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Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Kessel: one of the best lines in the Eastern Conference?

Those who visit VLM on a somewhat regular basis hopefully recognize that I try not to pump up the Leafs beyond what they deserve at any given time. I also endeavour not to be unduly critical of their on ice performance even when things look bleak. More often than not, I try to take a step back and offer a reasonably measured perspective on what I sense is happening with the club at any given time.

I like to think this approach demonstrates itself in my posts here, whether the commentaries have to do with the struggles of an individual player or are a response to public suggestions about the competence of the coach.

I guess after following this organization for well over fifty years, I tend to assume certain things:  if a guy is good enough to play in the NHL, they’ve gotten further than the rest of us and they’re likely pretty good at what they do.  And, if someone coaches at this level, he may have a clue as well, regardless of what we fans may sometimes think or suggest.

This is not to say that performance criticism from fans is not fair, whether it relates to players or coaches.  Of course it is.  That’s part of the fun of being a fan.  We get to second-guess decisions that the GM or coach makes. These individuals are all part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, and this generation’s athletes and coaches in particular are paid very well to do what they do.  Criticism comes with the territory.

From my end, I just usually try to wait to make sure I am really seeing what I think I’m seeing before I judge too quickly.  When I was younger, there were many times I would have advocated a trade, for example—and I’m talking about during the game. I wasn't so patient back then.

Nowadays, I’m not so quick to want to pull the trigger when it comes to making assessments. Confidence can be a fragile thing in sports, and a player who looks lost one day may be a very different athlete a month from now—and a lot of that comes down to health, confidence and being in the right spot at the right time, and being with a coach that appreciates what you do as a player.

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On the coaching side of things, this may explain my reluctance to jump on the anti-Carlyle bandwagon through much of this season.  This is not to say I haven’t questioned in this space what our coach is doing from to time, and wondered aloud if the suggestions of a coach-player disconnect were in fact accurate.

But as I’ve said here many times, Carlyle wants to win more than anyone.  His livelihood depends on it.  And, he might just know something about the game, having been a solid player himself for many years and also someone who has worked his way up through the coaching ranks.

Carlyle may be old-school in some ways, and reluctant to “change”, but at the moment, he is more likely to get coach-of-the-year consideration than a pink slip.  It’s amazing how quickly results can change the mood around a team. Is it possible that Carlyle has made adjustments and that’s part of the team’s recent success?

Some of you will recall that I said all last year that 2012-’13, short season that it was, was an experimental year for our coach.  He wanted and needed to see what he had. He tried players in different slots and situations. He wanted to see how guys responded.  While an imperfect blend (and many have said that, with a longer season, they would never have made the playoffs), the Leafs under Carlyle showed a lot in almost taking out the mighty Bruins in the first round.

This year has seen no end of fits and spurts (a great start to the season, wins wise, then a rather lengthy period of middlish and less than stellar play, and now the recent surge). Many would have been happy to see Carlyle dismissed three weeks ago and I understood that emotion.  But to repeat a point I’ve made here before:  this is his first full season behind the Leaf bench.  He needs to have his roster in place, relatively healthy, and then we can best assess how things have gone.

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This all leads me to my next statement or perhaps it's best presented as an observation—maybe even an opinion.  I don’t pretend to have an in depth knowledge of every team in the NHL, or even the Eastern Conference.  But from what I have seen, I can’t help but think that the Bozak-van-Riemsdyk-Kessel trio may just be one of the best lines in the Conference.  I suppose this is not exactly a “stop the presses” statement, eh? But here’s the thing.  For reasons some will see as fair or not, Tyler Bozak has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism in Toronto because he is not seen as a legitimate number-one center.  He does not have size, is not a 40 goal a year sniper and well, just doesn't present as that kind of player. The contract he signed last summer just seemed to make some Leaf followers even more frustrated with the organization' commitment to hims (especially given that fan favourite Mikhail Grabovski was seen my many as having been given the short straw by the coach).  I myself have referred to Bozak here many times as a “nice” player, which is a compliment, but admittedly not a major endorsement.

