ll find out if the plan is to shift another winger to the middle (Raymond or Clarkson being the most likely candidates) or to simply call up Trevor Smith as the day progresses. The former scenario would involve calling up a winger, be it Josh Leivo (scored for the Marlies last night in a 3-1 loss) or Spencer Abbott.

The Leafs are struggling heavily with even strength offensive production as of late; while it is the 4-15-1 Sabres, one can’t imagine they will be breaking out in a big way with their top three centers missing for the next three games. It may further emphasize the need to capitalize on powerplays and win the special teams battle. Toronto has won a number of games with good special teams and great goaltending this season, and that may have to be the formula for the team to earn the team a few points before help arrives.

The Leafs have not been able to generate their usual rush opportunities against good defensive competition in recent games. Also hurting that component of their game has been James van Riemsdyk moving  to center ice, where he is not able to take the same advantage of counter attacking opportunities while playing the middle and tracking back deeper into the defensive zone.

The Leafs are lacking in a serious way at a crucial position, but they do still have some scoring talent in the lineup. Some of Kessel, JvR, Raymond, Clarkson and Kulemin will have to find a way to break through as the four have combined for just two points in the last four games (1-2-1), and zero even-strength points. Their center depth may have been obliterated, but these players should be able to find some opportunities against a team that allows more than three goals and 36 shots a game.

For the Sabres, this is their first game under a new head coach in Ted Nolan. Not that Nolan will have this team turned around after two practices, but there’s an infusion of motivation when the responsibility shifts onto the players after a coaching change, and in the early going, at least, it usually translates to some extra jump in the step. Sabres-Leafs games in Buffalo are usually spirited affairs to begin with.

As for the John Scott storyline, besides these anticipated vengeful, bad-blood match ups rarely living up to the hype, Carlyle’s message suggests it’s pretty far from his team’s mind nearly two months later:

“It happened a long time ago. It’s things like that that we don’t like to remember, and we just try to move on from that. We’re here to play a hockey game that’s going to give us the best chance for success, and they’re a hockey club who wants to show their new coach what they’re made of.”

Not to say Colton Orr doesn’t have fighting John Scott in the back of his mind, but when the Leafs are already banged up and suspended, and with two points on the line, it’s hard to imagine Scott being on the forefront of the Leaf thought process or else Carlyle isn’t doing his job.

As a fan, you’re hoping these adverse circumstances can turn into galvanizing character efforts wherein players step up and find ways to win games. Let’s find out what the Leafs can do. Obviously, center problems aside, this is a very beatable Sabres team.

 LeafsSabres
Record11-6-14-15-1
GF/G2.78 (12th)1.65 (30th)
GA/G2.28 (6th)3.15 (27th)
SF/G26.5 (28th)24.8 (30th)
SA/G36.4 (28th)36.9 (29th)
PP22.2% (6th)13.6% (23rd)
PK84.9% (8th)81.2 (20th)
5 on 5 F/A1.12 (9th)0.53 (30th)
Sh%10.5% (4th)6.7% (29th)
Sv%93.7% (2nd)91.5% (14th)
FO%46% (25th)45.4% (26th)

No word yet on who is starting in net for the Leafs, but either way the two goalies will split the back to back.

To mix in a little trade speculation for your Friday – With the Panthers beginning their sale yesterday, thoughts on Shawn Matthias?

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]
  • LightmyLeaf

    morning all – game day upon us…how many centers do you really need anyways?….

  • Burtonboy

    Suck it up boys and prove all the negative nancy’s wrong. If the players left on the roster  play even close to their potential we can beat these 2 teams

  • lieffan

    “As a fan, you’re hoping these adverse circumstances can turn into galvanizing character efforts wherein players step up and find ways to win games.”
    This. The competition isn’t so tough that the Leafs can’t do this. We just need our best players , who we still have in the lineup in jvr, kessel, lupul, phaneuf, to be our best players.

