This may be the final Blues News of the summer. With so much work to be done it’s tough to find time to write but I have that itch right now.
So much so that I actually wrote the beginning of what was quickly turning into a massive article. I could have turned it into a book for Pete’s sake!! (hi Pete!!) What it lead to was more and more thoughts about the rest of the roster, the draft, the system, the defense, and a rumour about a goalie that I found interesting. So I decided to write it all in a much shorter, less spoofable (not that anybody ever actually spoofs long articles, I mean really, who has the time?) version and include it as part of this.
So here goes….
I played hockey when I was younger, as did most of us that grew up in Canada. I was never very good but I enjoyed hockey more than other sports, such as baseball, even though I was better at playing those other sports. Around my mid teens I quit playing hockey (and every other sport) and followed life as it took me on some pretty epic twists and turns.
It was when I was in my late twenties that I decided to return to the ice. Now with a mortgage, car payments, insurance bills and everything else that comes with “life” I needed an outlet, so I turned back to hockey. It had been nearly 15 years since I had played a game or even been on skates. I had been watching the Leafs religiously as always though, so I had this idea in my head that now, having more knowledge about how the game is to be played, that I could be better for it. You see, I never grew up in a house where hockey was on the television every Saturday night. I didn’t have a father that would guide me through the subtleties of the game, it just wasn’t his thing. I simply didn’t have much more than a general idea about where I was supposed to be on the ice when I played as a child. Now, after having watched so much of the game, I was more prepared to navigate around the ice and decide when to pinch, when to join the rush, how to read off my defensive partner and make the smart play. It was a rude awakening when, after I took in a couple of general skates to get my balance back, I hit the ice and took my first shift. On the very first shift of my very first game in a very long time I received my very first pass….. Except I didn’t receive the pass. Instead, I put my stick where the puck appeared to be headed and watched as it simply slid on by. My hand eye was non existent at this point and it was hilarious. The rest of that game was a shit show. Nobody covered me because they didn’t have to. Nobody passed to me because even in a game that doesn’t matter nobody wants to lose.
After nearly two years of struggling through games and not getting much better I found out that most rinks open their doors early in the day for people to hit the ice to do as they please. I took the opportunity to hit the ice as much as I could with a bag of pucks and my stick in hand and the improvement was huge. What most people don’t realize is just how effective a few hours of practice really is. Look at it this way. If you rent ice for an hour for a game you immediately lose 10 minutes for the zamboni to clear the ice. Follow that with 5 minutes of warm ups. Now we’re down to 45 minutes. I’m not sure about how it’s done where you’re from but here we strive for 20 skaters per game, 10 per team. That means 6 forwards and 4 defense. So, I play defense which means I should be on the ice for half of the remaining 45 minutes, or 22.5 minutes. I’m on the ice with 10 skaters (5 per side). Let’s assume that everybody has the puck an equal amount during that 22.5 minutes, that means you have the puck on your stick for 2.25 minutes, let’s also keep in mind that “Johnny Slick” is a puck hog and there are at least a couple of them at every game. Also, if you’re like me and play defense, that means a lot of passes to your forwards, stick checks, and angling people off the puck, instead of carrying the puck from end to end. You may take a rush a couple of times per game but still, your actual puck time, at best, is likely half of the remaining 2.25 minutes as a defender. So, for just over a minute I would get real practice time. Now, instead, I would have the puck on my stick for as long as I wanted to hang around the rink and practice, which usually meant 90-120 minutes each day I went. This meant stuffing 90+ games worth of puck time into one day. The result? A sharp uptick in all of my skills. What you should also keep in mind is the more you have to grow the steeper your learning curve can be (while also realizing that everybody has a ceiling). So what does this all have to do with the Leafs’ blueline? Plenty.
For starters we’ll begin with Connor Carrick, Nikita Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Martin Marincin, but more so Connor Carrick and Morgan Rielly. If you assume that these two 23 year olds have already hit their ceiling then you can skip this section. For myself, I don’t believe they’ve shown everything they have to give in the NHL. Rielly, especially, has room to grow because I believe his ceiling is so high. He’s being eased into the #1D slot on the team and, while you see some hiccups, he is handling the responsibilities relatively well. There is room to grow there and at his young age a summers worth of practice really helps. We’ve seen this after every summer if you look close. He seems to come to camp a little stronger, faster, and better than he left in the spring. Now, while his physical attributes may be leveling off, I expect to see a jump in his positioning and defensive play.
