Curt writes prospect stuff here, writes Leafs-related content at Blue Chip Prospects, and writes whatever he wants (with a 140 character limit) on Twitter. He also prefers being called 'Curt' to 'BCP' as he is not a robot, but he'll answer to either.
Team Canada has effectively named their roster for the World Junior Championships to take place in Malmo Sweden starting on Boxing Day. Having had a little bit of time to digest their decisions from a Leafs perspective, here are some of my thoughts.
No Matt Finn
The biggest surprise on Team Canada’s roster from a Leafs perspective is Matt Finn’s omission. Finn is an all-situations defenseman whose biggest weakness in his game is probably his physicality – an element which is considerably less important on International ice. I’m surprised he didn’t make the team (almost as surprised as I was when I heard Nurse was left at home) but the truth of the matter is, Canada has a deep team and Finn, even in my mind, was probably only 60-40 to make the team.
Gauthier Yes, Brown No
If you look purely at the statistical side of our prospects, the idea of bringing Gauthier over Connor Brown is a little confounding. Again, I feel that the International ice was at play here. Brown may have the better hands of the two but Gauthier is a stronger skater and is also better equipped to play a defensive role with the team. Team Canada rarely takes an All-Star team to these events and instead opts to take players to fill very specific roles. I’m sure filling the checking role with a youngster with a mature defensive game was a motive here.
Apparently the Leafs have informed Team Canada that Morgan Rielly will be released to play with the National Squad if he isn’t playing regularly with the Leafs at the time of the tournament (December 19 cut off). Trying to predict how Randy Carlyle will deploy his players is a fool’s errand as far as I’m concerned so I won’t even hazard a guess, but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all to see Rielly playing 20 minutes a game in this tourney; helping lead the Canadian team while gaining confidence and feeling good about himself after going in and out of the press box with the Leafs wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. Rielly’s skating on the big rink would be a thing to behold, and there’s little doubt that he would be one of the primary options on the blueline for the team in the event that he’s released.
This past Thursday, I had the chance to take in the Colts – Ice Dogs game and got to see Carter Verhaeghe live for the first time since the rookie tournament. Of the players taken in the 2013 draft by the Leafs, Verhaeghe has probably turned the most heads in the early stages of this season. Here are a few of my thoughts on his game.
Welcome to the Battle of Ontario edition of our Rookie Tournament coverage.
As we all know, Ottawa sucks and while I have no idea who will dress for the Baby Leafs tonight at this point, I can’t imagine that we’ll have any problem walking all over them; their parents probably won’t even watch out of shame and embarrassment.
The Leafs have won both of their games in the tourney so far and the players who you’d expect to standout have done just that. Brad Ross, Morgan Rielly, Stuart Percy, Petter Granberg, and Josh Leivo (before his injury) have all been great and Zach Yuen turned a few heads in last night’s game.
It will be interesting to see who gets into the lineup today — you’d have to think that management is hoping to get a long look at some of these prospects against like-aged players before NHL camps start.
So with Rielly, Leivo, MacWilliam, McKegg, and Sparks all sitting this game out and Finn leaving mysteriously after a period of play, you might have guessed that this would be a tough one for the Leafs rookies but you’d be wrong.
Stuart Percy was the best player on the ice, and Brad Ross was the best forward for either team pacing the Leafs to a 4-3 shootout win over a Penguins team with no competent forwards.
Zachary Yuen was probably the game’s biggest surprise. He had a solid game in every respect and almost certainly opened some eyes with his performance tonight; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him dressed again tomorrow for the team to get a better look.
The game itself was a back and forth affair, starting with a bang in the first (Pitt goal, 2 fights, Tor goal) and ending with a fizzle (shootouts are kinda lame).
Toronto’s first goal was scored by Matt Rupert on the PP. With Biggs providing the traffic in front, a rebound from a point shot found its way to Rupert’s stick and he punched it in.
The second goal was scored by Fabrice Herzog after some nice retrieval work by Ross and Verhaeghe and a pretty sweet behind the back pass from Ross. Herzog was given too much time in front and he took advantage of it.
Toronto’s third goal was a nice little passing play between Andrew Crescenzi and Jamie Devane in transition with Crescenzi potting the goal on a first touch shot, over the goalie’s shoulder.
