Leafs Notebook – November 14



Everyone collectively take a deep breath, and hold it..

….Hold it a little longer…

.. Now, exhale.

You can relax, there is no need to panic.

The Leafs are 17 games into the season, they are 10-6-1 and they’ve hit a rough patch. Nobody thought this team was going to play great all season, did they? Yes, there are many troubling signs (which I’ll get to), but there are also a ton of positives (which we’ll look at first).

All the Leafs have managed to do at this point – and it isn’t much – is not blow their playoff chances. They’ve built up a slight cushion, but the New Jersey Devils sit in ninth, four points behind the Leafs with two games in hand. If anyone thought the Leafs gave themselves a ton of breathing room with their solid start, consider that your reality check.

– Jake Gardiner is nearly a top four defenseman on this team already and well on his way to becoming a very good player in this league. In his first eleven games he played over 20 minutes three times, but in his last four he’s played over that mark each time. He’s the most dynamic young defenseman to come through this organization in quite some time. While you don’t want to throw too much praise on him this early into his career, he’s going to be a good one. His poise with the puck is tremendous; in overtime against the Blues, under pressure against the Sens and through a tight zone/borderline trap against the Devils, he’s shown he can beat anything thrown his way and maintain a calm presence.

– Again, it’s early (and that has to be kept in mind when every single thing – good and bad – about this team is taken into consideration right now), but the powerplay is improved without question. They sit 16th right now and have shown a lot of positive signs. Even against the Senators, while they did not score – and that hurt them – they did have a lot of zone time and moved the puck around relatively well. They will learn how and when to shoot as the season goes on and as they get more comfortable with each other, but for now you have to like what you’ve seen from this unit. Against the Blues, the way they moved it so efficiently was almost mesmerizing, showing better confidence and poise. John Michael Liles in particular made a fantastic initial saucer pass to start the play that led to the Phil Kessel goal against the Blues.

– Between the way Liles moves with and without the puck on his stick, along with his vision, and his ability to suck in defenders and distribute the puck off to the open man, there’s no question he’s a better player than Tomas Kaberle was for the Leafs in his last couple of seasons here. He’s fit in on this team like a glove.

– By the way, Tomas Kaberle is on pace for 19 points right now, glean from that what you will.

– Sometimes things are so obvious they get neglected, and although Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have had their fair share of publicity, it has to be said that their chemistry is marvelous and the way they’ve actually built off last year is a great sign. In the summer I wondered to myself how long of a stop-gap Lupul would be, but he’ll quickly turn into a keeper if he keeps this up.

– To keep that positive vibe going, they do have this guy named Joe Colborne in the minors whose developing along nicely and really starting to use his size. Don’t look now, but in a couple of years the Leafs could have an actual dominant – yes, dominant – first line in Lupul-Colborne-Kessel.

– Kulemin played 18:57 against the Senators, didn’t record a shot, and didn’t make a hit worth noting. He’s on pace for over 50 less shots than he had last season and that’s a telling stat. He has one of the best shots on the team but you wouldn’t know it from watching gameplay, because he’s hardly using it.

– Clarke MacArthur is on pace for over 30 less shots and Mikhail Grabovski over 60 less shots than last year. Putting pucks on net and hungrily chasing them alone will make the Grabovski line substantially better. Imagine if they did that and started passing the puck better, too. Of course it always sounds easier than it really is.

–  I wanted to touch on Nazem Kadri. There were reports regarding the possibility of him requesting a trade a little while ago. It may or may not be true, I have no idea, but regardless my stance on him hasn’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, he’s done nothing to deserve a roster spot with the big club. He’s played okay, but he has never forced the Leafs to make a decision and sit someone out. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. Look what Jake Gardiner did this training camp, he forced the Leafs hand by playing lights out, Kadri has done no such thing. Think about it, a year ago today, Kadri’s stock was significantly higher than Gardiner’s (I mean Gardiner was in a package deal to get Francois Beauchemin).

– I said this last week and it’s still true, I like Kadri – he has a high ceiling and that hasn’t changed – but until he forces the Leafs to play him as an NHL regular, they shouldn’t. Even in the AHL he still makes those one or two plays a game that drive you insane as a fan, so imagine how coaches and management feel when they happen.

