The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Wednesday that they have recalled forward Carter Ashton from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Ashton was previously acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline for defenseman Keith Aulie.
Ashton has a goal and an assist in three games since joining the Marlies, 20g-17a for the year.
Forwards Joffrey Lupul (Wrist) and Colby Armstrong (Nose) were both injured last night against the Boston Bruins, thus Ashton’s callup. It is unknown at this point if and where Ashton will slot in to the lineup tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This is the Leafs’ 4th and last callup allowed after the trade deadline. The first two were used on Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner so that they were eligible to be on the Toronto Marlies clear day roster. The third was used to recall forward Jay Rosehill. The Leafs may only recall a player at this point in emergency situations.
Listening to Maple Leafs’ Vice President of Hockey Operations, Dave Poulin, brought about some interesting thoughts as we wind our way toward this year’s edition of the NHL Trade Deadline. During his conversation, Poulin talked about building a team and an organization as you would a house and property. The analogy is one that speaks to patience and careful planning, something that is necessary for any successful front office staff, when it comes to building a winning product.
Looking at the foundation upon which the house that Burke and Co. has put together, it’s easy to forget that before Burke was brought to Toronto to lead the organization, it would have been difficult to look through the organizational depth chart, and find a solid pillar for the future. Since his arrival, Burke has made a number of moves to improve a talent pool that was on serious life support in terms of young talent. Through drafting alone (something that Burke has taken heat for in his time here), Burke has added first round picks in the likes of forwards Nazem Kadri and Tyler Biggs, as well as the smart, economical defenseman, Stuart Percy from the Mississauga Majors. He supplemented those selections with picks from rounds 2-7 with promising youngsters such as Gregg McKegg, Sondre Olden, Josh Nicholls, and Bradley Ross. Burke and Co. have approached the draft with a clear strategy, adding size and skill to the prospect pool, and for better or worse, fans of the organization are soon to see these selections given the chance to show their stuff at the AHL level.
The most important thing that Burke and his team of executives have done in his 4-year tenure with the Blue and White is add cornerstones through trade. The much-debated trade for Phil Kessel was the first major move that Burke made, adding a cornerstone talent to the organization, in a move that divided the fan base. Kessel’s talent is not in question, and shouldn’t be at this point, given that he currently sits among the top-5 in league scoring. In landing Phil, Burke surrendered two first round selections, and a second round selection to the Boston Bruins, and allowed the Bruins to land Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The miscalculation of the team’s ability at the time of the trade is well known, and is the subject of the on-going argument among fans as to whether or not the trade was beneficial to the club’s long term success. Whether or not you believe in the move, Burke added the missing piece from the Sundin era, the high scoring winger.
The second pillar that was added was Captain Dion Phaneuf. In a trade that sent pieces like Matt Stajan and Jamal Mayers to Calgary, Burke was able to not only pry Dion, but talented young defenseman Keith Aulie. The addition of Aulie is what sweetened the pot. Calgary was looking to shake up their roster, and Burke was able to turn a mole hill’s worth of talent into a mountain-esque return. In Dion’s time here, we’ve seen the return of his offensive game, as he struggled in the early stages of his Leaf career. Keith Aulie remains one of the organizations top prospects, as he has seen time with both the Leafs and the Marlies, and continues to round out his trade to become a full-time NHL defenseman.
The last player to discuss, in terms of pillars, is one that is currently cementing his status as just that. Young defenseman Jake Gardiner, acquired as the incentive in the deal for Joffrey Lupul, has stepped into the spotlight this season, and is making his case for being a future top pairing defender. Gardiner has the ability to take over the play from the back-end, and on a number of occasions this season, has been the best player on the ice in Blue and White. His skating is some of the best on the team, and at times, Gardiner has displayed poise and patience beyond his years. As is the case with any young player making the transition to pro hockey, Gardiner has had problems with turnovers, and getting caught on the pinch, but increased trust and TOI awarded to him by the coaching staff has certainly paid off.
Honourable mentions would go to talents like Matt Frattin, who at times, has shown NHL ready ability on both the rush and the back check. Joe Colborne is yet another, added in the Kaberle trade, as well as Jesse Blacker, a defenseman chosen 58th overall in the 2009 draft.
Although not all of the young talent made this article, the point of the matter is this: Burke and his team have made great strides to not only build a foundation, but build pieces around it. Leading up to the deadline, in one week’s time, there will be a lot of pressure on management to acquire a key piece to help get the club into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. As Poulin stated this morning, the key to the process is patience and poise, knowing that a move cannot be made unless it improves your house going forward in the long term. Given this model, it’s hard to imagine Burke mortgaging the future for Rick Nash, even if bringing home the GTA native would see his statue built in the front yard.
