– We haven’t discussed the PK nearly enough in this space so I thought now would be a good time to. Last year, I noted the Marlies PK system and how they play a ‘T.’ Essentially, it’s two base defenders down low and then two forwards that play in a straight line and swing back and forth when the puck is around the top of the circle. In other words, it’s a hybrid diamond/box. Last year, the Marlies had the best penalty kill in the league, killing off 88.1%, with the second place team coming in at 85.6%.
This season, the Marlies PK started off poorly. It appeared they were adapting to a more conventional box and the results were not great. At the very least, that’s what the eye test told me. I remember attending a game and sitting with McKeen’s scout Gus Katsaros and we were talking about the Marlies adapting Carlyle’s systems and how the PK in particular looked pretty bad. The Ducks PK the last three years came in at 16th, 19th, and 24th.
I’m not saying Eakins is the one behind the Leafs PK 100%, because they have gotten excellent goaltending and Jay McClement has been great on the PK at every stop in his career. However, the Leafs PK system looks very similar to what the Marlies were running last season and that has to be noted.
Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Ryan Hamilton and Leo Komarov have all looked good on the Leafs PK and they all had time with Eakins and the Marlies first. The other PK stalwarts are simply excellent players in Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Kulemin and McClement, with Bozak being counted on to win faceoffs to start.
I guess technically this is more a theory of mine than anything, but I think it’s worth noting.
– A month ago Jonas Siegel wrote an article on Jay McClement and the penalty kill. In it, he quotes McClement saying one major thing about his penalty killing is “not always extending your stick the entire way, having a little bit more to give so you can bait him a little bit and then he tries to pass it maybe slide it out the last couple inches and try to get a piece of it. That’s a tool and a skill is to try to use your stick and get the puck to go in the places that we want it to go.” He holds his stick closer to his body, and when opponents have the puck they think they have the space to riffle a pass through, they actually don’t because McClement has baited them. I’ve been watching it over the past few weeks and invite you all to do so. At least once a game he picks off a pass and clears it down the ice thanks to that.
– Against the Rangers last night, Stepan thought he had a streaking Del Zotto on the power play and it was actually Bozak who did the baiting and intercepted a pass before clearing it down. It’s such a smart, savvy way to kill penalties and it’s worth looking for the next time the Leafs are killing a penalty.
– I have to give Bozak credit for winning three straight draws at the end of the Rangers game. Before that, he was 11/22 and lost some pretty key draws to Brian Boyle in the offensive zone when the Leafs were on the power play. Good for him for pushing through it and coming through. On the negative side, the Leafs never got the puck out cleanly once on those draws. That has to be fixed, although one of those draws resulted in Phaneuf coming up with the puck and being blatantly held by Clowe with no call.
– Phaneuf, by the way, is now tied for fifth in points by a defenseman and averages the 7th most ice time per game. He’s also eighth in power play points for a defenseman.
– Tortorella said he was trying to get Nash away from Phaneuf, and on Saturday he was driving Clarkson insane. I think we need to just take a step back and enjoy how well Phaneuf’s playing right now. He’s been a horse.
– Kadri is coming back down to Earth a bit the last few games. Against the Rangers he only played 12:55, and against the Devils his ice time came back down a bit to 16:17. He also had one particularly bad giveaway when he tried to play it through his legs in his own zone and Tallinder came away with the puck. Tallinder took a shot on net with Ponikarovsky almost knocking in the rebound in the first period.
– For all the talk of how tough the Leafs are this season, they were fairly quiet after Lupul got ran and injured. Phaneuf went after Hartnell and ended up having to deal with Wayne Simmonds and coincidental penalties. The coaches probably told him they can’t afford for him to be in the box all night, but he at least went out there looking to make something happen. Orr and Rosehill had a pretty nondescript fight and Kadri threw some big hits one shift, but that’s about it. Everyone looks at McLaren and Orr when something like this happens, but where is the rest of the team? Someone goes after one of your star players, a guy that many Leafs have called their best player, and nobody goes after Giroux? The Leafs are a young team and hopefully that’s a good lesson for them moving forward. It took the Bruins years to get where they are now in terms of sticking up for each other.
– This hasn’t been talked about enough: Kulemin basically plays center for the Leafs in the defensive zone in terms of positioning. An example most people will remember is when he knocked down Rick Nash. He was deep in the zone, and certainly not in a position a winger should be. Kulemin was put on a line with Komarov and McClement and assumed center responsibilities in the zone while McClement took up wing, but it’s been most helpful when playing with Kadri and Lupul. It allows the two creative forwards to go deep in the offensive zone and do their thing, while Kulemin can stay high and assume center responsibilities off the counterattack and initial offensive zone charge by the opponents. The one thing that has to be noted is when Kulemin does this, the natural center has to make sure he plays wing or things can get congested and confusing.
– What a valuable player Kulemin is though. He took a huge hit from a massive man in Boyle to get the puck up and out before O’Byrne’s goal.
– A lot of talk has centered on Kessel’s complete game lately. To me, he’s always backchecked hard and I’ve never had a problem with his effort in that department. What is noticeably improving is his board play. Last year, I argued Kessel was one of the best players in the league inside the faceoff dots, AKA the middle of the ice, and one of the worst outside of them. For example, here was Kessel a month ago panicking with the puck along the boards leading to a giveaway and goal against. That play has become all too familiar for Leafs fans. Compare that to the game against the Devils when the puck came along the boards and he looked up, didn’t panic, and was prepared to take a hit if necessary. A few shifts later in that game the puck came ringing around the boards to Kessel again and Tallinder pinched down on him. Kessel initiated contact, tied up Tallinder and that allowed the puck to keep sliding out of the zone. Those are the little things that are making Kessel better this year.
