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Some early-season Leaf surprises

I’m not sure two games (win or lose) is ever a streak, but the fact that the Leafs have lost of couple of contests in recent days probably helps to ensure that Leafworld, myself included, does not go overboard in its early-season assessment of this club’s potential.

Oh, there is no doubt we have seen some good things, and some solid play from certain players at times (Lupul, for example, and Kadri has also created some offense along with playing a physical, edgy game at times), but we may now be in a bit of a phase where, when winning doesn’t gloss over the flaws, our eyes are open to some of the issues this club still has.

Bernier was about to be canonized a week or so ago, and while he has been far from awful the last two games against Carolina and Chicago, he was closer to mortal. Our penchant for giveaways and poor defensive zone coverage at times is still a thorn in our side and there is the question of puck possession in general—though, in fairness, Chicago is a pretty tough test for most any club.

But for today, with David Clarkson “arriving” soon and the Leafs still holding an impressive win-loss record, I’d rather focus on some of the pleasant early-season surprises that we have noticed.

Who are these pleasant surprises?

You’d have to put Mason Raymond on the list.  Who knows, he may flat-line a bit as the season progresses, but he has provided a nice spark in the early going. He’s put up some points, and his seeming ability to transition pretty seamlessly from one line to the next has been good to see.

David Broll, as Aaron Chan noted on the most recent “Maple Leaf Hangout” show (and as others also have here, including DP, who has talked about Broll and Devane for quite some time), has shown himself to be more than a pugilist.  He is a player who can seemingly contribute in other ways, as can Devane, who is now back with the Marlies.

Morgan Rielly is not, for me, in the “surprise” category as we all know he has NHL level talent, but considering he was minus 3 in his first NHL game, he has steadied the ship and is also picking up some points along the way.  A lot of us still feel he (and the Leafs) would be best served by his going back to Moose Jaw and also playing for Team Canada. That said, I sense Carlyle wants to keep him here, so he will stay,

I didn’t for a moment believe Josh Leivo would be with the big club this season.  I was somewhat aware of his development arc and projections around the type of player he might become, but I certainly did not anticipate he would play even a handful of games by now.  And when he has played, he has contributed.

**

Again, it’s early, but I’m not quite sure what the Leaf “team identity” is just now.  We’re certainly not a puck possession team.  And we are still, like last season, getting outshot too often.

I think we’re supposed to be a ‘in your face’, hard to play against kind of club, and while I want to believe that, that trait is not always in evidence. (Do you find our defense corps a tad soft without Fraser in the lineup?)

If we are, as one of the panelists mentioned on the Hangout show the other day, a kind of quick-strike offense type of squad, that was more the Ron Wilson team than what we thought we would get from the more demanding, defensively-oriented Carlyle. (Hey, it’s a lot more exciting than what we initially thought Carlyle would insist on when he arrived, but again, maybe just not what we expected.)

In fairness, the injuries to van Riemsdyk, Kulemin, Fraser (and yes, Clarkson’s absence) are part of the equation when determining what the Leafs are—and will be come playoff time. So the short answer is, our identity is yet to be etched in stone, and maybe that’s a good thing.  Sometimes the coach can’t push these things.  Things will naturally evolve over time and the team will be what it is.

If, ultimately, these Leafs receive top-end netminding most nights, can score off the rush and in transition, can be tough in their own end and consistent on the penalty-kill, they should be OK.  A little dose of hating to lose, the ability to come from behind and also to win on nights when they probably shouldn’t and, well, those things wouldn’t hurt, either.

For now, though, let’s focus on the good things we have seen so far this young season. With that in mind, who has surprised you with their contribution to this point- and who may emerge in the weeks ahead?

15 comments:

  1. Michael,

    Some great thoughts there, wonderful post today. There are lots of positives to talk about with this team so far this year. The stellar goaltending that the tandem of Reimer and Bernier can provide this year is at the forefront of my thinking here. A true top shelf tandem that we haven't seen around here since I guess Fuhr and Potvin. It was such a luxury for the Leafs back then to trade Fuhr and keep Felix the cat, heady days in Leafworld for sure. One of us should trademark that phrase.

    You mentioned Raymond in your post, great call. There is no one on the team that is more likely to put up career numbers this season. When Clarkson and Kulemin get back soon, the third line of Bolland, Raymond and Kulemin, should be impossible for the opposition to deal with. I will not be surprised to see this line light it up. Bolland and Raymond both seem to be better playmakers than I thought they would have been. I am really looking forward to getting the forward group more or less intact, solely for this possibility.

