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NHL

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A Toronto Maple Leaf hasn’t won a major NHL award in an embarrassing amount of years. This year, however, it looks as if there could be a case made for 3 award nominations —major or otherwise, for the Leafs.

The last “major” award was Doug Gilmour winning the Selke Trophy in the 1992-1993 season, 20 years ago.

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Post game Stats: Kessel now has his 14th of the season and with a hot streak incoming, should be able to hit 30 goals with 8 games left on the schedule. The Leafs’ penalty kill continues its excellence with a man down as they killed off three of the Rangers’ 20th ranked power-plays. And what a game it was after a first period that put my ADHD afflicted dog to sleep.

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The Leafs are all but set to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, yet there is an inordinate amount of vitriol being directed at Toronto’s head coach Randy Carlyle, for some reason.

Considering pretty well everyone predicted the Leafs not to make the playoffs, it’s pretty funny to see the coach leading a surprising playoff appearance – and a team that’s currently fifth in the East and 7th in the League – get chastised

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With just ten games left on the schedule for the Leafs this season, here are ten thoughts I’ve been considering heading into those final games.

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In a matchup with big playoff implications, the Leafs could move ten up on the 10th-placed Carolina Hurricanes with a win in this four-point swing game. A loss in regulation puts the Hurricanes within six with three games in hand.

The Hurricanes are an opponent the Leafs have struggled with in both matchups this season. Their strength down the middle has played a key role as the Staal brothers have featured prominently on the scoresheet in a combined 7-2 win over the two games. Among teams the Leafs have played more than once, the Canes are the only opponent they have gained zero points off of.

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WOW. What a turn of events in the Iginla sweepstakes. Mid-way through writing this piece, I paused to check for updates on Twitter and in an instant, Iginla had gone from a Bruin to a Penguin. Going back the other way to Calgary are college prospects Kenneth Agostino (20, LW), Ben Hanowski (22, LW), and Pittsburgh’s 2013 1st-round draft pick. From the outset, Feaster isn’t getting much credit for the return he’s getting but, it appears that Pittsburgh was Iginla’s call. Per Elliote Friedman:

When faced with such a tectonic move, my first instinct is to take a breath and look at it from 30,000 feet – to try and take the broad level view. I asked myself, how does this change the competitive landscape of the East Conference? How does this move affect the Leafs? Who are the winners and losers of the trade? Will Iginila thrive under Dan Bylsma’s system? Where does Iginila fit in the line-up, and what of his role? At the surface level, the Pens’ active roster stays intact and get an infusion of leadership, class, skill, and toughness. Ray Shero is really going all-in here and the proposition of lining up Crosby and Iginla is a terrifying proposition, just ask Ryan Miller. In the coming days, I’m sure these questions will be addressed by the mainstream media and by members of the blogosphere.

This is a different kind of piece.

Before you read on, I submit this for your consideration:

For those of you who are unable to watch the video, it contains a segment from the Colbert Report, and it features a 13-minute montage of blatant Bostonian hypocrisy.

As I’m sure many Leaf fans were when they heard that Iginla was headed to Boston, I experienced some strong mixed-emotions. On the one hand, here you have a player who epitomizes class and leadership. On the other hand, he was headed to a hypocritical and dirty organization like Boston. If what Friedman said is true, then good on Jarome. Now, I am not privy to his decision-making process but I sure hope he considered the collective character of the organizations he was looking to join, along with, ultimately, the prospects of winning a Stanley Cup.

Iginla’s press conference is set for 10:30am (MT) and certainly lends itself to a tearful farewell. He has been the face of the franchise for the past 15 seasons and became the city’s beloved son. The loyalty he showed the Flames is quite remarkable, even despite the lack of talent and recent managerial gaffes. Adam Proteau, from The Hockey News, puts it best:

In the end, Jarome Iginla deserved better than Boston, and I believe he made the right decision. As a hockey fan, I wish Jarome nothing but success and the best of luck in Pittsburgh.

Just a quick note on the Leafs.

Much has been made of the team’s relative success during the past 5 games (3-0-2) and many cited the home-and-home series with Boston as a test of sorts. Needless to say, the Leafs get more than a passing grade for their effort and surely surprised a lot of people. However, looking forward, I would argue that the next 6 games might be even more important than the past 5.

Including tonight’s bout against the Hurricanes (32pts -10th), the Leafs will face-off against the Senators (42 pts – 5th), Flyers (28 pts – 14th), and Devils (37 pts – 7th) once, and the Rangers (35 pts – 8th) twice. Essentially, 5 of the next 6 games will be against teams that are either in the race, or are within striking distance of the Leafs. Herein lies a crucial opportunity for the Leafs to expand their lead over lesser teams. If they can come out of the next 6 games with at least 8 points, for a total of 48 points, it sets them up nicely for the final 8 games of the season.

