Leafs Notebook – March 24

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Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

When Tim Leiweke officially took over as President of MLSE on April 2013, the Maple Leafs finally made the playoffs after a long drought, the Raptors were awful and didn’t have a first round pick, and Toronto was pretty well done with TFC.

Boy, how things change in barely a year.

Since then, Leiweke has stepped in and brought one of the supposed brightest young minds in basketball in Masai Ujiri. All Ujiri has done is pull off a string of moves (Andrea Bargnani trade, Rudy Gay trade, Hansborough signing, etc.) that has the Raptors sitting third in an admittedly bad Conference.

Meanwhile, TFC has completely transformed their roster by spending over $100M to bring in marquee names. They are off to the best start in franchise history at 2-0-0. It’s early — and I’m sure you’re thinking, “the Leafs were good to start the season, too” — but things look promising for this franchise again. The buzz is back about TFC in this city.

And then there is the Leafs. After a stunning game 7 collapse against Boston last May, they are on the verge of another spectacular breakdown that could see them not qualify for the playoffs at all.

It’s hard to imagine Leiweke will twiddle his thumbs and idly watch this offseason unfold if the Leafs do ultimately miss the post season.

Last Spring, when the Leafs collapsed, Leiweke compared it to a similar experience for the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers:

“You go through that last game and it either makes or breaks an organization in my opinion. I’ve seen games like that. I remember the Portland Trailblazers when they had a collapse against the Lakers and they were never quite the same after that. And it still hangs over their head. This is going to make us.”

Will he think the same if this collapse happens? Will he conclude that the Leafs will never quite be the same and that dramatic change is required?

Look at some of the teams poised to make it right now in the Eastern conference in comparison to the Leafs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were missing their best player — arguably a top 3 player in the world — for a large chunk of the season, had to trade one of their franchise’s all-time best players, and their starting goalie got hurt and missed some time (along with a host of injuries to other key contributors). They are ahead of the Leafs.

The Detroit Red Wings are missing a large chunk of their team and relying on a bunch of kids that would otherwise be in the AHL if the team is healthy. Their two best players appear gone for either the rest of the season or the majority of it. They are winning games (including beating the Leafs), and are tied with Toronto in points with two games in hand.

The Flyers had a terrible start to their season, fired their coach, made some trades, and now are ahead of the Leafs, too.

When Leiweke arrived in Toronto, he noted that hockey was a different animal compared to the other sports. He’s right, of course. There is a much different building system in place in hockey. It’s not a case of drafting kids who will be stepping right onto the roster and helping the team right away, generally speaking. It’s a process. But this Leafs team is not an expansion team or terrible team that needs a tonne of time and patience. They have one of the best players in the league in Phil Kessel; further, his entire line is one of the best in the league, with each player having a career season. They just signed their Captain, who is turning 29 in a couple of weeks, to a mega deal. They have good goaltending (even if not lately). They are a cap team. Is Leiweke going to sit around this summer and talk about hockey being a process if they miss the playoffs altogether, especially after being in a playoff spot for the vast majority of the year?

That seems unlikely to me.

When the Leafs made the playoffs last May, Leiweke said, “I came here and it was ‘Oh my goodness, look at this.’ This happened Day 1. This happened the first day of the playoffs. You had more built-up passion for this hockey team and organization on an away playoff game than we ever did, including winning the Stanley Cup in Game Six on home ice.”

With what the Raptors and TFC are doing right now –- in large part because of the blocks he put in place -— this guy can walk on water in Toronto at the moment. But the Leafs are the crown jewel of this town, and he knows it. He got a little taste of the ‘fan-sanity’ of Leafs Nation last year in just round one (round one!). He liked it. A lot.

It’s doubtful the GM is on the hot seat with a shiny new five-year contract in hand, but the coaching staff is far from secure. Carlyle is not Nonis’ guy, and while Nonis might want to store the “fire the coach” card for a little later on, a shoe will drop if the Leafs continue this downward spiral. Maybe it will be an assistant coach taken away from Carlyle a la the first nail in Ron Wilson’s coffin. Maybe a prominent veteran is going to be moved. Maybe Nonis is going to bring in his own staff altogether.

