Saturday, May 23, 2015
Authors Posts by Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens

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Michael Stephens has been writing for Maple Leafs Hotstove since 2010, and has featured in the 2010 and 2012 Maple Leaf Annuals. Former Editiorial Intern at The Hockey News. Undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor. Chat me up about all things hockey on twitter @MLHS_Mike

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It’s been an incredibly interesting first week of free agency for the Toronto Maple Leafs and around the NHL.  Here’s four thoughts to get you through your Friday.

Kovalchuk’s retirement a blessing for the Devils

Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the world Thursday when the Russian superstar announced his retirement at the tender age of 30.  In doing so, Kovalchuk will be leaving $77-million on the table over the next 12 seasons.  But he also might save the New Jersey Devils.

Dave Nonis
Chris Young/Canadian Press

With free agency upon us – and fresh on the heels of Mikhail Grabovski’s buyout – the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be an incredibly different looking team come the fall.  Through General Manager Dave Nonis’ machinations since taking over the reins in January, the Leafs roster now looks more shallow and vulnerable than it did at the end of the season less than two months ago.

Quite simply, Nonis slowly and quietly backed himself into a corner with the choices he’s made since taking over from Brian Burke.  On a team that appeared to over perform benefitting from a shortened season, the general consensus was that there were a lot of upgrades that need to be made if this team was going to remain a winner.  Nonis has to have a master plan, because right now, the Maple Leafs do not look equipped to contend for their first back-to-back playoff berth since 2004. And that’s all on him.

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In a shocking move early Thursday afternoon, The Toronto Maple Leafs placed centre Mikhail Grabovski on unconditional waivers with the purpose of buying him out.

Should Grabovski clear waivers tomorrow at noon, the Leafs will use their second Compliance Buyout, having bought out the final year of Mike Komisarek’s contract earlier in the week.

Grabovski was coming off a career-worst season in 2013 scoring a mere nine goals and seven assists for 16 points in 48 games and still had four years remaining on a contract signed last offseason that was paying him $5.5-Million per year.  The Belorussian is apparently set to get hitched tomorrow in Toronto, and as a wedding present will now be one of the best free agent centres available.

It must almost be the offseason, because NHL Awards have once again caused a stir regarding the voting structure and overall legitimacy of the accolades.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Norris Trophy, where the Montreal Canadiens’ PK Subban won out by a hair over Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Suter.  He did so despite the words, “awarded to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position” right on the darn trophy.  Alas, with the results of the past two seasons, the statement about ‘all-around ability’ is looking demonstrably untrue for Norris voting.

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MLHS Player Reviews is doing their best to round out the Leafs top six (hint-hint, Dave) by profiling alternate captain, left winger and pending UFA, Clarke MacArthur.   In his third season with the Maple Leafs, the Lloydminster, Alberta native tallied eight goals and 12 assists en route to 20 points in 40 games played.  Yet his season, like so many Leafs, was tumultuous, and his future in Toronto is unclear.

MLHS Player Reviews turns to one of the newest in the blue and white, fourth line tough guy Frazer McLaren.  Like a lot of Leafs, 2013 was something of a banner year for the Winnipeg native statistically.  He reached career highs in games played (36), goals (three), and penalty minutes (102).  Of his three goals, two were – astoundingly – game winners; one of those was actually pretty nifty, too.

But that’s not why Dave Nonis picked McLaren up off of waivers on January 31, 2013. He was brought to fight often and win, and he did just that for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

MLHS’ Player Reviews takes a look at another four-year veteran of the Toronto Maple Leafs, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.  Perhaps the second-most famous native of Orebro, Sweden (after – hilariously – the lead singer of The Cardigans), Gunnarsson has gone from being a seventh round pick in 2007 to being on the shutdown pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf.  He battled through a hip injury, recording one goal and 14 assists in 37 regular season games en route his first NHL playoff appearance.

MLHS continues its’ Player Reviews with the longest-serving member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, right winger Nikolai Kulemin.  The 26-year-old Magnitogorsk, Russia native had a bounce back season, recording seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points while playing in 48 regular season games.  He struggled through seven playoff games, recording only one assist.  But it was Kulemin’s ability to do yeoman’s work in the defensive zone that made the Leafs a winner.

Good news, everyone! Over the next couple of weeks, MLHS will be releasing Player Reviews for the Toronto Maple Leafs 2012-2013 season.  Every day leading up the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, we’ll profile one Leaf player that will reflect upon their peaks, valleys and overall performance this season.  The goals, the hits, the glory and the heartbreak that led to the first post-season berth in nine years.

But these write-ups will be different from years past, for two reasons.  The first will be the frequent use of the word ‘playoffs.’ The second will be the role we need you, the readers, to play.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs face playoff elimination tonight, but have dug their heels in against the Boston Bruins and have “done a lot of good things” in the series according to Randy Carlyle.  From the perpetually unimpressed man who guided the team to a horrid crash and lottery finish and a playoff berth in less than 82 games, I’d call that high praise.

