With the rest of the Leafs season boiling down to a formality, the offseason speculation is about to ramp up to (my guess) unprecedented heights after yet another collapse by this core.
Fingers will begin being pointed at the coach, management, players, fans, media, and whoever else anyone can think of.
There will be blame to be shared among some of those, but one thing that cannot be overlooked, if the Leafs are going to ultimately be successful down the road, is the flawed construction of this roster at forward.
The Leafs went into the season hoping to have two “first lines” as they wanted two top scoring lines (JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson), followed by a defensive line (Raymond-Bolland-Kulemin), and an energy line (McLaren-McClement-Orr).
Even in the middle of the season the Leafs held true to this forward construction. As Carlyle noted, “They should be a line in my mind that provides a second-tier of offence and should challenge the first line.”
As we continue to see year-over-year, though, there are two primary problems with this line of thinking.
The first is that the top line is never going to be challenged offensively with Phil Kessel and JVR on it. Kessel is a top-10 NHL scorer and rightfully plays a ton on the PP. The Leafs are not going to bring in anyone that challenges him offensively for the scoring lead on this team unless it’s a center who actually plays with him, or a forward that moves up to play on PP1 with him. Otherwise, it’s just not going to happen.
The second fact of the matter is that the top line is bad defensively. There is no getting around it. Phil Kessel has been on for 62 goals for and 57 against in 5v5 play this season. JVR has been on for 68 goals for and 57 against. These two are having unbelievable career years and are a handful of goals away from being even.
Earlier this season, Mirtle pointed out that, “Over the last three seasons, the Leafs have been outshot heavily (1,373-1,168) with Bozak on the ice at even strength, which has contributed to a line with one of the NHL’s top scorers on it outscoring the opposition by just eight goals over those 159 games.”
Yeah, this line does score a lot, but they give up a lot, cheat in the defensive zone, and look for the long breakaway and 2v1 passes all game.
So, what this really boils down to is this: You can’t have that type of top line and supplement it with yet another offensive line that is poor defensively as the second unit. Then, to top it all off, have a fourth line that is supposed to play under 10 (8..? 6…?) minutes of “just survive” hockey and expect to come out a playoff team after 82 games.
Considering that entire top line is locked up long-term and the Leafs don’t appear to be willing to touch them, they are going to have to start sheltering that line. It is one thing to have a soft scoring line like Kadri’s when there is a top line that can be trusted against top players and teams, but the Leafs don’t have that luxury. Even in Anaheim, Carlyle’s then-top line of Kunitz-MacDonald-Selanne could be reasonably trusted because MacDonald was that good. Not this top line, though.
This is also why the team lamented and cried about the loss of Dave Bolland. They pretty well had nobody else, nor did they really plan on it. Bolland got hurt, their first two lines can’t be trusted defensively, and their fourth line is a wasteland. They were stuck.
Really, what the Leafs need to do more than anything else this summer is start making some actual two-way lines. That way, they can shelter their top line, get 80 points from Kessel, and really have at least two, if not three, units they can count on to do the heavy lifting.
You can’t hold that top line’s feet to the fire by saying “we’ll have another line that can challenge you offensively.” Given who the Leafs could potentially acquire within reason, it just won’t happen. Phil will outscore whoever is on that second line. But with a two-way line that doesn’t give up just about as much as it produces, they can easily hold them back, start playing them less, and cut down their minutes when all they want to do is cheat for breakaways.
The template this team should be considering is the one that got Vancouver to the Cup Finals: an extremely sheltered top line with the Sedins, a stud two-way line centered by Kesler, a shutdown unit led by Malhotra, and a reasonable fourth line centered by Maxim Lapierre. The Leafs don’t have anything close to a Kesler-like piece, but some of those pieces are either easy to acquire or already in house.
How the Leafs move around their parts to make that happen is anyone’s guess, but creating a second line that can challenge the top line offensively is not the answer, and neither is relying on the top line as if they are Steen-Backes-Oshie and can do it all.
The defense at least has pieces that we can easily see growing into top defenders, but the forward group does not. Management has to reconsider this roster make-up and start treating that top line for what it really is. Otherwise, it’s just going to be more fire wagon hockey for the Leafs.
- Last May, when Toronto was eliminated by Boston, it was a tough pill to swallow no doubt, but one thing we could not take away from the Leafs is that they went down swinging. Just pushing that series to seven was a minor victory and nobody could say that team backed down from the Bruins. Fast forward almost a year and this Leafs team all but bowed out of the race at home against a mathematically-eliminated Winnipeg Jets team missing Zack Bogosian and sitting Evander Kane. Ondrej Pavelec was in net and even gift-wrapped them a goal. Yet, they still got dominated and lost easily. There was hardly any pushback from the Leafs throughout the game. There was really just nothing there. Season on the line, at home, against an eliminated team with a bad goalie, and it felt like a Tuesday game in November.
