Welcome back Maple Leaf and King followers...
With my busy coaching and teaching schedule, it is going to be tough for me to express my thoughts on my beloved clubs after every game, so I will try and fill in at least once a week for a little "unbiased" recap. I use the term unbiased very loosely, obviously.
After being noticeably outplayed in the first two games in Montreal and Philadelphia, the Toronto Maple Leafs seemed poised and confident to come back and win both of those games. It seemed to me that nobody on that roster, including several of the newcomers David Bolland, Mason Raymond and Jonathan Bernier, forgot what happened in game seven in Boston in May.
I also must give a lot of praise and compliment to captain Dion Phaneuf for his leadership thus far. A game seven loss after building a big lead can devastate any team or organization, but these guys seem to have risen to the challenge already throughout a tough, arduous preseason schedule and in back-to-back road games which were home openers for two rival Eastern Conference opponents.
I still think the defensive corp needs a little more work and seasoning, as Paul Ranger looked a little lost in his first NHL action since playing with Tampa a few years ago and Jake Gardiner committing some silly mistakes. Carl Gunnarsson did play two strong games alongside Phaneuf, but we will see how long that lasts.
James Reimer started off his 2013-14 campaign off strong with a 34 save performance, and Jonathan Bernier followed that up with an even more impressive 31 save effort in Philly the following night.
It is no question to me, that the strength of the Leafs comes from the goal crease out. Finally, the organization has unparallel goaltending strength for the first time since the days of Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour and even further back as Felix Potvin. Currently, the Maple Leafs hold two #1 goaltenders, and not many NHL teams, including the LA Kings can say they have that luxury.
Now the Toronto Maple Leafs will face another stiff challenge having lost tough-nosed blue liner Mark Fraser for 3-4 weeks and one of its key gritty forwards in Nikolai Kulemin for at least two weeks. With the loss of Fraser, comes an opportunity for the 2012 #1 draft pick Morgan Reilly, who will likely be paired with Cody Franson at least for tonight.
I think the real test for this club will be in two weeks in Chicago still without David Clarkson, Fraser and Kulemin unless he is ready to go by then. But right now, the Leafs cannot afford any more key injuries until those guys return.
Moving on to the Los Angeles Kings...
Even with the loss of Jonathan Bernier to Toronto, I still think that Darryl Sutter needs to play backup Ben Scrivens a bit more. Last night in Winnipeg, incumbent starter Jonathan Quick looked to be a little shaky and tired at times throughout the game, and when the Jets started to take over the game in the third, Quick's lack of extra energy was most evident.
Friday would have been an excellent time for Sutter and the Kings to get a good look into what Scrivens can offer to the team when Quick needs a break; and he will need a break a few times during this long 82-game season. Failure to do so, will only hurt Quick's ability come playoff time. He will need to be somewhat fresh come April.
Despite being just two games into the season, your key scorers have done next to nothing. Outside of Jeff Carter's late third period goal in Minnesota and another late goal last night in Winnipeg, other dependable guys like Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll have combined for just one goal and two assists. Even though they have played six periods and one overtime of hockey, the lack of scoring simply won't cut it. Not to mention a group of solid two-way players being a combined minus seven in games against inferior opponents in my opinion.
While I try not to be too overly concerned about a championship calibre club, I am weary of the fact that the Kings decided to keep guys like Jordan Nolan, Dwight King and Colin Fraser on the roster instead of younger, and more skilled players like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and even Linden Vey, who I believe will fit in very nicely with the more experienced veterans on the team, who are still under 30 for the most part.
Last season, Jordan Nolan registered just six points in 44 games while being counted for 72 hits. Dwight King totaled a mere ten points with less hits at 58. Obviously, these guys are on the roster for their size, but still have not showed much ability to become decent enough playmakers for a team trying to get back to Lord Stanley's Cup. So far, Nolan and King have been nonexistent on the ice in Minnesota and Winnipeg, with King registering just one shot on goal, and no hits. To me, that is not acceptable. And there is no reason why Toffoli or Pearson for that matter to be playing in the AHL instead of King at this point.
Perhaps the fact that Fraser, King and Nolan all have Stanley Cup experience gives them a bit of an edge, with Fraser winning the cup twice in Chicago and LA. Still, the NHL game is evolving a bit more from the hard, gritty, checking style to a more open ice game. Therefore, the Kings need to adapt a bit more and I think those three youngsters, especially Toffoli are better options at this point.
With home games against the Rangers and Senators, the Kings will need to start lighting that lamp and those main guns better start producing sooner than later.
I always like to make some predictions, and I have had a lot of time to think about this so here goes...
