No appetizer today. Straight into the main course:
– Last season, one of the biggest strengths of the Leafs penalty kill was its health and established rotation. Everyone knew who their penalty killers were and when they would be on; Bozak and McClement would go on for the immediate d-zone draw, Kulemin would hop on after the Leafs cleared it for Bozak, Komarov/Bozak would come on when McClement finally got tired, and JVR would see spot duty or help kill the penalty if one of the regulars was in the box. To tie it altogether, McClement, Kulemin, Bozak, and Komarov combined to miss eight games on the season (Komarov missed 6, Bozak missed two). This season the Leafs presumably hoped to simply switch Komarov with Bolland and keep the other three regulars, plus give JVR and, even Kadri, some PK time based on what we saw in preseason and early on. However, after 17 games this season, Kulemin has only played in five, Bozak has played in 11, Bolland has played in 15 but won’t be back for a while, and JVR missed a few games and is currently changing positions. While Kadri has played in every game, he’s having his responsibilities increased due to injury and that has seemed to make the coaching staff hesitant to put him out on the PK. He’s already being asked for a lot, and if the Leafs lose another center to injury (from blocking a shot on the PK) they might as well start holding open tryouts.
When the pieces are constantly rotating and never get a chance to develop cohesion, basic breakdowns will happen. Take Boston’s first goal on the power play, where Smithson loses the draw and both he and Kulemin charge the point. That’s a play that happens because Smithson and Kulemin are foreign to each other on the penalty kill; obviously, you can’t have two players charge at a guy on the point in the NHL. That will end up in the back of your net more often than not, and it did against Boston.
Say what you will about Bozak, but he’s an excellent penalty killer and the Leafs really miss him there.
– Clarkson is really going to have the heat turned up on him if he continues not to score, and arguably that’s already happening, but he had a good weekend. I was shocked to see that he only recorded three shots on net over the two games because he seemed to be all over the offensive zone all weekend. Marek Zidlicky prevented his first goal with the Leafs, against his old team no less; Schneider robbed him on a chance in the slot; Against Boston, he led some strong cycles in the Bruins zone and established some solid offensive zone time for the Leafs against Boston, which is rare for us to see. Clarkson, for me, has played better with the Leafs’ grinders such as Ashton, McClement, and Bolland because they play the board game like he does and they build off of each other, but in fairness he also looked really good with Kadri against the Devils.
– On that note, it was nice to see Kulemin-Kadri-Lupul reunited, because they looked awesome. Last season they were dynamite for the Leafs at times with Kulemin’s defensive ability and cycling game meshing well with Kadri’s puck carrying abilities and Lupul’s offensive skills. To me, this goal symbolizes their abilities as Kulemin hustles to create the turnover, Lupul stick handles until he finds an open Kadri, and Kadri buries his chance in the slot. Will Carlyle break them up this week or keep them together? If he does, the question then becomes who plays with JVR and Kessel: Raymond or Clarkson? On Saturday, Carlyle went with Raymond, which seems to be what he’d continue to do.
– Carter Ashton returned and played 12:49 against Boston, which marked his fourth straight game of playing over 10 minutes for the Leafs. He has one point in 26 career NHL games (11 this season), but Ashton is establishing himself as one of the Leafs best board players since he’s a cycling animal. He had two shots on net against Boston and was part of a shift that cycled the Bruins so well that the Leafs got their entire line changed up, and when’s the last time we’ve seen a Leaf team do that?
– Ashton will need to score more if he ever wants to be anything more than a fourth liner, but if he keeps this play up he’s at least establishing himself as an NHL regular.
– Joffrey Lupul played over 21 minutes both nights and launched 14 shots on net this past weekend. Phil Kessel also played over 21 minutes both nights and put 9 shots on net, including one of the prettiest goals we’ll see all season. When you’re missing two of your top three centers, you need your best players to step up and Lupul and Kessel both had strong weekends.