As for Carrick, while his ceiling is lower than Rielly’s is, we should still see some improvement there. He was out of position and tended to puck watch a little too much last season. This time around I am hoping to see a more responsible, mature game. He needs to work the kinks out to ensure he becomes a regular NHLer, instead of a guy that simply took a shot. A bottom pair defender with some offensive upside isn’t out of the question if he can clean up his game just a little bit. For him, this is his season to prove that he can make it in Toronto.
Nikita Zaitsev and Martin Marincin are a little different because of the fact that they are a little older. While there are exceptions to the rule it seems that many defenders reach their prime years at around their mid twenties, right where these two players are. It may be possible to see small improvements in both players but Zaitsev, in particular, could benefit the most from his first summer after his rookie year. He knows exactly what he has to work on now to become a better NHLer. Before this it was only theory. Now he has been through the grind and has studied the tape, he can concentrate his efforts on the small things. My hope is he improves, but the real story has more to do with the kids.
As I said, the more room you have to grow, the steeper your learning curve can be. This is why I hold such high hopes for Travis Dermott to become a regular NHLer soon (as in this season). After seeing what he can do at the AHL level I have placed his ceiling as a top 4 defender in the NHL. I realize this is just my opinion but I feel it’s shared by the larger portion of Leafs Nation. He’s only 20 years old and that means a summer of practice can stretch a very long way. If there is any player in our system that could surprise at training camp, in my opinion, that player is Dermott. While players like Kapanen, Liljegren and Bracco may turn heads with their skill, it could be Dermott that is back there helping where the Leafs need it the most, in their own zone. If he can come to camp with a more polished game he could even break into the lineup out of the gate. My serious expectation though? Look for Dermott to be a Leaf by the New Year and playing a major role by seasons end.
Calle Rosen is said to be close as well. The people that have seen him play, or are close to the situation, tend to whisper that statement more than yell it from the rooftops. I’m not a guy that has seen him play so I don’t want to make any grand statements here, but my fingers are crossed that both of these players turn into immediate help (again I’m talking this season), rather than “down the line sometime” options. These “nearly ready” options are the reason I like the Ron Hainsey signing so much….
The Veteran Additions
Ron Hainsey has yet to lose a round in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a great statement that we have all enjoyed telling the hockey world. Through a long career that started in Montreal, with stops in Columbus, Atlanta, Winnipeg and Carolina, he finally got his first taste of NHL playoff action this year with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the ripe age of 36. His name is now etched into the Stanley Cup and will be forever. His is a great story but now, I assume (hope), he’s hungry for more.
The veteran leadership and drive to win are great, I love that he brings that to the roster. There is something else I like just as much though and it has to do with everything I’ve spoken about up until now.
At the moment it is assumed that Hainsey will play the right side (as he did in Pittsburgh) in the top 4 and serve as a defensive presence, which would allow his partner (we’ll assume it’s one of Rielly/Gardiner) to wheel the puck a little more freely. At the same time, we also know that Rielly can hold his own on the right side, leaving open the option to play Hainsey on the left or right side to create one half of what could be a very serviceable 3rd pairing.
If the aforementioned Travis Dermott can truly impress out of camp, the flexibility of Hainsey leaves him open to play wherever he fits best. If Mike Babcock chooses he could fit Travis on the 3rd pair and ease him into the NHL. If Babcock feels he’s ready for tougher minutes immediately he can pair him with Rielly (who would shift right) to take on big minutes, while Hainsey plays lower in the lineup. If none of the kids are ready they simply continue with the plan, play Hainsey in the top 4, and manage the 3rd pairings minutes as best as they can. Options like this are great for development, it allows you to give your prospects just the right amount of responsibility to grow at their own pace and having Hainsey on a short deal makes this even better. This isn’t the only veteran that this applies to. The addition of Patrick Marleau is huge.
The leadership, the skill, the way he carries himself, it’s all going to help on and off the ice. His own flexibility shouldn’t be understated though.
When it was revealed that the Leafs targeted Valterri Filppula from the Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as Boyle, but Filppula refused to waive his no trade clause, I asked myself why they targeted him in particular. The time for pure salary dumps is over in Toronto, it’s time to build a team now, and there’s a solid reason to target him if you ask me. Filppula’s ability to play centre as well as the wing is very handy, so my theory goes like this.
Tyler Bozak is on the final year of his contract in Toronto. The option to re-sign him is there, and it’s a move I would support with the right cap hit, but the option to move him for picks and prospects, if re-signing him proves difficult, is also acceptable. This theory only makes sense if they do end up trading him. If they do trade him, who plays centre going forward? There is a school of thinking that sees William Nylander eventually moving back to his natural centre position in time. The question right now is, would you thrust him into that role without any experience and simply hope for the best?
