Leafs Notebook: Preseason Edition – September 23

Buffalo Sabres' Brian Flynn fights Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto, Sunday Sept. 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

There are so many different angles to consider when looking at last night’s Leafs-Sabres brawl. Where to start?

Perhaps the best place is the shift before, when Jamie Devane and Corey Tropp mixed it up with the end result being a predictable Devane win considering the size advantage. The faceoff before they fought, Tropp was clearly asking Devane to go the entire time. By the time the puck dropped, he still kept at it before the big Leaf eventually obliged. I can’t tell you whether it’s right or wrong for Devane to fight a guy in that situation, but if you keep asking a fighter to fight you… well, eventually he’s going gratify your wish.

You can argue that Devane should have known better than to finish him off the way he did, but it’s not like Devane is a seasoned NHL fighter with a secure job in the league. It’s unfortunate that Tropp got hurt, and I sincerely hope he’s okay, but you can only feel so sorry for the guy when he looked for the fight to begin with.

Obviously, the Sabres saw the whole thing differently and were upset that Tropp got buried by a clearly superior fighter. Their response was sending out John Scott for the next shift.

Even Joe Bowen noted Scott was running his mouth after the Tropp-Devane bout, so I’m not sure why Carlyle believed he could tame the situation. The Sabres thought “one of their goons got one of our smaller players so we’re going to return the favour,” while the Leafs were thinking, “surely they won’t go after Kessel.”

The Leafs thought wrong. And it’s surprising they didn’t take further precaution considering the TV broadcast showed Scott chirping Kessel to end the second period.

Scott knew what he was doing and went after Kessel right away. One piece getting lost in the whole storyline is how TJ Brennan jumped right in there. You have to give that guy credit above all else; he didn’t hesitate for a second, Scott could easily do some serious damage to him, and he took some shots protecting a brand new teammate. Carter Ashton also got in there like a dirty rag, and you have to respect that as well.

Then, there’s David Clarkson. Look, his heart was in the right place trying to protect a teammate, but the truth is Kessel was far way from Scott by the time he got out there. If Scott had Kessel by the collar and was feeding him, there’s no question we’re thanking Clarkson for eating the upcoming suspension. But that wasn’t the situation. It wasn’t even close. So, now Clarkson is going to be suspended for 10 games so he could accomplish what amounts to really not all that much.

It’s good that Clarkson cares about his teammates and is willing to protect them, but not at the expense of a 10-game suspension for not actually protecting anyone. When you then take into account the Leafs‘ cap situation and this suspension providing no relief on Clarkson’s number, this puts the Leafs in a really difficult spot now, and it was really all for nothing.

If you watch the video, Kadri had his leg over the bench at one point, too. He was clearly itching to go over, but he didn’t.

That brings us to Bernier. Full credit to him for wanting to get involved, but I really wonder if that was fuelled by missing time because of his skin rash. I’m sure nothing was said to his face about being soft, but let’s be honest – we were all thinking it and I’m sure some of his actual teammates were, too.

I’m definitely not thinking it anymore after the beat down he put on Miller, though. Bernier probably gained a lot of respect from his teammates last night, and that will be a bit of a confidence booster for a new guy on the team still trying to make an impression.

The lasting image of the whole incident for me will be the end of the scrum, when Scott was right by the Leafs bench. The Leafs players were all standing and yelling at any Sabre nearby and were clearly outraged about the whole incident. Bodie and JVR were giving it to Scott, while Kadri was asking Kessel’s fight partner how his face felt.

It was barely a year ago, right before Wilson got fired, when Phaneuf got hit in the jaw against the Florida Panthers and was down bleeding. When he got up, he had to skate by the chirping Panthers bench as blood dripped down his mouth. That same year, Foligno low-bridged Phaneuf, and yet Phaneuf was the one who had to get up and fight him next shift. Zack Smith also gave Kessel a cheap shot right in front of the Leafs bench with no response.

I doubt those things would be kosher against this Leafs team. I’m not advocating for the Leafs to be a team full of goons that seek instant retribution whenever need be, but I do want to see a team that sticks up for each other and cares about each other.

These Leafs clearly do, but they need to make sure they’re smart about it. Losing Clarkson for 10 games hurts.



– Joe Colborne has been a popular lightning rod for debate this camp, so I’ll weigh in. At the end of the day, my thought process is this: should one of the Leafs four centers (Bozak, Kadri, Bolland, McClement) get hurt, who is next in line to step up if it’s not Colborne? Trevor Smith? Greg McKegg? Those aren’t better options than Colborne, no matter how bad he’s looked. So, I think by virtue of the Leafs’ center depth, you have to keep him. One of the Leafs centers will eventually get hurt and miss NHL regular season time.

