There isn’t an elephant in the room when it comes to the Leafs defense, but the question of what to do is bubbling below the surface.
If you include Stuart Percy in the starting six for next season, the Leafs already have their top-6 group under contract: Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas and Percy are all signed going into the 2015-2016 season.
The person missing from that group signed next season? Cody Franson, who you can make a pretty strong argument for being the Leafs strongest defenseman this year. He is a free agent.
Still only 28, Franson is going to cost a lot of money next summer. Stephen Burtch at Sportsnet recently wrote about Franson’s play and what he might cost, and while I don’t agree with everything, two points are undeniable: He produces at an elite rate (third year running he’s leading the Leafs D in scoring), and everyone he plays with spends more time in the offensive zone with him than without him.
It is hard to imagine the Leafs losing Cody Franson for nothing next summer and somehow having a better defense the following season.
What to do, though, is the tricky question. Morgan Rielly is not going anywhere, that much we know. It is pretty unlikely the Leafs move Stuart Percy, too. Jake Gardiner is seemingly always in trade rumours, but the way he is playing it is tough to envision the Leafs making a deal where they receive value equal to or greater than his ability; they would be selling low (and gee, when have the Leafs ever been burned by trading a young player before he’s played an appropriate amount of games to judge him on?). It is tough to imagine anyone taking on the remaining two years of Stephane Robidas’ 35+ deal because if he retires his cap hit would still count.
That leaves you with Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak, along with maybe an understanding of why they would consider moving Jake Gardiner for value. Moving anyone of these players and simply bringing back Franson is no easy fix, either; the overall defense is not getting much better by doing that and it is not a great group to begin with.
The defense is not completely to blame for the team being 23rd in goals against per game and 26th in shots against per game this season, though. The goaltending has not been strong this season, and the team lacks a strong match-up center that every moderate to strong possession team possesses. Management can bank on Rielly and even Gardiner improving, along with Percy being a future impact player, but is it enough?
Dion Phaneuf is always a lightning rod, but he is on pace for nearly 40 points this season, his possession numbers have improved with Franson and together their goals for percentage is over 61% on the season. The improvement in Phaneuf’s game due to having a far superior partner leads me to believe that having some better two way forwards would provide another leap in his play (the forward he has played with the most at 5v5 is JVR, the second is Bozak). The reality is that defenseman who put up roughly 40 points playing over 23 minutes night against top lines are going to get $7M salaries every day of the week. The term and salary relative to his age may be debatable, but it is hard to imagine the team trading away Phaneuf and actually improving because of it.
The other realities are that the team will take a step back without Franson, but there is no easy fix here. As I wrote about last month, the Leafs do have a looming cap problem with Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier as RFAs needing to be paid and Cody Franson becoming a UFA. It is a tight squeeze for a middling team and a shoe will have to drop eventually.
Nowhere is it more confusing than on the defensive side of things, where two players possibly have to be moved out, one to make room for Franson and another to be upgraded on to improve the unit.
- Jonas Siegel at TSN wrote an excellent piece on Stephane Robidas earlier in the season, profiling his exit from Dallas and adjustment to Toronto. In the article, Robidas says this is the first time he is playing a full season without living with his children, a tough adjustment for any parent. Not said in the article but also true is that he missed pretty well all of preseason and was red shirted for training camp. Early in the season when I was tracking games, Robidas was getting torched in the neutral zone with opposing forwards routinely entering the zone on his side, but in my recent tracking he has begun to clean that up and close the gap in the neutral zone and force more dump-ins. Against Washington, Ovechkin had his way with him a little bit, but Ovechkin is obviously elite. Overall, Robidas’ game is starting to trend upwards. In his first 11 games he averaged 16:21 of ice time, launching 6 SOG, and in his next 11 games he has averaged 18:09 per game, with 8 SOG.
- The player Robidas has played the most with this season is Leo Komarov, meaning he has yet to really stick with a partner and settle in. To start the year he was paired with Phaneuf and they were in over their heads together, but with Rielly he is a 50% CF player in nearly 100 minutes (which isn’t much), and with Gardiner he is 45% CF. A few weeks ago I wrote that Rielly-Robidas should be a pair as opposed to Gardiner with Robidas because, “Robidas may benefit from playing with the physically stronger Rielly, who is better at rushing the puck than Gardiner and at evading forechecks.” Robidas was put in a tough spot to start the season and had a rough first impression on Leafs Nation, but I am pretty positive his game will trend upwards as the season progresses.
- Another good family note, one Declan has pointed out to me a few times this year, is that Jonathan Bernier became a first time father in the summer. I don’t have kids, but I will take the advice of everyone who has ever had one and acknowledge that sleep goes out the window. Maybe it is just a narrative, but the reality is that Bernier is human and the Leafs have gotten a little better defensively with their increased possession and depth, yet their 5v5 save percentage has dropped from 7th last season, to 19th so far this season. Bernier has started 16 games while Reimer has started 7, and his save percentage is far superior (.917% vs. .898%), but the overall assumed strength many thought the Leafs had in net has actually been below average. Hopefully it will regress up, but maybe it is one of those years.
- The story sold when Reimer was brought back in the summer was that he would have an opportunity to be the starter, but two months into the season he has started 7 games, with 5 of them being due to playing back-to-backs. His numbers have not been great, but the bigger picture is that he is clearly the backup, making $2.3M/year. It is well known Reimer does not want to be a backup, nor has he shown in any capacity that he can spot start with success. Much like Bernier, he needs to get into a rhythm and play regularly. In the summer, Pittsburgh signed Thomas Greiss for $1M to be a true backup (.927sv% in 5 games), and that $1.3M in saving between Reimer’s salary and Greiss’ is the difference between adding another Daniel Winnik. Every dollar counts in the cap world.
