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Blue and White Storylines

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything and there’s a good reason I haven’t.

Simply put, I disagree with just about everything I’m hearing, seeing, and reading these days. It’s incredibly tough to write when you’re as passionate a fan as we Leaf fans are about our team and you disagree with the general consensus. It usually ends in my hammering on my computer keys while trying to get a point across, which, in the end, simply results in a nonsensical, poorly thought out diatribe that makes for poor reading.

I will do my best to avoid that.

At the moment we’re heading into the All-Star break and that’s disappointing because there is nothing interesting about the All-Star break. I’ll miss hockey until it returns. When the games do resume we’ll see Toronto play at home against the Islanders, followed by a game against the Rangers the very next night in New York. This home-and-away, back-to-back, will start the 13 game stretch that leads to the trade deadline and will feature 9 home games. This is also a little disappointing because the Leafs haven’t exactly been doing themselves any favours at home lately. They went 2-2-2 in a 6 game home stretch in January and are 2-3-2 at home throughout the month. Before the month of January they were 11-5 at home, so maybe it’s just the New Year curse biting them in the behind again this year but who knows? All I do know is that the new lines, designed for the road to avoid poor matchups, according to Babcock anyway, have looked far superior to what we have seen recently and I want that to continue.

The Forward Lines

I understand what Mike Babcock is doing…. I think.

He wants a pure shutdown line that can score some goals as they go. He assembled that through the use of Marleau, Kadri and Komarov. He hasn’t deterred from that line until recently because for the most part they’ve been Effective.

He seems to want a 2nd scoring line and that comes in the form of Van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Marner. The exact opposite of the shutdown line here, they can’t really defend but they all have a nose for the net. The problem is they haven’t been scoring much.

He wants an energy line and has based that around a variety of players but Martin and Moore have been the most consistent, followed by Brown, who gets shuffled around the lineup a little.

Then you have the Matthews line. It’s really the only perfect line in the bunch because of the variety found within it. Matthews is good both ways, which means he and Hyman make for 2/3rds of a solid defensive line, while he and Nylander combine for 2/3rds of a high end scoring line. Because of him, Hyman only needs to be decent offensively, and Nylander only needs to be decent defensively, to make the line effective on both sides of the puck. Right? Right!! (I think)

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What I like so much is the revamped lines almost mirror what makes Matthews’ line so good. By injecting the offense of Marner into the pure shutdown line you make it responsible defensively while being far more effective offensively.

Likewise, by having Brown on a line with Bozak and Van Riemsdyk, you can make that line more responsible defensively, while not handcuffing them offensively, because Brown also has a nose for the net.

This leaves Komarov, Moore, Kapanen, Martin and Leivo to make up a 4th line. I believe any mixture there could be effective but would have to go with Martin, Moore and Komarov. Leo is too valuable defensively and on the penalty kill to not play. Martin brings a physical element that nobody else on the roster does and Moore is our best option for 4C (sorry Goat, but I believe it’s true). If I’m making decisions at this point I’d return Kapanen to the AHL Marlies for the remainder of the year, knowing that he’ll be a full time NHL player next season. Also, if you want to infuse some offense into your 4th line against certain teams, I’d sit Martin for Leivo.

To me this all simply makes sense as it gives you 2-way lines, instead of role specific units, and a more balanced lineup.

We’ve all seen what good balance can do when we look at the blueline.

The Defenders

So many questions. So many options. So many possibilities. I’m not even sure where to start!!

Travis Dermott has been a revelation. His defensive positioning looks terrific. His zone exits and entries are great. He’s everything I had hoped he’d be when I, along with some other writers here (looking at you Coco!!) praised him so highly.

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Andreas Borgman has continued to be steady. We could pour over a few defensive miscues but for a rookie defender those are to be expected. We should also remember that he has already played close to what amounts to a full season in the leagues he played in before (SHL regular season is 52 games). Players can often get both physically and mentally drained during an 82 game schedule. So, for him, the All-Star break might be just what the doctor ordered to rest a little further and reset for the stretch run.

Hainsey has helped Rielly relax and play the best hockey of his career.

Hainsey has done the same for Gardiner over the past few games.

Zaitsev has been better than given credit for and we see just how badly he’s missed now that he’s injured.

Carrick has looked good lately while playing with Dermott as well.

