AP’s Mailbag: Deadline targets, bottom 6, “impact” prospects, PK and shots against

AP’s Mailbag: Deadline targets, bottom 6, “impact” prospects, PK and shots against

Thanks again for all the questions. My apologies if I didn’t get to yours.

Part 1 can be found here.
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wendelsfist: “What one personnel upgrade or change would you make (trade for a role, call up to replace etc)?”

I assume you mean for the playoff race/run and not next season. At least, that’s how I’m going to answer the question.

I don’t think there are any defensemen worth the Leafs going after at this point, so that kind of upgrade can wait until the offseason. I’d be most interested in acquiring a really good 10th forward. If someone in the Leafs top 9 goes down hurt in the playoffs, it would be nice if a player better than McClement or Bodie was the first option to move up the line-up.

One guy I’d look into is Brian Boyle on the Rangers. He’s a pending UFA on a good Ranger team that appears to be tinkering with the idea of moving everyone they could potentially lose for free this summer. Last season I wanted the Leafs to get Handzus (and I think he would have been a better use of a fourth rounder than Ryan O’Byrne), but I’m only lukewarm on Boyle because I fear what the price might be. It makes sense to me if they can get him for a fourth round pick; he’s a player they can look at for not only this season but years to come as well. He’s massive at 6’7″, can play center and the wing, he’s good on the penalty kill, can be trusted defensively, and he would help the Leafs on the cycle in the offensive zone. He’s the type of a player who is a part of those long, grinding shifts in the offensive zone that wear the opponent down. He won’t bring the Leafs much in terms of offense, but offense is not their problem.

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Burtonboy: “Do you think Leafs management including Carlyle are building a top 9 bottom 3 team or a top 6 bottom 6?”

Here are some quotes from Leafs management and staff over the past year that will help us answer this question.

Assistant coach Scott Gordon:

“Last year we had what would probably be considered three lines of scoring, maybe not as much depth on each line as far as scoring numbers. Whereas this year our top six is all guys who have had pretty good track records of scoring goals so hopefully that has the same effect as it did last year.”

In the summer of 2012, Michael Stephens interviewed Dave Poulin for the Maple Leafs Annual and I wrote about the forward group, about which Dave Poulin flat out said, “I call it more of a top nine, bottom three.”

And from James Mirtle this season:

“In fact, if you look around the league, Carlyle is more reluctant to use his bottom 10 to 12 forwards than almost any other coach. Only the Vancouver Canucks’ John Tortorella has had a shorter bench leaguewide, playing his fourth liners less than seven minutes a game – or about a minute less than the Leafs generally offer theirs.
That’s had a ripple effect through the Toronto lineup, as every other unit is expected to play a lot. The top line of Kessel, Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, for example, averages nearly 21 minutes a game – the second highest in the NHL behind only Vancouver’s top three forwards.
The Leafs second line, meanwhile, is the third-most used second unit in the NHL. And their third line – usually made up of Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and David Clarkson, a trio that has combined for nine goals all year – is the most played third line in the league with an average of 16.5 minutes a night.”

To sum up, I think they still construct their lines in a manner people associate with “top six-bottom six” because the top two lines are more skilled while the bottom two lines are supposed to grind, but really it’s a top nine-bottom three because they play the heck out of their top three lines and basically neglect their fourth unit.

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HeatherRickAkin: “If we accept that Morgan Rielly is going to be an impact NHLer, is there one more Leaf prospect who has a chance to eventually become an impact player in the NHL? Let’s look beyond Kadri and Gardiner, who may not have Rielly’s ceiling , but do have real upside. Do we have even one prospect that may plateau at the Kadri/Gardiner level?”

Yes, there are a few kids in the pipeline who have a chance at becoming impact players (i.e., a top six forward or top four defenseman).

On forward, there are two obvious candidates in Peter Holland and Josh Leivo.

I’ve mentioned this piece Alec put together a few times, but Holland has ripped up the AHL and is in good company statistically. Steve Spott raved about him a few days ago. He has size, skill, a really good shot, can skate, and produced when he got ice time with the Leafs. He has a chance.

Leivo is a strong two-way winger with skill and size (he’s 6’2). He was good in the OHL, notching back-to-back 73-point seasons after the Leafs drafted him, and now has 25 points in 38 games this season in the AHL. Plus, he already scored his first NHL goal. His potential isn’t through the roof, but he has the tools to be an effective scorer and top-six guy because he plays both ends of the ice well.

On defense, the Leafs have two players who really stand out above all else: Stuart Percy and Matt Finn.

