Leafs Notebook – October 31


Photo: Brad White/Getty Images

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Quite a four games of hockey for the Leafs. I said last week that I would be interested to see how the Leafs did against some formidable competition and they finished 2-2-0 on the week. That’s not bad at all but there’s certainly room for improvement. There were a lot of positives from this week (that have probably been lost in translation considering the Leafs lost Sunday night) to go along with some glaring negatives too. Let’s take a look at some of the things that have been going on.

– Since it’s fresh in everyone’s mind, we’ll take a look at the Ottawa game first. If the Leafs are truly being honest with themselves, the Senators came out hungry and took the play to them, and Toronto came out a little lackadaisical, and a little entitled. The Leafs are good, but they aren’t that good. This is a good lesson early in the season that they should learn from. Don’t take teams or games for granted.

– Read a lot of people writing (and not saying on these comment boards specifically) that the loss can be chalked up to Gustavsson letting in a bad goal. Couldn’t be further from the truth. The Leafs weren’t nearly as assertive as they had been in the previous two games, and they basically traded chances with the Senators for the first two periods, to which the Sens had more chances than them anyways. It wasn’t a terrible game by the Leafs, but it certainly wasn’t a good one. They should really never lose to an Alfredsson-less Ottawa team whose starting Robin Lehner in net.

– Against the Sens Grabovski went 2/16 in the faceoff circle and Connolly went 5/17. That can’t happen. Sure, Steckel wasn’t great either (6/13), but eventually the Leafs top two centers have to start winning faceoffs consistently because at the end of the day, they are the game-breakers on this team who need to be out in crunch time. Instead the Leafs get stuck with Steckel out there at the end of the game.

– On the power play it really seems as if Tim Connolly wants to play the half-wall instead of Phil Kessel. There was one particular play in the first period where Kessel put it down low to Connolly, who then stared at Kessel as if he wanted to rotate to the top but Kessel stood in his spot and soon after the play got broken up. As much as you want Kessel’s shot up there, it makes much more sense to have the top of the powerplay unit occupied by Connolly-Liles-Phaneuf. At this point, Connolly is much more experienced at running a powerplay and he distributes the puck better than Kessel. When you need Kessel to come around and snap a puck, it’s simple, Connolly just has to dish the puck down low, drive the net hard to open up some space, and Phil can come around the boards and fire away. Hockey can be a really basic game if you want it to.

– Speaking of basic, on another powerplay in the first against Ottawa, Kessel tried to throw a cross ice pass to John Michael Liles that was picked off like nothing. Conversely, look at Ottawa’s powerplay, it was beautiful. Short, quick passes, there was nothing high percentage, Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar were walking the blueline so nicely all night, creating space for players and keeping it simple with point shots with guys going to the net. I like the Leafs powerplay, and I think it’s going to be good, but they could learn from the Senators unit.

– Tyler Bozak played 9:05 against Ottawa and Matt Frattin played 9:52. This current third line (Lombardi-Bozak-Frattin) has not looked very good; they’re struggling to create  anything offensively and it’s not as if they are a shutdown unit. Colby Armstrong will make that third line substantially better once he returns, but right now if you’re Brian Burke, all your efforts and resources should be going towards how to make this unit better. Is Lombardi-Bozak-Armstrong the answer? Most likely not. And this is coming from a huge Bozak fan.

– I wonder -and this is only based on my thoughts- if the Leafs ever actually thought Lombardi would get healthy and be able to play, cause frankly, he doesn’t really fit on this roster now that everyone’s healthy. By all accounts he seems like a great guy and let’s not kid ourselves, he’s not playing anywhere near his old form, but eventually the Leafs have to ask themselves where he fits on this roster. I doubt Burke wants a player like Lomabrdi on his third line when he gears this team up for a true Cup run. The good news is that he still has some time to figure it out.

– Twice this week Lombardi had really bad giveaways directly resulting in goals. The first one was against the Rangers, when Gaborik took it off him and Dan Girardi scored, and then again on Sunday Zack Smith took it off him, resulting in Daugavins scoring. Wilson is in a tough spot with Lombardi because he needs to give the guy time to get his game back, but you can’t carry the puck like a loaf of bread.

