Line combinations will be discussed ad nauseam in the coming weeks as the season kicks off and the Leafs try to get off to a winning start in a shortened season. The general speculation will surround who should play with who in order to maximize results.
While winning is of course the main the goal of why lines are the way they are, they can tell also tell us other things that are arguably just as important as winning in this 48 game season.
Coming off a season that saw the Leafs in a playoff spot for the better part of the first 56 games before collapsing, Leafs fans expected changes and heads to roll in the summer. A head eventually rolled, but the lineup still remains largely the same.
Out went Luke Schenn, Jonas Gustavsson, Joey Crabb and Colby Armstrong, in came James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement, and eventually some Marlies transfers. More or less though, this is the same group that netted the Leafs the fifth overall pick last June.
Some will call it the rearranging of the Titanic deck chairs, others will say it’s moving forward with a team that was often the youngest in the league last season. Either way, it’s Randy Carlyle who is in charge now, and just what he does with the lineup to start will be a fascinating insight into his mind frame going into the season.
There are certainly options.
The Carlyle line building of a top line, shutdown line, scoring line and energy line can at least attempt to be made by having the Lupul-Bozak-Kessel line as the top trio, Kulemin-McClement-Frattin as the shutdown line, JVR-Grabovski-MacArthur as a scoring line, and Komarov-Steckel-Brown as an energy unit. It’s not perfect, but it would be a clear indication that the Leafs as a whole are trying to employ Carlyle’s system to a ‘T’ immediately while trying to see who fits his mould and who does not.
Maybe that’s partially what Carlyle meant when he said earlier this week that, “We’re looking for some people to step out of their comfort zone, We’re going to push this group a little bit harder in some areas where they’re not used to being pushed.” Whether those forward groups help the team win or not, at least it would allow the Leafs to see who is worth investing in for this style of play and system that they believe in, and who is not. It would also coincide with James Mirtle’s recent article regarding McClement being ‘the stopper.’
That said, when it comes to making lines to try and maximize what’s been given to win right now, it might be more sensible to try and create three scoring lines. The Kessel line is all but a lock (see Jonas Siegel’s tweet) to start the year no matter what happens, so we don’t need to keep repeating that. Carlyle could follow them by putting the Grabovski line back together (which would represent a two-way shutdown line of sorts), followed by a sheltered line of JVR-Connolly-Kadri and then some combination of Komarov/Lombardi-McClement-Frattin on the fourth.
If we consider Carlyle’s comments to be clues into what he is truly thinking when it comes to line building, his remarks regarding Connolly (see Mirtle’s tweet) make it appear that this three scoring line theme is what’s most likely. If that wasn’t enough, this should further support that notion: “I think we have a chance to put some people in different situations up higher in our lineup and move some people around and that should give us balance and three lines of some form of offence,” he said. “The one thing we looked at is our fourth line is going to have to play. Everybody is going to have to make a contribution.”
Carlyle has also noted that, “You stay true to the statement we’re going to take the 23 best players and take them and go forward with that group. If someone earns an opportunity, that’s the life of pro sports.”
Then there is the little decisions, such as – will he push Nazem Kadri into the roster and finally give him a real and extended shot at proving his worth? Will he dress an enforcer? Will Steckel make the lineup now that McClement is on the team? The list goes on and on. We could sit here all day thinking up questions and line combinations.
Answers will start coming soon enough, but we won’t just be finding out if Carlyle has the magic touch to create winning lining combinations, we’ll also be finding out about what kind of team he’s putting together, the statements he is making, and how he views this roster.
Ron Wilson, for example, attempted to fight fire with fire last year for long stretches by playing Kessel’s line against the other teams top lines. Will Carlyle try the same? As maybe the most strict match-up coach in hockey, he probably won’t; but who will he trust to play against the Crosby’s, Giroux’s and Stamkos’ of the East? Grabovski or McClement? How much offense will he sacrifice in order to play at least adequate defense? There really are so many questions about this team at the moment that we don’t know the answer to but are about to begin finding out.
I for one, can’t wait.
