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The Leaf home opener against the Sabres: some good and some OK

We all have to guard against over-analyzing the first few games in this NHL season.  Given that some of these guys haven’t played a game in earnest in months, and other have been playing but at lower levels, it makes sense that there will be some fits and starts to the season for most NHL teams.  The Leafs will not likely be an exception.

Leaf followers knew that Saturday’s win in Montreal, while certainly not a mirage, came against a team with not much offense and weakened by the loss of one of their only “stars”—young defenseman P.K. Subban.  The Leafs hung tough and were deserving of the win against the Habs, though we wouldn’t have wanted that game to last a lot longer.

After some entertaining ceremonial pre-game festivities Monday at the ACC, highlighted by the presence of Darryl Sittler, Felix Potvin, Darcy Tucker and 88 year-old Johnny Bower (Bower, shown in his playing days at right, was supposed to have been part of the old-timers game prior to the Winter Classic in Michigan a few weeks ago, had the silly lockout not cancelled the contest…), fans settled in for the home opener, looking forward to NHL hockey but also to a first-hand look at the new Leafs: Komarov, Kostka, van Riemsdk, McClement and Fraser.

Toronto was looking to build on their Saturday night victory and this one looked a lot like, well, a lot like early-season games the last few years under Ron Wilson.  The Leafs fell behind early and made a late charge.  Sometimes they came all the way back last year.  Monday night, they almost did, but fell short.

There was lots of skating and plenty of scoring chances.  Kessel couldn't find the net in the first two periods and came close again in the dying seconds.  Toronto hit some posts.  They had four power plays in succession in the first period.  They moved the puck pretty well at times.  The Sabres scored a bit of a funky one in the first period, and then added a marker in the second, after the Leafs had held a lot of the play.

Miller has not won at the ACC in a while, but he played very well.  Sometimes you get the feeling early in the game that a goalie is feeling right, moving easily and anticipating the play very well.  Miller seemed to have all that and more going for him against the Leafs. 

When Kadri scored on the power play late in the third, the Leaf showed more energy and jump than they had most of the night.  The Sabres were hanging on, having played on Sunday afternoon.  The Leafs came close, but couldn't manage the equalizer.

Now, for what little it’s worth, I’m neither overly excited or unduly discouraged by anything I’ve seen in the first two games of the season.  Some early observations, in no particular order:

  • Scrivens has been fine.  Not much extraordinary, not too much to make me yell out loud in frustration.
  • Kostka remains an intriguing player.  He gave up the puck mid-way through the third period under pressure in his own zone and the Sabres almost converted to make it 3-0.  But he seems like one of those guys that just loves to play the game, and he does so with confidence, and even, I would dare say, a bit of flair.  If he doesn’t get over-coached (and if people don’t start telling him ‘don’t do this and don’t do that’), he may be fine. You have to love how he flew through the air to try to prevent a puck he thought was going into the Leaf net in the third period. 27 minutes of ice team for a guy I thought was a "filler" signing?  Who'd have thought...
  • I’m not sure there is much difference between our second line (Grabbo, Kulemin and MacArthur) and our third line (Komarov, Kadri and van Riemsdyk). I would not be stunned of Carlyle switched van Riemsdyk and Kulemin going forward to try and get a bit more out of those two.
  • I’m mildly concerned that Kulemin seems, I don't know, just not really there.  He didn’t make much of an effort to cover the point (much less make an aggressive effort to block the shot) on Buffalo’s first goal, and was easily knocked off the puck by Vanek which led to the second Sabre goal. I thought Kulemin started moving his feet a bit better in the third period against the Sabres.
  • Kessel looks like Kessel.  Two assists in Montreal, good scoring chances against Buffalo.  As I’ve said here the last few seasons, with Kessel, sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in the net.  His effort is usually much the same.
  • Phaneuf continues to play huge minutes, just as he did in the Wilson era. He broke up a number of dangerous rushes by the Sabres Monday night.  Like last season, he has started the season well again.
  • Kadri is dangerous on the power play.  He should make his presence felt as he becomes accustomed to his teammates and the timing required to make the PP hum.
  • Komarov has basically been as advertised. 
  • Bozak was much better on the faceoffs Monday night, and won a lot of key late draws in the third period when the Leafs were trying to tie the game.
  • It’s a bit early to know how van Riemsdyk is settling in.
  • Gunnarsson hasn’t been awful.  Not sure he is at his best yet, not surprisingly.  Gunner is usually the guy the Leafs want to settle down a defense partner who is struggling.
  • I’m maybe missing something, but Grabovski has not been prominent, or even that noticeable to me so far.  He usually stands out in Montreal and he’s been fairly quiet these first couple of games.
  • Carlyle appears to be playing his fourth line precious little.  Not surprisingly, McClement’s killing penalties, so Orr and Brown have mostly seen limited duty, but they can be effective on the forecheck.
  • At least twice against Buffalo I noticed Kadri back and in very good position to make a key defensive play.
  • The fact that Carlyle put Kadri on the ice as the extra man when Scrivens was pulled (after Kadri had just been on the ice) tells us that Carlyle sees Kadri—for now at least—as one of his more dangerous offensive performers.  That Kadri drove to the net and scored on a rebound off the backboards on the faceoff after the ensuing Kaleta penalty was a bit of hockey justice.