All that said, here’s what Bozak seems to be, or at least has become:  a player who is highly intuitive, who sees the ice well.  He can forecheck. He uses his speed to get into the “right” places. (See, as recent examples, his late-game forecheck against the Lightning this past Tuesday that set up van Riemsdyk’s winning goal and his heading to the net to bury Kessel’s pass that cemented Toronto’s win over Ottawa late Saturday night.) He is inarguably a defensive conscience on his line, takes all kinds of important draws (though I believe his numbers are down this year in terms of winning face-offs).  He kills penalties, and seems to make Phil Kessel even better offensively than he already is.  (Maybe if Kessel played with the classic number-one center type, he wouldn’t have the impact he does with the Leafs. Who knows?)

Maybe most importantly, the coach trusts Bozak. That’s huge for a coach, to be able to look down the bench and feel comfortable with who you are about to send out there.  And my guess is, when it comes to reliability, in the mind of the current Leaf coach, Bozak may be in the top three Leafs that Carlyle naturally turns to either to get the team going or to help get them out of a rut.

I don’t have the “numbers” in front of me, but it seems hard to ignore that some of the Leafs' worst stretches this season have come when Bozak is out of the lineup.  I won’t try to argue that he is their most valuable player (again, I’m talking about at the moment; I have no idea how the team will perform the rest of the way) but he is a very crucial piece of the puzzle because he centers the best line the Leafs can throw out there.

As a whole, this has been a dynamite unit. Kessel is almost always a threat, even the nights he is not fully on his game.  He scored from his off wing Saturday night, a power play winner on a nice little setup by Morgan Rielly.  For his part, against Tampa the other night, van Riemsdyk absolutely buried his chance to win the game.  He has become a very dangerous player in and around the opposition crease area, not only in creating screens but because his deft hands in close create goal scoring opportunities seemingly out of nothing.

They can all skate and make plays at high speed.  Right now, they are causing trouble for whoever is trying to contain them.

The Leafs overall, and this line in particular, have been finding ways to get those goals late in the game that make the difference between winning and losing.  That’s usually a sign of confidence. If they fall behind, they know they can come back- another sign of a confident squad.

And right now, these three look about as confident as players can.  The pucks are going in—that always helps. And Bozak’s presence on that unit allows Kadri to do his thing on the second line and  Kadri's numbers have seemingly skyrocketed since Bozak returned to the lineup. Even with Bolland’s absence, Bozak’s return to health has allowed Carlyle to move the roster pieces around such that McClement, for example, can take on a less onerous responsibility most nights.

While there are no guarantees of continued success, Bolland’s return should provide Carlyle with even more options going forward.

It’s easy, I realize, to get carried away with optimism and over-the-top assessments when the Leafs win some games—just as it is natural to find the worst in the squad when they struggle, as they did not that long ago. But right now, this team is playing much more like I envisioned last fall when I suggested here before the season started that they could be a top-six team in the Eastern Conference, maybe even higher than that.  That’s hardly a prediction now—we all recognize that just as quickly as a team gets hot, they can turn stone cold.  And if that were to happen again, we’ll be talking about the Leafs just making the playoffs rather than earning a top seed and home ice advantage heading into round one of the spring dance.

So setting aside the relative euphoria of a Leaf streak (what are they know, 9-1-1 or so in their last eleven games?) do you believe the Bozak-van Riemsdyk-Kessel trio is indeed among the finest in the Conference, or is this just me looking through Leaf-coloured eyes?



25 comments:

  1. I would go so far to say that not only is Bozak's line one of the top lines in the East but one of the top lines in the League. If Bozak continues on his current scoring pace he would finish the year with 20+ goals and 70+ points. Not Crosby numbers, but not that bad either. If you think of three of the top lines, (Crosby, Toews, and Getzlaf) the key individual is the centre, so the wingers have to compliment the centre. In Toronto's case the key player is the right winger and the line needs a centre that compliments Kessel. Looking at the problems Kessel and JVR had while Bozak was injured you would have to think that he is a catalyst for their line, his skill set is what Kessel needs.

    One of the knocks against Bozak is size, he is 6' 1" and 195 lbs. not a giant but not exactly tiny either. Doug Gilmour, Stan Makita, and Dave Keon weren't giants either but they had great careers at a time when the NHL was just as rough and tumble as it is now. At their current pace this line could score 90+ goals and 200+ points not to shabby by a long shot.

