Leafs Notebook – December 26

Leafs Notebook – December 26

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With tomorrow’s game vs. Buffalo representing the 40th game of 2013-14, the Leafs are nearly at the halfway mark of the season. The Leafs, 18-16-5, currently hold the final playoff spot in the East, are 3-5-2 in their last ten, and will try to fend off the Flyers and Hurricanes who are both three points behind them with games in hand.

Now seems as good a time as any to look at the early returns of the Leafs most recent moves. Without further ado:

Acquired players

David Clarkson - The Leafs are finding out his best role is that of a shutdown guy on this team. It’s where he’s played his best hockey with this group thus far. With Grabovski last season, I argued it was worth the money if the Leafs can find someone that’s capable in the shutdown role because the role is tough to fill. I’ll say the same thing again here: If Clarkson’s a shutdown guy who chips in like he has been lately, and the team makes the playoffs, nobody will complain. If the Leafs don’t make the playoffs…

Dave Bolland - He was looking great before he got hurt, but he was also producing at a roughly 55 point pace shooting 22% to start the season. He has never been a 50 point guy, so chances are he just started hot. He unfortunately has an injury history (although this one is a bit different because he’s missing a major chunk of the season with a freak accident), so nobody can be too surprised he’s missing time; how it happened and how long he’s out is bad luck. Bolland’s only 27 and a good center who fits on this team, but the price has to make sense. I liked how Bolland and Clarkson looked together.

Mason Raymond – For $1M on a one year deal, nobody can complain with the value of the Raymond signing as he’s on pace to put up over 50 points. It’s not Raymond’s fault he’s playing so much and he’s third on the team in scoring, but when Mason Raymond is that vital to a hockey team, chances are it isn’t that great of a team (before any asks: Raymond was 7th on the Canucks in scoring and played under 16 minutes a night the season Vancouver went to the Cup).

Peter Holland - In terms of value, need, potential and all things considered this might be Nonis’ best move to date. He’s only 22, he was fantastic in the AHL (105 points in 119 games), he’s a big center, and he’s begun scoring at the NHL level. For what’s most likely going to cost a second round pick, this is a commendable gamble. The best part is that it looks like it’s paying off, too.

Paul Ranger - It was a good gamble for $1M, but the Leafs were hoping for a potential top 4 guy when he’s more of a 5-6-7 type. That’s really what this boils down to.

Troy Bodie - Other than not being a heavyweight fighter, he’s outplayed the Leafs incumbent enforcers, and provided a little offense, too.

Trevor Smith - As a depth center, we can’t complain with what he’s given the Leafs. He had nine points in 25 games and two game winning goals. You can’t ask for much more than that from an AHL-NHL tweener signed to the minimum.

Keeping Morgan Rielly - I was against this throughout the summer and the beginning of the season, but Rielly’s made a believer out of me. He’s getting stronger as the season goes on and his talent plus hockey IQ is high-end. In 30 games he has 11 points despite seeing zero power play time to start the season. Years ago everyone thought Schenn would be a stud after his rookie season, so I’m not going to say “wait until he’s played in the league for a few years,” but he does look like he has a shot to become an absolute stud.

Departed Players

Mikhail Grabovski - Lighting it up in Washington with 29 points in 35 games. Bolland can and was replacing what he gave the Leafs in a shutdown role, but Grabovski is a better top six center than what the Leafs currently have.

Clarke MacArthur - Having a great year in Ottawa with 28 points in 38 games for a 59-point pace. That production is roughly being replaced by Raymond, who is also scoring at a 50+ point clip, but MacArthur is a better overall player.
 
Mike Kostka - He actually has three points in five games for Chicago, but he’s understandably not going to play much considering the six guys in front of him. I wonder if he would be better than Ranger and Fraser as a depth guy, especially because he’s a righty.

Matt Frattin - He’s only played 26 games (injured for four, healthy scratched for eight) and has six points in those games. He was given a chance to play with Richards and Carter to start the season but failed to seize the opportunity. I hope Frattin turns it around because I’ve always been a fan of him but things aren’t looking good for him in LA.

Ben Scrivens - He has a mindboggling .941sv%, but you look look at Martin Jones’ .953sv% and start to wonder if this is a team thing. Either way, Scrivens is clearly having a great season; it’s not just on the team to have a save percentage that good.

Leo Komarov - Don’t really care how he’s doing in the KHL because it’s the KHL, but the Leafs miss him. Especially on the penalty kill and in the physical play department. He could also play center which would have been nice to see between Kulemin and Clarkson.

Joe Colborne - He has nine points in 35 games playing nearly 13 minutes a night in Calgary. He’s looked good when I’ve watched them, and he might have been nice to have around with all the injuries and suspensions upfront, but I’d rather have Holland if that’s how we’re going to look at it.

