The question for the Leafs right now is pretty simple:
Is this the kind of slump that every team goes through over an 82-game season, or is this a sign of things to come?
Toronto is 8-9-3 since a 6-1 start and are about to embark on what will likely be their toughest stretch of games this season competition wise. In the next eight games Toronto plays, in order: San Jose, Dallas, Ottawa, Boston, LA, St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh. It doesn’t get much harder than that.
Last season the Leafs went on a pretty bad 2-3-4 stretch before going on an 8-3-1 run to clinch a playoff spot. Every team has their ups and downs, and in a really bad Eastern Conference you should be able to survive those downs. It’s far too early to be looking at the standings and calculating point differences, but the Leafs do have a bit of a cushion on the playoff outsiders, and Tampa Bay is starting to feel the effects of not having Steven Stamkos in the line-up (4-5-1 in their last ten). A bad stretch like this hardly ruins their season on the whole, but there are some troubling signs.
Giving up almost 10 more shots than you take is bad no matter what way you spin it. The Leafs clearly have a problem exiting their zone and it’s now hurting their overall game. A year after being fourth overall in 5v5 goals for, the Leafs currently sit tied for 18th in the league with the Florida Panthers. Their defense has combined for three total goals (two by Phaneuf, and an empty netter by Paul Ranger), and their bottom six is pretty well non-existent when it comes to offense (Smithson, Orr, and McLaren have no points; Ashton has one; McClement has two; Kulemin has five).
In the shortened season it may have been okay to run three lines pretty heavily with a near non-existent fourth line; last year was a sprint, not a marathon. But this season we’re back to the marathon and not having a fourth line is hurting the Leafs. Carlyle has said a few times now that his team “looked tired” out on the ice, and that’s a by-product of not having a fourth line that can play ten minutes a night. It’s also nice to have some offense from the bottom two lines once and awhile to take the pressure off the big guns.
On the positive side, the Leafs have great goaltending and can go into any game feeling like they can win because of it. Of the eight tough games ahead of the Leafs, five are at home where the Leafs are 9-4-0.
With such a tough December ahead – it looks like the Leafs toughest month on paper to these eyes — we’ll find out if this team is for real or not by the Christmas break. Either they’re going to rise up to their competition and be forced to play good hockey, or they are going to crumble and the coming months will be spent thinking about what the Leafs can trade certain players for.
The HBO cameras are going to be on them like never before, the media scrutiny has already begun to ramp up, and Carlyle is starting to talk about the headaches this team is giving him. Every team has their ups and downs, and with the Leafs clearly in a bit of a downspin, we’re about to find out what they really are.
– Getting suspended for the first ten games of a season is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re on a new team. However, Clarkson has now played 17 games and the excuses are beginning to wear thin for him. He has five points in 17 games, putting him on pace for 21 points in 72 games. And he’s making over $5M. The Leafs and Clarkson can talk all they want about him not being brought in to score goals, but they can’t be happy with this level of production. Clarkson went pointless in four games this week, he was already off to a slow start, and the Leafs are missing Lupul and Bolland. That just can’t keep happening.
– Some have noted that maybe Clarkson can’t play with ‘skill’ players, but in New Jersey he played with Patrick Elias regularly. I’m not buying that excuse.
– Even beyond the low point totals, it’s troubling to see Clarkson is on pace for 152 shots on net this season. Clarkson had 180 shots in 48 games last season. Mix in the fact that he really hasn’t been that physical or provided much energy, and this is pretty well as bad a start as you can get with a new team. When Clarkson signed in Toronto, people were quick to compare him to Wendel Clark or even Gary Roberts, but at this point he’s not even Darcy Tucker.
– One of the bigger hopes I had this season was that Carlyle had “his guys” and “his roster,” figuring he’d be better equipped to coach them and deploy his players in a role that makes sense. However, with the injury to Bolland the Leafs have really struggled to adapt their strategy to the current situation. The solution to this problem has been playing McClement in that checking role, and he’s done an admirable job, but with two points in 26 games (a six point pace on the season!) you just can’t have that guy in your top nine. Period. Either Kadri has to start going head-to-head against top lines (like he was at the end of last season), or Bozak does (he too has done it on and off over his Leaf career).