– Right before the Clarkson goal against the Leafs, Gardiner lost a race to Loktionov on an icing. Not saying it’s Gardiner fault that they scored, because he went all out. But boy, you do not see Gardiner lose races every day.
– How about Cody Franson on the 5 on 3 against the Devils, deflecting the puck into the corner, muscling off a forward and shooting it down? When coaches talk about players being physical, the first thought in everyone’s mind is hitting more. Those physical battles though are generally what are really being referenced. That’s the stuff Franson wasn’t doing last year. Against the Rangers, Franson also gave Rick Nash of all people a pretty rough ride one shift in the third period. That’s the physical compete you like to see.
– On the flip side, Fraser-Franson is struggling for stretches in their new top four role. They were both burned by Rick Nash for goals in an example of why you need two good pairings instead of one.
– The Leafs lack of quality defensemen will be particularly glaring in the playoffs on the road when matchups are harder to get. This conversation is for another time, though.
– JVR has 14 shots on net in his last 3 games. Against the Rangers he was all over the ice dominating. The most impressive play to me was when he crossed the blue line and hit the post on a simple wrist shot right before Kessel scored the eventual game winner. Wish we saw that shot more often.
– This week, Kessel had a little toe drag move against the Devils where he cut in and shot it, and he also had a spin-around move against the Flyers where he turned his back to the defender on the rush. Those are the creative plays you want to see him try because sometimes he just gets too predictable with skating down the wing and shooting it.
– Thought it was the right move to scratch Kostka after a horrid giveaway resulted in the Flyers game winner on Thursday.
– It was nice to see Komarov get under Rick Nash’s skin and play physical, but he has to know he can’t pinch when Gunnarsson is already in deep. He did, and Stepan chipped it by him before tying the game.
– As much as I’d love to comment on Joe Colborne, I just don’t think it’s fair considering who he’s playing with. His line did have one amazing shift of cycling in New York’s zone after the Rangers were really starting to come on, so that was nice to see.
– Colborne’s shown flashes of being able to cycle the puck well and maintain possession along the boards, but I’d like to see him play with talent before commenting.
“You notice it when he just gets inside and reverse-bumps a guy and gets some space for himself. So he’s not necessarily a flashier, physical player, but he uses his body wisely and I think that’s key.”
– JVR on Phil Kessel.
This is sort of an extension on the point I was making about Phil Kessel earlier, except these words are coming from a guy who actually plays with Kessel.
“I know at least when I step out on the ice I feel good [that] we’re going to shut them down,”
– Carl Gunnarsson, commenting on the Leafs penalty kill.
So do Leafs fans, Carl.
“The term concussion in today’s sporting world, you want to make sure you’re 100 percent sure before you start using that word.”
– Randy Carlyle on Joffrey Lupul’s potential injury.
Considering the Leafs are covered by the four major newspapers in this country, and it’s two major TV stations 24/7 365, I’d probably be weary of releasing that information, too.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think I’d send down Joe Colborne if he’s going to play on the fourth line with Orr and McLaren. It’s not like he’s getting power play time or the occasional shift with top end guys, and that’s evident in his 5:26 and 4:55 TOI thus far. Personally, I wouldn’t waste his time. This makes me think of when Max Pacioretty got in trouble in Montreal for saying he’d rather play 20 minutes a night in Hamilton rather than on the third or fourth line in the NHL.
2 – Point number one in mind, I think I’d play Frattin on the fourth line right now. A Hamilton/McLaren-Colborne-Frattin line appeals to me as a unit with size, physicality and the ability to chip in the odd goal or even get hot in the case of Frattin (maybe Colborne, too). Carlyle scratching McLaren against the Devils might have been a sign of things to come for the Leafs. I know he was back with Orr against the Rangers, but the Rangers physically mauled the Leafs in their first meeting so I expected that. Guess we’ll see how this plays out.
3 – I think I’d strongly consider going with Scrivens against the Rangers in New York. I’m not hedging my bets on the Leafs splitting this back-to-back with New York, but I’d more than accept if they did. They play the Habs and Devils after New York and I’d rather go with Reimer for both of those personally. Scrivens needs to get in there and they need to keep Reimer fresh, so I’d probably trot out Scrivens now. This said, I’m expecting Reimer to be in net and I don’t blame them if they do.
4 – I think, as an outside observer, I’d be sitting out Lupul for at least a week longer even if he says he’s ready to go now. The Leafs are going to qualify for the playoffs whether he plays or not from here on out. What they need Lupul for is the playoffs itself, so give him as much time as possible to get ready for that. Even if he only plays a game or two before playoffs, that’s fine. Or maybe they play him on the fourth line with Colborne and whoever just to give him 8 minutes or what not to see how he feels and responds. Just make sure this guy is okay.
5 – I think, even though this is an offseason conversation, I’d be going out of my way to bring in a top four defenseman to the Leafs. The Leafs have good forwards, and they can score. Another good center would be excellent, but I’d rather bring in a really good defenseman. It’s their biggest need and it’s not even close in my eyes.