Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Early Answers With The Toronto Maple Leafs

6 games into the sprint that is the NHL’s lockout shortened regular season and we’re left with number of questions and very few answers. For example, when did Patrick Marleau start leaping tall buildings in a single bound and where does he hide his cape? How is Martin St Louis playing the best hockey of his career as he nears 38 years of age? And what has happened to the Philadelphia offense? (Hint: It wears number 68 and moved to Dallas).

As it relates to the Maple Leafs, not a whole lot is known at this point. Sitting with 3 wins and 3 losses the team has shown some glimpses of being a potential playoff team, while also demonstrating defensive lapses in line with their lottery pick of a year ago. Below are some of what we know and don't know as the early season marches on.

What we know

1.       Nazem Kadri is not going back to the AHL. With an impressive 6 points in 6 games (3G, 3A) Kadri is flashing some of the offensive potential that made him the 7th overall draft pick in 2009. Nazem has that rare ability to slow down the pace of a game when he’s in possession of the puck, seemingly having an extra half second of decision making. It’s the type of offensive imagination and flair that fans have always pined for in Tyler Bozak as a first line center. If Kadri can continue his growth this season, you have to believe he’ll have a real opportunity to crack the first line heading into the 2013-14 season.

2.       Nikolai Kulemin has not regained his scoring touch. In 2010-11 Kulemin recorded a career best 30 goals and 27 assists. Last year he plummeted to only 7 goals, leaving many pundits to wonder what exactly happened to the well-rounded top 6 forward they had come to know. During the lockout Kulemin played alongside reigning Hart and Art Ross trophy winner Evgeni Malkin for Metallurg of the KHL, registering 38 points in 36 games. The expectation being that Kulemin could carry over some of this offensive momentum and reaffirm his position in the Leafs top 6. With zero goals through 6 games (he does have 5 assists) it appears his NHL scoring slump has carried forward to this season. He still brings accountability and effort to the defensive end, but on a team missing Joffrey Lupul and desperately in need of consistent scorers it remains to be seen if Kulemin can get back to form.

3.       Matt Frattin is a top-9 forward. Simply put Frattin has been a revelation in the early goings of the season.  With 3 goals and 2 assists through only 3 games he has been producing at an astonishing clip while driving the net and creating offensive opportunities. His goal in overtime past Ryan Miller of the Sabres was exactly the type of the goal Frattin has made his hallmark with the Marlies of the AHL – going to the net with authority and speed. He plays a north-south game that is adaptable to almost any role within the top-9, possessing the speed and offensive abilities to contribute on both a scoring or checking line as needed. He appears to be fully healed from offseason knee surgery and poised to be a key cog in the Leafs forward group this season.

What we don’t know

1.       As much as things change they stay the same. After pin-balling back and forth between Ben Scrivens and James Reimer in net the goaltending situation remains murky in Toronto. Neither goalie has been able to grab anything more than a tenuous hold of the number one starting slot. With a team GAA of 3.29 it’s clear the Leafs are still in need of an NHL netminder. The hope is that either Reimer or Scrivens will grow into the role during the remaining 42 games of the truncated season - the more hockey I see the less likely this appears to be.

The positive in all this is that poor goaltending will no doubt improve our chance at landing one of the bevy of top prospects available in the 2013 draft class – stars in waiting such as defenseman Seth Jones and forward Nathan Mackinnon. However, long term a goalie is a must if the team is to challenge for a playoff spot. Whether the position is ultimately addressed through a trade for Luongo, or in the offseason, eventually Nonis will need to resolve the issue.

2.       What exactly James van Riemsdyk can be as a player. It took Randy Carlyle all of a week to call out JVR for his perceived lacklustre play. James responded with 2 goals in a spirited effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Van Riemsdyk comes to Toronto sporting an elite draft pedigree (2nd overall in 2007 by the Flyers) but also with some unanswered questions. His potential was flashed only periodically in Philadelphia and injuries derailed much of his season in 2012-13. With an imposing frame and good offensive instincts he should be a consistent contributor on one of the top-2 lines.      

What remains to be seen is exactly how good he can be. When driving the net and forcing himself into the proverbial ‘dirty’ areas of the ice, he's a handful for opposing defenders to manage. If he can maintain his compete level and find chemistry with Phil Kessel he may be an adequate replacement for Lupul while he tends to his broken arm in the coming weeks.

3.       What the future holds for Phil Kessel. It has been a sluggish start for the quiet star as he’s registered only  3 assists and no goals in 6 games despite registering some pretty impressive shot totals. This is hardly cause for concern (unless you ask Damien Cox) as Kessel has become known for his streaky scoring and I’m sure once he pots a goal or two they will start to come in bunches. Phil Kessel is quite literally the least of the Maple Leafs issues. He will be a UFA at the end of the 2013-2014 season, meaning that the team can begin negotiating an extension next year. It will be interesting to see how GM Dave Nonis (assuming he is still in his current role at the time of negation) manages Kessel’s contract.

If  Phil produces offensively this season at a clip in line with his past years he will be looking for a contract in the 7 to 8 million dollar range over 5 to 6 seasons. Curt touched on the Kessel question, and how it hinges on where management expects the team to be in 2 or 3 years time. Essentially, if the Leafs believe they can be a contender during the next 4 to 5 years (Phil Kessel’s expected prime years as a hockey player) then they’ll likely need number 81 to be an integral part of the offense.

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