The addition of Marleau, a winger that has played centre at times in his career, will allow Babcock to ease Nylander into the middle over time. This signing, to me, is all Mike Babcock. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that Babs asked for a C/LW, and one that he is familiar with, to help these young kids along. The first suitable option was Filppula, once that failed they turned to Marleau. Now, for the next 3 years (or less), if Bozak does move on, they can let Nylander’s play dictate if he ever becomes an NHL centreman or not by trying him there in manageable situations.
The final veteran addition through free agency was Dominic Moore. A 4th line centre that has settled into a role of penalty killing and winning faceoffs, while still being able to bring about 20-30pts to the table, Moore should be a great fit in Toronto. Last time he was here he enjoyed the best production of his career by finding chemistry with a quick footed winger that liked to score. There are a couple of those here that he could play with in Nikita Soshnikov and Kasperi Kapanen. My hope is he’ll find chemistry with a player or two like he did before and his contract will look like a steal. Really all he needs to do is play a steady game and he’ll be a massive help though.
The other thing I really enjoyed from the Moore story is the fact that Auston Matthews reached out to welcome him to the team. That’s a character move from a young man that shows he wants to be the one to lead this team into the future. After all, good teams need good leaders….
It’s generally assumed that Matthews will eventually wear the “C” here. Some people wonder why they’d bother to wait, why not just name him captain and be done with it? To me, for a guy entering his sophomore year, he doesn’t need any more pressure put on him and being the captain in Toronto means intense pressure. I would like to see him concentrate on taking another step forward in his play, instead of having to deal with the media and fan scrutiny that could be heaped upon him if the team doesn’t take another huge leap forward like they did this past season. While daring to say they may not take a step forward might seem like a negative perception I should remind everybody about just how many rookies the Leafs had in their lineup this year and the fact that sophomore slumps are very common. Every player and coach from every team in the NHL is hard at work right now trying to figure out how to defend these kids and they are generating answers. This won’t be an easy year. It’s likely why they added three players in Hainsey, Moore and Marleau, that will be 36, 37 and 38 respectively, by the start of the season. Having veteran leaders sprinkled throughout the lineup to show the future captain how it’s done makes a ton of sense to me. All of this may also mean having to lean a little more heavily on Frederik Andersen……
While Andersen had long stretches of brilliant play last season he also had rough patches. Consistency will be key for him. It’s those inconsistent stretches and a history of uncontrollable injuries and health issues that made me think adding a backup with the ability to take the team through 10+ game stretches would be preferable.
My top choice free agent was Anders Nilsson this time around. He saw opportunity in Vancouver, which could very well make more sense for his career considering Jacob Markstrom hasn’t exactly taken a stranglehold on the crease there. I also had Mike Condon high on my list and a rumour slipped that the Leafs showed a lot of interest in him. He eventually resigned with Ottawa but a part of me wonders if the Buds lost out here. I am a big supporter of Frederik Andersen but injuries for him are a real concern and that could mean a capable backup could make or break a season. I know you can’t bank on injuries, and the contract for both Condon and Nilsson were likely too steep at the end of the day, but I’m still left with doubts about Curtis McElhinney, just like I had doubts about Jonas Enroth last season. Sometimes I hate it when I’m right (as was the case with Enroth) but most times it’s satisfying (hehe)…..
The thing about the NHL Entry Draft that is so fun is the fact that us fans are all basically in the same boat when it comes to our knowledge of the players. Maybe you’ve seen a handful of the prospects and see high end skill, and because of that you choose those players as “your guys” they should draft. However, it’s impossible to have seen all of the options out there, so we base our opinions, for the most part, on the viewings of others. This is why I kept hoping that Timothy Liljegren would fall to #17, and then for the Leafs to take him. Well, that’s exactly what happened and I couldn’t be happier. The biggest argument against Liljegren is that he is more of the same. We have an abundance of puck movers in the system, and with our 2 best defenders, Rielly and Gardiner, also fitting that mold, is it really wise to pick a player that fits a need we already have filled? My answer, without question, is yes, this was the right pick. Timothy has very high end potential, and that, based off of what I’ve read and seen, wasn’t exactly easy to get at that point in the draft. This was a swing for the fences, a true boom or bust pick if I’ve ever seen one, and that is exactly what I think they can afford to do at this point in time. There are prospects in the system that seem destined to make the team. Travis Dermott for example, as I’ve already covered. So why not go for it all? Why not, when you have an ever deepening prospect pool, go for broke? I see no reason not to. I’m not going to give a scouting report here, you’ve heard it all before. What I will point out is that Lilijegren is extremely praised for his skating ability and that is often something that comes with being a smaller player. Except this time he isn’t really a smaller player. He isn’t a monster on the ice, but at 6’ tall and 191lbs, he is far from the smallest defender the NHL has ever seen. He could pack 15lbs onto that frame, and then, with that kind of size, he could be very effective at boxing out and defending against bigger competition. The sky’s the limit for Liljegren.
