You have to give Dave Nonis credit: The Leafs needed a center, so he went out and got one.
It was only a few weeks ago that I wondered aloud, in this very space, whether or not Nonis would pull the trigger to fill a position of sudden need, knowing he sat on his hands when he was faced with this same depleted center situation in Vancouver.
Every GM in the NHL had to know the Leafs were in a tough spot already with Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland down, only for Nazem Kadri to get suspended and leave the Leafs without their top three centers. I don’t care who you are, no organization survives that.
With one of their best wingers trying to play center and a career minor leaguer making up the Leafs top six center group, Nonis had to do something. He delivered.
Peter Holland isn’t a saviour at center for the Leafs by any means, but he’s going to help them. On Saturday, his presence alone pushed JVR back to the wing and that made all the difference as the Leafs winger looked more comfortable back in his regular position and potted two goals in a 4-2 win.
There are two great things about the deal to bring in Holland. The first is that the Leafs didn’t give up anything they’re likely to regret. Jesse Blacker is a player who has a chance to play in the NHL, but the Leafs have depth when it comes to defensive prospects so drawing from that well is hardly going to hurt them. It seems that all of Granberg, MacWilliam and Percy have passed Blacker on the depth chart, and the Leafs have a young defense in the NHL as it is with Gardiner, Rielly and even Franson (26) already there. Giving up picks is always dicey, but it’s a third that can turn into a second if Holland plays 25 games; if he does, that means he’s been worth it to the Leafs. A second round pick is a price you pay for a productive center any day of the week.
The second thing to love about this deal is that there’s a lot of upside and potential to it. As Alec noted yesterday, Holland has an impressive AHL PPG among his peers, along with a good pedigree as a fifteenth overall pick. What else really stood out was Holland’s size. At 6’2, and nearly 200 pounds, he’s a big boy who instantly became the Leafs biggest center with skill. Playing Holland with JVR and Kessel gave the Leafs a more prototypical top line than a Kadri or Bozak does because he’s the big, skilled, center most teams could use. Does that mean he’ll pan out there and usurp both those players? No, not at all. But the potential is there, and that’s why you have to love this move.
With the Bolland injury an unknown right now, Holland gives the Leafs a piece to play with down the line-up once Bozak and Kadri return. Expect to see Carlyle go back to playing the Bozak line against opposition top lines, and that could mean Holland will have the opportunity to eat up secondary lines while possibly centering Raymond and Kulemin (similar to what Kadri did last season).
He isn’t a perfect prospect, and that’s why the Leafs didn’t have to give up a ton to acquire him, but he’s going to get a good opportunity now to prove himself in this league at a time when he should be ripe to take the next step in his career at 22 years old. It’s up to Holland now to seize the chance.
This trade isn’t a sure-fire bet to pan out, but it’s the kind of gamble smart GMs make.
- Nikolai Kulemin does a ton of the grunt work for the Leafs, so the “it’s about time” attitude is a little frustrating when he finally scores a goal. Kulemin mainly played with Ashton and McClement this week until the Leafs added some depth. Ashton has one career point to his name, and McClement has one point this season. Why should Kulemin be expected to produce offense with these two? It’s no coincidence that as soon as he plays with Raymond he gets a scoring chance and buries. When he played with Kadri and Lupul against Boston, their line dominated for stretches and created zone time and scoring chances (remember the Kulemin slap-pass to Kadri where Rask robbed him?). Look at his other two assists: first one was against Montreal where he won a battle to Kadri, who passed it to Phaneuf off the rush for a goal; the second one he won a battle for Lupul, who passed it to Bolland for a goal. When he plays with skilled linemates he creates space and can wire the puck when given the opportunity, but often he plays with the McClements and Ashtons and that adds up to a whole lot of games not getting any points. He’s easily a 40+ point guy in a scoring role but he’s so valuable to the Leafs defensively that he’s asked to sacrifice points for goal prevention.
- All that said to stick-up for Kulemin, there’s no excuse for him to have only three shots on net in eight games. Kulemin has a cannon and has to let it go more often; he’s capable of getting the puck and quickly snapping it by NHL goalies.
