There were a few things noticeable in tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, good and bad. We (the fans) can’t really complain much this season: the Leafs have played generally well and the achilles heel of years past – the defense – has looked breathtaking on most nights.
Still, the team is nowhere near perfect or close to being a Stanley Cup contender. We can all take solace in the giant steps the team has taken towards regaining a playoff spot. Heading into tonight’s contest with the Jets, the Leafs stood at a 90.05% chance of making the playoffs. Not a lock, but certainly looking good.
One of the most glaring deficiencies tonight was evident in the Leafs inability to handle the Jets’ speed on the outside.
On the first goal, Chris Thorburn was able to burn down the wing and throw a backhand on net. Evidently, Jonas Gustavsson should have had the shot but that doesn’t leave the defense in the clear either. Luke Schenn was at fault on the play. He’s not the fastest of skaters, but in this case he should have backed off a bit and played a bit more centralized. Still, should have been a more routine play by the goaltender.
The second goal saw more of the same, with Blake Wheeler barreling in on Gustavsson coming from the wing. His driving of the net allowed for a juicy rebound which Jim Slater was happy to tap in. On the play, Matthew Lombardi should have tied up his man, but it all happened pretty quickly, so you can’t be that upset with how it shook out.
Aside from the Leafs’ inability to deal with Winnipeg’s speed (to be fair, they’re playing the second night of a back-to-back) the other most glaring deficiency in tonight’s play was the team’s inability to deal with Winnipeg’s size and tenacity.
Winnipeg’s forwards would come in hard, banging and crashing our forwards and defensemen along the boards, winning battles and creating scoring chances. Usually, the Leafs’ speed out factors a team’s physicality, but tonight it was a sore sight to see. Again, it might be the product of playing on back to back nights but it has to be a cause for concern in the back of everyone’s mind.
It’s been the opinion of some media and fans lately that the Leafs should stand pat in light of recent success. Since when does a team that sits in seventh place – having missed the playoffs every year since the lockout – stand a better chance of winning without upgrading its lineup?
A move for a goaltender isn’t feasible this season, nor is it necessary. Gustavsson and James Reimer have proven capable of at least grabbing wins this season, and this can be re-visited in the offseason. The defense is very deep right now, leading to speculation that a trade would originate from the surplus. Word has it the Leafs feel Korbinian Holzer is ready to be a full time NHLer, and Keith Aulie has played successfully at the NHL level as well.
Any move the Leafs would potentially make would be aimed at upgrading their forwards. We’ve heard all year that Brian Burke has been itching to add some size and tenacity into his top six. The Leafs would definitely be upgrading their lineup by adding a scoring winger/center with size and a defensive forward for the bottom six. It all comes down to availability and price.
We’ve heard the rumoured names, we’ve talked about them endlessly, and we’ve debated their validity all season long. In the end, the Leafs could definitely stand to add a forward or two if they really want to try and achieve something in the postseason, otherwise they’re gunning for a first round failure.
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.
January. The second half of a long season begins as teams begin to converse about potential deals that would seemingly put them over the top, or to restock their cupboards. For many years, this Leafs team has been assuming a seller’s standpoint at this point, but this year it seems the trend will end. With 47 points (21-15-5) in 41 games, the Leafs are on pace for a 94 point season, which should be barely enough to squeak them into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. To put this into perspective, the Leafs had 38 points (16-20-5) after the same amount of games last year. Playoff-bound? Still too early to tell, but it’s a baby step in the right direction, that’s for sure.
Since the last time I wrote, the Leafs made many rosters moves, and here’s a little recap incase you forgot.
- Korbinian Holzer bounced from the NHL to the AHL, nothing worth commenting about though.
- Maligned forward Luca Caputi was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Nicolas Deschamps, more on that later.
- Philippe Dupuis was demoted to the Toronto Marlies. Now I don’t have to worry about spelling his name wrong anymore.
- Colton Orr‘s time as a Leaf is finished. He passed through waivers, and was demoted to the Toronto Marlies (AHL).
- Matt Frattin was demoted in favour of keeping Nazem Kadri, and in order to accomodate Mike Brown‘s return. More on this later too.
- Returning to the lineup were Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi and Mike Brown.
- Tyler Bozak suffered an injury on the 30th, and should be out for a few games longer.
- John-Michael Liles remains out, so too does Colby Armstrong.
