Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images
The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference (fourth in the Eastern Conference in wins) and some folks, even Leaf fans who write about the game, are simply writing it of as nothing other than luck. Puck luck. Good goaltending. Streaky scorers. Bad coaching is even bandied around as one of the reasons they’re bad – but not showing it yet – this season.
The truth is that the Leafs are playing right about where they should have been last year—offensively—but with a system that allows them to hold leads, shut down teams when they need to, kill off potential momentum robbing power-plays and turn them something that breeds confidence in their ability to defend and in their goalies’ ability to stop pucks. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Confidence was and is a big difference between this season and last. They were a confident group last season – arriving almost mid-summer for early camp and hitting the ground running – got off to a good start and were confident in their ability to score almost at will. But look no further than the two losses against Boston (3-2 until an empty netter finished it 4-2) and Pittsburgh (5-4 SO) – those were games that would have been horrendous blowouts last year. I think everyone was expecting them to be as much, but both turned into tight games in the end. That wasn’t on the strength of out-of-worldly goaltending, either.
The team has adopted a better structured system—even strength and on the PK—that has allowed them to mitigate the second chances that sank a lot of games last season. Rebound control is still a big issue with both Reimer and Scrivens, however getting good looks at pucks and directing rebounds into less dangerous areas allows them and the team in front of them to bend more without breaking into the type of horrible collapses that plagued the team last year. I feel that not fronting the opposing forwards—standing in front hoping for a shot block—and instead reverting to a method of clearing the front of the net, like defenceman have for decades, is much more effective for this group.
If Toronto were to be compared to any team right now, it would have to be the Ottawa Senators, as much as it pains me to say it. Both have benefited tremendously from strong AHL teams and excellent AHL coaching. Ottawa were a laugh to start the season last season—most were predicting a lottery pick, and instead they took the New York Rangers to game 7 of a close series that could have easily went either way. Toronto is getting exactly the same collection of things this year, between the internal development, the coach and the goaltending. The Marlies, in my opinion, were robbed of a Calder Cup by bad injury luck and I felt that, when healthy, they were the superior team. Regardless, they had the best PK in the league, the best goaltending tandem, and the best shutdown D pair in the league. Say what you will, but it’s impressive that they Leafs can walk three AHL defenceman onto the big club and have them play as well as they have. It’s a credit to the Marlies that they are able to do that so seamlessly. They aren’t ideal defence pairings, but this is the sort of depth that we, as Leaf fans, have been pining for. The first wave of development seems to have pushed through for the Leafs, and while the Marlies are completely depleted right now that will change as the next round of Burke draftees start to migrate from Jr. to the AHL. This is what a rebuild looks like.
So, just how good are they? I think they’re just that: “good,” if Boston is “Excellent” and Pittsburgh is “Very Good” to “Excellent” (they lack depth on D and a consistently good goalie). I think the Leafs were trending downwards quickly two and three seasons ago and are quickly trending upwards now. It should have happened a year ago, but … Ron Wilson.
It will be interesting to see how Dave Nonis makes his next two big moves to meet the club’s main two needs: A first line center who can play the game at a fast pace and is able to make plays at the same speed as Kessel and Lupul, and another top 4 two-way defenceman—preferably of the top-2 variety. Those moves don’t present themselves very often throughout the course of the season, and we’ll all be curious as to how he keeps adding top-flight talent to a group that has improved internally and is looking to advance gears in order to enter the conversation beside the Bostons and Pittsburghs of the league.
Tuesday Morning Leafs Links…
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
With just over three weeks to go until the trade deadline, I feel as if I can get away with a rosterbation post without too much scrutiny. I’ll do my best to not go full HFBoards with my ideas, but certainly have a few players in mind that I’d like for the Leafs to target, and a few that I’d like Nonis to jettison. While I’m sure this won’t be the most intelligent post you’ll read this morning, hopefully it will at least spark some Monday morning conversation.
I took in what felt like a one-point win last night at the ACC. I of little faith was thinking “blow out” after the bang-bang goals in the first, but there seems to be something different about this team (visible in the Bruins game as well). They didn’t slip silently into the night, and by the end of it you had the feeling Crosby, Malkin and co. snuck away, or limped away, with the extra point.
