Sunday, May 24, 2015
Authors Posts by Anthony Petrielli

Anthony Petrielli

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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.

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 31: Nazem Kadri #43 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs after scoring a third period goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 31, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Toronto defeated Columbus 4-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

With a minute left in the second period against the Los Angeles Kings, a familiar sight for Toronto Maple Leaf fans was taking place as their top line was on the ice and hemmed in their own zone. The Kings would score that shift—albeit a weak goal—against the Leafs three worst possession players at that time in the game (James van Riemsdyk was the highest at 22CF%).

On their first shift of the third period, they got scored on again.  For the night, they were the three worst possession forwards on the team. They also combined for two goals for.

The trio of JVR-Bozak-Kessel can clearly score, with all of them on pace for at least 30 goals as of this writing and Bozak having the lowest point pace of the three at 68. All three are on pace for career best seasons goals and points wise.

But they get dominated during the run of play. None of the three top scoring Leafs are in the top 14 for corsi or fenwick. This adds to the fact that none of these high scoring players have a positive 5v5 goals for percentage so far this season, as they allow more than they produce. This has been a trend for years now and I wrote about how they routinely get outscored at the end of last season.

Through 30 games, JVR, Bozak and Kessel are 1-2-3 respectively in average ice time per game. Lately, other forwards have seen their ice time creep up as Kadri has led the team in TOI the last two games, Winnik plays a lot in part due to his role on the PK, and Santorelli leads the team in even strength ice time per game in December. Ultimately, teams live and die by their top players. Right now, the Leafs are starting to shelter theirs because they are getting outplayed nightly and spending a lot of time in their own zone. The solution is not to keep them together and selectively play them, it is to separate them and bring out the best in each player.

This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a few poor games, which is compounded by an obvious Phil Kessel injury that is hurting his play. This is based on, now, the third year of data. The line scores a lot, but they generally give up what it produces—if not more. Nightly, they get hemmed in their own zone for long stretches of play, cheat on offense by flying the zone and play three deep offensively—and with regularity.

Last week, Kyle Dubas went on Sportsnet and discussed how banking on hot shooting and goaltending isn’t a recipe for success. He is right, and the last three Leafs seasons are readily available proof, but if step one is acknowledging a problem, step two is actually doing something and it starts with the team’s best players.

When it comes to the power play, they are a great trio. All three are in the top 30 for power play points, and the Leafs PP is clicking at a little over 20% (which has them at 11th, but only three teams had a PP over 20% last year, so if it continues, they will be elite). You don’t need to play together 5v5 to excel on the power play together; Crosby and Malkin don’t, Ovechkin and Johansson, etc. You can go down the list, it is not a prerequisite.

The Leafs have an unbelievable 9-1-1 run going and have given themselves a nice seven point cushion on the wildcard spot—although Florida has two games in hand. They are sixth in the league in goal differential. Their 5v5 save percentage is tied for 9th. There are a lot of positives here and they might be enough to make the playoffs, but there are also negatives; namely being 25th in team fenwick percentage, and 27th in corsi percentage. If that push that towards the middle of the pack, they will almost certainly make the playoffs and possibly do some damage. The reality being, no matter what the team does to the other three lines, when you have a collection of your top scorers playing together for significant chunks of game time and getting controlled nightly, it is going to sewer the overall numbers and ultimately hurt you.

Fans have seen the team start well for now a fourth season in a row, so nobody should be content with what has transpired so far. As the team keeps pushing forward in their pursuit to improve, hoping the top line suddenly has an epiphany in their third season together would appear to be wishful thinking at best. To take the next step they have to start splitting up the top line and finding some combinations that work.

Notes

  • It doesn’t get much attention, but Daniel Winnik was essentially a top 6 forward on a 116 point Anaheim Ducks team last season. He was 5th in overall time on ice per game among forwards, and sixth in even strength ice time per game. Winnik was 8th in their forwards in total points, 7th in even strength points. Playing primarily with Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu, Winnik was part of a shutdown second line that freed up the Getzlaf line to not take tough match-ups and instead flip the script to run over teams; when the Ducks were a struggling team pre-Winnik one discussed problem was Getzlaf’s role because they lacked the depth. Now, the same situation in Toronto is beginning to take place—Winnik is sixth in average time on ice for Leafs forwards, and while he is 9th in even strength ice time, that is beginning to creep up. In the very first game of the season the Leafs matched top line vs. top line against the Habs, and that was the difference in the game as the Bozak unit could not stop them from scoring. Now using players like Winnik, Kadri and Santorelli in that role is forcing opposing team’s depth lines to score to keep up with the Leafs because they are neutralizing top lines.
  • Clarkson’s 30 point pace gets a lot of attention, but rarely does his 22 goal pace within that. Last season, 78 forwards scored 22+ goals, so it’s reasonable production, although his contract is seemingly guaranteeing him PP ice time to help him get there. Last season when Clarkson was struggling to contribute at all, Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet on an intermission panel spoke on how he should model his game after Joel Ward and at the time I wrote that comparison doesn’t hold water because Ward is a massive man (by listed weight he has 26 pounds on Clarkson, but I’d bet it’s more than that). What has helped him is getting players that player similarly and help him along the wall, which he lacked last year with Lupul and Kadri as linemates. Although Kulemin was good along the wall with him, with McClement as their center and Kulemin shot of all confidence, as well as being the shutdown line, it was never going to be successful. This season his most common linemate is Peter Holland; their possession numbers aren’t great together (46.5%), but they are coming out ahead (53GF%).
  • This is a great chart by Mirtle illustrating how the Leafs biggest boost has come from goal scoring in their bottom six:

    It was very strange to me in the summer when the losses of Mason Raymond and Nik Kulemin were lamented as if the Leafs depth scoring got somehow worse when they were already so poor. Sometimes media members and fans will suggest that fourth lines don’t matter, that they only play ~8 minutes a night, but now people are starting to see the benefits of an even reasonable fourth line as Panik scored a game winner on the weekend and David Booth has been drawing penalties and creating a lot of opportunities.