– The game was there to be had against the Flyers, too, and once again there’s no reason the Leafs shouldn’t have got it done. They worked hard and all, but the bottom line is that Bryzgalov wasn’t playing and Philadelphia had to play with five D most of the night because their best one -Pronger- got hurt. Yes Reimer, Connolly and Bozak were out, but re-watching these games, the Leafs let two wins somewhat slip away this week.

– In saying that, people should still remember that the Leafs are the youngest team in the league. Everything has been pretty smooth sailing thus far in the season, but youthful teams do have growing pains and Toronto will be experiencing them for sure this year. Can’t win them all.

– How many shifts did the Flyers flat out dominate the Leafs? There were quite a few after Jagr’s second breakaway. The problem here was that there was no defensive structure on the part of the Leafs. Everyone was chasing the play around watching the puck instead of taking care of an assigned area on the ice, which is what good defensive teams do. Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszarous and Matt Carle all had time to look up and launch bombs, with nobody was near them as Leaf wingers were running around all over the zone. It was inexcusable defense at the NHL level, the Leafs looked like they had no idea whatsoever of what defensive positioning looked like.

– Also, not sure how an NHL team allows three breakaways to the same player in one game. Especially when that player is Jaromir Jagr.

– The Pittsburgh and New York games were much better defensively, the Leafs were a lot more structurally sound. Of course the Penguins are going to get significant zone time against any team (and they did against the Leafs) but the Leafs stayed a lot calmer than they did against Philadelphia and it was a great sign of early growth with this team. The wingers were better locked into their assignments and the centers were picking up the loose forward more often than not. Pittsburgh as a team is really tough on the puck and they cycle very well, but overall the Leafs kept their cool and did not panic in their own end.

– This is semi Leaf related, but it was great seeing Steve Sullivan look so good out there. I’ve always been bitter that the Leafs gave up on him and then I read a bit of the book Why The Leafs Suck And How They Can Be Fixed and I stumbled upon a bit about Sullivan. Apparently the Leafs were set to play a game against Ottawa in Ottawa and Sullivan, a Timmins, Ontario native, had 30-40 family members with tickets to attend the game. Except on game day Sullivan found out he was scratched. He went into Pat Quinn’s office to explain this and ask to play, and Quinn got upset that a young kid was asking him this and Sullivan found himself on waivers shortly after. Hearing things like this make it tough to support the Leafs sometimes. Sullivan’s become a very good player since  and always sticks it to the Leafs.

– Fun fact about that season- Sullivan had 64 points in 73 games after getting claimed by Chicago that year. That would have placed him second on the Leafs in scoring that year, between Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas.

– Up until the last couple of games, I’ve heard a lot of criticism directed towards the Grabovski unit and I’m pretty puzzled as to why. First of all, if it wasn’t for this line last season, the Leafs might have been the worse team in the league -and that’s no stretch. Carrying this team night-in and night-out for a full season, and becoming one of the best lines in the league, is apparently forgotten when one their players gets both suspended and injured to start the year and struggles a bit when he returns. Did I miss something? First off, they deserve more than five or so games together to get it going, as they’ve more than earned it. Secondly, if Wilson were to break up this line this early in the season, it’s a pretty easy way to start “losing” your players. This line saved Wilson’s job, he’s not going to turn his back on them at the first sign of problems. Yet, there were tons of cat-calls for players like Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin to be moved up on this line. Come on.

– Needless to say the Grabovski line has come around and will be fine. I wish I was as confident in Luke Schenn turning it around, though. It’s still early and I want to believe in him, but he’s really starting to make it tough to do so. It looked as if he didn’t even know Colin Greening was behind him on that breakaway pass last night and that’s a scary thought.

– Eventually the Leafs have to sit Schenn out for some games. He didn’t play over 15 minutes all week.

– It’s still down to Luke Schenn’s skating ability as to why he is struggling. He’s a step behind the play and he doesn’t have the confidence to step up on guys and deliver hits because his skating isn’t where it should be right now. There have been players walking around him all week whether it be Danny Briere, Colin Greening, or whoever, and it’s really tough to watch right now. Time to simplify things, Luke. Stop watching at the puck, start focusing on the body, start banging guys around and when you have the puck, it better be hard off the boards or right on Gardiner’s tape.

