Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. Contact him at [email protected]
The Leafs look to pick up their first win in five games tonight against the Dallas Stars. The Stars are 10th in the west with a 13-9-4 record, but some of below-average teams in the West would probably be good teams in the East. I caught parts of a couple of Stars games this season and this is a fast team.
Jerry D’Amigo received his first ever call up after four seasons with the Marlies and is expected to play on the Leafs’ 4th line tonight.
It seems Colton Orr is injured, and there is no word yet as to whether or not Frazer McLaren will dress for the Leafs. The Leafs waived Jerred Smithson and recalled D’Amigo though, so it seems Randy Carlyle is starting to get the idea after getting smacked over the head with the dangerous realities of icing a boat anchor fourth line, with a banged-up lineup, against a deep team like the San Jose Sharks.
Many fans have been waiting to see D’Amigo after some beastly playoff performances for the Marlies 2012 and again in 2013. He has been a 30-40 point player in the regular season, but has 21 points in 26 AHL playoff games.
D’Amigo will likely get some penalty killing time given Smithson is now with the Marlies and Tyler Bozak is out tonight. Hopefully D’Amigo has McClement and maybe Ashton as linemates to give him something to work with in terms of a cycle line.
Phil Kessel will play, Joffrey Lupul won’t. Jonathan Bernier starts. Tyler Seguin is in for the Dallas Stars. Stephane Robidas is out for a long time for the Stars.
- HBO 24/7 started filming at today’s practice.
- Tyler Bozak injury status update.
- Phil Kessel left practice early with a “tweak.”
- Joffrey Lupul stormed off the practice rink angrily.
- Jerred Smithson waived.
A struggling Leafs team running into a 18-3-4 opponent can go one of two ways – the bloody Jaws-like scene we’re picturing, or the Leafs sensing the urgency of a fin in the water, rising to the level of competition, and icing a respectable showing.
The Sharks are obviously on another level personnel wise; they tick all the boxes required in an elite team with amazing center depth in particular (Thornton, Couture, Pavelski, Marleau in a pinch). It’s a mystery as to why the Sharks organization doesn’t have at least one Cup to show for itself given its regular season successes since 2004. While the Red Wings are popularly described as the paragon of consistency as a winning team that feeds the machine with acute draft day bargain hunting, San Jose has been a winning team that’s been better at the draft without the Cup to show for it.
Great drafting ensures this Sharks will have more opportunities to win its first Cup over this next CBA – a 9th overall pick was used on Logan Couture on and a second round pick on Marc-Edouard Vlasic; two 7th rounders were used to unearth Joe Pavelski and Justin Braun (leading Sharks defence core in minutes played, and leading the league in plus/minus); Tommy Wingels was a sixth-round pick up; Tomas Hertl, looking like pretty damn good value at 17th overall in 2012, is currently leading the Calder race (13 goals and 21 points in 26 games).
In fact, since 2003 no team has produced more games played out of its draftees than the Sharks, and they’ve been a good to great team the entire time.
The painful irony for Leafs fans is that the man who traded the first and second round picks used by the Sharks to trade up for Logan Couture in order to wrangle himself Vesa Toskala is one of the brains behind the scouting operation in San Jose, along with director of scouting Tim Burke, in John Ferguson Jr (at least since 2008). Leafs fans can at least thank Fergie for the excellent 2006 draft and the appointment of Dave Morrison as his Director of Scouting in the same year (Morrison’s results look to be pretty good so far).
Sharks coach Todd McLellan has been labeling his the 2013-14 iteration of his group as less of a heavy cycle team than in years previous, but a good possession team nonetheless that emphasizes putting a ton of rubber at the net, winning puck races, and rolling four lines with speed to feed a relentless attack.
“We’re talking about putting it in areas where we can go get it. We’re talking about playing more of a north-south game, not slowing it down as much, trying to stay ahead of the curve. That’s where the game is going. Coming out of the last lockout you could delay, look for people and hold on to the puck a little longer. Teams have figured out how to defend that now. You have to advance.”