  • Speaking of that increased depth, one thing I have begun looking for is when the fourth line gets their first shift of the night. Against the Red Wings their first shift came with 10:03 left in the first period. Between the Zamboni cleaning the ice, the anthems, maybe a commercial plus game time, ten minutes into the game is really 20-30 minutes of real life time without being on the ice. The first shift of that game, Panik missed an easy pass on his tape, but it is tough to blame a player when they are coming in cold having not touched the ice for nearly half an hour. Against the Kings their first shift was a little over 5 minutes into the game. Some coaches try to get all four lines out as soon as possible in order to get everyone into the game, but the Leafs stick to their match-ups and play to the situation.
  • Nazem Kadri has 10 points in 11 games during this win streak, mirroring last season when he was productive during the Leafs two big win streaks—he had 13 points in their first 14 games last year, and 13 in 13 heading into the Olympics, when the Leafs were one of the hottest teams in the league and firmly in a playoff spot. With Kessel nearly automatically producing with JVR, it seems any time Kadri gets rolling on a separate line the Leafs just take off.
  • Connor Brown is now third in rookie scoring in the AHL, a noted accomplishment to be sure. But scoring well in your rookie season in the AHL is not always a guaranteed path to NHL success- of the 15 top 5 rookie scorers in the AHL the last three seasons, only 7 have become NHL regulars to this point. Brown is a legitimate prospect with a real shot at being an NHLer (and who would have guessed that when he was drafted?), but that’s just a dose of reality when it comes to prospects in the AHL and whether their scoring will translate into an NHL job.

Quotes

That’s how you create offense in the league. You create it from your puck management and your checking… That’s how you create zone time, that’s how you create opposition out, that’s how you get them on a three-quarter ice game where they’re changing and you’re going back at them. That’s how you score, that’s how you create in this league. It’s a hard way to play, but the teams that buy in … look at the difference. A team like Chicago, they’ve really bought into that formula, they’ve bought into it again and they’ve had good success. The more teams that do it, you can really see it in their game.”

  • Ken Hitchcock, on the importance of checking

Needless to say, this is what the Leafs have to keep striving for. Against LA you could clearly see the Leafs were more skilled and could create offense much easier, and Mike Babcock acknowledged it the night before too, so that isn’t it the problem. It’s the buy in to do things the right way on the other side of the ice.

“Goaltending coaches target which teams that the goalies would do well against & we’ve stuck to that.”

  • Dave Nonis, on the goalie selections.

This quote struck me as odd because I am not sure what this is based on. For example, Bernier started multiple times against Pittsburgh this year, a team Reimer has never lost to in regulation. Reimer started against Arizona, a team Bernier has been successful against, so on and so forth. I don’t know what their criteria is for selecting starts, but if it’s based on prior success (save percentage, maybe wins), then they haven’t really been following this formula.

“You’ve just got to go out there and play. We’ve done it in the past. You play in the minors [and] you play three games in three nights. For me it’s not an excuse.”

  • Stephane Robidas, on playing back-to-back.

Some might recall that early in the season there was talk the Leafs would sit out Robidas at times to rest him. They only have six D right now so I wouldn’t expect it at the moment, but I wonder if we will start to see it in the dog days of January and once and awhile down the stretch provided the Leafs get and stay healthy on D.

This isn’t a quote, but I would have been upset if I did not include it somewhere

Sundin selfie #legend

A photo posted by William Nylander (@williamnylander) on

5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. If you missed the preamble, I’d blow up the top line. Putting Kadri with Kessel is the easy part, the question is who else flanks them? They could try Lupul or Winnik again? Go off the board with a Booth or Komarov (when he returns). There are a lot of options here.
  2. I think I get why the Leafs played Winnik at C for a bit on the fourth line (basically, to get Panik in and take Smith out) but he is not a center. Same with Komarov. The best work these two do is all along the wall and exiting the zone cleanly, versus playing up the middle. Any sort of depth up the middle the Leafs can add is going to benefit the team as they really only have one match-up C right now and it’s Kadri.
  3. With that in mind, I would start looking at calling up Sam Carrick. He probably maxes out as a 4C so you won’t be stunting his long-term development, and Smith is getting crushed and no longer seeing much PK time. Carrick is right handed, can play the PK, and showed nice flashes in his brief stint with the Leafs and not playing with any player that is good as David Booth at the moment. If the Leafs don’t figure out their center position, eventually Santorelli will have to go back there to give them a two way option (either that or they get burned).
  4. I think, in case anyone is wondering, when Roman Polak does return, Korbinian Holzer is easily the guy he goes in for. Holzer has been a good soldier—and I have a soft spot for the underdogs—but he spends a lot of time in his own and that has led to some crazy goal mouth scrambles. He is good on the penalty kill and plays with some snarl, but ultimately he is the guy to sit. I would keep him up as the 7th D, though.
  5. I think the Nazem Kadri contract talks needed to start yesterday. If there is one positive to Kadri not playing with Kessel very often so far this season, it’s that it is probably helping to keep him cheaper than he should be. This extension should shoot to buy UFA years, provided Kadri wants that too.

Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

There is a well-known saying among hockey executives that goes, “Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.”

When Brendan Shanahan was hired as President of the Maple Leafs, the venom in the room at his press conference was evident. Fans, media and bloggers wanted blood as the 2013-14 campaign came to a close.

The core had failed in spectacular fashion for a third year in a row, they were full of big money players who have warts to their games, had little cap space, and they were not even in the conversation to acquire any of the big-name centers available. It was a bleak summer in Leafs land and it ended without too much being done, paving the way for what many to believe to be another year of mediocre Leafs hockey. Now, maybe it still will be, but to this point the best thing you can say about Shanahan is that he has not made a big mistake yet.