    The biggest hurdle for Bozak was adjusting to the amount of games played in a NHL season, coming from College hockey, where they play a lot less games than they do in Junior, the AHL, and the NHL. He didn't have the advantage of playing a year or two in the AHL where he could learn how to adjust to the large increase in games played, the extra practice time and the travelling which all takes a toll on the player. Bozak had to adjust and learn how to play in the NHL while trying to be a number one NHL centre on a bad team that was under intense scrutiny 24/7. The most surprising thing is that Bozak actually survived his indoctrination into the NHL, a lesser man would not have.

    Watching Bozak now, you see him do things that he didn't, or couldn't do in the past, he has grown as a player, and in my opinion he has not only become a first line centre, but a very good one.

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    1. I agree that Bozak's perseverance in learning/adjusting to the pro game on the fly has been exemplary. He has just continued to get better and better and clearly is an important part of the Leaf lineup. Size is not the sole ingredient in being a top player and he has enough other attributes to have made himself a valuable commodity. Thanks for posting, mrj.

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  2. Do you believe the Bozak-van Riemsdyk-Kessel trio is indeed among the finest in the Conference?

    Yes, and my best comparison has a recent historical reference.

    Many people get hung up on giving the line a higher rating because Tyler Bozak is not the big Ryan Getzlaf-type center that the wish for. To these people I say three words: Naslund, Morrison, Bertuzzi.

    That line (the West Coast Express, as it was known) was a high scoring line that was dominant and considered to be one of the best lines in hockey during its tenure.

    Morrison wasn't a big center, but like Bozak, he could play both ways and the line clicked. I like t to think of Bozak as Patrice Bergeron lite. JVR gives our Leaf line the net presence of Bertuzzi, with better speed and hands, but not quite the nastiness. Kessel has the speed and one of the top 5 shots in the NHL.

    Give Carlyle some credit for developing the line because many would have played it safe with Lupul in JVR's place.

    Part of the problem with this line (in terms of recognition) is perspective. When you only watch the Leafs and see Kadri and Lupul on the second line getting highlight goals, you can forget how good the Kessel line is. I have been watching some other games and teams to check the playoff race and I find myself bored and bewildered. I find myself wondering: "What's wrong with these guys? Why are they so slow? Why can't they convert on their chances? They need a big skilled guy to tip pucks."

    I type this all with a smile on my face, because tonight I am packing my bags with sandals, a Leafs jersey and sun tan lotion. I am leaving tomorrow morning to go to Florida for a vacation. I timed this right and planed everything well. I already have box tickets for Tuesday's game against the Pathers. (what a deal $30 each!) So after all these years of following the Leafs on the cold of the Prairies, I am finally off to see just my second live Leafs game in a warmer climate.

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    1. The Canuck example is absolutely on the money, DP. And you're right, too often people only see the Leafs (myself included) and as a result we don't have the perspective to place their work in some kind of context.

      Enjoy Florida, by the way- let us know how the game goes (in person!) down south.

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    2. DP- I watched the Habs game where the only player willing to stand in front of the net was little Gallagher. It was frustrating to watch.
      Have a wonderful trip! ( Some of us are jealous) C.N.

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  3. I agree that this is a very successful line and Bozak plays an important part. They are simply built differently than the usual top line. Bozak knows Kessel well and has adjusted how he plays accordingly, playing both the center role and moving to the wing to work the boards. Because the three are familiar with each other, Tyler is able to anticipate where he should be. If he's not the most talented player, I think he's a very smart player. He's not the toughest player but he's very good with his stick, plays a lot of minutes with energy and has a extremely positive attitude. As mrj stated, he compliments Kessel and JVR and enables them to do what they do best.

    In points per game Bozak sits at around 16th, ahead of quite a few of the leagues best top centers. Some insist his points are from playing with Kessel but most of those goals wouldn't happen without Tyler doing his job effectively.

    Several "experts" have stated the Leafs, at some point, must have that big, goal-scoring center if they are ever to compete for the cup but I'm not so sure a different center could adjust as well as Tyler to fit Phil's exciting, rather unique style. For now, this line works and it's one dangerous line. C.N.