– It kind of went under the radar last season, but Jay McClement was on pace for a career year in goals last season with 14. With 17 points in 48 games, McClement was playing like a guy who was going to push for 30 points over an 82 game season. That isn’t great for a top nine forward, but it isn’t bad either. This season, unfortunately, the scoring has dropped right off and that has to be realized.
– Just throwing this out there: with a five year contract in hand and a head coach in charge that he didn’t hire, Dave Nonis has a coach firing in him. I don’t know if Steve Spott was hired to be the heir, but he’s doing an admirable job (they’re leading their division) with a Marlies roster that isn’t anything special.
– Really respect what Mark Fraser did last season, and he gave the Leafs everything they could have asked for on a third pairing with Cody Franson, but there seem to be a few things affecting him. The first is that he didn’t get the advantage of playing half a season in the AHL while a bunch of NHL regulars sat at home or went to Europe. It hasn’t just hurt Mark Fraser – last season, Cory Conacher had 12 points in seven games to start the season on his way to a 29 point rookie season in 47 games. This season, he has five points in 26 games; Keith Aucoin played third line center for a playoff team, this season he hasn’t gotten into a game (albeit he’s part of an extremely deep St. Louis organization). The second thing is Fraser appears to be a step behind out on the ice. That seems to be a product of this hit from the second game of the season; we don’t know if Fraser’s still wearing a knee brace but when he returned he did have a knee brace and he looks slower than usual. Fraser already wasn’t a strong skater, but now he’s struggling to even catch opponents or get to loose pucks first. The breakaway he gave up against the Habs (and it was his fault; you can see Phaneuf point to him at the 34 second mark), he wasn’t even fast enough to get to him before all those rebound attempts.
– Not naïve enough to think that calling a timeout against Pittsburgh in the third period would have completely changed the game, but both Carlyle and Kadri noted how a few penalties caused the team to snowball downhill. I thought it was interesting that the Leafs decided not to use their timeout to try and calm down the team and regroup. Of course, the last time the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead they didn’t call a timeout, either.
– It was weird to hear Carlyle say Pacioretty celebrating a goal to make it 4-0 pumped the team up. Leafs-Habs on a Saturday night with the two teams tied in the standings, and that’s what finally got their juices going?
– Kessel has to go through the inside of the winger on the d-zone draw to get into the shooting lane and make things difficult on the defenseman when the draw is lost. He didn’t against Montreal and they scored a goal because of it.
– Last season, Colton Orr started the season by taking on all fighters and pretty well challenging anyone that beat him before (Engelland and Parros fights last year come to mind). He also went after Kaleta and pretty well jumped him. This season he’s been credited with five fights, but two came in the opener, one was broken up by the refs before it started, and another was this weekend where Orr declined to fight down 1-0 but decided to go at 2-0. He hasn’t been close to the physical presence he was last year.
– On the note of Orr not being as physical this year – it’s not just him, it’s the whole team. Not only did Malkin push Bernier into the net before scoring, but later on in the game he skated through the crease and clipped Bernier’s blocker, and in OT he gave Bernier a little whack after the whistle with nobody coming to his defense. Against the Habs, Bernier punched both Gallagher and Bourque on separate occasions after they whacked him. The Leafs have to start getting back to basics. Since when is it okay for opponents to run your goalies? Especially when your goalies are the best thing you have going for you.
– A little telling that Rielly went on PP1 instead of Gardiner at first with Franson down. Gardiner eventually got a look on PP1 as the game wore on.
– Kessel’s goal against Pittsburgh, where Bozak knocked Letang off the puck and fed him in the slot, was a great play.
– Kessel’s two on one against Montreal, where Bozak passed tried to pass it through without ever looking at Price, was not. All-in-all though, Bozak has been the least of the team’s worries this past week.
– Although it shouldn’t have been a goal and we shouldn’t be talking about this, Kadri has to stick with him on the back check on Malkin’s goal to tie the game. Gunnarsson took Kunitz out wide and Phaneuf took Crosby going to the net, but Kadri inexplicably skated away from Malkin which is why he so easily got those whacks in.
