With last night’s win against the Edmonton Oilers bringing the Toronto Maple Leafs playoffs chances to 90.05%, it looks as if the Maple Leafs are finally heading towards their first playoff berth since the NHL lockout. It’s never a good idea to assume anything, so I won’t be congratulating the boys on anything until we see an ‘x’ beside them in the standings.
Still, the success has to be coming from somewhere. Players finally developing and hitting their strides? Improved goaltending from both James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson? The additions of Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon? Perhaps.
There’s no way to determine for sure what the cause is, that’s the beauty of sports. There are so many variables that go in to winning, it’s hard to pinpoint the driving force behind success. At best, we can make cases for aspects of improved play that have a part in the overall effect.
Today I want to look at the phenomena that is ‘scoring by defensemen’. As the season has unfolded, I’ve noticed a few distinct differences between this years team and those of seasons passed. One of the most glaring differences is the involvement of the defense in offensive production.
The chart doesn’t include Tomas Kaberle (3g – 35a – 38 pts) and Francois Beauchemin (2g – 10a – 12 pts). In total, the Maple Leafs defense scored 139 points. This may have been impacted by the fact Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson both missed a good amount of games.
Obviously management saw this was an issue as well, as they tried hard to land John-Michael Liles at last year’s deadline. Ultimately, they acquired him before the NHL Entry Draft, but it was obvious the team wanted to improve their production from the back end. To supplement Liles’ addition, the team traded for young Cody Franson as well.
The offensive expectations coming into this season were obviously higher with a healthy Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson along with the arrival of Liles and Franson. Luke Schenn was coming off a breakout year offensively, and Mike Komisarek was expected to be a healthy scratch most of the time in favour of Jake Gardiner. Gardiner, a noted offensive defensemen was expected to contribute along the blueline as well.
So, how have Maple Leaf defenders fared so far this season? Refer to the chart below:
First thing to address: Maple Leafs have scored a total of 122 points after just 53 games. They’re on pace for 189 points by the end of the 82 game schedule.
The second thing to look at is the amount of games missed by key players.
- John-Michael Liles missed 16 games to concussion
- Jake Gardiner has missed 7 games as a healthy scratch
- Cody Franson has missed 15 games as a healthy scratch
You have to imagine if those players (all considered mainstays in the lineup at this point) had played every game so far, they’d have a few more points. It’s no use speculating on what-ifs, but rather, we should acknowledge that there is a direct correlation between the increased offence generated by Maple Leafs defensemen and the success the team has seen this year.
At this point, it’s not known for sure whether or not the Leafs will make the playoffs, or even have consistent success for the rest of the season. All we can do is note that this year’s team is much better (wins and points wise) and it is no coincidence that the defensemen have played a bigger role offensively.
By the numbers: points by defensemen for Stanley Cup champions (regular season)
- 2011 Boston Bruins: 149 points by defensemen.
- 2010 Chicago Blackhawks: 222 points by defensemen.
- 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins: 148 points by defensemen.
- 2008 Detroit Red Wings: 204 points by defensemen.
- 2007 Anaheim Ducks: 209 points by defensemen.
They say don’t put the cart before the horse, but tonight the Toronto Maple Leafs will take the two points and move on. Although unspectacular throughout most of the game, the Leafs were able to mount a third period comeback and force overtime, eventually besting the revived Jets in the shootout.
Tonight’s game was disheartening and frustrating to watch for a few reasons. It seemed at times the Leafs couldn’t make a pass, clumsily dishing the puck around their own zone and behind forced back behind their own net. They were very much clogged in the neutral zone, and often could not get their cycle game going.
Their defensive effort was not much better. Lost man coverage and impulsive decisions in their own end often led to scoring chances, which James Reimer handled quite well. In my opinion, Reimer had a good game. The first goal, scored by Tobias Enstrom, was through a medley of screening teammates, so you can’t fault him there. Alexander Burmistrov‘s goal was a pretty one; Nik Antropov forced the puck outside and around the net, then dished it in front for the roofjob. A tough play for any goaltender. Lastly, Mark Scheifele‘s first NHL goal came after the Leafs (cough, Mike Komisarek, cough) gave up another penalty, and was the result of a scramble play rebound. Reimer should have had the rebound better, but on the other hand there was no support around him.