Luca Caputi and Nicolas Deschamps
At times, it was easy to forget about Luca Caputi, aside from his presence on Twitter. He had fallen so far down the depth chart due to lackadaisical play and injuries that this trade seems almost insignificant. In Caputi, the Leafs are losing a big bodied forward who at one time was coveted due to his size and scoring combination. Now, he’s effectively a grinder, but struggles in this role due to poor skating. It’s a wonder we even acquired anything in return other than a late round pick.
In Deschamps, the Leafs are acquiring a prospect which the Ducks deemed was expendable in order to acquire players closer to contributing at the professional level.
Deschamps, a former second round pick of the Ducks (Burke’s own pick as well) had less than impressive numbers this year (34GP – 6G – 8A) after posting decent numbers last year with the Syracuse Crunch (80GP – 15G – 31A). He wasn’t a prolific junior scorer, as are most offensive players in the QMJHL, but still shows some decent upside in terms of work ethic and finding the net.
At this point, the trade gives both players a change of scenery, with the Leafs opting to trade for a player and give him some more time to develop, as opposed to Caputi who was in need of a new contract and could no longer be labeled ‘prospect’.
The End of Orr
I won’t delve too far into this, it would take a lot of time and effort to get to the true underlying issues of fighting, heavyweights and the direction the league is taking. When Brian Burke signed Orr to his contract, he envisioned Orr patrolling the fourth line, playing as decently as an enforcer can (which he did quite well) and reminding other teams not to take liberties with his teammates. Three years later, Colton Orr no longer has a job. Fights do not exist as they once did; players take liberties and skirt away from their traditional consequences, and this makes Brian Burke (an astute traditionalist) furious. Orr’s roll is now filled by Jay Rosehill / Mike Brown: guys who skate faster, can contribute more offensively, and play bigger roles defensively. Also, they cost less than Orr’s $1.00 million cap hit.
Orr now skates for the Toronto Marlies (AHL) and we wish him the best of luck.
On Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri
Firstly, I’ll say this. The Leafs have two good, young players in Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin. They will both be offensive contributors at the NHL level one day. However, at this point in time, given the situation at other spots in the lineup, only one of the two can remain with the big club. Nazem Kadri, since being brought up, has shown that he is ready for prime time, and has been a factor in almost all aspects of the game, including the scoresheet (for all you people that judge a players value solely on his statistics). He effectively bumped Matt Frattin (who has been good, but not as good as Kadri as of late) down to the fourth line. With Mike Brown set to return, Frattin was demoted to the Toronto Marlies (AHL) so that he could play top line minutes and continue to hone his offensive game. Brown – more suited to the fourth line role – adds a defensive element that Frattin does not have, while keeping the speed and tenacity status quo. A lateral move? Perhaps. The effects of the move are primarily for the long term, as opposed to the short.
The Return of Brown, Komisarek and Lombardi
While refreshing to have Brown and Komisarek back from injury, I can’t say I’m too pleased that Matthew Lombardi is returning to the lineup. I haven’t seen much from him that I’ve liked, or made me think “wow”. He plays hard, but brings little to no impact on a nightly basis. He scored a shorthanded goal in the season opener against Montreal, but hasn’t done much since then. He’s never been an offensive juggernaut, but has a measly 7 points in 23 games, well below his standard output.
Hate if you must, but Mike Komisarek has played decently this year. He’ll never impress you with an offensive play or slick pass out of his own zone, but he’s steady when he’s on his game, and he’s definitely been better this year.
You all know what Mike Brown brings to the table, that’s what makes him a fan favourite.
Firstly, I hope everyone had an amazing holiday wether they were celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other various holidays that we celebrate around the world at this time. The Leafs played their last game prior to the holiday on the 23rd against the Islanders, a 5-3 win. The team was lucky enough to have Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day off before resuming last night against the Panthers, a 5-3 loss.
Ron Wilson and his Extension
It’s never a dull moment in Leafs Nation, and as such, news was made Christmas morning when Ron Wilson announced his own extension by way of a tweet. The coach caused some ruckus partly because of how he went about announcing and the timing. First, on Dec 23rd he tweeted that ‘Christmas would be better if Santa put a piece of paper in his stocking’ alluding to wanting a contract extension. Then, he tweeted Christmas morning that ‘He came! He came! He brought me my contract extension’ and thus the frenzy would ensue.