TORONTO , ON - JANUARY 30: Nazem Kadri #43, Cody Franson #4 brace of the static electricity shock one feels in dry, cold weather. Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on and celebrates Cody Franson's goal against the Florida Panthers during NHL game action January 30, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

There isn’t an elephant in the room when it comes to the Leafs defense, but the question of what to do is bubbling below the surface.

If you include Stuart Percy in the starting six for next season, the Leafs already have their top-6 group under contract: Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas and Percy are all signed going into the 2015-2016 season.

The person missing from that group signed next season? Cody Franson, who you can make a pretty strong argument for being the Leafs strongest defenseman this year. He is a free agent.

Still only 28, Franson is going to cost a lot of money next summer. Stephen Burtch at Sportsnet recently wrote about Franson’s play and what he might cost, and while I don’t agree with everything, two points are undeniable: He produces at an elite rate (third year running he’s leading the Leafs D in scoring), and everyone he plays with spends more time in the offensive zone with him than without him.

It is hard to imagine the Leafs losing Cody Franson for nothing next summer and somehow having a better defense the following season.

What to do, though, is the tricky question. Morgan Rielly is not going anywhere, that much we know. It is pretty unlikely the Leafs move Stuart Percy, too. Jake Gardiner is seemingly always in trade rumours, but the way he is playing it is tough to envision the Leafs making a deal where they receive value equal to or greater than his ability; they would be selling low (and gee, when have the Leafs ever been burned by trading a young player before he’s played an appropriate amount of games to judge him on?). It is tough to imagine anyone taking on the remaining two years of Stephane Robidas’ 35+ deal because if he retires his cap hit would still count.

That leaves you with Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak, along with maybe an understanding of why they would consider moving Jake Gardiner for value. Moving anyone of these players and simply bringing back Franson is no easy fix, either; the overall defense is not getting much better by doing that and it is not a great group to begin with.

The defense is not completely to blame for the team being 23rd in goals against per game and 26th in shots against per game this season, though. The goaltending has not been strong this season, and the team lacks a strong match-up center that every moderate to strong possession team possesses. Management can bank on Rielly and even Gardiner improving, along with Percy being a future impact player, but is it enough?

Dion Phaneuf is always a lightning rod, but he is on pace for nearly 40 points this season, his possession numbers have improved with Franson and together their goals for percentage is over 61% on the season. The improvement in Phaneuf’s game due to having a far superior partner leads me to believe that having some better two way forwards would provide another leap in his play (the forward he has played with the most at 5v5 is JVR, the second is Bozak). The reality is that defenseman who put up roughly 40 points playing over 23 minutes night against top lines are going to get $7M salaries every day of the week. The term and salary relative to his age may be debatable, but it is hard to imagine the team trading away Phaneuf and actually improving because of it.

The other realities are that the team will take a step back without Franson, but there is no easy fix here. As I wrote about last month, the Leafs do have a looming cap problem with Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier as RFAs needing to be paid and Cody Franson becoming a UFA. It is a tight squeeze for a middling team and a shoe will have to drop eventually.

Nowhere is it more confusing than on the defensive side of things, where two players possibly have to be moved out, one to make room for Franson and another to be upgraded on to improve the unit.

Notes

  • Jonas Siegel at TSN wrote an excellent piece on Stephane Robidas earlier in the season, profiling his exit from Dallas and adjustment to Toronto. In the article, Robidas says this is the first time he is playing a full season without living with his children, a tough adjustment for any parent. Not said in the article but also true is that he missed pretty well all of preseason and was red shirted for training camp. Early in the season when I was tracking games, Robidas was getting torched in the neutral zone with opposing forwards routinely entering the zone on his side, but in my recent tracking he has begun to clean that up and close the gap in the neutral zone and force more dump-ins. Against Washington, Ovechkin had his way with him a little bit, but Ovechkin is obviously elite. Overall, Robidas’ game is starting to trend upwards. In his first 11 games he averaged 16:21 of ice time, launching 6 SOG, and in his next 11 games he has averaged 18:09 per game, with 8 SOG.
  • The player Robidas has played the most with this season is Leo Komarov, meaning he has yet to really stick with a partner and settle in. To start the year he was paired with Phaneuf and they were in over their heads together, but with Rielly he is a 50% CF player in nearly 100 minutes (which isn’t much), and with Gardiner he is 45% CF. A few weeks ago I wrote that Rielly-Robidas should be a pair as opposed to Gardiner with Robidas because, “Robidas may benefit from playing with the physically stronger Rielly, who is better at rushing the puck than Gardiner and at evading forechecks.” Robidas was put in a tough spot to start the season and had a rough first impression on Leafs Nation, but I am pretty positive his game will trend upwards as the season progresses.
  • Another good family note, one Declan has pointed out to me a few times this year, is that Jonathan Bernier became a first time father in the summer. I don’t have kids, but I will take the advice of everyone who has ever had one and acknowledge that sleep goes out the window. Maybe it is just a narrative, but the reality is that Bernier is human and the Leafs have gotten a little better defensively with their increased possession and depth, yet their 5v5 save percentage has dropped from 7th last season, to 19th so far this season. Bernier has started 16 games while Reimer has started 7, and his save percentage is far superior (.917% vs. .898%), but the overall assumed strength many thought the Leafs had in net has actually been below average. Hopefully it will regress up, but maybe it is one of those years.
  • The story sold when Reimer was brought back in the summer was that he would have an opportunity to be the starter, but two months into the season he has started 7 games, with 5 of them being due to playing back-to-backs. His numbers have not been great, but the bigger picture is that he is clearly the backup, making $2.3M/year. It is well known Reimer does not want to be a backup, nor has he shown in any capacity that he can spot start with success. Much like Bernier, he needs to get into a rhythm and play regularly. In the summer, Pittsburgh signed Thomas Greiss for $1M to be a true backup (.927sv% in 5 games), and that $1.3M in saving between Reimer’s salary and Greiss’ is the difference between adding another Daniel Winnik. Every dollar counts in the cap world.
  • Do not want to take anything away from the Leafs’ big win on Washington, but the Capitals were playing their third game in four nights, on the road, in Toronto on HNIC, against a rested Leafs team that had not played since Wednesday. I will be curious to see what happens when the Leafs play Washington, and Boston for that matter, next time around.
  • Kessel played under 19 minutes in a game only 19 times last season. This season he has already done that 14 times. Establishing a four line scoring attack and preserving Phil over the course of the 82 game season is going to pay off in crunch time.