– That said, if the scoring woes continue they’re going to have to call him up eventually because he creativity is undeniable. It would give him a great opportunity to really push Clarke MacArthur for his job with the way the incumbent is playing right now.

– For the record, while Frattin hasn’t exactly played lights out either, he is bigger, faster, stronger and has a heavier shot than Kadri. There’s no question the Leafs should be calling up Frattin instead of Kadri right now. Frattin plays a solid game and can slot in anywhere up and down the lineup. Conversely, if Kadri isn’t scoring, he isn’t doing anything. And while I think (and hope) everyone here knows I appreciate the little things in hockey like winning battles, finishing checks and so on, at the end of the day Kadri has 13 points in 33 games. It is what it is, he isn’t making this decision tough on anybody. While Frattin isn’t scoring either, he at least offers other dimensions.

– The Blues game was an excellent example of Frattin’s much superior two-way play. In the second period the puck sprawled out to a wide open Jamie Langenbrunner out front and Frattin came down and knocked the puck away, preventing a goal. Kadri has yet to show that kind of defensive awareness. On the same play, Frattin got the puck out, crossed center ice, dumped it in, and got a change. That’s winning hockey. With Kadri, you never know what he’s going to do with the puck.

– Frattin only played 9:03 against the Senators, and it might be time to start exploring giving him a true look in the top six.

– Wilson is doing everything he can to get the Grabovski line going. He’s held back their minutes, he’s played them a ton (as he did against Ottawa) and he’s altered their look by trying Lombardi and Frattin on the wing opposite of Kulemin and Grabovski. If this line does not start producing, the Leafs won’t be winning many games and everyone knows it. Eventually you have to think something dramatic will happen here as we’re approaching game 20.

– Some things they can do to help their own cause is stop the over passing. It’s a clear lack of confidence right now from that unit; they are looking for tap-in, easy goals, instead of doing what they do best – throwing the puck at the goalie and crashing the net hard. Teams are negating their space right now and the line isn’t getting the time they had last season to look up, pick a corner, and shoot it. It’s up to the entire unit to adjust and start simplifying their game. They talked at length last season about how they all enjoyed playing a north-south game, but none of them have been flying down their lanes and causing havoc. Time to cut the cuteness here and get back to basics.

– Not even 20 games into the season and with a solid record to start the season, nobody should be hitting the panic button on this line just yet, but everyone should definitely be concerned. I’ll be curious to see how long management stays patient with them, because they need to win this year.

– Rewatched almost the entire past Leaf season this summer and a lot of the time I caught myself watching Tyler Bozak and thinking to myself “if he just finished that opportunity” or “if he didn’t hit the post with that shot” or “why doesn’t he use his shot more?” On Saturday he used his shot and beat Craig Anderson pretty cleanly from the top of the circle. He has an accurate, hard, clean wrist shot with a deceptive release, and he has to start using it more. With Phil Kessel he’s shown he can produce and capitalize a little, so if he can carry over his 42 point pace to the third line, the Leafs will be a much better team.

– Very confused as to why the coaches were being criticized after the Sens game because of the penalty kill. Did anyone seriously think the third ranked powerplay in the league wasn’t going to score on a 1:58 second two-man advantage with a third string goalie in net? Beyond that, they scored on a breakaway due to poor gap management. I know some people think this happens, but coaches don’t sit there in practice and work on how close defensemen should be when standing up on the blueline. It’s common sense and you learn it at age 10. Obviously, the Leafs missed the memo because they’ve allowed enough breakaways to last the season, but at some point the players have to be accountable. On a five on three the defensemen were each at the offside dots. While I don’t like to criticize rookies, Jake Gardiner watched Nick Foligno skate right by him, but only decided to act once he got the puck. Too little, too late.

– Don’t mind hearing criticism of the coaches, but it has to be warranted. Don’t think there was anything Wilson could have done, or practiced, or taught that would have avoided that 5 on 3 goal. The players have to be held accountable. The organization is clearly trying to do that, but the fans have not embraced it.

