Leafs Notebook – October 24


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I wasn’t really sure how to start my first post here at MLHS as half of me wanted to completely introduce myself, and the other half wanted me to just get right into my first article. I guess I’ll settle somewhere in between.I’ve been doing my own blog for quite some time (called the Leafs Dressing Room) and Alec saw it and approached me about writing here. First and foremost, that’s really humbling. Secondly, I think this site constantly pumps out quality work and has great readership. I enjoy reading the articles here as much as I do the comments because of the informed followers, which is what drew me to writing here.

My first post is something that will become a weekly feature here. I call it ‘Leafs Notebook.’ It was a feature I started on my blog, where each week I go through all the games Toronto participates in and record my observations, counter people’s misconceptions (in my book), analyze what the Leafs are and aren’t doing well, point out interesting stats, and so on. It’s supposed to be a fun read that encourages thought and discussion and it’s something I really enjoy doing each week. I hope you guys like it too and I look forward to interacting with all of you in one way or another.

Enough of that though, it was a busy week in Leaf land. Considering they didn’t play very well for close to three of the four games, the fact that they went 2-1-1 is pretty good. I should note that I covered the Colorado game in last weeks notes, so these only focus on the Jets-Bruins-Habs games:

– The defense the Leafs dressed on Saturday (Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Liles-Komisarek, Gardiner-Schenn) is the best unit they can throw out there at this time. Cody Franson is clearly the seventh man and he needs to start working a lot harder. Komisarek has plenty of detractors, but you know what, at least he keeps his mouth shut. He said, when he was healthy scratched,  that him and Ron Wilson exchanged words and of course he was upset, but at the same time he had to be better. Compare that to Franson, who went to the media talking about how he thought he was a big piece moving forward, wondering why he wasn’t in the lineup and basically questioning why he was scratched. Komisarek’s a professional, who do you think Wilson’s going to side with? Can you blame him?

– Call it whatever you want, but how much do you think Ron Wilson likes Cody Franson right now? Probably not a lot, considering Franson spoke out and has gone on to play pretty uninspired hockey since. Chris Kelly’s goal, where Franson essentially stood there and encouraged the Bruins forward to score, was unbelievable to watch. He needs to start taking some pride defensively and using that 6’5 frame.

– I still maintain that only Dion Phaneuf is more talented than Cody Franson on the Leafs blueline, and after Wilson is done giving Franson the gears all season, he will eventually be a good defenseman in a year or two in this league.

– One thing I really enjoyed seeing during the Leafs stretch run last year, and it somewhat defined that team to me, was their ability to bounce back after a goal was scored on them. The next shift following a goal against, whoever was out there was often times dominant for the Leafs. Even if they didn’t score, they came back so strong that it really made a statement of their intent to bounce back. I have yet to see that this year; in fact, the Leafs have allowed quick back-to-back goals against Calgary and Ottawa so far.

– That said, Saturday’s Leafs-Habs game was the first time they really reminded of the team that ended last season. Let’s be honest, up to that point they’ve been riding on the coattails of a couple of players playing out of their minds. But on Saturday, they fought adversity, they were in a tough environment and they didn’t really care. What made the Leafs’ run last year was their resiliency and on Saturday the Leafs played with the quiet confidence, and the resolve, that they were going to win no matter what was thrown their way. Hopefully they start playing like that consistently.

– Overall, the Leafs have been pretty weak at critical parts of the game. I know Kulemin tied it up late against Colorado and they rallied against the Jets, but what happened right after those moments? The opposition came back and took the momentum. The Leafs score two powerplay goals 28 seconds apart at home, the place is going crazy, and Winnipeg soundly dominated the next couple of minutes. Most winning teams don’t let that happen, especially against a team of that caliber. The Leafs really have to focus in better at important times in games. The great hockey teams in the NHL might not play well all game, but they know the specific times where they need to go out there and dominate in order to win. The Leafs are still learning about that.

– In fairness, the Leafs really took it to the Habs after tying the game late.

– Playing 18:46 on Saturday, David Steckel had the second most ice time of any Leaf forward, four seconds behind Mikhail Grabovski. In the 2003-2004 season Ron Wilson got 47 points out of Alyn McCauley – a guy who never passed 26 points any time before or after that- and in 2008-2009 Wilson got 41 points in 63 from Dominic Moore. You can probably add Steckel to this list of role players having career years under Wilson once this season is over. He’s a huge part of this team.

– The Leafs played awful in Boston, but if you watch that game again, they dominated most the second period. If it wasn’t for Tim Thomas, they could have actually made that a game. One thing the Boston game spelled out for me was how badly the Leafs need some serious veterans on their team who have been through wars before and can settle the team down. Going into the 3rd period down 3-1 after a really bad first period isn’t ideal, but it’s not the worse thing in the world either. The Leafs could have clawed back into that one and at least made it a game, instead they folded.