Which brings us to Polak. The big, bruising, right shot defender that does it right everyday.

I have a few things to say on this. For starters, I’d love to see Polak change up his decision making when he gets the puck at the point in the offensive zone. He doesn’t often wait or look for options, he generally throws the puck at the net and hopes for the best. The problem here is the shot is usually blocked. When it isn’t blocked the next most often thing to happen is he misses the net. There are the few occasions he gets the puck on net but based on his 27 shots in 32 games, and how much I notice him throwing it toward the goal, it isn’t nearly often enough. Getting pucks through from the blueline is a skill in itself. One that players such as Rielly and Gardiner do very well through the use of moving the puck East-West. This is a skill that Polak lacks, so it would be nice if he accepted this and rethought his plan of attack.

What else is worth mentioning is his work ethic to come back from an incredibly tough injury last season. Unlike the inability to get shots through, this is a major positive. It’s no small feat to recover from the injury he sustained in Game 2 versus the Capitals in the playoffs, and not only attend camp in the fall, but earn a contract from the team…. And he DID earn it. He worked extremely hard considering just a few months earlier he was starting to walk again in a pool because, in his words, “the thigh and the calf just disappeared” after the injury. He earned it through pure bull work, and that should be applauded and respected.

With all of that said maybe his leg should be rested from time to time as well. He hasn’t been the best defender at either end of the ice. It seems that when something goes wrong that makes you shrug and say things like “just bad luck” or “it happens sometimes” it’s always Roman that’s involved. A puck off the skate and in. A bad bounce or a pass that is just missed.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on him but he’s been involved in those plays enough to make me wonder if it’s the plays or the player.

All in all I would say that the blueline isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance. They are missing a top end player, but they have some depth there. If you consider the fact that Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin could be called upon if needed, and Rinat Valiev has been with the team but not playing for a while now (it’s since been announced that he has been returned to the AHL Marlies), you can see the depth. So, I must ask, what does this all mean for the deadline?

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February 26th, Trade Deadline

There are a ton of names floating around and some linked to our Maple Leafs. Larry Brooks is wrong that it would be great for both teams if a trade saw the Leafs get Ryan McDonagh, while the Rangers would land William Nylander (plus something). That would be great for New York only and doesn’t seem to coincide with what we’ve seen from Toronto as of late. Top end youth being traded for veterans, in an attempt to win now, hasn’t been the story of late. The closest we’ve come to that is sending a 2nd round pick to The New York Rangers for Brian Boyle last season. A rental for a pick when you have multiple 2nd round picks makes sense if you ask me.

So, will we see this again? If so where do they need help the most and which players could be targets?

I’m not breaking the mold here by guessing centre and blueline depth would be good bets for a playoff run. Frederik Gauthier received a few games on the 4th line but, in my mind, wasn’t very effective. Dominic Moore is the better 4C, but the fact that they keep shuffling things and sending him to the press box makes me wonder just how happy the coaches are with him. Another Brian Boyle type trade, or a deal that pushes Bozak to the 4th line, might be a realistic expectation.

A look at pure rentals doesn’t present many good options, probably because only a handful of teams have come out as sure fire sellers at this point in time. Mark Letestu from Edmonton might be worth a look. His 52.8% mark on faceoffs is good and he plays big PK minutes for the Oilers. The fact that the Oilers penalty kill ranks last in the NHL isn’t exactly a plus to him but I did say there aren’t many good options at the moment.

If you are of the mind that Bozak is playing through his final days as a Maple Leaf and think a 3C could be targeted, effectively pushing Bozak to the 4th line and setting their top 3 centres for next year, then you could target players such as Brock Nelson or Brandon Sutter. Both bring different elements to the game but could be effective in the right role.

As for the defense, the outlook is even bleaker. It’s largely accepted that the right side is where the Leafs need help the most, which means you would look towards such rentals as Mike Green or Erik Gudbranson. Maybe Lou Lamoriello and company should just turn their phones off right now and not turn them on again until after the deadline has passed?

If you look past pure rentals there is one single name that I think makes sense AND would be cost effective. Niklas Hjalmarsson can play top 4 minutes, would help the PK immensely (not only because of his own ability, but by giving Hainsey a rest), can play the left or right side, is signed to a reasonable contract, and is only signed through next season. He cost the Arizona Coyotes a former 2nd round pick that plays centre, that has shown middling results at best, and a former 1st round pick defender that has never proven to be much more than a 3rd pairing option. Both players were traded years after their draft year and it’s safe to say their value had dropped from their draft positions.

