Maple Leafs Panel is a weekly feature that is published every Monday throughout the season here at The Hockey Writers. It’s a feature where THW Editor Lukas Hardonk as well as THW Toronto Maple Leafs correspondents Mark Ascione and Stephen Stoneman answer three questions that concern the Maple Leafs each week.
Question: Did Dave Nonis make a mistake by deciding not to claim Jussi Jokinen off waivers last month or was he right to avoid spending millions solely to improve the shootout?
Lukas Hardonk: Whether you love it or you hate it, and there’s no in between, the shootout is a fun and exciting thing to watch. It’s even more exciting when a “shootout specialist” skates the puck to the net and pulls a fancy move to find twine. That, a shootout specialist, is exactly what Jussi Jokinen is. Even though he has other attributes and can be a solid offensive contributor, he is not a player Nonis should be spending $2.1 million this season and next.
Of course the main reason people are concerned about the shootout is that Toronto has gone 0-5 in the extra session since the season began. That’s 10 points they could have had, which would put them second in the Eastern Conference. Still, it makes little sense to spend millions on the shootout for one player. Instead, it’s time for their key scorers and netminders to work on breakaways in order to improve their shootout record from within the organization.
Mark Ascione: It’s kind of funny to think of the Leafs passing on a waiver pickup that the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins decided to add to their formidable lineup and say “Toronto made the right move”. But in this case, I think Nonis did make a good decision not to pick up Jussi Jokinen. No doubt Jokinen is a decent NHL player but if there’s one thing the Leafs have it’s forwards playing at the NHL level; Dave Nonis was essentially forced to make trades sending David Steckel and Mike Brown out of Toronto because he had a glut of forwards.
There really isn’t a scenario where picking up Jokinen and having to send Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri or Leo Komarov to the minors makes sense. Sure Jokinen can be helpful with the shootout and lost wins due to poor shootout results may hurt in the standings but overall, the Leafs’ forward lines have been good offensively, fairly good defensively, and you can see there’s chemistry there. Further, acquiring more forwards doesn’t address the needs Nonis had already identified, namely stay-at-home defenders and a veteran goalie. Bottom line, you can’t just pick up everyone, and Nonis was right to pass.
Stephen Stoneman: Absolutely not. Yes this 30-year-old Finnish player has had five points in four games since joining the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline but he is not the kind of player that Dave Nonis and the Maple Leafs need, especially at this time of year. Jokinen is an offensive talent who especially flourishes in the shootout. While the Leafs have lost all five shootouts that they participated in this year, they won’t need to worry about the breakaway competition if they make the post-season.
There is a waiver claim that I might have made if I was Dave Nonis. That would be 6’3″, 230-pound Anthony Stewart, who in a rigorous post-season matchup would serve as the perfect fourth line type player when the fighting game disappears. It would seem that the Leafs are content with their extra players in Hamilton and Colborne who they have already called up.
Question: The Maple Leafs’ penalty killing has vastly improved over seasons past. What has been the main reason behind its success in 2013?
Lukas Hardonk: Unlike years past, the Maple Leafs have been able to attack their penalty killing from different angles; coaching, forwards, defence and goalies. Until 2013 we were used to watching a Ron Wilson coached team, one that was more offensive than defensive and wasn’t overly concerned about facets of the game like killing penalties. Now coach Randy Carlyle has been able to instill a defence first mentality into his team, one that is paying dividends while shorthanded.
As well, additions Jay McClement and Leo Komarov have anchored the special team unit while Nikolai Kulemin is playing a penalty killing role as well. Also, Korbinian Holzer has logged quite a few minutes in the games he’s appeared in, Dion Phaneuf is having an improved season and Ryan O’Byrne was a nice addition to the PK unit. In net, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have both played well while down a man. In fact, Scrivens has not allowed a single shorthanded goal all season.