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    1. I think the Leafs missed Bozak when he was injured during the Boston series and we certainly missed him when he was out for a while earlier this year. You're right, he's a smart player who does lots of little things well. Thanks Colleen.

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  4. I think you do an excellent job of balancing your comments and avoiding the excessive highs and lows respecting the flow of a season, Michael. It is not surprising that your comments about the top line (and Bozak, in particular) are measured, yet optimistic.

    I rarely watch other teams unless they are playing the Leafs, but even so, I don't believe I've seen many lines control their shift as well as our number one has been doing (increasingly) consistently as the year progresses. Yes, there has been some stellar play from many top lines, but I can't think of many that 'get you out of your seat' with the sheer excitement and 'suddenness' of the attack provided by our guys.

    I suppose my next comment is actually a nod to Dion Phaneuf, because I think I'd truly have to see the top line play against Phaneuf to get a sense of how they measure up to the other top lines... it may well be that Phaneuf is the reason I'm not to thrilled about any of the Eastern conference competition at this point... I would suggest that says a lot about Dion's contribution to 'measure-ability'.

    All in all, I'm increasingly satisfied with the growing capability and confidence of this squad and am hoping that Randy's opportunity to 'find out what he has' is about to show us just what kind of coach he really is in the stretch run to a playoff run (of a couple rounds) that I'd like to see as evidence of the progress we hope we're seeing!

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    1. Thanks, InTimeFor62. Your comments not only regarding that line but Phaneuf ring true.

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  5. First off, though this streak has been fun, it's prudent with this team to not get too high on the wins until we see some top 6 opponents. As we said the other day, the addition of Gleason and the emergence of the second line as a scoring unit seem to have juiced us, and winning doesn't hurt in amping up the confidence and energy, right? What I've liked in the past two games is that I felt the first line (particularly) was determined we wouldn't lose, even when we were behind, and upped the level of their play accordingly.
    And when this line is going, as they have been since Bozak returned, they look mighty good. As you know, I'm one of Bozak's supporters, and have often said that I think he's improved every year. This year he's really showing what he brings to the table. Great set-up guy for both JvR and Kessel, and able to score when the opportunity presents itself (his play on the 5th Leaf goal last night was fantastic), responsible backckecker... what's not to like? Maybe his face-off work hasn't been quite as stellar this year as last, but he's still doing a prime time job.
    Is this line one of the best in the Conference? Yes. Right now. They're dangerous every shift. All three of them share that intuition about where the others will be that is only seen on great lines. They've been a pleasure to watch, and many of the goals have been beauties. I've been trying to remember the last time Leafs had a similar line, where all three players seemed to be on the same wavelength. I don't think Sundin ever had two simpatico wingers. Sittler/MacDonald/Thompson? Michael - can you remember one from the 60's?
    My delight in this line is somewhat tempered by the fact that they've been allowed to freewheel quite a bit recently. They'll start to receive considerably more physical attention after the Olympic break, I have a feeling. Let's hope they - and equally importantly, the second line - can continue their great play. When opponents can't load up defensively against just one line of ours, it makes both of them more dangerous.
    My other worry, off topic: even though we've been having a great run, we're about to see the return of Clarkson, and the departure of some current roster players (from the sound of it). I remember when Sundin couldn't play against the Senators during the playoffs, and the team rose to the challenge and defeated Ottawa. But when Sundin returned, it seemed the team chemistry fell apart. Our team seems to be developing a solid chemistry right now... I'm feeling trepidatious, as Danny Gallivan might have said, about what's in store for our high octane play when the mix is reformulated.

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    1. I agree, Gerund O', it's wise to temper expectations when things are going your way. No doubt the schedule will pose a challenge in terms of better opposition down the road, and the playoffs, for sure. And yes, we'll see how tweaking the roster helps or hinders things.

      Your reference to Sittler, McDonald and Thompson is a very good one. That was indeed a dangerous line, and actually stayed together for quite a while in the mid-'70s until Thompson was traded to the Red Wings in 1978.