Here are some notes heading into a hectic opening week that sees the Leafs play the Habs, Sabres, Penguins, Islanders and Rangers:
- Carlyle’s comments on Kadri saying that, “It’s not a matter of if he can play in the NHL, it’s a matter of when.” As well as, “Bobby Ryan spent three or four years developing. I think Nazem Kadri is in the same boat. I think he has the ability to play in the National Hockey League. It’s a question of when he is going to be given that opportunity or earned that opportunity. And we’re here about earning it.” This translate to me as, “We want him here right now, but there might not be room for him.” Whether you like him or not, he’s clearly proven he has nothing left to do at the AHL. It’s just a matter of clearing some for him up so that he’ll get a fair opportunity to not only get ice time, but be put in a position to succeed.
- Speaking of Bobby Ryan, Carlyle had him start in the AHL due to cap restrictions before he finally cracked the team for good. Kadri should be with the Leafs, but there’s a decent chance he has to wait just a little bit longer until the Leafs can clear a body or two and make some room for him.
I don’t know if Rielly will play more than the five games rookies are allowed to play for free, but it sure sounds like the Leafs want to give him that five and see what he’s all about. The Gardiner injury just makes it that much easier for them to do so.
- The Morgan Rielly watch has been interesting to say the least, with the majority of fans I’ve spoken to hoping he goes back to junior. The one thing that isn’t talked about when it comes to Rielly, is the fact that he could join the Marlies for a playoff run the same way Stuart Percy did last year. So, if he gets the five NHL games in (six means he would lose a year on his ELC), then goes back to junior, then joins the Marlies for a playoff run only a few months from now, is that the worse thing ever? Plus, of course, he played for Team Canada this year. The question with Rielly can’t be whether or not he helps this team right now, the question has to be how do the Leafs develop him best in the next few months to help the team next year. If they think that’s by being with Randy Carlyle and learning directly from him right away, so be it. But I won’t buy the “so he can get experience” line, because should he join the Marlies he’ll have an opportunity to win a championship in professional hockey this season.
I went through some notes from old Leafs Notebooks back from when Carlyle first got here to help refresh my memory, and write some of these next few points.
- It’s been interesting to hear Carlyle talk about the up tempo game he wants to play with the team and how he wants to use their speed. Last year, Carlyle and the Leafs ran a 1-2-2 quite a bit down the stretch. Most fans may remember the games against Boston in particular where the Leafs attempted to trap them. If he’s combining their speed and the trap, they will become a counterattack team, but it sounds like he wants to make them a heavy forechecking team instead. I wonder if the Leafs plan on sending two forecheckers in, or just one. The issue with one is that the Leafs don’t have many big, physical forwards that are adept at taking the body, overpowering D-men, and creating turnovers, and the issue with sending two is that the Leafs aren’t very great defensively or in net. My guess is Carlyle will play it tight and send in one guy. They do have some strong guys in Kulemin, Lupul, JVR and Frattin, but they have to do it consistently.
- One thing that will work when it comes to generating speed is that Carlyle likes to breakout through the middle of the ice. That means centers such as Bozak, Grabovski and McClement will have to come very deep into the zone, and generate speed, plus the D-men will have to give good crisp outlet passes. This is one way to use the team’s speed to the best of its abilities without sacrificing defensive play. Breaking out along the boards causes the wingers to stand still more, and for only two forwards to really come out of the defensive zone with speed; the winger who has the puck come to his side of the zone is more or less flat footed as he picks up the puck along the boards, and then he has to catch guys who are going full speed. But, if you can get the center the puck in stride in your own zone, the wingers can take off and the whole forward line can move up the ice together.
- At the end of last season, Matt Frattin was getting a ton of opportunity to play with guys like Kessel and Grabovski. It will be interesting to see if he gets that opportunity again. Now, Lupul and Kulemin are healthy, and the Leafs have added JVR. If there’s one thing to give the Leafs, it’s that they are relatively deep on the wing.
- One thing never mentioned in correlation to Leo Komarov playing for Carlyle is that Randy had a similar player play under him in Max Lapierre. There could be a number of reasons why he only lasted 21 games, but he only lasted 21 games. Time will tell, but I thought that was worth noting.
- Carlyle took Liles off the top PP unit at times last year and put Gardiner there instead. Whenever Gardiner comes back, it will be interesting to see whether it is Liles or Gardiner, or both, getting PP time with Phaneuf. Before Liles got hurt last season, he and Phaneuf were doing an excellent job together and the PP was getting results.