– I remember during the JFJ era when fans always wanted the slow rebuild and tear down to take place, instead of the quick-fix that was always in attempt. Now, ironically, everyone wants the quick fix because they think magically changing coaches will fix every problem with this team, but that’s highly unlikely. That’s a full drawn out article though. Coaching is important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s overvalued in this market. It’s not the be all and end all. Barry Trotz didn’t make the playoffs in his first five years with Nashville and he finally advanced passed the first round this season for the first time ever, yet I don’t hear anyone calling him a terrible coach. In fact he’s known as a great coach (cause he is), but the point is, you’re only as good as the team you’ve been provided with. The Leafs overachieved their first year under Wilson and in the next two they finished right around what the quality of their team suggested they would.

– But when it comes to criticizing the coaches, I thought it was ridiculous to see Luke Schenn and Jake Gardiner out on the ice in the dying minutes of the St. Louis game. Protecting a lead on the road when you’ve been dominated for nearly two periods and that’s the defense pairing you put out there? Beyond questionable.

– Interestingly enough, against the Senators both the Phaneuf pairing and the Liles pairing each had two shifts before Gardiner and Schenn stepped on the ice. Talk about mixed messages.

– Eventually the Leafs have to try Matt Frattin on the powerplay. It is absolutely killing me. In college he played the point on the powerplay and what he did to college hockey was just embarrassing. His one-timer is only bested by Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson.  He needs to get out there with some open ice and be able to unleash it. It’s tough for any coach to put two rookies on the point in the NHL but eventually it’s looking as if a Matt Frattin-Jake Gardiner second powerplay point pairing is the way to go.

– When Tim Connolly has been healthy along with Tyler Bozak, Matt Lombardi does not get any penalty killing time at all. In fact, neither Lombardi or Brown saw a second of PK time against Columbus while Bozak and Connolly both played over four minutes on it. Obviously this goes to show that, when they finally become healthy, Brown and Lombardi may not see much time short handed. Adding to that fact will be Colby Armstrong’s return.

– Basically, this won’t be a good statistical PK this season, but in the second half we could end up seeing them some great penalty killing. Once everyone is finally healthy and acclimated, the pieces are there for this to still be a good unit.

– Pretty mind blowing to me that in two games that were over in the third period -Blue Jackets and Panthers games – Luke Schenn still didn’t play more than 12:38. You’d think in that situation they would send him out and have him log a ton of minutes to get his confidence up.

– On the positive, he did play 16:57 against St. Louis, and he physically dominated Chris Stewart a couple of times. That said, it’s amazing how good goaltending makes a player look better. Schenn was physical, but he was soft on the puck, highlighted by a backhand pass that he tried to saucer to Jake Gardiner behind his net that was easily picked off.

– On that note, I still hear a lot of Mike Komisarek criticism. Look, he’s the least of the Leafs worries right now. At least he clears the net and looks to take the body. Players are much to liberally going right to the net and right through the crease. The conundrum is that the Leafs penalty kill sucks, but at the same time you’d like to see these guys stand up for their goalies, even if it meant taking a penalty. It just gets to a point where maybe you have to lose the battle to win the war there. You might get a penalty, and you might get scored on during that kill, but if you teach a guy a lesson for touching your goalie, it’s worth it.

-One thing the Bruins in particular do very well is that, when losing, they make teams pay physically and it really sets a tone for the next game. The Bruins have now spanked the Leafs twice, and they have not paid at all physically. It’s one thing to lose a game, it’s another to not even give the opposition something to think about for next time. That’s what’s disappointing, to me at least.

– Speaking of the Bruins and goalies, I keep wondering what would have been the reaction had Milan Lucic ran over James Reimer the way he did Ryan Miller. Frankly, I’d be scared to find out, because I fear it would be nothing, just as Buffalo has done. We all like certain characteristics of hockey and it’s players. Personally, I’ve always appreciated players who play on the edge, cross it a couple of times and are a little dirty. Chris Neil, Patrick Kaleta, Brad Marchand, these kind of guys are, for a lack of a better way to say it, dirt bags, and I’d take them every time. Maybe that’s just me. But I more than suspect that kind of player would make this edition of the Leafs dramatically better.

– Can’t imagine this sits well with Burke either, to see a Boston team in their own division that is extremely superior physically. He would most likely love some toughness. On the bright side, Tyler Biggs will probably only need one more year in the NCAA after this one, so he’s coming soon-ish. But that’s also a discussion for another time.