Let’s forget for a minute what has happened in the past little while. Without getting into specifics, the Leafs’ playoff chances have plummeted from ~90% to somewhere just above 50%. Once again, the Leafs are fighting for their proverbial playoff lives.
No one ever expected the Leafs to effortlessly contend for a playoff spot this season. I made sure to temper my excitement and expectations regardless of their hot start this season. Experience had taught me last year that not much could be gleaned from the start of a season. Still, this season, I decided to do a little extra research. You can find all of that here: History of Hot Starts. What I uncovered is that for a team to win the Stanley Cup (or at least make the playoffs), they generally come out of the gate with a certain record. The Leafs had managed to get that record, and so I boldly predicted they would make the playoffs this year.
Yet here we sit – tied for 8th – precariously looking behind us at hungry teams ready to pounce where we have faltered.
There’s no use in crying over spilled milk and sitting in our failure. It’s time to move on. There are still games to be played, and redemption may yet be had.
It all starts this week.
The Maple Leafs play three times this week, with two games against opponents directly involved in the challenge to claim one of the final playoff spots.
Their first game comes against the New Jersey Devils (4th East, 72 points). The Devils have been good this season, and Ilya Kovalchuk has been deadly as of late. The Leafs have had the Devils’ number so far this season, but will be hard pressed to find the two points.
The second comes against the San Jose Sharks (3rd West, 69 points). The Sharks are perennial regular season powerhouses, and haven’t fared as well this season. This will be a tough game for the Leafs, but they should be able to beat the West coast team as they fly in to Toronto.
The last comes against Washington (10th East, 63 points). Depending on how the two previous games go, this could be a crucial game in claiming some ground and a stake on the last few playoff spots in the East. Washington has not been playing well lately, with key injuries to Niklas Backstrom and Mike Green. The Leafs will have to take full advantage of this, and grab the two points. This is a must win game irregardless of whatever happens during this week.
After a brutal-to-watch Western Canada road trip, the Leafs must return home and be prepared to play their asses off. The season grows older, and the ground on which to prove themselves shrinks daily. The Leafs must show themselves capable of winning games without worrying about any potential moves around trade deadline. Upper management will take care of that, it’s up to the players to give it their all and earn two points each night.
I’ll leave you with this tweet, as hope for things to come.
Darren Dreger reported last night that the Toronto Maple Leafs have received an offer from an unidentified team for UFA to be, Mikhail Grabovski. He went on to say that the proposed deal included a second round pick and a prospect. Today, Dreger expanded upon the topic, noting that the prospect is currently at the AHL level. Everyone already knows my thoughts on dealing Grabovski, if not, you can read them here. There are many components the team should seek to add in order to become better, but subtracting Grabovski – at the price of a second round pick and a prospect – would set the team back in many ways. Unless the team has a deal to bring in another center immediately, they would probably be forced to call up Joe Colborne, unless they plan on promoting Matthew Lombardi or Darryl Boyce up in the lineup. Tim Connolly still has a year left on his deal, but his uninspiring play as of late has me hesitant to pencil him in any higher than the third line. To set the record straight, I don’t think the Leafs will pull the trigger on this deal. If they liked it, it would have been done already. It’s no secret Brian Burke and Grabovski’s agent are probably negotiating, but at this point we’re not privy to the negotiation status or direction. It’s at best a guessing game whether Grabovski will stay with the team, or if his demands will force him out. Right now, here’s where I think we are down the middle:
- Grabovski is our best center, but similar playing styles to Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul has him playing on a different line. Grabovski is a playmaker primarily, but can find the net if given the chance. He’s diligent defensively, and he checks effectively.
- Tyler Bozak has developed nicely into a dependable center, and has had the luxury of playing with Kessel and Lupul. Like Grabovski, he’s primarily a playmaker, but can find the net on occasion. Bozak is also considered a defensive asset, and checks industriously. Grabovski is the better center option, but Bozak has found a niche for the time being on the top line.
- Tim Connolly is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. We all know he has the capability to put up some serious numbers, but when you watch him play, his decision making and work ethic makes you sit there and wonder ‘why?’. Why, as in, why we ever signed him. He’s currently playing on the third line, but brings nothing to the line that a prototypical third liner would bring. He’s not overly physical, and his lack of work ethic sets his linemates back.
- Matt Lombardi is the most predictable player in the world. Having watched him closely for most of the season, his only ‘moves’ are driving wide with speed and going five-hole. Seriously, watch highlights of him scoring: he’s in alone, or driving wide, and he scores five-hole. As a checking option, he’s decent but commands a hefty price tag. He’s decent for spot duty in the top six, but I wouldn’t be confident placing him there for an extended time.