- Thought this was an interesting quote from Connolly: “Even strength, I think I had my second-highest career points last year. I’d like to improve my play on the power play and play a bigger role. Penalty killing, my individual percentage was 89.7 I read somewhere. I was able to lead the forwards in blocked shots.” While I agree that he probably would have produced around the same rate as Bozak had he been centering Kessel and Lupul plus took his PP time, I don’t believe he was entitled to that ice time and spot in the lineup just because of his contract and veteran status. Sort of sounds like he does. Maybe I just read it the wrong way.
- If the Leafs are truly going to give Mike Komisarek a chance to succeed, the only player they can pair him with is JM Liles. With Gardiner out and Gunnarsson-Phaneuf representing the top pairing, the other D-men in camp are Holzer, Fraser, Rielly, Franson and Kostka. Three of those guys are righties and don’t play the left (Franson was terrible on the left side last year, while Holzer and Kostka don’t play on their offside in the AHL, so it makes no sense to switch them to the left in either of their first NHL season), while the two lefties are Fraser (these two would have been a good pairing 15 years ago) and Rielly. At least Liles is a veteran and can handle the puck so Komisarek doesn’t have to that much, plus he can make strong breakout passes. Thus, if the Leafs are going to play Komisarek and give him a chance, I’d guess the D looks like this come Saturday: Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Liles-Komisarek, Rielly-Franson.
- Last year the Leafs ended the season with Connolly on their shutdown line. It’s also noteworthy to point out he ended his career in Buffalo by playing a checking role. So with that, who’s to say Carlyle doesn’t put together a Kulemin-McClement-Connolly shutdown line to start the year? Obviously Connolly isn’t the big physical grinder many expect for that sort of role, but here are some positives: Connolly is a sound positional player, Connolly can make other teams pay in their own zone, and he can take faceoffs – plus he’s a righty to McClement’s lefty – should Jay get kicked out of the dot. I’m not advocating for this, but it is definitely worth pointing out. This would certainly coincide with Carlyle’s comments about putting Connolly in the top nine, and creating three lines that can contribute offensively. That would leave the second line as MacArthur-Grabovski-JVR, in that scenario.
- Quick story: one year when I was playing hockey we had a goalie tryout for our team that was absolutely terrible. And I do mean terrible. As in, when we were lining up for drills we would call our shots because we were scoring every time. This guy was trying out to be our backup since we already had a very good number one, by the way. Anyway, our goalie coach said to take him because he was the best structured goalie. I thought he was nuts. Lo and behold, we bring this kid in as our backup, and he ends up being the best goalie in the league, carrying us to the Conference Finals. It is at this point I noted two things: one) I know nothing about goaltending, and two) leave the goaltending coaching to the professionals and stay the heck out of their way. I bring this up because there was talk earlier in the week about how Randy Carlyle was more or less staying away from the goalies. Some people were puzzled and questioned it, but I say good for him. Carlyle was a D-man and is an old school hockey guy, how much does he actually know about today’s NHL goalies?
- Finally, I’ll end on this: These guys haven’t played an NHL game since April of last year. That’s almost a full year ago. They are going to be rusty, they are going to make mistakes, and there will probably more than a few head scratching moments in the upcoming week. Let’s give them some time and have some patience. I won’t say it’s a long year, because it won’t be, and I’m sure we all realize the importance of a fast start in a 48 game season, but mistakes are inevitable due to the circumstances. Remember that.
Questions for you all: I’ve been toying with adding “sections” to the Notebook such as Leafs tweets of the week, quotes of the week, etc, and I’m wondering if any of you have anything you’d like to see every Monday in this section in addition to the usual preamble and notes. Let me know. Thanks!
It was met with a lot of skepticism when the St. John’s Maple Leafs were relocated to Toronto in 2005. Seven years later, the move just continues to look better and better.
The Leafs’ AHL affiliate had excellent attendance numbers and were highly popular in St. John’s during their time there. The move was a result of the Leafs’ desire to reduce travel costs and fill the Ricoh. While the attendance was terrible for the Marlies‘ first few years of existence – including a low point when barely 2800 people showed up for their first ever home playoff game in 2006 – the team is finally establishing a presence in the city. As the lockout drags on, many Toronto hockey fans are now turning their attention to the Marlies and even taking in a game or two if possible.
What really makes the Marlies’ presence in Toronto nice, though, is the fact that you’re in the same city as the parent club if you’re a player on the team.
Imagine playing in Hamilton and having to pack up to go to Montreal, only to then get sent back to Hamilton a day later?