With the Buds backs against the wall, here’s four thoughts ahead of the biggest game in the longest time.

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Photo: The Canadian Press

Toronto Maple Leafs came out strong, but ultimately fell to the Boston Bruins 4 – 3 in overtime of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals.  The Leafs had no answer for David Krejci, who scored a hat trick to steal the victory from the Buds. The battle of Vezina snubs didn’t disappoint either, with James Reimer making 41 saves in the loss and Tuukka Rask again stopping a phenomenal 45 shots tonight.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With Wednesday night’s beat down in Beantown still bringing up bruises, it sure looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs are punching above their weight class in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.  Such are the wages of glory.  Thankfully, the Leafs have some time to lick their wounds and regroup ahead of Saturday’s matchup.  Looks like they’ll need it.

Here are some thoughts to get you through your Friday.

Photo: Reuters

Despite splitting the state of Florida, it’s been a pretty terrific week for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The club finished the road portion of the regular season with a record of 13 – 8 – 3, earning a respectable 29 of their 57 points on the season away from the ACC.  James Reimer recorded his fourth shutout and 19th win in only his 33rd start of the season.  Phil Kessel scored three goals in the two games to leap into sixth in the league in scoring with 51 points.

Are you ready for the most uplifting (small sample size) Four for Friday yet?

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Photo: Getty Images/NHLI

As the Toronto Maple Leafs skip along to their first playoff berth in eight seasons, Dion Phaneuf’s play is forcing his name to be included in discussion for the Norris Trophy.  The Norris is awarded annually to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” and that sure sounds like the play of the Leaf captain this season.

He plays a physical, two-way brand of hockey and sits fifth-best in league for defensemen scoring with eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points in 42 games.  He’s a leader on the ice, the best defender on the team by a mile and has joined forces with Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James Reimer to drag the Leafs into contention.

But how does his performance this season stack up against performances past, and what greater truths can we find about the anatomy of a Norris Nominee?

Mikhail Grabovski - 3/18/2013
Photo: MLHS

Without the ‘x’ beside their name in standings it isn’t official, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are tantalizingly close to clinching a playoff spot.  Even with their 49 points through 40 games, they may have simply outpaced the also-rans for playoff contention.

The Winnipeg Jets sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but have only six games to make up ground.  Every team above in the standings has at least one game in hand on the Jets.  They’re running out of race track.  The tenth place New Jersey, losers of eight of their last ten games; sit a nigh-insurmountable nine points back of the Leafs.

The truth is less suspenseful than the idea of the playoff chase, but I’ll take it.  Here are some Leaf thoughts for your Friday.

Phil Kessel scored twice as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers 4 – 3 on Monday night.  The game was never really in doubt, with the Rangers never able to take a lead, though they hung around with two goals in the third to briefly tie it.  Kessel added an assist for his third three-point game of the season, while James van Riemsdyk and Ryan O’Byrne also scored for the Leafs.  James Reimer made 31 saves for the victory.

Photo: Getty Images

Mirroring the trade deadline, it’s been a slow and painful week in Leaf land.  The club still sits in sixth place in the Eastern conference, briefly flirting with fifth without even playing.  Even with the loss, the Buds are sitting on a 20 – 13 – 4 record and play only four games against teams ahead of them in standings in their remaining games.  And one of those teams is the Washington Capitals so really it’s three.   Here are some Leaf thoughts to start your Friday off right.

I don't know what you'll talk about either, Bob.

With the trade deadline coming next Wednesday, and the Leafs settled snugly into sixth place, the team’s status as either buyer or seller is still unclear.  The team as presently assembled is not a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, and no Jarome Iginla could change that fact.  Compounding matters is that Dave Nonis has already iterated that the team is not going to sacrifice the youth movement filtering into the professional ranks of the club for the sake of the immediate future.  So even if the Leafs were to be ‘in’ on Ryane Clowe, they’d be priced out of the running by teams like the Bruins or Ducks.

Tyler Seguin and Patrice Bergeron scored in the shootout as the Boston Bruins clawed back to take 3 – 2 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin scored for the Leafs in regulation, who led 2 – 0 in the second period before ultimately receding to the Bruins.  James Reimer made 27 saves in a losing effort, while Tuukka Rask made 23.

With the boats now foolishly burnt and the season 31 games old, the Toronto Maple Leafs sure look like they’re reeling into form.  Since starting the season with a record of 15 – 9 – 0, the Leafs have gone 1 – 3 – 3 in the past seven games, collecting only five points in the standings and now sitting precariously in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Through the good graces of the Hockey gods and the incompetence of their direct competition (the Jets, Hurricanes and Rangers all lost in regulation last night), the Leafs are just barely keeping their head above water.