Usually I like to include a little preamble before getting into notes, but the notes went a little long this week so I decided to scrap it. I’m also looking into something that could become a lengthy post; if all goes well there, I’ll hopefully have that up a little later in the week.
Moving on, there’s a lot to talk about in a week when JVR and Kessel put on a show against Anaheim, the Leafs made Columbus look a lot better than they are, and the team played two of their best periods of the season against Pittsburgh.
– I’ve written about this in this space many times over the last few years, but it’s worth repeating after Kessel didn’t touch the empty net pass by Raymond (giving Raymond the goal) and then tried to setup Bozak for an empty netter instead of going for his fourth goal of the night against Anaheim: Kessel doesn’t look to rack up points once the game is out of hand. If the Leafs get up handily on a team, Kessel shuts it down instead of trying to pad his point totals. That’s just the kind of guy he is. Some call Kessel a hot dog because he isn’t physical, but to me a hot dog tries to rack up points whenever he can in situations like those to up his totals. Kessel doesn’t.
– Against Anaheim, with 1:50 left and the net empty, the Ducks dumped it deep. Bernier came out, stopped the puck, and passed it to Franson who easily shot it out. That’s what puck handling goalies can do for you. When the Leafs played Pittsburgh, the Pens dumped it in on wrist shots more than a few times and Reimer wasn’t even coming out of his net (which is probably for the best). Also of note: Rielly was on for that late shift vs. Anaheim.
– Saturday’s game for Reimer was somewhat reminiscent of last season when he played against Pittsburgh in January. To refresh your memory: the Leafs started Scrivens not only in their season opener on the Saturday night in Montreal, but in their home opener against Buffalo on the Monday, too. That meant Reimer’s first game of the season was in Pittsburgh for the Penguins’ season opener, where many said the Leafs would get slaughtered and that they were throwing Reimer to the wolves. Of course, just like this past Saturday, the Leafs won that game, also by a three goal margin (5-2).
– On that note, when are some Leafs fans going to learn that Reimer, a) always plays unbelievable against Pittsburgh (4-0-2, .931sv%), and b) he faces adversity head on and usually comes out on top? Seemed like everyone thought the Leafs were going to get crushed by Pittsburgh in Toronto, on a Saturday night, with Reimer in net. Not so much.
– Seemed a number of people wanted to note that Bozak didn’t record a single point on Kessel’s hat trick. But, watch the hat-trick goal against Anaheim. At the very beginning of the video, Bozak ties up the man driving the net, which is the reason the puck goes untouched and swings around to JVR for the 2 on 1. If Bozak doesn’t completely tie up his man there, Kessel doesn’t score that goal.
– JVR’s speed is just incredible right now. The way he broke away from Ducks players to draw that penalty shot was jaw dropping for his height. He clearly worked his tail off during the summer and it’s showing big-time. Kudos to him. We notice it, JVR.
– I know some might suggest Clarkson getting suspended caused him to settle down, but I think the team going 7-3-0 in his absence showed him he doesn’t have to be any sort of saviour for this team. He just has to play his game, and for the most part he did try to come in and simply complement the team. He’s noticeably big out there despite only being 6’0, 200 pounds; he plays like he’s 6’5 and he finishes checks, which is something the Leafs have lacked without Komarov and Kulemin in the line-up. He put a good crunch on Crosby, who got frustrated and took a penalty moments later. That’s what he’ll bring, and it won’t show up anywhere on a score or stat sheet.
– It was disappointing to read that the Leafs had concerns about Clarkson’s conditioning heading into camp. Makes me wonder if we’ll only really start to see him hit his stride in mid season as he gets back into game shape and makes up for the ten games already lost.
– Raymond passed up a good shooting opportunity against Columbus after the puck broke loose, looking for a passing opportunity for a tap-in instead. Then, against Pittsburgh, there was a point in the second where the Leafs had three shots on net, at least five minutes went by, and the Leafs were in the Penguins zone twice for excellent cycles; a little later on, the commentators noted the Leafs had just mustered their fourth shot on net. The point is that the Leafs don’t seem to value shots on goal the way some teams do in lieu of good opportunities. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but I’m saying sometimes the Leafs’ shot on goal totals aren’t perfectly indicative of the flow of play because the Leafs do pass up shot opportunities instead of throwing it on net and crashing the crease. This is something Greg Cronin mentioned the Leaf coaching staff explicitly instructs the team to do.