Did Phaneuf, Kostka, Kadri, Bozak, Lupul and Kessel leave the ice in the last two plus minutes?  Old time hockey, eh? Almost firewagon hockey.   I liked to see that.  No obsession with changing players after 30 seconds. They were playing on adrenaline.

Not much rest before Game 3 in Pittsburgh.  Hope they get some sleep.


  1. It would appear that Grabbo, Kulie and MacArthur are so focused upon their shut down role, that we really aren't seeing them as much as I expected to notice them. Though I didn't catch the missed assignment on the goal, I did notice that Kulemin seems to be finishing his checks more than I remember. Hope they are more (positively) noticeable in the future.

    I wonder if the loss of the "A" is affecting Grabovski at all?! It makes me wonder if there's more to your observations behind the scenes. When Grabbo signed for the highest pay on the Leafs, I wondered if that was done because there wasn't a good enough trade available before the deadline.

    That said, I wonder if his paycheck messes up the salary structure for the team as the future approaches (sort of like I felt when Luke Schenn signed for 6-800,000 more than I thought would be appropriate). BTW, it bothers me how I now focus upon paychecks more than ever in my fan-dom.

    I'm wondering if there's not a blockbuster in the offing that would include at least G and K where we transition the former's salary (especially) into that first line C we need... then, I could see Bozak available on the top line in the event of injury, but transitioning to the shutdown role quite effectively (with improving excellence in the faceoff circle and good defensive responsibility, too).

    Having 5 years on a new Grabbo contract might be enticing for a package to Anaheim (if they are unable to re-up Getzlaf and Perry, for instance) or even the Islanders (if my other DiPietro-laden Tavares wish could come true with other options than I mentioned before).

    I hope that whatever may happen, we will be so happy with the result, that we could endure the loss of them - but, even if it's not Grabbo and Kulie, I do think change is a-comin' in any case.

    PS With LA apparently losing big, right-handed Mike Greene for the year, I wonder if one of our righties would be willing to go to the reigning cup champions (if they needed to be asked... hint, hint). My speculations are in mid-season form :)

  2. Well that was frustrating. Still too early for any real conclusions, but Kadri has made a pleasant impression, and at the moment it looks like he'll finally get an actual shot at it.

    Komarov has been okay, but he can do better once he finds his groove. He has shown a bit of energy, but he's not going to make anyone really angry just by throwing his rather meager weight around. I expect him to switch to a bigger gear sooner or later.

    Scrivens has done enough to keep Reimer on the bench thus far. Against Pittsburgh, he may well need to show more. What I like about our goaltending situation, is that they'll actually have to compete for the starting position, neither will get a free pass if they don't play well.

