I hope to have an article up later in the week, but for now I thought I’d share some notes.
– Make it three straight years in which a player other than Phil Kessel has taken Leafs fans by storm as the initial team points leader, and three straight years Kessel ultimately comes out on top and leads the team in scoring. First it was Clarke MacArthur, who came in as a cheap free agent and started off his Leafs tenure with 8 goals in 7 games. He finished the year with 62 points that year; Kessel finished with 64. Last year, Lupul came in and wowed the fan base. He had an unbelievable season, potting 67 points in 66 games; Kessel had 82 points in 82 games. This season, Nazem Kadri similarly burst onto the scene exciting everyone with flashy goals and huge hits; now Kessel is ahead of him in points as the season comes to a close. All Kessel does every year is stay healthy and lead the team in points.
– Read an interesting theory on Dobberhockey.com a few weeks back. It basically stated that Kessel has been better than Seguin since the trade. That’s a fair statement to make over the past four seasons as Kessel has become a deadly scorer and point per game player while Seguin has adjusted to the league slowly but surely while playing on the same line as one of the better centers in hockey, Patrice Bergeron. With that, the argument went: it’s tough to say a team flat out lost a trade when they won it for the first four years. It’s not like the 25-year-old Kessel is about to become a bad player any time soon, either. Not going to debate the trade any further, just interesting looking at it in a different way.
– Don’t want to criticize a huge win against Montreal, but there are two types of blowout victories: the first is simply dominating a team and running them over. The second is the opposition playing terrible and you taking advantage of it. The first time the Leafs crushed the Habs, it was the first one. This past Saturday, it was the second.
– The Habs hit the post shortly before the Leafs made it 4-1 in the first period. If that shot had gone in to make it 3-2, it’s a completely different game. At that time, the Habs were actually outplaying the Leafs, but literally every time the Leafs came down the ice they scored. Doesn’t make the win cheap or any less significant, but it’s important to recognize what happened.
– When the Caps blew out the Leafs on the other hand, that was total domination. The Leafs were flat, no doubt, but they got dominated. Considering they just got heavily outplayed the night before too against New Jersey, I’m not sure how much of a mulligan they should get for that.
– On the bright side, once and awhile it’s okay to get beat down. Serves as a nice reality check and helps stave off the complacency that was starting to creep in.
– The best part about the game against Montreal was that the Leafs got to rest their big guns. Phaneuf played a season low 17:57, Kessel played only 13:34 and JVR played 16:21. Games this late in the season where your coach can rest his horses because of a big lead are fantastic.
– On that note, it’s nice that the Leafs have enough breathing room to comfortably rest Gunnarsson. A few times journalists throughout the season journalists have asked Gunnarsson about the injury and he has brushed it off. It will be interesting to find out what exactly the injury is once the year is fully over, and a lot of credit needs to go to him for toughing it out and playing it through. It’s not like he’s playing easy minutes lately either, as Gunnarsson has been paired with Phaneuf playing against the opposition’s best.
– It’s tough for me to fully judge a guy when I know he’s playing with a fairly significant injury throughout the year. For example, does Gunnarsson lose this battle that leads to this goal if he’s relatively healthy? Tough for us to say from the sofa.
– It’s also interesting to think about Justin Schultz and what could have been. He has 21 points in 42 games this season, but only 8 points in his last 22 games, with three of those points coming in one game against Calgary. Does Cody Franson have the season he’s having if Schultz is present? Does Schultz play considering Gardiner is arguably better than him defensively and is himself finding it tough to play? Heck, maybe Schultz would have played with Phaneuf to start the season instead of Kostka or Holzer. My answers, for the record are no, yes and probably. We always seem to give so much attention to these players when available, but never really follow up to see what the result could have been.
– In a game where the Leafs had 12 shots on net plus an empty net goal, it’s amazing that it got no attention that Kessel and JVR both had 4.
– There isn’t much to say when it comes to that Devils game because the Leafs flat out got dominated. I broke down the Leafs going shot-less against the Rangers for nearly half the game play-by-play and I think it’s more of the same deal. The Leafs struggle to break through neutral zone traps with speed. Instead, they are forced to dump the puck in and try to forecheck, which hurts their forwards who generally tend to be on the smaller side overall.
– Frattin drew the penalty that led to the winning goal against New Jersey, but before that there was a play where the puck got out of the Leafs zone and Frattin sprung out to chase it with a step on the defender. When Frattin did get to the puck just inside the Devils zone, he spun back instead of taking it to the net. Almost immediately after that, McClement started getting ice time on that line. After that, I knew Frattin would be scratched next game. Not saying I agree with scratching him solely for that reason, but Frattin is a thick guy who is capable of driving the net with the puck and getting good shots off. When he has a lane, he has to take it because that’s when his game is at its bes t- being physical, creating space for himself and teammates, firing off quality shots and getting dirty. Carlyle isn’t the first coach who has tried to hammer this home to Frattin, as Eakins harped on him for it too last year in the playoffs and at the beginning of this season. Preaching the same message gets tiring after awhile and that’s how players start getting shorter leashes.
