Ten games into a regular season is usually when the good teams and players start to shake off the summer rust and really get rolling. In a 48 game season, there aren’t any games to spare.
Over a fifth into the season now, the Leafs, just like every other team, have had some positives and negatives worth discussing. At the end of the day, 10 games is still only 10 games and nothing is conclusive, but here is the good, the bad and the ugly of the beginning of Toronto’s season:
- Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin
Whether or not you think Kadri is the real deal and has “arrived,” he is finally getting the opportunity to play every night and prove it himself. The frustrating yo-yoing of Kadri between the Leafs and Marlies looks to be over as Brian Burke’s first ever draft pick in Toronto is back to playing his natural position with line mates that give him an actual chance to succeed. So far, Kadri has responded with eight points in 10 games, which leads the team. One of Kadri’s line mates, Matt Frattin, is also starting to produce. He proved he could play in the league last year during his 56 game rookie season, but his 15 points left something to be desired. Despite not starting the season in the NHL, an injury to Joffrey Lupul opened the door and he has responded with seven points in his first seven games. As James Mirtle pointed out, the Leafs organization is hoping that the foundation of their third line right now can become the core of their second line in the future.
What many thought would be the team’s biggest weakness this season really hasn’t been, at least so far. James Reimer is sporting a .917sv% at the moment, which puts him in the upper half (more middle of the pack, actually) of goalies in that category. While Ben Scrivens’ .892% is nothing to write home about, the number doesn’t do his overall play justice just yet. Other than the loss against the Islanders, there really isn’t a game you can point to in which the Leafs goaltending has let them down so far. Their other losses have been the 2-1 home opener that Ryan Miller stood on his head, the 5-2 overpowering versus the Rangers where Reimer made the score more respectable than it should have been, a 1-0 loss to Boston, and a 4-1 loss to Carolina filled with defensive breakdowns and a goal off Mike Kostka’s skate. If this is supposed to be a developmental season, the Leafs look like they are developing two pretty good goalies and maybe even figuring out a position that has been giving them fits for years.
- The Mark Fraser-Cody Franson Pairing
The Leafs defense has, on the whole, been a disaster for years now. You have to start somewhere in building it back up, and it looks like the Leafs have come across what is quickly becoming a pretty solid third pairing. A third D pairing isn’t the foundation of a Cup-contending team, but it’s a positive step when you consider the Leafs should have two top four D-men coming up the system in the next year or two in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, plus what they already have in Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and JM Liles. Fraser is a big burly guy on the back end who clears the net well, battles in the corners and takes the body consistently. At the very least, he’s a guy who can fight and play a bit of hockey, which could positively reduce the use of playing guys who can only fight and are otherwise liabilities. While Franson is basically the total opposite – skilled, great outlet pass, offense-first – he does bring size, too. At this point, the Leafs D needs any positive news it can get; two big D-men who complement each other well in a pairing where one helps the PK and the other helps the PP is a solid duo with a chance to succeed long-term, too (Franson is 25, Fraser is 26).
It seemed like most fans were happy to see Luke Schenn shipped out in part because they wanted him gone, but also because fans were excited about the Leafs bringing in James van Riemsdyk. If there was any doubt, JVR is quickly erasing it. He’s started his Leafs career with six goals and seven points in his first 10 games, and is quickly becoming the team’s best net presence (although Lupul will have something to say about that once he returns). He probably won’t maintain his 29 goal pace in a 48-game season (shooting 17%), but he’s starting to fit in nicely in Toronto and showing he is a legitimate top six forward and more than a 40-point scorer. JVR is still only 23, he’s under contract for the next five years at only $4.25M per year (the word “only” is used because he has the potential to far exceed the number he is earning in hockey-value) and he’s beginning to truly blossom in Toronto.
