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Ok first things first, the title may be a bit of an exaggeration however it should not over shadow the fact that this most recent and current call-up with the big squad will be the biggest of Nazem Kadri‘s career to date. Kadri has been given ample opportunity to prove he is NHL ready with a variety of stints over the last 12 months with the big club, yet has failed to gain approval of the coaching staff and management.

In a three game stint this season he put up one assist,  proving that he was not much of a scoring threat and much more of a defensive liability then the team would like, thus he was sent down. After being sent down, Kadri has been on fire putting up a point per game in 22 games with the Marlies this season. It is safe to assume that being sent down again has lit a fire under his behind and made him work harder to at the very least make sending him down management’s toughest decision yet. If all goes well for Kadri this time around then we may see him up with the Leafs much more often ultimately earning a roster spot going into next season.

What makes this call-up different for Kadri is the fact he now has talented linemates. Going into Thursday’s tilt against the Buffalo Sabres, Kadri will be on the wing, playing with very skilled players in the likes of Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur. In the past, Kadri was given a chance but saw very little time with proven top 6 forwards, so here is his shot. Another fact that fairs well in Kadri’s favor is that he has essentially dominated both the OHL and most recently the AHL. So what left is there to do? Of course establish himself as a star in the NHL, and if I were a betting man Kadri is not far off from getting there.

Not to put extra pressure on the kid, as I’m sure he is aware of it himself, these next few games will be the biggest of his career. This not only is an audition to secure a roster spot on the NHL level squad, but it could also be one of his last opportunities to play for the Leafs if things do not go so well. Kadri has often been linked as a key component of a package deal that would land the Leafs a top line forward, therefore his play has to show management that he is the real deal and let him develop into a long term top line player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It truly is now or never for Nazem Kadri.

For the man who has the distinction of being ‘the one who hit Sidney Crosby,’ Leafs new-boy David Steckel is doing his best to forge himself a new persona, at least within the city of Toronto.

Steckel has impressed throughout the early stages of the season (Peter J. Thomson)

Acquired from the Devils in exchange for a fourth round pick just two days before the 2011-2012 season was set to begin, the 29-year-old has instantly become the Toronto’s face-off specialist, and it isn’t difficult to see why.

Looking at Steckel’s stats over his career, the big man from Milwaukee has stayed in the top seven of draws in all four of his NHL seasons, capped by last year’s league-leading average of 62.3%.

Now, compare his numbers to those posted by Leafs centremen last season.

Tyler Bozak was a somewhat impressive 54.6% from the face-off circle, followed by off-season castoff Tim Brent at 52%.

Mikhael Grabovski, although breaking out offensively, only managed 48.4% from the face-off dot.

For a team that struggled immensely on the penalty kill last season, the Leafs brass had to make a change.

From there, based on Steckel’s early season play, he’s proving there’s some truth to the adage “change is good.”

In his debut against Montreal last Thursday, Steckel won 72% of his face-offs (18-25) in a 2-0 Leafs win. He then proceeded to post a 65% performance (17-26) two nights later in a 6-5 victory over Ottawa.

Steckel’s work from the face-off circle may also be influencing the play of his fellow centremen. Case-in-point is Grabovski, who through two games, is up to 61.8%, a significant improvement over last year’s average.

A point to note is that it is very early in the season. However, it is refreshing to see Leafs management pinpointing an issue, seeking to address it, and following through.

No, Steckel won’t sell as many jerseys as Kessel or Phaneuf. But his role to play in pushing this Leafs team to the playoffs may be just as important.

I welcome your thoughts.

The Toronto Maple Leafs made their final cuts today, and rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner has made the team.  Gardiner made it very difficult for Ron Wilson to keep him off the opening night roster.  Despite that, there is still a strong case to be made against him.

Gardiner played well.  In six pre-season games, the 21-year old scored a goal and added three assists.  His smooth skating and incredible poise with the puck saw his ice-time jump from 16:06 in the pre-season opener against Ottawa, to 26:26 against Buffalo.

Wilson claims that Gardiner has been, at times, his best defenceman. But one has to wonder if that’s simply because he’s playing so much. He’s been exposed to a lot of high-pressure situations, and passed mostly with flying colours.