Fear not however, as there were some positives to be found yet in the win. The Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel – Joffrey Lupul line continues to dominate. When I say dominate, I really mean dominate. Kessel now has 12 points in 5 games (7g – 5a). His 7 goals account for approximately 41% of the 17 the team has accumulated to date. Lupul tallied two goals tonight, destroying the net camera with a one-timer, and having one bounce through Ondrej Pavelec‘s legs via an Enstrom deflection. We’re perhaps seeing glimpses of the scorer Lupul once was (and still has the potential to be) with his hot start (7 points, 4g – 3a in 5 GP).
The real gem here is Phil “The Thrill” Kessel. This year, he does it all. Aside from scoring pretty goals every game, Kessel has also found success in dishing the puck. For example, in tonight’s game he made the smart move and fed the puck to a wide open Lupul who slapped it into the gaping net. In the past, Kessel would have looked for a shot. He probably would have missed, or it would have deflected out of play. Tonight he dishes the puck and ties the game at ones. You can truly see that Kessel’s game is evolving. His offensive prowess has always been there, the rest is finally piecing itself together.
Other quick thoughts on tonight’s game:
- The Nikolai Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Clarke MacArthur line needs a spark. They’re trying their creative drop-passing and weaving but it’s not connecting right now. They need to simplify and pot a few. With MacA missing the end of the game, rookie Matt Frattin returned to the trio and you could see the line was instantly better. Perhaps MacA is a bit rusty still?
- Luke Schenn didn’t have an impressive game. He made some dumb moves with the puck that often resulted in opposing scoring chances. Cody Franson needs to draw in the lineup again. I’d say replace Schenn with Franson but then there’s Komisarek, who had his worst game this season. Two consecutive penalties along with killing a few offensive chances just scratch the surface of the type of game he had. I’d swap Komisarek for Franson, but then again I’m not the coach.
- Jake Gardiner had a solid game for the Leafs. His skating proved valuable, often helping him out of tight defensive situations. He also created offense, leading rushes and setting up a few scoring chances. Pierre Lebrun wonders how you would ever take him out of the lineup again. I share the sentiment, he adds a dimension the Leafs severely need with their lack of secondary scoring.
- David Steckel won 16 of 18 draws tonight, good for 88.9%. The Leafs have earned a point in every game since acquiring Steckel. Need I say more?
- Lupul and Frattin in the shootout: cheddar snipes.
It was revealed during the game that Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur were injured. After the game it was announced that Armstrong would miss the upcoming road trip, while MacArthur would make the trip and was considered day-to-day. Armstrong’s injury doesn’t bode very well for the Leafs, who are often a better team with him than without. The injures come at somewhat of a good time.
Tomorrow night’s tilt is with Boston, a team that isn’t shy to drop the mitts. You can be sure Wilson will want to dress Jay Rosehill and/or Colton Orr in anticipation of some physical stuff tomorrow night, considering what happened with Carolina the other night. If I’m Wilson I’d dress this lineup:
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel
Kulemin – Grabovski – Frattin
MacArthur – Lombardi – Dupuis
Orr – Steckel – Brown
Injecting Orr gives added toughness. Frattin sparked Grabo and Kulemin, so try it again to start tomorrow night. MacA drops to the third line (if he can dress) or move Mike Brown up and dress Rosehill.
Goalie Jonas Gustavsson gets his first start of the season tomorrow night in Boston.
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Changes must come for this Toronto team. I don’t just mean it in terms of personnel due to injuries for the next game. Special teams will make or break success this season, and so far they haven’t been good enough. Tonight the PP started off flat, but was given some life when Steckel replaced Bozak with Lupul and Kessel. Perhaps they should try this for a few more games until Tim Connolly is ready to return.
In other news, forward Nazem Kadri was assigned to the Toronto Marlies. I feel it’s the right move, given his injury and the relative success of the team. There will be injuries (as we witnessed tonight) and he will get his chance. No one’s given up on him yet, and that’s important to note.
After a couple solid, albeit one nerve-racking, wins to start the season, the Maple Leafs appear to have some swagger that hasn’t been seen since Mats Sundin flanked Jonas Hoglund and Mikael Renberg a decade ago. Optimism is at an all time high throughout Leaf nation as the team gets through a relatively easy opening couple weeks of the season. The questions never seem to end, however, and with the Leafs quality depth (that’s not an oxymoron anymore!) as the Leafs get healthier and less-suspended there is a shortage of roster spots and ice time for players. It appears that amongst all speculation that Brian Burke is hovering around the trigger on a potential trade, but is it really necessary right now? Let’s break this down.