    Grabbo, Kulemin and JVR need to start showing up more. Same for Lupul. They have all looked more or less like they're just going through the motions over the first two games, and that's just not sustainable for any length of time, the season being what it is.

    No reason (or time) to mull over a single loss with the first bout against one of the projected heavyweights already bearing down on us. Shift to a bigger gear, and the Penguins can be beaten.

  3. Nothing wrong with a little speculation, InTimeFor62. I do wonder, though, if Nonis will be patient, recognizing that this season, for the Leafs, is more about development than winning a championship.

    You make a very good point about contracts: I, too, bemoan the fact that we, as fans, have all become accountants and lawyers. We now judge a player's value by how much he makes, and our frustration levels rise with the paycheck. To a certain extent this has always been the case, but we now have become experts at assessing how much every player is worth. It's an unfortunate by-product of the modern world of sports and economics.

  4. I'm with you, CGLN- Pittsburgh can be beaten. I think every team in the East can be beat on any given night.

    As for your specific observations, I agree that Komarov is still just finding his way. He can likely be better. The players you mention all can find a higher gear. Some of it, as InTimeFor62 noted, may be due to players trying to do their job in Carlyle's demanding system. We'll see.

    Can you believe Kostka played more than 27 minutes?

  5. MIchael,

    That was a little more of what I expect to happen this season. A low scoring, tight checking affair, where the goalies either win the game for their team or they do not. Scrivens did not, Miller did. Not really too much else to say about it. Other than, it looks like other teams in the East are better than Montreal. Buffalo to me, seems like a lock to make the playoffs. Barring injuries of course.

  6. Yes, it does look like the Sabres should be competitive this season, Jim. Miller kind of stole one, which goalies will do when they are on their game. Not that the Leafs played extremely well. They were "fine", again. No more, no less. If a couple of those shots found the mark last night, they could have won. (And there would likely be a lot of optimism this morning, no doubt.) Better to keep our expectations modest, and be pleasantly surprised when things go well!

  7. I for one smelled shutout for Miller during the first period. Goalies just get hot some times, and they feel it, the opponent feels it, and you get the sense it's just his day. It's hard to criticize an offense that fires 35 shots at a goalie. If there was anything negative about that performance, it was just that they played in to Buffalo's shutdown mode in the third period, and were launching harmless shots from the outside rather than try to set up good scoring chances.

    Defensively pretty solid again, a bit of a defensive breakdown on the second goal, otherwise they are so far steady and focused.

    You bring up Kulemin in your post. I am starting to think about him again, much as was discussed at the end of last year, and where is he headed? My belief is still that Kulemin can be quite an effective checking line player. He is not a 30 goal scorer, that was a fluke year and needs to be forgotten. So I like the idea of him dropping to the third line, working the penalty kill, a defined role that he can focus on rather than keep clutching his stick and wondering why the puck isn't going in the net. Then van Riemsdyk can move up to a scoring line where he belongs.

    Okay I'll stop my analysis there. Yes you're right, it is early yet, and the lineup is likely not to look the same in a couple weeks as it did opening night. I remain encouraged by the direction of this team though!

  8. You're on the money with Kulemin, Pete, at least in my view. I have no problem, as I mentioned in my post, switching him with van Riemsdyk. I think van Riemsdyk needs to play on a "scoring" line and Kulemin can help out anywhere, but a more defined checking role makes sense, as you alluded to.

    Mostly, I'd like to see Kulemin use his body more. He has the size, just needs to use it more often.

    It's fair to be encouraged. We appear to be in a familiar situation: a middlish team responds to the demands of a new coach. For now, it's all good.