– For what it’s worth, if you saw the way Clarkson sort of changed the dynamic of his line as a cycling menace, I think Kulemin will have a similar effect. If each of them are anchoring a cycling line, with JVR-Kessel together on the top unit, the Leafs should be in good shape once healthy.
– Loved seeing Kadri take a run at Malkin. When he does stuff like that you know he’s on his game.
– The things really killing Paul Ranger are the mental mistakes he’s making. Against Pittsburgh he twice hit shin pads with shots, and when Reimer made his diving pad save on Dupuis the 2 on 1 was the result of Ranger deciding to pinch with the fourth line on the ice. Although he technically pinched by the letter because he took his man and relied on his back-checker, you have to realize the situational circumstance when you’re on with the fourth line and the back-checker was Frazer McLaren. Backing up on that play is just smart hockey; pinch when you’re on with a Bolland, or a JVR, or even McClement. Of course, he also fumbled the puck and gave it away against Columbus for what turned out to be the game winner, too.
– Even though Kessel’s goal against Columbus was ultimately the result of a brutal turnover, that was one of the Leafs best breakouts of the season so far. JVR realized there was no clean breakout moving forward, so he moved it back to the D to regroup. The puck went D-to-D before Phaneuf moved it up to JVR, who was at the blue line instead of past center ice. JvR then hit a streaking Phil Kessel who was moving with speed through the neutral zone. See for yourself here:
– That’s what the Leafs need to do more of. If they keep it simple they will make life a hell of a lot easier on themselves.
– On the topic of that goal, Bozak made a nice pass to set up Kessel, but the biggest difference between Bozak and Kadri centering that line is Bozak is just going to try and dish it to the other two and let them do all the work. Whereas Kadri will handle it himself, make his own plays, and is more of a finisher. Their line really wasn’t doing much against Pittsburgh, and then all of a sudden they got a little open ice and scored one of the goals of the week. That’s all they need. Bozak in that same situation probably would have tried to pass to the backdoor (and that’s not a knock on him, it’s just the reality).
– Rather quietly, JVR has become a regular member of the Leafs penalty kill, averaging 2:23/night at 4 v 5 for the Leafs. When Carlyle was with Burke in Anaheim, they agreed not to put Perry and Getzlaf on the PK for fear of them blocking a shot and breaking something. Maybe it’s a change in philosophy, or maybe Carlyle just has faith in those shot-block protectors on the skates (and we know how he feels about wearing them in practice now). We’ll see if that changes once Kulemin and Bozak return, because along with McClement and Bolland those would figure to be the top four PKers on the team.
– It’s also interesting to see Bolland on the top PP unit instead of Kadri, despite Kadri playing on the top line 5v5 with Bozak out. I would assume the logic is that Kadri leads one unit while Kessel leads the other.
– One of the stranger things I saw/heard this week was Sportsnet really play up the fact that Kadri’s unit started a PP in the second period against Anaheim as opposed to Kessel’s unit, and how that “sent a message.” Even with JVR and Kessel each getting another point on Saturday on the PP, Kadri and Lupul both have more points than those two at 5 v 4 (five for Kadri and Lupul, as opposed to four for JVR and Kadri), so I’m not sure what message was really being sent? Maybe it was “We put on the guys who have been scoring more on the power play?” Sportsnet really played it up as if a turning point in the game.
– I don’t know if the Leafs sent Ashton down to build back some confidence, or to send a message, but on Saturday he sure played like he never wanted to ride the bus in the AHL again. He didn’t just come out strong against Pittsburgh; he brought it every single shift on the forecheck, won a few battles to get the puck out (including notable one in the first period where it required a second and third effort), and he was an animal along the boards. Ashton played a season-high 11:34, and he gave a glimpse as to why Ashton-McClement-Orr could be an above average fourth line.