– It was nice to see the Leafs score a garbage goal of sorts when Ranger just threw a puck on net and Raymond got the rebound and buried against Montreal. The Leafs need to do a lot more of that.
– Phaneuf did have two penalties, but it’s interesting that he ended up playing 22:39 against the Habs while Gardiner played 25:30.
– Gunnarsson has to know his main objective against Pacioretty is taking away the inside move. Bernier probably should have had that, but Gunnarsson can’t get beat as he did. Keep him to the outside and force him to settle for a low-percentage shot.
“We need to find our spark. We have to be excited to play, and we have to find a way to score goals.”
– Jonathan Bernier, after a winless week.
I don’t know why this team doesn’t have a spring to their step or a certain tenacity/desire to their game, but they don’t. It’s tough to watch.
“Our identity is a physical hard team to play against. Putting McLaren back in the lineup last night to try and enforce that”
– Claude Loiselle, commenting on the Leafs style of play.
At this point it’s safe to say the Leafs identity is speed and skill. That’s just the reality of the situation, no matter what Leafs management suggests.
“We haven’t changed anything. We’re just not getting the job done. I don’t know what it is, but we’ve gotten away from the basic things that made us successful. You can say that we’ve had a couple bad bounces here and there, but we’re getting too many [scored] on us the last little while to say that.”
– Jay McClement, on the Leafs penalty kill.
Not changing and evolving is part of the problem. You can’t just expect to keep doing the same thing and have it work year after year. The same basics are always there, but teams will figure you out if you don’t consistently tweak and alter your scheme.
5 Things I Think I’d Do:
1 – I think all the talk about the Leafs being interested in Dmitry Kulikov is more than a little confusing. I was a huge fan of Kulikov in the QMJHL and think the ability is all there, but at this point he can’t be considered anything more than a project player who you try to develop into a solid top four guy. The Leafs have enough of those projects as is. What they really need is a rock on defense to play with Phaneuf that in turn drops Gunnarsson down to play with Franson, giving the Leafs a solid top four with some experience and defensive acumen and a guy who can actually protect Franson. Acquiring a legitimate top four defenseman via trade might be the hardest type of move to make, though; it’s a lot easier said than done. I think I’d be trying to pry Andrew MacDonald, who is a pending UFA, off of the Isles.
2 – I think I’d give Peter Holland an extended stay on the roster to try and solidify himself, because McClement isn’t scoring enough to justify a top 9 spot and the Leafs need all the goals they can get right now. Sometimes the best tonic to cure a struggling team is young players stepping into the line-up and playing with the energy and tenacity that you typically see from a recent call-up. Holland has the skill, size and ability to play the cycle game the Leafs are in need of; while he didn’t seize the moment playing with JVR and Kessel, he didn’t show poorly, either.
3 – Last week I had put up lines I thought I’d run that included Lupul, but now that we know he’s out for a while I think I’d try JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Raymond-Smith-Clarkson, Holland-Kadri-Kulemin, Ashton-McClement-Orr. The reality is that Smith’s actually playing some really good hockey and should get rewarded, and Kadri produced extremely well in a sheltered third line role so hopefully he and Holland can build off of each other. Either they’re going to keep Kadri and Clarkson together until they get going, or switch things up to try and get each of them playing better separately. I’d make the switch.
4 – I think I’d seriously consider getting Liles into the line-up and completely revamping the D pairings. This is contradictory to what I said last week (where I wanted them to pick six and run with it), but the Leafs played four games this week, and I didn’t think Fraser would come back and be this bad at skating. Even if Franson wasn’t down, the Leafs need to spark their defense somehow because Fraser is clearly struggling. Ultimately, a struggling team needs their best players to step up and get them out of it, but you still need your supporting cast to give you a spark and contribute. The Leafs aren’t getting that right now, and they need to shake things up.
5 – I think I’d sit Smithson altogether. There’s a reason he wasn’t signed this summer, and he hasn’t done anything to prove anyone wrong while playing. He was an okay stop-gap when the Leafs were banged up at center, but they have enough pieces there now to move on.