– Matt Frattin is one of Toronto’s only physical forwards and in the second period in Philly he displayed that by absolutely running over Meszaros. In college Frattin was a monster and once he learns how to plow through NHL defensemen and score at this level, he’s going to be a scary force. For now though, he hasn’t done enough to push someone out of a job. When Armstrong returns, if everyone is healthy, I expect him to be sent down to the Marlies and rightfully so. Against Pittsburgh on Saturday he played 9:46- the lowest on the team. The night after, he had the second lowest amount of ice-time against the Sens.

– Phil Kessel threw some ridiculously good passes in Philadelphia. He gave Jake Gardiner a cross ice one timer right on the tape in the third period that the defenseman fanned on. This came after, in the first period, he crossed the offensive blue line, stopped on a dime and snapped a puck to the other side of the rink right on Lupul’s tape. The point is that Phil Kessel is extremely talented not only as a scorer, but as a passer of the puck. He’s never had players on his line that can actually handle his heat and if they did (no offense Joey Crabb, Matt Stajan and Alex Ponikarovsky) they didn’t have the talent to bury it home anyways.

– Want a great example of Phil Kessel’s development? On Tim Connolly’s first goal as a Leaf, watch the faceoff. The puck goes to the boards and Kessel wins a battle with Paul Martin due to his second effort. That’s something he more likely than not wouldn’t have done last year. Something else to note on that goal? The ridiculous saucer pass Liles gave to Phaneuf over Pascal Dupuis’ stick.

– As soon as the Leafs are losing they go straight to four defensemen: Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Liles-Gardiner. And frankly, even when they are up, those four long a ton of ice time too. It’s pretty clear who the four best defensemen in Toronto are right now. Komisarek might be getting more minutes than Gardiner lately, but at the end of the day, Jake is much more go-to than Komisarek.

– I highlighted a play by Gardiner last week against Erik Cole where he knocked the puck away from the driving power forward. Then, Gardiner goes ahead this week and one-ups that. This time not only was it against Evgeny Malkin, but it was on his off-side on defense. As a lefty on the right side, Gardiner saw a determined looking Malkin put his shoulder down in an attempt to get to the puck and Jake took that extra stride necessary to get somewhat in front of the big Russian and he poked the puck away. Gardiner’s not a true top four defenseman as of this very second, but he is already an elite skater in this league.

– Gardiner doesn’t have a rocket, or even above average shot, but he does one thing really, really well. He gets the puck on the net and he does it quickly. He’s done this numerous times this already, where he gets the puck on the point and has no problem putting a quick wrister on net. A lot of young defensemen are reluctant to shoot unless they have the perfect shot on net, but not Gardiner. That mind frame of his came in handy against the Rangers when he received a Phil Kessel pass and put a puck on net, resulting in a rebound and the Joffrey Lupul game winner against the Rangers.

– Lupul is another guy who is fitting in like a glove and becoming a real leader on this team. Don’t forget, this is a guy who had four goals in one playoff game for the Ducks against the Avalanche (the fourth being in overtime) and who also scored a game seven winner in overtime for the Flyers against the Capitals. He’s done some things in this league, and he’s a clutch player with the flare for the dramatic. The Leafs are lucky to have this guy, but Lupul also knows he’s lucky to have this opportunity and he’s relishing it so far. He’s averaging nearly 18 minutes and he’s playing with an elite sniper. You can’t ask for much more than that.

– Joffrey talked this week about how we was hurt that the Ducks didn’t think he could return to form in Anaheim and traded him after he worked so hard to get back in the lineup. Lupul’s always had a bit of a flaky reputation and he was one of the original party-boys in Philadelphia with Richards and Carter, but he’s essentially matured into a man here in Toronto who wants to take responsibility, lead by example and be a significant player. Now, instead of a night out of partying, he stays in for a night alone in his hotel looking at twitpics of girls in their Halloween costumes (that tweet was removed, by the way). Jokes aside, when Kessel eventually slumps, Lupul is going to keep Phil in line.