- Being 5-5 despite missing key players and not getting production from relied-upon stars
The struggles of Phaneuf and Kessel have been well documented (and are touched upon below, of course), but on the whole you have to look at this team and note that it is rather impressive they are sitting at .500 considering Kessel doesn’t have a goal, and Phaneuf has only one point thus far. Eventually those two will get going, and if the rest of the team can keep up their play, the Leafs might be able to hang around the race. In recent years the Leafs have gotten out to hot starts and fizzled off. It might be best to hang around the race and then slowly get better as the season goes on to make a legitimate run at a playoff spot (playoff talk still seems premature at this point). Considering the struggles of their two best players, the fact that they are missing their second leading scorer from last year and two top four D-men, there is certainly a chance they get healthier and a heck of a lot better as the season progresses, and maybe even make a run at this thing.
- Phil Kessel
Surely some will argue this should be in the “ugly” category and my counterargument to that is this: he is getting scoring opportunities, he is working hard, and while six points in 10 games isn’t what you want from your stud, it’s certainly not the worst thing in the world. Pretty well everything that can be said about Kessel has been noted at this point by one media outlet or another. He isn’t scoring, we get it. Eventually he’s going to get one, and when he does, he’ll probably go on one of his standard hot streaks. It’s tough watching Kessel at this point just because you basically sit there and feel bad for him. The team has stayed afloat without his goal scoring, so all is not lost. The sooner he snaps out of it, the better. Once he does, that could push this team a long way in a weak conference.
- Penalty Kill
Although the Leafs penalty killing is struggling again –ranked 27th currently – and could be in the “ugly” section easily, there are some strengths. Jay McClement has come as advertised as he is an excellent penalty killer. The Leafs have allowed two PP goals in each of the last two games, but there are some things worth pointing out. Against Carolina, one goal was off a skate, the other was on a 5 on 3. Against Washington, Dave Steckel was out for both of them; while he isn’t solely to blame, he’s not one of the Leafs’ core penalty killers anymore as Bozak, McClement, Kulemin and Komarov have seemingly established themselves as the core up front. Carl Gunnarsson also hasn’t been playing, and he’s arguably the Leafs best penalty killing D-man. There’s enough in this unit for them to be at least league average when everybody is healthy, but we’ll see if they realize that potential. For now, it’s bad.
- Dion Phaneuf
There are a lot of different angles to consider Phaneuf’s game from so far. On one hand, he’s carrying more responsibility than ever before beside a partner who has never played in the NHL before even though he’s 27. Adding to that is the fact that he’s playing on the left side this year, as opposed to his usual right side, and there’s a big adjustment period going on. On the other hand, he’s the captain, the supposed leader of the defense, and he’s mustered one point in 10 games so far. He’s also been a focal point on a really bad power play and he hasn’t been overly physical. Maybe Phaneuf falls somewhere between “needs to be better” and “not being put in the best position to succeed” for now, so he’s been put in the “bad” category. Phaneuf was a force last year, and the Leafs are competing so far this season without him being that same guy. It’s questionable how much longer they can do so without him (and there is a lot being asked of him), but he’s another guy whom, if he plays better, will give the Leafs a decent chance at competing in a bad conference.
- Ice time allocation
The initial thought for most here, of course, will be Mike Kostka. The AHL journeyman is averaging the 14th most ice time of any D-man in the league, even though he hasn’t done anything particularly special (he hasn’t necessarily been bad, but the two guys in front of him are Mark Streit and Brian Campbell, and the two guys directly behind him in TOI are Zdeno Chara and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so…). It’s more than just Kostka, though. Two of the Leafs top scorers, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin, both average under 15 minutes a night. Tyler Bozak is playing over 21 minutes a night despite not excelling at much of anything other than faceoffs. Meanwhile, Dion Phaneuf is playing over 27:30 minutes a night. Some of these guys are going to wear out as the shortened season really gets into the nitty-gritty, and others are deserving of more ice time. It’s early and this could easily be fixed, but for now it’s just puzzling.
