Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect Watch

With nothing going on at the NHL-level, Leafs fans are looking to get their hockey fix in other areas.  Well, if you'd like to keep an eye on some Leafs prospects, here's what's coming up in the next little while.

In the OHL, the Oshawa Generals are on the road, playing the Peterborough Petes on Thursday, September 20th.  Tyler Biggs makes his Generals debut after a lacklustre season at the University of Miami (Ohio).  Biggs will almost certainly play a more prominent role with the Generals than he did with the Red Hawks last year and he'll be looking to prove something to his detractors.  

The Generals have been beating up on the Petes during the pre-season and will look to continue the trend this week.  Anchoring the Petes' defense is 2012 10th overall selection (Tampa Bay) Slater Koekkoek who will look to stifle Biggs and the Generals offense.

Biggs and the Generals then travel to Sudbury to play Leafs prospect Josh Leivo and the Sudbury Wolves on Friday, September 21st.  Leivo put up 73 points in 66 games last season with the Wolves and made a single appearance with the Toronto Marlies.  Leivo will look to improve on his breakout season last year and will undoubtedly be leaned on heavily by the Wolves this year.  If you're a Leafs fan in the Sudbury area, this one is definitely worth checking out. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Was Joe Colborne Playing?

Last year was a tale of two seasons for Leafs prospect Joe Colborne.  At the beginning of the year, he was one of the best players in the entire AHL and even spent some time leading the league in points.  Then he skipped the AHL All-Star Game and his performance went into free fall.  By the end of the season, he wasn't in the top-100 point producers in the league despite the hot start. We wrote a little over a month ago that this was the season where either Colborne needed to live up to the hype surrounding him or people would need to start evaluating him on his output rather than his perceived potential.

Well, now we have a pretty good handle on why Colborne had such a precipitous drop in production.  The team knew that he had a couple of torn ligaments in his wrist that were affecting rotation --and thus likely his puck handling and shooting-- but the surgery performed to repair this damage also revealed broken bone.

Apparently, it was Colborne's choice to play from January until June with the damage.  While it isn't surprising that a young player with lots to prove in the midst of a breakout campaign would want to try to play through the pain, what's absolutely shocking to me is why management would let him.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lessons of Lockouts Past: Have The Leafs Learned Their Lesson?

"We've had seven years of incredible competitive balance; 29 clubs have made the playoffs [and] we've had seven different Stanley Cup champions." -Gary Bettman

Those words, from the Commissioner of the NHL, stung like a bullet to the chest of Leafs Nation. That's right, during the duration of the last CBA, the Leafs could reasonably be considered the least successful NHL franchise.

With a new CBA in the works, Darren and I decided we'd work together to figure out exactly what led to the Leafs' ineptitude during the course of the old CBA and whether the current team is any better positioned to take advantage of the one that will take its place. What lessons, if any, has the team learned from the mistakes of its past? This is the question, above all others, that we sought to address.

So grab a cup of coffee and a box of tissue with which to wipe your eyes (the tissue, not the box), and settle in. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Age Assets

To put it bluntly, in 2003-04, the Toronto Maple Leafs were old. At 38, best bets would have said that Ed Belfour's best years were behind him; likewise with 37 year olds Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts. Add to that group Mogilny (34), Sundin (32), the tough miles on Owen Nolan (31), and deadline acquisitions Ron Francis (40) and Brian Leetch (35), and it was fairly clear that the pre-lockout Leafs would need to start leaning on the new guard.

Alex Steen (19), Matt Stajan (20), Carlo Colaiacovo (21), Ponikarovsky (23), and Antropov (23) would need to take a serious step forward in their development to fill the void in production left by aging or departing players. There was some degree of optimism at the time but in the new NHL where efficient contracts from young players would prove to be the best way to compete, the production of this group was never good enough to push a Leafs team led by a still reliable Sundin into the playoffs.