Another fair argument against this pick was the need for size on the blueline, particularly in the top 4. Well, you spoke and the scouting department listened by taking Eemeli Rasanen (6’7” 201lbs) 59th overall in the 2nd round, and eventually Fedor Gordeev (6’6” 210lbs) 141st overall in the 5th round. Rasanen, in particular, is a terrific pick in my opinion. A good skater, with that size, and solid offensive numbers, he could be a steal in the 2nd round.
The Leafs revamped their scouting department and brought in Mark Hunter to look after things a couple of years ago. Since then they have been a moving target. It started with the 2015 draft and the additions of skilled players such as Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, and Andrew Nielsen. In 2016 they flipped the script. While they did manage to add some big, skilled players with their first two picks in Auston Matthews and Yegor Korshkov, they then went grittier and picked players such as Carl Grundstrom, J.D. Greenway, and Keaton Middleton. This season their trend of not having a real trend continued. They again managed to nab a high skilled player in the 1st round in Liljegren, but then turned to size on the blueline and what appears to be long term projects (Vladislav Kara, Ryan McGregor as examples). If you ask me, the worst thing you can do is approach each draft the same way. There is a strategy to the draft and theirs seems to be a long term one. While groups from the past generally leaned toward certain types of players (such as Brian Burke and his tendency to draft big, aggressive forwards), this group is trying to draft all types of players to fill all types of needs. They have also avoided trading up to pick a player they really like, this was something else Brian Burke seemed to have a tendency to do. They started their tenure by trading back in the draft to collect as many picks as possible. It seems now that they have moved into a different phase, where they use the picks they have and try to do it intelligently. The next step? I would guess trading up to target specific players now that the system is filling up would make some sense. Only time will tell but my expectations are that we will start seeing these types of moves as early as this coming draft or the one after. I also hope they start to target centres with their high picks going forward…..
The most pressing need on the Leafs right now is obviously the defense. It needs help and it appears they are trying. Attempting to trade for Travis Hamonic, who ended up going to the Calgary Flames, and eventually signing Ron Hainsey shows that they recognize the issue. However, it’s the centre position that is most lacking in the system. They have a deep group of centres at the NHL level right now. They also have William Nylander and Patrick Marleau, as I’ve talked about, that could play centre if need be. Once you look past the big club things start to appear a little thin though. So much so that they went out and gave the 31 year old Chris Mueller, a veteran of 53 NHL games, but an AHL mainstay at this point in his career, a 2 year NHL contract to play for the Toronto Marlies. The Marlies will also have Adam Brooks joining the team which should help, and Frederik Gauthier will be back when he is healed. Miro Aaltonen and Trevor Moore are players that have played both wing and centre as well. None of those players appear ready to play centre at the NHL level though. There is hope that Aaltonen is close but making the jump to the NHL as a winger seems more likely because it is an easier transition.
The real thing I notice isn’t about the number of centres they have in the system though. It’s the potential of those players. Adam Brooks, as of now, is likely the highest projected centre prospect they own. Compare that to Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott, Eemeli Rasanen and Andrew Nielsen for the blueline, Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco, Carl Grundstrom and Yegor Korshkov on the wings, and I feel it’s lacking in high end potential players. This shouldn’t be considered a slight to Brooks, who appears to be a fine player in the making, but instead, an honest assessment of the system as a whole. If you could add three more players to the list that project as well as Brooks then I would talk about how they are starting to look good at that position. The purpose of the entry draft shouldn’t be to fill immediate needs, because the time it takes to develop prospects will most assuredly mean that by the time those players are ready your needs will have changed, but instead to boost your system where it matters the most. In this case I think that’s down the middle of the ice.
(Not So) Fun Fact
They are entering the final season of having Tim Gleason count against the cap ($1.33M). Just a reminder that mistakes made by previous regimes can often take a very long time to fix and it seems that this management group has been doing a fair job at turning things around quickly.
Enjoy your summer everybody.