Welcome to the first of a weekly series of recaps, previews and analyses of all things Leafs. I won’t be able to weigh in after every game but I want to give the boys in blue all the coverage they deserve, be it praise or rip jobs. Therefore, here is the new format. Enjoy!
Despite a pair of uneven opening efforts, the Maple Leafs showed enough depth, skill and grit to secure all available four points in a pair of critical, early home dates against Montreal and Ottawa. Though bookended by a flat effort in the opener’s first period and a near-disastrous third period against the Senators, the games offered optimism in the form of strong performances from James Reimer (five shutout periods before the wheels came off late on Saturday), Phil Kessel (first hat trick as a Leaf on Saturday), Dion Phaneuf (assertive defensive effort, highlighted by his crushing hit on Ottawa’s Stephane Da Costa) and a deep forward corps.
The Franson Lombardi Trade
Granted, it’s a small sample size, but no one has been as much of a revelation through two games as Matthew Lombardi. Healthy and seemingly free of any post-concussion symptoms, Lombardi is using his speed as a weapon on both ends of the ice, taking on an offensive role while also adhering to his grinder line M.O. of defensive responsibility. He was critical in both games, scoring the team’s first goal of the season against Montreal and then winning a critical race to the puck in the dying seconds of Saturday’s one-goal game. With Cody Franson remaining a healthy scratch through both opening games (more on him in a bit), the trade in which Toronto had to take on the concussion-prone forward to get the young defenceman may wind up being the Lombardi trade.
There have been plenty of top lines in hockey that have managed to succeed despite boasting a lesser-than-top-flight talent (remember the Mats Sundin-Alex Mogilny-Jonas Hoglund line?). Maybe, then, Kessel and Joffrey Lupul don’t need an elite pivot in between them and can fare just fine with Tyler Bozak along for the ride. They certainly didn’t appear to need an upgrade this week, putting up nine combined points and posting a +4 and +3 through two games, respectively. Keep in mind, Kessel’s struggles through much of last season (he did still finish with 32 goals, mind you) came alongside Bozak but without Lupul. It will be interesting to see what a healthy Tim Connolly can add to the top group (Bozak simply hasn’t played well enough to lock up the No. 1 centre job), but Kessel and Lupul seem to be doing just fine on their own for now.
It’s Not Pre-Season Anymore
That much is clear to both Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, who seem to be lost in the speed and physicality of the pro game. Frattin has been Mr. Invisible on the second unit with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin shouldering much of the load. Likewise, Gardiner has been caught flat-footed on multiple occasions, is a -2 on the year and could be singled out for blame on at least one of the Sens’ five third period goals on Saturday. Despite their training camp success, both men could be looking at short stays to begin their NHL career, with Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Connolly soon to be creating a pinch up front for Frattin and Franson ready to step in to replace Gardiner on the blue line.
12 Spots, 16 Guys
The Leafs still won’t have a full slate of healthy forwards for some time, given that Connolly endured a setback on Wednesday and is still on no timetable. But the nice problem of having too many guys up front is already starting to manifest itself. Ron Wilson has used just 12 forwards in each of the first two games, putting Colton Orr in the press box against Montreal and then leaving Jay Rosehill out of the lineup against Ottawa. And even then, Rosehill got just five minutes of ice time in his game, while Orr was left with in his. Meanwhile, the play of both David Steckel and Philippe Dupuis has earned them more ice time security (although they may still wind up as victims of numbers). Among the other entrenched vets on the bottom two lines, Wilson and Brian Burke like Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong too much to bump them, but Armstrong may need a shot in the arm after a pair of listless efforts. The simplest move – for now – would be to insert MacArthur back into his second line role and send Frattin, who still has options, down to play with the Marlies.
What’s Coming Up
Vs. Calgary (Saturday); vs. Colorado (Monday)
After a week off, another slate of home games will see Calgary and Colorado come to town before the Leafs welcome Winnipeg next Wednesday. The Calgary game will be a critical one for Reimer, who will need to focus more on a sparkling shutout effort against the Habs and two strong periods against the Sens and less on the opening of the floodgates that was Ottawa’s five goal third. Meanwhile, MacArthur is back from suspension, Kadri is inching closer to returning and Franson has been told that he will make his Leafs debut on Saturday (likely at Gardiner’s expense).
About the Author
Written by Ben Fisher