It’s been awhile since I wrote the last Blues News so there is a lot to talk about. So much so that I’m not even sure where to begin. The great start Auston Matthews has had to his career? The, in my opinion, unfair beating being received by Frederik Andersen? The blue line help we so desperately need? All great topics, but I guess we should start at the top of the season…..
The Veterans on the Marlies
I talk a lot of Leafs, so, while I sometimes have the ability to make good points, and other times I’m unquestionably right, sometimes I’m just plain wrong. Here at Leafs Hub the other authors, some posters and I joined up to publish a lineup prediction piece. Here was my prediction:
JVR — Bozak — Marner
Leo — Kadri — Michalek
Greening — Matthews — Nylander
Leivo — Laich — Martin
Marincin — Rielly
Gardiner — Polak
Hunwick — Zaitsev
When you begin reading this it starts looking pretty good. I nailed the first two lines and two thirds of the third line. I did well on the blueline as well. The goalies were a given. From there on I gave too many spots to the veterans the Leafs traded for, or signed, last season. My thought process was simple, while we all like to think the organization is making progress in leaps and bounds, that doesn’t mean management agrees and wants to rush the process. So, while Hyman, Soshnikov and Brown are capable of playing in the NHL, that doesn’t mean they have to. It became clear last season that the plan was to leave the kids on the Marlies to develop and then develop some more. I decided to predict more of that for this season.
I was wrong, but I was also pleasantly surprised. Brown and Hyman deserved to be on the opening day roster. Carrick also deserved to be there. That came at the expense of Brooks Laich, Colin Greening, and not long after, Milan Michalek. The players often described as “good people,” and the professionals we thought would be around to teach the kids, are going to teach the kids how to handle themselves alright, they’ll just have to be satisfied to do it at the AHL level.
While I was pleasantly surprised I also have to admit I have some doubts as well. There aren’t many veterans left on this team that weren’t part of a few Maple Leaf Meltdowns™. So, while we have a great coach that is fully capable of helping the kids through some tough times, I wonder who will help veterans like Bozak, Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Gardiner through those times? We all know they haven’t figured out how to find their way out of a hole themselves. We also know a coach can’t do it all himself either. You need some veteran leadership on your team. In my opinion, we are short on that. A few examples of teams that took this approach are easy to find. Buffalo obtained Brian Gionta, a Stanley Cup winner, and made him their captain. The Florida Panthers have Jaromir Jagr, also a Stanley Cup champ. The Dallas Stars obtained Patrick Sharp, again, a Stanley Cup champ. My last example is the Edmonton Oilers, who obtained Milan Lucic as a free agent this past summer, another Stanley Cup winner. Beyond having their names on hockeys holy grail, they all have one more thing in common. They aren’t bottom line players. They aren’t role players. They’re top 6 players that know how to win. I think the Leafs are getting awfully close to needing, not just a dressing room presence, but an on ice presence, similar to what these teams have. Hopefully I’m wrong again on this. Maybe we see the youth lean on each other to figure it out and drag our current guys along for the ride. After all, they are off to a terrific start….
Auston Matthews & co. and The Historical Start
We have never seen a Toronto Maple Leaf start their career with four goals in one night. Nor has the world ever seen any player, on any team, start their career that well. Our boy wonder now holds the record for most goals scored by a player in his first NHL game in NHL history. That’s a record that should last a very long time. Also, while I am writing this, Matthews hasn’t yet played the New York Islanders, and is tied for third in the NHL in points, while being tied for first in the NHL in goals. Did I mention he is also tied with Nylander for the team lead in points? Which means William is also tied for third in the NHL points race. Just eight games into the season, that is all bound to change, but it’s still a lot of fun to point out to fans of opposing teams. I’m not going to give much space to Auston because I can’t add much that you haven’t already read. The only thing I would really love to get more press is how he openly admitted to being out of position for the overtime goal against when playing Ottawa. This is a young man that wants to be better. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting up the most points each year, it means doing what he needs to do in order for the team to win.
While Auston Matthews is getting a lot of love and attention, our other high end youngsters are showing amazing skills. What I love most about the current situation is how it is in comparison to previous years. If you put Mitch Marner on the roster to start last season he wouldn’t be able to free wheel nearly as much as he does. Other teams don’t have just one line to cover right now, or even two, they have three lines that can threaten to score each night. This means that while teams see Kadri’s line matched up against their top unit, they have to expose their second and third lines to a Maple Leafs unit that has either Matthews/Nylander or Marner/Van Riemsdyk. This could help explain why they are in the top third of the league in goals for (tied for eighth overall, tied for 10th in GF/GP). They are quickly becoming an offensive force and are being lead by, you guessed it, Matthews, Nylander and Marner.
So we know these kids can score, but pure offense doesn’t win championships. What has impressed me, especially as it pertains to Marner, is how they have handled themselves on the defensive side of the puck. Matthews has found himself out of position at times, as I mentioned earlier, but Matthews and Marner have been said to have a natural ability to play a defensive game. With some development and good coaching they can be top end, two-way players in this league. Marner, with his willingness to sacrifice the body to block shots, and the speed to recover if he finds himself out of position, has my hopes up more than anyone. This kid is a gamer and has quickly become my favourite Toronto Maple Leaf. Nylander needs to find that voice inside that naturally attempts to avoid pain and shut it down. Maybe shot blocking will never be his thing, and that’s fine, but you also can’t jump out of the way if you just happen to be in the lane. Even if that is a Stamkos blast coming right for you. Hopefully their development happens quickly because right now we have….