- Todd McLellan
Consider the following quotes:
“We’re not a team who likes to skate over the blueline and throw shots at the net, we want to hold onto it and make some plays.”
“Our coaches track scoring chances, not shots. A guy crosses centre ice and shoots the puck at the net, it’s a shot. After the game, when they put up the scoring chances, if there’s ever a big disparity in that, it’s going to be an issue with the coaches and with the players. But again, if they get 40 shots and five scoring chances, that doesn’t really matter to us.”?
“You’ve got to shoot the puck. You watch highlights around the league and a lot of goals are scored on second or third chances and that’s how we’ve been getting them, too.”
- Logan Couture
“It shows up more in the third- and fourth-line situations, the ability to roll four lines and maintain the pace. If we were going quick in the past, it kind of fell off as we went down a line or two, so there were hills and valleys. In the game right now, all the lines play a quick game.” - Todd McLellan
An amazing set of centers as in San Jose changes the entire complexion of a team, obviously, and Carlyle’s system is partially built around covering up for what isn’t the strongest group of pivots in the League. The Sharks are icing three centers better than the Leafs’ best. But embracing speed as the team’s identity and rolling four lines that looks to quicken the pace and sustain a high-energy game seems like the better approach than what we’ve seen from Carlyle’s Leafs lately.
While the Leafs amassed a 36-21-5 record over 62 games under Randy Carlyle between January 2013 and November 1, 2013, regression remained a buzzword in Leafland due to some of the foreboding stats underlying their performance. There continues to be merit in those concerns; getting outshot, and out shot-attempted, was and continues to be an indicator that this team isn’t controlling games often enough (or seemingly at all, this season) at 5 on 5.
For that reason, the current 13-game stretch, in which the Leafs have gone 5-6-3, they’re not getting the same benefit of the doubt as maybe another team would that easily qualified for the playoffs last season, started the next season 10-4, and had a poor stretch in the month of November.
For the Leafs, the recent struggles haven’t been attributable to any one or two things. They have regressed in just about every area in November – five on five goals for and against, powerplay, and penalty kill. One area where the struggles have been most pronounced is in the goals department. In the previous 62 games under Carlyle, this team scored 190 goals (3.06/game). They scored just 25 goals in 13 November games (1.92/game).
*Lupul played just 29 out of those 62 games, but did post 67 points the 66 games previous; Clarkson played 52/62 due to the suspension.
It certainly would be nice getting some production from the bottom six when the top 6 is struggling. The intention of this exercise is not to suggest Carlyle doesn’t need to rethink is current bottom six, because he needs to in the worst way. While depth up front is a concern at this point, options with a more offensive capacity to their game are available to Carlyle in Holland and Leivo, as young as they may be. He should probably use them. Jerred Smithson was needed to fill a temporary void at center, but it’s clear one shot in 12 games isn’t going to get him on the board any time soon.
However, for all 5 of these players to be struggling, as they are, over an entire month of the schedule? That’s unusual, and surely it’s not here to stay. Lupul, Kessel, Kadri, JvR playing at sub 40-point paces, all at the same time? Clarkson isn’t of the same offensive talent as the other four, but he should be able to pick it up as well and is bound to heat up at some point. No better time than now.
This team wasn’t going to shoot at 12% all season as they did in October, but surely that group of players isn’t going to stay this quiet for much longer, either.
MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 30: Morgan Rielly #44, Paul Ranger #15 and Jonathan Bernier #45 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defend the net against Brian Gionta #21 and Daniel Briere #48 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game on November 30, 2013 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Murphy’s Law is gripping this Leafs team at the moment. The performance wasn’t terrible in this one; it wasn’t exactly great, but there is a confluence of bad things happening to this team at the moment, some in their control and some not. The most disconcerting part about the conclusion to this month, as the Leafs enter a brutally tough December – 2 regulation wins in 13 November games.