Then there’s the fact that the Marlies are basically run like an NHL team. They use the same facilities as the Leafs, and get access to the same specialty coaches as the big club does. The Marlies coach gets to be around management routinely and sit in on draft meetings, trade deadline day, and so on. Do you think the Leafs would have retained Eakins if he the Marlies were located in St. John’s still? There’s at least an argument to be made that it would have been significantly harder to do so. On top of that, if you’re a minor league player or college free agent deciding where to sign, what’s more appealing than living in the same city as the parent club?
We’re obviously going to have to talk about the Marlies this year unless these negotiations swing around (as we should either way), and while there are many things to appreciate about them, we shouldn’t lose sight of how helpful they are to the Leafs simply by being located in the same city as them.
And really, that’s what farm teams are all about: Helping the big club.
Here are some notes from a 1-1-1 weekend:
- On Friday Eakins attempted to play Kadri at right wing with Colborne and Komarov, but the trio didn’t really generate much. What was really concerning though is that Kadri couldn’t break out of his zone while being on his off-wing. Eventually he got moved to play left wing with McKegg and Scott, and he looked much better and more comfortable after that. Many continually suggest Kadri could play either wing, but his breakout struggles suggest otherwise. While he might be a little more dangerous in the offensive zone coming down on the right side, it won’t matter if he can’t break out properly. There’s also been suggestions of him getting some chances at center, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s exclusively a left-winger at this point. That’s not a bad thing by any means; I just wanted to point out what he is.
- While on the subject of Kadri, I wanted to say something that just doesn’t get said nearly enough: he’s dangerous almost every time he touches the puck. Kadri deserves credit for some aspects of his game that he doesn’t receive nearly as much as he should, as he is routinely creating, drawing penalties, and putting pucks on net.
- Kadri had a 2 on 1 against Hamilton Saturday and feathered a soft pass intended for Zigomanis that got broken up easily. Later that game he had another 2 on 1 and riffled one through to Greg Scott, who missed a glorious opportunity to score. Goal or not, it was nice to see Kadri learn from that and make the necessary adjustment.
- Again on Kadri, he may have found a nice running mate in Greg McKegg for the foreseeable future. It bodes well for McKegg that he’s seeing significant time not only at center but with arguably the team’s most electric winger. On Friday he made a nifty move to slip past a hip-check in Hamilton and center a puck in front, on Saturday he scored, and all weekend he saw consistent power play time. What’s been most impressive about Greg so far, though, is his puck pursuit and ability to win battles in the corners. That was not always his strong suit in the OHL, so it’s great to see him taking pride there and doing the dirty work. Kadri and McKegg have combined to cycle the puck very well. When Grand Rapids scored to tie the game, they were the line that went out next and put in a good shift in the offensive zone and got some momentum back. On an organization that’s really weak down the middle, you have to be excited at how fast McKegg is working his way up the ladder.
- Here is one difference between the AHL and the NHL. On Friday, a forward took Gysbers wide on the rush so Gysbers stuck with him as he went around the net. There’s nothing wrong with that. What there is something wrong with, though, is Blacker coming off his man in order to challenge the forward as he came around the net, putting both of the team’s defencemen from that shift on one forward. It didn’t ultimately result in anything negative, but in the NHL if you come off your man in that type of situation you will be scooping a puck out of your net. That’s the kind of thing Mike Komisarek does now – or the last few years – to get in trouble.
- Many blamed Hamilton’s first goal on Friday on Jesse Blacker, but it wasn’t his fault. He missed a puck. That’s a a little mistake that is bound to happen every now and again out bad luck. Now, Gysbers getting beat one-on-one off the rush before Blacker missed that puck is the real problem with that goal. Remember, this is the AHL, so guys are going to make mistakes and the hockey will get sloppy at times. You can live with a mistake like a guy missing a puck, what you don’t like to see is a guy getting cleanly beat.
- Jake Gardiner has 21 shots in 5 games so far. Last year he had 79 total shots with the Leafs in 25 games. If there’s one real benefit for Gardiner in this lockout it’s that he’s using his shot more and beginning to learn how to get it through. Last year he had the Kaberle-syndrome at times and over passed. Some of you may remember last year when Wilson and co. harped on him to shoot. Now, he finally is. I for one won’t soon forget this goal; when he gets a hold of one, he can really shoot the puck.