  9. If rumors that Vancouver's asking price for Luongo was Bozak, Kadri and a 2nd, then based on what I am seeing, I am feeling good that it did not transpire. I watched some of the replay of the Jets vs. Boston game last night and felt queasy watching Rask, Seguin and Hamilton playing for the same team. Hamilton looked very good to me at the NHL level. Did Burke not refer to his pick as a "throw in" for Kessel at one point? Talk about overpaying ...! I am wondering if we have successfully loaded up the Bruins for another run at the Cup? I was going to look up the definition of hubris again in the dictionary, but I was afraid of seeing that face staring back at me from the illustration. I read something funny this morning in a comment on a National Post article: In Bobby Orr's book by Stephen Brunt, they asked Stafford Smythe why the Leafs didn't sign Orr? Smythe said " Because all my employees are f--king idi--ts." 45 years later, nothing has changed." I guess we are all living in eternal hope that it has or some day will change.

  10. Interesting that you said that about the Boston boys, Bobby C.. I also noted that Hamilton, in only his second game with the Bruins, logged significant minutes.

    Now we can say the Bruins are rushing him, because he is still only 19, if I'm not mistaken. I'm not a fan of playing kids on the blueline very often. But if he plays with someone like Chara, or at least a solid, mature veteran, he may learn the ropes the right way, without the expectations foisted on someone like, say, Luke Schenn.

    I've been thinking about a post which reflects some Maple Leaf "what if's". Your comment today may nudge me along.

    And yes, being a Leaf supporter is about hope, for sure, Bobby. Talk soon.

  11. The bad trades really irk me because I think that most of us would be smarter ... maybe it's the pressure of the job? I fear my previous post may sound too implicitly harsh ... especially given that we have had some top notch managers in the past, like Quinn, for example. Burke too might come up smelling like roses, in the fullness of time.

  12. just in response to bobby craig...

    as things have played-out, boston did seem to end-up receiving some terrific players in exchange for kessel... however three quick things: 1) hindsight is 20/20 (if the leafs performed as we all hoped, or even SLIGHTLY better than how they ended-up performing, those picks to boston would not have been lottery-picks), 2) phil kessel IS 'elite talent,' who scores goals, and is easily the most exciting player on the ice for toronto any given night. 3) leafs brass must be equally dissatisfied overall, as burke's now sitting in the corner of sub-basement B.

    i think it's time to move-on about the kessel trade, or else it'll just eat us up inside!

    cheers! (go leafs!)

  13. I understand Bobby C.'s point, Alex, but I also see what you are saying. I think the error that was made at the time was in vastly over-estimating the team's roster. That's what makes the trade difficult for some Leaf fans to fully accept. And that is not a 20-20 hindsight argument. That is more: your GM is supposed to be sharp, and shrewd- not desperate. He should have known (unlike enthusiastic fans) the team would bottom out- and it did. And yes, it cost us two (likely) prime-time players in return for one. (And we don't even know if Kessel will be here in two years, whereas Seguin and Hamilton will be in Boston for a long time...)

    So as you say, Leaf fans can move on for our mental health- though it's hard to ignore the history, as talented as Kessel is. Thanks Alex.

  14. thanks michael, good point about burke coming across as 'desperate.'

    (i should have also mentioned that i'm no burke-apologist. i just think for our mental-health sake, us fans need to say 'well... here we are,' as opposed to grinding our gears 24/7 about how burke used the leafs as his own personal human-craps game. he's gone now, so let's hope for a fresh start moving forward).

  15. Agreed, Alex. Part of my job here, though, is to try to provide somewhat objective (and contextual) commentary. That means I can't ignore the recent past when assessing the current Leafs. But I hear you, I do.

  16. I agree, it is pointless in a way to dwell on the past. However, history does provide lessons that are either learned from or not. Part of my point was that the Leafs did not bite on overpaying for Luongo, and I am relieved that they did not. Lesson learned? I do not know. While I found the Kessel trade too risky from the getgo, what troubled me more was the probably unnecessary "throw in" of the Hamilton pick. That was really tossing the dice because at that point you are into multiple players when you had already satisfied the restricted free agent criteria.