Heading into this lockout, the distribution of age assets is much better. Our consensus best player, Phil Kessel, is about to turn 25 years old while a group of promising players including Kulemin (25), Gunnarsson (25), James Van Riemsdyk (22), Kadri (21), Gardiner (21) are just entering their prime years. Even our veterans still have plenty of prime seasons left. Dion Phaneuf (26), Joffrey Lupul (28), and Mikhail Grabovski (28), should be able to play at their current levels for a few seasons before age starts taking a toll on their game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Forecasting Joffrey Lupul: A Look At Luck, Health and Tough Matchups

When it comes to uncertainty, the Leafs' roster is King; it's nearly impossible to guess at who will be the team's first line center, trying to get a handle on Nikolai Kulemin's point projections for next season are an exercise in futility, and when I think of what kind of goaltending we should expect from James Reimer my predictions range from 'very good' to 'I hope Nathan MacKinnon is as good as they say'.

What to expect from Joffrey Lupul has been something of a head scratcher this offseason too.  With a previous career high of 53 points and some very strange peaks and valleys in his production, Lupul came to Toronto, spent a full season skating with Phil Kessel, and put up 67 points in 66 games.  Should we be expecting more of the same now that he has a little stability or is his history of inconsistency a reflection of Lupul himself rather than any variation in circumstance?

Part of the trouble with using a statistic as basic as points is that there are a lot of other circumstances that feed those numbers.  For example, Lupul is a career 11% shooter and last season he managed to convert on 13% of his shots.  The end result is the difference between the 25 goals Lupul ended up with and 21 goals which would have been his expected output based on his historical numbers.  When you consider that Kessel also experienced a 2% jump from his career average shooting percentage, it certainly looks like Lupul's point totals were helped by some good luck last season.  According to Behind The Net, Lupul had an On-Ice Shooting % of 10.77% which was the highest such number of any player on the team who played more than 40 games. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Keeping Our Enemies Close: A Look at the Northeast Division

The tentative schedule for the 2012-13 season (pending a conclusion to the all the CBA fun) has the Maple Leafs playing 24 of their 82 games against teams in their division, the Northeast. Six games will be played against each of the Senators, Bruins, Canadiens and Sabres. If history is any indication, success in these 24 games will be paramount in any push to the playoffs.

In 2011-12 the Leafs went 9-14-1 against the Northeast Division, the worst record of the division's 5 teams in inter-divisional play. We wanted to take a look at the Leafs' divisional rivals and see where opportunity lies for the team to scrape out few extra wins this coming year.
Ottawa Senators
2011-12 Record against Ottawa: 3-3-0
Heading into last season the Senators were supposed to be a team mired in what would be a long and arduous rebuild. In February of 2011 they traded 2nd line stalwart and fan favorite Mike Fisher to music city and the Nashville Predators. The team then shipped out forwards Chris Kelly and Jarko Ruutu along with the enigmatic Alex Kovalev. As the 2011 deadline approached the team then traded goalie Brian Elliot for the struggling Craig Anderson, and sent defenseman Chris Campoli to the Blackhawks.
GM Brian Murray was following the standard rules that apply to any team in the midst of a rebuild – strip yourself of all expiring assets and maximize your return in the form of draft picks and prospects. All this, mind you, with speculation of a Jason Spezza trade running rampant through the city. Fans prepared themselves for what would surely be a long rebuild filled with lottery picks in the coming seasons.
What a difference a year can make. Miraculously, Spezza returned to form (84 points, 4th in league scoring), Eric Karlsson emerged as the league’s premier offensive defenseman (winning the Norris to boot), and players like Kyle Turris and Milan Michalek provided ample secondary scoring support.
Still, there are some areas Ottawa will need to improve heading into this year. Goalie Craig Anderson has proven to be streaky at times, and back-ups Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, while highly valued across the league, have yet to establish themselves at the pro level. Up front Alfredsson is a year older, which could bring a further drop off in production and increased risk of trips to the IR.
The Battle of Ontario was, for a time, one of the most heated in sports. Outside of the hatred exhibited between the Avalanche and Red Wings, it’s hard to think of a more passionate rivalry in the last 15 years. It may not ever reach those fevered heights again, but if both teams can position themselves for playoff contention deep into the year we may be treated to 6 competitive, entertaining games.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What To Expect From The Randy Carlyle-led Leafs