In the first two weeks of December, which is now two days away, the Leafs will face San Jose, St. Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh. First, they will play a back to back against Buffalo and Montreal to close out November. Seems like they should probably pick up a few points starting tonight.
The Leafs are 4-5-2 in the month of November and will have to sweep this back to back to come out with a winning record in a relatively easy month, one that features three games with tonight’s last-placed opponent. Guess when the Sabres last won a game? Yep, against the Leafs in the first leg of their November 15/16 back to back. Five consecutive regulation losses since (one to the Leafs) has this Sabres team well on track for the first overall draft selection in the 2014 draft with a putrid 5-20-1 record. The Sabres haven’t scored more than a goal in a game since their two-goal third period in Toronto two weeks ago.
The Leafs didn’t play particularly well against Buffalo in either game of the home and home, but went 1-1 and were without Kadri and Bozak. That said, the first game was somewhat of a trap if you consider the Leafs were without their entire center group and Ted Nolan was coaching his first game behind the Buffalo bench. The first 40 minutes of the second game featured some dominant spells by the Leafs, but a near-collapse in the third period left a bad taste in the mouth.
On that note, Randy Carlyle, with the number of optional skates he’s been holding in the last month, seems to think energy is an issue for his team when they waver (i.e. every game) in their sixty minute effort. That could be the case, but it seems their main issue is reacting to certain situations thrown their way by the opposition when they start bringing the pressure by pinching with their D down the boards – which seems to be exploiting a systemic sore spot. Is it any coincidence the hold on leads has been tenuous at times for this team?
Carter Ashton has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies. He last played on November 15 vs. these same Buffalo Sabres and was sent down on November 21 when Kadri came back from suspension and Bozak had also returned from injury. In two games down with the Marlies, Ashton tallied three points (1 goal, 2 assists). The fourth line is better off with him, his board play and physicality, on it as far as I’m concerned.
We won’t know lineup information until game time given the optional practice. On D, one imagines Jake Gardiner draws back in and Jonas Siegel seems to think it could be Morgan Rielly coming out.
Extra work for Morgan Rielly this morning. Appears a possibility that he'll come out tonight in favour of Jake Gardiner.
Not sure why Mark Fraser and Cody Franson are immune to the rotation here.
James Reimer will start in net, with Jonathan Bernier getting the start in his hometown tomorrow in Montreal.
This is a game the Leafs simply have to win. They’re stumbling, and somewhat to their credit still scraping along at around .500, but a blowout at the hands of Columbus followed by the 4-1 and 5-3 lead forfeitures to Pittsburgh has the Leafs in a position where a loss to the 5-20 Sabres would be pretty crushing.
All those cliches about needing to respond to an embarrassing loss with a big character effort will apply to tonight’s meeting against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Leafs have played well against the Penguins since the start of last season, going 2-1-1 while scoring 14 goals across the four outings.
The Leafs and Penguins play a similar game, and in the past that has suited the Leaf offense just fine. The Penguins will trade chances as a skilled team with speed, and the Leafs have found it less difficult to find space and generate speed through the neutral zone against Pittsburgh than teams that force them to earn their inches and win board battles.
Most recently, the Leafs got the better of the Penguins in late October with a 4-1 win. That was also coming off a lopsided loss to the Blue Jackets, although not as lopsided as Monday night’s debacle. Will history will repeat itself tonight with a good response from the Leafs?
Carlyle and the players credited a ratcheting up of their physical game as part of their success in the October 26 win. Dave Bolland was key to the victory with two goals and general awesomeness, helping keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet the first time in 10 meetings with the Blue and White, but as we well know the Leafs’ Swiss Army Knife is on the shelf for the foreseeable future.
Getting back on track offensively
Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk each have three points in 10 November games. As much talk as there is about this being a predictable regression for the Leafs as of late, this is an unusually slow period for the two dynamic offensive players and surely one that won’t last.
Kessel and JvR both have a good history of production against the Penguins. Kessel has 3 goals and 7 points in his last five meetings with the Penguins, while James van Riemsdyk has six points in four games against the Penguins since joining the Leafs.