  • lieffan

    Also, yes to Shawn Matthias. 
    I wouldn’t be opposted to Fiddler if he’s cheap. Matthias will be pricier but comes with upside at a position where the Leafs could use the help.

  • John

    @lieffan On that note, Kessel has played two really poor games in a row. I don’t expect that to last against a team that can’t defend.

  • Burtonboy

    https://twitter.com/TSNResearchhttps://twitter.com/TSNResearch/status/401328888820686849
    Penguins have lost 3 straight games, scoring 1G in each game, all on the PP.
    Guess who else has had trouble scoring lol

  • John

    Burtonboy REGRESSION!

  • Mind Bomb

    Good morning Folks !

  • ProfessorRance

    @lieffan Would be a nice add but dont know if Florida would be willing to move him to us.

  • LightmyLeaf

    Mind Bomb Good morn MB, happy Friday!

  • Robbies

    After all is said and done…..the obvious negative league bias
    Towards our boys….Kadri was on their radar screen bigtime…..should
    Lead us to stand up tall and appeal the disgraceful decision……
    Time Nonis et al scream foul real loud cuz this stinks to” high,high heavan”
    Comments ?

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Robbies Is what it is at this point. No consistency and the Leafs got fucked at both ends of it, between Reimer’s injury and Kadri’s suspension. 
    No sense in complaining anymore.

  • ProfessorRance

    Alec Brownscombe Robbies Agreed. Wouldnt be worth it, especially since it would come with a healthy fine.

  • Mind Bomb

    Yaknowwhat Mind Bomb Sup Yak BBQ Buffalo for dinner tonight, Orr is going to tenderize it for us :)

  • Mind Bomb

    LightmyLeaf Mind Bomb  Morning LML thank god, Back to back games, things are looking up !

  • mcloki

    Morning MB, folks. Could be a very interesting

  • MaxwellHowe

    Lets avoid a silly,desperate Ryan O’Byrne move here.  Put McKegg in #1 C b/w JVR and Kessel.  Their history suggests they are deadly without a true #1 centre.  Tell McKegg just to backcheck and keep his game simple.  The kid’s enthusiasm may be infectious.  God knows the Leafs need a spark.

  • Robbies

    Except I do NOT want his style of play to change one iota.
    Kadri is Dougie 2.0….. A gift to us from afar …

  • Uncle Otis

    Just wanted again to say kudos to Alec for swimming against the typical media tide yesterday…took courage to suffer the inevitable slings and arrows.
    Funny,I saw Alec post that one infamous group of trolls accused you of trying to invent a narrative.
    What a load of horseshit.
    This from a group that continues their own narrative/ agenda no matter what the evidence says to the contrary…always with a negative bias against their “home team”
    You were a true leader… and spoke up for the frustrations of the vast majority of posters camped out in your house.
    Keep making us proud Alec, Dec and the MLHS gang
    Cheers

  • Robbies

    You Sir are bang on 100% ….fight to prevent egregious outcomes
    Down the line…cuz our boiys gotta plat some bad to be good !!!!

  • lieffan

    Uncle Otis Agreed, Alec has always been an articulate voice representing Leaf fans in a pretty toxic media environment. This dates back to the early days when he was the Jesus to Howard Berger’s satan. 
    And I thought he covered his bases well with his post yesterday. It was a pretty balanced look at it while also calling bullshit on the suspension.

  • Robbies

    Proud to be amongst colleagyes here….daily

  • ConnorCrisp

    Hard for the pens to be motivated when they are basically a lock for 1 seed in the divison regardless what they do

  • theacs1966

    `Who did Fla trade yesterday?` 8

  • ConnorCrisp

    Versteeg to chi

  • theacs1966

    ConnorCrisp No shit?  Was that late last night?