    Gunnarsson has been steady after the injury bug hurt his performance last year. He can improve sure, happy though that he seems to be healthy. When we don't notice him, we think that he must have had a good game.

    Special teams have been awesome so far. Last I heard on a broadcast, if you add up both rankings for PP and PK, we are tops in the league. This is good, hope that it can continue. Clarkson and Kulemin should bolster this already fine area for the Leafs.

    As for who may emerge in the weeks ahead. I would like it to be Gardiner, Kessel and Carlyle. Phil and Jake would be well served to try to remember what made them successful in the playoffs last year, and replicate it in the regular season. Impact players like Kessel, need to eliminate the nights off kind of thing that Phil has been accustomed to. I haven't noticed Kessel much over the last few games, pretty sure that Toews is noticed in every game he plays. This is the level Phil needs to get to, lets face it, he's paid that well.

    I hope Randy Carlyle can deliver the type of play that he talks about in the press conferences. That's about it. His team needs to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

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    1. You point is a fair one about Carlyle, Jim. I've supported a lot about what he does and how he prepares his team (knowing many don't like him at all as coach and feel he is out of touch, ineffective and that deploys his personnel very poorly...) but it is true that the team will ultimately need to play the way he talks like it should.

      Yes, the record is very good. We all understand that. But we also know that they have not played as well as their record, and things only get tougher as the season goes forward.

      But as you note, plenty of good things to be pleased about, including the goaltending and the projected third line, when everyone is back and healthy. Thanks Jim.

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  2. Hi Michael,

    Long time no post (for me), but I've enjoyed reading yours and the replies of the level-headed group you attract on VLM. I've tuned into a few MLHS 'Hangouts' too. You guys aren't much too look at though, so I usually listen to the audio on my way to work over here in Tokyo.

    As for surprises, the Leafs' record definitely comes to mind (although a couple more losses have suddenly been added). 6-3 is pretty good considering the missing pieces (Clarkson, Kulie, Fraser, Reimer even) and the number of rookies who have come through the lineup as a result.

    It seems the Buds are in good shape to handle a compressed schedule (due to the Olympic break) in terms of quality goaltending on back-to-back nights with a (hopefully) healthy Reimer and Bernier (whom I'm warming up to). And Carlyle has found he's got some pretty good options at forward and D if regular players need a rest, a 'reset,' or suffer (more) injuries.

    So yeah, I'm pretty optimistic, but the Leafs are not yet ready to beat the Hawks in a seven-game series. However, as you have said, there's lots of potential to rack up points and playoff success in the East.

    As the last poster mentioned, Carlyle has made his and his players' task clear to all of us, and hopefully the team will be able to execute a more responsible style of play as the season progresses. Carlyle has coached this team to a lot of wins against significant odds so far, so I'm still on his side.

    Another 'surprise' has been Nonis's savvy summer signings (trademark). Obviously Raymond and Bolland have been excellent additions, but did anyone believe Nonis when he said he planned to sign Kadri and Franson with the little cap space he had just weeks before the season opener? And Clarkson will finally be entering the regular-season lineup soon too...

    Finally, about the Leafs' identity, I think last season they became bigger and meaner, while maintaining a lot of speed, making them very hard to play against; if they weren't punching you in the face, they were scoring goals in bunches. In the last few games, although the Leafs have recorded a lot of 'hits,' I haven't a seen the kind of relentless punishment that guys like Komorov, Orr, and McLaren brought on a nightly basis last year. The latter two are not exactly my favorite players, and I'm not a proponent of 'staged fights' per se, but I think Kadri articulated well last year the confidence that came with knowing no team could push the Leafs around. Getting Kulemin, McLaren, and Clarkson back, I think, will help bring back some of the intimidation factor that helped put other teams off their game so much last season and maybe give a guy like Kessel just that couple of extra inches he needs to burn defensemen and goalies a bit more often.

    GO LEAFS!

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    1. I had noticed you have not posted for a while, so I'm glad to see you still visit, Matty D.

      Good to hear that you have also checked out the "Hangout" program. (I'm more of an audio guy myself!)

      Raymond and Bolland have been impressive additions, to be sure. We have somehow managed to sign everyone and maintain finical sanity, it seems. (At least what passes for financial sanity these days.)

      I hope Carlyle can get the team to play to an identity that does indeed make them hard to play against but also allows for offensive creativity. If we can find that balance, and get goaltending, we might well be OK.

      Thanks Matty D- stay in touch.