As impressive as Gardiner has been, it’s probably better the Leafs take a cautious approach. It’s not uncommon for rookies—especially around these parts—to shine in pre-season, and stumble when the games start to count.  One needs to look no further than two years ago.  Nazem Kadri and Viktor Stalberg were both extremely impressive in camp. Stalberg led the NHL in scoring in exhibition play, and some thought he might be a viable candidate for the Calder award.

Kadri got sent back to junior, and Stalberg managed just 14 points in 40 games with the Leafs. He was traded to Chicago in the off-season. Last year he scored 24 points in 70 games with the Blackhawks. Kadri has still not lived up to the hype, or the skill he showed in that first training camp.

The same might be true for Gardiner. Sure, he’s looked phenomenal in a small sample, but what happens if he struggles through October? Does he get sent back to the AHL? What might that do for his confidence?

Gardiner’s inclusion on the team can be considered a bit of a surprise. GM Brian Burke usually likes to let his young players play in the AHL before making the jump.

When he was the GM in Anaheim, Burke had a trio of young forwards who made good first impressions, but were ultimately sent to the AHL for seasoning. Bobby Ryan, a highly-touted second overall draft pick, spent 48 games in the minors in his rookie season. He also saw time there in his second year.

Similarly, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry played 17 and 19 AHL games, respectively, before becoming a permanent fixture with the Ducks.

Burke is clearly not one to rush his youngsters.

The best comparable for Gardiner might be Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban. The two have similar playing styles as offensive, puck-rushing defencemen. Subban played a grand total of two regular season games with the Habs in his first pro season, and they were as an injury replacement. He spent the year in the AHL, scoring 53 points in 77 games. He was then an important fixture of the Canadiens’ improbable post-season run that year.

Last year was his first full one in the NHL, and while there were ups and downs, he looks poised for a long, strong career. Nobody ever had their career ruined by spending too much time in the AHL.

Gardiner looks like he could be a fine player for the Maple Leafs for many years to come. The club must be wary of exposing him to too much too soon. He will not be playing 25 minutes a night as he has in pre-season. Is it really worth it to have him on the roster for the sake of being in the NHL, and only play 15 minutes a game? Wouldn’t it be far more beneficial for his development to play upwards of 25 minutes in the AHL?

The Leafs are not starved for bodies on the blueline, as they were when Luke Schenn was a rookie. There are arguably seven NHLers ahead of Gardiner on the depth chart. They should have been the ones to break camp with the Leafs. Gardiner should be called up when he has nothing left to prove at the AHL level.

Yesterday the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they had cut 14 more players from their training camp roster, assigning them to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. The most significant of the cuts was forward Joe Colborne, who was considered to be in contention for a roster spot.

 

The full list of cuts is as follows. All players were assigned to the Toronto Marlies (AHL).

Assigned to Toronto (AHL) : Luca Caputi, Joe Colborne, Jerry D’Amigo, Ryan Hamilton, Marcel Mueller, Kenny Ryan, Greg Scott, Mike Zigomanis, Jesse Blacker, Jeff Finger, Simon Gysbers, Korbinian Holzer, Juraj Mikus, Mark Owuya, Jussi Rynnas.

The Leafs also announced that they had returned forward Greg McKegg to the Erie Otters of the OHL.

Luca Caputi, Ryan Hamilton, Mike Zigomanis and Jeff Finger will all have to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL.


While there are still more important cuts to be made, you can tell that the Leafs roster is beginning to take shape. The following players remain in camp:

Colby Armstrong
Darryl Boyce
Tyler Bozak
Mike Brown
Tim Connolly
Joey Crabb
Phillipe Dupuis
Matt Frattin
Mikhail Grabovski
Nazem Kadri
Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin
Matthew Lombardi
Joffrey Lupul
Clarke MacArthur
Colton Orr
Jay Rosehill

Keith Aulie
Cody Franson
Jake Gardiner
Carl Gunnarsson
Mike Komisarek
Matt Lashoff
John-Michael Liles
Dion Phaneuf
Luke Schenn

Jonas Gustavsson
James Reimer
Ben Scrivens

I’ve predicted who I personally think will be cut once the season rolls around, based on keeping two defenders and one forward scratched.

