Photo: Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Whether you’re an advanced stats junkie or not, there’s little doubt the Leafs‘ top line of Lupul-Bozak-Kessel, despite a thrilling offensive season, needs to improve its possession play in even strength situations.

If you are in the former camp, there’s heaps of statistical evidence that Lupul, Bozak and Kessel were effectively neutralizing themselves at even strength with their inability drive possession in a favourable direction; anybody watching closely could tell this was due to a combination of poor defensive play and a lack of offensive zone time due to their reliance on the rush to generate offense.

Despite their numbers across the board – one of the most productive lines in hockey offensively – a quick look at the trio’s goals for and against rate stats reveals they were scoring a lot but being scored on even more at five on five. Only Kessel has a close to even zone shift while Lupul and Bozak are a couple of percentage points in the negative for their zone shift during five-on-five play.

Even accounting for the fact that the Leafs were a poor defensive team throughout starting with their goaltenders, it’s still not good enough five on five play from their money line. All three conceded more shots on goal than they mustered for their line, despite Kessel nearly hitting the 300 shot mark, and Lupul and Bozak pumping a shots at a slightly higher rate than the season prior.

In James van Riesmdyk, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence the Leafs are making an improvement over Tyler Bozak at the most important forward position on the ice when it comes to possession play.

van Riemsdyk started 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone and finished 52% of them there. Starting 60% in the offensive zone is certainly high and it’s tough to keep that number there, but from a possession standpoint I have my doubts he’s ready to improve on Bozak’s possession/defensive play as of today. His team’s save percentage with him on the ice was an ugly .903%. The Flyers conceded goals at a lower rate with him off the ice than on it and he failed to help outscore the difference.

There are of course a few areas where JvR is an improvement over Bozak which shouldn’t go unmentioned. Bozak had noticeably improved his strength in the one on one and board battles last season but he does not have JvR’s size nor skill. He gives the line a high skill forward with puck protection ability, and theoretically this could help the line sustain a little more offensive zone time as opposed to having the one good chance and then chasing the puck back the other way.

Most importantly, JvR  is young and has the potential to be the dominant first line player Bozak simply won’t ever become. On a developing team this is the best argument for getting JvR’s feet wet at the center position. Thought it’d be nice, will it necessarily be at center, and is he ready for a trial by fire at it on the Leafs‘ top line today? I have my doubts.

A good centerman is the first to support the defencemen, is the key to the breakout out of their own end, knows when to pick his spots between joining the attack and hanging back, and has good read and react skills in developing situations as he may be required to cover for any of his linemates at any time. JvR has some instincts for the position I’m sure, and there’s nothing to indicate he lacks understanding of the game, but this is also not something that comes easily or quickly to a player who has not yet played the position at the NHL level.

Barring the addition of a number one center capable of dominating possession – probably not happening before the start of the season – there will have to be a new strategy from Carlyle as to how to work the top line into more favourable matchups so it’s producing well but not conceding worse at even strength, whether it’s Van Riemsdyk or Bozak at center. And then there’s that whole goaltending situation.


Your hump day reading…

About that goaltending situation, last night Twitter was abuzz with a possibly imminent  Jonathan Bernier to Toronto trade. Seems to be mostly be parroted by fake insiders at this point, but Howard Berger and a few others with an ounce of credibility (that was tough to admit) wondered if there might be a deal on the horizon. Adding a goaltender of Bernier’s age and pedigree is never a bad thing for a rebuilding franchise, I suppose, but I would be hesitant to give up much in return when goaltending is so random and unproven netminders are worth so little. It would directly contradict Burke’s words a few weeks back when he said unproven ‘tendies weren’t on his radar. The rumoured going price is Frattin and a pick.

Cam Charron compares matchups between Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf. If you believe in the numbers, respect Phaneuf a little more, don’t get too high off the ground yet on Gardiner.

The Buffalo-area columnist convinced the You Can Play Project is apart of a league wide pro-gay agenda has not been fired by his employer. Is a publication whose website was built in GeoCities in a position to fire anybody? The answer to that question is obviously no.

Michael Langlois notes the price for Nash was lower than the one Burke paid for Kessel. Like Nash Kessel also played on a bad team, but is four years younger and posted 99 goals to Nash’s 95 in the last three seasons. Kessel was dealt at age 21 coming off a 36 goal season and Nash is 28 with a huge contract. Also, Kessel isn’t afraid of playing in front of the best damn fan base in the league.

The Leafs have brought Simon Gysbers back to the Marlies blueline on a new one-year contract.

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosted "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covered the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at