Ten Thoughts As the Leafs Win Their Ninth
Ten thoughts as the Maple Leafs open a western Canadian road swing with a victory in Edmonton:
1. Put your feet up, son. Take a load off: There aren't many players in the NHL who are assigned the same tough minutes as Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf every night. So getting 19:11 in playing time Tuesday night in Edmonton was almost like a night off, with only his partner, Carl Gunnarson, getting less work on this night. Paul Ranger led the Leaf blueline in minutes played with 22:15 in the easy 4-0 win.
Many of the Leafs top players got less than their usual ice time. The nature of the game dictated that, and was a nice present going into a back-to-back situation in Calgary on Wednesday.
As far as Phaneuf's contractual situation goes - he's a UFA in July - there have been no substantive talks between GM Dave Nonis and Phaneuf's agent, Don Meehan of Newport Sports. No numbers exchanged, no term discussed. Nothing. And contract talks aren't at a preliminary stage. They haven't started at all.
That said, there is an understanding between Nonis and Meehan that an attempt will be made, likely before Christmas, to see if there's a deal there to be done. With Phaneuf already at a $6.5 million cap hit, the salary may not be a big issue. You can't ask him to take a pay cut, and $7 million or thereabouts seems like a fair raise.
But term, and no-trade/no-movement stipulations, will be big issues. Other than Phil Kessel and his eight-year, the Leafs have done well in recent seasons to avoid the longer term deals seen around the NHL. Phaneuf is 28. Five years seems to be as long as the Leafs would want to go. But we'll see.
2. If only Bernie hadn't bolted for the WHA: Together, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have posted a save percentage of .933 this season, a big reason why the Leafs are sixth in the league in G.A.A. (2.31) despite having given up an average of 35.5 shots per game (29th out of 30 teams).
Who's No. 1? Still to be determined, and it's turning into a great battle, just as head coach Randy Carlyle hoped would be the case, with each goalie pushing the other.
We're only 13 games in, but the Reimer-Bernier combination certainly makes one think of some of the better Leaf goalie tandems of the post-expansion era.
Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healy did well. Felix Potvin and Grant Fuhr were together for a time. My favourite? That one season, 1971-72, when Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent combined to give the Leafs airtight netminding. Parent actually played games behind Plante the year before, although Bruce Gamble got into more than Parent. But then the 26-year-old Parent asserted himself as No. 1 in the '71-72 season over Plante, who turned 43 during the season, and both put up very good numbers.
The previous spring, of course, had included that infamous playoff incident in which Rangers forward Vic Hadfield threw Parent's mask into the crowd at Madison Square Garden. The crowd wouldn't give it back, Parent wouldn't play without one and Plante was forced into the game and the Rangers went on to win the series.
As it turned out, Parent did get the mask back - 41 years later. It was bought at a memorabilia show and new owner asked Parent to authenticate it, which he did.
"The first thing I wanted to do when I saw the mask was call Hadfield and say, 'Thanks,'" Parent told the Philadelphia Daily News.
Parent bolted for the WHA after the '71-72 season, and when he came back to the NHL, it was as a Philadelphia Flyer.
3. Maybe they should have given him the $64 million earlier: You never know what a contract is going to do to an athlete. For Phil Kessel, one of the intriguing effects is that, while always an accomplished passer, he seems to be more selfless with the puck than ever since signing an eight-year extension on the eve of the season.
The latest came Tuesday when, with two goals already to his credit, Kessel passed up a good chance at a third in the final period to set up Morgan Rielly, who was then initially credited with his first NHL goal. On further review, however, the goal was given to Nazem Kadri, with the puck apparently grazing his hip before beating Richard Bachman in the Edmonton net.
Kessel will never be a fire-and-brimstone type leader. But that kind of play is another form of invaluable leadership.
4. Restless natives and all that: The mood is dark in Edmonton already where, with three wins in 14 games, the Oilers are already eight points out of a playoff berth.
There's is great heat on GM Craig MacTavish already to do something, particularly something to help the team's weak goaltending and so-so blueline. Nobody wants to touch the blue-chip kids up front, but to make an impact move, MacTavish may have little choice.
Under Dallas Eakins, Edmonton is surrendering 3.79 goals per game, more than a goal more than last season when Ralph Krueger was the head coach. After so many top picks were spent on forwards, the Oilers finally invested in defence last June by drafting Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the first round, but Nurse will take some time. Justin Schultz, the prize college free agent signing of a year ago, is minus-10 and doesn't have the same swagger as last season.