For the Leafs in general, there may be some rush opportunities available to them tonight. If not, we should expect this team has taken Carlyle’s simplify mantra to heart. More fancy plays in dangerous areas of the ice and overpassing would be frustrating to see after Monday night.
Gardiner scratched: A case of conflicted identity?
All reports indicate Jake Gardiner is sitting to allow for Paul Ranger’s return to the fold.
Carlyle seems to have his defence compartmentalized in such a way where Mark Fraser is a necessity on the backend as his bruising, stay at home, net-protection presence. The issue for some is that Fraser just hasn’t been right since returning from injury. He’s looked slower and shaky on the puck.
Carlyle appears to have more patience for Fraser than he does Gardiner; he feels the team needs what he brings when he’s playing well, and that Fraser deserves the time to sort it out. No doubt, Fraser was a warrior for the Leafs last season.
Carlyle, meanwhile, saw Gardiner playing firewagon hockey, turning the puck over, getting caught up the ice and making erratic decision with the puck on Monday night and has decided that he needs to watch a game from the press box. Carlyle grows tired on Gardiner quick when he feels he’s lacking discipline in his decision making.
I don’t personally believe the Leafs are in a better position to win tonight having made this decision, but here we are. Gardiner was effective and playing big minutes for this team in the first quarter of the season, but Carlyle was quick to scratch him after a performance in which all Leaf D were torched and no Leaf player, to a man, played well.
It makes one wonder about the conflicted identity theme that has been getting some play in the media as of late. The defence with Rielly and Gardiner on it, with Fraser out and Ranger in (Ranger is pretty active on the pinch, even when he shouldn’t be), combined with the make up of this team’s forwards suggests the very essence of a run and gun team. The aforementioned combination seems to be the best assembly of skill the Leafs can ice on defence, but Carlyle’s vision has never been that of a run and gun outfit, even though the team has often played like one. Last season, the Leafs were a unique blend of a team that thrived off the rush while physically punishing the opposition.
It’s not altogether surprising that Carlyle likes to have a “Mark Fraser type” on his blueline, but Fraser hasn’t been doing his own job effectively. It doesn’t seem fair to Gardiner to pick him out of the pile of poor performances on Monday night.
In any event, the pairings look like they’ll stack up as:
Let’s hope the new pairings can sort it out quickly as the Crosby/Kunitz Malkin/Neal double-headed monster is as tough of a matchup as there is in the League.
Up front, Peter Holland will reenter the lineup with Joffrey Lupul on the shelf for at least two weeks. Preparing for the likes of Sid, Neal, Kunitz and Malkin, Carlyle’s approach is to insulate Holland with McClement and Kulemin on the third line, based on the practice units.
Jonathan Bernier will start for the Leafs in his first career start against the Penguins. Marc Andre Fleury goes for the Penguins.
Yesterday in practice, Randy Carlyle reunited a defence pairing of his from last season by moving Cody Franson back beside Mark Fraser. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly were paired together in a combination that is as scary as it is tantalizing. As of this morning, these appear to be the second and third pairings for tonight’s game versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, but if that remains the case come game time and if it sticks throughout the sixty minutes will remain to be seen.
1. Countless odd man opportunities against.
2. Dreadful defense.
3. Bad breakouts vs. the trap.
4. Turnovers at the blueline.
5. Soft on the puck.
6. Too fancy offensively. Trying to pass it in the net.
7. Barely shooting (18 shots while chasing the lead the whole game).
8. Lupul hurt.
9. Outworked by lowly ‘Lumbus for the 2nd time.
10. Poor Reimer.
No sense in picking out individuals from the pile. This was the Leafs’ first real “blowout” of the season. How will they respond?
Tyler Bozak is expected to return to the top line between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel tonight as the Leafs close out a five-game homestand against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As much as Dave Bolland was off to a great start for the Leafs in an expanded role, he has to be an afterthought for the team given the length of his recovery time. This is as healthy as the Leafs are going to get for a long time, so let’s hope to start seeing them play some of their best hockey.