– Last year, the Leafs had three centers play all 48 games (Kadri, Grabovski, McClement) while Bozak missed two games. What are the chances that will happen again? Has to be almost zero.

– In the second game against Buffalo, JVR burst through the neutral zone with his speed and created a two on one. They didn’t score, but it was nice to see JVR moving like that. Last year, I thought it took JVR seven games (it was a home game vs. Washington) to get his legs under him, which probably had to do a little bit with not having a preseason/limited camp. If JVR is flying like that to start the year, I’d expect him to be even better this season.

– Rielly got beat on a nice inside-outside move by Brayden Schenn, which is something I’ve noted as a problem of his stemming back to his time with Canada in the WJC. Even with the Marlies he had the same sort of play, where he was very good with the puck but was beat to the outside with some regularity. It’s puzzling considering he’s such a great skater, but at the end of the day he really just gets caught puck watching and it causes him to lose body position. That leaves him susceptible to getting beat outside. Everything else with Rielly is adequate or far better, but getting beat off the rush is a noticeable problem.

– Get used to Clarkson making that forehand-backhand shootout move in the Flyers game, because that’s his move.

– Mark Fraser blocked a Luke Schenn shot with his foot last week, resulting in the puck being tipped in for a goal. It is something he needs to be a lot more careful with. Last season, he did the same thing against Boston resulting in an Andrew Ference goal.

– In that same game against Philly, Bernier had a neat little poke-check to breakup an in-close breakaway. Against the Sabres, he also did that to break up a connected two-on-one pass. He’s really active and it’s fun to watch in net.

– Raymond got attention for his breakaway goal (and speed) against the Flyers, but I was more impressed with his play to chip the puck out and send Kadri on a two-on-one before Nazem scored. Raymond’s been really effective with the puck on his stick and winning battles along the boards like that is one way to gain a coach’s trust. Against Buffalo, he had a play in the third where he skated through the neutral zone with the puck at the end of his shift. When he realized everyone was changing, he crossed the blueline, put a little a juke on a Sabres forward, waited for the new players to come on, and it created a scoring chance. He kind of has a reputation as a fast player who doesn’t use his speed to its maximum advantage, but he’s been very smart and effective with his game thus far.

– Here’s the problem with not having Franson on the right side of the point for the power play. When Kessel gets the puck on the half wall his first instinct is that cross ice pass; every single time he looks there first, unless he knows he has a lane to shoot himself. When it’s a lefty on the far side, that lefty needs an extra second or two to twist his body and open up for a one-timer, or else that pass is going to be really hard to cradle and do something with. With Franson being a righty, he can take the pass in stride much more easily and since he has such a great shot he gets it through effectively. Here is an example of him scoring with it and here is another example of him receiving a pass and getting a shot through, resulting in a goal. Replacing Franson with a lefty on the power play changes the whole dynamic and angling of the power play unit. When Kostka was on PP1 to start last season, Kessel was hitting him for backdoor plays, but Kostka couldn’t handle the passes because Kessel really riffles them through. It’s even harder for a lefty (especially if they are one timing it). Not having Franson here doesn’t mean the power play will be terrible, but it’s a big adjustment.

– I said earlier in this space that Percy is the kind of guy who you can throw into the fire and he’ll figure out how to play. He’s just so smart. He’s had a good, steady preseason, but you can tell he’s just a split second behind NHL speed right now. Buffalo burned him on a give-and-go goal with Stafford and Pysyk. If you watch it, he didn’t really over commit to Stafford, and played the rush like he knew it was coming. Stafford threaded that pass right through and it caught Percy just a little off guard with how quick it happened. When Percy first played a few games with the Marlies in the playoffs, he was the same way; he looked very good, but you could tell he wasn’t completely adjusted to the speed. Once he figures that out, he’s going to be ready to be an NHL defenseman and he’s going to be a good one. Give him a little time.

– Leivo is in sort of the same boat as Percy. The ability is there, but he just needs to learn to do things at the NHL level. He looked noticeably better upon being recalled, and in particular his give-and-go with JVR against Buffalo was fantastic, even if JVR got a penalty on the play. If he scores well in the AHL this year, he’s another guy who will possibly be ready to start next season with the Leafs.

– Bozak had a shift in OT that sums up why the Leafs like him. He won the draw 3v3 in Buffalo’s zone, and Ranger got a great scoring chance. The play turned up ice, Bozak back hecked Ennis, bodied him off the puck, and turned it up ice for a 3 on 2 where Buffalo then takes a too many men penalty. Against Buffalo Sunday, he also had a good game and made a nice play to throw the puck in front knowing Kessel was there.

– On that power play against Buffalo in overtime, the Leafs had a D zone draw halfway through the advantage and Carlyle put Colborne and Kulemin out for the draw. Colborne won it, the Leafs got possession, and both went straight to the bench so Kessel and Bozak could get right back out there. It was disappointing, because I wanted to see what Colborne would do considering it is just preseason.