– When the game is on the line and you have a lead, you want big, strong defensemen on the ice who can clear the net and dominate the corners. That’s why it was so nice to have Keith Aulie last year and Luke Schenn playing so well. This season they have Phaneuf and sometimes Komisarek. So Wilson’s been forced to turn to Liles and Gunnarsson in crunch time consistently. It hasn’t cost them yet, but I suspect it will. You need those big boys in the trenches.

– I’ve been saying this all summer, but the Leafs are a playoff team on paper. It’s the little things like defensive posture, and not allowing anything to come easy for other teams, that they need to work on in order to ensure that they actually make it there. But other than Washington and a healthy Pittsburgh team, there’s no other teams in the Eastern Conference that should intimidate the Leafs. That doesn’t mean I think the Leafs are the third best team in the East, it’s more to say – if the Leafs are playing their best against any other team than those two playing their best, they should win more often than not.

– One little thing the entire team does pretty well now is flick the puck up and out of the defensive zone – without icing it – when there are no passing options. It’s a little play, but instead of forcing the puck to a winger who isn’t open or to a center who isn’t there, they simply get the puck out and at the same time don’t ice it. The Leafs need to keep it simple like this more often.

– Best Leafs penalty kill of the season was their kill to start the third period against Philadelphia. They were aggressive, everyone was on the same page and they were transitioning seamlessly. The Flyers attempted to work the puck around the perimeter, Dupuis and Steckel forced it to the outside, the puck carrier came down to the hashmarks and Gunnarsson applied pressure and forced the puck down low. There, Phaneuf challenged the opposing forward, won the battle and got it out. The Leafs’ best penalty kill of the season, by far, and that’s because they were aggressive yet cohesive at the same time.

– John Michael Liles is playing a ton right now, 23:08 against Philly,22:17 against the Rangers, 22:12 against Pittsburgh, and 22:36 against Ottawa. How lucky are the Leafs that they got him this summer for that bonus 2nd rounder?

– Dave Steckel has only had over 100 shots on goal once in his NHL career – 103 in 2008/2009 season – and it’s no coincidence that that was the season he had his career-high eight goal season. Already with three on the season, he’s on pace for 114 shots currently. Safe to say he’s found home in Toronto.

– Also Lupul is on pace for well over 200 shots. The only other time he passed the 200 shot mark was with Anaheim in the 05-06 season and that’s when he had his career high 28 goal season. For most players, Jason Blake notwithstanding, the more you shoot, the more you score, and he’s finding himself in a lot of good shooting positions alongside Kessel.

– Nazem Kadri is still very much a work in progress. On Jagr’s second goal to ice things against the Flyers, Steckel came off behind the play and Kadri hopped over the boards and skated straight into the Flyers zone, completely disregarding the floating Jagr behind him and the fact that Liles pinched in long before he was even on the ice. Hartnell chipped the puck out, it bounced over Gardiner’s stick and the rest, as they say, is history. Truthfully, it was an awful play on Kadri’s part and there’s no excuse for it. At the same time, the pay off with Kadri years from now will be big if the Leafs remain patient. But he is going to make those plays that drive you crazy on occasion for the next little while. Hopefully he learns from them.

– I see some people calling for Nazem Kadri to be backup with the big club, and here’s why the Leafs won’t move heaven and earth to make that happen: he’s a box of surprises each and every shift, and he would be exactly this on the third line. When Kadri isn’t with the Leafs, everyone seems to recall his tantalizing talent and game-breaking ability, but shift-to-shift he can be a nightmare. I can’t blame Ron Wilson for wanting to send out a much more responsible, no-frills player. Especially in that role.

– While we’re discussing potential call ups, the Leafs should keep Joe Colborne down for the entire season (barring something drastic happening to the big club injury/losing streak wise). There’s still holes in his game, he’s learning a lot in the AHL right now and it’s sometimes much better for a player to stay in one environment all season rather than going back and forth. The Leafs have no need to call this guy up and Burke knows that. Keep him down, let him learn how to be the best player on a very good team in the AHL (which he is), and then next year you make room for him.

– There’s also a tentatively great plan in place here for the Leafs down the middle. Next year they could be looking at Connolly-Grabovski-Colborne-Steckel down the middle, and the following year is set up to be Colborne-Grabovski as the top two centers. Of course, a lot will happen between now and then, but sometimes it’s nice to look at the assets already within the Leafs organization and try to picture how they are all going to fit together down the line.