The last time out against the Blue Jackets, exactly a month ago today, the Leafs fell 5-2 in David Clarkson’s debut game. The Leafs took way too many penalties, six throughout the game, and it seemed to repeatedly kill their momentum any time they had a good shift or two. A loss in the special teams battle proved costly as they conceded one powerplay goal and allowed a shorthanded goal in the third period. So did a few bad third-period turnovers leading directly to goals.
Overall, the move to the weaker East hasn’t changed much for the Blue Jackets, however, as they’re struggling in every major category. Much like baseball’s BJs, these guys are flaccid. They’re bottom 10 in goals for, goals against, five-on-five goal differential, powerplay, penalty kill, shots for and shots against. Losing Marian Gaborik for a month to six weeks with a knee injury won’t help them turn things around any time soon either.
Gotta be Startin’ Reimer:
The league’s save percentage leader, James Reimer, will get the start for the Leafs, his first pair of consecutive starts in the month of November. Saturday night’s 49-save performance was a statement game for Optimus and one he’ll look to build on tonight. One of the amazing stats kicking around Twitter after the game was the nugget that, of the 4 occasions a goalie has won while facing 49 shots or more since Reimer entered the league in January of 2010, Reimer was responsible for three of them.
Indeed, 50 shots is crazy, but the more bizarre part is that it’s not all that far out of the typical range of rubber Reimer has faced on a game by game basis this season. Here is the breakdown of the 8 games Reimer has played start to finish:
40 shots per game on average. Bernier, in his 13 games played from start to finish, has averaged 33.5 shots against.
Maybe Reimer will get a reprieve tonight:
Reimer/Bernier might catch a break tonight. CBJ averaging 17.5 shots per-game on current road trip (2-2-0)
- Peter Holland and Paul Ranger are expected to sit. Meaning, Carlyle will stick with Raymond, McClement and Kulemin as his checking line and McLaren, Smithson and Orr as his fourth line. On D, Rielly will stay in the lineup on Fraser’s right.
Tyler Bozak didn’t make his return to game action at the behest of team doctors on Saturday night. The worry with Bozak is that his hamstring issue may be a nagging one for him this season, given he wanted to play despite the doctor’s orders and was limping around the practice rink the day before.
In any event, we’ll find out as the day progresses if Bozak will play his first game since exactly a month ago today against the same opponent he sustained the injury, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
James reimer is the expected starter tonight. Tyler bozak looks like he's good to go as well. #TMLtalk
His absence has, however, contributed to throwing the lineup out of whack and a reduction in JvR and Kessel’s minutes.
Indeed, this is perhaps more accurately labeled a “Leafs obliterated down the middle” issue, of which Bozak is a part, as opposed to exclusively a “Bozak’s out” issue.
When Bozak first went down, Kadri jumped onto the top line and Kessel, JvR and Nazem combined for a whopping 15 points over three games against the Penguins, Oilers and Flames. Once Dave Bolland went down to injury in the Vancouver game, the struggles for the duo began. In order to try to balance the lineup, Carlyle shifted JvR to center and bumped Naz down a spot. The JvR at center experiment saw JvR-Kessel duo amass a total of one point, a Kessel goal on the powerplay, over the four games. Also in the mix was a three-game suspension to Kadri.
Are those time on ice numbers different if Bolland was available? Without a doubt. Kadri could have kept on centering Kessel and JvR without the need for change. And when Kadri was suspended, Bolland would have been centering the top line without much issue, as Carlyle trusts Bolland a great deal.
But we’re also aware that Carlyle trusts Bozak to center the team’s dynamic offensive duo, and Kessel and JvR’s minutes and production are down at least in part due to his absence. Even if it’s just for the penalty kill and getting the top line back to its familiar set up and ice time, the Leafs could use #42 back in the lineup.