Percy is a kid whose stock grew at the end of his draft year in order to sneak into the first round, while Finn was expected to be a first rounder all season and slipped out altogether, which was just fine with the Leafs who snagged him early in the second round. Percy’s 15 points in 46 games aren’t going to leap out to anybody and he still has trouble with the speed of the game at times, but he’s so smart and cerebral out on the ice that it would be more surprising if he didn’t put it all together and become a solid NHL defenseman. Finn, who has produced every year in the OHL, plays a ton for the best team in the entire league.

There are some other good players in the system who have a shot at becoming productive NHLers –- guys like Granberg, MacWilliam, Brown, and Johnson —- but those are the four I’d look at it to be impact players.

It is worth noting here that the Leafs don’t necessarily draft to hit homeruns. They draft to collect assets, and this is something Dave Morrison has told us before.

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Daniel Marois: “As the Leafs approach the trade deadline…assuming Bolland slides right back into the lineup without any setbacks – it would seem adding anyone upfront is not the priority. However, what roster piece would the Leafs be willing to give up to add a No.2 defenceman to play with Phaneuf?”

Looking around at who might be available, I don’t see much in the way of defensemen I’d be interested in. I think it makes more sense for the Leafs to wait until the summer to make that kind of move as Ranger will be a UFA while Franson and Gardiner will both be RFAs. There’s room for flexibility. If Jay Bouwmeester, for example, was available this year, it would make a lot of sense for the Leafs to be all over that, whereas Dan Girardi really just doesn’t do it for me.

Maybe some names are going under the radar that have been rumoured to be available since the summer (Coburn and Edler, to be specific). If that’s the case, I think the Leafs would be looking to package a bunch of their kids in the AHL or junior ranks along with picks at the moment. Trading a young piece like a Kadri or Gardiner would be an unnecessary blockbuster to make right this second with the team rolling and in a playoff spot. It would be a weird time to make that type of shake-up move.

Perhaps in the summer they try to pry Coburn out of Philadelphia for Reimer or something, but I don’t think that kind of move is close to happening any time soon.

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rustynail: “What changes to our PK would you recommend going down the stretch, both players and system?”

Gus Katsaros wrote a great piece on the PK troubles that I suggest everyone read.

As Gus explains, most teams currently deploy a 1-3-1 PP formation. I think the only way to combat that is to have a “diamond” penalty kill or 1-2-1. Without going into a crazy amount of detail, the key to the diamond penalty kill is the far-side guy on the kill. The defenseman in front has to clear in the net, the player closest to the man on the half wall with the puck has to pressure him and the forward up top has to cover the defenseman in the middle, but the far side killer has to worry about the player in the slot and the guy behind him cutting backdoor. It’s a really difficult role for the backside guy, but that’s the key to a diamond kill against a 1-3-1 PP.

In terms of personnel, I’d like to see them call D’Amigo back up more than anything and run McClement-Kulemin as the primary killers, Bolland-D’Amigo as the next pair up, and Bozak-JVR to close out the final 20-30 seconds of a kill. The latter pair can kill penalties and have been doing it some, so hopefully they can finish off kills and get the puck up ice into the offensive zone.

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Waiting4LSC: “What would be your ideal third and fourth lines? How does the team address the inability to clear the D zone?”

I think I answered most of W4L’s questions at one point or another in this Q&A, so I picked out these two specifically.

Ideally, I’d like to see Raymond-Bolland-Kulemin followed by D’Amigo-McClement-Bodie. I think Clarkson would be great on that third line, but he started rolling a little bit before the break. In the interest of getting his season something closer to on track, let’s see if he can build on it alongside Kadri and Lupul.

In terms of the fourth line, I would put D’Amigo there because I just named as a penalty killer above and I think he’s better on the PK than Ashton. On the other hand, Ashton could easily play there and is arguably better for that spot at 5v5. Ashton is definitely better on the cycle and brings an element down low in the offensive zone, but the PK is more of a priority to me. Otherwise, I like what Bodie has brought this season and McClement is fine in this kind of fourth line/PK role.

In terms of clearing the zone –- and shots against is always a popular subject with the Leafs —- I’ll note that they’ll never be great at limiting shots against with how they play. This team is designed to score off the rush and produce instant offense. That’s just the reality. Without consistent zone time, they’re not going to keep their shots against down. The one area I think they can improve on is better puck movement by the defencemen coming out of their own zone, including regroups when the options up ice aren’t open. It’s really just little things. For example: Instead of gaining center ice and dumping it down to make a line change, more often the defenceman could hold puck behind the net while the rest of their teammates change before switching himself. The St. Louis Blues are the kings of this. The ice can really start tilting with something as simple as that adjustment because you’re always chasing the puck instead of dictating play. Of course, I could write a lot more on this subject –- and have before —- but in the interest of stopping before losing your attention I’ll quit here.

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