Thursday Morning Links

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Toronto Maple Leafs vs Boston Bruins

Toronto Maple Leafs (17-12-3) at Boston Bruins (17-9-6)
Last 10: Toronto 4-3-1; Boston 5-2-3

The Leafs did it. They beat the Boston Bruins. As a reward, they get to play them again two nights later.

It took a good mix of a lot of things going right to pull it off their first win over the Bruins in nearly two calendar years. To the Leafs’ credit, they finished their hits, got involved in the game early, caused some turnovers and grabbed an early lead. They were patient and the amount of respect they had for their opponent, and their hunger to finally beat them, was apparent in the extra effort the likes of Kadri and Kessel among others were putting in defensively.

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The Leafs faced the Bruins for the third time this season. The Bs have taken the first two games along with their 8 last games against the Leafs which made this a statement game for the Buds. A celebration of Sundin’s induction into the HHOF gave it some more flair and we all hoped it wasn’t going to be a repeat of the effort shown on last February’s Sundin night. Fortunately, they got a do-over.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs

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.

Grabovski was paired with MacArthur and Frattin against Tampa and was still looking a little lost. As Grabo goes, those two go. And something that was enlightening in Randy Carlyle’s post-game  interview:

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.

  1. 2010/2011 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
  2. 2011/2012 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
  3. 2012/2013 Even-Strength Forward Combinations

There’s enough data there to say that Grabovski and Kessel have hardly played together at even-strength.

Toronto’s 1st line centerman might have been under their nose all along.

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Kadri, Lupul

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).

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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.

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Corey Perry

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.

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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.

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Since we are almost at the halfway point, I thought now would be a good time to write some notes on each individual player thus far. Here is the close-but-not-quite-halfway Leafs Notebook:

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The plan? First make peace with the fact that the NHL latest work stoppage will become a reality. Check. Watch as much non-NHL hockey as I could get my hands/eyes on. Check. During these couple of months I’ve watched the KHL, AHL, SM-liiga, Elitserien, Czech Extraliga, OHL, QMJHL, EBEL, NCAA, and the CHL vs. Russian selects Super Series.

All of this gave me more insight about our beautiful game as well as new appreciation of both the NHL and hockey in general. Here are some of the things that stuck with me as I video traveled across the international hockey stage.

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In case you haven’t noticed, there is a lockout going on. As the league continued to chop of more bits from the 2012-13 NHL season the fans are getting increasingly frustrated. During work stoppage, those frustrated people tend to talk about various things. One of those things is pending expansion. As Ken Campbell wrote in the latest edition of the Hockey News, the league has gone 12 years without expanding, making it the longest expansion drought since it grew to 12 teams.

Sure enough, there are plenty of reasons in favor of not expanding. The league needs to control its suffering markets before it can ever think about adding teams in new ones. It also needs to accept that appeasing the fan bases deprived of hockey to lessen the negative impact of the lockout isn’t really a solid motive for expansion.

This list is long and could go on for another few paragraphs so let’s end it here.

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Photo: NY Daily News

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome Ian Dudgeon to the MLHS blogging team. Ian was one of the co-founders of McKeen’s Hockey.com. He’s been busy at work assembling a database of profiles on Leafs prospects for MLHS, which you’ll be able to enjoy before long. He’s also going to be chiming in with a blog here and there.

Everyone please calm down and resume taking your medication. I have some extra Valium if you need some. There is no imminent NHL lockout. You will not be forced to watch basketball in October or November, or whenever they start playing that alleged sport. I think we will have hockey when we are supposed to and the threat of a lockout or strike is being artificially inflated by sports media who love, live for and need controversy.

The NHL tabled a proposal to the NHLPA this weekend and the collective reaction was as if everyone’s favourite commish, Gary “The Count” Bettman took the Stanley cup and used it to prop up his car while he rotated the tires. From fans and media alike, it was one of the craziest overreactions I have heard since.. well since the Leafs last made a move. But really, I should stop being surprised at how sports media react to things and how fans take their cues from them. The little picture numbers seemed scary but stepping back and seeing the bigger landscape, the NHL’s proposal was really not that concerning.

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Some more charts coming your way.

I’ll let these charts paint the picture .. after all, if a picture is worth 1000 words, then consider this a 3000+ word blog post.

Whew … I’m exhausted! You know what it takes to put together 3000+ words? Find out after the jump.

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Photo Credit: www.medvescak.com

On 17th of December 2011 Zagreb’s most prestigious hockey club, Medveščak Zagreb, celebrated their 50th anniversary. To mark and celebrate this event the KHL sent one of their most decorated and historic teams – Dynamo Moscow. To put it in North American perspective, Dynamo is close to the Leafs or Canadiens in terms of their European rating.

16th of December 2011. I am invited to attend the press conference which is going to be held at one of the hotels closest to Medveščak’s home arena, Dom Sportova (Home Of Sports). It’s only logical since the Russian team will have to depart soon after the game to meet their demanding KHL schedule. I feel extremely honored and lucky to be able to attend because even if hockey is still a growing sport in Croatia, it was always my dream and where I live opportunities like this one don’t come along very often.