– Maybe people get frustrated by Orr because he is about as much of a scoring threat as you or I, or maybe I have my blue and white goggles on, but he’s been fine lately for the Leafs. He gave the Leafs ten solid minutes against Pittsburgh, got in on the forecheck, banged a few bodies, and wasn’t a liability. If he gives the Leafs that all season I won’t complain (as long as they only dress one enforcer…).
– Pittsburgh really clogged up the neutral zone in the second period and the Leafs were having trouble breaking through it and sustaining any zone time, but in the third period Toronto started taking the body and creating their own space (players like Clarkson, Ashton, Bodie come to mind here). Getting physical to open more space on the ice for themselves has really been lacking in the Leaf game so far this season. Hopefully Saturday night was a sign of what’s to come.
– This has kind of slipped under the radar, but the Marlies, and by extension Leafs, have become a bit of a second-chance rehab center for players. They currently have cast-offs Stefan Legein and Jerred Smithson on their team, they gave Mike Liambas (he of the infamous Ben Fanelli hit) a tryout in the past, there’s Paul Ranger of course, all of the college UFAs they’ve signed, and even Mason Raymond. You can’t say the Leafs aren’t scouring for talent in every place possible.
“There are tough minutes for him to accumulate. We think that he does a heck of a job for our hockey club, or else we wouldn’t be using him in those situations. I know that it seems to be that there’s a love-hate type of relationship at certain times, but there’s a lot of love shown from our part as far as a coaching staff.”
– Randy Carlyle, on Dion Phaneuf.
The Leafs wouldn’t be where they are right now without Phaneuf. Plain and simple.
“They’re a pain in the ass to wear. I already have big feet so adding even a little extra weight to my skate is a pain. But if it is going to save an injury then I am going to start wearing them.”
– Cody Franson, on wearing shot-blockers on his skates.
Nazem Kadri also mentioned something about it being more difficult to take pucks off his skates, but “pain in the ass to wear” is better than not playing at all, which is where Joffrey Lupul found himself.
“We have told him to find a roommate. We think it is important that as a 19-year-old he live with somebody and we have a few options. We’re not guaranteeing the player will be here for the whole year. The 10-game barrier will be gone. The option of him going to the American Hockey League is not there for us. He’ll either play with us or go back to junior.”
– Randy Carlyle, on Morgan Rielly staying a little while longer.
Kind of funny that he’s staying with Jake Gardiner of all people, no?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think this will happen regardless, but I’d give Kadri every opportunity to show that he should be centering JVR and Kessel while Bozak is out. Maybe he’ll have a bad game, or struggle in a tough match-up, but he needs to get a true look in this role to at the very least gauge where he is at in terms of his readiness to take over the top spot. It was only a few years ago that Tim Connolly got hurt before Bozak stepped in and never looked back.
2 – I think I’d call up another forward who can score for this road trip (probably Leivo), because the Leafs bottom six has almost no ability to put the puck in the net and that puts a lot of pressure on the top six. A few weeks ago I said I’d be snooping around trying to find an NHL forward that’s available on the cheap, and I still would be.
3 – I think the ultimate end game for the Leafs defense is one of Gardiner/Rielly playing with Phaneuf while the other pairs up with Franson. How they get there and when they get there, I’m not sure, but I think we’re starting to see signs of Gardiner sliding in with Phaneuf here and there. I’d start to do that more consistently. Except for the Chicago game (19:56 TOI), Gardiner has played over 20 minutes in each of the last seven games.
4 – I think I’d roll with Reimer more or less until he gives me a reason not to after his game against Pittsburgh. With a 1A and 1B situation, the Leafs always need to be cognizant of keeping the idle goalie fresh, but Bernier had a bit of an extended-look opportunity and it seems Reimer deserves the same if he keeps up his strong play.
5 – I think I’d take the leash off Rielly a little bit. Sometimes you watch him and get the feeling he’s holding back in his play when it comes to puck carrying and getting involved offensively. It would help to be on the third pairing instead of playing with Franson against second lines, but I guess the Leafs are trying to grow the defensive side of his game. I think Rielly has a lot more to offer offensively, but right now I watch him and think there’s something in the back of his mind telling him not to skate with the puck as much as he wants to.