Leafs Notebook – February 3

Leafs Notebook – February 3

2001

The sentiment “Thank you Boston” has been never been more prevalent in Leafs Nation as Phil Kessel continues to rip apart the NHL. I’m thanking Boston, too, only for something else.

You can’t convince me otherwise: Boston’s dominance of the Leafs and elite standing in League the past few seasons has made the Leafs better.

The Bruins forced the Leafs to improve, they forced them to change their game, and ultimately they remain the benchmark for the Leafs to measure themselves against. When Chicago was in the process of building a contender, Detroit was the yardstick. They forced them to turn into more of a possession team, and to put their focus on building as deep a roster as possible while looking for cheap goaltending. The Hawks thought, “we will need to go through Detroit, so we need to build to beat the best.”

The Leafs have responded by acquiring mobile defensemen to get the puck out quickly and up ice, to go out and find elite goaltending, and to further build up their depth (the Leafs roster, when completely healthy, is deeper than some people realize).

Last year the Leafs were fighting a 3-3-3 slump heading into a back to back with the Bruins. They went 1-0-1 in those games and proceeded to finish 8-3-1, clinching a playoff spot for the first time since 2004.

This season, the Leafs were on a brutal run of just four regulations win in 30 games before beating the Bruins 4-3 in regulation in Boston. Since then, the Leafs are 7-1-1 and are staring down a second consecutive playoff appearance.

The Leafs were a long shot to say the least when fate matched them up against an intimidating nemesis in the playoffs for their first appearance in forever. And yet, the Leafs gave Boston all they could handle. We still see some of the lessons learned applied now, such as mixing the lines and the match-ups, getting Kessel out there for extra shifts and away from top shutdown units, dressing one less enforcer, and trusting their young puck moving defensemen.

It’s healthy for a team to have rivalries for the reason that it provides that benchmark. The Bruins embarrassed and dominated the Leafs for a long stretch of time before the Leafs finally pushed back. It’s helped show this group that they can compete against the best in the league, and given them the confidence to do so.

In Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, he thanked the best players of his era for pushing him to greatness. They made him want to prove that he was better than them. They gave him something to compare himself to.

Some might think these are meaningless platitudes, but I believe it. The Bruins’ dominance has made the Leafs a better team.

So thank you, Boston. You’ve given the Leafs something to strive for and compare themselves to.

And thank you for Kessel, too. He’s amazing.

Notes

- Thought this was noteworthy: Holland’s line started every period in the Florida game, and actually scored to start the second period. Holland had only played in the eight minute range the past few games before that. It was a good show of confidence in him and the line responded well. Coaches take who starts a period seriously, believing it sets the tone.

- So in saying that, what a terrible time for Holland to get hurt. He was just trusted with something, had played well, and now Clarkson is expected back so a Raymond-Holland-Clarkson line was probably in the cards. As they say, timing is everything.

- The Sportsnet crew was quick to blame Jake Gardiner on Nick Bjugstad’s goal to open the Florida game, but there was nothing wrong with what he did. Kadri was back-checking and right with Bjugstad up ice, while Rielly was right with Upshall, making it a 2 on 2. It’s one thing to pinch when you don’t have support (as he did against Ottawa, which led to the Greening goal) but when the support is there you’re supposed to try and hold the line.

- The Leafs have actually spoken a lot about defensemen holding the line and pinching a lot more recently. Why? Because good teams do this. Gunnarsson’s pinch led directly to Phil Kessel’s first goal against Ottawa. Defensemen pinching allows you to sustain zone time and create more pressure. Think of how easy life is on Kessel when teams back off on him in the defensive zone along the wall when the puck comes his way, rather than when guys are right on him.

- In four of Gunnarsson’s last five games he has played under 20 minutes. Sometimes you watch him and just wonder what the real deal is with his hip and how much it might be limiting him/how much the coaching staff tries to manage his minutes and ice time.

- A few weeks ago I brought up “familiarity” between players and how it can effect certain things, and against Florida there was a good example of it helping the Leafs. Watch Kadri wait for Lupul to open up for the one-timer for a split second longer to make sure he was ready for it before his goal against the Panthers here:

- Lately Lupul has been vocal about not only wanting to play the left side, but wanting to play with the same linemates so they can gel. He has had the same line-mates for a few weeks now and has eight points in his last eight games.

- One thing about Lupul, though: He’s stopped driving the net. On three separate off man rushes against Florida he had the puck, and in order: 1) He threw a back handed sauce pass to the high guy (Kulemin in this case) that was off the mark; 2) He cut in and tried to hit the trailing defenseman, again off the mark; 3) He had a lane to the net and settled for a shot. He’s so much better when he takes the puck to the net. Way better.

