The Leafs haven’t played since losing 5-4 to Ottawa last Saturday and they play tomorrow night in Columbus. While it is a long layoff for the beginning of the season, it’s certain that with the Blue Jays playing in the playoffs and the Leafs (most likely) facing a year of losing and building, that not too many people really minded.
The game yesterday against the Rangers was a reminder of why I like to watch sports in the first place. Watching and cheering for Toronto teams for the last twenty years has made me forget (and subsequently appreciate) just how incredibly fun it is to be glued to the TV for every play, jumping around, hugging people and just generally acting like a child (in the whimsical carefree sense of the word).
I was a kid when the Jays last won, so the only two games I have to put what I witnessed last night into any kind of context were the Leafs 2002 and 2011 games against Carolina and Boston, respectively. As anyone reading this is surely aware, those games ended in soul-crushing defeat and disappointment, so yesterday’s game was unreal. It’s actually hard to describe without overdoing the hyperbole, so I won’t even try.
But I will say this: watching the Jays get through an elimination game with three home-grown pitchers and knowing that as much as I care about the Blue Jays, I care about the Leafs ten times more, it made me realize that for a team only months into its rebuild to already have Marner, Nylander and Rielly (not to mention Gardiner and Kadri) is pretty amazing. You just look at the Jays and how the city is reacting and it’s crazy to think what might happen when the Leafs eventually get deep into the Playoffs.
Marlies & Prospects
Speaking of the home-grown prospects, the Marlies are also the victims this week of weird scheduling, having played two games back-to-back last weekend and then being off until Saturday.
The Marlies won both games they played so far and William Nylander had a goal and an assist, with Leivo, Campbell and Froese all also picking up two points each as well.
In the OHL, Mitch Marner (London) is off to a great start scoring three times and adding four assists in five game. Travis Dermott (Erie) has three assists in six games.
Speaking of Marner, I must one again implore you to watch this video if you haven’t already seen it.
Why Does Bozak Get So Much Ice Time?
With nearly a week off, a popular point of discussion is the way ice time has been allotted so far this season. I think coming into this season, many Leafs fans were hoping that with Mike Babcock on board, that Morgan Rielly/Jake Gardiner would ascend to the top of the Leafs depth chart and that Nazem Kadri would get the most ice-time at centre.
So far, Babcock has chosen not to see it that way, deploying Phaneuf for the most minutes on defense (22 mins per night in total vs. roughly 20 for Gardiner and Rielly) and Bozak with the most at forward (over two minutes more per game in total and a minute more at 5v5) The problem – as I see it – is that by any measure Gardiner is superior to Phaneuf, and Kadri is superior to Bozak. So why is Babcock giving out ice-time in this way?
Some potential explanations:
- He is the fourth coach (Wilson,Carlyle, Horachek) to do so. Maybe this means that advanced stats are not all that accurate and coaches know best.
I don’t really think this is the reason because you can’t compare where Kadri and Gardiner are today with the Ron Wilson ear, or even the Carlyle era. I think this is faulty logic and bad reasoning. I also think we have way more than enough data to support the thesis that Kadri and Gardiner are the superior players.
2. The players are just entrenched in roles and moving them into new roles is awkward when you’re talking about your Captain and one of your Alternates.
It’s definitely awkward to take a guy who’s played a certain role and decrease it while he’s the highest paid player and the captain. I really can’t see the Leafs truly playing Gardiner and Reilly as the true top-pairing go-to guys on the team until Phaneuf is traded.
As for Bozak, I don’t think this is the issue as much as it is trying to get Kadri somewhat protect minutes, which makes sense to do with your best offensive player.
3. The Leafs could be attempting to drive up value on players they clearly need/want to move by showing that they can be useful in shut-down roles.
On one hand, I think the Leafs – who are rebuilding and not prioritizing winning this year, despite what Babcock may say to the media – would be insane not to attempt to build value into players they want to move. This is a team that seems obsessed with increasing value across the organization (taking on PTOs and reclamation projects to flip for assets later, trading down in the draft to get more volume in picks etc.) and based on their past behavior, it seems like something they’d do.
But then again, how much does Mike Babcock care about that? Is he a deeper and more thoughtful character than the “win-now” robot that does post game press-conferences? I think he is, still there is no proof here, just speculation. But, if you want to move players, you can’t really sell them to other teams when you’re not using them yourself.
In the end, the way ice time has been handed out is interesting, but we have to keep in mind there is a new coach on a team with ten new players and it’s only three games into the season. Some people (like myself) are eager to see their favorite young players given more prominent roles, while others are quick to say “Hey he’s the fourth coach who’s done this, maybe Bozak isn’t so bad.”
Like I said though, that doesn’t stand up to reason. If we break down the ice time, we see that the main reason Bozak has the most of it is because he plays on both special teams (Kadri doesn’t kill penalties) and is generally matched against the other team’s top lines (which get the most minutes). So far, by looking at the game-sheets at waronice.com, you can see that he does the best when on the ice with Gardiner and Komarov and away from Lupul. To maximize the asset that is Bozak, the Leafs should continue to approach things this way. Bozak isn’t a great – or even good – defensive centre, but you want to keep him involved in games while getting Kadri the best possible minutes to do what Kadri does best: score.
This line of thinking would also explain why the two players (Kadri and Bozak) have the same amount of power-play ice time so far, when Kadri is unarguably the superior offensive player. Conceivably, (and who knows if the Leafs even consider things like this, but I think they do) Bozak could pad his stats on the PP and be a more movable assets.
I think if you look at how the games have gone and who is on the ice in what situations, you can make a case that Jake Gardiner is the Leafs’ best current defenseman and that Nazem Kadri is the best forward. However, the ice time doesn’t show it that way, so it is obviously going to be up for debate as to why that is until Bozak and Phaneuf no longer lead the team in that stat.
Personally, I think the Leafs would be best suited in the long-term by moving both players as soon as is humanly possible. I think if the Leafs want to ice their best lineup with the current roster, that they should give the most ice time on defense to Gardiner, play Kadri as they have been at regular strength (but with him getting much more PP time) and use Holland as the centre they match with the other teams best lines. I think Holland is superior to Bozak and is the Leafs most under-used player. More on him next time.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.