Leafs Notebook – December 8

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Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

There is a well-known saying among hockey executives that goes, “Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.”

When Brendan Shanahan was hired as President of the Maple Leafs, the venom in the room at his press conference was evident. Fans, media and bloggers wanted blood as the 2013-14 campaign came to a close.

The core had failed in spectacular fashion for a third year in a row, they were full of big money players who have warts to their games, had little cap space, and they were not even in the conversation to acquire any of the big-name centers available. It was a bleak summer in Leafs land and it ended without too much being done, paving the way for what many to believe to be another year of mediocre Leafs hockey. Now, maybe it still will be, but to this point the best thing you can say about Shanahan is that he has not made a big mistake yet.

Most fans were calling for at least one head to roll, on top of Head Coach Randy Carlyle’s. The problem being, at the time, the Leafs would have been selling low on many of their players save for legitimate core players such as Phil Kessel, JVR, and Morgan Rielly.

As we now know, Shanahan by and large did the opposite. The only losses in the top 6 forward group and top 4 D were essentially management taking away de facto top pairing defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and losing Mason Raymond to free agency. The meat of the change was adding a handful of actual NHLers to the bottom six, as I discussed in the summer.

Regardless of whether it pans out to the playoffs or not, the Leafs did well to not lock themselves into any more onerous long-term contracts, or do anything that hurts the future of the club, and that flexibility (somewhat) moving forward is the best part of their summer. Even if they did get a little lucky to get there.

The larger point being: Brian Burke came in right away and traded what ended up being two really high first rounders for Phil Kessel. Before Burke, Fletcher came in and gave Leafs fans the Finger, among other things. Before Fletcher, JFJ (or whoever was pulling the strings) didn’t pay up for Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, instead putting faith in guys like Jason Allison, Eric Lindros and Jeff O’Neill. Brendan Shanahan chose mostly to wait on the big stuff.

They did lock in the defense group, somewhat, and that is concerning; they also have to be cognizant of the cap situation moving forward and begin to play ahead very, very shortly. But in terms of a start to a tenure, Shanahan should be commended for flying in the face of the fans and the media and bolstering the bottom half of the Leafs line-up, which was, again, easily the worst in the league.

Some will knock him for not firing Carlyle, and there might be some merit there considering coaches like Barry Trotz and Dan Bylsma were or are still available, but the summer ahead might feature coaches like Todd McLellan, Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock. Their patience might pay off here, compared to a situation in Edmonton where Craig MacTavish fired Ralph Krueger and hired Dallas Eakins and is now stuck with him. Instead, Shanahan hired Peter Horachek and promoted Steve Spott, giving the Leafs two possible future Head Coaches, but neither of which the team has to commit to in that regard.

Eventually, Shanahan will have to really put his stamp on the roster by moving out some players and bringing in some of his own targets. For now, this has been quietly nice start wherein he’s picked some of the low-hanging fruit and improved the team a little without making any major contractual commitments, while continuing to evaluate the organization top to bottom. Up next is the hard part: rearranging this defense, and clearing some contracts while addressing the center position.

 