The truth is I don’t know what will happen come summer time if the Leafs miss the playoffs, but it is hard to envision Leiweke accepting it and overseeing no major changes to a team undergoing its third epic collapse in a row with its current core.

Notes

– There is a storyline about the Leafs this season that says they are not as tough as they were last season. Yes, losing Komarov and even the scrappy Grabovski has hurt to a degree, but what is still not being talked about enough is the fact that the Leafs can’t kill penalties. The team has the third worst penalty kill in the league at 78.7%. In the shortened season, Toronto led the league in penalty minutes per game and were 14th in minor penalties per game. In 2013-14, the Leafs are 22nd in minor penalties per game and are fifth in overall PIMs/game. They simply can’t afford to take penalties this season because their PK is once again very bad. The exact same thing happened under Ron Wilson.

– It doesn’t really get talked about much, but Gardiner has a cannon of a shot. He walked in against the Habs and beat Price clean with a snap shot that unfortunately hit the bar. Not many players can beat Price cleanly with a snapper (even though it was technically wide, it was by mere inches). This has always been a favourite highlight of mine in reference to his shot:

– This is also the second straight season where crunch time has arrived and Gardiner has delivered. Last Spring, Gardiner had five points in six playoffs game and was a huge factor in the team pushing that series to seven. Often times he was a one-man breakout, skating the puck out of the Leafs zone and limiting the Bruins forecheck.

– Since the Olympics this season, Gardiner has six points in 13 games and has been one of the few bright spots for this team throughout this brutal stretch. Gardiner led his D class in scoring in his rookie season. In his second season, he was great in the AHL with 31 points in 43 games (and anyone who saw him play there knows he dominated). He had a strong playoffs in the NHL last May. Now, this season, he is tied for 11th in goals by a defenseman while playing on the second power play unit all year long. Gardiner can still be frustrating and we’re not always sure what we are going to get from him night in and night out, but he’s turning 24 this summer and his body of work as a whole thus far has been largely impressive.

– The Leafs have had one other five game losing streak this season, but they did pick up two loser points during it. With points being dished out to losing teams, losing five games in a row in regulation just can’t happen. Now the Leafs play St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Detroit this week.

– Lupul was about as bad as you can be against Tampa, taking a penalty in the offensive zone that negated the second half of the five minute major and committing a brutal turnover leading to what was ultimately the game-winning goal. To his credit, Lupul responded with a big game against the Habs, but the Leafs best players have all taken turns making head scratching plays during this streak. Kessel had a brutal giveaway in the neutral zone leading to the Habs opening goal, Phaneuf stood beside Stamkos as he one-timed a puck in the slot past Reimer against Tampa, and so on.

– Should be interesting to find out what kind of injury Phaneuf is playing through at the end of the season because he is struggling to move around out there and actually looks like an old man on skates at time. At this point, it would be more of a concern to find out that he’s not hurt at all and is just playing like this.

– A quieter storyline throughout the media is that the players just look gassed. JVR, Kessel, Kadri, Lupul… these guys are all playing heavy minutes and have been for a while, and it appears to finally be catching up to them. Kessel and JVR are still creating chances, but neither seem to have a jump to their step and both have been visibly frustrated with each other lately. They have looked gassed at the end of games, and that’s a by-product of not running four lines throughout the season. Last season, with only 48 games played, it was continually said in this space that it’s not a major deal with the shortened season but that a 82-game season is a much different animal. It’s starting to show. It’s not like the Leafs don’t have the depth either — there are kids who can help this team currently playing for the Marlies instead.

– A few years ago, I wrote about how Ron Wilson started bypassing the media and tweeting out his roster and wondered if that could catch on over time. Ultimately, the Leafs got purchased by Rogers/Bell and we now know that is just never going to happen here, but it’s been interesting for me to see Eakins start doing this in Edmonton (he’s also a Burke guy, to a degree). It’s not relevant to the Leafs anymore, but I thought it was something worth mentioning.

– By that same token, when the Leafs were purchased I wondered how much media access would change since they’re owned by two media giants. To date, the signing of David Clarkson has been marketed more than any other Leafs signing I can ever remember, the team has a new “Behind the Leaf” show, they’ve been on HBO 24/7, and their management group makes the radio rounds very regularly.