      In the '60s, Punch did not always keep full set lines, as I recall. In the early part of the decade, Mahovlich played with Kelly and Keon with Duff a lot. Pulford's line had more of a checking role. But in terms of a regular trio that was out there year after year, I don't think we really had that very often. The Leafs were not, as you know, a scoring machine like the Habs or the Hawks in the '60s.

      I admired Danny Gallivan so you know I would like a "word" like trepidatious! Thanks Gerund!

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  6. I would echo what InTimeFor62 stated about you being able balance your comments without so many of the high and low hysterics of many of the want it all now fans in this day and age. (Great user name by the way ITF62 :) ). I think it comes with maturity (read: age) somewhat as I find myself much more even keeled than I was in my youth but even then I can go off half cocked at times on things. The rational discussion, great points and lack of flame wars is why I really enjoy this forum.

    No doubt the Leafs top line is one of the best in the league. 'Nuff said:) As for the big point getting centre?? They tend to be setup guys moreso than just pure snipers and bring other intangibles to the line. Sounds like someone we know on the Leafs top line except perhaps a bit smaller in stature. Kessel likes to carry the puck so when you pair him with someone else who prefers to carry the puck the line dynamic fails. Look at the experiment with Kadri as an example.

    As to your comment Michael about RC and having his roster in place and then assessing how good of a job he has done. I would present the point that being a coach is as much about managing your team through the challenges of missing players as much as when the majority of the team is healthy. I came across a great site that shows man games lost to injury as well as other interesting tidbits.

    http://www.mangameslost.com/nhl-man-games-lost-chip-tmitt-january-30-2014/

    The Leafs are 13th in mangames lost to injury in the league to date. They are 2nd in mangames lost to suspensions and if you take out Clarkson's 10 games they would still be 5th highest. So it isn't like they are any worse off than a number of teams. How well has RC managed through this situation? I would say not bad not great. When you have to mix in kids or non regular starters it can be a challenge to find the right mix without a doubt but here is my main concern. He won't dress a 4th line that plays very often or often enough. With the injuries/suspensions the Leafs have had that only compounds the challenge. During out slump the whole team looked tired. This year player management is going to be more important than most.

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    1. I think your point on player management is a great one, Pep. And I would not want VLM readers to think I'm simply giving Carlyle a pass. It's true, good, well-coached teams in any sport have to have depth (General Manager's job) but the coach has to be able to deal effectively with a changing roster. Most really good squads to battle through injuries.

      Carlyle is not without his flaws, and views along those lines have been batted around plenty in other forums, I'm sure, from the headlines and comments I see in passing on social media.

      At the end of the day, regular season success means precious little. Good teams have to win when it counts, in the spring. At the end there can be only one team standing and that's fine, but the Leafs, to get to the next level, need not only to make the playoffs but do something notable once they get there. And then we can perhaps better judge how good our first line is, for example, and if the coach has done a good job. Thanks Pep.

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    2. Glad you like the moniker, Pep, it was such a meme in my family that when I first posted, it just seemed the most descriptive way to sign off. As time has passed, I even thought to make it easier as ITF62, to save Michael, and others, some typing time - perhaps it would be a good short form as a nickname, for any responses :) should others choose to follow your lead.

      It has always been fun for me to 'tell the story' of my father's humorous hopes to see the game on the day of my birth. That it actually happened in time has been the fodder for many smiles over the years. This site really makes me think of him and his role in my life, including Leaf fandom/memories. Gone but not forgotten...

      Is there a story behind 'Pep', too?

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  7. I think Vanek - Tavares - Okposo and Kunitz - Crosby - warm body give our top line a run for their money in the East, but there's no denying they've been the hottest in the league over the past 10-12 games.

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    1. Yes, I've noticed the Islander forward line putting up a lot of points lately, Anon. And Crosby's line is always dangerous.

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  8. Bozak wasn't one of my favorites either, but he has definitely won me over. As was said here and by a lot of other media and ex-coaches of his, he does a whole bunch of things very well, and I think it shows in the standings. If we really watch, and start taking count, he dishes some really nice passes to his linemates, that shows great vision. I also don't have the numbers, but I see our team playing much better with him in the lineup.
    And that brings me to another observation. Again with no numbers, but do we play worse when Clarkson is in the lineup? Is it just me? I see him on the ice skating almost with no direction, his stick almost always high in the air, big circles. Sort of reminds me of the Tasmanian Devil. Running around, wide-eyed and drooling. How can he play hockey with his stick constantly over his head?
    The worst stretches of the Leafs play have been with him healthy and in the lineup. This can't be what they paid for, is it? If so, than have fun trying to get out of here Mr. Nonis.
    With Bolland coming back, we should get better. The race is on. I think we can make it.