- If you watch Kadri right around the 5 second mark here he actually signals for that puck from Franson as he’s standing all alone in OT against Boston. In his relatively short Leafs career, he’s already made some huge offensive plays for this team including the insurance goal in the game they clinched the playoffs against Ottawa, cutting in and more or less doing the legwork in Phaneuf’s goal against Boston in game 6, and now this. It’s not an extraordinary amount of big plays by any means, but this isn’t exactly a team that has had a ton of big moments lately.
- Been to quite a few Leafs games, but can’t recall a nicer moment than the ovation given to Reimer when Bernier got hurt against Boston. I was in the lower bowl in the Leafs end there around the blue line and nobody really knew how Bernier got hurt (they didn’t show it on the jumbotron, either). At first everyone actually thought Bergeron was getting a penalty, before Ranger did, while Bernier was clearly down and out. Next, Reimer was coming in after just a disastrous stretch of play for him and the team. I sat expecting to hear a ton of “oh crap we’re done” and “not Reimer!” but what followed was a really cool moment; I didn’t hear one bad thing said about Reimer, as fans actually stood up and cheered for the guy. “Come on Reimer, you can do it” and chants of “Reimer, Reimer, Reimer” filled the lower bowl, and every time he made a save the crowd got a little bit louder. This is a really tough market to play in when the team is losing and the fans along with the media can be just ruthless when things go wrong, so I was floored at that kind of response from what is usually a very pessimistic and hostile group at times like these. I don’t know what will happen with Reimer this summer, but I suspect he’s gone; if that’s the case, that Bruins game will be his last win the ACC as a Leaf. Saturday he got hung out to dry by him team yet again, but I hope he remembers that ovation as an example of the real support he did get here.
- Something else I noted from being at the game was how the TV view really didn’t do justice to Boston’s first goal that everyone pinned on Franson. It looked like Franson had more time than he really did because he doubled clutched the puck, but he was a righty on his left side receiving that pass a little behind him; he didn’t have an option to turn up the boards because Patrice Bergeron was right on him and took away that option, forcing him to the middle of the ice (side note: that’s why Bergeron is a damn smart player). Franson made the split decision to go up the middle and Marchand was there, ready to pounce. That doesn’t absolve Franson of all blame, but Raymond really put him in a tough spot when he literally could have just skated the puck out on his own. This has been a trend all season: The Leafs don’t make the simple, easy plays look like simple, easy plays.
- Final sort-of note from being at the game. There was one shift where Phil Kessel got stuck on the ice and was out for an icing. He went to the bench gassed, hunched over, stick on his knees, trying to catch his breath, but the team didn’t call a timeout. After the draw, the Leafs got it out and made a line change with Raymond’s line coming on. The Leafs had a nice cycle which caused Boston to ice it for an offensive zone faceoff. Who comes right back out? Kessel. Mere minutes ago this guy couldn’t breathe, but there he was being thrown out there again. He’s playing over 20 minutes a night, getting routinely double shifted, pretty well doesn’t practice at this point according to reports, and is just gassed. He’s been gassed this entire stretch drive pretty much. There’s been no sense of urgency to develop bottom lines or real trust in the young guys.
- Here is another example: Against Winnipeg on Saturday the Leafs dressed two game-time decision players in Lupul and Bolland, one of which missed their last game. That’s fine, a lot of teams are dressing questionable players at this time of the season. But to dress them in a group of only 11 forwards in order to play 7 D while a guy who played well in under 10 minutes and got an assist watches from the press box (D’Amigo)? Of course, the results were predictable. Lupul didn’t come close to finishing the game, Bolland barely played, and the top line was yet again overused and done.
- So much has been made about the Leafs collapsing system, but on Thursday we saw Boston score two goals in the high slot on nearly identical plays. That’s when you know their defensive system is simply non-existent. Every system has pros and cons, but generally a collapsing system takes away the slot and leaves the points open. Boston was able to score two of the exact same goals in the third to tie that game. A few nights later, Jokinen put the Leafs away right in the heart of the slot. Whatever their defensive system is, they have to tear it right down and start from scratch.
- As hard as I’ve been on him in this space, I don’t think there’s a player hurt more on the Leafs from their lack of/bad systems than David Clarkson. Against Winnipeg, the team got the puck in the deep, he was first on the forecheck, took out his man for a few seconds, and nobody supported the puck on his line. The Jets easily broke out and actually had a 3v2 from their own blue line. If you’re Clarkson you’re thinking, “nobody is down here to help me get the puck below their goal line, and nobody is high enough to prevent an odd man rush the other way. What is going on?” Against Boston, he was on for two goals and really had no chance to do anything on either of them because neither time it was his man. Watch the Bergeron goal he was on for to tie the game. Marchand came around the net, Bolland was on Bergeron before staring at the puck, and Clarkson is in between on “do I cover my point, do I cover Bergeron?” By the time he moves over, it’s too late.
