After a good comeback/confidence-building game against the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Toronto Maple Leafs have perhaps created more questions than answers. The Penalty Kill keeps improving (now 6th in the East) and, even as a “work in progress” defensively, they can at least score in bunches to get themselves out of trouble. They are starting to show the signs that the elite teams in the league show on a regular basis. While they are probably a couple of roster moves away from being mentioned in the same breath as a Pittsburgh Penguins, the rebuild is starting to see the light of day, it appears.
It was one of the first times this season that Nazem Kadri was paired against another top offensive line, but he did it the whole game. We’re not talking about any ol’ line, but the best goal scorer in the league and his better-than-ppg-avg wingman. He beat Steven Stamkos on draws, engaged in the game physically and on the score board. It was yet another coming out party for Kadri and what a nice live viewing for the 30 GMs that were in town to discuss various NHL issues. Most were at the Air Canada Centre taking in the game against Tampa.
Up until this game, Randy Carlyle has been riding the Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and—at least most of the time—Jay McClement line hard against the other team’s top lines. Too much so? That’s hard to say. Kulemin has had many opportunities that he simply is not bearing down on; he was on pace for 10 goals this season before his 2-goal effort against Tampa Bay on a line with Kadri.
“The one thing that we are going to do is we’re going to test Kadri against the best players,” Carlyle said after his team snapped a five-game winless skid with a 4-2 victory over the Lightning. “He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him.”
“I think this is just another step in the maturing of a young hockey player,” Carlyle said of his decision to increase Kadri’s responsibility. “And I’m sure there’s going to be some speed bumps along the way and he’s going to turn the puck over when we don’t want him to … [but] the good things outweigh the poor judgments that he’s making by 10 to 2.”
Could #FreeGardiner and #FreeGrabo happen in the same week? It looks like Kadri wants to run with the top match-ups and wants the ice-time that is associated with it. Time will tell if he is up to the task, but this appears to be equal parts a praising and a scolding. Praise for Kadri and his excellent play to date, and a scolding for Grabovski who appeared, to me at least, that he didn’t like all his defensive zone face-offs and having to skate 200ft for his goals. It could very well be a case of lost in translation, but changing brands of sticks isn’t going to help Grabovski at this stage. He’s looking lost and it’s affecting his confidence badly.
Also troubling—to my eye—is how ineffective the Phil Kessel line is. Clearly, Phil Kessel’s game is all about speed, attacking off the rush, his release and his quick hands around the net. This may be oddly timed because Kessel is on a 5 game point streak, a testament to his ability to produce regardless of his circumstances. Kessel tallied a single assist last night giving him four goals and four assists in that span. He sits second on the team in scoring with 28 points but shifts go by where I hardly notice Bozak, him or JVR. They are clicking to a certain degree, but they are not dominating the way that Kessel and Lupul were last year with the absence of a legit number one centerman.
James van Riemsdyk, while a great addition to this team and yet another lop-sided trade from Brian Burke, is reaping the benefits from playing with Kessel, it’s just that Kessel is not reaping the benefits of playing with JVR as much as he could from a center and a winger who could play the game as his pace. MacArthur, Frattin and now Lupul have all “found chemistry” with Kadri. I think it’s more of a case of Kadri is just making everyone around him that much better. Lupul can convert those chances better than the others can. JVR would, more than likely, benefit from a good centerman more than Lupul, who has shown in the past that he can play just fine without one—no offence, Bozak.
Tyler Bozak, it seems more than ever before in his career, is playing way above his head on the 1st line. It’s dragging his, Kessel’s and JVR’s play down. He’s constantly a step behind and is not able to make the plays that the other two are able to. If you were to change JVR and Lupul, that would be magnified.
Grabovski, if we can believe what Carlyle says about Kadri, will be freed up to experiment up and down the lineup. The only logical reason that Kessel and Grabovski have never played extended periods of time together is because, it can be assumed, they both love to have the puck on their stick and both love to carry the puck through the neutral zone—they play a similar game, not a complementary game.
The caveat to that, I would contest, is that elite players will figure out how to get the puck to each other. Grabovski can skate, stick handle, navigate through traffic and shoot at absolutely top speed–the same as Kessel can. They’re good enough to play on the PP together, but that is a different discipline where it’s rarely ever off the rush and is instead done with puck movement inside the offensive blueline. Both players’ strength is scoring off the rush and, if you are going to keep Kessel on this team long term and get the most out of him in his prime years (his peak year is historically this year—his 25th year), you need a center that is as fast as him and not lagging behind the play like Bozak constantly is. I don’t think a “Big 1C” would work with Kessel’s game very well. If Kessel, Grabovski and Lupul could play their game at top-speed like they can—and execute—it would be a devastating line that would be able to handle some defensive assignments that Kessel/Bozak/JVR just aren’t able to do right now.
Carlyle is not afraid to put the blender away and try players together for more than 1 shift together. As much as arm coaches scream for change, it’s refreshing to have a coach that will play a line together for a full game, and even for bunches of games before he puts the blender to it. The one thing that has never happened with Kessel and Grabovski is them being played together, on the same line, for a week of games (or more).