Shootout goals were scored by Ross and Percy — the Leafs’ two best players tonight.
With that, the Leafs move to 2-0 on the tournament and will play against Ottawa’s rookies tomorrow night. Hopefully we’ll get to see some more of Leivo and Rielly, and with any luck whatever took Finn out of tonight’s game isn’t anything serious.
With Brian Burke back in the news, it’s fitting that his greatest contribution to the Maple Leafs – a rebuilt farm system — take center stage in the days leading up to actual meaningful hockey. The Baby Leafs have a gold-plated defense group and a forward contingent that breaks down fairly nicely into scoring lines and checking lines; the lines should pretty much roll themselves.
With players like Morgan Rielly trying to make an impact prior to the start of Leafs camp, and guys like Leivo, Biggs, and Percy looking to solidify key roles with the Marlies, the stakes are a lot higher for these kids than they may seem to fans on the surface. These aren’t your typical pre-season games and they’ll provide a great glimpse at what the future has in store for the big club.
To the surprise of nobody who follows me on Twitter or reads this column with any regularity, Morgan Rielly and the Moose Jaw Warriors are on the outside looking in. If I were a lesser man, I’d gloat about how I predicted this outcome when Moose Jaw was sitting 5th in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and I’d definitely rub it in the face of all the people who called me an idiot or worse — if I were a lesser man.
What this means for Rielly is that he’ll be joining the Marlies on Wednesday and that he’ll be able to take a bit of time to adjust to the pro speed. From a developmental perspective, this is probably the ideal place for him right now. I’m not convinced that languishing in Moose Jaw for the last two months has really taught him much and I’m reluctant to throw a teenage defenseman onto a Leafs group that has, frankly, struggled. I’m not as sold as many people are on Eakins as an NHL coach but I do think that he’s an exceptional developmental coach so Rielly is in good hands.
As far as the other Leafs go, Stuart Percy and the Mississauga Steelheads will be lining up against the top seeded Belleville Bulls. Mississauga has been just brutal lately and there’s a very real chance that Belleville ends their season by March 26th, at which point Percy will join Rielly in the AHL. Once again, this is probably the best spot for him to be right now, so I wont be shedding any tears if the Steelheads make an abrupt exit.
Biggs and the Generals play the Niagara Ice Dogs and unlike the aforementioned prospects, Biggs will be hoping to make a playoff run. Also unlike the others, I think the OHL is a good spot for Biggs right now — especially in a playoff atmosphere. He’s on a good team, he’ll play a variety of situations, and this will be a good opportunity to see if the wear-you-down style of a playoff series is a strength for Biggs. Should be a good series and I’d expect Oshawa’s forward depth is enough to see them through to the next round.
The most intriguing series from a Leafs perspective will be the Kitchener v. Guelph matchup. Matt Finn has been out of the lineup with an injured knee and was set to miss 3-4 weeks. I hope he doesn’t rush back but if the series goes the distance or if Guelph should advance, Finn could see some playoff action. On the other side of the ice, Leivo is in a nearly identical position to Biggs. He’s on a good team and will be expected to play a pivotal role for the Rangers who’ve made a serious investment to win this season. Also like Biggs, Leivo has the kind of game with the potential to thrive in a long, grinding playoff series.
As far as Connor Brown goes, his Erie Otters missed the playoffs and I’m not sure what the organization plans to do with him over the next few weeks. Brown recently returned from a concussion (and scored a pair of goals in the Otters’ last game) so while he’s healthy, there’s a chance the team just skates him in practice with the Marlies but holds him off the ice. He’s still awfully young and I doubt he sees much, if any, icetime with the Marlies but maybe he surprises me; he has all season.
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Welcome to the Playoffs, Awards, and Injury Ward edition of the Leafs Prospect Update!
Starting with the bad news, Erie Captain and surprise statistical standout Connor Brown suffered a head injury (read: concussion) against London on the 18th and missed this weekend’s games. Erie is well out of the playoff mix and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brown sit out the rest of the year to recover — it’s probably what’s best for him in the long run.
When the Leafs get a couple of days off, bloggers have a little bit of extra time to take a wider look at things. I’ve spent a lot of time this year watching CHL games, pouring over AHL stats and looking at the player development side of hockey. Unsurprisingly, that has led to a lot of conversations about the draft itself and it was one of these conversations that spurred me to look into some draft outcomes.