- Do not want to take anything away from the Leafs’ big win on Washington, but the Capitals were playing their third game in four nights, on the road, in Toronto on HNIC, against a rested Leafs team that had not played since Wednesday. I will be curious to see what happens when the Leafs play Washington, and Boston for that matter, next time around.
- Kessel played under 19 minutes in a game only 19 times last season. This season he has already done that 14 times. Establishing a four line scoring attack and preserving Phil over the course of the 82 game season is going to pay off in crunch time.
[quote_box_center]“Joffrey Lupul won’t say it out loud but he’s worried about his future with the Leafs.”
– Steve Simmons, in his Sunday column [/quote_box_center]
I get why the Leafs might do it, and I am not against it, but I will say this: if you listen to Lupul’s interviews this year, he gets it. He has spoken a lot about the process of controlling play, he is vocal about winning, and most importantly he backs up his talk on the ice (with vastly improved possession numbers so far, of all things). Plus, he is a game breaker, and one of the few Leafs capable of creating and finishing his own offense. Lupul’s name is often thrown around as if his contract needs to come off the books immediately, but the truth is that there are far worse contracts than his on the team and guys who can score 25+ goals (he’s done it three times in his career and had 22 in 69 last year) generally make what he is making. There are some contracts on the team I would trade just to get rid of, but I would want value for Lupul.
[quote_box_center]“[on wanting him to evolve into a more complete player and not just a one-dimensional player] That’s something he wants me to do and that’s something I want for myself [and] I’ve wanted all along. I know my offence is going to be there. I know those goals are going to come, those assists are going to come, but it’s a matter of putting everything else together and still playing the right way when you’re not getting the greatest puck luck.”
– Nazem Kadri, talking about what Brendan Shanahan wants from him.[/quote_box_center]
I have been saying it for most of the year, but do not worry about Kadri. This is the most complete game he has played in the NHL (and wasn’t that everyone’s problem with him early on?). This is the first year Kadri has really been able to control the puck along the wall without getting pushed around and his faceoff percentage has improved; I think faceoffs are a little overrated, but when you are hovering around 45% it is tilted too low to one side to not be a problem, at least when it comes to defensive zone draws. The scoring will come.
[quote_box_center]“I thought it was kind of ‘Oops, I hit you on purpose.”
– Randy Carlyle, on the Ovechkin-Komarov collision.[/quote_box_center]
I agree with this take from Carlyle, but what do you do, suspend the guy for that? Fine him a couple thousand bucks? I don’t know the answer.
[quote_box_center]“He was the best listener I’d ever seen in my life. Pat’s theory of coaching, he was going to make you, as a player, trust him and make you, as a player, feel like you didn’t want to let him down. He didn’t believe in punishing, especially young players. He never embarrassed them. He made them feel important. They trusted that he would do the right thing by them. That was his gift and his knack as a coach. [As a GM] We called him the python. Pat didn’t make a lot of calls — he didn’t hunt. He sat by the path and waited for some helpless GM to come by, then he’d grab him and strangle him.”
– Brian Burke, on Pat Quinn.[/quote_box_center]
I know I had a quote and column on Quinn last week, but I felt this quote — and really, example — of how to coach was too great to not include.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think Steve Spott should be commended for the somewhat-creative idea of putting Nazem Kadri on the “point” for the power play. As Gus Katsaros illustrates here, he isn’t really on the point per say, instead he’s on the top of the circle and the PP is more of a “four forwards plus a defenseman” look. Either way, loading up the first unit with your top scorers is a good idea because the top unit plays the majority of the power play while the second unit comes on, generally speaking, with under a minute left and have to break out up ice. Although, if we are talking about the Leafs best power play producers, only one defenseman has been in the top five in power play points on the Leafs in each of the last three seasons, and it is not Dion Phaneuf. It is Cody Franson. But the handedness dynamic might play a part in that decision.
- I think if Komarov is going to miss any time (and sitting out seemed more precautionary than anything else to me), Lupul should slot up with Kadri and Santorelli while Panik goes onto the fourth line and Booth moves up. Winnik is a very good checker and he could also move up, but Booth has a little more untapped offense and Winnik can stabilize the fourth line with Panik and Smith — two players that are far from sure things — better than Booth can.
- I think, if Komarov is not hurt, Panik has to draw in sooner than later. He is shooting at 25% and obviously won’t keep that up, but developing a 23 year old with some upside over the journeyman in Smith has to have precedence. Shift Winnik to center if need be (or move Santorelli back to center and balance out the four lines better).
- I think Holzer has looked okay in his first two games and I am willing to see more. He has played over 17 minutes in both games with an average 37CF%, but does have 3 SOG and has shown some confidence with the puck that he previously lacked. I wondered only a few weeks ago whether or not the Leafs should have claimed David Schlemko, and still believe they would have been far better served picking up an established NHL defenseman if the goal of the season is to win versus seeing what they have in the organization. But Holzer has been okay and played physical.
- I think the Leafs have to get Reimer in a game this week. Their next back-to-back comes next Saturday and Sunday, which would be nearly a month since his last game (November 18th, December 14th). Needless to say, how do you think he is going to play after that much time off?