Quotes

“Joffrey Lupul won’t say it out loud but he’s worried about his future with the Leafs.”

– Steve Simmons, in his Sunday column

I get why the Leafs might do it, and I am not against it, but I will say this: if you listen to Lupul’s interviews this year, he gets it. He has spoken a lot about the process of controlling play, he is vocal about winning, and most importantly he backs up his talk on the ice (with vastly improved possession numbers so far, of all things). Plus, he is a game breaker, and one of the few Leafs capable of creating and finishing his own offense. Lupul’s name is often thrown around as if his contract needs to come off the books immediately, but the truth is that there are far worse contracts than his on the team and guys who can score 25+ goals (he’s done it three times in his career and had 22 in 69 last year) generally make what he is making. There are some contracts on the team I would trade just to get rid of, but I would want value for Lupul.

“[on wanting him to evolve into a more complete player and not just a one-dimensional player] That’s something he wants me to do and that’s something I want for myself [and] I’ve wanted all along. I know my offence is going to be there. I know those goals are going to come, those assists are going to come, but it’s a matter of putting everything else together and still playing the right way when you’re not getting the greatest puck luck.”
– Nazem Kadri, talking about what Brendan Shanahan wants from him.

I have been saying it for most of the year, but do not worry about Kadri. This is the most complete game he has played in the NHL (and wasn’t that everyone’s problem with him early on?). This is the first year Kadri has really been able to control the puck along the wall without getting pushed around and his faceoff percentage has improved; I think faceoffs are a little overrated, but when you are hovering around 45% it is tilted too low to one side to not be a problem, at least when it comes to defensive zone draws. The scoring will come.

“I thought it was kind of ‘Oops, I hit you on purpose.”

– Randy Carlyle, on the Ovechkin-Komarov collision.

I agree with this take from Carlyle, but what do you do, suspend the guy for that? Fine him a couple thousand bucks? I don’t know the answer.

“He was the best listener I’d ever seen in my life. Pat’s theory of coaching, he was going to make you, as a player, trust him and make you, as a player, feel like you didn’t want to let him down. He didn’t believe in punishing, especially young players. He never embarrassed them. He made them feel important. They trusted that he would do the right thing by them. That was his gift and his knack as a coach. [As a GM] We called him the python. Pat didn’t make a lot of calls — he didn’t hunt. He sat by the path and waited for some helpless GM to come by, then he’d grab him and strangle him.”
– Brian Burke, on Pat Quinn.

I know I had a quote and column on Quinn last week, but I felt this quote — and really, example — of how to coach was too great to not include.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think Steve Spott should be commended for the somewhat-creative idea of putting Nazem Kadri on the “point” for the power play. As Gus Katsaros illustrates here, he isn’t really on the point per say, instead he’s on the top of the circle and the PP is more of a “four forwards plus a defenseman” look. Either way, loading up the first unit with your top scorers is a good idea because the top unit plays the majority of the power play while the second unit comes on, generally speaking, with under a minute left and have to break out up ice. Although, if we are talking about the Leafs best power play producers, only one defenseman has been in the top five in power play points on the Leafs in each of the last three seasons, and it is not Dion Phaneuf. It is Cody Franson. But the handedness dynamic might play a part in that decision.
  2. I think if Komarov is going to miss any time (and sitting out seemed more precautionary than anything else to me), Lupul should slot up with Kadri and Santorelli while Panik goes onto the fourth line and Booth moves up. Winnik is a very good checker and he could also move up, but Booth has a little more untapped offense and Winnik can stabilize the fourth line with Panik and Smith — two players that are far from sure things — better than Booth can.
  3. I think, if Komarov is not hurt, Panik has to draw in sooner than later. He is shooting at 25% and obviously won’t keep that up, but developing a 23 year old with some upside over the journeyman in Smith has to have precedence. Shift Winnik to center if need be (or move Santorelli back to center and balance out the four lines better).
  4. I think Holzer has looked okay in his first two games and I am willing to see more. He has played over 17 minutes in both games with an average 37CF%, but does have 3 SOG and has shown some confidence with the puck that he previously lacked. I wondered only a few weeks ago whether or not the Leafs should have claimed David Schlemko, and still believe they would have been far better served picking up an established NHL defenseman if the goal of the season is to win versus seeing what they have in the organization. But Holzer has been okay and played physical.
  5. I think the Leafs have to get Reimer in a game this week. Their next back-to-back comes next Saturday and Sunday, which would be nearly a month since his last game (November 18th, December 14th). Needless to say, how do you think he is going to play after that much time off?

OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 9: Mike Santorelli #25 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his second period short-handed goal against the Ottawa Senators with teammates Dion Phaneuf #3 and Peter Holland #24 at Canadian Tire Centre on November 9, 2014 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs have officially played a quarter of their season, and we are still no closer to figuring out where this team will finish once 82 games is up.

Before the start of the season, we posted our annual season predictions on MLHS and I wrote, in part:

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    I never did meet Pat Quinn or get to him know personally, but as a Leafs fan growing up he meant a great deal to me.

    I won’t talk about Quinn’s contributions as part of the Flyers, Kings, Canucks or Oilers. He did a lot of great things outside of Toronto, and so many fans will rightfully recognize him as a key part of their organization instead of this one, but I’ll always remember him as a Maple Leaf.