Notes

  • Adding onto the talk of the Leafs addressing their depth issues from last season, former-3C-sometimes-2C Jay McClement, who averaged nearly 15min/game for the team, scored his first of the season Sunday, a week into December in his 26th game. McClement the player got unfairly blamed for his usage, which was out of his control, but in a lot of ways he was a focal point for the team’s struggles last year, playing way over his head, producing far too little given his ice time, and still seemingly playing no matter what. McClement would actually be a pretty good 4C for this current team, but to put into perspective of what the Leafs had last year with him, he averaged 14:45min/game and had 10 points in 81 games. This season the Leafs have 10 players averaging at least 13+ minutes a night, and Daniel Winnik is the only one that does not have at least 10 points; he has 9.
  • Last season Holland had 10 points in 39 games, and five of those points came with Joffrey Lupul on the ice, four of which they combined to score. Saturday they rekindled that a little bit, linking up for a goal as linemates, each getting another point, and as a line combining for 6 SOG. Lupul is listed at 6’1 and just over 200 pounds while Holland is 6’2 and just under 200 pounds, but really it is the first combination of size and scoring the Leafs have had since… Antropov and Ponikarovsky. If the team is going to rely on Kadri to handle the tough match-ups and can work a better combination on the top line to get some two-way play out of it, Lupul-Holland have shown flashes to make me believe they would crush soft match-ups; maybe not possession wise, but definitely scoring and goals for percentage wise.
  • Jake Gardiner:
    He’s averaging over 20 minutes in both sets (if you exclude the Colorado game he left after 3 shifts due to a knee problem). The Leafs have used Gardiner a little more since Polak got hurt, but they’ve also not completely sheltered him with OZ starts. The last three games, for example, he has been around the middle of the pack in OZ starts, whereas to start the year he was almost always at the top. His strengths are in skating and leading the rush, such as his goal on Saturday when he joined the play and threw it on net. It has been an up and down start to the season (and his career in general), but he is beginning to trend up again.
  • The Leafs play when winning has been coming into question lately, rightfully so because they have been sitting back and leaning on Bernier to close the deal, but a few things to consider here:

    1) The Leafs are one of two teams (Montreal) to win every game they have scored first in.
    2) The Leafs are one of three teams (Chicago, Calgary) to win every game they have a lead in after the second period.
    3) The Leafs are 6th in winning percentage in every game they have led after the first in.
    4) The Leafs are 23rd in winning percentage in every game they have trailed after one.
  • Eventually they will blow some of these games and the line will be that it finally caught up to them, but it is bound to happen eventually regardless. The big thing is making sure it does not become a trend. The more interesting thing is the second highest-scoring team in the league being unable to rally once down. As games against New Jersey and Arizona demonstrate in a nutshell, the Leafs have problems breaking traps, and the pre scout has to be get an early lead and lock down the neutral zone on this team. That would be of more concern to me than how they are protecting leads.

Quotes

[quote_box_center]“No, there hasn’t been anything yet. I’m hopeful that stuff will start at some point here. This is obviously where I want to be. But first and foremost, we’re worried about being a more consistent team and a winning team and when the team does well, individuals tend to find success within that. That’s kind of the way I’m approaching it, is just worrying about playing hockey and having a winning record here and trying to make the playoffs and go from there and rest will take care of itself.”
– Cody Franson, pending UFA.[/quote_box_center]

Franson grew up a Leafs fan and seems willing to return despite his past differences with the organization. This has been a talking point for a few weeks now, but he should be a priority.

[quote_box_center]“This is nothing innovative or new. A lot of organizations are doing this and we’re just trying to arm our prospects at all levels with the very best resources possible.”

– Kyle Dubas, after the Leafs announced the hiring’s of Scott Pellerin and Darryl Belfry along with some organization shuffling.[/quote_box_center]

Steve Staios talked about creating personalized plans for the Leafs drafted players, which was not altogether much different than what Jim Hughes told MLHS he did years ago.

Hiring Belfry is really interesting (he’s worked with numerous elite players), but you would be hard pressed to find organizations or individuals that do not have some sort of skill coach. I’m not pessimistic or optimistic about the moves, but it is nice to see the team continuing to add and flex their financial muscle. Of every front office member they have added, the best and most important hire is still Mark Hunter.

[quote_box_center]“We’re born to play and you’re born to want to be a difference-maker out there so yeah obviously I’m looking forward to my next start and you want to get in there. But at the same time [Bernier’s] been playing really well and the team’s been playing really well so right now my job is to support them and be a great teammate and work hard in practice. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
– James Reimer, on Bernier getting a string of starts.[/quote_box_center]

Good for Reimer for taking the high road, but as discussed last week $2.3M for a pure backup is too much money for a team tight against the cap. It is understandable to not believe in Bernier’s ability to stay healthy and want the insurance behind him, but they have to start shopping Reimer at some point and look for an asset along with possibly freeing up some cap space. His value is certainly not going up while he isn’t playing.