– Brian Burke has said he wants his team to have the versatility to play any style of game. With Reimer going as he is, they can play tight games, and with their group of forwards they can skate with anyone in this league, but what they can’t do is play physical, nasty hockey. The Boston game showed that repeatedly, and it’s surprising given Burke’s mission statement since day one. They don’t have any forwards with talent, in key places in the lineup, that physically intimidate anyone. It’s no wonder the Leafs have been linked to players such as Brendan Morrow and Scott Hartnell.

– I don’t think people respect how good Carl Gunnarsson is becoming. We are seeing a really good defenseman developing right in front of us. He may not be particularly physical or offensive (the two easier attributes to notice out of a defenceman), but he’s a smart reader of the game. When the Habs were on their 5 on 3 powerplay in the first period and skating up ice to setup their formation, Gunnarsson recognized their nonchalance, stepped up and force an offside. Steckel won the faceoff and the Leafs ate around 35 seconds total just due to Gunnarsson (and Steckel’s faceoff prowess). It was just such a great small play and the kind of thing Gunnarsson does all the time.

– Speaking of good defensive plays, in the second period against the Habs, Erik Cole broke in on the right side, drove his shoulder down and charged the net. Clearly a step (or two, or three) behind him, Jake Gardiner, pivoted, planted his foot and  exploded back, keeping his feet moving and knocking the puck off from Cole, before shooting it around the boards and getting it out. It was one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen a Leaf player make in years. To not take a penalty, to take a quality scoring chance away from a veteran power forward who was in his comfort zone, and then to get the puck out… all within four seconds of real time. Wow.

– The big thing to me wasn’t that Jake Gardiner played 25:09 against the Jets (although that is a big deal) it was that he finally began to take control and play his game. His first two games he was tentative to pinch, get involved and skate up with the puck. He got rid of that shyness against Winnipeg in a real hurry. Gardiner is starting to assert himself and settle in comfortably, which will benefit him over the season. He started shooting a lot more against Montreal and although he didn’t actually record a shot on net, he was part of the Steckel goal and launched a couple of other shots just wide.

– Really goes without saying at this point, but Jake Gardiner is going to be a stud. He should never leave this lineup again.

– The bad first periods for Toronto (Montreal game somewhat aside) are almost getting comical at this point. There really isn’t much to say until they get burned by it, turn it around, or both. The most troubling thing to me is that – not only did the Jets completely dominate Toronto at home – their defense was pinching in and being aggressive right from the start. Usually road teams start off by dumping it in, weathering the storm and settling into the game, yet you have the Jets of all teams -who let’s be honest, aren’t very good- showing the Leafs basically zero respect. How many teams actually fear coming into Toronto?

– Puzzling for me to see two experienced penalty killers in Mike Brown and Matt Lombardi both below the top of the circle, allowing Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien to move the puck around effortlessly. When you’re killing a penalty, all you can really do is take away the oppositions best chance of scoring. It’s safe to say those two defensemen comprise the majority of what the Jets even have as options on the PP. You can’t possibly justify allowing a guy like Enstrom time to look up, wind up, and blast a slapshot from the middle of the ice. Not to mention, Brown and Lombardi were practically touching shoulders. That’s just bad penalty killing.

– I view penalty killing a lot like playing defense in basketball. It’s okay to get beat, just don’t get beat at what they do best. If the team has two all star defensemen who do everything on the powerplay, force them to play the puck low to the forwards and take your chances that Reimer can hang in there. Or when you eventually play Tampa Bay, don’t you dare get beat on that Stamkos one-timer from the top of the right circle. Make them beat you other ways, that’s all you can ask.

– I also get a good laugh when people say because special teams are terrible the Leafs should fire Wilson. Just talking about this year, Greg Cronin is the main coach for the penalty kill and Scott Gordon is working the powerplay. Yes, Wilson is the head coach, but when management brings these guys in (and don’t kid yourself, Burke brought these two in) he has to give them an opportunity to get their systems in place. I know from where we’re sitting it has seemed like 5 years of this crap, but in reality it’s been seven games for this tandem. I’d imagine he’ll give them at least 20 minimum before he steps in, should they still be shaky.

– Some might laugh, but I think Phil Kessel is one of the better Leaf penalty killers at forward. That’s because he really pressures the defensemen to make quick decisions, and everyone on the powerplay respects his speed enough that they are worried about short handed goals. He’s also a smart guy. As long as Kessel’s dedicated to it, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be a good penalty killer. Don’t exactly want him down blocking shots, though.

– But the penalty killing as a whole bothers me. There’s too much emphasis on winning faceoffs and blocking shots, and not enough focus on being a cohesive four-man unit that works together to negate space. You saw against Boston when the Leafs weren’t winning faceoffs, they looked confused, and disoriented and nobody wanted to block Chara’s shots. There was no structure to fall back on, there was no actual positioning or proper penalty killing stances and configurations. I love faceoffs and blocking shots as much as the next guy, but there needs to be actual penalty killing that happens too.