    This past weekend, Pat Burns was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame despite no longer being with us. It served as a stark reminder that we should celebrate the hockey world’s great individuals while they are still here.

    This coincides with the unfortunate announcement last week that Bryan Murray’s cancer has spread to his liver and lungs. He’s in stage 4, and there is no stage 5.

    In light of these events, I want to take a few minutes to highlight a great and successful hockey mind before it is too late.

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      MONTREAL, QC - DECEMBER 17: David Schlemko #6 of the Phoenix Coyotes moves Brian Gionta #21 of the Montreal Canadiens out of the crease during the second period at the Bell Centre on December 17, 2013 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

      Early in the season, the Maple Leafs claimed Richard Panik off of waivers.

      He began on the fourth line and took some time to find his groove, but injuries occurred, he moved up the line-up, and not only has his play improved, but he is beginning to help the team win games and contribute regularly.

      Today, another potentially useful player hit the waiver wire. Maybe the Arizona Coyotes tried sneaking him through waivers on a Friday afternoon on purpose, but David Schlemko is a reasonably-solid NHL defenseman.

      TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 8: Peter Holland #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs scores a first period goal on Cam Talbot of the New York Rangers during NHL game action November 8, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

      The 2013-14 season marked the first time since the 1989-90 campaign that no goalie played more than 65 games.

      That was, of course, an Olympic year with a condensed schedule. While I expect we will get at least a few goalies playing 65+ games this season – Cory Schneider has started every game for NJ this season — this might be the start of a trend.

      In 2011-12, 10 goalies played 65+ games. Four of them now have good young backups (Niemi-Stalock, Quick-Jones, Pavelec-Hutchinson, Price-Tokarski), Miikka Kiprusoff is out of the league, Cam Ward is being surpassed by his backup, and the remaining teams have second goalies they have invested in with Hiller (Ramo), Fleury (Greiss), Rinne (Hutton); the one exception is Dubnyk, who is the second goalie behind Mike Smith.

      As was discussed last week in this space and by James Mirtle separately in the Globe and Mail, it essentially never makes sense to start a goalie two nights in a row, especially for a team with two productive goalies; the Leafs’ duo has combined to give them the 12th best 5v5 save percentage to start this season, a year after finishing 7th in that category.

      For the Leafs’ part, they play 17 back-to-back sets this season. Barring injury, that’s 34 games right there being split down the middle (they split all of their back-to-backs last season). That leaves 48 games to split between Bernier and Reimer instead of the 82 that is commonly referenced.

      Both Bernier and Reimer were born in 1988 and drafted in 2006, and their resumes are not altogether that different in the NHL, although seemingly their pedigree and reputations are. Reimer has played in 147 games, playing 7,962 minutes and facing 4,412 shots with a .915 SV%. Bernier has played in 127 games, playing 7,089 minutes and facing 3,626 shots with a .918 SV%.

      There really isn’t much between the two at this point, regardless of what their stylistic play may suggest to some viewers, or a lights-out shortened season dragging the Leafs to the playoffs may say to others.

      Last year Bernier got hot and ran with it until getting injured (I thought he should have made Team Canada over Mike Smith). After their back-to-back this weekend, the Leafs have eight games between another set of back-to-backs. That is the longest stretch between a set of back-to-backs and is matched once more in January.

      That means the schedule is still largely condensed; there is always a reason to turn to “the other guy” whoever that might be, and calls to give one of Bernier/Reimer ten straight starts to see if they can run with it are largely unrealistic.

      Provided both goalies are healthy, each goalie already has 17 starts to their name right off the bat. Even if one plays 65% of the remaining 48 games, that would give one goalie an additional 31 starts and the other another 17; a 48-34 split. With the ebbs and flows of the season, neither goalie owning an NHL resume head and shoulders above the other, neither making 55-plus-game-starter money, plenty of back-to-backs and a compressed schedule overall, that should ensure both goalies will see a decent chunk of games.

      Last season Bernier started 49 games, Reimer started 32, and Drew MacIntyre started one. We are probably looking at something similar happen again, with the gap in games played between Reimer and Bernier perhaps winding up even smaller.

      The talk in Toronto is always about who is the starter, who is the guy and why isn’t he playing all the time, but ultimately both Bernier and Reimer are needed to succeed. The question is how can they bring out the best in both at the same time?

      Notes

      • It is extremely early, but check out the shots per game the Leafs top 7 D are putting up this season compared to last:

        Edit
        2013-14 Shots/game 2014-15 Shots/game
        Phaneuf 1.8 Phaneuf 2
        Franson 1.5 Franson 2
        Gardiner 1.7 Gardiner 0.8
        Rielly 1.3 Rielly 2.4
        Gunnarsson 0.6 Polak 1.3
        Ranger 1.1 Robidas 0.6
        Gleason 0.7 Percy 1.5
        Average 1.4 Average 1.7
      • A multitude of factors go into that increase:

        1. Gunnarsson not on the top pairing helps the bottom line in and of itself. Add Franson to Phaneuf and both stand to benefit from it because of Franson’s ability to get shots through and move the puck.
        2. The Leafs have improved at cycling and creating zone time, and while they aren’t where they need to be just yet, any improvement stands to help the D funnel pucks to the net.
        3. The D is more mobile than last season, with Polak showing a surprising flare for joining the rush and pinching that Gleason did not. There’s also no Gunnarsson playing with an apparent torn labrum (instead an old Robidas trying to recover from a broken leg), and a youthful Stuart Percy in the place of Paul Ranger, who was trying to make a comeback in the NHL after an extended stint out of hockey altogether.

      • Both Phaneuf and Rielly are in the top 30 for shots on goal by defensemen, by the way. Last season, the top 30 shot producers among defensemen, of which the Leafs had none, averaged 42 points; the full season before that they averaged 38. Dion Phaneuf was eighth among D-men in shots on goal that season and had a 44-point season. When a team consistently generates shots on net, goals like the one Clarkson scored off the Rielly shot are going to start happening with more frequency.

