It’s not time to sound the alarm, but the sense of urgency is heightened across Toronto.
The Leafs are still firmly in a playoff spot and, other than Detroit (who has three games in hand on the Leafs, but are also missing Zetterberg and, for the moment, Datsyuk), the 4+ point gap the Leafs have on everyone else is a much tougher hill to climb than it looks because of the “three point era” in the NHL. It’s extremely tough to make up ground at this stage of the season in this day and age.
But let’s be clear: The Leafs aren’t out of the woods yet. Not even close.
The rest of the month for Toronto is as difficult as it can get. Every single team they play for the rest of the March believes they are or can be a playoff team.
After games in New York to play the Rangers and at home against the Flyers on HNIC, the Leafs take off on a gruelling five-game road trip where they’ll play, in order: Anaheim, San Jose, LA, Washington, and Detroit. That trip could define their season for better or worse, similar to how last year’s back-to-back with Boston late in the season helped push the Leafs along. But the difficulty of the March schedule isn’t even over there, as the Leafs will come home to play Tampa Bay followed by Montreal before playing NJ, St. Louis, the Flyers and the Wings again to close out the month.
There are no “gimmes” in there. No easy games. You either relish the challenge or relinquish under it.
Last season, when the Leafs pushed through to clinch a playoff birth, they were buoyed by an on-fire Joffrey Lupul as he came back from injury and posted a ridiculous 18 points in 13 games. This season, asking for something even remotely similar from another player returning from injury in Dave Bolland would seem foolish at best. Beyond Bolland not having that kind of scoring pedigree in the NHL, it was a lot easier for Lupul to return from a broken limb versus a severed ankle tendon which he has been experiencing setbacks with.
But somehow, someway the Leafs need to find some secondary scoring to complement the Kessel line because that is the key to their success down the stretch. Everyone will point to Kessel’s hot play for the Leafs two great stretches of hockey, but I look at a guy like Kadri, who had 13 points in 14 games to start the year during the Leafs first hot stretch and 15 points in only 10 games in the middle of the Leafs hot stretch before the Olympic break. In two hot runs he combined for 28 points in 24 games, and for the rest of the season he has 14 points in 35 games.
Nobody is expecting Kadri to be that 28 in 24 guy all season long and become a 96-point player on the second line, but let’s understand the type of secondary scoring the Leafs were getting while hot. Kessel has had four separate stretches of not recording a point over three games, so his ability to consistently produce offense won’t be the problem alongside JVR and Bozak on one of the best lines in the league.
The question now will be whether or not Kadri can get hot one more time. Or Lupul. Or if Bolland can comeback and make an impact. Or even Phaneuf, who quietly posted 10 points in the 12 games that led to the Leafs clinching a playoff birth last April. Or if one of Bernier or Reimer can get insanely hot.
Toronto is a one line team right now that will be a shoe-in to make the playoffs if they can get some other lines rolling. Their top line is that good and goaltending is at least above average even when it’s not “hot.” Otherwise, the Leafs aren’t good enough defensively to survive low goal totals. That’s just the reality of the make up of the current team.
Perhaps Nonis makes a trade to bring in someone, or Bolland comes back and plays great, or Kadri steps up one more time. But it’s not Kessel and JVR. It’s everyone but.
– As leaky as the Leafs defense was against Columbus, and as much as they were allowed to do whatever they wanted in front of the Leafs net, it’s worth noting that Reimer only allowed two goals against. He stopped a breakaway, dealt with guys hitting him all night, and made an awesome array of saves during a scramble in the crease in the third period. There was shock on Sportsnet when the Leafs went with Reimer and the impression being given off was “how could they downgrade themselves like this for this game.” While Reimer’s .913sv% doesn’t look nearly as great Bernier’s .924sv%, don’t forget that there’s only one goalie in this organization who has led and carried a team to the playoffs. It’s not Bernier. It would be a mistake to forget that and not give Reimer more games if Bernier continues to play like he has in the past two games.
– The three games since the break have been a demonstration of the good and bad of Jake Gardiner. Against the Islanders he obviously had a brutal giveaway leading directly to a goal, but also made a great play in the neutral zone to intercept a pass, back off the D, and feed a pass to Bodie that drew a penalty. He was benched against the Habs. Against Columbus, he drew two powerplays, had three shots on net, and created some scoring opportunities. That’s pretty well Gardiner in a nutshell and why we struggle to count him as a nightly top four. Gardiner is still two games away from playing 150 NHL regular season games and is only turning 24 (really isn’t enough time to get a true indication of what a defenseman will be). Eventually, the Leafs will be forced to either go all-in on Gardiner or decide he’ll never be the top-pairing guy others still think he can be and thus maximize his value. The good and bad is there for all to see a nightly basis, but ~150 games just isn’t as much to go by as some think with a young defenseman. There’s still time.
– The giveaway goal to Grabner doesn’t fall on one specific guy, but Rielly has to give Bernier an outlet option there. When you have a goalie who can play the puck, you don’t skate at him while he’s handling it. You give him a passing option because you know he can play the puck.