- At the start of the Ottawa game the Sens really tried to get physical with Kessel, capped off by Kessel getting into a shoving match with Eric Gryba and both taking penalties. As you all know, Kessel ended up with four points when it was all said and done. The book on Kessel used to be “get physical with him and he will back down,” but when you see him respond like he did last night, or his three points against Boston last month in a victory, it’s becoming pretty clear opponents can’t shut him down simply by getting physical with him. That has to be scary for opposing coaches to know. You can’t stop Kessel, you can only hope to contain him.

- By the way, Kessel’s up to 42 points in the 33 games Bozak has played in. He has 19 in the 24 he played without him.

- At the end of the Tampa Bay game, McClement made a play at the blue line to win a battle, block the puck and get it out, effectively sealing the win. It was a big time play in the final minute to help secure the two points. When his ice time is down and he’s used to mainly kill penalties and to close out games, he’s an effective player for this team still. It’s the 5v5 and OT play that is above his head.

- It’s interesting that Kessel was on to close out the Tampa Bay game, too. He’s really bringing it all over the ice right now and that can’t be understated. Against Ottawa he had a great backcheck where he caught Kyle Turris to negate what would have been a 2 on 1. Against Florida he took a puck from his zone and wheeled up ice to set up Bozak for an easy tap-in. That goal really highlighted Kessel’s speed; Bjugstad was pretty close to him but Kessel found another gear and was barely touched as he skated by him.

- One last note on Kessel. It’s not like he never shows emotion, but I’ve never really seen Kessel react to a goal like he did for Bozak’s goal against Ottawa to make it 5-3 Saturday.

Watch him bang the glass at the fan.

- On that goal versus Florida, you can also see Bozak hesitate to go to the open puck in the corner before Phaneuf gets there. We’ve highlighted this in the Leafs system a million times: forwards aren’t supposed to come low and play the wall in the defensive zone.

- Kadri played 23:05 Saturday while Bozak played 18:40. That near 5 minute gap is pretty big but it rarely happens so I’m not sure what to make of it just yet. I’ll be looking for it moving forward though.

- Rielly made a great play against Tampa Bay where he blocked a pass in the defensive zone, wheeled through three Tampa forwards, gained the zone, and created offense. It highlighted his unbelievable speed, acceleration with the puck, and ability to enter the zone cleanly. Rielly just needs to work on what to do below the top of the circle in the offensive zone off the rush, but he’s so close to putting up much bigger point totals in this league. The Lupul goal shown above is a great example of what Rielly can do when he makes the right decision. He skated it in, dished it to Kadri, who then set up Lupul for a goal. Teams are going to learn very quickly that they can’t make line changes when Rielly has the puck at his own blue line because he will make them pay. Karlsson had 26 points in his rookie season in 60 games while Rielly is on pace for 27 in 73 games. Not comparing the two because Karlsson is elite, but if Rielly ever figures out how to seal the deal on his rushes he’s going to be scary.

- One of the reasons the Leafs presumably signed Clarkson was to add to the forecheck of the team and help create turnovers. So in saying that, watch Kulemin chase the puck in deep here, take a hit from Smith, stay persistent on Cowen, which ultimately led to the puck going to an area where the Leafs could create a turnover and thus score a goal. That was a one-man forecheck and Kulemin helped create the goal:

- That was not a good indication of the Greg McKegg I’ve seen this year on the Marlies. One play highlighted it where he got a puck just outside the offensive blue line and he shot it back in right away creating a delayed offside. With the Marlies he usually regroups back to the defense and curls back. That’s just an example to say he looked nervous to say the least. Hopefully next time he comes up it’s a smaller stage than Leafs-Sens on a Saturday night and he can relax a little bit.

- McKegg also joined Kadri, D’Amigo, Broll, Devane, Leivo and Morgan Rielly as Leafs players drafted by Burke to play in the NHL. When Burke got fired so many reporters made note of Kadri being the only Burke pick to have played an NHL game, but the next few years we’ll really start to see if he actually drafted some legit NHLers. As far as I can tell, Kadri and Rielly are obvious keepers, Leivo, Percy and maybe Finn have shots to be top of the line-up type players, while guys like D’Amigo, Broll, Devane, Brown, McKegg, Granberg, Biggs, and maybe a few current outsiders like Cameranesi, Toninato or Nilsson have shots at playing games in the NHL (some more so than others, obviously). The 2010 draft will probably go down as his worst with McKegg and Granberg being the two most promising remaining players from that class.

