(Toronto â€“ Gus Katsaros) I tried to put together something that leads to the state of the Leafs, but it gets pretty intense and too much for a single blog so Iâ€™ve broken it down in two. Before we move forward we should acknowledge what is happening with the current club and I do that with just some observations.
Iâ€™ve broken down what I feel are some of the more important points of the Leafs forwards and defensemen while not being entirely thorough, leaving something for future blogs. Iâ€™ll follow this up on Friday tying in the coaching, the Burke regime and vision of the team in the future.
- Forwards lack size .. too small and not strong enough to compete along the walls and dirty areas .. feel their just too soft to compete physically despite the illusion of â€˜truculenceâ€™ with the likes of Colton Orr and Mike Brown .. thereâ€™s not enough body in the offensive zone and not enough of a net presence â€“ fighting in the dirty areas in front of the goal, both at even strength and the PP
- Offensive zone cycle is non-existent, a slight derivative of the lack of size up front .. even when they do begin the cycle, it breaks down once that first forward is taken out of position or hit along the boards .. every team has to have the ability to cycle and to keep momentum, especially down low (e.g. Sundin/Antropov/Ponikarovsky were cycling beasts)
- Leafs were winning a lot of the board battles, races to loose pucks and provided excellent support positions when hopped up on adrenaline to begin the season but stopped the small sacrifices that earned them wins .. soon they turned their back to the puck, not finishing checks not providing enough forechecking pressure to hurry opposition defense, it was too easy to move the puck up the ice the other way .. along these lines, Iâ€™ve gained a new appreciation for the forechecking efforts and smarts of Kris Versteeg .. hits a higher gear in pursuit especially when in close range, hurrying puck carriers and forcing races .. Colby Armstrong isnâ€™t as refined here, and it shows in his return from injury
- Leafs offense is based off the rush, getting shots to the net and following up with net presence for rebounds. This features a stop-dead play unless there is a rebound or the shot is fired wide .. too many times the play is blown dead with a goalie covering up or, alternatively, the puck ends up going the other way and forwards are now caught trying to catch back up with the play instead of in support positions.
- Nazem Kadri should spend more time in the AHL at some point. He hasnâ€™t been overwhelmingly impressive, but I think he deserves more credit than he generally gets for what he was when he was recalled to his NHL audition. Early struggles with the Marlies and adapting to the speed of the game were clear issues, but heâ€™s overcome some of the mindset that permeated through him into mistakes. Mainly, heâ€™s improved in both one-touch skills and reading/reacting to the play quicker. He seems better suited for the structured NHL game to the less system-oriented AHL. Warts aside, there is something bubbling within and itâ€™s slowly festering into something better and I like where itâ€™s heading.
- Leafs forwards â€“ aside from Phil Kessel â€“ could very well be the NHLâ€™s most miscast group up front. Tyler Bozak was penciled in as the number one center with number two potential and high expectations to lead the main sniper. Mikhail Grabovski and Bozak should ideally be fighting for that second line center and thereâ€™s a size issue down the middle that needs to be addressed. Armstrong, another support player is being thrust into a top-six role due to necessity .. Versteeg is a hybrid second line center that can play a grinding role and kill penalties. Nik Kulemin is progressing the fastest and best among the forwards. Kulemin is a very good individual creator, making plays out of nothing and really working hard to create turnovers. Clarke MacArthur, despite his early scoring outburst is inconsistent and remains on the perimeter to create plays when the courage isnâ€™t peaking. The rest of the forwards are just filler. Brent, Mitchell, Brown, Orr etc, they all have roles but arenâ€™t there to do anything than play five minutes of games
- The defense is stretched between creating offense and being defensively responsible. The glaring deficiencies up front hurt the blueline who are forced to do more to help scoring, like excessive pinching and risks at the opposition blueline. The results are odd-man situations the other way and forwards caught deep not being able to make up the space â€“ or, giving up on the play altogether.
- Iâ€™ve considered the Leafs defense corps to be one of the better outlet passing bluelines in the NHL. Every member has a good transition pass from shallow in the zone and a long stretch pass, none better than Tomas Kaberle. However, as a unit, the Leafs do not move the puck out of the zone efficiently enough and thereâ€™s too much unnecessary East-West defensive zone passing instead of getting the puck moving North-South .. Komisarek and Beauchemin are constantly missing their intended targets and the only one seemingly progressing is Luke Schenn
- Schenn has easily been the best blueliner in most games. Heâ€™s using his smarts to take better positions in defensive zone, despite the occasional coverage breakdown .. heâ€™s also taken to using his stick to cover space and force players to either side .. his puck handling skills have also improved although still a work in progress .. pivots are improved, but not quicker, compensating with diligent body work and forcing players to fight through checks, no more clear space around him .. and heâ€™s still not hit his peak.
- Have to engage forwards standing in front of the goal more aggressively .. allow too much room in front and could be a lot more diligent in their coverage down low .. current lightning rod Mike Komisarek has been shaky all season, but the silver lining is the progression of Keith Aulie, who I believe is destined to be Komisarekâ€™s replacement. Wonâ€™t be surprised to see him spend the rest of the season with the Marlies, and perhaps even next season, but heâ€™ll eventually be that hard hitting, physical presence that moves bodies from in front.