Lower scoring than one might have expected, this game was more entertaining than the scoreline suggests. The Leafs won the special teams battle and the shootout thanks to Mr. Saturday Night, James Reimer, to move to 14-8-1 on the season.
We’re just past the quarter pole of the season and the Capitals and Maple Leafs find themselves in a similar boat. Both have winning records, are routinely outshot, receive good goaltending, and shoot at a near-10%-or-above success rate. The two teams are within a couple of points of each other in the Eastern Conference standings and both likely figure into the “middle tier” of the East when all is said and done. It’s worth noting that the Capitals, remarkably, only have seven wins in regulation or overtime. They’ve really bore down on the second point in the shootout with five shootout wins through 23 games. That’s 42% of their total wins, friends.
A few game day notes:
- Tyler Bozak skated this morning but does not sound probable for tonight. Apparently he was seen limping at the practice rink yesterday.
- Randy Carlyle looks to be reuniting McClement, Raymond and Kulemin as his matchup line against the threat of the NHL goals leader Alex Ovechkin and his point-a-game center Nicklas Backstrom.
- Peter Holland was arguably the Leafs’ most dangerous forward on Thursday and will rejoin Kessel and JvR on the top unit according to the practice lines. The Lupul – Kadri – Clarkson line we haven’t seen as much of as we have hoped (or at all? Can’t remember, too many line iterations) is expected to be a thing based on the practice lines.
- Mark Fraser is expected to return to the lineup in Rielly’s place. Not a fan, but this is probably a move geared towards the PK struggles.
- James Reimer will get the start. He’s 1-3 against the Capitals in his career, but won in his most recent meeting with the Capitals in January of 2013. Braden Holtby will start for the Capitals. He’s 10-7 with a .923 save percentage.
- Ovechkin coming into town is a scary prospect for the Leafs’ penalty killing units especially, which have receded this month in their killing efficiency (75% for the month, down to 16th in the league at 82.4%). Ovechkin leads the league in powerplay goals with eight on the season, a major part of Washington’s second-best 24.2% conversion rate on the powerplay.
- The Capitals’ second line of Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich and Martin Erat is a collective -14 and has been a source of frustration toward head coach Adam Oates among Capitals fans.
- The Capitals defence isn’t the sturdiest group 1-6 and the team gives up more than their fair share of shots. In fact, only .6 of a shot less than the Leafs per game. With the likes of Cam Schilling, Alex Urbom, Tyson Strachan and Dmitri Orlov in the lineup to varying degrees, the Capitals’ D has been light on NHL experience in the early season. The Caps did get Mike Green back for last night’s game against Montreal and demoted Orlov to Hershey.
- Getting bailed out by Braden Holtby and relying on the shootout despite getting outplayed and outshot has been the big concern in Washington. For while they’re a dangerous team, Washington is also very beatable. Mikhail Grabovski has not turned the Capitals into a Corsi superpower that out possesses other teams into the ground, as it turns out.
- This is one opponent where, should the game turn into a track meet of traded chances, you don’t necessarily like the Leafs’ chances, especially with Toronto not firing on all cylinders at the moment with just 15 goals in their last 8 games. The Capitals have scored just two in their last two games, but it’s still a top 10 offense that’s equipped with Alex Ovechkin (26 points), Nicklas Backstrom (24 points) and a third line providing ample scoring depth in Mikhail Grabovski, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward (combined 47 points).
- Obligatory Grabovski audio from after he was bought out:
- A few boo birds were out at the ACC on Thursday night after the team fell apart vs. Nashville on home ice, where they had been infallible for much of the first quarter (8-2) before Thursday). Let’s hope the ACC can remain a fortress for the Leafs going forward, starting tonight.
- Perhaps the Leafs can jump on Washington early, for a couple of reasons: The Capitals will be playing their second game in as many nights after a 3-2 loss to Montreal in Washington last night. Washington has also conceded the first goal in 13 of 23 games, whereas the Leafs have scored the first goal in 14 of 22.