– I truly felt bad for Gustavsson against the Flyers. He was hung out to dry and stood on his head. If it wasn’t for The Monster the game could have easily gotten out of hand at certain points. Anyone who blames him for that loss is ludicrous.

– As far as I’m concerned, Danny Briere should be suspended for his stick to the face of Jonas Gustavsson. I have zero idea why this hasn’t gotten any attention. It was reckless, careless and stupid, he swung at a puck in mid air and ended up hitting Gustavsson in the face and knocking off his helmet. I’d say 90% of players don’t actually target the head on a hit, but they all get suspended for making contact with it regardless. What’s the difference here? I’m sorry but that does not sit well with me at all.

– Gustavsson was also tripped behind the net by Maxime Talbot and nobody did a thing. Bottom line, nobody is ever allowed to touch any Leaf goalie and Talbot got off scott-free. The Leafs responded much better against the Penguins when James Neal got a nice knee to the head in on Gustavsson.

– I said after the first week of the season that, no matter what happens this year, Phil Kessel’s effort in the dying seconds of the season opener against the Habs to eat the puck and take time off the clock was a lasting image and big moment in a long season. You can add the image of Jonas Gustavsson sprawled on the ice like a snow-angel after his two-pad stack save against James Neal to that collection. I think Gustavsson earned himself a lot of respect within the Leafs dressing room, and certainly from the ACC crowd that night, for putting his body on the line like he did right there.

– Philippe Dupuis is the Leafs best penalty killer. He’s becoming a must dress for this team, as he’s been making numerous critical plays where he gets in lanes to break up passes, comes down low to knock the puck in the corner -thus take away a scoring chance- or to win a battle and get it out. He was a surprising 7/8 in the faceoff circle against the Flyers and he was also on in the last minute of a one-goal game against Pittsburgh. He won’t wow with offence, or standout physical play like you might ideally prefer in a fourth liner, but these are important functions he performs and he performs them well.

– I’ve heard some people say the “penalty kill sucks and Dupuis is apart of it.” Well let’s look at some of the powerplay goals scored recently. Against Ottawa, one was a breakaway pass that had nothing to do with him, and the other goal came with Lombardi and Brown on the ice. The Penguins scored on a 5 on 3 and their other powerplay goal came with Grabovski and Kulemin killing the penalty. Dupuis is a good penalty killer, there’s no question about it.

– Another thing people are saying that baffles me? Numerous announcers, reporters and fans alike saying things like “Wow, Tim Connolly looks good.” Was anyone seriously questioning whether or not Connolly was ever a good player? The only concern when it comes to Connolly over the next two years is if he can stay healthy. That’s not to say that he’s perfect when he plays, but he’s more than serviceable for Phil Kessel. Connolly’s between a good player and a great player. That’s more than enough for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, especially cause teams have to respect the fact that Connolly can create and score for himself.

– Connolly is also positionally the Leafs best center since Michael Peca. He has a great feel for the game and understands lanes systems so well. He doesn’t get dirty in the corners, but he does get in there and make smart, effective outlet passes out of the zone.

– I suspect, once Tim Connolly is finally up to proper game shape, that he and Phil Kessel may be tried out killing penalties. I think there’s a lot of potential here to be a great penalty killing tandem that can even score shorthanded once and awhile. Between Phil’s speed and Connolly’s positioning, it’s more than worth a shot.

– The Leafs also miss the Colby Armstrong-Tyler Bozak penalty killing tandem. They are not only aggressive in their own zone, but they are able to eat a lot of penalty killing time within the other team’s zone.

– Nobody should be too surprised that Jonas Gustavsson is playing better as he plays more. I don’t question his talent, I question how he fits with this team. The Monster could have had shutouts in every one of these games that Reimer’s been hurt, but when James comes back, he’s still the golden boy and is going to play a lot. Being a backup goalie is an art. You have to have the ability to come in at a moments notice and play your best after sitting for possibly two or three weeks without game action. Gustavsson hasn’t shown he can do that, and he’s -rightfully so- still trying to be a starting goalie in this league. Realistically, that will never happen in Toronto. Big picture, Reimer-Gustavsson doesn’t fit, so how long do the Leafs run with this?