Up front is the primary concern as Clarke MacArthur comes back from his suspension, Nazem Kadri‘s knee is healing quicker than initially speculated, and it would be reasonable to assume we’ll see a Tim Connolly appearance sometime in the next week and a half. Combine that with the unexpected recovery and quality play from Matthew Lombardi and the Leafs have a shocking number of centres available. So where do you put them all? Firstly, Kadri has to start in the minors as Matt Frattin‘s solid two-way play has earned him the right to stay with Leafs for now. It can’t hurt Naz to get up to speed with the Marlies, get big time minutes, work on his defensive game and if he truly dominates the AHL then that will show he needs to be in the NHL. At that point, whether it be a few weeks or a few months, Burke has a better idea to get better trade value from other teams. Very rarely will teams make a substantial deal at this point in the season. This of course only goes with the assumption that the team isn’t struggling and in need of a shake-up, but with the team’s play thus far it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a combination of lines with this current group that can’t do well enough.
Let’s face it, Connolly likely won’t be the iron man once he heals up from his flavour of the month injury and it wouldn’t be smart to have Lombardi play in every game as the season wears on. Combine that with responsible play of Tyler Bozak, and you have three centres that are capable of playing the pivot between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul or Frattin and Colby Armstrong. Any combination of those sets of wingers with those centres has some offensive upside with defensive capability. It’s also important to recognize that the Leafs now have a quality fourth line in more of a Brian Burke mold. Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr are excellent for spot starts when toughness is needed, and a line of David Steckel – Philippe Dupuis - Mike Brown has an excellent balance. Since MacArthur counts towards a roster spot despite being suspended, that requires only one roster move to make room for Connolly when he’s healthy. When that happens, it would be smart to send down Rosehill and carry those extra centres. This gives good options to match up the line-up on a nightly basis depending on the opponent, as well as gives the opporunity for some more injury prone players to rest for a night if they’re banged up.
On the defensive side, it’s nice to see Toronto finally have a glut of NHL-ready defencemen. Keith Aulie was already sent down to the Marlies to make room for stand-out Jake Gardiner; Mike Komiserek for all purposes hasn’t been terrible; Cody Franson is a big mobile, puck mover who can run a secondary powerplay unit; and Carl Gunnarson has been nothing short of solid. While I agree Aulie deserves to be with the big club after a great debut last season, letting him earn his way back on to the Leafs roster is the best bet. It’s not a bad thing to let the likes of Komi and Gunnar play since it will only boost their trade value if they play well. If not, it’s good to know there are guys ready to answer the call if a shake up is needed. And let’s not forget injuries happen and when they strike the Leafs blue line, we’ll be thankful for this depth.
At this point, Ron Wilson has many options to put a line-up together that can compete with any team in the league on any given night. This capability injects some excitement that hasn’t been found in nearly a decade since the Leafs last made the playoffs.
First of all, I’d like to thank the fine folks at LeafsWire for giving me the opportunity to write for them. I hope you, the readers, will enjoy the perspective I have to offer.
For my first post, I’m going to take a look at three players on the Leafs team I’m looking to have strong rebound seasons. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll take one from each position: forward, defence, and goalie.
Goalie – Jonas Gustavsson
This is a timely pick considering he’s getting his first full 60 minutes tonight in Buffalo. “The Monster” had a disastrous 2010-11 campaign. He won just six of his 21 starts, with a .890 save percentage and a 3.29 goals against average. Those Toskala-esque numbers really can’t get any worse for the young Swede. He’s pegged as the backup to James Reimer right now, but I’m expecting him to open some eyes this year.
At the beginning of last season, he was playing fairly well, just not getting any goal support. But in December things sort of fell off the rails and he never got back on track. He was strong in an AHL conditioning stint, but never got a chance to prove himself on his return to the NHL. I expect him to be highly motivated this season, and I think he will, at times, push Reimer strongly for the #1 job. That’s not to say I expect Reimer to struggle. I just think Gustavsson will be playing so well, that he’s going to make it difficult for Ron Wilson to sit him for extended periods of time. That’s going to be huge, since it will decrease Reimer’s workload and keep him fresh for the full season.