      • That game on the whole was a pretty good case for “throw pucks to the net and good things will happen.” On top of the aforementioned goal, Holland and JVR’s goals were each off of weak and innocent shots.
      • Gardiner has had a slow start this season, being healthy scratched, playing 13 games, and putting up only 10 SOG and three points. This is beginning to be a trend. Look at what has happened in his full seasons in the first half compared to what happens at the start of January in each season:

        Edit
        Gardiner GP Points SOG
        Oct. 2011 – Dec. 2011 35 9 34
        Jan. 2012 – April 2012 40 21 45
        Oct. 2013 – Dec. 2014 40 11 60
        Jan. 2014 – Apr. 2014 40 19 76

      • Last note on the defense: The Leafs put a lot of emphasis on handedness this summer, so I was a little surprised to see Gardiner-Phaneuf on at the end of the game against Arizona with the goalie pulled. The offensive zone is chaotic with 11 players inside it and the game on the line, and having a lefty on the right point makes it really difficult on that player to keep pucks in. What happened, of course? The puck rang around to Phaneuf, he was pressured on his wrong side, and he failed to keep it in. Game over. I will be keeping an eye out to see what they do when confronted with the same situation next time around.
      • Over the weekend, Nazem Kadri averaged a 37% zone start, the lowest among centers in the top 9 in both games. That is a new development from the beginning of the season, when Kadri was getting fed offensive zone starts with Lupul and later with Phil Kessel. At the beginning of the season, Bozak was handling a heavy load of the defensive zone starts, especially when playing with JVR and Clarkson. Over the weekend, Bozak was 57% against Ottawa and 44% against the Rangers (which is slightly skewed because of all the defensive zone draws he took at the end of the game; JVR was at 50% and Kessel was at 57%).
      • Building off of that, it appears the Leafs are attempting to zone match their forwards as opposed to line matching (excluding the fourth line, of course). The defensemen are still getting more direct match-ups with the top pairing soaking up the difficult minutes by and large, while the Gardiner-Robidas pairing is getting sheltered.
      • The power play did not score against Ottawa on three opportunities, but the puck movement was excellent and it was arguably the best the two units have looked all season (JVR hit a post on an open net and Kessel got robbed by Lehner on a reach-back paddle save). The dynamics of both units have drastically shifted with the swapping of Gardiner and Phaneuf, giving each power play group both a puck mover and a shooter. Believe in this process because the puck movement is crisper, the zone time was excellent, and the opportunities ample. The goals will come. Ottawa has the tenth ranked PK in the league so far, so they weren’t up against a bad unit.

      Quotes

      Years ago, when it came out that Ron Wilson did not personally tell players like Brett Lebda that he was getting healthy scratched, he got ran through the grader in the media. I was surprised there was no real reaction to this strange way of managing people, too.

      “I’m going to do the worst interview of all time,” Lowry said. “Watch this.” And then he did: a resentful series of “Hm-mms” and blank stares… Still, you have to admire him. Lowry’s commitment to being the best extends even to things he’s trying to do really poorly.
      - Cathal Kelly, Toronto Star

      I know this is a basketball quote in a hockey blog, but I wonder what would happen if Dion Phaneuf did this? Or Nazem Kadri? Or Phil Kessel?

      “He made a difference in the end & when it counted”
      – Randy Carlyle on Jake Gardiner’s night against the Rangers

      I thought this was a nice gesture from Carlyle in trying to extend a bit of an olive branch to Gardiner and build up some confidence. He is clearly lacking it right now.

      “Possession has become the stat of the millennium, but in the opinion of the authors, it is abused and misused. From Spain to Barcelona to the local under-10 team, they say, the more important metric is managing turnovers. And the most damaging turnovers occur in a team’s defensive third of the field.”
      – Jack Bell, NY Times, on possession in soccer [link]

      This quote is a little dated and about a different sport, but I think there is value in looking at discoveries in other sports and applying them to hockey. The neutral zone is where the game is really decided, and you understand that best when you are tracking entries and exits as I am. The Leafs are still at their best when they are playing wide open hockey, as they did against Colorado, New York, and Ottawa. They opened the ice up and gladly exchanged opportunities, but they now at least have a wrinkle of cycling and puck possession in their game. Ultimately, though, the top teams generally speaking do not trade chances in a wide open style of play; they suffocate the game a bit and manage the puck and tempo of the game effectively.

      5 Things I Think I’d Do

      1. I think I was about to say I would put Santorelli back to center, even if it is on L4, just to try and actually build four lines, but I thought the Smith-Carrick-Leivo unit showed some spark and would like to see the experiment continue if Winnik does not return for the game against Boston.
      2. I think, if Winnik does return, I would put him right back in the top six, taking Panik’s spot. If he’s back, that means he’s 100% and against Boston the Leafs can’t afford to play a better player down the line-up just because Panik has performed decently in his absence. It is a bit of a raw deal for Panik, but it is also the reality of the business. Boston is still a top flight team and the Leafs will need all the help they can get.
      3. I think the Leafs need to be careful with Stuart Percy. I believe there is some value in bringing him on a road trip and getting his feet wet with the experience — being around the team and all that — but eventually he needs to play games consistently. The Marlies have played four games already this month while the Leafs have played 5; Percy has played in two. It is something to be cognizant of in the big picture moving forward.
      4. I think, looking at the schedule this week where the Leafs play Boston then Pittsburgh and Buffalo back-to-back, I would go Reimer-Reimer-Bernier. Reimer is 5-5-1 with a .921sv% against Boston, and he’s even better versus the Pens with a 6-0-2 record and .931sv% in his career. That seems like a no-brainer, especially when Bernier does not have even a .900sv% against either opponent. He can take the Buffalo game Saturday, although the Leafs might not be happy that he would have a week off between games.
      5. I think there is a lot of value in keeping Carrick up with the team even if he is not playing that much, as long as he sticks at center. The Leafs have been devoid of center depth for the better part of the last decade, and bringing along Carrick, Holland, and even Kadri still will pay off down the road. This is the best Kadri has ever played as a Leaf, for the record. He does not get pushed off pucks any more, he is beginning to handle tough zone starts and still producing, he was excellent with Kessel, and anyone that has been on his line has suddenly produced.

      TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17: Cody Franson #4 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles with Gustav Nyquist #14 of the Detroit Red Wings during NHL game action October 17, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

      Since the 2014-2015 season began, I have been tracking my own internal metrics on Leafs games.

      I thought I’d take the time to explain what it is I’m keeping record of and what I am hoping to accomplish by doing so. If you do not care and just want to read notes, quotes and ‘5 Things I think I’d Do,’ just scroll down and skip this part; otherwise, read on to learn more about what we are doing here at MLHS to take things (hopefully) to the next level.

      Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

      The Maple Leafs were faced with a unique opportunity to keep their top prospect in Toronto playing in the AHL, yet they elected to send him back to Sweden instead.

      Since 2005, 14 players drafted in the top 10 have played their draft season across the pond somewhere in Europe or Russia.

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      Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas (3) skates against the San Jose Sharks during the game at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Sharks 4-3 in the overtime shootout. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

      Yesterday the Leafs partook in their annual golf tournament and pre-camp media rounds, where Joffrey Lupul touched on a topic that has popped up throughout the summer—the Maple Leafs have gotten older.

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      MAILMASTER ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 2: Daniel Winnik #34 of the Anaheim Ducks skates during the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 2, 2014 at Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

      The Maple Leafs offseason has had a central theme of analytics and ‘Moneypuck’ due to their off-ice hirings and firings, but they have also followed this mantra with their on-ice additions. One of, if not the, main original concepts of ‘Moneyball’ is finding undervalued players due to perceived flaws and maximizing your spend on quality contributors.

      This clip from the movie sums it up nicely:

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      Dion Phaneuf
      Photo: Getty Images

      In the 2005-06 season, the Maple Leafs had the second best power play in the league and one of the biggest reasons was Tomas Kaberle’s ability to gain the zone and set up the attack. Any Leaf fan can tell you it was mesmerizing to watch ‘Kabby’ slice up the neutral zone and work the attack like a QB as he glided to open space and found uncovered teammates with ease.

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      Jay McClement
      OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 12: Jason Spezza #19 of the Ottawa Senators takes a face-off against Jay McClement #11 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 12, 2014 at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

      One of the more head-scratching themes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2013-14 season was their penalty kill dropping from second best in the league the season prior to third from the bottom.

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      PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28: General manager Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens speaks with President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan (L) of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

      When Brendan Shanahan was introduced as the new President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was met with skepticism and the focus centered on Tim Leiweke’s consistent reiteration of the word “culture.”

      Conversely, Shanahan’s focus was not on buzzwords of culture change, or calls to arms, but a methodical approach to assessing and addressing the needs of a team that has very good parts but ultimately is a poorly built team. “I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations; None of that matters. Wins do,” Shanahan said at the time. He is right, wins are what matter. But on second look at that press conference, it was maybe a bit more revealing than given credit for. “I do like a lot about this group. There are some good pieces a lot of teams would covet,” Shanahan told everyone. “You start to look at making improvements in small increments,” he said, alluding to their offseason plan quite accurately. The Leafs were simply “not deep enough,” Nonis added. In Elliotte Friedman’s last ’30 Thoughts’ of the season, he too noted that:

      28. One of Toronto’s players said it was very clear after the season the organization wants to even-out everyone’s ice time, both up front and on defence. The feeling was a number of critical players — Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk — hit the wall.

      So far, the Leafs have stuck to the script. Earlier in the summer, I wrote about the Leafs bottom six and their lack of production, specifically when it came to the third line.

      In a nutshell, it said:

      • The Leafs third line had the worst points per game in the league compared to other third lines.
      • The bottom six couldn’t help kill penalties.
      • The bottom six couldn’t help protect a lead, in which the Leafs led the league in blown third period leads.

      The bad penalty kill and inability to protect a lead don’t fall solely on the bottom six, but in the big picture they couldn’t help offensively, defensively, or on special teams. There is no nice way of saying that. That is how the Leafs ended up having three forwards in the top 12 of average time on ice (for forwards) in the league. The only other team in the league to have three forwards average 20+ minutes of ice time per game was Vancouver, and only 29 forwards in the entire league averaged 20+ minutes. To say nothing of JVR and Kessel playing in the Olympics, too. The second line had two 20+ goal scorers, and nearly a third (Raymond had 19). Both Lupul and Raymond are listed as left wingers on NHL.com, and they both finished in the top 30 at that position in ice time. They each would have finished in the top 30 as right wingers as well. This is getting magnified to really make it clear how bad the Leafs bottom six was, how much they relied on their top players because of it, and to highlight how the Leafs ran their top forwards right into the ground.

      Their top six across the board, as illustrated, played a huge amount. Shanahan, true to his word about the team having good pieces — and to Nonis’ point about the lack of depth — has so far gone about reconstructing the rest of the roster around “the core,” which includes Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Kadri, Bozak, Phaneuf, Gardiner, and Rielly, with Bernier and Reimer in net.

      Last season, Kulemin led the Leafs bottom six in scoring with 20 points. New additions Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik both topped that, Booth had one less point, Holland was on pace to beat 20 points, while Frattin, Komarov and even Bodie have flashed the ability to be at least reasonable contributors. In fact, if you combine Winnik’s 30 points, and Santorelli’s 28, they total more points than the Leafs most played entire bottom six based on games played (Kulemin, McClement, Clarkson, Bodie, Orr, Holland combined for 51).