If Tyler Biggs were Russian, he’d be considered an enigma. Biggs has been taken off of Oshawa’s top powerplay unit (though he remains on their top line at even strength) and his production has been on and off ever since. Biggs picked up an assist tonight — and a number of scoring chances — but prior to tonight’s game he had been on a goals-or-nothing streak. Biggs’ last five games registered as follows: 2 goals, no points, 1 goal, no points, 2 goals. He still isn’t much of a passer, nor is he any more comfortable carrying the puck. This might be work that he needs to do with a fresh set of coaches next season.
Josh Leivo continues to impress in Kitchener and has now passed Connor Brown as the Leafs prospect with the most CHL-points this season. Leivo has 19 points in 15 games with Kitchener — a point-per-game total that no player on Kitchener has been able to match despite all the drafted talented on that team. Leivo has changed the way he puts up points since his transition to Kitchener, relying more on assists than goals, but the production has still been there despite the increased defensive focus that Spott employs in Kitchener. There aren’t a lot of holes in Leivo’s game which bodes well for his transition to the pro game (ECHL or AHL) coming next season.
From December 28th to January 22nd, the Moose Jaw Warriors went on an 11-game losing streak which corresponded fairly neatly with Morgan Rielly’s absence from the team. Since then, the Warriors are W4-L4 which may not be spectacular, but it is a pretty significant improvement. Rielly is tied for 6th in scoring among WHL defensemen despite playing on one of the worst offensive teams in the league and having missed a month’s worth of games with the WJC and NHL camp. In short, everything you’ve read on Rielly is true — he’s a dynamic offensive player and isn’t bad in his own zone either.
After being away from his teammates for both the World Junior Championships and the Leafs’ pre-season camp, Morgan Rielly returned to Moose Jaw and the Warriors returned to the win column for the first time since his departure.
The resolution to the NHL lockout combined with the commencement of the second half of the CHL season has predictably stirred up some player movement in the NHL’s development leagues.
As far as Leaf property, third round pick in 2011 Josh Leivo was traded to the Kitchener Rangers in a deal that saw the Sudbury Wolves move their top forward in Leivo, top defenceman in Frankie Corrado and starting goaltender Joel Vienneau in one swoop.
Well, this is kind of like kissing your sister. Unless you lose, in which case it’s kind of like going to prom alone and leaving alone.
The problem with a single elimination tournament is that you only need to play one bad game to lose your chance at a championship and boy, did Canada ever play a bad game.
Trying to predict whether or not a team will be able to “get up” for a bronze medal game is a bit of a fool’s errand; ultimately, it’s anybody’s guess. There’s no shame whatsoever in coming away from a tournament with a bronze medal so I hope that the boys will be able to bring their all this morning.
Whether Steve Spott has learned from the first few games of the tournament or not may be the key to this one. Spott was reluctant to start Binnington in any of the games of the tournament despite an exceptional camp and a couple of below average performances from Malcolm Subban. Subban vindicated that decision in a pair of strong games against the Americans and Russians but went back to being lacklustre in the semi-final matchup. Binnington, once called upon, was terrific.
Morgan Rielly has been one of Canada’s better defensemen in this tournament despite limited icetime while Ryan Murphy has been an unmitigated disaster with lots of icetime. The reigns came off Rielly in the third period of the game against the USA but it was too little too late. Murphy simply doesn’t have the defensive chops to play against top-tier teams in this tournament and with Reinhart suspended, Spott will have to figure out how to balance Murphy’s risk/reward better in this morning’s game.
Perhaps the least discussed wart on the face of Team Canada has been the play of Jonathan Huberdeau. His point totals are respectable but does anyone think he’s looked particularly good in this tournament? When Drouin took his place on the top line, I thought the first unit became more dynamic for it and I can’t say the same of the second line that Huberdeau found himself on. For one of the best prospects in hockey and a guy who’s in his last year of WJC eligibility, he hasn’t been particularly impactful. Hopefully Spott will be able to find a line combination that works for him.
On a final note, I’d like to offer a tip of my hat to the Russian fans during this tournament. They’ve brought a great energy and enthusiasm to the tournament and it’s made every game more exciting. It’s clear that they care about this tournament every bit as much as we Canadians do and they’ve given the kids a great atmosphere in which to play their games.