Tyler Bozak is a solid hockey player trying to keep up with an elite goal scorer and an elite skater in Kessel and he just can’t keep up with the speed at which the plays are made. Bozak playing with MacArthur and Frattin on the third line would be a much better fit—soft starts, good chances at dominating the faceoff dot—and starting each play with all-important possession—and playing with players of his calibre and his foot speed. It will improve his output tremendously if he can slow the game down to his speed and play with two good, solid wingers in MacArthur and Frattin.
Under Ron Wilson, this experiment would likely have never happened; he had all the opportunity in the world to try it. Under Randy Carlyle, if he does experiment with them on the same line, you would hope that, in keeping with tradition, he’ll give them the appropriate allotment of games together to either sink or swim with this idea for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
As far as statistical data, Left Wing Lock is said to be wildly inaccurate, but it’s all we have.
That Kadri kid is pretty good isn’t he? Back when Brian Burke stepped up to the podium at the 2009 NHL Draft in Montreal, I imagine this was the player he was envisioning that night: slick, slippery and drenched in skill. That was an absolute clinic Kadri put on out there against the Lightning, displaying all sorts of offensive creativity, patience and ingenuity with the puck. This is a player who is gaining confidence and progressing by leaps and bounds – a player on the verge of making a lasting imprint in this star-starved market. But before we get too far of ourselves thinking ahead, why don’t we take a step back and briefly peruse the timeline that has led him to the “now” (and enjoy a few memorable quotes along the way).
The Tampa Bay Lighting (13-15-1) are in town to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs (15-12-2).
The other day, Randy Carlyle called the Leafs’ inability to initiate clean breakouts and avoid getting hemmed in their own zone “the big mystery with this group.” He’s taken steps toward resolving it with the addition of both John Michael-Liles and Jake Gardiner to the lineup, who will apparently play together on a pairing tonight as the defence takes a shape much closer to what many armchair coaches were penciling together before the season. It will be interesting to see how the pair affect the breakout and overall puck movement off the backend. Gardiner will also look to inject some life into a powerplay that’s 0 for its last 19.
Speaking of interesting quotes from the other day, Dave Nonis was asked if the Leafs were in the midst of a downfall akin to last season, with his team currently on a 0-3-2 skid. Nonis said, “The one difference I would draw – I just went over the last 5 games – I think there was only one game where we weren’t happy with the performance and the effort. Last year, when things were going poorly, were were unhappy with the effort a lot more than that.” So let’s hope that translates into an upturn in results before the Leafs play their way out of the playoff picture.
The Leafs were hurt by an off outing from Ben Scrivens in their last meeting with the Lightning. Facing their first non-playoff opponent in five games, this is also a good time to get their first win in five games. James Reimer gets the start.
Liles and Gardiner form the second pairing, with Kostka remaining in the press box for the third straight game. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson will be tasked with the Stamkos and St. Louis head-to-head. Vinny Lecavalier is out with a broken foot.
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Toronto Maple Leafs Line-up vs Tampa Bay Lighting, March 20th, 2013
As trade rumour season heats up and the Toronto Maple Leafs slip in the standings from 5th to 8th in the past week, Leafs Nation will almost certainly be whipped up into a frenzy over every name mentioned. While we aren’t a rumour website, we are within 19 days of the deadline and there has been some legitimate talk from *actual* members of the media and evidence of three teams in different conferences scouting each other heavily that don’t normally do so.
A lot can change depending on the Leafs position in the standings in the eight games before the deadline, but the Leafs figure to be, theoretically, both buyers and sellers. Granted, in a lockout-shortened season it’s hard to ascertain what the nature of the landscape will be – or if there will be much movement at all – at a deadline where so many teams will still believe in the legitimacy of their playoff hopes. A buyers-heavy market could lend itself to moving out a few free agents-to-be and not so much to adding pieces at a reasonable price.
Toronto saw a hard fought one-goal lead disappear in the third period against Pittsburgh, as the Penguins Sidney Crosby staged a second consecutive third period comeback to steal the game in regulation. It’s a tough loss to swallow after a thorough effort across the lineup kept the Penguins scoreless until the final eight minutes of the game.
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.
The Leafs welcomed the Penguins in what was their second meeting of the season. A win in the first game in Pittsburgh certainly felt good, but this was a Penguins team that has 7 wins in their last 10 games and has just now started to push for the top of the Conference standings. It was a different game entirely.
In this shortened season it’s never too early to talk about playoff implications. The Leafs currently sit 5th in the Eastern Conference while the Pens come into this game as the 2nd team in the East. In recent years, getting into the playoffs was virtually a lock for Pittsburgh. As we all know, the Leafs have struggled mightily. Given how things have played out so far, this season provides hope. This season can be different.
Tickets: Are you watching or going to tonight’s Leafs game? RSVP here and be entered to win $200 in free tickets.
We’re at the half way point and the Leafs are in great shape at 15-9-0, sitting in fifth in the East with 30 points. .500 hockey from here on in, while not the best way to enter the playoffs, gets the Leafs back to the post-season.