      That is why, despite a lack of big move to help boost the team and ignite the fan base, there is reason for optimism heading into next season. As per James Mirtle, the team got rid of six of their worst eight possession players. Every forward they have added has a history of strong underlying numbers, but beyond that they all bring different elements and styles to a bottom six that last year sorely lacked any sort of contribution to the team. Leo Komarov draws penalties and is excellent on the forecheck, David Booth works the walls and drives the net, Mike Santorelli is very fast and a dog-on-a-bone on loose pucks (similar to former Leaf Dominic Moore), Winnik is strong defensively and a big body, while Matt Frattin adds a big shot, physicality and speed. Peter Holland adds more size and skill. These are not the big and flashy names fans were hoping for to make a big difference, but it is hard to imagine they don’t significantly boost the worst bottom six in the league to at least the middle of the pack. And that is a big addition.

      It has gone under the radar, but Shanahan has basically cleaned house—save for making any headline grabbing moves. There were 25 players that played at least 10 games for the Leafs last year and ended the season as a Leaf or Marlie, and 13 of them—over 50%—are either out of the organization entirely, or appear on their way to the Marlies for the start of next season. To date, six forwards and two new defensemen have been acquired. Three assistant coaches have been fired, two long-time management members, and Kyle Dubas and Peter Horachek have been brought in while Steve Spott has been promoted. All three have strong recent histories that suggest the Leafs just got a whole lot smarter and methodical in their approach, which will have a systemic trickle down effect to the on-ice product.

      The reality is that all of Leafs Nation is on a completely different timeline than Brendan Shanahan. He just got here. He is trying to evaluate every corner of the organization. With everything that happened and what they lacked last year, it makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the core that many wanted blown up or at least altered, because they had no support. With the pieces put in place he can now do that. Provided the new additions fit in and contribute – and there’s more reason to believe they will than won’t — the eyes are all geared towards the core players now to step up and deliver. “This is the time for me to start learning about the organization from top to bottom,” Shanahan said in his introductory press conference. “It’s a time for me to listen, to learn and get to work. That’s all that’s really worked for me in my career. That’s what’s worked for me when I was done playing hockey and that’s what I intend to do here.”

      With a handful of cheap, solid, productive acquisitions, and a revamped defense, he now has the opportunity to focus on the top of the roster properly and take the next step in his plan. The core players, Carlyle, and Nonis are all on the hot seat now, but at least they have an opportunity to succeed with what has been done. It is up to them to seize it now in conjunction with a solid supporting cast. “When I first started in Detroit, they weren’t the team they are,” Shanahan said about the once maligned and comically laughed at organization. “Sometimes success is just around the corner.” There is reason now to believe that might just be the case.

      A few interesting notes I have been sitting on:

      • With Carl Gunnarsson now off the team, Dion Phaneuf is sure to be paired with his best partner since Francois Beauchemin. Since the Leafs moved the veteran rearguard to Anaheim, Phaneuf has played with Keith Aulie, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, and Carl Gunnarsson. Any of Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, or even Stephane Robidas, are big upgrades over any of those options. Gardiner and Rielly aren’t sure things yet, but it will be really interesting to see how Dion responds to playing with some legitimate talent in Toronto for once.
        -
      • I have been over Clarkson’s shooting percentage and shots on goal count to illustrate why I think he will naturally bounce back (plus he probably won’t start next season with another ten game suspension…), but the Leafs have also brought in some wingers that play the game more suited to his style. Booth is very good along the boards and brings the puck hard to the net, Komarov works the walls well and engages in battles, while Winnik is a big strong body that goes to the net and can cycle. Kulemin was the only player Clarkson played with that could do this stuff, but with McClement as the center coupled with Kulemin’s complete lack of confidence, that just wasn’t going to get it done. Clarkson played a bit with Ashton at the end of the year, and looked very good working the wall. Their CF% was over 52 and although it was only a short period of time, to my eye it was the most comfortable Clarkson looked here- working the walls with another big body on the cycle and eating up offensive zone time.
        -
      • Ashton, however, will be in really tough to crack the roster this year. Troy Bodie made a very good impression last season, can play both wings, is 6’5, and can fight a little, so save for a horrendous camp I think he is safe. Add in Petri Kontiola, who the Leafs brought over from Finland, and Ashton is facing an uphill battle. Perhaps the two-way deal should have been a tip-off.
        -
      • Capgeek has too many forwards listed on the Leafs roster right now, so looking at the Leafs cap hit there at the moment, it should go without saying, is not correct. With three forwards most likely getting relegated, there is more than enough cap space to sign Gardiner and account for a seventh defenseman. I still wonder if Franson will start the season in Toronto.
        -
      • As interesting, dynamic changing, and mindset swinging as the Kyle Dubas hiring and Dave Poulin plus Claude Loiselle firings were, only in Toronto does it get the coverage that it did. NHL GM hirings don’t get that much attention in some cities. Dubas will be a fresh addition to the staff, but to suggest the 28 year old who has never been a part of the NHL is ready to be a GM, or that the Leafs are about to fleece teams now that he has been hired, seems imprudent. There is stratospheres of difference between the OHL and NHL. Like any younger person joining a massive company, it takes time to learn the ropes and even just get your bearings. The SOO turned the corner towards the end of his tenure, but if you go look at his complete history (I’m not going to dissect it and criticize it) it wasn’t always smooth. He has a lot to learn and he knows that, but he is a great young management asset to groom. For me though, the signing says a lot more about Shanahan and where his head is at. I think we are at a point where we should be questioning if some of the things the Leafs were doing systemically and deployment wise last season should be obsolete. Shanahan is going to cut it off at the knees; he basically already has. He has two potential NHL head coaches standing on the bench as assistants right now, and he already blew a hole into upper immediate management. It is adapt or die time in Toronto right now. The stories have been about Dubas, Leiweke, culture change, and whatever else, but the real story is Shanahan putting succession plan pieces all into place and gearing up the organization for his tenure.