- Gunnarsson’s surprise injury
Many were wondering why he was struggling, and now we know why. He’s been hurt. Gunnarsson was arguably the Leafs’ second best D-man last year behind Dion Phaneuf. He’s a steady presence who makes the safe play and keeps it simple, plus he has good positioning. It’s always nice having a dependable guy to throw over the boards, but it’s even nicer when the rest of your defense is largely unestablished and offensive minded. The Leafs did get some decent games out of him (he has only missed 3/10 games so far this season), plus the injury does not appear serious, so this isn’t “ugly” just yet, but it’s definitely “bad.”
- The power play
The difference between the power play being “ugly” and the penalty kill being “bad” is two-fold. The first thing is that the Leafs penalty kill has actually shown signs of improvement (namely, adding Jay McClement to it). The second is that the PK has been terrible for years. It doesn’t necessarily get a pass for that, but it’s one thing to consistently be bad, it’s another to be good and then for almost no reason start being terrible. That’s what the PP has done. The Leafs had a top-10 PP in the league last year, yet right now are struggling just to gain the zone, setup what they want to do, and create chances. You can blame some of it on the players, you can blame some of it on the personnel, but at the end of the day it’s just not good enough or acceptable considering how good they were last season.
- Lupul Injury
Pretty well everything about this was ugly. It was right after Lupul agreed to a long-term contract and the Leafs said his injury issues were behind him, it was a result of his own teammate hitting him with a slap shot, and Kessel really hasn’t looked anything close to what he was last year without him. Like or dislike Lupul, he is a guy that’s a personality on a team that lacks them, he brings offense to the table, he helps the power play and he’s a leader on a young team (a team that has blown some leads early this season, though it’s obviously tough to say how if things would’ve been different with him in the lineup). On the bright side, it has allowed JVR to move up the lineup, but it sure would be nice to have the option of playing JVR with Grabovski, and keeping Lupul-Kessel together while the third line Kadri-Frattin produces as well.
- Gardiner’s injury and delayed return
Another huge injury makes the list. The good news is that, although suffering a concussion, Gardiner is playing again. The bad news is the Leafs defense has really struggled without him. Games such as the 1-0 loss to Boston and the 2-1 loss to Buffalo highlighted the Leafs’ weaknesses without him in terms of being able to beat a neutral zone trap and push the puck up the ice effectively. Gardiner is also sorely missed on the power play, too. The Leafs have some depth this year and quite a few capable NHL players, but they lack true game breakers; players who can go out there on any given shift and do something special. Gardiner is that sort of player, plus he adds speed to the lineup. The worst part about concussions is that you can never forecast the full recovery time, but hopefully he’s healthy and in the Leafs lineup helping the team win games again sooner rather than later.
- Questionable line-up decisions
It’s still only 10 games into the season, and there are some new faces in the lineup that do deserve time, so Carlyle should get some leeway. Plus, the Leafs haven’t exactly been such a good hockey team over the years that makes them deserving of thoughts such as “keep that line the same as before!” or “why are you experimenting?!” That said, there are some really questionable decisions occurring right now. Dion Phaneuf is playing on the left side with Mike Kostka, while JM Liles is on the right with Carl Gunnarsson. Kostka’s PP1 time has also been well documented. Tyler Bozak is also playing PP1 while Nazem Kadri (the team’s leading scorer) is playing wing on PP2 and Matt Frattin isn’t on either unit. Kessel has basically stayed on the same line all season so far despite struggling to score (and it’s obviously a clear burden on him), while McClement has been stuck on a bad fourth line for half of the games so far – the only goal scored in a loss against Boston was because the Leafs’ fourth line had two pure enforcers on it and were up against Boston’s third line, even though the team was at home and held last change. Carlyle deserves time to get a feel for his roster, the problem is with a 48 game season is that he doesn’t have the luxury of time.
- Home Ice Play
Dating back to last season, the Leafs have won three of their last 18 games at home. Is there anything else left to say about that? The team has been brutal at home, the fans have been deathly quiet, and the Leafs just look way more relaxed on the road than they do at home. You can really only say so much about going 3/18 at home. It’s ugly.