It’s amazing how much a week can change, in the minds of some fans.
Some may say Carlyle is no longer on the hot seat, everything is fine now, the team is heading in the right direction, and everything is turning around at the right time. “They aren’t even fully healthy yet.”
Another perspective sees it as just a hot streak. The team has won a few shootouts, they’ve got some bounces and some good goaltending, and it’s really not a big deal. “It’s unsustainable; the averages will catch up to them eventually.”
Me? I’ll stick to the same script I’ve been clinging to for quite some time: The East is mediocre, the Leafs have quite a few good players, and they are getting elite goaltending. If they make the right line-up decisions, they have a very good chance to make the playoffs. From there it is anyone’s guess. I will say this: If I’m the Leafs, there isn’t one team I’d fear playing in a playoff series. They might not be favourites against many teams, but there certainly isn’t any team they couldn’t put up a fight against.
There are ebbs and flows to every season, so nobody needs reminding that the Leafs will lose again this year. But it is a positive that they have followed up a losing streak with a solid winning streak. Due to the start they had, if they can avoid long losing streaks and pretty well break even, it’s probably good enough to make the playoffs in the East.
And truth be told, Carlyle deserves a little credit. Against Boston, he got creative with the lines and moved Kessel around, helping to pave the way to a three-point night. Against the Habs he snuck Kessel on with Raymond and Holland, which led to a goal. He finally called up Holland and used him on the third line. He’s using the newish Gardiner-Rielly pairing intelligently, trying to take advantage of weaker lines with a skilled pairing that can start in the offensive zone and create. The team, in general, probably played their best game Saturday night against Montreal.
Some were happy that Carlyle was finally starting to take some heat, and perhaps in the big picture this is just a momentary break from the scrutiny, but obviously he’s pushing some right buttons at the moment because the team is on their first five-game winning streak since 2007.
There are 32 games left for the Leafs to play in their quest to make the playoffs again, and they currently have 57 points. If they won a little more than 50% of their remaining games (roughly 17 or 18), that would give them around 93 points, which should be enough to make it in the East (the floor is probably lower, to be honest). You can’t expect the current hot streaks of Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak to carry on all the way through for 32 more games, but if players like Lupul, Phaneuf, Clarkson and even Reimer get hot, along with getting a—hopefully effective—Bolland back as well as a possible trade deadline acquisition, it could arguably be enough to get them back into the dance again.
There’s still a long way to go and they aren’t even close to out of the woods yet, but holding on from the inside is a lot better than being on the outside and trying to fight back into the thick of things.
- I had a feeling Bozak was going to the net more and simply allowing Kessel and JVR to work their magic while he cleans up the garbage, so I decided to take a look at his goals last season compared to this season in order to get a very small glimpse into his production comparison.
This year (so far):
|Goals in the slot: 5||Rebound and tip goals: 5|
|Cross ice pass goals: 3||Cross ice pass: 2|
|Breakaways: 3||Pass in front: 1|
|Rebound goals: 2||Breakaways: 1|
- I don’t think it’s a case of, “Bozak should get out of their way and just go to the net,” as much as, “let these guys do what they are good at.” Kessel loves setting up on the half wall, even during 5v5 play, and JVR loves the “down low game,” but that doesn’t mean he just parks himself in front of the net; it includes behind it and driving the net, too. Bozak has shown he can shift around in the slot, back-check from there with ease, and put home rebounds. Say whatever you will about this line, but it’s working, and has been their only dangerous line on too many nights recently.
- I’ve never been a big believer in “chemistry” as a thing (meaning two players playing together and magically clicking in a way that makes each player better than he really is/brings out the best in each guy). I’m a big believer in familiarity, though, and learning how to play with a guy in terms of their tendencies, where they want the puck, where they go on the ice, etc. I bring this up because the Boston game saw two such examples where I think it hurt the Leafs to move players around. The first was Iginla’s breakaway, which was caused by a Kessel pass being off the mark to a streaking Nazem Kadri in the slot. Kessel can pass with the best of them, so that’s not the issue. He was kind of rushed when he came around the net and fed the puck to the inside of Kadri around his skates. The puck would have been right in Bozak’s wheelhouse, but for the left handed Kadri it was a tough play to make. The result is the puck goes through Kadri, right to Iginla, who turned up ice and went in on a breakaway. When you get used to playing with a guy and the lines suddenly change, little things like that matter.