1st Intermission Update
Well, that period was certainly eventful. Khokhlachev opened the scoring with a soft one on Jordan Binnington, beating him with an unscreened wrister from a sharp angle. The shot got stuck on Binnington’s pad and when he pulled his leg back in to his body, he also pulled the puck back in to the net.
Russia scored the second goal as well as Boone Jenner took a stupid penalty with an elbow to the head of the Russian forechecker. The ensuing penaltykill looked more like a game of chase-the-puck by the four penaltykillers and Yarulin made a nice corner to corner pass to Yakupov who fired the puck into a wide open net.
Canada clawed back into the game after Strome drew a penalty in the slot (the penalty prevented a scoring chance) and the Canadian powerplay took advantage. RNH scored the goal on a nice shot.
The Russian’s pulled back ahead by two after Diakov fired home a shot after an offensive zone faceoff win. Binnington was probably screened on the shot but was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots. By not giving Binnington any starts in the group stage, Spott didn’t have nearly enough information on who to start during these later rounds. Do you start Binnington who has played well in selection camp and in one period in the tournament but hasn’t started in two weeks or do you start Subban who was inconsistent? Impossible to know.
Canada pulled the game back to within one on the powerplay as Ryan Murphy fired a shot off the post which found the stick of Huberdeau who put it into the net with the goalie well out of position after the initial shot. Murphy has been much better in this game because he’s been put in a position to succeed. He’s made shrewd plays on the powerplay and hasn’t had any significant defensive miscues in limited 5-on-5 icetime… to the surprise of precisely no one.
2nd Intermission Update
More of the same in the second as the tempo of the game stayed high as you’d expect in a Canada / Russia game.
The first goal of the period came on the powerplay as Mark Scheifele fired in feed from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Canadian powerplay really does look unstoppable today and the Russians should probably stop taking minors if they want to win a medal on home soil.
The fourth Russian goal was scored by Yevgeni Mozer. The first shot was blocked by the Canadian defenseman but the block was scooped up by Mozer who was able to take advantage of Subban having committed to the original shot.
Canada tied it up on another powerplay goal, this time by Ryan Murphy. Heck of a shot from a smaller defenseman.
3rd Intermission Update
Yakupov scored the 5th Russian goal after some really strong work by Kapustin to bring the puck out of the corner in the offensive zone. Solid shot by Yakupov but the real work was done by Kapustin on this one.
Brett Ritchie scored the fifth goal for Canada on a scramble play in front of the Russian goal. Not much to break down on this one; it was messy but it went in.
Fitting that Canada’s tournament would end with Ryan Murphy getting burned on an even strength breakout. Heck of a goal by the draft eligible Nichushkin, beating Murphy to the outside and then driving hard to the net, stuffing the puck past Subban who played well in relief of Binnington.
Just when you were getting used to a more sane sleeping schedule, the Russian organizers do this to us.
Canada and the United States will faceoff in a rematch of their opening round game which saw Canada skate off with a 2-1 win in which neither team played up to its potential.
Since then, Canada played a complete game against the Russians while the United States picked up a couple of wins against the tournament’s also-rans. Confidence should be reasonably high for both teams and at the risk of sounding trite, the United States will have redemption on their minds.
A great deal of the completeness of Canada’s game can be attributed to the return of Boone Jenner to the line-up. I had been playing the part of the parrot during my pre-game threads; consistently and repeatedly lamenting the lack of chemistry in the bottom-6 forward group and hoping that once Jenner returned things would sort themselves out. Well, he did and they did. Jenner and Danault were a forechecking, puck possession force in the third period of the Russia game and were a big reason why, even despite what score effects typically do to shot totals, Canada was able to significantly outshoot the Russians in their 4-1 win.
Spott’s line shake-up also proved to be a positive for the team as Jonathan Drouin looked fantastic skating with RNH and Mark Scheifele. Add to this another strong game from Malcolm Subban and Canada looks to be rounding into form from top to bottom.
In their last matchup, Seth Jones had probably his worst game of the tournament and Rocco Grimaldi’s shot-happy Sergei Berezin / Jason Blake impression really stifled the American attack. The most dangerous offensive player in the game was probably defenseman Jacob Trouba who snuck free in the offensive zone a couple of times and scored the lone American goal.
