Although the Leafs went 1-2 last week, it really was one of their better weeks of hockey this season. They handily outplayed LA but just weren’t able to bury, and they laid a beating on the first place Hawks. It’s true that St. Louis completely outclassed them, but two pretty dominant games against two of the top five teams in the league is really impressive. The Leafs have to build on that as a positive.


– As doom-and-gloom as it’s been in Leafs Nation the last few weeks, the reality is this: The East sucks. The Leafs have played 16 games against Western Conference teams already (47% of their games played so far), meaning they only have 12 games against the West the rest of the way (only 25% of the rest of their games against the West). Although the Leafs‘ record versus the West (8-7-1) isn’t much worse than their record versus the East (9-7-2), logically, as they get healthier and their schedule gets easier you have to like their odds of going on a bit of a run. They still have to get through this month, which is far easier said than done, but I still like their odds to make the playoffs if they are still in a playoff spot by the time the Winter Classic is over. Good goaltending and the terrible East is a great equalizer to rough stretches of hockey.

– I was happy to see D’Amigo score his first goal in the NHL. He’s been an awesome Marlie the last few years and he deserves it. Beyond that, what was really impressive was his little backhand pass to McClement on the Kulemin goal. If you start watching around the 30 second mark, you can see D’Amigo, identifying that two guys are on him, look to make a tape-to-tape pass. If D’Amigo had dumped that around the boards to McClement – which is what most players would do — McClement would have had to move back for it and the extra time would have allowed the two Chicago checkers to get back and close off that passing lane to Kulemin. Great pass by D’Amigo.

– Two good examples of Rielly needing to learn and gain experience as to how to rush at the NHL level this week. On St. Louis’ second goal of the game, Rielly made a great rush to gain center ice but continued to try and skate it in, was stood up, and a few plays later the Blues scored. The goal wasn’t Rielly’s fault, but if you gain center ice and a team has three players holding the blue line, Rielly has to get it in deep. He tried to skate it in and got stood up instead. Against Chicago, he tried to pass up to JVR even though he was clearly covered and Chicago quickly turned that into a goal. I wonder if those two plays were a result of each other; the coaches probably told Rielly to move the puck after that St. Louis goal, which he did against the Blackhawks, even though the right play was to simply skate the puck right through the neutral zone untouched.

– On the note of that Chicago two on one goal- Patrick Kane went five-hole off of the rush there a few games after Jeff Carter did the exact same thing on Bernier. Is that just coincidence or are players targeting that area?

– Raymond needs linemates to pass to, which was my take away from watching him play with Clarkson vs. Lupul this week. Against LA, Clarkson battled Willie Mitchell hard in front of the net and in the corners while Raymond had the puck circling around along the boards looking for an open player. The play for Clarkson would be to throw it in front of the net and let him go to work, but the play for Raymond would be to get open in the slot for a prime shot; they were not on the same page there, and it happened more than once. In the game against LA, Raymond, despite zero shots on goal, had four assists. Obviously it’s easier to say this after a four point game, but the point is that Raymond plays a pass-and-move game similar to Lupul, whereas Clarkson plays a cycle game predicated on throwing pucks on net and getting dirty.

– The elephant in the room with Clarkson is this: he clearly hasn’t clicked with Lupul so far, and JVR-Kessel are staying together (forever, hopefully). With all four of those players locked up long term, the Leafs coaching staff has to figure out a way to get Clarkson clicking in that top six group or else he will have to be on the third line on account of being the worst scorer (and player) of the three. The reality is that, if Clarkson can’t find a way to stick with one of those three guys, the Leafs will either be paying a guy $5.25M to play on the third line or painfully force fitting him next to Lupul (assuming they continue to not click) to try and justify his contract.

– For the record, money aside, I think Clarkson would be really good on the third line in a shutdown role. He looked his best playing alongside Bolland (particularly against Crosby).

– You can’t chase guys around the net in the NHL and seriously hope to pick pocket them (unless you’re Datsyuk). That’s what Mason Raymond did against Chicago… not only a penalty kill, but against a really fast defenseman in Neck Leddy. Chasing guys behind the net is a minor hockey move and in this case it resulted in a costly penalty.

– One player I thought was taking too many penalties was Peter Holland, but he actually only has four minor penalties as a Leaf in 12 games. You know why it feels like he takes too many penalties? Of those four minors he’s taken, the opponent has scored on three of them.

– Holland had a nice week ice time wise, playing 15:03, 14:50, and 19:22. Trevor Smith played some decent hockey for the Leafs and was a bit of a sparkplug in November, but at the end of the day the upside is with Holland and he needs the opportunity to show what he can do. Against LA he played fantastic against Kopitar centering Lupul and Kulemin, and against Chicago he had three points with Lupul and Raymond. The niftiest play he made was this little pass to Lupul to make it 6-2.

It’s just nice having a big body with skill down the middle, and I’ll be interested to see if he and Lupul can get something going over an extended period of time.

– Keep in mind, there are going to be some struggles when Carlyle plays the kids. If you’re playing D’Amigo, Holland, Rielly, along with still-growing players like Kadri, Gardiner and Franson (in the sense that he hasn’t really been a true top four D-man before), there are going to be some rookie mistakes and some stinker games. But there will be a payoff in the long-run if these players develop, and there will be some great moments along the way. The only way to trust the youth is by showing a willingness to live with some of the bumps in the road that will inevitably happen. The Leafs are at a bit of a crossroads; they made the playoffs last season, spent big money this summer and are now expected to make the playoffs again, so Carlyle is trying to ride his veterans as much as he can. JVR, for example, played over 20 minutes 16 times last season in 48 games. He’s already played 21 games over 20 minutes in 34 games this season. In fact, he has played over 20 minutes in each of his last ten games. Ten.