– I know some of you will want me to talk about JVR at center, but it’s simply too early to really comment either way. Carlyle protected him a lot by putting guys out like McClement and Smithson to take draws for him, and then swapping him on the ice as the puck exited the Leafs zone. The Leafs played one of the best center groups in the league when they played Boston. A few times JVR got the puck in the neutral zone and veered off to the wing to carry it because that’s where he’s most comfortable and effective, which I thought was interesting. Centers generally carry the puck up the middle of the ice naturally and then dish it off, but JVR’s game is driving defenders wide and taking it to the net because he’s a power forward. The best thing you can say about his play at center so far is that it hasn’t been awkward, nor has he stood out in a bad way, so on that alone you keep it going. The great things about JVR are that he’s always been solid defensively, he’s big, and he’s strong, so he wins his battles as a center to help advance pucks up ice, and he’s smart enough to make the defensive adjustments and not leave guys wide open in coverage. Week two of this experiment should be much more interesting.
– It was great to see Gardiner and Franson back together. Although some of them came on the power play, Gardiner had seven shots on net against Boston and he and Franson were strong together due to their puck moving skills meshing as they always do when they play together. In the third against Boston, Gardiner stood up a Bruin at the blue line causing him to dump it in, and Franson went back to get the puck with a player draped all over him so he quickly reversed the play and Gardiner came back and broke the puck out cleanly. They just seem to work so well together. Whether with Fraser or Rielly, Franson would usually wrap that puck around the boards instead of reverse it.
– Similar to the way we look back at Kadri’s early development with the Leafs now and say, “I can’t believe this guy was in trade rumours all the time, and that people wanted him gone,” I think the same will happen with Jake Gardiner eventually. I honestly believe that. He’s a stud in the making.
– Was interesting to see Gunnarsson used on the second power play unit instead of Ranger against Boston with Rielly sitting. Ranger’s getting a bit of a bad rep throughout Leafs Nation, but he has a cannon of a shot and brings something to the table at least, whereas Gunnarsson will keep things simple and not mess the power play up more than anything else. I guess the Leafs are playing it safe by playing Gunnarsson there.
– If you watched Coach’s Corner this weekend Don Cherry stated that the Leafs are protecting Bernier and throwing Reimer to the wolves. I don’t see it that way. First of all, how could you not give Reimer the Boston game? I mean, come on. Another game mentioned was the Pittsburgh game, but Reimer’s been fantastic in his career against Pittsburgh and hasn’t lost a game in regulation against them, so why would you not start him for that game? Sure, the Vancouver game wasn’t a nice one to put him in for, but he did play Edmonton earlier that week whereas Bernier had to play the second night of a back-to-back and got peppered. The feeling so far when it comes to the rotation is that the Leafs are basing it on familiarity: Bernier has played seven Western Conference teams versus Reimer’s three. Bernier also got thrown to the wolves against Chicago, so between that and Vancouver I’d say they are pretty much even.
– The Leafs looked out of gas against Boston in the third (second game in as many days, and they had to travel between games). It’s not an excuse, but in the third when they needed to mount a comeback, they just didn’t look like they had that extra boost necessary. That follows a second period that was probably the Leafs’ best of the season.
– It’s easy for us to comment from our couches on what players should do, but Kulemin needs to go get a new stick instead of skating around without one as the team gets hemmed in their own zone. Especially when your bench is right there. Ultimately the Leafs took a penalty and then got scored on right away, so what’s the worst that would have happened? They score that shift while he’s getting a stick? It would have taken less than five seconds to make a change or be given a new stick, and it’s better to kill a 5v4 for five seconds versus two minutes. Again, it’s easy to say from afar, but nine times out of ten you simply get off/get a new stick when you lose it because you’re almost useless without a stick.
– One of the reasons the Leafs presumably signed Smithson is his faceoff prowess and he won 8/9 against New Jersey before going 9/18 versus Boston. He’s a fourth liner and he doesn’t hurt the team. Really nothing more or less when it comes to Smithson, but I do expect people to clamour for a fourth line of Ashton-McClement-Smithson eventually.
– When Bernier let in the long distance shot against Carolina, it was unfortunate but you just sort of shrug it off as a fluke because those things happen to the best goalies. This week against New Jersey he let in arguably a worse goal, deflecting a sliding puck over his pad and into his own net. One goal was a game winner, the other tied the game. Maybe the first time it was a fluke, and maybe the second time was a coincidence, and it is really hard to get on a goalie who has played so well (and in that Jersey game he was awesome), but what is going on here with these strange goals? If it happens a third time eyebrows will be raised.
