Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Annual Toronto Maple Leaf Analysis, PRE-PLAYOFF EDITION

Playoffs. Us long-suffering Leaf fans can be forgiven a little giddiness and confusion...aren't those things for other teams?

Not this year. For the first time in this Breadbin's history, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the playoffs.

The wags will tell you it's because the season was short this year, and being as Toronto is only capable of playing half a season, well, it stands to reason. To which I say: so what. Every other team played the same 48 games, and for once the Leafs are at or near the top of the league in categories other than giveaways and goals against.

Without further ado, the grades:


A gentle breath of fresh air after Burke's bombastic boorishness (though ya gotta admit ol' Burkie was entertaining as hell), Nonis seems to be all about removing obstacles for his players to succeed. The team was beset with a LACK of success going into the season, LACK standing for Lombardi, Armstrong, Connolly and Komisarek; all four were traded, demoted, or waived, Nonis' trade deadline performance was underwhelming,  and the active search for goaltending statistically, Luongoly inferior to the goaltending he already had,  was infuriating. In the end his saner side prevailed and the team was able to take its first playoff steps.


The consensus, going into the season, was that this was not a playoff team. Unproven goaltending, suspect D, a historically bad PK...a real longshot to make the dance. I'll get to the other things in a minute. That bad PK? From far and away the worst to second-best in a season. That's what an actual coach will do for you. (No offense to Wilson...or rather, all offense to Wilson, who treated the defensive zone like it was radioactive.)
Moreover, Carlyle has established a team identity and promoted cohesion up and down the lineup. These guys play for each other. It's good to see that. I suspect Carlyle will garner a couple of Adams votes (although this year, Paul MacLean in Ottawa owns that award).
To some extent, there are smoke and mirrors involved here. The team's PDO, an advanced stat that essentially measures luck, is the highest in the NHL; its Fenwick percentage, which is a measure of puck possession, is the lowest. In other words, this team is content to let its opponents have the puck, play with the puck, shoot the long as they do it from non-scoring areas. Toronto is insanely opportunistic: many times this year they've won despite being handily outshot.
Carlyle deserves points for keeping the team on an even keel, which is not easily done in this market. He's known when to lighten up and when to peel paint off the walls, Keeping him from an A grade is his team's maddening inconsistency. They can play with, and beat, any team in the league...and then the next game they can look like they did last night, absolutely horrible.

JAMES REIMER 19-8-5, 2.46 GAA,  .924 SV%,  5 shutouts A
These are better than league average numbers across the board, something the Leafs have not seen since Eddie Belfour. Reimer is a solid goalie who reads plays well, has a knack for picking the puck out of traffic, and rarely gets rattled. His rebound control is still occasionally shaky and puck handling is not his forte, but when he's on his game he's very good verging on spectacular. If not for him, this is not a playoff team. (By the way: THIS IS A PLAYOFF TEAM.)

BEN SCRIVENS  7-9-0, 2.69, 9.15, 2 B
The goalie with the bizarre glove stance. Scrivens was a respectable backup who kept the team in the hunt when Reimer was lost due to injury. Ben plays big in the net and is acrobatic with very quick lateral movement. Good showing.


The Leafs Captain can't seem to get the respect he's due. He's top ten in the league for points by a defenceman; he plays by far the toughest minutes on the team. We can debate the letter on his sweater until the end of time but the fact of the matter is, he's doing his job, and doing it well.

Outpointed Phaneuf, good for #8 in league scoring amongst D even though he's second pairing. His defensive zone play still needs some work: he has to remember to keep moving his feet. But all in all this has been a season of sweet redemption for Cody, who was inexplicably benched for most of last year.

Played most if all of this season hurt, and you could tell: it affected his mobility and at times his decision making. Reliable stay-at-home D who is steady but not spectacular.

has not been the same player since he suffered his concussion last season. By all accounts he is a dressing room leader. Likely traded this off-season.

JAKE GARDINER 0-4-4 (12 GP) D+
Don't give up hope on Jake. He's the best skater in the D-corps by far and he showed last year what an offensive threat he can be. But this year has been a write-off. Prone  to lackadaisical defensive play and stunning blunders. He's in that awkward place where careers are easily derailed: too good for the AHL but with loads to learn to be effective at the NHL level. Previously this exact position was inhabited by one Nazem Kadri, who has busted out with aplomb. Let's hope Gardiner does too.

Carlyle paired him with Phaneuf for some time, and so he played hard, hard minutes, performing reasonably well for a guy who'd never seen the NHL before. However, he was totally miscast as a PP QB and really doesn't belong on the first pairing. He does have offense he hasn't shown: last year he was a one-man Marlie wrecking crew, which is probably what motivated the Leafs to pick him up in the first place.

Not ready for prime time despite having performed admirably for years at the AHL level. With lots of work on his skating he could contribute: he has a nifty mean streak that earned him the nickname "Bullholzer".

Unsung defensive stalwart with a nasty side, he plays a simple, no nonsense stay at home game and relishes clearing the crease. This is another type of player the Leafs have not had on the roster for years. Was at or near the top of the +/- standings for much of the year. Not a fast skater, he relies on smart positioning to separate man from puck. He, like Franson, can be beat with speed to the outside, but together they made a decent second pairing.