Howard Berger posted an interesting blog talking about a really under the radar story: The Leafs knew Bernier wasn’t 100%, but let him decide whether he could play against the Kings. Anyone who has been around any high-level athletes knows that they won’t pass on a chance to stick it to their former team or coach. They are going to play unless you drag them off. Ultimately, not opting for a few extra days of rest may have cost the Leafs Bernier for weeks, if not their season.

Quote

“Of course everything will be re-evaluated in summer. I’m not saying Carlyle will be fired, but there are so many balls in the air.”
Bob McKenzie on TSN radio.

And that was said before the Leafs lost both games this weekend in regulation.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

 
1 – I think it hasn’t been noticed that the Leafs have been shifting around their D pairings lately, but it’s worth noting the mixing and matching. At the end of the day, their best four defenders right now are Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, and Rielly. Those four need to be playing the most, and if you mix and match them to do so — or go Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Gardiner-Rielly to do it — so be it. At least go down with your best.

2 – I think Franson has to be playing his final season with the team. He’s an RFA and is going to want to cash in finally, to an extent, this summer. He hasn’t been a top four defenseman this season, he has struggled on the powerplay lately, and has is turning 27 this summer with 300+ games of NHL experience; how much more room is there for this guy to grow? Maybe the rumoured hip injury is worse than we know, but he appears to be a third pairing PP specialist at this point.

3 – I think I’d go with MacIntyre tomorrow if Bernier can’t play. It’s nothing against Reimer, but this appears to be a toxic environment for him now. It appears to be inevitable he’ll request a trade and be gone from this team this summer. He’s a good goalie, but he’s struggled lately and all the frustration of this season is building within him. Go with the 31 year old playing for his NHL life. Try to catch lightning in a bottle. He didn’t look out of his element at all against Jersey once he came in.

4 – I think Clarkson shouldn’t even touch the Kadri and Lupul line. They haven’t looked good as a trio, they haven’t produced, and Raymond or Kulemin have looked way better there. Take your pick between the two, but Clarkson shouldn’t be an option. That’s a line-up decision that just reeks of contract justification. Where would Clarkson be if he was making $1M playing the way he is right now?

5 – I think I’d try to bring in a youngster from the Marlies who can bring some fresh energy right now. These are tough times on this team and they look like they are getting worse instead of better. Try calling up a kid and adding some spark to this group. Holland, Ashton, D’Amigo, or even Brennan. There are options. This is the same line of thought when it comes to MacIntyre. Trying plopping in a guy who might play way over his head because he’s simply pumped for the opportunity. It’s clearly working for the Red Wings right now.

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Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.
  • FRyan

    wow just read that Riems wife has been attacked on twitter. And hope smokes name is mentioned in the article

    http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2014/03/24/april_reimer_wife_of_maple_leaf_james_reimer_attacked_on_twitter.html

  • deedrag

    Yay, we’re saved! Thx for the Notebook AP!

  • ProfessorRance

    Been wanting to have Ashton in the lineup for a long time. Guy would provide some fresh energy to our team, just don’t have him fight.

  • dlb eh

    Tampa is ahead of the Leafs.  Bishop’s name was mentioned for Vezina.
    we’re even with DET who are missing their top centres, jsut like we were.  that should be a good sign considering we’re an up and coming team and they’ve had their top prospects in the minors two years ahead of us and now they’re getting the top notch goaltending when they need it.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh  Missing Bolland= missing Datsyuk and Zetterberg..?

  • BBirde

    Anthony Petrielli dlb eh  Obviously. I mean Bolland is the saviour. I thought you got the memo?

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    McCLemment was our top centre for a week.  we missed two of our top centres for a month.  one of the top centres is a kid still, Kadri.
    we have no depth like DET does, because our best prospects are in junior or just entered the AHL this year.  DET’s been building depth behind their Cup contender for years.
    we didn’t have a Tatar or Nyquist to call up, we traded for Holland.
    DET is lead by those two stars but it’s hardly all they have.