I’ll ignore the awful first period from the Leafs – and how deeply underwater the first line was in its head to head with Crosby’s line, or how off Reimer was for the first 20 – because in many ways the fight back was just that good. Reimer played one of his poorer periods of the season in period 1, but his overall performance matched the trajectory of the rest of the team – started slow, but without him the Leafs don’t get the point.
CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR
With the first half of the season in the books, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit firmly entrenched in fifth place in the East with an impressive record of 15 – 10 – 0. So who should we thank for the great successes so far at the midway mark?
In the least interesting reveal of the article, Nazem Kadri wins this first Middy™ by a wide margin. He took the team lead in points in the third game of the season and hasn’t looked back, having tallied 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 25 games. His arrival to the Leafs may have had few more layovers than anyone hoped, but he’s now showing every night just why Brian Burke was right to draft him seventh overall in 2009.
Last night’s 5-4 nail-biting win over the Sens further fanned the fires of the current “debate” on the role of fighting in the Leafs’ mid-season success. In case you haven’t seen it already, here’s the video of the KO McLaren delivered on Dziurzynski. It seems like McLaren only grazes him but given the speed at which these guys are throwing down, what’s a chin to a flying fist (or sheet of ice).
Kessel also came out with his second 3-point night of the season and generally looked to have given a 200 ft. effort, along with 5 SOG. Nazem Kadri meanwhile continues to roll and shows no signs of stopping. The imminent return of fellow Marlies graduate, Matt Frattin, should have fans pretty excited since prior to Frattin’s injury, Kadri had assisted on 4 of Frattin’s 7 goals. Hopefully, the two youngsters can pick up close to where they left off as Toronto will be facing some tougher competition in the remaining 12 games in March, including two dates with the Penguins and three against the Bruins.
In other news, the most recent installment of TSN’s TradeCentre listed Bozak and MacArthur as viable trade candidates. With Stephen Weiss out for the remainder of the season, you’d have to imagine that Bozak moves up on the list of available centremen. MacArthur’s upcoming UFA status and recent performance also makes him a prime trade target with Lupul returning and if Frattin continues to show he’s the real deal. No matter where he ends up, he’ll likely get a raise on his current $3.25mm salary but in the meantime, I’m not averse to expanding his value by having him ride Kadri’s coattails.
Another point on Kadri. I recently did an NHL impact analysis of top-10 CHL defensemen in scoring and found that Morgan Rielly had big shoes to fill. I then decided to perform a similar analysis for forwards and remembered that Kadri had actually finished 5th in OHL scoring during the 2009-2010 season with 93 points. While Kadri is performing at a tidy 1.00 point-per-game pace, and could be considered for an All-Star berth had there been an All-Star game, he was left out of the study sample because draftees typically need a couple of years before they can make an impact at the NHL level. Therefore, I only looked at forwards from 1999 to 2008. Below is one of the charts from the follow-on analysis. Some of Kadri’s predecessors include the likes of Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Corey Perry, and Steven Stamkos. Check out the piece to see how the WHL and QMJHL fared during the same time period.
Click to enlarge.
Thursday Morning Links:
Michael Stephens’ Game In 10
1967ers: On Fighting - They don’t make them like they used to. Great piece by 1967ers (PPP) on a time when fighters weren’t one-dimensional.
Blue Chip Prospects: Reimer Up to Some Autobotian Heroics - Would you stick with Reimer-Scrivens or give Reimer some veteran support for next season?
Hope_Smoke: MacArthur Odd Man Out - Buy Low, Sell High, says Hope Smoke.
Vintage Leaf Memories: Respect Alfredsson - I grew up on the Leafs-Sens playoff series and learned to hate Alfie. However, Michael Langlois, over at VLM, makes the point: “there’s something to be said for honouring a worthy opponent, too” ala Vince Vaughan in Anchorman.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
For reasons beyond my comprehension, the two-year contract extension handed out to 25-year-old Korbinian Holzer yesterday generated reactions beyond “oh, alright” on Twitter.
Unless you’re predisposed to criticizing minor decisions with little downside, what is there to hate?
Worst case: The Leafs have signed a relatively young, homegrown depth defenceman for a deal below the 900k salary required for a one-way contract to count against the salary cap if the player is in the minors. Yes, he takes up a SPC slot, but you need cheap depth options in your organization.