- Later on, Gregory Campbell scored to make it 4-3 after Gardiner softly put the puck behind the net. I touched on this last week, but Dion Phaneuf doesn’t really use his partner. Gunnarsson, who is used to that, stood in front of the net with his man. If Phaneuf had that puck instead of Gardiner you can be pretty confident that puck was going off the boards/glass up the ice instead of D-to-D; the problem is that Gardiner’s used to playing with Franson now and they actually use each other. A mix-up of plays appeared to happen because Gardiner tried to go D-to-D (and that was his clear intention because he passed that puck instead of trying to ring it around the boards) and Gunnarsson wasn’t even close to expecting it. The mix-up directly led to a goal. It’s on Gardiner to read the play better, but this is the kind of familiarity thing that can help/hurt your team. It’s not about chemistry, it’s about learning how to play with new players and where they go on the ice.
- In the third period of the game, Rielly threw a backhanded sauce pass in his own zone that was picked off, causing a 2v1. It was fortunate Paille was the man with the puck, because he shot it right at Bernier’s chest. Rielly’s game as a whole is trending in the right direction; it’s just the little plays like this that need to be cleaned up as he continues grow.
- Conversely, the Kessel pass on the Gardiner goal against Boston needs to be pointed out again. Just awesome.
- Pretty funny Gardiner and Rielly video right here by the way. Nothing meaningful to it or anything, but I enjoyed it:
- Twice on the same PP against Boston in the third, Raymond walked over the blue line and tried to go cross-ice only to give it away. With under seven minutes left while holding a one-goal lead. I think we’re crossing into “Raymond has been good, to Raymond had a hot start and that’s it” territory.
- The Leafs had two powerplays against Boston in the third period after going up 4-2 and were outshot 5-2 on the man advantage(Gregory Campbell scored between power plays). As much as people place blame on Carlyle for the Leafs going into a shell – and I do believe there’s blame there as they clearly sit back—this team also appears genuinely nervous when games get tight like that. They had two powerplay goals already that game, they should have welcomed the opportunity to put the proverbial hands around the throat. Instead they were fumbling pucks around and coughing it up.
- I’d sum that up by saying: Often the Leafs play not to lose, rather than playing to win. And there is a huge difference between the two.
- Franson had a really rough game on Saturday against the Habs. He had an awful giveaway leading to a Brian Gionta’s goal to end the second period, iced the puck in the third while up a goal when he was a stride away from center ice, and was by himself on the penalty kill and almost shot it over the glass when he put it into the bench (leading to a defensive zone draw) when he easily could have iced it.
- I always wondered if Franson could play in the top four even with his poor skating, but it’s not like opponents blow past him on the regular. I’m starting to think he just struggles to play at the pace of the top six guys on a nightly basis. Franson likes to slow the game right down, take his time, make the beautiful outlet pass, etc. That’s why he’s great on the power play. But 5v5 play, in the top four? Not so much.
- In a prior Notebook, I noted one thing about Kadri when he wasn’t scoring last year: He and Frattin would physically get involved and still affect the game. So, in saying that, it was nice to see him start the Montreal game with a big hit and keep that momentum rolling throughout the game. Kadri has 8 points in his last 8 games, but for me the turning point was the Washington game when he hammered Brouwer and actually got involved in the game; he also made a great play to draw in a defender and drop a pass to Lupul, who just missed an opportunity in the slot to tie that game late. It was nice to see Kadri mucking it up with Plekanec behind the net at the end of the game, too; not just because he was getting dirty, but because Carlyle was rewarding him by playing him in that situation due to a good performance. Against Phoenix he helped cause a goal to make it 4-2 on a late powerplay, but Carlyle had him back out there a shift later to help eat up the remaining time. Players need opportunities to make up for their mistakes, and they can’t be scared to make mistakes for fear of not seeing the ice again. These are good things.
