Without the ‘x’ beside their name in standings it isn’t official, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are tantalizingly close to clinching a playoff spot. Even with their 49 points through 40 games, they may have simply outpaced the also-rans for playoff contention.
The Winnipeg Jets sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but have only six games to make up ground. Every team above in the standings has at least one game in hand on the Jets. They’re running out of race track. The tenth place New Jersey, losers of eight of their last ten games; sit a nigh-insurmountable nine points back of the Leafs.
The truth is less suspenseful than the idea of the playoff chase, but I’ll take it. Here are some Leaf thoughts for your Friday.
Kessel and the fickleness of scoring
The Leafs are 17 – 3 – 4 when Phil Kessel records a point, highlighting a few interesting and important things. Firstly, his 40 points on the year (14 goals, 26 assists) were recorded in only 24 of the 40 games he’s played this season. The points percentage in those 24 games (38 of a possible 48 points = .791), suggests that Kessel’s offense is of the game breaking variety, when it comes at all.
But this exemplifies the overall streakiness of even the league’s best scorers. The 16 pointless games of Kessel’s season help to illustrate that while he’s been ‘counted on’ every night of the season to provide offense, that’s not the truth.
And while he regularly gets raked over the coals in Toronto for purported slumps and inconsistencies, Phil Kessel is repeating last season’s career-best point per game pace. With four goals in his past two games, Kessel is also just off the pace for a fifth consecutive 30-goal performance (in an 82-game schedule). Sure he only scores in 60% of his games, I’ll take season-to-season consistency like that any day of the week. Fun fact: he’s also a point per game in the playoffs.
More thoughts on Phaneuf and the Norris Trophy
Dion Phaneuf has quietly put together a tremendous resume for a Norris nod, but I still think he’s a long shot. He’s seventh in ice time per game at 25:47 minutes a night, and fifth in scoring by a defenseman with 24 points. According to www.behindthenet.ca, Phaneuf regularly plays against the third toughest competition among defensemen with more than 20 games played, much of that with AHLers in Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer. As further illustration to the difficulty and abundance of his minutes, and his versatility as a defender, he logs over three minutes of ice per night on the power play and on the penalty kill. He’s played over 300 minutes more ice time than the next closest Leaf defender (Mike Kostka, despite being scratch the previous three games, is still second in total ice time on the D corps). That the Leafs have a positive goal differential is in no small part resultant of the aggressive, two-way play of the Leaf captain.
At the very least, he warrants a nomination for the Norris Trophy for all his accomplishments this season. But with a short season, and solid-if-not-spectacular seasons from the likes of Shea Weber, PK Subban, Ryan Suter, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Kronwall, it’s possible that Phaneuf’s work gets lost in the crowd.
Grabo grins and bears it
Mikhail Grabovski is a consummate professional, or at least well versed in diplomacy. When asked for his thoughts on his usage and play this season following Toronto’s 3 – 2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers, he smiled and proclaimed happiness with the team and a desire to contribute however he can. In the midst of a mulligan of a season, you’ve gotta like that attitude. Even if it is at least a little feigned.
But this must be strange territory for quirky Belorussian. He became a household name in Toronto on some pretty awful Maple Leaf teams, and has now fallen meteorically down the depth chart on a finally-good team. Once relied upon to a scorer, he’s been used in a shutdown role and now most recently paired with noted pugilists Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Once a capable 20-minute a night forward, he’s now playing the least amount of minutes per game of his entire career in Toronto.
It’s a bad time for a disappointing season, the first of a five-year, $27.5-million contract extension signed last March. He’s paid to be a premier player, and can be that for the Leafs if given the opportunity. But you’ve got to think that rival GMs will be inquiring about Grabovski’s availability this off season if this play keeps up. And they’d be smart to do it, and the Leafs management fools to even contemplate it.
Depth not an issue down the stretch
Say what you will about Randy Carlyle’s coaching systems, but the debates and constant rosterbation that goes on in comments proves one thing beyond a doubt: this team’s got solid depth. Even with Joffrey Lupul injured, the press box is full unto bursting with Marlies graduates Mike Kostka, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner.
I suspect that once the playoffs roll around, one of Orr or McLaren will be scratched in favour of Frattin, who despite his scoring struggles can provide so much than either enforcer. But all of them will see some more time before the season is out. While the lineups can be a source of frustration, it’s one borne of the club’s ability to find and acquire NHL-level talent over the past few seasons and it’s a great problem to have.
Michael Langlois of VLM with 10 assumptions on the Leafs down the stretch. Great point on Komarov.