[quote_box_center]“He’s much better winger than a centre, a much more dynamic player.”

– Randy Carlyle, on Mike Santorelli.[/quote_box_center]

Everyone seems to have short memories, but when the season started fans and media were praising the Komarov-Santorelli-Clarkson line and how they got Clarkson’s game back. Santorelli struggled in the faceoff circle to start the year, but by and large was excellent at center, especially at digging pucks out down low in the D zone and turning play up ice. He is more noticeable now because Kadri is better than anyone on that line, and Lupul was briefly with those two as well; of course he is going to be more dynamic playing with those two. You can play Santorelli anywhere and he’ll have success, but when push comes to shove he is best with the puck on his stick and using his speed, which lends itself to playing center more than wing.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think, with where the Leafs are at, I would be very open to adding any reasonable cheap NHLer. I bring this up amid rumours of a player such as Jeremy Morin being available; a young right winger who has crushed the AHL for years now. Or how about a player like Kyle Chipchura going through waivers, a 350+ NHL game veteran who plays center, is 6’2, only 28 and can kill penalties, a sure upgrade over Trevor Smith. The Leafs have depth, and fans are finally starting to see the dividends of that after it was written about so much last year but regularly ignored (this space constantly contained suggestions for getting players like Ashton, Holland and D’Amigo involved more). The bargain bin is a quick and easy way to improve the team and the team should keep exploring it.
  2. Even though Stuart Percy is playing again for the Marlies, I think I would keep rolling with Korbinian Holzer for now. Although having lefties play left D and righties play right D isn’t the be all and end all to me, I think anytime you can do it there is a comfort level and benefit to doing so. To this point Holzer is showing he can handle a sheltered regular shift, and he is arguably the best penalty killing defenseman on the team, which is a continuation from his stint with the Leafs in the lockout year. Having a big, steady, right-handed defenseman who excels at penalty killing is a nice player to have as your 6th defenseman. He has also shown some increased confidence, as he already has 8 SOG in 5 games (and hasn’t had one shot-less game), which is halfway to the 16 SOG he put up in 22 games in the lockout year.
  3. When Komarov returns, I think I have him go back to playing with Kadri and Santorelli. However, it needs to be realized that if these are Kadri’s wingers, as good as they have been, Kadri’s point totals will go down as a result. . That might seem obvious to a lot of people, but ultimately what has been happening this year is Kadri plays with these type of wingers (Winnik, Clarkson included), they do a good job checking, and when the Leafs lose Kadri starts getting pointed at for not scoring. This would be their best two-way line and would probably receive a lot of checking duties. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
  4. That said, if I was being honest, I’d take JVR off the top line and really mix it up. JVR is on pace for a career year points wise and already has 10 goals, so he is producing, but to me he is playing really poor fundamental hockey. I wrote about his skating looking meagre last week, but he also has the worst CF% of any Leaf regular this season (this would be his first year ever with a negative corsiREL), in large part because his defensive work leaves a lot to be desired particularly on the wall. JVR is a great talent and one of the few Leafs capable of barrelling to the net with the puck, but his game this season has largely been flashes, not dominance, despite what his point totals suggest. If the goal is to create four balanced lines, I’d take him off the top unit.
  5. I think I would try to get David Booth more ice time, whether it is through pushing him up the line-up or just giving him the odd shift alongside a Kadri or Holland. Through five games, the most he has played is 10:15, the lowest is 6:11, and he’s averaging 9:05/night. Missing the first few months is a big adjustment, but his skating and forechecking has been strong, and he has been willing to initiate a lot of contact in the corners with the puck on the line. The Leafs are second in goals per game, scoring isn’t a problem, but I like to see players rewarded for playing good hockey and I think Booth has flashed a lot of game in very limited ice time so far.