– It was interesting to see Rielly on at the end of the game as the Leafs tried to tie it against Columbus (he eventually went off so Gardiner could come on in the final seconds, but he originally went out with Phaneuf). The coaching staff has shown a lot of confidence in him and he has been getting better as the season has progressed. Fans should be really happy with this kid so far.
– I was asked last week about what would hold the Leafs back from advancing in the playoffs. I had originally wrote “the inability to protect leads,” but didn’t have the stats to back it up and didn’t have the time to look it up game-by-game.
— Randy Numbers (@randynumbers) February 28, 2014
We now know the numbers. It also doesn’t include the lost third period lead against the Habs, which puts them at a league-leading 19 blown leads. This is the ugliest byproduct of the Leafs’ inability to create offensive zone time. When leading, they can’t just slow the game down and cycle the opposition down low. Similar to a football team running the ball to close out a game.
– Twice in the final six minutes against the Habs, Leafs wingers didn’t cover their men on the draw which led to Habs wingers flying right through the dot and turning the puck up ice for either scoring opportunities or pucks on net, leading to offensive zone draws. The Leafs have spoken before about wingers helping on the draw, but it hasn’t been happening. It’s March. They are in a playoff race. This is time for attention to detail.
– Kessel’s delay of game penalty started one defensive zone faceoff before it happened when Bozak won it cleanly to the corner and Phaneuf shot it right down the boards, leading to a clean icing. The best case scenario in shooting it down the ice like that is what? The puck hitting the Habs defenseman at the point, getting out, and the Habs regrouping for another attack? In saying that, Phaneuf played over 30 minutes and was clearly gassed against the Habs. If Phaneuf has his legs he takes it around the net like he always does, but he was done. That’s the biggest problem with their defense – they don’t have enough horses to spread out the responsibilities. It’s Gunnarsson and Phaneuf or bust, really.
– The Leafs dedicate a player to completely cover Ovechkin on the PP against Washington, but against the Habs Subban is allowed to launch bombs at will? He had already had the time and space to launch two clean clappers without pressure on that power play before finally putting it home. It’s not as if the Habs’ powerplay revolving around Subban’s bomb is a secret, either. I’ve been interested to see the Leafs PK with a more rested McClement, but it is continuing to struggle and that will be a big knock against the pending UFA.
– Happy for Bozak and his production, but I’d take a second to look at it and offer it as a reason to not give up on Kadri as some have/continually do. This is Kadri’s second full season and he has a chance to push for 60 points. He’s frustrating and needs to mature, but he has the ability.
– Clarkson is doing nothing. You can see from his goals in his big season that it’s all from in front of the net. He’s a glorified grinder, not a power forward. He can’t put his shoulder down and drive through opposition players because he’s not big/skilled/strong enough. Just go in front of the net and get dirty. That’s why he can’t play with the skilled guys. He just kills them offensively.
– I took a look at Clarkson’s big season again and counted 18 goals just from going to the net (tips, rebounds, shots in the slot). Now, I’ll give you an example of the type of Clarkson we’re seeing this season. Against Columbus, Kadri broke down the wing along the right side in the offensive zone and brought the puck almost to the corner of the offensive zone before stopping up. Lupul read the play and cut across the zone into the slot for the one timer, only Lupul wasn’t open; not because he was covered, but because Clarkson slowed down and stopped off the rush, trying to post up for a scoring chance in the slot, too, which caused him and Lupul to be standing beside each other. Kadri recognized it and froze up, but by the time he collected himself to make the pass Columbus got back in position. Stopping in the slot simply isn’t Clarkson’s game. Especially when he’s on a line with Lupul. His job is simple on that line: Go to the net and retrieve rebounds. Forecheck. Play well defensively. That’s it.
– We’re seeing this version of Clarkson where he tries to be a power forward when he’s really a grinder. That’s just the reality. Consider the Leafs other big wingers:
1 – Kulemin is 6’1 and listed at 225 (Poulin once told us he’s 240).
2 – JVR is over 6’3
3 – Lupul is 6’1, listed over 200 pounds, skilled, and jacked (everyone has seen this).
4 – Clarkson is listed at 6’1, 200. Both of which look extremely generous.
Yet, during play, he’s often seen posting his back up to opposing defensemen in the corners, or trying to drive through guys. He doesn’t have the physical tools in any capacity to do that. Nick Foligno ran him over twice in the game against Columbus. Obviously, he’s feeling the pressure to score and is trying to do a bunch of things he can’t to compensate. Not playing on the PP does hurt, but he doesn’t deserve to play there. The faster he plays like a grinder on the third line who simply goes to the net and makes the opposition goalies’ lives miserable the way every other team does on Bernier and Reimer, the better it will be for everyone involved. When Clarkson was taken off the Kadri-Lupul against Columbus, it was no coincidence their first two shifts with Raymond afterward were as follows: Kadri chance in front. Raymond goal.