I’d actually really like to see Kulemin make more of an effort to simply shoot the puck on net more, no matter where he is on the ice (i.e. scoring area or not), but the Leafs don’t seem to play that system at all so I doubt that happens. Ron Wilson used to harp on Kulemin all the time to shoot more. During Kulemin’s 30-goal season, he played 82 games and had 173 shots on net. In the 126 games since, he has just 182 shots on net.
- Credit where it’s due: Gunnarsson played excellent against Minnesota. On one three on two rush against, Phaneuf closed the gap on a forward coming down the boards, so the Wild forward slid it to his teammate cutting through the middle and Gunnarsson read the play, slid across, and then took away the cross-crease pass that would have resulted in a dangerous scoring chance. On Kadri’s five minute major, he blocked a huge one-timer from Jared Spurgeon, which might have been the Wild’s best opportunity throughout those five minutes. Then, on Saturday against Buffalo, Gunnarsson played a season high 26:14. I would still like to see from offense from him, though; he has one point through 20 games and only ten shots on net. Defensive role or not, he has more to give than that.
- Gunnarsson has one shot on net in his last seven games.
- Kind of surprising, Lupul has two points in his last nine games. Last week he had a good two games but only came away with a point, but this week was a tough one for him, JVR, or Kessel to get into a groove as a newly formed line with JVR playing center for the first time. Lupul was producing points at an insane rate and eventually had to cool off; his current season totals have him at a 54-point pace, which is more in line with what you would expect a guy playing on the second line to do. For what it’s worth, I think he’ll get hot again and bump up his point totals. As long as he’s on the top power play unit, he should expect to push 60+ points. But second line and second PP duty will make it tough on him.
- It’s much too early to talk about Holland in detail, but he had one play where he got the puck in his own zone, lugged it through his own zone, and went through two Sabres in the neutral zone before dumping it down deep (you might remember the play because Myers should have been called for interference on a late hit after he dumped it). If he can lug the puck up ice like that, he’s going to be extremely valuable to the Leafs; other than Kadri, the Leafs don’t really have any other centers who can do that, including Bolland. Another center who can carry the puck will help the breakout so much, but again it’s far too early to make that determination based on one play. I’ll be looking to see how Holland carries the puck in the weeks to come, though.
- Let’s get to another center: Trevor Smith. In the summer, JT Bourne over at the score wrote a blog on Smith and his unreal release which you can read here. His goal against Buffalo was a great example of that. Clarkson didn’t exactly tee him up, but he gave him a chance to shoot and Smith got it off quickly. Obviously he got a bounce by it redirecting off a shin pad and in, but the quick release made it happen. He later hit the crossbar in that game. The next night, Smith played 20:03, an NHL career high. All of a sudden, between Smith, signing Smithson, and trading for Holland, the Leafs have reasonable center depth.
- Sure, JVR didn’t look great at center, but what did people expect? He had never played center in the NHL before and he only got four games there, yet the mainstream media was all over him for a five-game pointless streak. That’s the Toronto market at its finest.
- You can tell Mason Raymond is just a well-coached hockey player. His give and go with Kulemin was textbook hockey; Raymond cut across the ice, Kulemin banked it to him off the boards, and then Raymond found Kulemin as the high forward. The first time I thought that about Raymond was this goal against Ottawa.
- He just played the down low game with Kadri so well. He set up down low, took the pass, Kadri hit the hole, and he realized there was no pass option there, so he skated to the half wall (instead of just standing still as so many players do), and then found Lupul in the slot. It’s almost scary to think where this team might be if they hadn’t signed Raymond. Maybe he’ll trail off as the year goes on, but his 15 points in 20 games to start the season has been huge in keeping the Leafs ahead amid all the injuries and suspensions.
- Raymond had a four point week last week. Clarkson actually had a two point week, despite all the heat for still not scoring. It’s coming Leafs fans, and once he gets one, he will get rolling. Another player that will eventually get rolling, too: Jake Gardiner. He has four points in 20 games, but he has played very well and is seeing steady second unit power play time.
- After Franson’s stick accidentally smacked the puck right to Steve Ott for an easy open net goal in Buffalo, Franson stayed back and explained to Bernier what happened on the goal. Some goalies like to have their minds cleared after allowing a goal by understanding what happened to get some closure before moving on. Just thought that was neat to see.
- Ranger made a great play in Buffalo to intercept a puck, and move it up to Ashton for a quick strike two-on-one, and then later lead a rush where he dished the puck off and received a really neat slap pass from Colton Orr. He’s really turning the corner for the Leafs and playing some solid hockey.