– Can’t help but think of those great wins over Boston late last season and wonder what the difference is. The first is how easily the Grabovski line was dominating the Bruins second defense pairing, which caused the Bruins fits and forced them to match Zdeno Chara against them and away from Phil (who went on to dominate Seidenberg due to that). This year, so far, the Bruins defense pairings have generally had their way with the Leafs forwards. Simply put, nine and a half times out of 10, Zdeno Chara is going to stop Phil Kessel. He has too much reach, size and strength that negates Phil’s speed, and it’s pretty doubtful that Kessel’s going to walk over the blueline and beat Tim Thomas on a wrister. So really, the key to beating Boston (among other teams) is the play of the Grabovski line.

Secondly, you have to think of Keith Aulie. Phaneuf-Aulie were so physically imposing that they dictated play against the Bruins forwards regardless of who had the puck. Luke Schenn was also playing great hockey. Right now the Leafs have one good big defenseman in Phaneuf, an okay one in Komisarek and a struggling one in Luke Schenn. That makes it tough for Toronto against a big team, and St. Louis was another example of that.

– But heck, the Senators without Chris Neil out hit the Leafs by a wide margin and there’s no excuse for that.

– Dave Steckel only played 9:35 against the Panthers despite going almost 63% in the faceoff dot. The Leafs got away from their puck possession game, and in games when things are looking like they could get out of hand, you want to go out there and have a nice steadying shift of puck possession and cycling. The coaches obviously reviewed that game and thought the same thing, and moved Steckel up to the third line, which is an excellent move. Also, Lombardi went 5/13 on the dot, something your third line center simply can’t be doing.

– Obviously playing towards the Leafs strength – depth – was something the coaching staff wanted to get back to after the Florida game and they set the tone right away with that by starting the Steckel line off the opening faceoff against St. Louis. Only Mike Brown averaged under 10 minutes on the ice.

Last season only two teams had all their regulars averaging over 10 minutes a game. That would be Detroit and Boston. Currently, every Leaf regular except Mike Brown at 9:53 (including Dupuis, excluding the two enforcers) averages at least 10 minutes of ice time a game. It’s a game of depth.

– Steckel is an example of why you should always look at a player first yourself before trusting others’ opinions. Countless people told me he isn’t physical at all, yet he leads the Leaf forwards in hits and finishes his check whenever he can. Even if he didn’t hit, his 6’5 frame alone has a presence on the ice that the Leafs sorely lacked last season.

– Everyone also knows Phillipe Dupuis is third in Leaf hits by a forward, right? He might not make big hits in the open ice, but he throws heavy, heavy hits along that boards that hurt you. He laid a great hit on Jason Arnott who I guaranteed felt it in his ribs the next morning. Hits aren’t always about being flashy, they are about being effective, separating the man from the puck and making guys think twice. Dupuis does that regularly.

One really stupid penalty doesn’t make him a bad player by the way. It happens to the best of us, move on.

-Brian Burke has four options with his goalie conundrum:

1) Keep status quo, move nobody, Scrivens goes back to the minors once Reimer returns due to his waiver exemption.

2) Same thing as number one, except get rid of Gustavsson once Reimer is healthy.

2) Acquire a veteran, tandem him with Gustavsson and buy time to trade The Monster until Reimer returns, then go Reimer + a veteran goalie.

3) Get rid of Gustavsson, bring in a veteran to split starts with Scrivens until Reimer is healthy, then send Scrivens down once Reimer returns.

– On the positive side, against the Devils it was really apparent just how talented the Leafs are. The first line was toying with New Jersey all night and there was a particular play in the third period where Connolly threw it to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone to a streaking Phil Kessel, who – mid stride – toe-dragged Ilya Kovalchuk. That is unbelievably hard to do at the speed Kessel did it at and it just shows how talented he is. Kessel is far too often labeled as “just” a sniper, but really, offensively he can do it all.

– Very interesting – Jake Gardiner played 2:55 short handed against the Blues, while John Michael Liles didn’t even register a second of short handed ice time. And Dion Phaneuf had three penalties in that game. Against the Senators, same story. Liles didn’t touch the ice on the penalty kill, Gardiner played 1:48 on it.