- Komarov’s confidence is starting grow. On Saturday he hammered a player toward the end of the Hamilton game, sparking a sort of line brawl. He got a penalty on the play, but I thought he made shoulder to shoulder contact (that said, it was probably boarding). He also hit the post that game. In Hamilton on Friday he made a beautiful curl and pass to Colborne that gave him a mini breakaway which Colborne couldn’t convert. If you watch Komarov off the rush, he really loves to skate in the zone, curl back and survey the ice for his best outlet pass. In the NHL that will be more effective since the game is more organized and it will be easier to know where everyone is. At times in the AHL he has curled back and had nowhere to pass. Maybe the most impressive part of his game, to me, is his back-checking. He understands how to get back, find his man, and stick with him. There was one play in particular where he harassed a guy all the way through the neutral zone, but when the blue line was crossed he released from that player and found an uncovered man to stick with. It sounds basic, but most guys will just stay with the puck carrier and cause confusion. See Colby Armstrong last year as an example.
- Jerry D’Amigo did not play Saturday or Sunday due to injury. Last week against Erie, you may remember, he got absolutely steamrolled in the first period in the offensive zone when he wasn’t expecting it. He got up slowly, went to the bench, but did finish the game. He also, of course, played Friday. I wonder if that hit left some marks though because he looked shaken up afterwards.
- It’s really fun watching D’Amigo and Greg Scott kill penalties together. They are at the point where they don’t just want to kill the penalty, but score shorthanded, too.
- Gardiner and Kostka on the penalty kill have not been great together. One example was Sunday on Grand Rapid’s first goal. Kostka blocked a shot, resulting in the puck bouncing to the point. Inexplicably, he skated up to the blue line, and all the defenceman had to do was pass it down low, leaving Gardiner all alone to deal with three forwards,. Gardiner skated over to the corner to defend the forward, who simply slid it through Jake’s legs to a man in front who buried with ease. Last year the Marlies had the best penalty kill in the league and Blacker was a regular on it, so I’m not sure why Kostka and Gardiner are getting priority over him. Maybe we’ll see it pay off… the season is five games old after all.
- Further, on the penalty kill: It’s interesting to see the Marlies use two forwards and one defenceman when killing 5 on 3s. It’s something they are doing consistently now and I wonder if that means Carlyle will try it in the NHL, too. Tortorella’s Rangers ran it with success in the playoffs. Two forwards challenging point shooters and one defenceman clearing the front of the net might be the new way to try to kill 5 on 3’s.
- More on the penalty kill: Ashton is getting regular time on the unit and being used as a grinder. That’s what he is going to need to do if he’s ever going to make it in the NHL. He’s off to a rough start this season, already finding himself on the fourth line after starting the year on the top line with Kadri and Aucoin. Again, it’s early, but he needs to show something soon.
- Holzer had trouble with Nyquist and Tatar all night. On one play, Nyquist could have had an early candidate for goal of the year as he split Holzer and Fraser but then lost the handle. Expectations on Holzer need to be tempered and kept in check. He crushed Daryl Boyce on Friday, and that sort of stuff should be expected to continue even in the NHL, but he does have trouble with high talent forwards. He’s a decent player, but overall he’s hopefully a solid third pairing defender.
- On the Leafs side of things, it really shows how weak the right side of their defense is. Currently after Phaneuf they have Komisarek, then Holzer, then Kostka. Even if Franson eventually signs, that side is a huge area of concern.
- When it comes to the defense, Mark Fraser deserves huge kudos. Against Hamilton Saturday, the players were being chirpy with Holzer – especially after Holzer was mouthy on Friday – and he hammered a guy in a fight, settling things down for a while. Sunday, Kadri got kneed and Fraser didn’t hesitate to go in there and defend him. Yes, it was a 3-3 game with less than five minutes remaining, but it was game five of the season and teams have to know they can’t take liberties with Kadri. If there’s something to say about Fraser it’s this: he’s a heck of a teammate and the kind of guy you root for. That said, not sure the Leafs could have both he and Holzer up together. Neither are exactly fleet of foot.
- On a side note, it’s a good thing Kadri plays on the edge, mixes it up and defends himself, but nothing would be worse than him getting into a fight and breaking his hand or something. Hopefully the tough guys continue to protect him because opponents are taking liberties with Kadri so far this year.
- It’s nice that Kenny Ryan got a few goals and some confidence, but in the grand scheme of things his role is that of a sparkplug. He’s a little energizer bunny out there and the kind of guy who can play only eight minutes but is effective in doing so. We’ll see how he continues to play moving forward though as he wouldn’t be the first ever flash in the pan.