- As great as Kadri’s pass was to Raymond, he made a really smart play to set it all up and basically skate a “U” route around the whole zone before which helped him to sneak away and get open backdoor.
- You can also see in that video that it was Troy Bodie who drew the penalty leading to the goal. For a big guy he’s a surprisingly decent skater who is able to get in on the forecheck and create turnovers. Earlier in the year his skating and forechecking directly led to a goal:
- As my pal @brianhuddle noted: Kadri in his “down” year right now is on pace for 54 points, meanwhile Bozak has a career high of 47 points. Kadri’s never even played a full season yet because Wilson yo-yoed him and last season was shortened by the lockout. He’s going to be fine long-term.
- One of Kadri’s best plays against Montreal went quietly unnoticed. With two minutes left Lupul was battling in the corner in the defensive zone so he switched positions and went to the left wing. Lupul helped win the battle and Franson came out with it and put a nice pass on Kadri’s tape up the boards. With Subban charging, Kadri softly chipped it all the way into the Habs zone but didn’t ice it, and took a solid hit from Subban to make the play.
- Looking back on the losing streak, I think one of the biggest problems was trying to create specific lines for specific roles when the Leafs simply didn’t have the horses to do that. Now, though, Carlyle is getting a lot more creative and it’s paying off. As noted, he moved Kessel around against the Bruins and Habs with success; he also put Lupul back on the left wing, dropped McClement to his rightful 4C spot, and shifted some other players around. The Leafs need more of this type of committee approach rather than a role-based approach because that’s the kind of roster Carlyle currently has. In the Montreal game, sometimes Kessel’s line was against the Habs top unit, while other times it was the Kadri unit. Spread out responsibilities and try to get a favourable match-up when you can. This was one of the big reasons they came back against Boston in the playoffs last May, in my opinion. This isn’t Carlyle’s Cup team in Anaheim. He can’t just say: “this is our shutdown line, top line, and scoring line; and more often than not they’re going to do their jobs and we’re going to win.” On paper this team isn’t good enough for that kind of approach night-in and night-out.
- The NHL not reviewing every single scoring play is getting ridiculous. In case you haven’t seen it, the Red Wings scored a goal that shouldn’t have counted to tie the game against the Kings in the final minute, before ultimately winning in the shootout. Those were two big points for the Wings and helped keep them on pace with the Leafs. This comes nearly a week after Bozak was denied what should have been a goal against the Devils to take the lead. The NHL’s Mickey Mouse system obviously is hurting more than the Leafs, but those are two potentially big swings down the stretch; particularly the Wings getting two points.
- Not much needs to be said about Kessel other than he has 12 points in his last six games to help push the team out of their losing streak. That’s what elite players do and that’s why the Leafs gave him the contract they did. The effort he put in to win a puck race and set up Kadri in the third period against Boston was unbelievable. What a player.
- Gleason made a really underrated play to get a piece of Ribeiro’s stick at the side of the net for what would have been a tap-in. That would have made it 3-2 with eight and a half minutes left or so. When Liles got traded away the reaction was, “oh the Leafs sold low on another legit player that Randy pushed away.” Let’s not forget the Leafs got a pretty good player on a buy-low deal themselves. This trade looks like it’s going to turn out well for both teams. Gleason really endeared himself to fans blocking those shots against Boston late in the game. I think having a big guy like him to put on in the final minute against a team such as the Bruins is huge. He’s physically strong enough to clear the net, win the battles, and get pucks out. As we saw against Boston in the playoffs last Spring, that’s often what the final few minutes of games are all about.
- Raymond can’t ice the puck on a delayed offside with a minute and change left in a 4-2 game. He just can’t. But he did.
- I noticed Gardiner and Rielly seem to have this play where Gardiner comes out with the puck and Rielly takes off down his right side of the ice for a stretch pass. He almost got smoked against Phoenix, but he’s also almost had a few breakaways since they’ve been paired together. It’s not easy for coaches to put two creative defensemen together and let them loose, but it appears the Leafs have to a degree with these two. Kudos to them for that. Many coaches wouldn’t.
“Ideally I’d want to play on the left wing, that’s where I’m much more comfortable.”