PHIL KESSEL 20-32-52 A
When will Toronto fans fully embrace the superstar they have here? Yes, I said superstar. Phil Kessel is an elite player that has outscored all but three other players over the past three seasons. Playing in the media fishbowl that is Toronto, you'd think more people would notice that. Did Burke overpay to get him? Undoubtedly. Has Phil lived up to his end of the trade? Abso-friggin'-lutely. Besides the patented shot and the exceptional passing, Phil has noticeably elevated his backchecking this year and is now, dare I suggest, a complete three zone player.  He's led the team each year in scoring. Bravura performance. Now if we can just keep him away from that 6'8" block of Kryptonite called Zdeno Chara...

NAZEM KADRI 18-26-44 A
Hello there Nazem Kadri. I have written some disparaging words about you and I have been forced to eat every one of them. Pierre McGuire coined the nickname 'Nifty Mittens' and you do have those. You managed to finish top twelve in NHL scoring despite playing only 16:03 a game. Impressive. (Then again, there's an argument to be made that the reason you have all those points is because you've been shielded from top-echelon competition.) You also have a nice mean streak to your game and you draw penalties like nobody's business. You remind me of a budding Doug Gilmour. Higher praise I'm not sure I know how to give. Here's to a long and Cupful career as a Leaf.

His prior high water mark for goal scoring in an 82 game season was 21 goals. So for him to pot 18 in 48 isn't bad. When he plays the power forward role Carlyle envisions for him, he is VERY effective: many of his points came from a few feet in front of the net. Unfortunately, this is not a game that James wants to play very often and he spent long stretches of this short season off the scoresheet and in the doghouse. Career could go either way.

TYLER BOZAK 12-16-28 B

Tyler is very hard to grade because he's still playing in a role (first-line center) that is unsuited to his skill set. He shows flashes of vision and his faceoff skills are best on the team, but his BFF status with Kessel leads him to look for Phil when he should be shooting himself, and he's largely predictable on the puck (except in shootouts). He will be seeking a hefty pay raise and to some extent he deserves one, but going forward you have to think Kadri will be Kessel's center. Bozak's future as a Leaf is in question.

Two years ago Kulemin scored 30. Last year he scored 7 in 70 matches and never seemed to find his game. This year he settled in somewhere between the two extremes. He's the defensive conscience of the top six and he always has done a lot of the little things well, but you'll likely never see 30 goals out of him again. He has a lot of value to this team, but it's the kind of value apparent to coaches and few others.

Another player who excelled two years ago (playing with Kulemin, as it happens). Clarke was wildly inconsistent this year, with long periods of near-invisibility. MacArthur is the quintessence of "average".

JOFFREY LUPUL 11-7-18 (16 GP) A+
Could he have scored his pro-rated 92 points in a full season? Doubtful, but I'd hesitate to bet money against it. Beset by injuries including a concussion and a broken arm from a Phaneuf slapshot, Joffrey was the heart and soul of this team while he was in the lineup and he showed astonishing chemistry with Kadri. I won't suggest Lupul is the second coming of Wendel Clark...they are totally different players. But Lupul does have something no other Leaf since Clark has had: a primal, unrestrained joy at being a Toronto Maple Leaf. No disrespect to Phaneuf, but Lupul is this fan's idea of a captain. Also, he's Eva's "cutie patootie", whatever that means.

Kessel, Kadri and Lupul light the lamp. Reimer is ultimately the last line of defence and he had a very good season. But you could certainly make a case for Jay being the MVP of this team. He is a huge reason the penalty kill went from laughable to highly laudable. He never takes a shift off and he rarely makes a mistake. If people weren't blinded by offensive numbers, McClement would be given the Selke this summer: he has logged more PK time, on  (again) the second-best PK corps in the NHL, and the next 18 players on that list are defencemen.
If the Leafs actually do keep progressing into legitimate Cup contenders over the next few seasons, it's a safe bet McClement will be part of it all.

Last year was Kulemin's lost year. This was Grabovski's. I'm not sure what happened here but Mikhail's wheels have fallen off and the passion is gone from his game. Carlyle asked him to be a defensive forward and he failed. I'm almost certain his time as a Leaf is done, but odds are they won't get as much as they could for him because of the hefty contract he failed to live up to this year.

One of the most hated players in the league. I love this guy. Joe Bowen repeatedly informed us this year that Komarov would be just as effective without a blade on his stick He's a hitting machine and he hits hard. But he's not dirty...just annoying as all hell (if you're on the other team). You'd like to see a tad more offense out of him but even without it, he's a player you just have to keep.

As a pure goon, he gets an A: he doesn't lose many fights. As a hockey player...well, he skates well for a man his size and he can cycle better than you'd think. Hands of stone, though...which you don't want ro get hit with.

Goon #2. I've elevated his marks simply because he appears to have learned how to skate over the past year. One of these two players is superfluous, to my mind.

The team as a whole is too inconsistent to expect to survive the first round of these playoffs. Most teams making it in after having missed for a long time are fodder for the perennial contenders. But anything can happen and this Leaf fan is just elated to see his team in the game.


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