MacTavish at the very least has to find some veteran help for his beleaguered back line. The Oilers face Detroit on the weekend at home, then hit the road for games against the Panthers, Lightning, Flyers and Blackhawks.
5. They've already tried the healthy scratch route. Time for Oklahoma City?: Nail Yakupov's season is turning into a bit of disaster, although Eakins gave him plenty of ice time against the Leafs, clearly trying to inspire some confidence in the first overall pick of the 2012 NHL draft.
Yakupov has one goal and two assists this season and is minus-10 after a minus-4 performance against Toronto. This is a new dynamic for the Oilers, who took Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first in their draft years and were almost immediately rewarded with a level of play and production that made them believe both could be standout NHLers.
But Yakupov? He did have 17 goals last season, but this is a marked regression. Eakins has already scratched him, a decision that prompted Yakupov to say "I really don't like skating all the time, and forechecking, and hitting somebody every shift. I don't think it's my game."
A stint in the minors might help. Then again, Yakupov might rebel, or threaten a jump to the KHL. This is a tough one for a team that's already got enough problems.
6. Something's gone sideways in the nation's capital, and it has nothing to do with Mike Duffy: The Sens have lost four out of five, but it's the way they're losing games that a bit shocking.
They're the only team in the NHL that is giving up more shots per game than the Leafs. Last year, with injuries with to Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, they were the NHL's hardest working team, and among the most miserly when it came to allowing goals. Everyone raved about the impact of Paul Maclean's coaching.
This season, they've gone from the 2nd best defensive team in the league to the 24th. Could Daniel Alfredsson's leadership be missed this much?
7. Surely this will work out better than Ryan Smyth: The Leafs were one of the teams that was offered Tomas Vanek, reports The Star's Mark Zwolinski, but the conversation was short. Presumably the Sabres would have asked for one of Toronto's top forwards, but with none approaching UFA status other than the newly acquired David Bolland, there wasn't a match.
The last time the Islanders, meanwhile, made this kind of move was six years ago when they acquired Smyth from the Oilers in a massive deal. Smyth played 23 games then headed as a UFA to Colorado, and Vanek might end up doing something.
At least the Sabres are paying some of Vanek's salary and the first rounder given up by the Isles is protected if it's in the top 10. But losing to the Rangers Tuesday in Vanek's first game was an unsatisfying start.
Would the Sabres have traded Vanek to the Leafs, a key rival? Maybe. But the two teams haven't made an impact swap in 20 years since Grant Fuhr went to western New York and Dave Andreychuk arrived in Toronto to become Doug Gilmour's wingman.
8. Seems there's more than one way to rebuild: It's interesting that the Sabres, with four first round picks from the last two years already in the lineup, and with nine picks in place for the first two rounds of the next two drafts, seem to be setting themselves up for an Edmonton-style rebuild.
Go to the bottom. Draft early and often. Pray that it works.
And it might eventually, both in Edmonton and Buffalo.
But there are only a few examples of this really working, with Chicago and Pittsburgh being the best ones. But when you look at the top 15 teams in the NHL standings as of Wednesday morning, most did nothing of the kind.
That's because the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews aren't available every year.
Then again, Connor McDavid looks like that sort of talent. But how do you plan to be dead last two Junes from now?
9. Apparently he was telling the truth: Since speaking his mind on Sven Baertschi, we haven't heard much from Brian Burke. He said when he was hired in Calgary he planned to stay in the background, and lo and behold, he made sure he was out of town this week when the Leafs swing by Cowtown for a visit.
Soon we'll be calling him Bashful Brian. On second thought, that'll never happen.
10. Returning to the scene of the divorce: Mason Raymond has played awfully well so far for the Leafs on his $1 million free agent deal, and as he returns to Vancouver on Saturday, we're left again to wonder what it was the Canucks no longer saw in him.
Perhaps that will become more evident over the course of the season, but right now, he's been a very good fit for the Leafs, and Carlyle seems to trust him in all situations.
Clearly, he's a highly motivated young man. Maybe it's being blown off by Vancouver, maybe it's playing on a small contract with hopes of bigger money to follow.
As it stands, the Leafs seem unlikely to do anything about Raymond's contract until after this season. The insecurity does seem to be bringing out his best hockey.