Blue Line Questions
Many people throw around the term “elite” like it’s candy on Halloween. Elite stick checker, elite shot blocker, etc, etc. I don’t like that, but I understand that sometimes people want to make a point and exaggeration is a great way to drive your view home. So while I say it’s easy for me to view Morgan Rielly as a potential elite defensemen, you need to take that in a couple of different ways. First, know that I’m not exaggerating. There are only a few elite defensemen in the league and, in my opinion, he could join them. Maybe he’ll never win a Norris trophy, maybe he’ll never reach elite status, but nobody on this planet can tell me he doesn’t have all the tools to do it. He has the natural skating ability, great offensive awareness, high hockey IQ and that same internal drive as our other youngsters that can’t be taught. What he really needs to learn is defense. Sometimes he gets running around in his own zone a little too much, instead of letting the play come to him. With time, and Mike Babcock, that will come. The other thing you need to remember about the “elite,” is that even the elite make mistakes. Yes, I said it, nobody is perfect. Here’s proof:
Team Canada just completely dominated the World Cup of Hockey. They weren’t even really challenged. However, there were goals against. What can easily be called the best team in hockey in the world right now didn’t perform perfectly. This is simply because human error is why we play the games. No matter who you put in your lineup each night, whether it’s your own, personal, top ranked team or not, there will be mistakes. So while you watch Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick find themselves out of position, and the goals go in, just remember that if it were Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, Shea Weber, or whomever else, eventually there would still be mistakes. Elite doesn’t equal perfect. It simply describes a player that doesn’t make as many mistakes, and who knows how to shake them off and get back to business.
Right now Rielly is still being developed the right way. Mike Babcock is keeping him off the power play, giving him penalty kill minutes and lots of 5v5 minutes. He is in the top 25 among defensemen in both SH/TOI and SH/TOI per game. Another reason to keep him off the power play is to not overburden him. He already leads the team in TOI/GP at over 22 minutes a game. Mike Babcock seems to be taking the slow bake approach with him and I love it. Maybe next year he’ll get those power play minutes, maybe the year after, we all know his capabilities in the offensive zone though, it’s really only a matter of time.
Another question that is quickly being answered is what they have in Nikita Zaitsev. This kid is a keeper for sure. I didn’t mention him in my other writings because I didn’t know much about him, but his first impression has been a great one. His skating is solid, his offensive awareness is exemplary, his defensive positioning is great and his strength, for a guy his size, is above par. During his first couple of games I saw him get caught making plays. He seemed just a step too slow. I’m not seeing that anymore. He has quickly adapted to the speed of the NHL. At his age he may not develop into much more than he currently is, but, in my opinion, he is a top four NHL player and that’s exactly what this team is lacking. There are still questions to be answered when it comes to Morgan and Nikita but they are most certainly the shining stars on our blueline right now. There are questions about players that haven’t done nearly as well though.
One of those has to be Jake Gardiner at this point. My hope when Babcock arrived was that Jake would stop wandering, and would learn the simple things to make himself more effective. One of those simple things is not giving up position in front of the net. As a defender, you need to try to be between your goalie and the play. This doesn’t seem to be Jake’s concern though. He often abandons coverage in front of his net to wander….somewhere….while looking for something…. I just don’t know what. When he does decide to take his man in front of the net they are usually allowed inside position, and free reign over any and all rebounds. What is so aggravating about Jake is that the “numbers” paint a beautiful picture, and he has some God given talents that others envy, such as skating ability and the ability to create offense from the point. If he could just get angry at himself, after a few goals that were on him, then maybe we’d end up with a better Jake Gardiner. While I love the fact that he can move the puck in the right direction, I don’t love that his deficiencies in his own end get glossed over by so many fans. Until he addresses these deficiencies I have decided to lump him into the problem pile with Martin Marincin.
I have been watching to see what it is Marincin has been doing differently to make him less effective this year. Maybe the book is out on Marty, maybe other teams know his tendencies now. If it is, then I’m sure they have figured out an easy way to stifle his outlet passes. He isn’t a puck carrier but he was effective at making solid forward passes last season, that seems to be a thing of the past. Time and time again, I notice him throwing the puck to covered players, or simply icing it due to unnecessarily rushing the play and not waiting for his forwards to give him a proper outlet. This is partially on the forwards as well, but it does seem a little patience with the puck is in order. I miss the simple, effective Marincin and want him back in the blue and white. Like I said, we are lacking top four players, and he showed promise last season to at least be a solid patchwork top four. We need that now because our goalie is drowning back there……
This storyline has my head spinning. I have been a fan of this team long enough to know any player can be driven out of town. Yet, the speed at which this one is going is unbelievable. Eight games into the NHL season and Andersen is already being talked about like a footnote in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A has been. A bust. A waste of good assets.
I watched a lot of the Anaheim Ducks over the past couple of seasons. They are among my favourite teams in the league when they aren’t playing against the Leafs. I have seen what Andersen is and he isn’t an eight game throwaway. He’s a big, athletic goalie that plays a solid positional game. He can make the game clinching save but is generally a calming presence, a rock between the pipes.
I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t let in a couple of soft goals. However, if I didn’t point out that every fan I have heard say Andersen wasn’t worth trading for, is also saying our defense is among the worst in the league. I have also pointed out that our forwards could use a little more time to develop their two-way games. Pile all of that on top of Frederik not having a training camp and missing most of the pre-season…. do we, as a fan base, really need to treat this guy the way we are after just eight games?
All I’d ask right now is a little patience. As I said off the top, sometimes I’m just plain wrong but there are times that I am unquestionably right. This time, there is zero doubt in my mind that I am unquestionably right. Frederik Andersen is worth the patience.
Really, when you think about it, we need to continue to approach this entire roster with a little more patience.
UPDATE FROM ADMIN
The Leafs have placed Matt Hunwick on injured reserve.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) October 31, 2016