- Joffrey Lupul on switching to the right side.
It’s just crazy that Lupul ever moved over to the right side in order to accommodate Mason Raymond, of all people. Carlyle noted that Lupul is better on the left, so hopefully he just stays there from this point forward.
“This is a great day for Raptors and Leaf fans. Everyone that’s a sports fan ought to walk away today – and whether you love soccer or not – the message you ought to take from all of this is: this ownership is going to do whatever they can to win now and they’re not just focused on the bottom line.”
- Tim Leiweke, during the press conference to announce TFCs newest acquisitions.
I think Lewieke got a little taste last year of what it’s like when the Leafs make the playoffs, and he loved it. He isn’t going to be happy if the team doesn’t make the playoffs.
“Toronto feels that they are going to need this goaltending tandem right through the playoff push and maybe into the post season”
- Darren Dreger, on the possibility of the Leafs moving James Reimer
I don’t think it’s possible for any one goalie to face the amount of shots the Leafs give up. They need both just to rest up, if nothing else.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
I think I like Mason Raymond a lot better on the third line. He’s been fine as a scorer and he’s shown he can produce in spurts, but he’s not a top-six forward on a good team. Let’s move on from that experiment and use him as the good third line scorer he can be. The Kadri line has looked much more well rounded with Nik Kulemin there (just like last season). Clarkson, too, is solid defensively, as well as a capable cycle guy like Kulie. They are also both right wingers, while Lupul is clearly a left winger. This seems pretty obvious to me.
I think, while on the note of that third line, I’d like to point out we are starting to reach a point where we have to discover if Carter Ashton is any good. He’s an RFA at the end of the year, and if he plays more we’ll have a better indication of whether he’s a player moving forward and if he can be trusted as a regular for all 82 games next year. Last night against Phoenix, he had a breakaway and got an assist (he would have drew a penalty on the play if there was no goal). He played 2:01. Does that mean he’s any good? I don’t know… how can any of us know? He’s played over five minutes twice in his last ten games; he’s played over 10 minutes four times in his 25 games with the Leafs this season. He’s played center, and he’s played with enforcers. What’s going on with this kid? He has lit up the AHL this year and needs a real look. I’ve seen Ashton play quite a bit of right wing with the Marlies, so it’s not as if they couldn’t simply play him on the third line with Holland and Raymond instead of Troy Bodie (who has been fine, but is not a top-9 forward).
I think I’m really starting to like the defense as is. I’m not saying they are an airtight shutdown unit, or really even very good overall, but they are settling in and nobody is playing in an uncomfortable situation except probably Franson. The Gunnarsson-Phaneuf pairing is a solid shutdown pairing and they know their role at this point. Gleason has fit in nicely as a surprisingly mobile big guy who adds a different element to the defense in general. Gardiner and Rielly, who I’m sure will have some growing pains, will generally speaking eat up third and fourth lines because their skill levels are through the roof. They toyed with the Habs’ fourth line last Saturday. This is also the perfect pairing for offensive zone faceoffs.
That being said, I think if there’s one guy that’s eventually the odd man out on the defense, it’s got to be Franson. The three defencemen going nowhere are Phaneuf, Rielly, and yes, Gardiner. Maybe they’d trade Gunnarsson, but at this point no one can argue he isn’t a superior top four defenseman to Franson or that the Leafs have enough good defensemen to jettison the better guy in favour of the offensively-skilled guy. I think the Leafs would move Gleason, but I bet they are happy with him right now and aren’t looking to (plus, they must like that he brings a physical element to the defense in general). Meanwhile, Franson has struggled as a top-4 guy and will want a sizeable raise this summer because of his point totals. I like Franson, but I just think Nonis will look to upgrade on him when all the cards are on the table.
I think I wouldn’t get my hopes up on Bolland returning and being the Dave Bolland we saw in his start with the Leafs. Forget the shooting percentages and the sustainability of his play and all that; he’s returning from a really tough injury to recover from and I just find it hard to envision how he’s going to return to be the exact same guy. I hope I’m wrong, but I really think Bolland’s going to be in tough.