Thank God in heaven that this is the last game for the Leafs in Buffalo (and also thank God that the Kings don't have to play another one there also!).
More importantly, is that the Maple Leaf struggles continue.
It is understandable that with so many guys in and out and back in and out of the lineup recently can cause some problems as far as chemistry is concerned. But the lack of confidence displayed by many of the blue and white is not acceptable and there's no reason for it.
Since the lockout, I have seen two different Maple Leaf teams; one that was building up a 4-1 lead with 10 minutes to go before knocking out the class of the Eastern Conference Boston Bruins, and the other the team that played out the remainder 10 minutes and into overtime that saw the Bruins storm back and roll all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
Right now, we are seeing the latter Leafs play. And is it is very frustrating to say the least. The team is not playing together at all. There are too many guys trying to make plays on their own, getting cute with the puck instead of keeping the game simple. On the contrary, this is something that the LA Kings do quite well, and perhaps better than any other team in the NHL which is why the Kings have been so successful in recent seasons. There is no reason to rush the game and force things to happen. Toronto has quite a bit of explosive firepower to make up for slowing the game down a bit. Los Angeles, once again is offensively challenged and just cannot seem to score more than two goals a game, even with the return of Jeff Carter. With guys like Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul (when healthy, which is always a concern), Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson, and a plethora of offensive skilled defenders, I cannot understand why it is the Leafs who always seem to want to be on the attack and not simplifying the game like the Kings do.
Still, I do prefer a team who has attack always on the mind. It is good to be relentless and always trying to make something happen, or trying to catch the other team napping. But, there is no reason to become irresponsible in your own end and taking better care of the puck.
After Randy Carlyle expressed to the media that the Leafs need to do a better job possessing the puck, getting the cycle going in the offensive zone and putting more pressure on the opposing defense, Nazem Kadri had taken the puck after Clarkson had began the cycle in the second period last night. Instead of wheeling the puck around again, Kadri turns and fired a shot right into the padding of a Buffalo defender, not even making its way to Ryan Miller forcing him to make a stop, which still would have been a fairly easy save. That was a prime example of what Carlyle does not want his team to do. They give the puck up way to easily and quickly in the other teams end. Not to mention Phil Kessel, when he isn't taking a shot, seems to be firing the puck tape to tape to an opposing player's stick. There is not enough team play in either zone right now to make the Maple Leafs a strong contender. In fact, their entire game at the moment is making it very easy for other teams to contend with, including the real weak ones like Columbus and Buffalo.
In the third period, we saw Jay McClement take the puck and skate circles around the Buffalo net trying to make something happen. None of his line mates seemed to know what he was trying to do, so nothing came of it. At least, McClement, a smart veteran, gritty player, understands Carlyle's message. The problem is that most of his teammates still do not understand the team concept of hockey. Which is why if the Leafs are going to snap out of this funk, they are going to need to settle down, and feed off each other. The defense needs to be able to settle the puck down, while the forwards need to be back and help break out the puck in order to generate the play down the ice. It should not always be up to the two defense pairings to control the fore checkers of the other team as well as take care of the puck to move things up the ice. It takes at least four if not all five men to help out and move the attack forward. This is what makes the Kings so dangerous, when it has guys like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Jason Williams spending more time in their own zone making sure they have complete control of the situation before starting the attack. Their problem is that those guys seem to be too defensive minded which leads to the scoring drought. Toronto, on the other hand, has more offensive skill in my opinion which can make up for some more defensive effort. With the scoring touch of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and several others, the Leafs have the capability of making something happen almost out of nothing and can take advantage of their opportunities more when they arrive. And with more attention to detail, those prime scoring chances will come.
Next, I have an issue with the line combinations. I know that a lot of Leaf Nation still do not see Tyler Bozak as a top line center, and like I have stated may times before, he does not have to be. To me, having two solid top lines is a lot more important than having a dominant single top line. With the injuries, it has been tough for Carlyle to demonstrate what Dave Nonis originally had in mind. With a healthy lineup, there is no question that Bozak should be paired with Kessel and van Riemsdyk. A solid second line should have either Dave Bolland or Kadri paired with Lupul and Mason Raymond. Third line should have Bolland/Kadri paired with Nikolai Kulemin and Clarkson. Fourth line then would have McClement paired with either Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, Trevor Smith, Peter Holland or Carter Ashton.
More issues arise with the fact that I am starting to see why no team wanted to offer Raymond a contract. He is too soft to play on any top line, and is very weak with the puck. Why is Raymond on the penalty kill, I have no idea. Same goes with Jerred Smithson. Why is Smithson playing over newly acquired Holland? Smithson on the penalty kill last night costs the Leafs the first goal, as he was out of position, and lost his stick and gingerly skated over to pick it up while the Sabres evened up the score at 1-1. Smithson is a journeyman AHL player. Toronto no longer needs him in the lineup, and certainly should not be playing over Holland and Trevor Smith. With Kadri and Bozak back in the lineup, there is no more use for him at the NHL level.
