Friday, November 27, 2009

Leafs this week [21 - 27]

Weekly scoring statistics

Top Leafs this week:
1) Niklas Hagman - well, this isn't a hard pick. Everybody in the Toronto media is saying that Hagman is the man. They're in love with him. Hagman has always had a flair for scoring cool goals - but sometimes they come in bunches. Is he going to score 40 this year? Well, according to this week's pace, sure - but according to the previous 20 games of hockey before this week - no way. So ... he should be praised for what he did last week/this week, but let's hold off before we start calling him a "future hall of famer," okay?

That said, Hagman had four goals in three games against mediocre teams in the Islanders and Lightning and the top eastern team in the Capitals. Definitely had one of his best weeks as a Maple Leaf, which should be rewarded with recognition - but not expected game-in and game-out, of course. Thirteen shots and a plus-three rating were also very good indicators that his game was on the rise. Let's see how he keeps it up for next week. My recommendation is - stay high on him if he keeps up this awesome pace, but don't get down on him if he doesn't.

2) Matt Stajan - one goal and two assists for three points over three games is a consistent effort with a hard-fought game against the Capitals, and then good offensive output against the Islanders and a great goal against the Lightning. Three points for only six shots on net is high-value performance, considering a goal every six shots is pretty effective - that's hovering around 15% success - very good for shooting percentage.

3) Carl Gunnarsson - it's good to have a balanced series of top-stars in a given week. You don't want three forwards - you don't want all defensemen, and it had better not be three goalies. That being said, the rookie Carl Gunnarsson (2 "ns" and 2 "ss") looked awesome, and contributed greatly while looking so good. A plus-4 rating, 7 shots on net, three assists against Tampa and relied upon in the finals minutes of games when the Leafs are leading - high praise from a tough coach; esp. for a rookie. Gunnarsson is looking real good, and the Leafs should be excited to have a reliable d-man coming up out of the minors.

Notable(s) - good: Nik Kulemin, he only generated one goal to speak of, but he has performed very well in the corners digging out pucks and keeping the cycle low in the opposition's zone. That's good to see. He looks big and strong, and with some seasonsing, some coaching, and hopefully some success - his development could finally take a step forward. The Leafs have been waiting for him to grow into his first round pick status. Vesa Toskala earned a shootout win against the Caps - which helps the Leafs feel more confident with him in net. A shootout win for Toskala has been difficult since the shootout began - so it's good to see some success from him. Despite his poor performance (in which he was consequently injured from) his GAA was around 2.4 and save percentage was around 91.5 - these are marked improvements from his efforts in the past 1.2 seasons. Offensive possession - the Leafs averaged 45 shots on net per game this week, including a whopping 61 shot peformance against the Islanders - this is an indication that they are able to play a puck-possession game and control the offense. Bad: goal output - yeah the Leafs are controlling the play and getting lots of scoring chances - but they need to translate that into goals, which is a bit of a struggle. It's not good for them to average 45 shots, yielding only 2.6 goals per game. But the more they get used to having control, the more they'll get used to taking their time, and then ... that's when you should start seeing some better results. Jason Blake has struggled with only 1 assist, and a minus-1 rating. Not good for what's expected of a former-40 goal scorer. Tomas Kaberle was a team-worst minus-four for the week, and a deserved minus-four, as well. His turnovers were brutal, his defense wasn't nearly as sharp as it's been in the past; frankly, what made him a valuable addition to the team is not working for him right now - and that's got to be remedied or else he could be benched more often than he'd like.

So how do the Leafs sit now with a few points under their belt and three point-worthy performances?

Last in their division, eight points behind the Canadiens; second last in their conference, 2 points up on Carolina and 7 points behind the Florida Panthers (whom they play tonight); and 29th in the NHL, only 2 points behind the Minnesotta Wild - so there are a few steps they can take with a couple more points to climb from the depths they've fallen to; and they have to look at each game as something to prove instead of the standings, because they know where they are - perhaps with a few more solid games they can surprise themselves with tangible improvements.

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Washing Capitals of Nov. 21
Probably the best defensive game we've seen the Maple Leafs play this season. In fact, there's no doubt that this was their best defensive game. However, this was also an apt example of how incomplete their game remains. They were absolutely absent of quality offense. There was a telling statistic put up during CBC's broadcast that showed the Leafs were 3rd in the league with shots on net, and 29th in the league in scoring. Obviously their "just get it on the net" strategy is not working out.