  • Matthew Lombardi either slots in the lineup as a center or winger, which effectively forces Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri to the minors. If he’s injured to start the season, Darryl Boyce plays in his stead.
  • The Leafs will opt to go with 8 defensemen. My guess is that Keith Aulie and Mike Komisarek will sit.
  • Phillipe Dupuis will win fourth line center duties. He’s a fearless shot blocker, speedy and throws his weight around. He’ll be flanked by Mike Brown and Colton Orr. If Brownie is a no-go opening night, look for Boyce to play in that hole.
  • The Leafs third line will eventually be Lombardi with Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong.
  • If both Lombardi and Brown are both injured to start the season, the Leafs will keep Jay Rosehill around. He’ll patrol the ice with Orr until Brown is healthy. Boyce will play on the third line. Notice how Boyce is very versatile.

The Toronto Marlies announced they have signed forward Brayden Irwin to an AHL deal. His two year ELC with the Toronto Maple Leafs expired at last season’s end. He was in camp with the Leafs trying out. The Marlies will use him as depth considering Colborne and Kadri could be recalled at any time, leaving the farm club shorthanded down the middle.

Today, while talking on TSN1050, Darren Dreger mentioned the Leafs were kicking tires on a possible trade, passing along the thought of Bozak and Carl Gunnarsson being packaged together. He also noted that nothing was imminent, but that if the team felt a move would put them over the top they would pull the trigger.

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.

(Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America)

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.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

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.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

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?

After striking out on the biggest fish of the free agent market (Brad Richards), the Leafs quickly moved to “Plan B” which was signing Tim Connolly. The move was met with mixed emotions in Toronto, as some saw Connolly as a injury prone center who probably wouldn’t make much of an impact at the salary he signed. Others saw Connolly as a decent stopgap solution, given that his term (2 years) was extremely reasonable and that he has shown in the past he has the ability to put up numbers. Let’s take an in-depth look at Connolly and see what he’s all about.

The first thing to deal with is his current contract signed with the Leafs. It’s a two-year deal worth $9.5mil for an AAV (average annual value) of $4.75mil. It’s a little steep considering what he was paid in his last contract (two years, $9mil, AAV of $4.5mil) and the fact he didn’t really do much to deserve the raise. Speculation is however, that Connolly had other deals on the table which had longer contract lengths then what the Leafs offered. In order to secure his services, they gave him a raise in order to keep the deal at a minimum of two years. This is a great tradeoff, considering MLSE has deep pockets and we won’t potentially be stuck with an albatross contract.

The great thing also about Connolly’s contract is that the deal is slightly front-loaded, in that he’ll make $5.5mil of the $9.5mil this season, meaning he is due to be paid only $4mil next season. This makes Connolly an attractive options for cash struggled markets who need players with high cap hits to hit the floor (Connolly at $4.75mil) without actually paying them that much (Connolly will only cost a team $4mil in 2012-2013).

So when you really think about it, it’s a smart contract by Brian Burke and company, who flexed their financial muscle in order to get a deal which not only helps the team in the present, but could potentially help them  down the road by bringing in assets through trade. For now, Connolly is very much an important part of the team so trade discussions should be pushed aside for a year or so.

Now that we’ve dealt with Connolly’s contract (which many people moaned about) we can talk about Connolly’s performance on the ice, and if he’s a viable solution for a (temporary) number one center.

What does it take to be a number one center in the NHL? Let’s take a look at some of the top offensive NHL centers last year:

 


The list above is the top thirty scoring centers in the NHL. The blank spots were players on teams that had already been represented on the list by a higher scoring player. After removing duplicate teams, there were 20 players remaining. Teams without a center in the top thirty in last year’s scoring include: Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta), Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Columbus, Florida, New Jersey and Buffalo. All team’s missed the playoffs except for Nashville, Phoenix and Buffalo, all of whom are known for their strong goaltending and tight defensive systems. This just shows that it’s basically essential to have a top scoring center to make the playoffs, although the case can be made that some non-playoff teams have top scoring centers, but the number of playoff teams vs. non-playoff teams is not even close.