  • dlb eh

    BBirde
    we were ahead of DET handily until this 5 game collapse
    swap goaltending for this week and we’re 12 points up on them.
    our injuries are called excuses but DET’s are a measuring stick for us now?
    that’s junk

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh BBirde  The Leafs have one injury right now. Their best players have been healthy the entire season. Using injuries as the excuse for this swoon is junk, sorry.

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    judging by what’s happened this week, our injury is as bad as it could be

  • MaxwellHowe

    Anthony, great article.  Completely and totally agree with your point about adding a Marlie or two to the lineup, and I’ve felt that way all year.   Putting in Colton against New Jersey?  Dear Lord.  And it seems to me Gardiner is the only guy with lotsa gas left in the tank.  Kessel and Bozak are pushing hard, but they seem fatigued.  Rielly has been making more errors – its his first full season remember.  But Jake is skating them all into the ice.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  If one player missing is this big of an issue, that’s a red flag. There’s no other way to put that.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    MaxwellHowe  One of those guys that can skate all day and not got tired.

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    if DET or Tampa or PHI get Reimer-this-week we’re ahead of them handily
    excuse or not, it’s also a fact.
    Tampa, Philly and DET all play like shit quite often but get points that we haven’t managed this week.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Anthony Petrielli MaxwellHowe well Mason Raymond seems to having the same skating ability, but lately his skates seem to lead him into dead ends.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Murph2417 how does he rest of it go?

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  I agree that if Bernier was in that they get some points as of late, but they built this Reimer drama on themselves. He’s a good goalie.

  • Hammertownleaffan

    Great work AP. One of the big letdowns this year for me has been the regression of Franson. I loved watching him and Gardiner play against Boston, and was expecting big things (I remember calling my father after our second game this year and singing Franson’s praises, how we had a gem on our hands, etc). Man, his stock has just plummeted. I need to curb some of my “fan habits” at times and not get too high (Franson) or too low (Clarkson).

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  I’d rather be in the Leafs situation of having a goalie go down but with a good backup and your entire team healthy than Detroit missing half their forward group which includes two superstars.

  • Bennett2Gareth

    Not sure if anyone is following The Star dragging Hope_Smoke through the Mud.  Saying that he was one of the tweeters attacking April Reimer…..

  • PEIleafnation

    Murph2417 drew island boy McIntyre to the rescue

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Hammertownleaffan  Same. I didn’t have a problem with them trying him in the top 4 this year. Was completely understandable last summer.

  • Bennett2Gareth

    http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2014/03/24/april_reimer_wife_of_maple_leaf_james_reimer_attacked_on_twitter.html

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    i think Reimer’s a quality goalie still.  Miller was junk at one point this year, Price had a slump earlier this year.  i’m not oblivious to that.
    Reimer’s in a funk.  we can’t ignore the impact that has on our performance.  i can’t say the team has played poorly in front of him.  all teams give up chances.  Kessel gets loose because of other teams’ mistakes, or rebounds because goalies can’t control pucks at times.
    but we have been good enough the last 5 games to have earned at least half the points they were worth.
    we’re where we assumed we would be at the start of the year.

  • Bennett2Gareth

    CanuckUKinToronto Bennett2Gareth  He’s blogger….has a site hopeinthebigsmoke.ca

  • Hammertownleaffan

    Anthony Petrielli HammertownleaffanI was actually kind of upset we didn’t try to get him for more term this summer, I figured we could cut the inevitable raise he was going to get this summer down a bit. I only really see a scenario now where we package him and Reimer for a couple middling picks or some also-rans. Brutal.

  • mr_hanie

    Probably the worst Leaf trade in 20 years was Rask for Raycroft. Because of this trade goal-tending has and will be Leafs hot topic discussion, it never ends……

  • Burtonboy

    Good article again Anthony . What ever happens here with the Leafs down the stretch and how Leiweke reacts is something we’re are about to find out . I like you think he’s not going to be a very happy camper so hang onto your hat if the Leafs collapse again. Above all else I really hope we stick to the plan to build this team long term and not start trading young pieces like Gardiner but make no doubt about it there will be repercussions.

  • charlieb83

    dlb eh  We haven’t looked good THE WHOLE SEASON!