- Carlyle has been putting Smithson and McClement out together for defensive zone draws in case one or the other gets kicked out. I’ll be interested to see if that continues once Bozak returns. Like I said last week: I think I want the Leafs to run a Ashton-McClement-Smithson fourth line.
- A lot of people thought last week was going to be tough for the Leafs, especially after Kadri got suspended, but going 1-1-1 isn’t too bad especially when you consider the Leafs were a giveaway away from beating Minnesota, and JVR getting robbed by Ehrhoff, from getting points in all three games. Sometimes the bounces go your way, sometimes they don’t, but the Leafs were right in the games last week. Yes, Buffalo is really bad, but the Leafs have always struggled in Buffalo. With it being Ted Nolan’s first game back, that was always going to be a tough one for the Leafs, healthy or not.
- The Leafs are 5-4-1 in their last ten, which is tied with Boston and only bested by four teams in the East. No question the Leafs need to bank some points because their December schedule is crazy, but they’ve been hanging in there just fine so far and reinforcements are just about to arrive.
The Leafs currently have the third-worst power play time minus penalty kill time in the league, and they need to find a way to stay more disciplined. Some are getting on the penalty kill, but it’s really not their fault. When you’re in the box as much as the Leafs are, eventually teams are going to figure you out and bury.
- Not that it means much in terms of indicating how good a team is at killing penalties, but the Leafs actually lead the league in shorthanded goals with four. They are tied for seventh in power play goals.
“I believe there is something out there that can help us make decisions. To date, I haven’t seen it. … We’re going to continue to pursue it… The biggest thing we use is going to watch a player play. I haven’t seen anything that’s going to stop that from being the primary source of our decisions.”
- Dave Nonis on advanced stats in hockey.
The Leafs are 38-24-6 under Nonis so far, so whatever he’s doing is working so far.
“They might give up some shots but they give up a lot of shots from the outside. They do a good job protecting the inside.”
- Wild coach Mike Yeo, commenting on the Leafs defensive play.
When the shot trackers show us this, opposing coaches note it, and the Leafs players believe that’s what’s happening, it’s probably happening.
“A little more comfortable playing there. Allows me to do different things [like] be in front of the net more often.”
- JVR, on his move back to the wing.
Last week I noted how JVR was taking the puck and still veering wide off the rush despite playing center, but this is another excellent point.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think, when Kadri returns, I’d keep Holland with JVR and Kessel just so that Kadri can finally start playing with Lupul and Clarkson and start growing some familiarity and chemistry. Provided Holland continues to impress, of course. When Bozak returns in a week or what not, he can seamlessly slide back in with the top unit and that way you can mitigate the constant change and roster shuffle happening within the line-up.
2 – On that note, I think I’d keep Trevor Smith up on the third line between Raymond and Kulemin until Bozak returns. He simply deserves it, there’s no other way to put it. Smith was arguably their most dangerous forward on Friday against Buffalo, and played well again on Saturday. He’s probably just running on adrenaline right now, but I’m a big believer in giving players opportunities when they earn it, and right now Smith is earning it.
3 – I think I’d put Rielly with Paul Ranger and keep the top four the same. The Leafs have had trouble putting pucks in the other net lately, not keeping them out of theirs, so I would keep the defense the same. Besides, Rielly is an upgrade on Fraser at this point. Mark Fraser said he’s playing with a brace, and it really looks like it is affecting him. He was struggling to skate with any sort of fluidity.
4 – I think, with the Islanders, Predators and Capitals on the schedule this week, I’d go Reimer-Bernier-Reimer based on familiarity and the fact that Reimer was the only goalie to win last week. All three Leafs games are at home this week. They need to come out ahead and should really be pushing to go at least 2-1-0.
5 – I think twenty games into the season is the first real time to judge this team, but it’s tough to get a read because of the rotating roster. That said, a few things are worth noting:
- The Leafs are the real deal in net.
- Paul Ranger is slowly turning into a solid defenseman.
- The team will probably get outshot more often than not this season, but can score enough to make up for it.
- Their special teams are excellent, but relying on them too much is a recipe for disaster.
- Eventually, this team will need to acquire a solid defenseman if they want to make a serious run. Based on recent reports, I think Nonis knows that.