- It was nice to see the Leafs get a few wins where they didn’t need to get the best out of their goalies. Bernier was pretty average on Saturday and wasn’t asked to do a lot. Florida had 38 shots but the Leafs simply overpowered them with offense. I view wins where the Leafs don’t have to lean on their goalies sort of like playing with house money because you know the goalies are going to carry them more often than not. When they don’t it’s just money in the bank.

- I got a kick out of the missed boarding penalty on Kadri that led to a goal getting so much attention, but the broadcast not talking about Neil’s interference pick on Lupul right before he scored to tie the game in the third. Both teams scored goals they shouldn’t have; everything else being equal, the Leafs beat them fair and square as far as I’m concerned.

- Before the 2011-12 season, the Leafs wanted Kadri to work on two things specifically in the summer: his skating and his shot so he could beat goalies from the top of the circle. His first goal against Tampa Bay was a great example of how far his shot has come. He beat Bishop clean from the top of the circle, and no, Hedman did not touch it.

Quotes

“They’re a lot closer than people think. They have a number of very good players, some obvious areas that need to be addressed, they’re aware of that, they will address them. I think the Leafs are a team that will surprise people in the very near future. When you watch, the Marlies are still playing. They’ve got five or six kids on that team that are going to contribute at a high level to a good National Hockey League team.”
- Rick Dudley’s closing remarks on the Leafs after leaving the team to go to Montreal in May 2012.

Since then, the Leafs have acquired JVR, their goaltending has been solidified, and they’ve drafted a blue chip defenseman in Morgan Rielly. I think they’re a top four defenseman (and that could come internally if/when Gardiner and Rielly take their next steps), another impact forward, and some development from their young depth guys (Ashton, D’Amigo, Broll, etc.) away from being a damn good team.

“Mark’s been a real good soldier for us and to be able to move a veteran player to an organization that wants them I think is a great thing. Secondly, cap-wise, we’re in a situation where we need to create space, because of the guys who are coming off, Bolland particularly, and then Smitty [Trevor Smith]. In the past, previously, we had John-Michael Liles, who gave us $925,000 in cap space when he went down and with Tim Gleason playing up we don’t have that luxury so we had to make a move.”
- Claude Loiselle on the Mark Fraser trade.

Fraser was eighth on the Leafs defense depth chart making over a million bucks on a cap team. He had to be moved. Hartikainen is actually a pretty good player but I won’t talk about him unless he actually comes over. Simply getting Fraser off the team and his cap hit off the books makes this a great move for the Leafs. There’s nothing else to say really.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think the Leafs are better built for zone-matching rather than line matching. The Leafs have been rolling lately and a large part of that has been due to their goal scoring shooting right up. Beyond that, I can’t really tell you they’ve had one supreme shutdown unit helping them along the way. Yes, Phaneuf does always take the top units, but at forward it really has been a mash of Kadri’s line, Bozak’s line, and even Holland’s line for a few odd shifts. This Leafs team is a lot deeper than people realize and I think they would be a lot more effective if they zone matched to maximize their line-up. When they’re fully healthy, the Kadri line could eat up easy offensive zone match-ups, the Bozak line would crush hard offensive zone starts, the Bolland line could take tough defensive zone starts while a McClement led fourth line could handle the easy ones (provided he’s with the right line-mates).

2 – I think when Bolland returns I’d start him on the fourth line and keep expectations relatively low. This is a really tough injury to come back from and one that could directly hurt his skating; this isn’t a broken arm. I hope he exceeds the low expectations I have, but I’d rather prepare for the worst versus hope for the best. Start him on the fourth line, and if Holland is back keep him at 3C and shift McClement to the wing on L4.

3 – Moving forward, I think, if Bolland is ever able to get back up to speed and fill the 3C hole, I’d be okay with Holland going down to the AHL simply because he may be better off playing 20+ minutes a night there rather than under 10 (realistically under 8) in the NHL on the fourth line.

4 – I think I prefer the defense pairings to be Gleason-Franson, Gardiner-Rielly versus swapping Gleason and Gardiner, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t really like either. Gardiner is struggling right now, Franson has struggled all season defensively, and Rielly is still a rookie. The coaching staff is really left to pick their poisons as Rielly-Franson has been terrible, and if you add Gardiner to those two none of them are currently playing like top four defencemen. You’re damned if you, damned if you don’t.

5 – That all said, I wouldn’t look to acquire a D-man because I don’t think there are any good top four defensemen available that would be good fits on this team and worth the price. It’s been said in this space many times and it will continue to be said: Gardiner and Rielly will be making mistakes all season, but they will be better for it in the long-run and the Leafs will ultimately benefit as they learn. Beyond that, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Gleason are currently going nowhere, and if they would move a guy like Franson that would seem to be a type of move you make at the draft, not in the middle of a strong playoff push.

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