– When the Leafs came back from the break, Carlyle noted how Clarkson stayed home and worked on his conditioning. That excited fans who thought he might turn it around. Since coming back he’s had two shots in three games, no points, and hasn’t played over 17 minutes once. This is a story I will bring up every training camp when we hear about how “player X” worked out over the summer and is looking good. It’s great that he did, but what are the results? Sometimes people get too caught up in that stuff. Until we actually see results, that stuff is just noise to me. We heard this every summer with Komisarek.
– One player whose offseason work is paying off? JVR. When he first came to Toronto he was not fast enough to outrace PK Subban for a puck, go down on a breakaway, and score. JVR put in a lot of time with Underhill in the summer – and apparently Marty St. Louis gave him a good tip in the process, too — and it is paying off. His skating looks so much smoother and his acceleration is unbelievable now for a guy his size.
– The Leafs actually played a really good first period against Columbus, out-shooting them 12-8, drawing two powerplays, and creating numerous scoring chances. They came out ready to go, but were unable to bury. That’s a story anyone who has watched hockey is familiar with… you play well in the first, have nothing to show for it, things swing the other way. What’s a real killer is getting nothing on the powerplays for the Leafs because that’s their bread and butter. It’s not a technical problem, either, because the Leafs PPs were good and generated chances. They just didn’t bury. The fact that the first unit didn’t get to start either power play didn’t help, though (the second time was because they drew the power play).
– The question we can’t answer: Either Bolland is at 80-90%, feeling good, but isn’t 100% yet and is waiting until fully healthy to return. Or, he doesn’t feel great at all right now and is waiting until he feels comfortable enough to play. There is a massive difference between the two, and only the Leafs and Bolland know the answer, but the answer to that question will dictate what kind of Bolland the Leafs should expect when he eventually does return.
“For the right person both Kadri or Gardiner could be traded but I don’t think that kind of player is out there”
– Bob McKenzie
This has been my voiced belief for a while. Sure, the Leafs would move these guys, but the kind of players it would take for them to move them –- the O’Reillys or Couturiers —simply aren’t available.
“Maybe even $5 plus for Bolland. It gets complicated. Toronto might try to get him at Bozak money Bolland will ask for Clarkson money.”
– Bob McKenzie on the ongoing Bolland debacle.
It’s all kinds of ugly if Leaf players all start pointing at the Clarkson deal and wanting that money. I’d tell Bolland he’s not making more than Bozak, too, but that Clarkson contract might render that pursuit useless. I guess we’ll see how Bolland plays when he returns and take it from there.
“When it gets physical Kessel looks like he wants to quit the game”
– Jeff O’Neill
In the last month and change Kessel has: Broke his stick on Eric Gryba when Gryba got physical with him, before scoring a hat trick. Gotten into a tussle with a fully masked Alex Burrows then scored the GWG. Got ran over by a rookie playing his first game, and scored almost immediately after. How is this a real criticism? A couple years ago, sure. But now?
“Anytime you get sent down it’s never a positive for a player that’s an NHL player. And he’s an NHL player.” [On Ashton]
“Sometimes we underestimate how good of a goal scorer he is.” [On D’Amigo]
“He’s a puck possession guy, he likes to move the puck and he’s just so dynamic through the neutral zone.” [on Holland]
– Steve Spott
I don’t think Spott is sending a message through the media, but I think he’s letting us all know that these players are ready to play in the NHL and can contribute in various capacities. The question is, are we actually going to see them up?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think I’d put the lines back to what they were in the Montreal game, meaning: JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin, Raymond-Holland-Clarkson, but with a fourth line of Ashton-McClement-Bodie. Frankly, I have no idea why those top three lines weren’t the same in the next game. Clarkson can’t play L2. Maybe next season you try that again, but for the time being –- and considering the Leafs other options — it’s time to move on from that for now.
2 – I think the Leafs have to callup one of D’Amigo or Ashton. These kids are lighting it up in the A. D’Amigo has 10 goals in his last 12 games while Ashton has 13 goals and 18 points in 16 games on the season. Not only is it a nice reward, but you’re going to put in a hungry kid chomping at the bit. Other than the first line. the rest of the Leafs lineup looks like a disaster right now. I’d rather they go with a kid than an AHL journeyman.
3 – I don’t think I’d lose sight of the fact that Reimer is the only goalie the Leafs have that has led a team to the playoffs. If Bernier struggles Wednesday against the Rangers, I come back with Reimer against the Flyers. It’s okay to have these guys fight for starts down the stretch. There doesn’t need to be “a guy” as much as people think.
4 – I don’t think they have many options on defense. As tough as it is to say, I think the best plan is to just ride out the season and then reassess big time in the summer, when they will have some spots open up. Moving players around is just moving deck chairs unless they bring someone in, which will be difficult to do due to cap space.
5 – I think I’ll reiterate that I wouldn’t do much at the deadline other than look for a depth guy. Smith and Bodie are AHL journeymen. Either go with an Ashton-McClement-D’Amigo fourth line, or pick one of those two kids and acquire the other guy.