Game Preview: Sharks at Leafs


A struggling Leafs team running into a 18-3-4 opponent can go one of two ways – the bloody Jaws-like scene we’re picturing, or the Leafs sensing the urgency of a fin in the water, rising to the level of competition, and icing a respectable showing.

The Sharks are obviously on another level personnel wise; they tick all the boxes required in an elite team with amazing center depth in particular (Thornton, Couture, Pavelski, Marleau in a pinch). It’s a mystery as to why the Sharks organization doesn’t have at least one Cup to show for itself given its regular season successes since 2004. While the Red Wings are popularly described as the paragon of consistency as a winning team that feeds the machine with acute draft day bargain hunting, San Jose has been a winning team that’s been better at the draft without the Cup to show for it.

Great drafting ensures this Sharks will have more opportunities to win its first Cup over this next CBA – a 9th overall pick was used on Logan Couture on and a second round pick on Marc-Edouard Vlasic; two 7th rounders were used to unearth Joe Pavelski and Justin Braun (leading Sharks defence core in minutes played, and leading the league in plus/minus); Tommy Wingels was a sixth-round pick up; Tomas Hertl, looking like pretty damn good value at 17th overall in 2012, is currently leading the Calder race (13 goals and 21 points in 26 games).

In fact, since 2003 no team has produced more games played out of its draftees than the Sharks, and they’ve been a good to great team the entire time.

The painful irony for Leafs fans is that the man who traded the first and second round picks used by the Sharks to trade up for Logan Couture in order to wrangle himself Vesa Toskala is one of the brains behind the scouting operation in San Jose, along with director of scouting Tim Burke, in John Ferguson Jr (at least since 2008). Leafs fans can at least thank Fergie for the excellent 2006 draft and the appointment of Dave Morrison as his Director of Scouting in the same year (Morrison’s results look to be pretty good so far).

Opposites Clash

Sharks coach Todd McLellan has been labeling his the 2013-14 iteration of his group as less of a heavy cycle team than in years previous, but a good possession team nonetheless that emphasizes putting a ton of rubber at the net, winning puck races, and rolling four lines with speed to feed a relentless attack.

[quote_box_center]“We’re talking about putting it in areas where we can go get it. We’re talking about playing more of a north-south game, not slowing it down as much, trying to stay ahead of the curve. That’s where the game is going. Coming out of the last lockout you could delay, look for people and hold on to the puck a little longer. Teams have figured out how to defend that now. You have to advance.”
Todd McLellan

Consider the following quotes:

“We’re not a team who likes to skate over the blueline and throw shots at the net, we want to hold onto it and make some plays.”
Joffrey Lupul

“Our coaches track scoring chances, not shots. A guy crosses centre ice and shoots the puck at the net, it’s a shot. After the game, when they put up the scoring chances, if there’s ever a big disparity in that, it’s going to be an issue with the coaches and with the players. But again, if they get 40 shots and five scoring chances, that doesn’t really matter to us.”?
Joffrey Lupul

“You’ve got to shoot the puck. You watch highlights around the league and a lot of goals are scored on second or third chances and that’s how we’ve been getting them, too.”
Logan Couture

“It shows up more in the third- and fourth-line situations, the ability to roll four lines and maintain the pace. If we were going quick in the past, it kind of fell off as we went down a line or two, so there were hills and valleys. In the game right now, all the lines play a quick game.”
– Todd McLellan

An amazing set of centers as in San Jose changes the entire complexion of a team, obviously, and Carlyle’s system is partially built around covering up for what isn’t the strongest group of pivots in the League. The Sharks are icing three centers better than the Leafs’ best. But embracing speed as the team’s identity and rolling four lines that looks to quicken the pace and sustain a high-energy game seems like the better approach than what we’ve seen from Carlyle’s Leafs lately.

Finding Hope

While the Leafs amassed a 36-21-5 record over 62 games under Randy Carlyle between January 2013 and November 1, 2013, regression remained a buzzword in Leafland due to some of the foreboding stats underlying their performance. There continues to be merit in those concerns; getting outshot, and out shot-attempted, was and continues to be an indicator that this team isn’t controlling games often enough (or seemingly at all, this season) at 5 on 5.

For that reason, the current 13-game stretch, in which the Leafs have gone 5-6-3, they’re not getting the same benefit of the doubt as maybe another team would that easily qualified for the playoffs last season, started the next season 10-4, and had a poor stretch in the month of November.

For the Leafs, the recent struggles haven’t been attributable to any one or two things. They have regressed in just about every area in November – five on five goals for and against, powerplay, and penalty kill. One area where the struggles have been most pronounced is in the goals department. In the previous 62 games under Carlyle, this team scored 190 goals (3.06/game). They scored just 25 goals in 13 November games (1.92/game).

Much has been made recently of the poor production this team has been receiving from its bottom six forward group. In the interest of finding some positives headed into the toughest month of the Leaf schedule with the team playing arguably as poorly as it ever has under Carlyle, let’s look at some of the individual numbers in November among the top six group.

PlayerPoints in NovNov Points Pace over 82PPG in NovPPG in prev. 69

*Lupul played just 29 out of those 62 games, but did post 67 points the 66 games previous; Clarkson played 52/62 due to the suspension.

It certainly would be nice getting some production from the bottom six when the top 6 is struggling. The intention of this exercise is not to suggest Carlyle doesn’t need to rethink is current bottom six, because he needs to in the worst way. While depth up front is a concern at this point, options with a more offensive capacity to their game are available to Carlyle in Holland and Leivo, as young as they may be. He should probably use them. Jerred Smithson was needed to fill a temporary void at center, but it’s clear one shot in 12 games isn’t going to get him on the board any time soon.

However, for all 5 of these players to be struggling, as they are, over an entire month of the schedule? That’s unusual, and surely it’s not here to stay. Lupul, Kessel, Kadri, JvR playing at sub 40-point paces, all at the same time? Clarkson isn’t of the same offensive talent as the other four, but he should be able to pick it up as well and is bound to heat up at some point. No better time than now.

This team wasn’t going to shoot at 12% all season as they did in October, but surely that group of players isn’t going to stay this quiet for much longer, either.

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He’s published five magazines on the team entitled “The Maple Leafs Annual” with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts “The Battle of the Atlantic,” a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth.

Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada’s Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian.

You can contact him at [email protected]