- This weekend was Jussi Rynnas in a nut shell. He looked lights out one night, and sloppy the next. He’s always shown flashes of his talent in individual games, but what he really needs to show is that he can string together good games consecutively and consistently. While none of the goals Sunday were really his fault, he was fighting the puck quite a bit and didn’t appear confident in the net at all.
- Ryan Hamilton came out like a gangbuster in game one of the season, and it kind of reminded me of Joey Crabb at the beginning of last year – Crabb had 15 points in nine AHL games before getting called up to the NHL for good last season. Since then though, Hamilton’s really cooled off. Crabb dominated for a month like that before getting called up, which really goes to show you how much a player of that age range needs to dominate to get a call-up to the NHL. Often fans see guys like Hamilton or Crabb – or Zigomanis – and wonder why they aren’t in the NHL. But the reality is that pretty well every NHL team would rather call up a kid with potential over an older guy who doesn’t offer much of a ceiling to his game.
- Nobody talked about it during the broadcast, but how about Colborne’s screen of the goalie on this goal? You can see he’s slowly starting to turn it on now as the season gets going, and he’s really beginning to move the puck. On Komarov’s first goal of his AHL career, he made a really nice play to kick the puck from his skate to his stick in stride, and then riffled a great pass cross-ice. Frattin is due back soon and I’m hoping we get to see the two united again on a line. I really believe Colborne plays his best hockey when he has a trigger man to work with as his mind just naturally looks for players to pass to and set up for goals.
The Marlies don’t play at home now until November 17th. To make matters worse, they only play once this week. Salt, meet wound.
Here’s the thing though: with different leagues comes different expectations and viewing experiences.
When it comes to watching and evaluating the NHL, it’s very simple: winning is all that matters. Each team in the league continuously tries to get better, figuring out how to start winning or continue winning. In the AHL, that is not necessarily the case. At the end of the day the Marlies will probably be judged by many based on the win and loss column, but what really matters – to me – is the progression of their players and how they can eventually help the Leafs win at the next level.
Thus, what will be focused on most here in this space is not really winning and losing, but how these players are progressing and, more importantly, how they can help the Leafs win hockey games whenever the NHL starts up again. Of course, the Marlies accomplishments will be pointed out too, but as I said the main focus is still with an eye towards the Leafs and how these guys can help the NHL team.
One other thing: The Marlies have played two games at this point. For some players, it was their first taste of pro hockey altogether. Let’s give them some time to get their feet wet before we really start critiquing them.
On that note, here are some observations from this past weekend’s back-to-back games:
- In October, Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press wrote this article about the relationship between Randy Carlyle and Dallas Eakins. It includes some of the system adjustments the Marlies will be making this year in order to play Carlyle hockey. The basic premise of the defensive system involves out numbering the opposition in the defensive zone. It is an interesting concept that will be fun to monitor as the season progresses. None of the goals scored against Toronto this weekend could be blamed on it as the Amerks scored on a power play, while Erie also had one power play goal, a goal scored by an individual effort and another scored off a misplayed dump-in on top of an empty netter. Meaning, there’s no real breakdown in the newly implemented system for us to discuss.
- While the Marlies lost against Erie, they dominated the game so it wasn’t really a great game to get a good look at the system. Against the Amerks it was also pretty one-sided, but there was a stretch in the second period where they got hemmed in their zone for an extended period of time where you could see the team chasing the puck a lot. That is the major downside to the system. Conversely, on many shifts the Marlies have sent two or even three guys into board battles, come out with the puck, and broken out of the zone cleanly after that.
- Another big part of Carlyle’s system is that he likes to use the middle of the ice more when it comes to breaking out. The Marlies have been doing this in two ways. The first is their defencemen, namely Gardiner, simply skating it out through the open ice on their own. The second has been a D to D pass followed by a quick pass up the middle to a center that cuts low below the faceoff dot; the center then makes the quick decision on whether he should pass it to either winger or skate it up himself.
- The Marlies appear to be skating the puck into the zone more often than not so far this year, but I’m not sure that’s a reflection on the Leafs style of play to be. I’d assume Carlyle’s system is more catered towards his specific lines. In other words, Kessel’s line will probably rarely dump it in, whereas McClement’s will most likely do so regularly.