The best case is that Holzer, he of 18 games, develops into a dependable last pairing defenceman for the team and gets paid a cap-friendly 725k/850k to do it for the next two seasons.
Yes, he’s made mistakes and is out of his depth in his current role. He’s also shown enough to indicate he can play at the NHL level if he continues to round out the edges.
In the short term, I’m interested to see how Carlyle and Nonis start sorting out the situation on defense over the next month. There seems to be an excess of bodies and a need for a top 4 defenceman. We need to find out if Gardiner is ready to take on that role for this season sooner or later (Liles also deserves another look), and if not I’d suggest Nonis pursues some trade options with intent. He’s not going to land our 1c before the season’s out, but an experienced top 4 rearguard who can hold his own could go a long way for this team in the playoff hunt. Of course, at least one body has to go out before a new one comes in.
It all seems pretty complicated, but I’m sure it will become much clearer with time. The path Nonis takes will be dictated by results. Whether it’s part-thanks to or in spite of his play, Holzer so far has those going for him.
A few Wednesday morning links…
Jeffler’s take on the signing.
Right Place, Right Time
What to do with pending UFA Tyler Bozak. If cap money were no object I’d say sign and keep him as your third line center for next season.
Maple Leafs-Sens preview
Both teams are tied at 28 points and will play their 24th game (half way) tonight.
Leafs face dilemma when Lupul returns from injury
I’d start him with Kessel, bump JvR to either Grabo’s wing or Kadri’s, with MacArthur taking the other spot, and one of Orr or McLaren playing on line 4 rather than both.
Remember Kadri’s goal if he struggles later in the season
From Michael at VLM.
Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
No games for three days makes for very little in Maple Leafs land development. There’s Komisarek’s laughable trade request, there’s Frattin’s potential return to the lineup this week, and there’s still the question of why isn’t Gardiner on the Maple Leafs, but for the most part all of it is nothing more than a waiting game. Instead, I’m going to look at the most basic of stats (goals and assists) and how the first line forwards are doing in those categories.
Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images
I hope everyone will be taking the opportunity to do something with their families, spouses or significant others on this unfortunately vacant Saturday night.
Just a few thoughts on the Leafs’ recent performance before we get into some links.
After 22 games, the one thing Leafs fans can agree on is that Randy Carlyle’s coaching methodology can be frustrating as hell. Nowhere is this more apparent than the deployment of Mikhail Grabovski.
After signing a five-year, 27.5-million dollar contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs last March, it seemed as though the Leafs had shored up a terrific top-six centreman who could be counted on for 50 points a season. But after 22 games Grabo sits with a modest 10 points (six goals, four assists); good for about 37 points in an 82-game schedule. Yet under Carlyle he’s developed into the team’s top shutdown pivot. So what’s to make of it?
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Tonight, the Leafs look to move to 3-0 against the Canadiens and in the process take down the current Eastern Conference and Northeast Division leader.The Leafs have handed the Habs two of their only four regulation losses this season.
You have to like how the Leafs have matched up with the Habs so far this season, allowing just one goal in their two meetings, and the thoroughness of the Hockey Day in Canada beatdown has to give the Leafs a mental edge. The Leafs have gotten good goaltending against Montreal and have dominated the key areas of the ice with strong physical and defensive play. On the other hand, the Habs have gone 6-1-1 since the big defeat and are definitely going to be out to prove something after getting embarrassed in just about every way possible by the Leafs in their own barn.