Mark Ascione: Randy Carlyle gets heat from some corners but I think he’s got this team more committed to a more defensively-sound style. It helps that he has Jay McClement to use. No disrespect to previous Leafs but McClement has been head and shoulders better than just about any 3rd and 4th liner this team has had for years. His work ethic and his ability to be in the right place make McClement a huge asset to the Leaf penalty kill.
Nikolai Kulemin and Leo Komarov have also played a dedicated defensive style when penalty killing. On the blue line, Dion Phaneuf has been better this year, likely helped by the addition of Mark Fraser, who helps shoulder some of the load. James Reimer has at times been shaky but I think he has settled back into his comfort zone with goalie coach Rick St. Croix.
I think all these incremental changes have added up to a better PK for the Leafs, which also is likely a huge mental boost. I believe in the past the Leafs may have felt getting scored on during a penalty was inevitable and it affected the overall PK. But success can be contagious and I think it’s just snowballed to where they are among the top-ranked penalty kill squads.
Stephen Stoneman: The Leafs PK is one of the biggest reasons why they have flourished this season and why they are poised to make their first playoff berth in eight years. When the Leafs acquired Jay McClement as a free agent on July 1, they could only have hoped their PK would flourish, but make no mistake, this was the reason the Leafs went after him. McClement has been instrumental in helping the Maple Leafs kill penalties; he knows where the puck and the opposition are at all times, he is calm with the puck and when he gets it, he rarely makes mistakes.
But hockey is a team game and quite frankly the years that Tyler Bozak and Nik Kulemin have spent killing penalties appear to be finally coming through. You add Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk and you’ve got a solid group of killers that have been near perfect this year. In fact, they are third in the NHL with a rate of 87.6 percent behind only the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators.
Question: Which potential Maple Leafs playoff opponent would make for the most interesting matchup?
Lukas Hardonk: If you’re looking for loud buildings with wound up fans and outstanding playoff atmospheres, you’re looking for a playoff matchup that includes the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. If you just want a good old fashion rivalry with fans that flat out hate each other and teams that want nothing more than to beat each other for more than just a chance to move on, Montreal and Toronto is both yours and my cup of tea.
Toronto and Montreal have proven to be an equal opponent for each other over the years no matter how far apart they are in the standings. Their fans have gone back and forth, the players despise on another and the history is simply too much to pass up. Add in some playoff action and you’re in for a real treat.
Mark Ascione: The Montreal Canadiens would be the most interesting matchup I think. It’s been almost 35 years since these teams met in the playoffs and they are the ‘forever rivals’. Certainly Montreal has been a very good team this season and to start the playoffs with such a matchup after years of being in the hockey wilderness would be a blast for Leafs fans. I also think Habs fan would enjoy the chance to boot the Buds in the first round.
In terms of matchups, I also think the Habs present an opponent the Leafs could be competitive against, more so than Boston. That’s not meant to rile up the Canadiens’ fanbase; the Leafs traditionally find it more difficult to play competitively against the Bruins while they have played well against Montreal at times. Of course Ottawa and Winnipeg would also present interesting rivalry matchups and I think the Leafs could be competitive in those series also but I just don’t see a scenario where either would be the first round matchup.
Stephen Stoneman: B is for beatable. B is also for the Boston Bruins. I would love to see the Leafs face off against the Beatable Boston Bruins who proved their lacklusterness in a 4-2 loss on Saturday night to the measly Carolina Hurricanes. Boston has been without their best all-around player in Patrice Bergeron, which has certainly brought them back down to life. Tyler Seguin who was drafted second overall in the Entry Draft has feasted on the Maple Leafs in his brief time in the league but he has been out-shined this year by both Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri.
The Maple Leafs did go 1-2-1 against Boston this year but their three losses were 1-0 and 3-1 with an empty net goal while their last defeat came in the shootout. Boston has had Toronto’s number over the last several years but not unlike the Leafs vs. Senators from the late 90s and early 2000s, the regular season means nothing. If this is the matchup, the pressure will be on the young goaltenders in Tuuka Rask and James Reimer. If the Leafs want to get the Boston monkey off their back, a playoff series win would go a long way.