Now, how does all of this relate to Tim Connolly? Well, let’s assume that for Tim to “have a good year” based on everyone’s standards, he’d need to eclipse the 50 point mark, preferably close to 60 points. I’m not saying it will guarantee the Leafs a playoff spot, but it would help, and it would be a pretty good season for Connolly.

There’s a lot of variables that go into how many points a player gets in a season, so let’s only look at what we can safely predict: linemates and special teams time.

Connolly has eclipsed the fifty point mark only twice in his career: 2005-2006 (63 GP – 16 G – 39 A – 55 PTS) and 2009-2010 (73 GP – 17 G – 48 A – 65 PTS). Let’s take a closer look at his 2009-2010 season, with this tool from DobberHockey.

It seems as if Connolly’s most common linemates were Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville (28.82% at even strength, most used line at EV by team at 8.01%). Next most common linemates were Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville (11.76% at even strength, third most used line at EV by team at 3.27%). Of all lines used by Buffalo that year, Hecht – Connolly – Pominville was the highest scoring with 48 points at even strength.

On the man advantage, Buffalo’s most used line was Connolly – Pominville – Derek Roy – Vanek (most frequently used at 1.27%) and accounted for 20 points. Of Connolly’s 65 points that year, 27 were scored with the man advantage.

Buffalo had the 17th best powerplay in 2009-2010 at 17.6%, and were led by Connolly and his 27 powerplay points.

I think it’s safe to say Connolly will be on the most used Maple Leafs line at even strength this year, along with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. I think it’s also safe to say that Connolly will see lots of powerplay time, so he should help to inmprove in that department. However, will Connolly be able to replicate this successful seasons with his new linemates?

Hecht vs. Lupul

Hecht had a decent season on Connolly’s line, notching 42 points (21-21). Lupul’s best seasons have hovered between 45-55 points. After coming back from a series of injuries, a 40 point season for Lupul shouldn’t be that far fetched. Therefore I say Lupul and Hecht are comparable linemates.

Pominville vs. Kessel

Pominville, since becoming a mainstay on the Sabres, has consistently put up 60+ point seasons, with the exception of the one that just finished. He missed 9 games due to injury, and fell just short with 52 points. Kessel has essentially done the same, although has been in the league for less time. Kessel is thought of as a pure goal scorer, where as Pominville was more balanced, and saw his assists exceed his goal totals. I’m going to give the edge here to Kessel, solely for the fact he’s considered a pure scorer. If Connolly, who is considered a playmaker, can dish the puck off to Kessel, I think Kessel could eclipse 60 points, potentially 70.

Special Teams (Powerplay)

Although the Leafs have had issues with their powerplay in the past, I think with the additions of Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Connolly will improve their standing. I can’t quantify by how much they will improve, but I think that Connolly (and others) have the ability to get the job done with the man advantage. This will play a huge part in any success the Leafs wish to have this upcoming year.

- – -

A lot of people seem to think Connolly is injury prone to the extent where it’s a certainty he won’t play the majority of the upcoming season. Let’s take a little look at Connolly’s injury history. Aside from the two concussions he suffered (that caused him to miss essentially two full seasons) he’s suffered a series of everyday hockey injures: hip, foot, groin, knee. Sure, he’s missed a lot of time due to them, but can you really fault him? If you play hard, theres a chance you will be injured.

On the other side of the spectrum, you can’t play and score when your out of the lineup. For Connolly to have a successful season, he’s going to need to play 75+ games. Anything less than that, and his numbers will suffer and Leafs Nation will be in full uproar about how fragile he is.

- – -

After looking at all these areas, I think it’s highly possible for Connolly to score anywhere from 50-60 points this season, giving the Leafs two legitimate scoring centers (Grabovski). I also think Connolly will be able to elevate Kessel’s game, and help Lupul to have a bounce back season. I’m not sure if it will directly translate to a playoff team, but it should keep the critics off Connolly’s (and to a lesser extent, Leafs management’s) back. After Richards was swept up off the market, Connolly was the best (free) option out there, and they added him to a good contract.

It’s hard to predict if Connolly will have a good season or not, but you can fully expect him to be thrust into a role where he’s expected to exceed. If it doesn’t work out, Connolly will be off the books in two years at the expense of $9.5 million. That’s chump change to MLSE.



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