He’d be a solid option and would cost a pittance when compared to the price you can imagine it would cost to land players such as Kris Letang, Ryan McDonagh (so, SO wrong Mr. Brooks), or Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Even if you don’t ship out one of Marner or Nylander (they shouldn’t) for a big name like those, they would still cost you high picks and top end prospects. On top of this, I would hope he could have the same effect on some of our offensive defenders as Hainsey has had on Rielly and Gardiner when paired with them. I honestly believe it would bring the aforementioned balance to the blueline that we could have throughout the forward ranks if the lines stay as they have been, we’re just one more Hainsey away.

The Hainsey effect is real by the way, and it’s beautiful!! He’s like an extra coach on the ice and God knows our coach could use some help right now.

Mike Babcock

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I can’t believe I’m about to write what I am but here it is. I saw Babcock referred to as a “Donkey” on Twitter today. That’s one of the appropriate names I’ve seen that I can put in this family friendly piece.

It amazes me how a coach that was lauded as the best in the league, with only Joel Quennville considered to be seriously in the running such a short time ago, can now be enemy #1 in Toronto. Yes, he is stubborn with his lineups. Yes, he has started some players that have questionable offensive skill in overtime. Yes, he should start his best offensive weapons on the power play. Yes….. to whatever else you think of him….. But yes, he is also the coach that took a team made up of so many rookies to the playoffs last season. He’s won everything under the sun and some of it twice. He’s making more than any other coach in history for a reason and simply put, that reason is because he’s one of the best coaches in history. He gets the respect of his players and holds them accountable. He gives players specific roles and rules and the end result for him has always been winning. We’re now seeing a team that isn’t just meant to compete, they’re inching towards being meant to contend. In order to get there they need to learn more than high octane offensive hockey though. They need to learn how to grind out wins with a work like mentality. It appears to me that he’s trying to teach that to a team that doesn’t yet know how. Also, he’s doing it at a point in time when they look over their shoulder in the standings and see….. nothing!! Nobody is chasing them. Nobody is worrying about their falling out of the playoffs. Honestly, it’s as if the stars aligned to afford them the time to go through the hard times now, instead of the playoffs, when the games will actually matter.

With all of that said I’m happy with the new line changes and hope they stick. It has been frustrating to watch the same groupings trotted out, game after game, with less than stellar results. I guess all I’m saying is, maybe Mike Babcock, after all he’s done here and after all he’s accomplished before he arrived, should be granted a little leniency at times to do the things that he thinks will push this group to the next level. He’s done right by us up to this point, and with the team firmly entrenched in the playoffs, it will be tough to convince me that he doesn’t still have them on the right track.

So, if you mean to call him a donkey because a donkey can put heavy loads on their back and trudge forwards against all odds, then yes, I agree, Mike “Donkey” Babcock is doing a fine job leading this team forward.

Final Say

The negativity has gotten to me lately and I think I’m not alone. I just want to remind people that during the month of January the Leafs have gone 5-3-3. They’ve won 3 of their past 4 games, have collected points in 5 of their past 6, they’re 15pts up on both Detroit and Montreal for 3rd in the Atlantic Division, and they have one of the best goalies in the league. Contrary to popular belief, having your goalie keep you in games isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s no different than having a great 1st line centre or top end defender, they’re part of the team and you can’t win without a great player between the pipes. If he wins the game for the team, that means the team deserved to win the game, because he’s part of the group. To me it’s as simple as that.

The negativity spans back to December. During that month they went 6-6-1 and followed it up by stumbling through the beginning of January by means of coughing up late leads and eventually losing games. It was frustrating, I know, I watched it all unfold with you all.

If you want my advice, don’t let pockets of down play overshadow what the team is on the whole. They are a young team trying to find consistency and adapt to the best league in the world. There will be ups and downs during each season, the real test of their mettle will come in how they push through those times and if they come out better on the other side. I think we’re about to see a team push through these tough times and really show what they can do, not just down the stretch, but into the coming years.

This post first appeared on Leafs Hub, please read the originial post: here

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