– MacWilliam had a big hit vs. the Sabres that lead to a 2 on 1, which is something he would do in college every once and awhile, too. He needs to reel in that aggression sometimes, but otherwise he had a very good preseason showing and his skating is fine for a big, physical defenseman. A lot of people have noted that MacWilliam could probably replace Fraser right now; the big difference between the two, though, is that Fraser is very good on the penalty kill.

– Trevor Smith has quietly had a good camp. He helped setup the Devane goal against Buffalo with his great work down low to retrieve the puck, and he went to the net hard the following game against Buffalo to score his own goal. Judging by the Leafs cap situation, and his pretty good camp, he’s on the shortlist to make this team.



“I’m surprised he didn’t whack him a little higher.”
– Kadri commenting on Kessel’s slash.

Ever since I’ve been involved in hockey (playing, coaching, whatever), it’s always been taught that, if someone who can hurt you is going after you, you protect yourself with your stick and put it right through him.

“I’ve been here for awhile, had Randy for a season and a half. I’m one of those guys that kind of knows what it’s all about. And obviously I need to be reminded too, but if I can help some other guys get into it quicker that’s part of it.”
– Carl Gunnarsson, discussing taking the next step as a leader on this team.

The three-year, $9.45M contract the Leafs gave Gunnarsson is one of their best signings in years.

“There’s a trap at times when players do change teams and contracts become something notable, the first thing they try to do is change the way they play. That’s one thing we want to guard against. We want David Clarkson to play the way he’s capable of playing and [do] the things he normally does, not try to be anything more than what he’s been before.”
Randy Carlyle on David Clarkson.

Clarkson hopping off the bench reminded me of Komisarek’s first regular season game with the Leafs vs. Montreal, when he pretty well cost them the game because his aggression led to him taking so many penalties. It also brings up MacArthur getting suspended to end preseason the year after his big season. If you remember, it took MacArthur awhile to get going once he returned, and he was only suspended for two games. This is worse than when James Wisniewski, at start the year after signing his big contract, hammered Cal Clutterbuck after a Columbus-Minnesota preseason game ended and got suspended for 7 games. Hopefully Clarkson returns and gets back to his game, because I don’t think hopping off the bench to do nothing is part of it.


5 Things I Think I’d Do (About Camp)

1. I think the question with Morgan Rielly isn’t “is he ready to play in the NHL?” To me it’s actually “Can he push the Leafs top 4 D for ice-time?” Right now, the Leafs organization has Fraser, Liles, Brennan, Holzer, MacWilliam, Blacker and Ranger (if Franson signs) fighting for those last two spots. Having a kid around battling just to pick up the scraps of ice time isn’t beneficial enough to me. He’s not a perfect player right now, so of course there are things he can learn in junior (despite what some people think, which is crazy considering how many defensemen in particular we’ve seen the Leafs rush over the years). So, if he’s not ready to challenge Gunnarsson, Phaneuf, Gardiner or Franson/Ranger for ice time, there’s not much of a point in having him. They’ll be burning a year off his contract while he’s not a major contributor, and he will be playing for Team Canada before probably join the Marlies again should they make the playoffs. I’ve never heard of a player getting ruined because he was sent back down to the CHL for an additional year.

2. I also think the play of Percy and MacWilliam would make me want to send down Rielly even more. Percy looks like he’s ready to soak up anything thrown his way, and MacWilliam has been a physical animal who skates surprisingly well. I’d rather see those two older guys get ice time on defense if need be, because if they struggle you can send them right across Toronto to the Marlies and build them back up; if Rielly struggles or is barely playing, despite what anyone says now, it will be a circus during the year.

3. I think my subjective views of the Leafs’ two goalies are this: Reimer will have no style points, he will let out big rebounds, and he can’t play the puck, but you know what? He wins. Reimer battles for pucks, he’s a big guy, and his career .915 save percentage is a testament to how many pucks he gets in the way of. Bernier, on the other hand, is one exciting goalie to watch. He’s cool, calm, plays the puck beautifully, is seamless in his movements, and oozes talent. One guy is the classic underdog; the other is so fluent and smooth that you would think he’s destined to be a star. I don’t know how you pick between the two in the long run, but obviously the Leafs will ride the hot hand throughout the season.

4. I think, if the Leafs were truly serious about the best players at camp making the team, Carter Ashton will be a Leaf. Provided something cap related (can’t afford him, another team offers him more money, etc.) doesn’t become an issue, so should Mason Raymond.

5. I think one thing the constant roster shuffle has made apparent to me is that – other than Kadri, Lupul, and Kessel – this team really lacks creativity up front on offense. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but those guys are going to be so important when it comes to creating offense.