The Leafs recent form, on paper, has also been dandy, with three wins on the trot. On one hand you’re happy with those final results, with the team finding different ways to win whether coming from behind or holding on for dear life, on the other you’re concerned with the significant portions of game in which the Leafs have been outplayed, outpossessed and outchanced.
Anybody still want to debate the wisdom of starting Gustavsson against the Penguins?
For my money, this was the right play.Â Â Anyway you slice it, after a 2-0 start against two undermanned/terrible teams,Â tonight’s game against the Penguins was set to be a measuring stick of sorts (despite the fact that they were somewhat undermanned themselves).Â If Wilson runs his number one guy out there and he gets torched, the Leafs’ momentum comes to a crashing halt: we are measured, and found wanting.Â Instead, the coach pitches the Monster at a talented (and desperate for a home win) Pittsburgh team, and sends a message to the rest of the squad: bring your lunchpail and hardhat, it will be necessary to win the little battles along the boards and elsewhere on the ice to have a chance at two points in this game.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are set to visit the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at the Consol Energy Arena. The Penguins have yet to win at home this season and get another opportunity to erase that stat tonight against a Leafs team that is hoping to remain undefeated. Jonas Gustavsson will get his first start between the pipes according to Sportsnet.
This finally puts an end to the long period of speculation over the future of Jeff Finger. When he clears tomorrow, it will be interesting to see where he ends up playing. Renegotiating with another NHL team or even playing in Europe would perhaps be more entertaining to Finger but wouldn’t be the wise financial move as he’d have to opt out of his current contract by not reporting to the Marlies. While Wilson has been adamant that a return to the NHL this season isn’t an impossibility, it seems Finger will be left to lead a Marlies team that has started with a 0-2 record.
Mike Brown does his best Bobby Orr impersonation before later settling for a Colton Orr impersonation. Never underestimate the value of versatility.
Two games in, and the Maple Leafs are 2-0 for the first time in 11 years. While some might be tempted to find meaning within that number, the truth is that in terms of history the number is rather meaningless.
With still 80 games left on the docket, and the Leafs about to embark on their first road trip of the season, expectations must be tempered despite the hot start (and the rare sight of a 4th overall placement on the ESPN Power Rankings).
In other words, a 7-0-1 start (to counter last season’s 0-7-1) is probably just a little too much to ask. As if I had to tell you that. Then again, this IS Leafs Nation; somewhere, someone surely needed the reminder.
Follow the jump for a few first-week impressions and musings.
Week one of the Toronto Maple Leafs schedule is in the books, and while it only featured two games, there is plenty to talk about as far as the season goes. Â The Maple Leafs are off to a 2-0 start, having won their second game of the season nearly one month ahead of the time they got win two last season.
Through week one of the season, here are the Maple Leafs player power rankings, as seen by me.
Not much to dislike about tonight’s performance as the Leafs get off to their best start to a season since the 1999-2000 campaign with a 5-1 win over the 0-2 Senators. The Leafs next travel to Pittsburgh on Wednesday after a three-day break in what figures to be their toughest test of the young season.
A few quick thoughts:
Systematically, the forecheck was relentless and the defence looked as organized as it was disorganized this time last year. A full 60 minute effort, when it was tempting to let off in the third. Phil Kessel is looking stronger, better conditioned and even more lethal than where he left off last season. The four forward lines are clicking on all cylinders and serving their functions. The penalty kill is a night and day difference so far. The powerplay production/finishing is still lacking but it is showing serious signs of promise in terms of pressure, movement and the number of chances generated. Clarke MacArthur is not only living up to his top six billing so far in terms of goal output but is making a difference on a shift to shift basis, setting up the opener on a great pass to Kulemin out front. He, along with Kessel and Tim Brent are on pace for 82 this season (TSN’s player profiles don’t lie). Giguere should’ve had a shut out if it wasn’t for a fumble on the icing touch-up. Kaberle was brilliant and even shot the puck lots. Orr fought Carkner. Versteeg fought Fisher to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick. ‘Twas a good night.
Highlights and stats pack courtesy of NHL.com after the jump. The event summary is here.
The winless Ottawa Senators visit the undefeated Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at the ACC. With a victory this evening, the Leafs would have their best start to a season since ’99-00 when they won three straight out of the gate. It’s just two games, but the symbolism of a return to the pre-lockout days – let alone a chance to put the Sens at 0-2 and gain early points on another division rival – would be nothing but sweet.
After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the new look squad hit the ice Thursday night for their home opener against the arch rival Montreal Canadiens, and with it marked the true dawning of a new age in Leafs Nation.
While it’s true the hiring of Ron Wilson and Brian Burke will go down as the day the team began to turn the page on years of management misfortune, and the Dion Phaneuf day could very well end up being the trade that sparks the team forward much like the Doug Gilmour trade before it, Thursday night’s season premiere was really the first time since all this has taken place that it was truly a different roster.
Gone were the incumbents of past regimes, It was finally Brian Burke’s team. Â Having flipped the entire roster (sans Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger) Burke’s vision of the team could finally be implemented, his stamp beginning to form.