Seeing that the only reason the Leafs got any points in this game at all (which remember, was their best game all season) was a shot that redirected off of a defenseman's ass, then bounced up into the air onto Niklas Hagman whom had the puck then bounce off of his "upper body area" and then into the net. That's the Leaf's example of offense? Not good enough. This also demonstrates why this is NOT a turning point for the Leafs - because although this was a win against the top team in the Eastern Conference, it was a complete effort that demonstrates how anemic their offense is.

Scary, I know.

The good part is, this was Vesa Toskala's best game of the season, and I've heard some say his best game as a Maple Leaf. It was a first-star performance, and consequently, this win was a complete team effort. They outshot the Capitals (which doesn't mean much more than that they controlled the play - which they did) and contained the most "electrifying player in the NHL" in Ovechkin, who was terrible, yet still managed to score a goal. Goes to show how well he can shoot even when he's terrible.

Toskala absolutely has to have another strong outing against the New York Islanders on Monday - which we are all hoping for. We want to see what John Tavares can do at the National League level, but we have to see Toskala keep the pressure on Gustavsson. Again, the key to the Leafs is having a battle between the pipes that inspires and pressures both Toskala and Gustavsson to compete to their fullest potential game in and game out. Toskala has raised his game to its highest level since he became a Maple Leaf with three consecutive strong games, which only included 1 win due to the struggling offensive strategy of the team.

Second - we need to see some power plays that usual actual strategic offensive plays to score goals; and more importantly, we need to see some improvement on five-on-five offensive strategic execution. The "third?" line of Kulemin, Stempniak and Mitchell was dominating on Saturday - so perhaps they will build on their strong forechecking and deep cycling to keep their opposition pinned down in the corner for long shifts.

Ian White had another awesome game (where he and Beauchemin shut down Ovechkin and the entire Capitals team with apparent ease) and it has to be noted that there was a report that Beauchemin actually told coach Ron Wilson, "I want to be up against Ovechkin all game long." That's the attitude that makes me think that these two are going to be the cornerstone of the Leafs defense for the next two years. I guarantee you don't hear Tomas Kaberle saying that sort of thing.

While on the subject of the Leafs defense, there was a moment when I saw No. 36 execute an awesome toe-drag to break into the offensive zone, and I thought to myself, "Who's that? Is that Wayne Primeau? That was an awesome move." No, it wasn't Primeau, who's hardly played in the last two weeks, and I have no idea what number he wears (it's 18, FYI), but rather it was a rookie named Carl Gunarsson.

Gunnarsson did some amazing things during this game. That toe-drag was really cool, and there was another instance where he jumped into the play and took a great shot on net. He looks great out there and shows some promise of being a reliable offensive, puck-moving defenseman. The other cool thing about Gunnarsson, he can body-check like a mean SOB, as evidenced in the preseaon this year. A good and valuable all-around game. Looking forward to more from him, for sure!

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New York Islanders of Nov. 23
The kitchen sink was the only thing missing from this game - otherwise, the Leafs shot it at Dwayne Roloson - who made 58 saves during the game. He managed to take the Islanders into overtime - and that's when it only takes a moment to win a game, whereas it takes entire game to to make it to overtime. The Islanders were happy to win a game they had no business winning - and this served as an example of the type of performance the Leafs head coach Ron Wilson would like to see out of his goalies once in a while.

Toskala let in three goals on three shots in the second period, deflating the Leafs, but then pulled himself from the game with a self-diagnosed injury (which later kept him out of practice). Tough for him and the team - just as he was getting into form. Gustavsson filled in for relief, but the Leafs only faced six shots after Vesa came out - hardly a night's work in net to call it relief.

Tampa Bay Lightning of Nov. 25
A tough game against a team with a few game-breakers in their line (with Lecavallier, Stamkos and St. Louis) the Leafs took the lead, lost the lead, took the lead, lost the lead, and played like that until Stajan scored an awesome goal to put the Leafs in front for good.

Most notable was that Kulemin and Gunnarsson were out on the ice during the final minutes of the game for the Leafs. The coach hasn't put Kaberle out to finish a game for a long while, and it's likely because TK hasn't been sot hot lately.

Gunnarsson was awesome in this game - and Gustavsson was very good as well - giving the Leafs two more points to help them along their way up from the bottom of the NHL.

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