Forward – Matthew Lombardi
I’m well aware of the fact that Lombardi is not likely to be ready for Opening Night, but in all honesty, I’m not expecting him to be that far off. Given the fact that the Leafs will have only played four games by October 17, it’s not crazy to think he can get into the lineup by about the sixth game of the season or so.
Lombardi is known as a speedy two-way centre with good play-making skills. Sounds like something Leafs fans have been starving for, no? He was on my wish list in the 2010 free agency season. I was not a fan of the contract the Predators gave him, but now that the Leafs will only have him on the books for two years of that deal (at $3.5 million per season), it seems much more manageable.
Where he fits into the lineup is a bit of a question mark. Tyler Bozak has looked fantastic on the third line with Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong. Mikhail Grabovski is cemented on the top line with Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. Wilson has suggested Lombardi could play wing on the third line, but with Kadri playing as well as he has, it would be foolish to remove him from that role. Tim Connolly hasn’t dazzled on a line with Phil Kessel yet, but he’ll be given plenty of time to build that chemistry. If I was in Ron Wilson’s shoes, I would slot Lombardi in on the fourth line, but use him almost as a roving centre. Give him a shift here and there with each line to give the regular centre a break, and have him on the first or second penalty kill unit. If Lombardi can get into the lineup for almost a full season and influence the special teams, the Leafs’ chances of making the playoffs jump immensely in my mind.
Defence – Mike Komisarek
Here’s another character who might not be in the lineup on Opening Night. He’s looked much better in pre-season, but that still might not be enough to crack the top six. You could make the argument that he has been out-performed by Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarson, the two defenders he is fighting for ice time. If and when Komisarek gets into action, I expect him to have a quietly solid season. I honestly think the opening might come if Keith Aulie struggles (and for the record, I do expect him to struggle). Whether he would jump in with Dion Phaneuf, or on the third pair obviously remains to be seen.
However, I do believe he finally realizes that he has to bring his absolute best every night to find himself on the ice. That’s not something he’s really been faced with over his first two seasons in blue and white. The prospect of such humiliation might serve as a very valuable motivating tool. If that’s the case, I believe he can return to the form he showed in his final season with the Montreal Canadiens.
These are my picks to have solid seasons for the Leafs, despite some expectations to the contrary. Who do you think will come out of nowhere and help get the Leafs to the post-season?
May 4th, 2004. That date can mean many different things to people; but for any die hard Toronto Maple Leafs fan like me, you’ll recognize that date as the last time the Leafs saw playoff action. It was game 6 in the conference semi-finals against the Flyers where they lost 3-2 off Jeremy Roenick’s GWG to put away the series. Since then I’m sure many suffering fans have developed distaste for the Flyers, I know I have. But that’s all in the past; it’s time to look ahead to the future which looks very promising.
This year’s free agency class hasn’t created much of a “frenzy” for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s safe to say that the Brad Richards situation put a damper on the Leafs’ hopes of acquiring a top line centre. Despite all this, the Maple Leafs and fans have a lot to look forward to this coming season. Arguably the biggest name the Leafs have signed this off-season is Tim Connolly. The 30-year-old had 13 goals and 29 assists in 68 games last season with the Buffalo Sabres. Connolly will add some jump to the top 6 forwards, and he has the potential to be a 70-point or more player, provided that he stays healthy. He will be contending with Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski to centre the top line of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Mathew Lombardi is also in the mix for the top centre position, if and only if he is healthy enough for action. Nazem Kadri will most likely be moved into a winger position, which will suit his style of play a lot better. Kadri has the skill, but the size factor is his biggest issue. If he wants to have an impact on this time, he’s going to have to train hard so he can provide more “truculence” along with his finesse.
Brian Burke also locked up three of their solid grinders Mike Zigomanis, Darryl Boyce, and Joey Crabb to one-year contracts. Along with the acquisition of Philippe Dupuis, the Maple Leafs will have all the force necessary from their forwards. And who can forget Colton Orr? Expect to see a lot of offense this season. The forwards are developing quite nicely within the organization. Joe Colborne and Tyler Biggs are just two names for fans to get excited about.