The always tedious Hockey Night in Canada Hot Stove brought us a worthwhile nugget to examine this weekend, and that’s our first look at the proposed four new conferences that the NHL will be rolling out next season. Earlier in the week, both Darren Dreger and the more reliable Bob MacKenzie hinted that we are only a week or two away from this realignment being finalized, so we can assume this is pretty close to being set in stone:
If I reported back from the future after the Leafs’ first 17 games and told you before the season started:
Joffrey Lupul has been out injured since game three, Jake Gardiner has only played two games and is in the minors, Phil Kessel went on a 10-game goalless drought to start the season, Dion Phaneuf recorded only one assist and no goals in his first 11 games, James Reimer has been out injured for several games and we haven’t acquired Roberto Luongo or any form of goaltending help, our only player acquisition since the lockout ended is Frazer McLaren, Colton Orr has been playing on the third line the past few games, and John-Michael Liles has been a healthy scratch while Korbinian Holzer, Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser are playing significant minutes on the backend…
One of the more interesting, borderline meaningless stats associated with the Maple Leafs at the moment is their league-leading hit count despite the subtraction of Luke Schenn’s ~270 “hits” (not that Schenn wasn’t physical, but pity the ACC stat recorder who decided his patented three-step push counted as one). Through 16 games in 2013, the Leafs lead the league, ahead of the Flyers and Rangers, with 454 hits.
The month’s half over, and after Monday’s game, the season is a third over. The Leafs are sitting three games over .500, holding 6th place in the East, and are currently on pace for 58 points (rounded up from 57.6) in a season where many prognosticators have considered 54 the magic number for making the post season.
So far, the Leafs are sitting pretty despite now being without Reimer, Gunnarsson, Frattin and Lupul. The Leafs have benefited from a friendly schedule. The average 2011-12 point total of their opposition has be 91, which averages out to facing a bubble team every night. This also doesn’t account for the dramatic drop off in teams like Washington, Philadelphia, and now Ottawa. Compare that to the average of 95 points in March and the average of 94 in April and it makes sense that the Leafs are coming out of the gates strong.
On Wednesday, Wade Arnott, Phil Kessel’s agent, indicated his client’s apparent desire to spend the rest of career playing hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This, despite being disappointed in the club’s performance last season (I don’t even want to know what adjective he’d use to describe the two previous seasons in Toronto), and with little guarantee yet that this team is primed for long-term playoff success.
We’ll probably never know why the camera-shy Kessel wants to remain in a media-laden Toronto; Arnott seems to suggest it is an admirable inner desire to win in hockey’s mecca. Perhaps the better question is, what could it cost to keep him?
Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press
Leafs Nation is feeling a little down on its luck with the injuries to resurgent starter James Reimer and one of our point-a-game youngsters off the third line, Matt Frattin (while Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson remain shelved). Given the busy schedule, two major contributors to the Leafs’ 8-5-0 start will be out for what could amount to half a dozen games, as the Leafs play six games in the coming ten days starting tonight in Carolina.
Chris Chiasson/Canadian Press
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.
The Maple Leafs are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference (7th in the league), against everyone’s better judgement — the smart money being that the Leafs will be a non-playoff team and probably a lottery pick team. And by everyone, I mean everyone except for Ian Dudgeon (@Dudgee) and I. Most people that write about the game had them finishing out of the playoffs again and if I’m being honest, I saw everyone else’s prediction via email first and thought I should be throw them a bone. While the key will be avoiding the characteristic season-crippling slump, this start means considerably more in a 48-game schedule and I wouldn’t have expected 8-5 through the first 13 games, especially not with Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson going down early.
“When the schedule first came out, you know, you look forward to it. But I think both teams have moved on now and they’re having some success, too.” – Luke Schenn
The definition of success is a funny one. It seems like it should be the Flyers who are proudly sitting in fifth place in the East, poised to make a leap into a tie with Pittsburgh or surpass a division leader with a victory on Monday night. It seems like it should be the Leafs who are taking pride in getting over the hiccups of a slow start, pleased to be part of an early tie for the last playoff spot in the Conference. Surprisingly, the tables have turned, and with very little changing for either team besides the Schenn/van Riemsdyk trade, it seems like Schenn has a lot to prove against his former club on Monday. Moreover, he’s got to show his current club that he can eventually become the type of shutdown defenseman that can warrant giving up a player who now seems to be discovering his true offensive upside.
On Hockey Day in Canada in February of 2012, the Leafs organization added special lustre to their matchup against the Montreal Canadiens with the decision to honour Mats Sundin with a pregame banner raising ceremony at the ACC. The Leafs were 28-21-6 at the time, in the playoff hunt, and had even more reason than usual to put on a good showing. They proceeded to get stomped by a score of 5-0, slipping silently into the night and initiating a disastrous slump that would eventually extend the team’s playoff drought and end their head coach’s tenure behind the bench.
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