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    1. I'll continue to trust that Clarkson will find his form and his place on a regular line at some point, portuguese leaf. Bolland's return will be welcome at any point! Thanks for visiting, as always.

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  9. Short answer to your question, yes indeed this is one of the top number one lines in the conference, and even in the league. I can't pretend to know the dynamics of other teams like I do the Leafs, I spend enough time watching the Leafs games and really don't have much other time to spare to watch other games around the league. I also will not try too hard to look at hard statistics on other teams to proclaim that their players are indeed doing well strictly based on their point totals or plus/minus numbers. I can, however, compare this line to Leafs front lines of the recent past and say that I have not seen the Leafs not only produce with the bottom line (scoring), but intimidate opponents and force them to play to their game. Over the past few years, as Bozak was developing, Kessel was still shrugging off whispers about the trade, and they had not settled on much of an identity or even who would be on the line, we saw the Leafs physically outmatched, hemmed in their zone, and the offense go silent for long stretches.

    This season we have seen intangibles in this group that I believe is the fruition of developing their chemistry. Kessel backchecking, Bozak working hard deep in the offensive zone to dig the puck out, speed out of their own zone that has kept defenses backpedaling. If they ever counted assists as I always felt they should, that being a player who contributes to a goal by making the check, creating the turnover, or screening the goaltender, then van Riemsdyk would be among the league leaders in scoring.

    I know we shouldn't get too ahead of ourselves during a hot streak, as you mentioned you do try to keep this tempered with objectivity, and certainly Kessel will not keep scoring two points a game for the rest of the season. But all the criticisms we have had about our own squad here, fair as it may have been along the way, have been quieted by a group that can flat out play well together.

    Even looking at the raw statistics, I sometimes have to remind myself that this is not the 1980's anymore and a forward scoring 60-70 points a season means a whole lot more than it used to. Bozak is on his way to that level this year (pro-rated) and I don't believe it's simply by accident of playing with Kessel. He has been earning his points as much as the rest of the line.

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    1. Your second paragraph- and reference to JVR's numbers based on your formula - rings true for me, Pete. There are a lot of ways to contribute to goals that players don't get credit for on the official scorecard and stat sheet.

      And I think it's fair to say that the line is back checking pretty hard most nights. When you see Kessel (and at other times, players like Kadri and his line mates) back near our crease, you know Carlyle is getting through to them about two-way play. Or they just recognize that if you want to win, you need to play at both ends of the ice. Thanks Pete.

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  10. For those interested, there is a very good video on TSN / NHL-The Breakdown that shows the Leafs 1st line as one of the best and why Bozak is so important for their success. (I know you don't care for the talking heads, Michael, but it was interesting. As usual, it takes the experts longer to see things we saw a long time ago). C.N.

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  11. Arrived in Florida safe and sound, listened to Leafs Lunch out at the pool...a good day so far. It's 87 degrees

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    1. I'll simply say it's not 87 Farenheit where I am, DP- but I do hope you have a great couple of weeks!

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  12. I'm still trying to convince myself I like -20.
    Have any of you seen the wee Hobbit beds for Team Canada in Sochi? It really does look like they're expecting the seven dwarfs or Team Hobbiton from Middle Earth. I think Martin St. Louis is the only player that could fit in one. C.N.

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  13. Michael, I know you have spoken with James Mirtle in the past and I thought you might enjoy a well-written article on Phil Kessel. It also reminded me of something I wasn't thinking about when I wondered about Phil's endurance/fitness... he seems to have elite 'fast twitch' muscles, built for sprinting and quick releases. So, he has to be aware of his shift length to continue being so effective.

    Here's the link:
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/leafs-beat/mirtle-secrets-of-kessels-success-include-unique-stick-and-deceptive-strength/article16677523/?click=tglobe

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