With the average height of 6’3, the Maple Leafs’ defense will hopefully live up to the expectations they’ve had on their shoulders for the past two seasons. Look for Luke Schenn to continue his strong and dominate play on the Leafs’ blue line from last season. With any luck, John-Michael Liles will do what he was brought here to do, which is fill in the hole of puck-moving defenceman Tomas Kaberle. Brett Lebda was the closest thing the Leafs had to Kaberle during the second half of the season; that isn’t a good thing. Miraculously Burke was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat and actually acquire something decent for him in Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi. Many fans including myself have been less than impressed with the performance of Mike Komisarek, former all-star defenceman for the Montréal Canadiens. If his dreadful play continues, it is likely that Burke will pool him in a trade for another asset that he may have his eye on. And let’s not forget about Optimus Reim, the Maple Leafs’ number one goalie James Reimer. The 23-year-old from Morweena, MB, had a 20-10-5 record, with .921 SV% and a 2.60 GAA; not bad for a kid buried within the system. He is an outstanding athlete and human being, who this year will give the Leafs some much needed support in goal.
May 4th, 2004. Given some of the additions Brian Burke has made combined with the development of the young players in the system, that date will likely be changed to mid/ late April of 2012 when the playoffs begin. The Maple Leafs are a solid young team and should definitely make the post-season this year.
- Michael Cappabianca
With the calender reaching August, the 2011-12 season is right around the corner. It seems Brian Burke is done signing free agents, due to the abundance of forwards and defense. Tons of questions still remain on the Toronto Maple Leafs. But here are a few thoughts and opinions on their upcoming season.
1.I feel that Komisarek and possibly Bozak will be dealt this season for a prospect or a mid round pick. Possibly packaged together, or separately in bigger deals.
2.Frattin will out play Kadri in preseason and will take his spot in the line-up. Kadri will start the season with the Toronto Marlies, and will build chemistry with Colborne. Is it a good thing? I say yes. Kadri should be top 6 or AHL bound this season. Putting him on the third line is going to hurt his development.
3.During pre-season, Ron Wilson should put Kulemin on a line with Phil Kessel and Tim Connolly, and put Lupul with Grabovski, and Macarthur. With Kulemin’s strong board play, and his great defensive play; him and Connolly would really help that line defensively and offensively.
4.Cody Franson won’t live up to the high expectations many Leaf fans are already putting on him. Unfortunately, many Leaf fans only see his size, offensive capabilities, and age, and think he will be a stud. Playing on a great defensive team, Franson wasn’t that good in his own end, and using a better choice of words than Bill Watters– Franson is “soft”.
5.If the rumours of Phil Kessel training with Gary Roberts are true; And with the addition of Tim Connolly–who is known to be a play making centre; Kessel will score 40 goals this season.
6.With the additions of Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon to the coaching staff, and a few new additions to the Leafs line-up; The Leafs power play will rank around 15th in the league.
7.Dion Phaneuf will return to his old self. With the additions of Connolly and John-Michael Liles, Dion Phaneuf will improve this season, and will get most of his points on the power play.
8.Mathew Lombardi won’t be healthy enough to start the season in October. He will play his first game as a Maple Leafs late November or Early December.
9.James Reimer won’t be as good as he was last season. But he is still going to be a steady goalie this season. His attitude will help him get out of funks, and won’t allow him to go into a sophomore slump.
10.If the Leafs aren’t over .500 in the first 3 games, the famous “Fire Ron Wilson” line will come back more than ever.
11.If Lombardi is indeed healthy, there will be no need to panic if Tim Connolly goes down with an injury. In the 09-10 season, Lombardi was able to put up 53 points in 78 games with the Phoenix Coyotes, registering 19 goals and 34 assists.
12.If he is still a Maple Leaf this season—Tyler Bozak will be an effective third line centre with Colby Armstrong. The 2 have shown chemistry in the past, and have been very effective on the penalty kill.
13.Luke Schenn will be re-signed in the next 2 weeks. Don Meehan—the agent of Luke Schenn; has publicly stated Schenn’s contract will be an “August issue”.
14.Brian Burke will get a first line centre sometime this season. Burke knows the Leafs desperately need a true number 1 centre, and he will work harder than ever to acquire one.
15.If the Leafs get out to a steady start, and don’t go on 5 game losing streaks like before, they will make the playoffs.