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. To catch up on previous editions, click here.
Question: With Joffrey Lupul having returned to the lineup after missing almost two full months with a fractured forearm, there was concern that he would be a little rusty as tried to reach game speed. Should the Maple Leafs be easing Lupul back into the lineup or should they throw him right into action given their recent struggles?
Lukas Hardonk: Heading into Saturday’s game against Winnipeg I would have been quick to say the Leafs should ease Lupul into the lineup, allowing him to get back into form before playing him in high-risk situations. Now after he scored two goals in his first game back, it’s hard to make such an argument. Especially when you consider the lack of success the Maple Leafs have seen lately, it only makes sense to give him as much ice time as possible in hopes that he will continue to click and lead his team back onto the right track.
Mark Ascione: I think Lupul showed in his first game back there is no reason to ease him back – he’s ready. I think Carlyle put him in exactly the correct spot with Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin, to form a dangerous line that can offset the Kessel-Bozak-van Riemsdyk line. As a combination, there could be some defensive worries, but the thought of Kadri working with Lupul and Frattin, who both have shown they can score, is an exciting one.
Stephen Stoneman: Lupul is one of the elite scorers in the NHL when paired with Phil Kessel. There is no easing him back into the lineup and his two-goal performance from last night is proof in the pudding. Kadri has the innate ability to make those around him better and Lupul is no exception. Depending on what happens in the coming weeks with Tyler Bozak’s future on the club, I also wouldn’t mind seeing the coach try the James van Riemsdyk experiment, which would see JVR at center between Lupul and Kessel.
Question: Mikhail Grabovski has struggled mightily to produce this season. Should the Maple Leafs be worried about his level of production or shake it off and wait for him to heat up?
Lukas Hardonk: Grabovski has been seeing his playing time dip to the level of his Montreal days more recently, having played in more than 15:57 minutes in a game just twice in his last five. This includes an extreme low of 12:23 against Winnipeg on March 12. The thing is, there isn’t much to worry about here.
Much like the John-Michael Liles situation, Grabovski doesn’t seem to be a Randy Carlyle-type player and focuses a little too much on offence, which is likely the reason for his decline in ice time. All the Leafs can do is shake it off and perhaps consider a trade in the summer.
Mark Ascione: Grabovski is being asked to play some of the most difficult minutes and he is being given big defensive responsibilities. He and Kulemin are actually getting almost no power play minutes and are in tough for offensive zone starts. According to some of the data, they’re actually producing quite well at even strength. Reuniting Grabovski with Kulemin and MacArthur could spark something. The idea of Grabovski under-producing, given the kind of ice time he’s getting, is being blown out of proportion.
Stephen Stoneman: If I was Dave Nonis, I would be worried. Most second line centres in the league are playing in difficult situations as they are usually up against one of the other team’s best two lines. If Grabovski is unable to produce under these circumstances, when will he ever be able to produce? He has also been featured with Kadri on the second instance of the power play but with Lupul back, he will likely see that time diminish as he has been unproductive to say the least.
Grabovski’s 11 points in 29 games would put him on pace for less than a 30-point season. At $5.5 million per season, Grabovski would be considered a huge disappointment, especially given his minus-eight rating. If I was the GM, I would consider using one of my compliance buyouts on Grabovski this off-season.
Question: Many believe that it is time for Jake Gardiner to be called up. If he is brought back up to play with the Maple Leafs, who should take the fall?
Lukas Hardonk: We’re already beginning to see a bit of change on the Leafs’ back-end with Liles, who had been a healthy scratch for almost a month, appearing in the team’s last two games. Now is the time to bring up Gardiner and the one to receive the demotion is really quite obvious: Korbinian Holzer. The 25-year-old German has three points in 22 games, not all too concerning for a defenceman of his type. The issue comes with his minus-12 rating, something that shouldn’t be considered good enough when a young, extremely promising prospect in Jake Gardiner is waiting with the Marlies.
Mark Ascione: Calling up Jake Gardiner is only one thing that should happen on the blue line. I’m not sure why Mike Komisarek is stuck in the pressbox when it’s been obvious Korbinian Holzer and Carl Gunnarsson are struggling, and Mike Kostka isn’t playing quite to the level he was early in the season. There are eight defencemen with the Leafs, so a move has to be made in terms of trade or sending someone to the Marlies. That could involve passing a player through waivers but there has to be a way to get Gardiner up to the big club again.
Stephen Stoneman: I agree that the time is now for Gardiner. With the exception of Dion Phaneuf, Mark Fraser and Cody Franson, there are any number of changes that could happen on the Leafs’ blue line. Here’s what I would do: buy out Mike Komisarek this off-season and so he is not going anywhere. With Holzer being the only blue liner than can be sent down without waivers, I would make that call now. One or both of Gunnarson and Liles are likely gone via the trade route.
That leaves Mike Kostka, who is not the fastest Leaf defender, but he does possess great puck handling skills and a high level of hockey IQ. As such, I would reunite Kostka and Gardiner and let them finish the season together.
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