– The best thing I saw in the Panthers game happened with under 30 seconds left, when it was clear the Leafs had lost. As Panthers broke out on a 2-on-1 from their own zone with the two forwards being at the center ice line, Nikolai Kulemin was at the Panther blueline, put his head down, and worked his ass off to get back in the play. It was already a long shift for that line and the Panther players were definitely looking to get a goal despite the score but Kulemin’s effort helped force a bad pass. It’s easy to do things like take a hit to make a play when your team is winning, but when you’re down and out, and refuse to quit, well that just shows how much Kulemin cares and the kind of character this guy has.

– You have to like Joffrey Lupul’s effort in a losing cause too. He dominated Florida most of the night and he went hard all third period. It’s just a hunch, but I’m sure he was all over Kessel and Bozak on the bench saying they need to at least get a goal in the third period there. It might not make a difference to a lot of people, but Kessel scoring in the third period was important and Lupul did most of the work for that goal. It prevented them from getting shutout a second straight game, and it halted any sort of goalless streak Kessel could have potentially went on. The scrutiny the Leafs are facing right now would have been multiplied by a significant amount if both those things were added to the equation.

– Also thought it was an excellent move by Ron Wilson to keep the lines together against the Panthers. There’s no purpose to shake things up when you’re down by a large amount. The top two lines will be what they are most of the season unless a ridiculous goal scoring drought occurs. Keep them together and let them work through their funks, one of the lines got on the board, and the other line did everything but. The time to shake line combinations up mid-game is when you’re down by a goal or two and you aren’t creating anything.

– The Leafs are actually at their best when they are rolling four lines and all their forwards are playing between 10 and 17 minutes. The fourth line is critical to the Leafs’ success because they are physical and work the corners hard. They wear out defensemen each shift and that’s important; any sort of mental or physical fatigue by opposing defensemen – if only for a second – will be exploited by the rest of the Leafs forwards, who are just so fast.

-If everyone ever gets healthy at the same time for this team, the ideal third line for the Leafs is Lombardi-Bozak-Armstrong. There is constant talk of the Leafs looking to make moves and all that, but it has to be remembered that nobody has seen this line play even one shift together. Realistically speaking, each player on this line can be a 40 point guy, or a point every two games guy. That changes the look of the Leafs big time and adds a lot more of an offensive dimension to the overall team.

– Even though St. Louis dominated the Leafs for two periods and did tie the game, you have to give the Leafs credit for coming back strong right after they were scored on. That hasn’t been their pattern this season, but as soon as St. Louis tied it, the Grabovski line went on and dominated, and almost scored. Give credit where it’s due there.

– That St. Louis game was a tough overall game. They were getting dominated and they didn’t get a call. In the third period alone, Steckel got slashed and had a breakaway taken away, Grabovski got clobbered twice before he touched the puck, Lupul took a hard one to the wrist, and Komisarek nearly had his wrist taken off by Jason Arnott. Meanwhile, the Leafs had some rather interesting calls go against them. So, they were on the road, getting dominated, not getting the calls, blew a lead, and still managed to win. That’s really, really tough.

– Scrivens was fantastic against the Blues, but on the St. Louis powerplay goal, he has to play that puck better behind the net. The four penalty killers were clearly expecting that puck to be stopped and they got thrown off when it wasn’t. Either you stop it or stay in your net.

– Also in the Blues game, when Langenbrunner was left in front of the net and had a great opportunity towards the end of the first period, it started with Jake Gardiner skating all the way up to the top of the circle to challenge the St. Louis forward. It’s one thing to be aggressive, it’s another to be reckless. Players have to stay within their zone and their limits.

– Carl Gunnarsson wrote a piece on his history (either that or it was transcribed) and it’s on The Hockey News here. Making the NHL is a crazy journey, no matter who you are, and we as fans forget that all the time. It was very cool to read Gunnarsson’s experiences and it shows you how grounded he is as a person and the character of the family he comes from. It’s the reason I try to rationalize player and coaching decisions first and foremost, because everyone has a reason for doing something in their own mind, and it’s much easier to simply criticize than to take the time and think about it.

The Leafs play home Tuesday against Phoenix, visit Nashville Thursday, host Washington on Saturday and are back on the road Sunday in Carolina. Tough week. Let’s see how they respond to some true adversity.