  • ProfessorRance

    theacs1966 ConnorCrisp Yeah around 11:30 ish

  • Burtonboy

    MaxwellHowe What are you seeing in McKegg to think he’s even remotely ready to play as # 1 center between JVR and Kessel . Even Kyle Cicerella who covers the Marlies closer then anyone says its not a good idea

  • lieffan

    -Keon- lol I know you’re fucking around, but that’s a Sean Payton scenario. Banned from the game for a while, maybe permanently for putting bounties out.

  • theacs1966

    ProfessorRance theacs1966 ConnorCrisp I see on TSN it’s posted at 12:06.  I usually stop checking after 11 for trades.  Wonder if he’ll find his mojo back in Chi, cause he hasn’t had it anywhere else.

  • Cameron19

    MaxwellHowe Just because Bozak isn’t Crosby doesn’t mean you can replace him with McKegg.  McKegg is struggling at the AHL level.  He will be destroyed in the 1C role in the NHL. They will continue to trot wingers out as centers and hope to win 1-0.

  • lieffan

    -Keon- So we can get more of our players suspended and completely derail the season?

  • MaxwellHowe

    CanuckUKinToronto MaxwellHowe No, I’m talking about the slow and useless dman the Leafs got from the Avs last spring

  • Cameron19

    -Keon- I’d be taking aim at the refs. “Boys if you need to get the puck out, a hard clapper off the stripes and out usually works.”

  • Mind Bomb

    mcloki  Morning MC going to be fun to watch ! Cant wait for tonight

  • lieffan

    -Keon- I’m as mad as the next guy about the suspension but why are you promoting intent to injure other players. Lost perspective that point.

  • wendelsway1

    Good Game Day Morning Fellas………a great day to be a Leafer.  I gotta think that when a team has to face the adversity of not having three of their Cmen in the line up, you either have the character to play through the adversity and win……or you don’t.  Buffalo is beatable.  A great time for Clarkson to get a little payback for his suspension by getting on the scoreboard……..GO LEAFS GO!!!

  • ProfessorRance

    theacs1966 ProfessorRance ConnorCrisp The time sounds about right. I heard they benched him in florida for lack of effort which is quite terrible especially being an older player on a young team.

  • docyqx

    CanuckUKinToronto Robbies 
    The Largest and Most Powerful fan base in the league should put said league on notice :
    VIDEO EVIDENCE is what we need, and lots of it, proving the missed calls the blatant one sided officiating…PUBLICIZE a video package proving the league isn’t as infallible as they claim.

  • lieffan

    ProfessorRance theacs1966 ConnorCrisp Versteeg has always been an incorrigible POS.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Cameron19 MaxwellHowe If his role was simplified, he would do fine.  Gotta think outside the box here.

  • theacs1966

    @lieffan ProfessorRance theacs1966 ConnorCrisp I’m not up on shorthand, what is POS?

  • Cameron19

    -Keon- We’re on the same page this morning, Keon.  This is terrifying.

  • Uncle Otis

    wendelsway1 
    Unsure what to expect tonight from this gang and especially the Sabres…but hopeful Dion,Clarkson and Lups can show their leadership qualities and will this group to win.
    One thing is certain…there will be blood
    We are equipped well to answer that challenge at least :)

  • Burtonboy

    Cameron19 -Keon- Actually wasn’t one of the refs in that  game the guy who got pissed off at Franson for that very thing ?

  • theacs1966

    ProfessorRance theacs1966 ConnorCrisp It would be hard to play inspired hockey on a shit team like that.  Still others give it their all, he should to.

  • Cameron19

    Burtonboy Cameron19 -Keon- Hit him the hardest.

  • ProfessorRance

    theacs1966 ProfessorRance ConnorCrisp piece of s***

  • Burtonboy

    -Keon- I thought so . Talk about getting even…  jesus

  • lieffan

    Cameron19 -Keon- LOL, Cameron.
    I can imagine for a man long convinced of anti leaf prejudice in officiating you are stewing today.