- One last thing the about the Marlies system worth pointing out: when protecting a lead in the last minute of play they had their center, in this case Zigomanis, stay in the defensive zone near the goaltender and goal line when the opposition had the puck in the neutral zone. This was something even Ron Wilson had the team do in order to prevent teams from dumping the puck in behind the D-men who were standing up forwards at the blue line. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was effective.
- Although it is not exactly news to many at this point, it’s probably time to consider Nazem Kadri a full-time winger. He played wing in the playoffs last year mixed with some center on a line with Zigomanis and Hamilton, and now he’s playing full-time wing to start the year. It’s probably for the best, anyways. There should be a spot alongside Mikhail Grabovski open for him sometime soon.
- On the other side of Kadri has been Carter Ashton. That means they are using his big body to complement skill in Kadri and Aucoin. Where Ashton continues to play will be something to monitor; if he’s going to play on what’s essentially the top line, he’s going to need to produce at a noteworthy and consistent pace. To this point he has failed to really create anything, but again it’s only two games. On the power play he has seen a steady shift as a floating net presence. That means he’ll stand in front of the net, and then float out to the top of the circle as a one-timer option. I’ve always personally felt that net presences work best when they literally just plant themselves in front of the goalie and don’t move, drawing a defender to them and driving the guy in net crazy (Keith Tkachuk comes to mind). A floating presence kind of defeats that purpose. I’ll be paying attention to see if that play continues and if he remains on the top line. Ashton was played as a grinder with the Leafs and that appears much more suited to his skillset.
- Leo Komarov got burned pretty hard against Lake Erie thinking he could pick-pocket Tyson Barrie at the Marlies blue line. The young defender spun around him then went down and scored a beauty of a goal. It’s a good learning experience because, against good players in the NHL, you are going to get burned if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. And Barrie isn’t even a good NHLer yet. Other than that, Komarov has been finishing all his checks as advertised, which isn’t surprising because he did that in the World Championships consistently. He’s been a pest so to speak, but he clearly has to adjust to the North American game. This time in the AHL will actually be good for him. If the lockout lifts he’s going to be in a battle to win a spot on an energy and/or grinding line.
- D’Amigo is another guy who could possibly win a spot on the Leafs in that kind of role. The tough thing right now when it comes to the Marlies is that they have been rolling their lines when they can on account of their depth, which makes it harder to evaluate a player a like D’Amigo in a shutdown role. I thought this year we might have seen D’Amigo get power play time and used a little more offensively, but it has been penalty killing and defensive assignments so far for him. His role for the Leafs, should he make it, is pretty clear at this point.
- By the same token, Holzer’s role has specifically been a shutdown defender who sees top penalty killing time. Sounds like Brian Burke’s ideal third pairing defender.
- Jake Gardiner has been receiving a lot of attention from fans but he is someone I won’t spend much time on here. We already know he is an NHLer. He was going end-to-end in his rookie season in the big-league, so of course he’s going to be able to do it in the AHL. He’ll grow his offensive confidence and log a ton of ice-time, but realistically, there’s nothing to really say about him. He’s at the point where he needs to be challenged by NHLers. Jordan Eberle and RNH BOTH didn’t even get points in their first two games this season. There’s not much to say about these guys sent down due to the lockout. They’ll turn it on eventually, but it is what it is — they are NHLers in the AHL due to the lockout.
- Joe Colborne is coming back from surgery and still looks like he has to get his game going, but he has the zip back on his passes. The mustard he put on a cross ice pass to Ryan Hamilton for a tap in goal was something he could not do last year after he got hurt. He is getting predictable with that play, but on the whole it very much looks like the once-raw center project is starting to figure it out. When he was drafted everyone knew he was pretty raw, which really just means a little patience and teaching is required.
- Colborne might actually be the player benefiting most from the lockout in the organization because he isn’t ready to put up good numbers as an NHL center. In the AHL he is getting quality line-mates and buying development time. Like Kadri, he too will soon need a serious look at the NHL level over an extended period of time.
That’s it from me for now. It’s going to be a long season, especially if there’s no NHL, so we’ll try our best here to make it as entertaining as possible. The good news is that there are a ton of players on the Marlies who should eventually become NHLers so it’s not like we’re talking about plugs. What’s also good news is that the Marlies are really good. There are also a few Leafs prospects we’ll talk about throughout the year. Plus, who knows when Burke is going to open his mouth next? In other words, we’ll have stuff to talk about.