    I recall a TSN shot of Burke sheepishly cringing when Boston announced Hamilton's name on draft day. Now, why would he be cringing? Alex is probably right from a mental health standpoint it is best to let bygones be bygones. However, when management makes these gambles they are probably thinking of immediate returns. As fans, it is important to register our disapproval when the gamble does not pay off, so that they understand the long term cost is not just compromised team performance but opprobrium as well. Maybe I am mistaken, but I hang onto the hope that our opinions about past failure can weigh on their prudence in the present.

    Is this illusory thinking? Maybe, but where do you think journalists go for a measure of fan's opinions and attitudes? I am pretty sure they are not out canvassing opinions on Carleton Street. Do you think that George Cope didn't hear about the allusions to Harold Ballard reverberating across the Barilkosphere? In other words, our disapproval of wanton and cavalier behavior in the past could well provide a measure of control over future actions as well.

  17. It's fair to say that fans have every right to express their views, Bobby C., and not simply to blow off steam. Management can claim they don't care what fans think, but they do- to some extent, at least. And if we can, in even a small way, help shape a vision for the future, whatever that may be, that is a good thing.

    Thoughtfully said, thank you, Bobby.

  18. Impressions from last night:
    - Yes, Miller stole one for the Sabres. Until we have a goalie who can steal one for us, we won't compete in the top tier. Having said that, Scrivens really only got beat once. Hodgson's goal was one of those fluke bounces. On the Buffalo feed of the game, they made it sound like he did it on purpose! Ha!
    - Kadri and Kostka look very comfortable so far. I'll be interested to see how they stack up once everyone has played 20+ games. From what I could gather on TV, Holzer and Fraser didn't embarrass themselves either. Good sign for the future!
    - I could see Komarov finishing some checks, but TV is infuriating in that you can't see the "real" game. It looked like he was getting under Ott's skin, which is karmic justice if nothing else.
    - Kulemin looked bad on the second goal, and pretty ineffective generally, until the third period. I'm hoping that everyone's "thinking" too much still - about where they're supposed to be, about what their assignment is - and in a few games we'll get back to a more instinctual style of play.
    - If the Leafs had played the whole game with the desperation of the last three minutes, they'd have blown the Sabres out. This was a problem last year - waiting until it was too late to mount a charge. We'll see if Carlyle can excise this habit.
    - We still don't have "the guy", the player who will just refuse to lose and will drive the whole team to compete at a higher level of intensity. Without that player, we won't get to the top level.
    - the Sabres have Kaleta, Ott, Erhoff the Slewfooter - the type of aggressive pests who you hate on the opposition and love on your team. We need someone like that, the Tucker or Domi type. Although I can do without the slewfooting and Kaleta's tendency to hit people when they're defenceless. This is where we need the hitting forecheckers to exact some repayment.
    - I think Orr has earned his spot. The Buffalo feed said that Scott had lost his footing when he dropped to his knee in the fight (I guess they missed the headsnapper to the chin)... but he wasn't a factor for the rest of the game.
    - It is early, yes, but I see tendencies which sank us last year surfacing again - the late flurry, the shooting from the outside, the lack of crashing the net. It will be interesting to see if Carlyle can get rid of these.
    - I can't explain it, but it feels as if there's a big trade coming... And not for Luongo.

  19. I was nodding along with your various points today, Gerund O'. (Yes, Ott and Kelata are still infuriating little....I won't fill in the rest.)

    For reasons only an elite athlete could tell us, teams evidently cannot play the entire game the way the Leafs played in the final three minutes last night (or as they did so many times the past couple of seasons...when they often came from behind in the third period with a mad flurry...)

    That's one of many reasons I liked a lot of the Pat Quinn teams- they had a nice blend of solid goaltending, puck moving "D", skill up front and nasty guys like (at various times) Domi, Tucker, Roberts, Corson, Nolan, etc.

    We're better, but a long ways from where we need to be. Fortunately, we don't play the West this season!