Twitter was ablaze with the usual commentary about how Wilson is a good coach deserving of the contract, how he’s a terrible coach undeserving of the contract, how the team is crap, how Burke should be fired, etcetera. On Boxing Day on, the conversation turned to how Ron Wilson has it out for the Toronto media and purposely announced his extension Christmas morning in hopes of disrupting the media’s holiday with their families. I won’t say much about this, it’s not my place, but I can feel sympathetic for the media members who were forced to go and cover the story on Christmas morning. At the same time, I think the Leafs could have handled the situation a bit better and had media availability a day later.
Liles Injured; Holzer Recalled
There were some actual hockey related happenings that occurred as well. John-Michael Liles sat out the last two games with what was first called a ‘sore neck’, but has now been deemed a concussion. Yes, add another one to the list. Liles has been a God-send for the Leafs this year, his playmaking and poise on the backend helping puck movement and the transition game. It’s unknown how long Liles will be out, but his presence will be missed. The Leafs have recalled Korbinian Holzer as the seventh defenceman in the meanwhile.
Shaky Performances On The Road
Tor0nto played a sloppy game against a weak Islanders team, and barely made it out with both points. It’s encouraging to see the offensive outburst in the first period, but disheartening to see the structural collapse that occurred as the game progressed. No team is ever perfect, and this Leafs team is still young and will need to learn, however you can tell that goaltending and the penalty kill will continue to be this team’s Achilles heel.
Toronto’s effort against Florida was valiant, but in the end it was too little, too late (which seems to be a recurring theme when the Leafs go down by a lot early). James Reimer let in some really soft goals, and if the Leafs are going to win they need consistent strong goaltending. Reimer played well last week, so hopefully it’s a one game funk, but you can’t deny that he has been letting in some softies this year.
Kadri Sticking Around This Time?
Nazem Kadri has made the most of his latest call up, registering two goals and increasing his icetime in consecutive games from 13:43 to 15:04 to 16:16. He has registered 7 shots and has managed to stay a +3 while making some impressive defensive plays. His chemistry with Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur is showing, and he adds an element to the line that no other player was able to. Kadri is going to be a good player, and his development (in this case, proper) is beginning to show. The Leafs wanted Kadri’s next call up to be his last, and it’s finally looking like that it may come to be.
With yesterday’s blockbuster deal now in the books, and another potential top 4 defenceman added to this year’s squad the Leafs now have 8 NHL ready defencemen. With that said, it is always good to have an abundance of defenders because injuries are bound to happen and men will always go down at some point in the season. However these 8 NHL ready defenders are realistically all top 5 on any NHL team, therefore the opportunity cost of trading one for either forwards, prospects, or picks is less than keeping all of them around.To put it more simply, these 8 defenders which consist of:
Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, and Matt Lashoff
are all very good players and would be a waste to keep more than one of them sitting in the press box each game, when we can trade them for an asset that will be much more useful to us in the long run. Also in the case of Mike Komisarek, who is now the most likely trade candidate and rumoured to be on the move; the removal of his 4.5 million dollar salary would free up a great deal of cap space for us moving forward into next year.
Knowing Brian Burke and his creative and “ballsy” antics, anything is possible so I also would not be surprised if he tries to turn this deal into another blockbuster which would involve another top tier forward (most likely first line centerman) coming back our way. However any deal involving a star player, would most definitely include one of Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne going back the other way, in addition to one of the defenders we are looking to dump. But if all that fails, and Burke is content with going into next season with Connolly, Grabovski, and Bozak/Lombardi as our top 3 centers (which to be honest is not so bad), then a simple dumping of one of our d-men for prospects or picks will happen.
Another reason why I personally see us dealing one or maybe even two of our NHL ready defencemen is the emergence of players/prospects Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, and Korbinian Holzer. Any one of these defenders will be able to step into our NHL lineup next season no doubt, therefore this fact alone makes many of our defenders that much more expendable.
If I were a betting man, I would predict Komisarek to be leaving town before the beginning of next season. Realistically because it would be more of a salary dump, and a trade to get another team to the cap floor, not much would be coming back our way. However for the services he provides, and abundance of d-men as mentioned above, not to mention cap space he frees up for us, any deal would be a good deal. A mid-level prospect and mid round pick is the potential asking price I can see GM Burke asking for. All I know forsure is the Leafs are not done wheeling and dealing. I fully expect Burke to complete another few deals before next season begins, as he revamps our team into a contender. Exciting times leafs fans… stay tuned!