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    imagine our prospects were all two years more developed and we were to lose our top two forwards.
    with solid goaltending…
    there would be callups with energy and more man-strength and pro-seasoning who the coach could plug into specific roles.
    we’ve seen lots of examples of it.
    i didn’t expect Reimer to struggle like this at all, but now that he has, we’re far worse off than DET missing two stars.  they still can ice a team that can play everyone tight and count on good goaltending and timely scoring.

  • ProfessorRance

    mr_hanie  Would not be a discussion right now if Bernier didn’t get injured.

  • Hammertownleaffan

    Bennett2Gareth CanuckUKinTorontoI thought his comment was clearly aimed at James, had nothing to do with April. I would be pissed if I was him.

  • Pent_House

    The heavy minutes with no 4th line, and calling up some Marlies resonated with me the most. I remember hearing some interviews about game 7 and how the guys were exhausted in that game and just had nothing left in the tank. It’s the most frustrating thing that he always shortens his bench. Makes it even worse, when I watch every Marlies game and I see these kids playing the game the right way, busting their arses, they have heart and desire, and they can’t even get a sniff in a depth role. Nice write-up AP.

  • Bennett2Gareth

    Hammertownleaffan Bennett2Gareth CanuckUKinToronto  He absolutely is, as he should be.  Even talking about it on the radio now.  102.1

  • dlb eh

    charlieb83
    before the Olympics we started to look pretty darned good.
    we looked good versus ANA and LA
    we have outplayed the opposition this past week and lost
    ironic.  we were bad early on but still got some points.
    have you watched ANA in their recent losses?  they look as bad as we have.  it’s all a matter of perspective.  if you expect us to dominate every shift you’ll always be disappointed.

  • dlb eh

    if we could kill a penalty i think we’d be able to start marching uphill with a purpose

  • Pent_House

    MaxwellHowe Anthony Petrielli  because Gardiner has heart and raymond doesn’t.

  • LeafsManiac

    ProfessorRance  Even if he was in our lineup Carlyle would still only give him 3-4 minutes a game

  • Burtonboy

    CanuckUKinToronto Burtonboy  Not a chance in hell you get a # 2 dman for Reimer + picks and prospects . I also have doubts you will ever get a prove top 6 for Lupul and Franson either . Best hope is we can trade them for good young prospect to some contending team.

  • charlieb83

    dlb eh charlieb83  I don’t expect them to dominate but the getting out-shot and out-possessed every damn game is pathetic.

  • Pent_House

    dlb eh  I don’t know how D’amigo isn’t up for that specifically at the least, the guy has been one of the best killers in the AHL for several seasons now, it’s supposed to be this young team and building etc. and the kids never get a chance at shit.

  • Hammertownleaffan

    Pent_House FWIW I talk to Abbott every now and then (worked with him in high school) and he raves about Spott. I don’t think that’s a high enough profile signing to replace the monkey we currently have, but it would be cool. Marlies play like I want us to play.

  • dlb eh

    Pent_House
    i agree, except i really want to wait as long as we can with the Marlies … a number of those kids show flashes of being more than 4th liners to me.
    i’d like Nonis and Carlyle to sort out the veteran positions and then start graduating the kids who deserve it because they’re really good, in addition to playing the game the right way.
    it’s tough to do that when patient.
    i wonder how Lou would fair on Toronto.

  • Burtonboy

    Pent_House  All goes back to Carlyle doesn’t it

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Burtonboy  The core of Kessel, JVR, Kadri, Rielly, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Bernier is still nice. Everything else should try to be upgraded.

  • dlb eh

    Hammertownleaffan
    RC would love that make up translated to the NHL

  • dlb eh

    Burtonboy
    it does.  but i wonder if it’s intentional.
    i’m curious.  is it all the guys from Carlyle’s generation who don’t like him?

  • LeafsManiac

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  It’s a character issue for this team. We obviously can play with the big boys beating LA, ANA, COL, Bos etc. We can beat anyone on a given night but we can’t win the games you have to win NYI, BUFF, NJ. If we miss the playoffs it is from taking these nights off

  • Burtonboy

    Anthony Petrielli Burtonboy  Yes I fully agree . Just not sure how difficult its going to be upgrading. The league is not an easy place to make trades anymore

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  The fact that the Leafs need excellent goaltending to pick up points is in and of itself an issue.