Notes

- It’s funny looking back on the past five games and the “bad” losses to Pittsburgh and Florida specifically. The records of those two clubs in the last 10 games are 8-2-0 and 7-3-0 respectively. They are two of the hottest teams in the East. The tough thing about those losses is that the Leafs got noticeably outworked and shot themselves in the foot in both.

- At the end of the Detroit game, Carlyle put out Kessel-Kadri-JVR, Franson-Gardiner after Detroit’s top line iced it. Detroit called a timeout so Carlyle switched to Clarkson-McClement-Kulemin/Gunnarsson-Phaneuf. That unit saw the puck go deep into their own end, iced it, and almost got scored on to end regulation. You’re at home, the crowd is into the game, and you’re in a favourable spot (offensive zone) even with the icing. You have to take it to the other team and not sit back. Pretty good example of how the Leafs play defensive late in games.

- Against Florida, Holland made a risky but crafty play to help setup Raymond’s goal, and moments later Jay McClement was centering that line.

- Those are the kind of things the coaching staff does that is hurting the team and drawing the ire of fans and pundits.

- Conversely, Lupul-Holland-Raymond line combined for 11 points against Chicago. Carlyle started them the next game against Pittsburgh along with his best D pairing, and they get scored on by a five man unit of Conner-Sutter-Vitale/Dumoulin-Bortuzzo. There’s nothing Carlyle can do about that. That’s all on the players.

- Against Florida, Kadri broke into the offensive zone and tried to make a backhand saucer pass while Phaneuf simultaneously tried to join the rush. The puck was turned over and Florida scored not even four minutes into the game off the rush. There’s nothing Carlyle can do about that, either.

- The point is that there’s things we can blame on the coaching staff in terms of how they use some players and manoeuvre their roster, but the players are also playing bad hockey and getting outworked by inferior players. It’s not a motivation thing from the coaches, either. It’s the NHL. There aren’t rah-rah speeches every night. It’s business. Everybody needs to pick it up from top to bottom throughout the organization and that includes not using injuries as an excuse.

- Thought this was a neat story in the Star on Nikolai Kulemin and putting some smiles on some young faces. We don’t hear much about this player personality wise because he’s Russian, but by all accounts he’s been a solid soldier here who never complains, does what he’s asked, and gives back to the community.

- The Leafs record with Kulemin playing over 16 minutes is 8-5-2. Their record with Kulemin playing under 16 minutes is 3-8-1.

- For a team that says they want to play more of a grinding style, it’s a little ironic that Kulemin is averaging 15:41 per game while Mason Raymond’s averaging 18:05 a night.

- It’s slightly out dated at this point, but I thought this was a great tweet from The Leafs Nation: When Wilson was fired, many fans gravitated to the fact that the team played soft. A lot of that was Wilson basically clamping down on team discipline because they couldn’t kill a penalty to save their lives. We’re seeing the same thing happen with Carlyle in charge now because the Leafs are back to being a poor penalty killing team. Opposition players run their goalies every single night now and nobody does anything. Against the Rangers Kreider knifed Bernier, and Kredeir was all but laughing in his face by the time Phaneuf went over to confront him.

- D’Amigo and Bodie got a raw deal against Phoenix; they barely played because Phoenix wasn’t playing their fourth line (Carlyle stated this in a press conference; it was a match-up thing). With Jerrod Smithson as their center, that’s a pretty understandable rationale to me. Smithson just can’t be trusted to skate even a semi-regular shift.

- Worth noting: In 27 games, Orr has fought five times with zero points. Bodie has three fights and three points in 14 games.

- Phaneuf made a great little 180 backhand pass to D’Amigo backdoor against Pittsburgh, but D’Amigo wasn’t ready and he missed the puck and the open net. It was 1-1 at that point and that would have swung the game way in the Leafs favour. Later on, he made a nice rush and McClement hit the post in a bid to tie the game. Against Detroit, he was dangerous all night and he scored a big goal to get the team back in the game. Can’t say he’s not trying his best to drag the Leafs out of this funk.

- Kadri didn’t have a point last week in four games, and in two of those games he didn’t register a shot on net. He got back on the scorecard against New York, but it was during one of the only times he wasn’t with Kessel and JVR (second unit PP). Other than the games against Phoenix and New York, the top line got outscored every game, too. Not only were they not scoring, they were hurting the team. Taking it further, Kadri has three points in his last 9 games. In JVR’s last nine games he has two points, as well, while Kessel has four (one was to make it 7-3, one was to score against STL after being handily outplayed and out of the game, and the other two were on power plays). Meanwhile, Carlyle has been using McClement in a shutdown role to try and get this line favourable match-ups.

- With Bozak set to return on December 29th and only one game between now and then, that’s what the coaching staff is going to think of when Bozak inevitably returns and goes back to the top line. That’s the reality.