Clarkson isn’t a free-flowing hockey player that can score off the rush or make nice open plays. He needs structured and simple hockey: get it deep, work it to the point, go to the net. The Leafs don’t do this very often.
- I don’t think I’ve ever referenced plus/minus in this space, but I just can’t look away from Phaneuf being a -18 in the last 17 games. I said last week that I’ll wait to see what if he’s injured once the season ends, and I’m sticking to that. That said, if he’s not seriously hurt the Leafs should be concerned.
- Listening to the Leiweke interview, I couldn’t help but note the way he talks about Lowry and Bradley being the heart of their respective teams and how he believes Bolland is that guy for the Leafs. We’ll see what ultimately happens there, but it’s something to keep in mind.
“Yeah we’re questioning that because every time he goes down he plays better. He’s definitely been the best player on the Marlies in the times that he’s been down there. Obviously the step for him to come here is the time and space that’s created in the American League is that much less than what’s here. And the confidence that he shows there, we believe someday will transfer to the NHL. Now when that happens, I wish we had the answer to that. I wish that happened already. I think the one thing we discussed is Carter needs an opportunity to play 10 games. Just leave him in that position and let him get that confidence level to play ten games and take that next step, but we haven’t been afforded that luxury.”
- Randy Carlyle when asked about Carter Ashton.
Ashton is averaging 6:04 of ice time in 31 games with the Leafs this season playing primarily on the fourth line with Colton Orr. The team has had more than enough injuries to try and push him up the line-up throughout the season but have elected not to. There is no mystery as to why he scores in the AHL but not in the NHL.
“Clearly over the next couple of weeks they’re (the Leafs) going to determine whether we have a problem or not.”
- Tim Leiweke on the Strombo show.
You hear this as a Leafs fan and it just sends a shiver down your spine. To be so short-sighted to decide if there is a problem with this team based on two weeks is frightening. Judge the entire season.
“if you took an anonymous poll from Eastern Conference people they’d say games against the Leafs were the easiest ones they’ve played… Last week a player from East Conference playoff team told me the game they played against the Leafs was the easiest of their year”
- Darren Dreger.
Kind of sums it up at this point. Don’t need to add anything here.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 - I think, at this point, there isn’t anything left to say regarding roster decisions. There’s three games left, they are all but out, so finish off the season and start looking at next year. It would be nice to get the young kids some ice time, but it’s window dressing with three games left.
2 - I think, looking at the Leafs ‘depth’ free agents, I’d bring back Bodie and Ranger. Bodie has had a nice season and I’d like him back as long as his salary is under the 925K threshold (meaning they can send him down without cap penalty). He’s shown he can take a regular shift, he contributes offensively once and awhile, and he brings some nice size to the team. Then there is Paul Ranger, who has frustrated people, but has really played well and has gotten better as the season has gone on. If he wants to play and is willing to come back for cheap, I think he can easily be a good sixth or seventh defenseman going into next season that still has room to grow.
3 - I think, other than the depth guys, the only other UFA really worth talking about is Kulemin. Bolland wants crazy money, so unless he’s coming way down off of what he’s asking for (and maybe he is) it shouldn’t even be a discussion. McClement has been a nice foot soldier, but the PK has struggled with him this season and he doesn’t bring them much 5v5, to say nothing about how bad this team is at protecting leads. Raymond has had a nice year points wise, but if the Leafs are ever going to move away from the run and gun style they play, not bringing back or signing guys like Raymond has to happen. That only leaves Kulemin. He’s a big body, can actually play defense, has shown he can cycle, and is the type of player that good teams look to add to fill out their depth. The fact that he’s shown he has the chance to be a center, too, makes him more attractive. He can potentially play all three forward positions well and that versatility makes him a nice piece to have around.
4 - I think Leafs management has to seriously consider buying out Tim Gleason. With two more years making $4M per season, that’s a lot of money for essentially a third pairing defenseman who will have to play with Morgan Rielly (they shouldn’t start the next season with Rielly in the top 4, he should grow into it naturally) and doesn’t help Rielly at all. The cap hit penalty isn’t huge and a good GM should be able to take the difference between the cap hit and Gleason’s original salary and find a better defenseman in free agency.
5 - I think, to finish this off with the RFAs, bringing back Gardiner is a no-brainer. Although I for one would like to see Reimer back, I know it’s not going to happen. Lastly there’s Franson, who I was once really high on when he came here, but I don’t think he’s going to become a good top 4. I’d look to move him for more of a two-way player or good draft pick.