From March 2nd of last year until the end of the regular season, Leafs fans were offered a glimpse of the kind of coach Randy Carlyle would be.  The results weren't pretty --the team continued the free fall that they had started under Ron Wilson-- but I don't know many people who expected the team he inherited to dramatically turn things around based on a coaching change alone.

The team Carlyle inherited was rife with question marks; atrocious penalty killing, an often porous defense, undersized forwards, and unreliable goaltending.  It was always going to be a struggle for the Leafs' new bench boss.

Flash forward to September and Leafs' brass believes that they've addressed many of these issues.  James Van Riemsdyk was added to the Leafs' forward group and while he may not represent a significant addition in the 'sand paper' department, he should help the cycle game.  Jay McClement will look to solidify the team's penalty-kill and overall defensive play from the forward position and a now-healthy James Reimer, today's pencilled-in starting goaltender, will look to provide the Leafs with more stability in goal.  Still, a lot will have to go right and it starts with coaching.

With regards to special teams, Carlyle's track record is something of a mixed bag.  During his 6 full seasons in Anaheim, his teams finished with a top-5 powerplay 4 times, including the 2010-11 season which was his final full season as head coach.  As far as penalty-killing goes, Carlyle's Ducks finished 13th, 5th, 12th, 23rd, 24th, and 19th in the league.

There's no doubt that as far as Anaheim's powerplay goes, they certainly had some thoroughbreds leading the charge.  With players like Perry, Getzlaf, Pronger, Niedermayer, Selanne, and Ryan all playing significant roles in Carlyle's numbers during this period, one can't assume that he'll be able to replicate those results with the group Toronto has to offer.  That said, it's better to see good results with good players than poor results.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Finding Bozak: Looking At Roles For The Leafs' Biggest 'Tweener

This year’s NHL season, when it eventually gets under way, will be an important one for Tyler Bozak.

He is one of a handful of Leafs with a contract coming up for renewal at year’s end -- the final year of a 2 year deal with an annual cap hit of $1.5 million.
Aside from the pending end of his contract forcing managements’ hand, the team will be forced to decide on Bozak’s future in Toronto one way or another.  Bozak is entering his 3rd full season in the league and isn’t considered a prospect anymore.
At 26, Tyler’s age has, in a way, worked against him with the media and fans alike in Toronto. With only 2 full years of NHL experience there is no doubt he’s still acclimatizing himself to the game, learning the nuances, and adjusting from what is a vastly different league than the NCAA.
One interesting anecdote that came up when researching Bozak’s history was his offensive dominance in 2006-2007 playing for the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League). The league is popular for players who are considering going onto College or University, since the league is unpaid and thereby preserves a players NCAA eligibility. That year, Bozak led the league in scoring with 128 points in only 59 games. His linemate for much of the season was Dallas Stars' forward Jamie Benn. There is a great article over at the Stars blog Defending Big D detailing Benn’s rise to prominence that noted his stock with NHL scouts was hampered by what were perceived to be bloated stats from playing alongside the league’s best player, Tyler Bozak.
There have been flashes of offensive prowess for Bozak at the pro level as well. In 2009-10, Bozak amassed 27 points in 37 games playing in large part alongside Phil Kessel. 2011-12 saw some regression, as many would expect in a softmore year, producing only 32 points, and ending with an Augusta-worthy plus/minus of -29. Last year, however, he quietly put together an effective offensive season with 18 goals and 27 assists. Putting Bozak’s season in perspective, he finished ahead of players such as Mike Richards, Jeff Skinner, and Patrick Hornqvist.