– It’s only one game, but Lupul didn’t look assertive at all. There was one play in the last 10 minutes of the third period, when most people had probably turned the channel, where O’Byrne was skating up the boards in his own zone as both teams were changing. Lupul hopped the bench, and since this was on the right side which is the opposite side of the benches, he skated all the way to that side where O’Byrne was and curled up ice. When he curled, he actually bumped into the puck O’Byrne was carrying and knocked it off his stick. The Leafs recovered the puck and carried on, but it was a weird play to see. How often do NHLers skate into the puck that their teammate has possession of like that in wide open ice? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that appears to be a display of incoordination which I would associate with a concussion. I don’t think he played with a concussion, but he did look like he had some cobwebs or rust or whatever you want to call it.
– Just speaking from my own experience: it is strange coming back from a concussion. You aren’t really sure whether you should dip a toe in the water, or jump right in so to speak. Lupul was finishing his checks and didn’t appear to be trying to avoid contact, but it’s tough to say if he went full tilt. Guess we’ll give him some time and see what happens.
– I could be completely wrong on this, but when it comes to Clarke MacArthur being scratched, it’s worth noting he was hurt just a few weeks ago with an “upper body injury.” Considering we never found out what it is, it’s probably some sort of shoulder injury or nagging body injury. Now, if he has a bad shoulder, would you announce that a week and a half before playoffs, or would you just brush it under the rug as a scratch and keep that information in-house? I could just be completely out to lunch on this, but it’s a thought. MacArthur does wear an A and has been counted on by Carlyle this year, but he also hasn’t scored in 12 games.
– One thing the entire team has struggled with lately is simply dumping the puck in effectively. In the last three games the Leafs haven’t even been able to simply chip the puck in properly in a place where they could even retrieve it. On one play against Washington, Liles was so frustrated with it he wired a wrist shot into the zone and he actually just hit the Caps D-man standing at the top of the circle; the puck dropped to his stick and he made a simple outlet pass to get it right out of the zone. Against the Devils, the Leafs were putting the pucks in areas that Brodeur could gather them. On one play, he actually sucked Kulemin in before making a simple outlet pass to a defenseman who got to skate it out afterward. There’s no easier way to lose possession of the puck than a terrible dump in.
– Take, for instance, Kadri’s third goal against the Islanders in late February. Gunnarsson gets the puck in his own zone and thinks about skating it up and dumping it down for the line change, but instead turns back and regroups. Now the Leafs are just crossing center ice and giving it away far too often.
– A second thing would simply be the team’s passing. The Leafs just aren’t making tape-to-tape passes right now. One shift against the Devils I saw Bozak, JVR and Gardiner all miss Kessel with a pass and Kessel was wide open every single time. He just skated off after the third time; can’t imagine what he was thinking. Later in the game, his line finally got the puck in New Jersey’s end and Bozak picked up the puck in the corner and did a blind 360 with the puck, throwing it to the middle of the ice where nobody was. The puck exited the zone and the Devils went right back up ice.
– These are easy ways to ensure you never have possession, zone time or quality scoring chances.
– Against the Caps, even though it was over, it was nice to see Phaneuf end up with five shots, while Grabovski and Kadri got four on net. The latter two players in particular will need to be firing on all cylinders if the Leafs are to make the playoffs interesting. Phaneuf has been great for the Leafs for awhile now; that doesn’t even need to be said.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I’ve been saying this for weeks now, and it’s not exactly ground breaking, but I think I’d be assembling a fourth line that can play come playoff time. Maybe that involves one of Orr or McLaren, maybe it doesn’t, but in the playoffs fighting goes down and it would be nice to have a fourth line that has the potential to put the puck in the net. Erskine of the Capitals simply laughed when Orr and McLaren challenged him to fight – it’s that time of year now.
2 – On that note, I think I’d run with JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin, MacArthur-Grabovski-Frattin, Komarov-McClement-McLaren/Orr/Hamilton at this point. When your team is struggling to even get the puck out of your zone, you need to stack the odds in your favour as much as possible and run with your skill.
3 – I think I’d sit Gunnarsson the rest of the season if that’s what it takes for him to get healthy. The Leafs might drop a bit in the standings without him, but they also aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs without him so do what you need to do to make sure he’s ready to go.
4 – I think I’d give Kostka another look if this play continues. There are a few things Kostka can do and that’s play with poise, move the puck up ice effectively and clear the zone. Right now the Leafs are struggling to string passes together and get it out, and Kostka can help in that regard.
5 – I think if the team is playing bad and I was changing up the lines, I’d really bring out the blender. In other words, I wouldn’t just change a few wingers around, I’d make significant changes. You can think of line changes of your own, but whatever it is – make it worthwhile. Play Kadri with Kessel, put Lupul with Grabovski, anything really. It’s one thing if your down by a goal and you swap a player or two, but if you’re getting beat handily, make some big changes and see if something sticks.