- Couldn’t help but think of a few quotes from Bobby Ryan earlier this season regarding Carlyle when he benched Gardiner this week against Florida before giving him the second most ice time on the team the next game against Phoenix: “It wasn’t a bad relationship, it just wasn’t a great one. That’s all it was. He’s a tough coach and I still really do owe him quite a bit for becoming the player that I am and that isn’t lost on me one bit.”

- Gardiner catching up to Nash and muscling him off the puck after a penalty in the first period was really impressive. He’s now second on the team in ice time per game and we have to start wondering if the Leafs are considering swapping Gardiner and Gunnarsson pairing-wise.

***

Quotes

“Gardiner has god given ability that you don’t want to take away from him. Needs to be more consistent. Jake & Morgan are our future.”
- Dave Nonis

“I think there’s a better chance of Gardiner getting traded than staying in Toronto because of the continued interest”
- Darren Dreger

Who to believe, what to believe, will he move, will he stay? I don’t know what to believe anymore. Gardiner is second on the entire team in ice time per game, is a one-man breakout, an elite skater, and is still only 23 years old. Why would you trade this guy? I still don’t think they will move him.

“No, I’m not commenting on that.”
- Mason Raymond after being asked if there was a disconnect coaches and players.

Let’s not blow this out of proportion just yet, but if things go to shits I guess this is something we’ll look back on as an early indication of what was to come.

“I think that’s what any goaltender wants. You want that chance to get in there and fight and battle for your teammates and try and get a win. Obviously Randy had other thoughts and he’s the coach and he’s the one who makes those decisions. I don’t. I just try and stop pucks.”
- James Reimer, apparently upset after being pulled.

I don’t know what Reimer’s so upset about; he didn’t have a strong first period and the team did come back after. When one goal goes through you and another goal is the exact same weak goal you let in two nights earlier, chances are you’re getting pulled. Carlyle was actually kind to pull him between periods versus making him skate to the bench during the period (he might have been jeered). Sometimes you have to pull a goalie to wake up your team and turn things around. It’s not always fair, but goalies should understand that.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think I didn’t mind Liles sitting a game on account of his poor play against the Wings, but we all saw why Ranger can’t be anything more than a spot guy right now. He really struggled against the Rangers and Rielly actually had to bail him out on more than one occasion (one play in particular stands out where Ranger got walked and Rielly had to come across the ice and poke it off a Ranger forward who otherwise would have had a breakaway). Unless they bring in a defenseman or clear one of their bottom veterans to make room for another kid from the Marlies, the Leafs more often than not have to stick with some combination of Gunnarsson, Phaneuf, Gardiner, Franson, Rielly and Liles as the 6 D.

2 – I think I won’t be opposed to Bozak going back on the top line, if for no other reason than to give Kadri easier match-ups and try to get him rolling again. If Kadri centering JVR and Kessel has taught me anything it’s that they score at their own pace regardless of who is centering them, so the net gain is worth it if you can get Kadri going on another line.

3 – I think Holland has really been impressive the more he plays (8 points in the 11 games he’s played at least 10 minutes; zero points in the 6 games he’s played under 10), and he can’t be forgotten once Bozak returns. I’d be interested in seeing a Kulemin-Holland-Clarkson line, or if they really want to shake things up go Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin, Raymond-Holland-Clarkson. Either way, he needs to stay in the top nine because he’s getting his feet wet in the NHL and starting to adjust.

4 – I think eventually the Leafs will have to look at waiving Mark Fraser and calling up a kid to see what he can do. I really like Mark Fraser, but he was a bad skater last season who is now wearing a knee brace. Last season he got to play with Franson on a third pairing; Franson dominated on that pairing last season, which may have been making life easy for Fraser by allowing him to stick to his strengths. Things change every season and the dynamic of the Leafs defense is a lot different now with Rielly a lock for the third pairing. The reality is he’s going to struggle to get playing time and to make an impact in the time he plays. If a kid is ready, and that’s an organizational decision, this is the move they have to make eventually.

5 – I think if I was HBO I would focus more on the history of the team’s they are filming, and try to get more life stories out of the series. Why not explore the story of a great Red Wing alumni like Kris Draper, who works in the organization and coaches minor hockey in the area? Wendel Clark is a team ambassador in Toronto and also coaches minor hockey in Toronto’s crazy minor hockey system. What’s a regular day in the life like for Phil Kessel (who I think has been quietly hilarious so far)? How about a guy like Pavel Datsyuk? The Wings have a ton of kids on the team right now, so is he taking any under his wing and trying to guide them? The great people in hockey and their stories are a big part of what makes it great, at least in my opinion, and I wish they would focus on that a little more versus the insider of Phaneuf’s closet or following a bunch of young kids on each team out for some road trip dinners. There’s the question of dressing room access being denied, but I still think there’s a lot of interesting things HBO could do surrounding the teams. The history of the Leafs and Wings is far greater than pretty well every team they’ve filmed so far (except maybe the Rangers), and they’re failing to take advantage of it.

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