– I’m willing to eat my words on this in the future, but the Leafs aren’t trading Cody Franson anytime soon, and everyone needs to get over it. There’s numerous reasons why Burke isn’t going to trade Franson, either. First of all, Burke loves Franson’s upside. Secondly, and Burke has said this since the dawn of time, you can never have enough defensemen. Thirdly, the six defensemen on the Leafs roster are not all going to stay healthy this year. It makes almost zero sense to trade Franson unless they are bringing in an impact player and what GM in their right mind is going to trade an impact player for a defenseman who has been a healthy scratch for the majority of the start of the season, whose played awful when he’s been in the lineup and who was once traded for Brett Lebda? It’s not going to happen anytime soon (and by anytime soon, I mean until at least February).

– When Franson was in Nashville, he was basically all offense. He was never used on the penalty kill, never really went out there against good forwards, and he was relied on to give a spark offensively. In Toronto they are trying to make him a top four defenseman who can do everything. His talent level and head for the game certainly suggest he can be that, but it’s going to take some time for him to get there. This is going to be a tough year for Franson.

– Leafs have been rolling their lines very well in their winning efforts. The best example to look at is the Pittsburgh game. First off, the Penguins – even without Staal and Crosby – are one through 12 a very deep group of forwards and the Leafs matched that line for line all night. Grabovski led the team in ice time with 17:18 on the night. Frattin had the lowest with 9:46 and Clarke MacArthur was next at 12:08. That means the Leafs rode their “grinders” a lot in that game. It just goes to show you how comfortable the coaching staff is getting with this team. If you play well, you play, no matter who you are right now.

– Dupuis-Steckel-Brown is the best fourth line the Leafs have had in years. Rosehill brings some extra size and muscle when necessary, but these other three are not only able to play physical, they have some offensive ability and cycle the puck very well. It’s a great line which knows exactly what’s expected of them (energy, momentum shifts, physicality) and they do it well.

– It was also interesting to see Steckel’s line and Bozak’s line getting repetitions against the Malkin unit. Wilson coached a really smart game against the Penguins and he didn’t get enough credit. He matched up best versus best when he had to (Grabovski’s line against Malkin’s line) but he also separated this matchup throughout the game, allowing Grabovski to do some things offensively and it showed. They really dominated a lot of their shifts and Bylsma was scrambling with what to do between the Grabovski line, Kessel line, and the excellent play of the Steckel unit.

– Bodes well for the Leafs that they have been able to put up good goal totals against the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist. In recent years the Leafs have over thought playing these elite goalies and wouldn’t shoot as much as they should have. But here were the Leafs this week, with MacArthur walking over the blueline and teeing up a slapshot to beat Lundqvist cleanly, and even Mike Brown taking him high off a snap shot. It’s nice to see the Leafs have confidence in themselves to score on these great goalies.

– When the Leafs were up 4-1 against the Rangers, Nikolai Kulemin skated over the blueline and absolutely dangled Daniel Girardi. Girardi is a very good defenseman, and Kulemin walked around him like nothing. He’s been snake bitten in the goal scoring department so far, but nobody should waste a second being worried about him. Kulemin is a work horse and he’ll get his goals soon enough.

– Usually I understand what Wilson’s doing, or at the very least, the thought process behind his decisions, but I have no idea why he went out of his way on Saturday to say that Dion Phaneuf is the best defenseman in the league and Phil Kessel is the best forward. He’s trying to reward his best two players with loud a vote of confidence, but these two deal with enough scrutiny already.

– I want to give the Leafs’ penalty kill a little more time (I know, people are getting tired of it) but I plan on writing a full out article detailing exactly why the Leafs penalty kill is struggling. Some have brought up the Leafs blocking shots instead of tying up men in front, and while that’s true, there’s a lot more to the struggles than that.

– I also wanted to let people know that, while I may not be the most active on the message boards, it does not mean I don’t read them. I read each and every comment here, and as I get more comfortable on the boards, I’ll be contributing more. In what is truthfully not a sham for more Twitter followers, I maintain that the best way to interact with me directly is through twitter.

As always, looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say.