- Darryl Boyce is your standard thirteenth forward / fourth line center / AHL call-up kind of guy. I like his work ethic, his physicality, his speed and willingness to battle. For all these reasons, he’s great to have around for the spots I listed above. Any higher, and your just shooting yourself in the foot or being delusional about his skill.
Moving out Grabovski without acquiring an adequate center in return would require Connolly, Lombardi or Boyce to move up into the top six. There’s a big issue with that happening, and thus, at this point its really not ideal to be discussing a Grabovski trade. In an ideal world, I’d look to deal any of the other centers first. Too bad this world isn’t ideal.
After a strong start to this month’s home stretch, the leafs fell back to earth and maybe even lower as they lost two very important games over the course of the weekend. Friday night the Leafs were in Buffalo and for the most part did play a fairly strong game but were unable to pick up the victory and ultimately lost by a score of 3-2. The following night at home on Saturday the Leafs played host to the Rangers. This game was not very fun to watch from a Leafs’ perspective as they were unable to get anything going for majority of the game and ended up getting shut out by a score of 3-0. A 4-2 record this month is not that bad, but because of the extremely tight standings, the two losses this weekend ultimately have pushed the leafs out of the playoffs and sitting in 9th place. This is not the end of the world, simply because a winning week this week will put us back into the top 8 as it is literally is that close, however it is an area of concern as the Leafs need a strong end to this month’s home stand.
Another area of concern has been the ‘cooling’ off of the leafs’ top snipers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. They have now gone 3 consecutive games without registering a point; their longest streak of the season. On the bright side, center Tyler Bozak is set to return to the lineup Tuesday night and return to the Leafs’ top line alongside Kessel and Lupul. Tim Connolly has simply not been able to connect with the 2 snipers, something Bozak has, therefore a shift in the lines have been implemented ahead of Tuesday night’s match-up with the Senators. The line-up is as follows:
On the defensive end, after briefly being sent down to the Marlies, rookie Jake Gardiner is back up with the big club. It is not yet known who will be sitting on the defensive end, but all eyes point to Gardiner getting back into the lineup. Finally in goal, James Reimer will see his first action in six games, as he tries to get back into the win column and win back his number 1 job.
This past week also saw the beginning of a long month ahead filled with crazy trade speculation and rumors. The spark to this period… Brian Burke’s comments on a radio show where he stated that the Leafs are closing in on a deal and although things can change, it is “very likely” the Leafs make a move shortly.
These comments were made last week, and we have yet to see a deal, so maybe it fell through? Or perhaps Burke is waiting for the right opportunity to make a splash. Regardless Burke knows we are one impact forward away from being a contender in the East, and personally I have a gut feeling it will be sooner rather than later that this forward lands in Toronto.
Time to cue the names rumored to be on the move… We have heard the likes of James Van Riemsdyk, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Eric Staal just to name a few. With Van Riemsdyk’s most recent concussion you can all but scratch him off the list as potential trade bait (unless it is very minor and he returns to action within the next few weeks).
Bobby Ryan is probably the most rumored to be on the move of the remaining three and perhaps the most acquirable asset for the right price. The rumored asking price for Ryan/Getzlaf from Anaheim’s perspective would be one of Joe Colborne or Nazem Kadri, a prospect, and a 1st rounder. Depending on who that prospect is and how high they are on the rankings can essentially make or break this trade.
Looking through GM Brian Burke’s eyes, I think it is safe to assume he expects he would have to let go of one of those young prospects although he might try to ship off a roster player instead of another prospect to minimize the damage done to the youth pool. Also, because the Leafs would be acquiring another top line asset, this makes a 2nd/3rd line guy expendable, for example Mikhail Grabovski or Clarke MacArthur (both of whom have been rumored to be on the move).
Finally defenseman Luke Schenn may also be used as heavy trade bait simply because our defensive depth has exceeded expectations this season and with John-Michael Liles set to return soon, the logjam on the back end is quite a waste. Yes I know, the more depth the better, but there comes a time when excess parts are converted into covetable assets, which in this case means trading a defender (and perhaps more), for an impact, top-six forward.
With all of that said, the rumors are expected to wheel in as we approach the end of January and into the beginning of February. Burke is known to make his ‘big’ moves well ahead of the deadline so it is safe to say the end of January is a possible time frame for one of these deals to go down (if they do). Until it happens, all of us fans will have to wait patiently and hope Burke can pull of some magic like we have seen him do in the past.
Aside from the rumors, these upcoming games are as big as ever, and the team needs to focus on winning some hockey games and picking up points, ensuring they are back in the top 8 for good.
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.