Mike Babcock made headlines this week for telling the media not to hold their breath on a big deadline deal this season, but that was not the most revealing thing he said.
That would be this, after Babcock was asked whether such a quote is designed to calm a young team down at a hectic time of the season:
You’re not expecting a busy deadline day. Of course, that could change at the last second. Who knows? But do you think that has a calming effect on your dressing room?
Babcock: Well, that was the idea. How’s that? You’re catching on fast. I should’ve come out and said, “we’re going to be just flying [on deadline day]!” Like, I think we’re owned by one of the TV stations, too. The more buzz you can create, the better it is for them. This is the way I look at it — we have a long-term project here. We understand that totally. If you can ever improve your team for the future, I think it’s way different than when you think you can win the Cup and have an opportunity and you need more bodies. That’s not our situation whatsoever. The other thing I’d tell you is there are two things that are involved this year. Everyone looks like they’re the same and still in it. The second thing is there is an expansion draft. There are two parts to it that make it way different. I know we’ve got to sell ratings and the TV show and all that, but no, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.
Ultimately, Lou Lamoriello is the GM and he makes the deals. His first season in Toronto was a relative write-off as the team was out early and predictably sold off middling veterans for draft picks. It wasn’t difficult to see that coming.
Now that the team is firmly on the rise, we can look back at Lou Lamoriello’s history to give us a rough idea of what to expect. What is most clear: Expect the unexpected with Lou Lamoriello.
From firing Claude Julien — who had the Devils in first place — in the final week of the season to shocking the hockey world by acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, Lamoriello has a history of unexpected moves. Some other big acquisitions include acquiring Cory Schneider for a ninth overall pick, bringing in Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbunner in exchange for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a first round pick (became Dan Paille), and acquiring Alex Mogilny for Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson — just to name a few.
If we look at Lamoriello’s career in New Jersey — particularly the recent history when they were competitive — we see a list of trades that make the recent Viktor Loov for Sergey Kalinin swap an easy one to spot. The Devils had a history of low-cost veteran acquisitions. After acquiring Kovalchuk, the Devils made 14 trades between 2010 and the end of the 2013 season. Two of those trades were selling off Dave Steckel (yes, to the Leafs) and Jamie Langenbrunner, as well as two minor league swaps. The other ten trades saw the Devils acquire: Martin Skoula, Jason Arnott, Dave Steckel, Trent Hunter, Kurtis Foster, Marek Zidlicky, Andrei Loktionov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt D’Agostini, and Steve Sullivan. That is a collection of veterans and depth players to help fill out the lineup.
Toronto has a foundation of core players in place including a franchise center, winger, and a goalie they have committed to long-term. They need help on defense and have been relying on youth to fill out their roster up front. History tells us veteran depth moves are what we can expect from Lamoriello as the Leafs’ young talent cement spots at the top of the lineup. It also tells us to never count Lou out when it comes to the big deal, too.
– For the first 30 or so games this season, we saw the Leafs regularly outshoot their opponents. Lately, we’ve seen that trend reverse and the team is getting outshot on a regular basis. The team is still in reasonable standing – 18th in the league in team fenwick, 16th in corsi – but their defensive coverage and struggles to break out are starting to magnify as the season progresses. Only Arizona and Buffalo have given up more shots than the Leafs.
– In the 17 games that Frederik Gauthier played for Toronto, he averaged 1:08 per night on the penalty kill. Ben Smith — who plays the second most of any Leafs forward on the PK per night — was hurt, so the coaching staff bumped up everyone’s usage a little bit. They killed off 88.9% of their penalties in that time, which led the league. Since Smith came back for the month of February, the team is at 75.9%, which ranks 24th for the month.
– Without Smith in the lineup to play on the PK, Zach Hyman and Leo Komarov both saw significant increases in PK time on ice compared to their season averages (36 and 45 seconds respectively). The top three Leafs in PK fenwick percentage are Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, and Leo Komarov. So far this season, the Leafs haven’t got a puck on the other net with Ben Smith on the ice. The point of the PK isn’t to score on the opponent, but it speaks to the lack of skill when it comes to pushing the puck down the ice and eating time on the PK.
– There was a point in December where Zach Hyman started producing at a top respectable level, but since January 1, 2017, he has 9 points in 23 games and zero 5v5 goals as Auston Matthews’ most common linemate. He has done an admirable job on his off-wing and is going to have a very solid overall rookie season, but he’s also turning 25 this year and producing as more of a top nine forward instead of a top 6.
– Interestingly enough, Nazem Kadri leads the Leafs with 25 points in 23 games in 2017 and is 11th on the team in ice time per game in that time. He is playing tough minutes nightly and getting PP time, but it will be interesting to follow his ice time down the stretch.
“You might call me crazy, but I still feel like my best days of hockey are ahead of me.”
– Brooks Laich, who’d like to get back to the NHL and contribute to a team
Laich once scored 20+ goals in three consecutive seasons, including 50+ points in two of them. For five seasons he was a legitimate top six forward who played center and wing. This season with the Marlies, he has played 21 games and has 6 points. I think Laich has a chance to be a fourth-line and penalty killing contributor, but it’s highly unlikely he ever gets back into that top-six role. There is no cap in the playoffs, so maybe Toronto or some other team can keep him down (or Toronto can eat his salary and move him) and he can move up in the playoffs as a veteran depth player.