The penalty kill has fallen into the bottom ten of the NHL. That is not a concern to me so much as the team's overall play. A penalty kill without both Bozak and Bolland has obviously contributed to the struggles of the PK. McClement has been pressed into more time on the PK, and although he is a solid killer, he has simply been overused too much. Kulemin should be given more time on the PK, and he should be able to take advantage of that, and I think he has. Kulemin has done well on the kill, and thus has been rewarded with a bit more ice time as of late. The game against the Capitals has jolted him back into a top nine spot and the Leafs should be able to rely on him a bit more. He also had a strong performance last night in Buffalo, and seems to have a bit of chemistry and trust alongside Trevor Smith, who's effort in Buffalo last night on making something happen out of nothing setting up Kulemin's goal is exactly what this team needs at the moment. I also think that Smith deserves more ice time (especially on the PK) than guys like Smithson, Ashton and McLaren. If Ashton, McLaren and guys like that want more ice time, they need to be throwing their weight around a bit more and making themselves a physical presence all over the ice.
Last season, I thought Toronto had become one of the tougher, physical teams in the league. So far this season, the Leafs are once again playing as one of the softer teams in the league, and that too has contributed to the recent struggles. The Leafs need to be more physical. They need to drop the gloves more often. With the team playing flat, which has been the story recently, we do not see Orr, McLaren, Ashton or even Fraser drop the gloves. Once again, I am not a fan of fighting, but there is a purpose for it in the game when a team needs a little shot of energy. And if those guys are not going to do their job, then there is no need for all of them in the lineup.
Moving on to the defense, the struggles of Cody Franson is what is making this core a weak one. Franson was the team's best defenseman last season, chipping in 29 points, being a threat on the power play as well as posting a respective plus 4 rating. This season so far, his game has gone to pot. Again, not sure why. Perhaps his contract issues over the off-season has contributed to him doubting his ability? The same goes for Mark Fraser, who led the team with a plus 18 rating last season. His game has also gone to pot, and seems to be playing with no confidence at all. As a matter of fact, Fraser has looked like a sophomore player coming off a minus 18 season. What is his issue...? Again, not sure. But it's certainly a concern for the team going forward.
I cannot say enough about the play and effort put forth by the captain Dion Phaneuf. He has played his behind off and is trying to lead by example. His team leading of plus 12 is a testament to his play. Still, Phaneuf is plagued by the fact that he is not paired with an equally responsible, veteran defender. Instead, he has been paired with Carl Gunnarsson most of the time, who just earned title of assistant captain in the absence of Lupul. This action must speak volumes of his earning respect in the clubhouse, and good for him. To me, his defensive responsibilities still leave a lot to be desired. He is too soft to be considered as a top defensive pairing, or capable enough to be paired with Phaneuf. If that is the best the Leafs can do, then why not pair Phaneuf with Morgan Reilly. There is no reason for Reilly to be out of the lineup, especially last night in Buffalo when the team really needed two points. To me, this kid keeps on getting better and better. Playing on the top pairing with Phaneuf should also add a little boost and confidence to his game. And to me that is the problem with Franson and Fraser. For some reason they are not playing with any confidence, and I am at a loss for words with those two.
Lastly, on defense, Jake Gardiner needs to be put into a situation when he does not have to think about things. For me, placing him on the wing would be best for him and the team, as it wont have to worry about constantly replacing him deep when he is always chipping in or leading the rush. Just like the movie "Memphis Belle", when Tate Donavan said to Matthew Modine as his co-pilot, "Wish I were a fighter, no rules, just me up here..." To me, Gardiner is not coachable as a defenseman. He simply does not understand his assignment and is hanging his defensive partner and goaltender out to dry way too much. Perhaps, this is another reason why the Leafs had such a successful 2013 shortened season. Gardiner was not in the lineup much at all with his injury, and could not be the out of control, defensively irresponsible player he is now. I think Gardiner can serve well on any line as he can play a physical side of hockey as well. Why not?
In goal, the Leafs were solid, but recently like the team's play in front of them, both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have had their issues. Whenever Bernier has as shot at taking over the #1 role, he cannot hold onto it long at all. Not sure what Reimer's issue has been this week, but he seems like he is ill. Neither goaltenders have been sharp this week, in fact far from it. Bernier cannot hold onto a lead to save his life, and Reimer, well cannot make a big save. Still, without these two, the Leafs would certainly not have more wins than losses, but their game better pick up. When two goalies are trying to prove themselves and earn playing time, it kills the team altogether to have both of them struggling to come up with saves the team needs to win games.
Hopefully a trip to Montreal will help as the Leafs have done quite well at the Bell Centre in recent trips. The Leafs seem to be on top of their game every time they meet the Habs in Montreal. Around the corner December features some quality matchups for the Maple Leafs. Toronto's efforts against Stanley Cup hopefuls in the Sharks, Bruins, Kings, Blues and Blackhawks will tell the tale if the 2013-14 Maple Leafs are either strong or worthy enough to be playing playoff hockey in April.
Time for the Leafs to prove if they were for real last May. My next diagnosis will come after that Chicago game December 14th.
I will also be making my annual trip to Toronto for the game against the LA Kings on December 11th. I love Toronto, it is my city away from home in Illinois. Plus, a great time for me to take a couple personal days off from teaching. I won't be taking my laptop with me for the trip, but will include the comments from that game combined with the Chicago game that Saturday. Pictures too! With the way the Kings are playing contrast to the Leafs, the Kings should have little difficulty earning two points. But should be fun to see goalies Ben Scrivens and Jonathan Bernier go head-to-head against their former teammates. Talk about a night in which Bernier needs to prove himself more than ever.
In regards to the officiating...well, pretty similar to the Maple Leafs play. It stinks!
Enjoy the action! Here's hoping to a better effort from the Leafs tonight!