1- Detroit (Strong Western team will feast on some weaker, open ended Eastern teams)
2- Boston (Still have enough power to be Cup contenders)
3- Toronto (Lots of explosive talent, and solid 1-2 punch in goal)
4- Ottawa (Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson lead the way for a young, dynamic team)
5- Montreal (Still softer than many think and Price is too up and down)
6- Tampa Bay (Stamkos, St. Louis...???; two young, unproven goaltenders)
7- Buffalo (Hot mess, many guys don't believe in Buffalo anymore)
8- Florida (Tim Thomas and the kids; TT is going to wish he hadn't come back)
1- Pittsburgh (Lots of talent, but lots of injury issues; still a weaker division to feast on)
2- NY Rangers (Hard hitting, gritty team; needs more from Nash; never count out King Henrik)
3- Washington (Ovechkin still a dominant figure, depends on Holtby's confidence in net)
4- NY Islanders (Tavares a good leader; strong young core with some confidence from last season)
5- Philadelphia (Team needs to get it together from last season; need to be better defensively; Lecavalier a good fit; bringing back Emery helps)
6- Columbus (Move to Eastern Conference will help; Bobrovsky will need to be spectacular again; young assets need to mix in with Gaborik)
7- Carolina (Cam Ward is healthy; Can Jeff Skinner and Canes turn into solid two-way players?)
8- New Jersey (How long will Marty last?; Offense?)
Eastern Conference Top Eight:
7- NY Rangers
1- Chicago (Championship caliber team; more young assets; will feast on weaker division opponents)
2- St. Louis (Still more to prove and more room for improvement; tough, gritty team)
3- Winnipeg (Evander Kane and Ondrej Pavelec lead the way for a young, dynamic team; defense loves to score)
4- Dallas (The addition of Tyler Seguin who needs to grow up, hopefully will help; expect a big year for Jamie Benn)
5- Minnesota (Zach Parise and company need to find a way to compete with Chicago and rest of Western Conference)
6- Colorado (A big year for Patrick Roy and the young Avs; nothing to lose approach)
7- Nashville (It won't be long before Pekka Rinne starts begging for some real help)
1- Los Angeles (Big guns need to produce more; Quick and solid defensive corp leads the way)
2- Vancouver (Roberto Luongo is the key; still plenty of everything to make a run)
3- San Jose (Just as good as LA and Vancouver; lots of weapons and depth)
4- Anaheim (Strong goaltending tandem will need to be just as strong as last season; Perry and Getzlaf lead the way)
5- Phoenix (A lot rides on the play of Mike Smith and Shane Doan; new life in the desert)
6- Edmonton (Goaltending will be an issue; expect a lot of high scoring games)
7- Calgary (What a year to be thrown into the mix with Pacific Division clubs; no true starting goalie will be interesting)
Western Conference Top Eight:
2- Los Angeles
4- San Jose
6- St. Louis
Eastern Conference will come down between either Detroit, Boston or Pittsburgh...I think the Red Wings have the upper hand after being oh so close from knocking off Chicago last season.
Western Conference will come down between either Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose or Vancouver...if Vancouver ever gets it act together that is! I think (and hope) the Kings are more hungry than the Blackhawks this time around.
Red Wings vs. Kings in the Finals...you decide who wins! I refuse to pick or jinx it...
Still, a Chicago-Detroit match up would be excellent for the NHL...take away the long time division rivalry, just to meet up in the end for all the marbles...
Last but not least, a couple thoughts on the game tonight in Toronto...
*Tonight, is a prime example when it takes just a couple of key players playing poorly and not being sharp. All it takes is a couple guys and the end result can be devastating!
*Disgusting play by Cody Franson and some of his counterparts in front of their own net. Too much worrying about his partner Morgan Reilly in his NHL debut? It shouldn't matter, play your game! This is the worst I have seen Franson play in blue and white.
*Carl Gunnarsson still is afraid to take a hit or give a hit to make a play. Instead, he chooses to turn the puck over in his own end instead of absorbing a hit. That kind of defense doesn't cut it especially as a top pairing.
*Paul Ranger looked a lot more comfortable as the game went on. He just needs more seasoning, but when Mark Fraser comes back, he could be on the bubble depending on the play of Morgan Reilly.
*I like Reilly's ability to join the rush, but a lot of running around like a chicken with his head cut off in the defensive end. Still, he has a lot of upside and looks promising. He should be fine as long as he cleans up his defensive end play. The kid almost made the game winning play in overtime.
*Great chemistry between Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland...electric!
*Bad night for James Reimer...three of the four goals allowed were soft and savable. Jonathan Bernier comes in, makes a few great stops as his team gets it together and is able to come back. Reimer is the first goalie to blink as expected, therefore the net should be Bernier's for the foreseeable future.
*Strong games from all the newcomers and the injury replacements...some good hockey from Jamie Devane and Spencer Abbott, despite not getting much ice time in the third.
*The main guns got their game going when the team needed it. Solid effort by the Leafs tonight despite the 4-4 tie. Remember, I don't put much stock into shootout wins and losses. And with tonight's partially disputed shootout goal from Mason Raymond, what is the point of continuing the shootout? Both teams played their hearts out, it ended in a 4-4 tie, take the point and move on to the next game. Seriously, enough of the shootouts!
*If this team can get it together defensively, then they could be a definite Stanley Cup contender...I love how this team never, ever quits no matter how well or how poor they are playing. They have the heart of a team that CAN win the big game.