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  3. I think you are right about Carlyle wanting to keep Morgan with the Leafs this year, Michael, even if I believe it has more to do with his desire to mentor the young man, than to be using him 'unwisely' too early as we have seen so often in the past.

    It seems apparent to me that the team is missing Fraser's grit (as you noted) and I'm wondering if Mark's return to the lineup might bring a 'training and development' focus to young Morgan's time with the big club (so long as no other injuries manifest to delay a training focus). I'm thinking Randy would like Rielly to develop a more well-rounded game (than we see with Gardiner), so it appears that the focus is upon structured development, sheltered minutes and the likelihood of a trip to the World Juniors.

    Morgan is being rewarded for his patience and maturity, when others might have tweeted 'free Morgan' if they were in his shoes. He may be just fine (despite our perceptions that are so influenced by so many multiple failures with young prospects in the past... the team may just be strong enough to shelter the young man this time. If there's any merit to these thoughts AND Carlyle keeps Morgan out of the Junior ranks, I truly hope that it is for the best all around!

    The team seems to be missing that 'hard to play 'em' element that characterized the Leafs last year... though I'm sure Clarkson will help and Bolland is a talented pest, I'm noticing the absence of Komarov as much as anyone (and still think he could be a late season addition - after Olympic and KHL commitments have run their course... he's a known quantity that could be quite helpful for a playoff run AND wouldn't cost us any draft picks to 'bring into the fold').

    The other missing element is what Kulemin brings to the team - perhaps his injury is making his contributions more noticeable in their absence...

    Finally, I'm quite impressed with young Josh Leivo and can see why Poulin was noting the staff's appreciation for his development... Ashton's skating has improved obviously and JVR has an extra gear this year... WOW! Hope Kadri steps up to the value of his new contract... he seems a little less effective - like he was at the end of last season as opposed to his early (mid-season) form. Seems he has more growth and development time ahead... glad it's not at 4M+ like many expected!

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    1. Lots of worthwhile observations in your post, as always, InTimeFor62. Fraser is a solid third-pairing guy, for sure. I think you are fair in suggesting Carlyle is not looking to rush Rielly, but rather help him grow and develop in the best atmosphere they can provide. (And I do well remember the "Free Gardiner" tweet!)

      You aren't the first to bring up the possibility that the Leafs miss Komaro'v edgy play. I had not thought in terms of his returning, however. That would be interesting. Thanks InTimeFor62.

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  4. Hi Michael! I think the additions of Bolland and Raymond have certainly paid off and I believe this success will continue for both players.

    I think if I could name one thing I like about this roster is the versatility of so many of our players. Players that can play center or wing, players that can switch wings, players that seem to fit well on any line etc. If this was part of Nonis's plan it was pretty smart thinking. We suddenly have several possible line combinations depending on our needs. For example Raymond, who has shown he can fit on any line, could move up with Lupul and Kadri when we need goals. Clarkson can move down to play with Kulemin and Bolland to form one heck of a shutdown line. Or Kadri with Kessel, Bolland with Lupul, Bozak ( the poster boy for versatility and averaging about 4 hits per game) with Clarkson. If I were Carlyle I'd be rubbing my hands together in glee just thinking of the possibilities. I like to think there will be a few coaches scratching their heads while they try to match lines with Randy. I can't predict the future for this group but I expect we'll see some good hockey this season. C,N,

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    1. Your observation re versatility is important, I think, C.N.- this roster seems to have flexibility, with guys who can play a number of roles and on different lines- Bolland, Raymond, Kulemin, etc.

      That's all good news. As you say, you can't tell for sure, but they should be a good team in the East, even with the issues they have. Thanks C.N.

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  5. I think it's too early to say what we have.

    Clarkson hasn't played yet nor has McLaren. We don't know for sure if Reilly is staying. As well as Reilly has played, we might not have room for him when Fraser gets back. Do we waste a year of his first contract when it really might not be that many games. There are the World Juniors are coming up and he turns 20 early next year. With the addition of Clarkson, McLaren and Fraser this might be a very different team in a few days.

    Broll has been good, but he is more of a protector than an instigator. He plays the game and fights when needed but it's more of a reationary thing when asked go or to defend a skilled player. Watch how he rises to defend top scorer, Nick Cousins:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CamTcPxjmr0

    Right now it looks like he wants to show that he can actually play hockey at an NHL level so he doesn't get pegged as a goon. However that ability to take a shift on the top 2 lines and defend a player like Kessel or Kadri will be very valuble in future years.