“I wasn’t going to play him at center this year anyway. Now, if we got an injury, that’d be different, but our plan is for him to play on the wing all year and maybe into next year. Over time, though… and you’ve seen a tonne of guys who that’s happened with in the NHL. You’ve arrived and think you’re a center, you don’t know how to check your own half, and you play on the wing for a while while you learn. Once you learn how you can go back to playing in the middle. I don’t see this happening right away. We feel he needs ice time. He can’t get it on the fourth line. We feel the three centers we’ve got playing center are ahead of him at this point.”
– Mike Babcock on William Nylander playing center
Tyler Bozak has one year left on his contract after this season. There is a pretty clear succession plan in place. Years ago, Lamoriello (in part) traded away center Brendan Morrison to make room for a young Scott Gomez at the position.
“When you get ahead of yourself, what you do is you get in your own way, and you sort of do something today, but you hold back the big picture. And that is not something that we will do. But in saying that, it’s like everything else – if you can take care of today and tomorrow at the same time, then you have to look at it. But right now, we’re really pleased with the development process that’s taken place with the younger players, and where the veterans have come. I think that, sometimes, because of the success of the young players, the veterans have become overlooked in how important they are and where they’ve brought their games.
So we’ll just have to wait and see how things develop. But it is a unique year when you talk about salary caps and when you talk about expansion and when you talk about parity in the league, as far as the number of teams; all you have to do is look at the (standings) points and look at the games teams have left with each other.”
– Lou Lamoriello on the upcoming NHL trade deadline
Just spitballing here, but I think — in a perfect world — the Leafs would make a move on a young defenseman that can join the core this season. They have cap room, an abundance of assets, more prospects than they know what to do with, and some veterans they can justify parting with. I don’t think it happens before the deadline, but I would bet they are trying.
Video Tidbit of the Week
Carolina is a structured team with a good forecheck and a coach who used to work under Mike Babcock. Anytime the two teams play, it is always a bit of a chess match and there is a game within the game. When Carolina played a bit of a trap as the Leafs held the puck behind the net, I thought this was a great set play to counter it.
Polak has a D outlet option set up to his right as a safety valve, William Nylander swings behind the net, and Matthews skates up ice to open up the zone. When Nylander leaves the puck, he swings up ice to join the play because he knows the puck is going up to Matthews. When the puck does go up, the play depends on how Matthews is covered – if he has space, he can take the puck and wheel while Zach Hyman waits at the far blue line and Nylander travels up ice with speed of his own. Because he’s tightly covered, Matthews deflects it deep; since Nylander is skating up ice at full speed, he can get right in on the forecheck against defenders who are a bit flat footed from standing around in the neutral zone.
The Hurricanes ring the puck around the boards due to the immediate pressure, Zaitsev holds the line with Matthews as the high guy, and Toronto enjoys a shift of domination. That’s a nice counter to the trap, especially compared to something Toronto has been guilty of this season — getting stuffed with three forwards outside of the zone.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Josh Leivo is earning himself a full-time roster spot right now with six points in six games since joining the lineup. He has been pushed up the depth chart and is still proving effective, he’s getting steady PP time, and he’s already had two games in which he has put five shots on net.
2. If Leivo is going to play full-time and Marner returns, I think it makes sense to send Nikita Soshnikov down to the AHL to keep him playing. Toronto can have Sergey Kalinin hang around as the 13th forward in case of emergency on the road and they can bring up Soshnikov if something were to happen that leaves them down a forward. It doesn’t make sense to have Soshnikov watching games from the press box.
3. When Mitch Marner returns, I think — or I’m guessing — that Babcock will bump Leivo back down to the fourth line, with Marner and Brown going back to their normal spots. That said, I would keep Leivo with Kadri and Komarov, and put Brown on the fourth line while using him on special teams as they regularly do in order to ensure he’s not in a strictly fourth-line role. Leivo is going right now and that line is making things happen. I wouldn’t break that up.
4. I think it’s going to be important for the Leafs to actively look for opportunities to get Curtis McElhinney into the net. They only have one back-to-back in the next 12 games, and it is important to keep Andersen fresh (i.e. not playing 11 of the next 12 games). The coaching staff and management is going to have to work with Andersen throughout the rest of the season to get him some games off. As of today, he is five away from his career high with 24 games left. This would be a tough week for Toronto to rest Andersen with games on every other day against the Jets, Rangers, and Habs. Tough decisions in net are going to have to be made moving forward.
5. With where the Leafs are in their rebuild — and with all the talk about still building for the future — I think it would be a mistake to not trade one of Roman Polak or Matt Hunwick (both pending UFAs). Last season, the Leafs were able to pick up two second round picks for Polak and Nick Spaling. This will be a particularly interesting draft to own extra assets for considering Toronto’s cap space (around $20M), their glut of prospects, the expansion draft, and a weak UFA market. I’d trade Hunwick over Polak, and I’d have an eye on loading up for the draft in order to make a major move in the summer.