– In saying that, the staff is trying to get as much as they can out of their experienced players in order to pick up points, but they need to trust the kids.

– At the end of every warm up before the game, JVR is generally the last guy remaining on the ice and all he does is stand in the crease, toe drag pucks, and flip them up bar down to warm up his hands in front. He does it on his backhand, too. It’s really neat to see, and it’s interesting to note because he clearly spends a lot of time working on that part of his game.

– Fraser-Ranger got absolutely lit up against St. Louis.

– The minute breakdown of the Leafs defense on Saturday was really interesting.

Dion Phaneuf19:12
Carl Gunnarsson15:16
Jake Gardiner26:02
Cody Franson24:56
Morgan Rielly17:14
John Michael Liles17:20

The Leafs hammered the Hawks, but the only other time this season Phaneuf played less than 20 minutes was when they beat Edmonton badly and had another game the following night.

– How about Gardiner with five points in his last six games? He’s now up to 11 points in 33 games and on a 27 point pace. Eventually he was bound to get hot and start scoring, so it’s nice to see it finally happening.

– I, for one, am looking forward to the rematch against the Blues. It’s a while away (March 25), but the Blues will be on the end of a four game road trip (wherein they’ll play Chicago, Philly, Pittsburgh and Toronto in a span of six days). After seeing how the Leafs responded against a Chicago team that handled them easily in their first meeting, I’m curious to see what the Leafs do against the Blues in the rematch a few months from now.

– The Blues game was ugly, and there’s no excuse for it, but coming off a tough loss like the one vs. LA, traveling overnight, and playing the that day is extremely tough. When I pointed that out on Twitter I got a lot of responses regarding them “quitting” against the Blues, but I disagree. The score was 3-3 after the first period. Shots were only 20-15 in favour of St. Louis.

– On HBO 24/7, Carlyle told the players to keep their heads up after the loss against LA, but it clearly affected them nonetheless (you could see Lupul with his head down looking pissed off). To finally play so well and still lose after such a tough run of getting soundly outplayed has to be brutal mentally.



“Ironically out of Gardiner and Rielly it’s been decided to try Rielly on his off-side.”
– Dave Poulin, on the hole on the right side of the Leafs defense.

I don’t know why this is ironic, considering Rielly played both sides in junior while Gardiner played the left side in college alongside the right-handed Schultz. Even though Gardiner is older and has more NHL experience, logically Rielly should be better on the right side because he developed there. I get what Poulin is trying to say, but based on where they played earlier in their careers it’s pretty clear which of the two was more suited to play the right side. Seems odd they didn’t know that.

“We’re trying to eliminate [being] a one-dimensional rush team.”
– Randy Carlyle, on the Leafs trying to evolve offensively and as a team overall.

They should be trying to add more dimensions to the team, but everyone still has to know that the Leafs make hay off the rush. They are deadly off the rush, and it’s not a bad thing if they can keep the shot counts close.

“Off our performance in St. Louis we could not have anything close to that again. They weren’t very proud of our performance. They knew that we didn’t do a lot of things that we set out to do… I thought that our hockey club responded the way they needed to respond. They took responsibility for our actions and that’s a good sign. But the most encouraging thing for us tonight was our work ethic and we stuck to our system and played it.”
– Randy Carlyle, after a huge bounce-back win.

Amid some serious heat placed on Carlyle in regards to whether he’s losing the team, whether the injuries are too much for this team, and whether they’re about to nose dive, give him credit for getting the team focused for a fantastic performance on Saturday. Some of that was simply icing a better line-up, but regardless the Leafs needed a win and they got it. We’ll see how they do this week.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think I’d keep Lupul and Raymond together. As mentioned earlier, Raymond complements Lupul much better than Clarkson. That would mean Clarkson playing with Kulemin on a third line that can grind and hopefully form a good shutdown unit. Not that I’m expecting it to happen; they’re going to give Clarkson every opportunity to score and earn his contract.

2 – I think I’d like to see D’Amigo-McClement-Bodie tried out as a fourth line. There’s not only size and some feistiness there, but some ability to score as well. Bodie’s a righty, so the dynamic of the lines might work a little better, too, if D’Amigo gets to stay on the left side.

3 – I think this shouldn’t need to be said, but I will say it anyway: Raymond can’t be taken off the power play. Raymond was removed from the power play altogether with Clarkson and Lupul back in the line-up. Cody Franson leads the team with 12 power play points; Kessel and Kadri each have nine, while Lupul, JVR and Raymond all have eight. As I said last week, put him on the point if you have to. Whatever they do, they simply can’t justify taking him off that unit. Against Chicago, Raymond had two power play assists by sucking a defender in and dishing (one was down low to Lupul to create a mini 2v1; the other was a seam pass to Gardiner, who was so open that he was easily able to put a puck on net for Lupul to tip).

4 – I think I wouldn’t be opposed to reinserting Paul Ranger into the lineup just because he’s big, has been excellent on the PK, and has the skill to pass with any of the other Leafs defensemen. Obviously I wouldn’t do it for tonight after a 7-3 win, but with four games this week I’m sure the Leafs will be shuffling their roster around at some point. Regular readers here know I haven’t been a fan of Ranger since last season with the Marlies, but truthfully he hasn’t been that bad for a $1M pick-up. The expectations were just insanely high in minds of quite a few fans (some of that is on the Leafs for hyping him; Nonis wondered aloud if he could become a top four before the season), and he hasn’t met them.

5 – I think it’s a nonsense notion that the Leafs should roll with one goalie to get some stability in net. The Leafs goaltenders are the furthest thing from their problems, and if there’s one thing we have to credit to Carlyle it’s that he’s done a solid job at rotating them and keeping both fresh. If it’s possible, I would want to see these two as a tandem in Toronto for years to come.