    One thing I do know is that I miss Leo Komorov. In that Chicago game he would have taken a good (legal)run at Toews, Kane, Keith or Seabrook. Chicago woul have to respond, which is more the Leaf's game and the Leafs would have been into the game rather than sleep walking while they watched Chicago pass the puck.

    Ashton went down and was a terror on Sunday. He had a goals for the Marlies and it could have been three.

    Brennan is tearing up the AHL. He is first in goals and second in scoring....as a defenceman. Liles is doing well too. There may be trades. We have lots of depth so it may take a while for that final playoff lineup to click into place.

    Let's discuss again when we get closer to the 20 game mark. 6-3 while you work on your game and refine your lineup is fine. Points in the bank, you can't take them away.

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    1. All excellent points- Komarov is a missing pice from a year ago, for sure. It will take time to know what we really are. Thank you, DP.

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  6. An interesting point from Elliott Friedman’s 30 Thoughts:

    "Same goes for Morgan Rielly in Toronto. The Penguins indicated the nine-game mark isn't as important to them with Olli Maatta. While playing 10 NHL games burns the first year of an entry-level contract, a player does not gain credit towards arbitration or free agency until the 40th game."

    Perhaps Rielly plays until the World Junior camp and then they bring up Liles and/or Brennan to be showcased for trade while Rielly is on loan to Team Canada?

    Use Rielly sparingly until his 20th birthday in the begining of March when they can send him to the AHL to play 25 minutes a night on the top pair and then back up for the playoffs.

    That would be about 40 regular season games? Sound like a Nonis plan?

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    1. I didn't know that about the 40th game scenario, DP- thanks.

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  7. I really like how consistent this team is - they are having a hard time with hot (Colorado) and great (Chicago) teams but they are beating the teams that have flaws and edging out decent teams like Ottawa and Montreal. Also, they are not getting blown out of rinks like they used to a few years ago. You know what to expect. I wouldn't be too worried about the lack of grit in the recent games - of course the team is looking like Ron Wilson's team - the guys on the active roster are Wilson's kind of guys - quick and flashy, not the banging/forechecking kind of guys that Carlyle likes to pepper through the lineup. Those guys are all hurt. I'm pretty confident that we'll get Carlyle's game back when Clarkson, Kuli Fraser and McLaren come back.

    That being said, there's still the issue of the roster having changed quite a bit over the summer and general youthfulness of the roster - it's gonna take a bit of time for this team to get cohesive - for the lines to get their plays worked out etc. the old '20 games in before we know what we've got' rule could not be more appropriate for this year' edition of Leafs. When and if our experienced
    players come back and the kids, however well they've done in relief, are back in minors where they belong, we'll have a much better idea of where we stand. I suspect we won't be disappointed.

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  8. The game against the Stanly Cup Champions reminded me a little of our first playoffs game against Boston - a young, inexperienced Leafs team walking into a battle with the seasoned, proven, well-coached behemoth on their turf. I had no hope that out guys will come back in the third and win but I was pleased to see them mount a push-back and give the Champs a scare. All was said when Kadri described the Hawks' transition game as "unbelievable" in the second intermission.

    I really like that kid - he knows the game well and gives credit where credit is due even though he's first to chirp the teams that don't have the kind of resume that Boston and Chicago do. If you're looking for a player that I would offer as a pleasant surprise this season it's him - he's growing into a very serious player - his passes are 'unbelievable' and he's still drawing penalties like it's nobody's business. He was a little slow out the gate but in the last two games he was doing everything right. I really think he's special and I think Carlyle is great for him.

    Reilly's been playing really well and I'm starting to think that we may need him to stay on to compensate for what appears to be a not-so-great evolution of Gunnarson, Ranger and even Gardiner. I wonder what T. J. Brennan might have to offer - he's actually lighting it up in the Marlies and the same cannot be said of Ranger who never really did. Out D is not looking great right now. I hope that changes.

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    1. Thanks for both posts today, leafdreamer. I think you're right that the club will take on that harder edge when the injured players are back.

      You make a point about Kadri that is often underestimated (and one of the reasons why Dave Keon was a great Leaf in the '60s and '70s): he draws so many penalties against the other team. That's a 'stat' that (maybe it's out there and I'm just not aware of it) that should get way more play than it does. Players that generate power play opportunities for their team don't get enough credit. And certain players (like Kadri) are very important in this regard- especially if, like a Keon, they also don't take penalties themselves. Thanks leaf dreamer!

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