– Phaneuf changed the pace of that Boston game with some big hits; he didn’t just hammer Paile, he finished someone in the neutral zone a few moments earlier, too. It’s still a game of emotion, and when teammates see the captain go out there and simply outwork guys and throw big hits, that energy spreads throughout the bench. The Leafs second period play against Boston really was their best period of the season. The Captain set the tone for it.
“For sure I could. Maybe not early in my career, but I would say about two years into being a pro, I could.”
– Randy Carlyle when asked if Carlyle the player could have survived under Carlyle the coach.
I think Jake Gardiner is going through that learning curve right now and Randy Carlyle does realize that. He’s averaging 19:38TOI/game, which is actually the third most on the defense behind Phaneuf and Franson.
“They pretty much forced me to [go]. As I was going through the test I was getting pretty agitated and just wanted to get back out there.” As for the test itself, he was asked, “month, date, who we played last, months of the year. They make you say it backwards and then you’ve got to remember four or five words and say it backwards. I guess it’s something that’s mandatory now and I had to do it.”
– Nazem Kadri, on his concussion testing.
The Leafs have been criticized in some corners for their handling of head injuries, but I’m not sure what else you can ask them to do other than what Kadri outlined above.
“Hard to make moves now because 12 teams are in LTIR. Deals have to be dollar for dollar and that’s hard.”
– Dave Poulin on TSN radio, discussing the possibility of trading for outside help.
In other words, don’t hold your breath that a trade is happening anytime soon unless the Leafs sweeten the pot for a team below the cap.
5 Things I’d Do:
1 – I think I’d focus on making three PK forward pairings to try and create some stability an the units. McClement should be with Kulemin because that’s worked before, and they are the team’s best two penalty killers. Smithson can win faceoffs and is a proven penalty killer in the league; I’d put him with Mason Raymond, who has shown he can kill penalties too mainly due to his speed. The third unit would be Kadri-JVR as they’ve seen spot duty together on the penalty kill; I think you put these two guys out there when there’s 30 seconds or less left on the penalty so they can close the deal and push the puck back up ice.
2 – I think I’d put Reimer back in net against Minnesota on Wednesday because he’s already beat them once this year and he stood on his head when he did it. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
3 – I think, when you look at the Leafs injury situation, it’s sometimes forgotten that they are really only missing two players. You can’t panic. The unfortunate thing is the Leafs are injured at the one position they have pretty well no depth in. If a defenseman was hurt, the Leafs would just insert Rielly full-time like they did when Fraser was out, and they would still have Brennan toiling in the minors. On the wing they survived fine without Clarkson and Kulemin, because when they are fully healthy Raymond and Kulemin are third liners, plus Leivo has played well when called upon. If one goalie got hurt, the other guy would just be the full-on starter. The point is simply that the Leafs shouldn’t panic, and last week I wrote as much anyway. The real question is: how long will Dave Bolland be hurt? If it’s 6-8 weeks I think the Leafs can survive that and stand pat altogether if they want. But if it’s 3-4 months, eventually they probably will have to bring in a center unless they want JVR to play there all year.
4 – I think I’d stick with the Boston lines that I outlined above (Raymond-JVR-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin, Ashton-McClement-Clarkson, McLaren-Smithson-Orr), but I’d have my eye on swapping Raymond with Clarkson depending on how the two are playing and what their lines are doing as a whole. The Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin line is simply fantastic, and that goes back to last season. At a time when the Leafs are hodge-podging things together, it’s nice to have a sense of safety and familiarity with one line.
5 – I think I’d put Rielly back in on Wednesday against Minnesota. Here’s the thing: coaches pretty well never make changes after a win, so if you’re not putting him in after a loss, how many of those do you have to accumulate in a row for you to change the line-up? The Leafs seem hesitant to play Rielly on the right side even though he played there regularly with Moose Jaw, but I’d be willing to give it a look with Fraser playing the left side in limited minutes. Worst case scenario is that the pairing struggles and you ride the heck out of Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Franson; all are easily capable of playing over 20 minutes in a game. The Leafs missed Rielly’s ability to skate the puck out as a one-man breakout, and he’s their best option to pair with Gardiner on the second power play unit.