– Conversely, the powerplay will be fine. The talent is there, the pieces are starting to gel, they have had a lot of control and have been able to set up their umbrella pretty easily. As a group the Leafs are still learning how to score with the man advantage (that is a knack) but it’s starting to come together.

– It’s not a good thing when John-Michael Liles rushes the powerplay and tries to shoot to soon and/or gets blocked, but it keeps the opposition honest. Liles was blocked numerous times in the first period against the Habs, but in the second period when Dion Phaneuf scored with the man advantage, Price had to respect the fact that Liles could easily decide to shoot it himself which didn’t allow Price to cheat and prepare to slide over. These little things add up.

– How easy did Dion Phaneuf make that goal look too? Scary when you consider that he didn’t even put everything into that shot (namely because he can’t control it when he does). Add that to Phil Kessel’s no doubter against Price and you really have to respect the ability of these two guys who make scoring on elite goalies look easy.

– I’ve heard Mikhail Grabovski has been staying late after practices to work on his shot and I think that’s a big reason why he’s been slow out the gate. He has one of the better wrist shots in the league and based on his pass/shot selection he just doesn’t seem to have the confidence in it right now, or the accuracy when he decides to use it anyways. He’ll be fine though, as he showed against Montreal his game is coming around, absolutely nobody should be worried about Grabovski.

– Considering Matt Frattin doesn’t even have an NHL point yet, it was pretty stunning for him to come down in a shootout and have the confidence to simply shoot one home. If you watch the goal, you can actually see Pavelec give Frattin a little look after as if to say “did he really just do that?” Frattin is going to be a very good player in Toronto for a very long time. He also finishes checks better than any Leaf forward not named Brown or Rosehill.

– Frattin did have a nice little welcome to the NHL moment against the Jets, though. Racing for a puck with Andrew Ladd in the third period in the offensive zone, he attempted to under cut the veteran and lift his stick so if he got possession of the puck he’d be in a scoring opportunity. Ladd pushed him aside like he wasn’t even there, broke the puck out, and Winnipeg created a scoring chance off the rush. Also, against Boston there was a turnover that created a shooting opportunity for him at the top circle, where he looked up trying to take the perfect shot but then got pick pocketed. He’s a young kid who plays a really clean game, he’ll learn these things and I’d be surprised if he made these mistakes again.

– Cannot believe how many people questioned the Leafs calling up Nazem Kadri. We are not with the team day-in and day-out. We do not see all their practices, or talk to the trainers, or see how these rehabs take place. You know who do? Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. Considering both have been NHL personnel for over 20 years each, they should probably get the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t calling up a guy to put him in a position to not succeed.

– And what do you know, Kadri has looked pretty good so far. You have to like the fact that Kadri’s a little dirty; he runs guys, he plays on the edge and he gets involved in the physical game. I’m not advocating his head shot on Steve Kampfer, but you have to respect the fact that he was out there trying to actually make a difference. Offensively he has such a good feel for the game and it’s really only a matter of time until he takes off. But whether you’re management, a coach or just a fan, you have to be encouraged by his play so far.

– When Ron Wilson was in San Jose he really worked with Christian Erhoff when it came to controlling his shot and focusing on getting the puck on the net instead of always trying to hammer the puck. He went from 5 goals to 10 the following year. We’re seeing that same control and ability to get pucks on net come to fruition with Dion Phaneuf this year. Last season the coaches harped on him for firing all those blanks game after game. But hey, he’s a terrible coach, right?

– None of the goals against Winnipeg were really Reimer’s fault, but he didn’t play great. That said, he made a toe save on Blake Wheeler when it was 3-1, that saved the game for the Leafs. I’ve been saying this for awhile, but Reimer is Grant Fuhr. He may play terrible, but if the team is hanging in there, he’ll make the big saves and keep you in the game. He has the mental ability to bounce-back mid game.

– Now when it comes to Gustavsson, I thought his body language was just terrible against Boston. Against the Habs he let in two really bad goals too (unscreened 40 footers can’t go in, period). I could spin it and say he did make some good saves (which he did) and that he needs to get his confidence back, and getting a win will hopefully give him some momentum, but the bottom line is that they need a real veteran goalie as back up. In the grand scheme of things, they need a goalie they can actually trust, because the Leafs play negative hockey in front of him. Maybe Jonas will gain that trust over the next little bit (especially if Reimer does miss an extended period of time), but Burke should really start exploring other options. And trust me, I do want Gustavsson to succeed, but the Leafs need to start making these tough decisions if they want to make the playoffs.

According to Hockey Break, Burke has opened up contract negotiations with Mikhail Grabovski, for what it’s worth.