Once again, John Gibson is the type of goalie who is eminently capable of stealing a game and the American speed and the ability of their defensemen to pinch on the play has the potential to create problems for Team Canada. Team USA is still waiting for their big line to have an impact against the tournament’s better teams and if they do this morning, then Canada will have to be near-perfect everywhere else if they hope to advance to the gold medal game.
From Canada’s perspective, they’ll need to limit penalties against the Americans — particularly those of the 5-minute variety. The only Canadian player who seems to be prone to minor penalties is Ryan Strome but one hopes that Coach Spott has impressed upon him the importance of discipline going forward in this tournament. Aside from that, more of the same from Subban and the top line and Canada will likely be punching their ticket to the gold medal game.
No easy games left. Go Canada Go!
1st Intermission Update
Well, that’s what happen when one team has a great defensive period and the other is a chaotic, disorganized mess in their own zone.
The US, to their credit, played exceptional transition defense in that period and their speed on the counter-attack was backing down the Canadian defense and leading to chances left, right, and center.
The first American goal was scored by Jake McCabe after the Americans got about a half-dozen shots in a single sequence and Subban didn’t look comfortable on any of them. The US got after every rebound and loose puck and it led to the first goal of the game.
The second American goal was also scored by McCabe, this time in transition. As you’d expect from a defenseman, McCabe was the high-man in the zone and found a gap in the coverage between the two wingers. Some good passing and an apparent screen on Subban and 2-0 is where we stand heading into the second period.
On a positive note, Biggs had a very solid period. He was good on the forecheck and had a couple of chances in the offensive zone.
2nd Intermission Update
More of the same from Canada in the 2nd period. Disorganized on defense, largely dis-interested on offense, and clearly frustrated by the calibre of defensive play they’ve been running into during this game. The few times Canada has managed a quality scoring chance, Gibson has made it look like a routine save.
The third American goal came in transition after a bad change. What looked like a 2-on-1 with Ryan Murphy as the ’1′ was turned into effectively a breakaway as Murphy initially looked to take away the pass and then drastically over committed to the puck carrier John Gaudreau who didn’t even need to make a move to clear Murphy out of the way and score.
Jimmy Vesey then put the Americans up 4-0, once again burning the Canadian defense in transition. A nice quick move on the outside by Vesey to beat the defense and change the angle of the shot. Tough to blame Subban given the completeness of the Canadian collapse but he didn’t have his best game either and got the hook in favour of Binnington.
Binnington has looked good in relief as the goalie change did nothing to spark the Canadian Team. The United States has dominated this game in every way and it would take a comeback that would make yesterday’s Russia – Switzerland game look like a 90s New Jersey Devils game for this one to end in Canada’s favour.
I sincerely hope that one of the reporters has the guts to ask Spott the tough questions about Murphy’s inclusion after the game but I have my doubts.
Canada had their best period of the game but were still the second best team on the ice. Gibson was sensational and Canada wasn’t able to swing the momentum in their favour despite some decent play.
Canada scored the first goal of the period… kinda. After Ty Rattie fired a shot off of the crossbar, the referee blew the whistle, and the ensuing rebound found Rattie’s stick with Gibson too far out of position from the initial shot to have any hope at making a second save. Rattie put the puck in the net anyway and after review it counted for some reason. Typical IIHF hackjob, basically.
The game’s final goal came after a great blueline to blueline pass from JT Miller to John Gaudreau sprung the diminutive forward on a partial breakaway. Great shot by Gaudreau beat Binnington and the Americans cruised to a well deserved victory from there.
The good from that period included the reigns coming off Rielly a little bit. He looked far more like himself, joining or leading the rush offensively and using a toe-drag-shot-between-the-defenseman’s-legs move that he goes to with some regularity in the WHL. Binnington looked good in relief and probably deserves to start the bronze medal game.
Having played only one good game in the tournament with a lockout strengthened lineup, Spott will have to come up with some answers for why this team never really came together. The defense in particular seemed to be a problem after the team cut Frankie Corrado who had a great camp in favour of Ryan Murphy who, aside from possibly Dumba, was the worst defenseman in camp. MacKinnon never got enough icetime, nor did Rielly and the zone entries on the powerplay were some of the more disjointed I’ve ever seen on international ice.
Canada will play the loser of Sweden – Russia sometime Saturday morning.