– It’s funny what happens when you get Phil Kessel some actual, real, honest-to-God talent to play with – namely Joffrey Lupul. I guess Kessel’s an alright player after all. In all seriousness, I’ve never seen a Leaf player play a more exciting five game stretch than the one Phil put on display to start the year. Almost every shift was electric.

– Quietly starting to wonder two things. Is Luke Schenn in shape? He’s a step slower, his stride has shortened considerably, and he’s been terrible since the start of camp. If he picks it up a month from now, then yeah, that would mean to me he wasn’t in the greatest of physical conditions.

– The second thing I’m wondering is whether Carl Gunnarsson meant a lot more to Luke Schenn than was maybe given credit for. With that, there’s no way they should be breaking up the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf tandem anytime soon.

– Dion Phaneuf is playing like an elite level defenseman right now (yes elite, not just all star), but with the Leafs yet to play a team with an elite forward, it’s a bit of a jaded view. If he can actually play this well against Stamkos, Malkin and the gang and still put up scoring numbers, we seriously have to consider where Dion ranks amongst defensemen right now in the NHL.

– On Kulemin’s tying goal against the Habs, Phaneuf made a fantastic outlet pass to MacArthur and then joined the rush, where he got a stick on the puck in the crease before it eventually fell to Kulemin who put it in an empty net. He really is a driving catalyst for this team and so far he has consistently made things happen this year.

– A big part of the Grabovski’s line success last season was Clarke MacArthur’s ability to beat defensemen one-on-one in order to create odd man opportunities down low. To date, MacArthur hasn’t gone around pretty well anybody and it’s hurt the entire line. They should focus on dumping the puck down deep, retrieving it, and beginning to cycle again. They are a good line, but it was more based on work ethic than talent last year. So far, I don’t want to say the work ethic isn’t there, but they have been trying to be too cute and fancy.

– There were also a lot of positives from the Grabovski line against the Habs. Kulemin had his most ice-time of the week with a solid 16 minutes, Grabovski was tough on the puck all night and looked determined to make things happen, and MacArthur looks like he’s starting to come around after a tough suspension and missed ice time.

– I’ll take Mike Brown’s charging penalty on PK Subban any day of the week. There is no way anyone is ever allowed to run any Leaf player, but double that for Mikhail Grabovski (who was the victim on this play) and Kessel. Good for Brown and Rosehill to dish it right back and get in there.

– The Leafs gave Shanahan a lot of grief over the MacArthur suspension, so if you were wondering why Wilson kept hinting at a suspension on Gionta, a lot of it probably had to do with how upset they were over what was really a cheeky suspension. Obviously, the Leafs are trying to prove a point. Admittedly, Justin Abdelkader got straight up and tried to fight MacArthur right after the head shot, while the Leafs will now be playing in Philadelphia without their starting goaltender due to his head shot received. I don’t think it’s a suspension, but it’s something to think about.

– Grabovski has shown to be funny in the way where he scores a goal that doesn’t matter at all, like he did against Boston, and it wakes him up to play better and carry momentum forward in the games to come. He also didn’t score until game 13 last year, yet through seven this season, he already has three. You tell me how many he’s scoring this year.

– Lombardi started to use his speed against the Jets to take defenders wide and drive the net. That’s a sign to me that he’s very close to getting his confidence and game back. I’d say it’s under a month at this point until he really gets it going. Obviously, that’s going to be a huge boost. Also, his forecheck on the Phil Kessel goal against the Canadiens was something only he could do. Great speed, tenacity and timing.

– If I was coaching against the Leafs there would be two really simple things that I’d say to my team: 1) stand the Leafs forwards up at the blueline because they refuse to dump it in deep and we can create a lot of neutral zone turnovers; 2) drive their defensemen to the outside, especially Komisarek and Schenn who you should be able to beat almost every single shift right now. The Leafs need to get a better forecheck going and they need to tighten up defensively.

– What that really means is there still a lot of problems with this team. They still haven’t beaten anyone of consequence and they are structurally weak. The Leafs-Habs game was entertaining, but it was a poorly executed hockey game on many levels. I doubt Toronto will get off that easy with their upcoming opponents.

– Not into the whole Leafs-Habs message boards rivalry, but I will say that I’m constantly reminded of how many Habs fans show up at the ACC when Montreal is in Toronto, yet it was pretty loud when Grabovski scored in overtime to end Saturday’s game. Funny how that’s not being mentioned.

– This week the Leafs play the Flyers, Rangers and Penguins. Reimer or not, this is the first time we see what this team is actually all about. These are three opponents that I expect to see in the playoffs this year and it’s going to be a tough week for Toronto, hopefully they pull through with some points.

Look forward to hearing feedback and I’ll try to respond as best as I can. Feel free to tweet at me too. http://twitter.com/#!/APetrielli