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Now the Leafs can enjoy the break; loving Kessel on the off wing

Those who dropped by for yesterday’s post will know that I saw a little extra value in the Leafs winning their second in a row against the Islanders on Tuesday night.

I said that not because the Islanders are some kind of important rival, either historically—though there was that great series in 1978—or even with regard to the current playoff chase.  If anything, the Isles are a young team without much star-power (Tavares and some nice young players but not a lot else just yet…) and should be fodder for the Leafs.

No, my point was simply that, with a week off now before the next game, it was important for the Leafs to feel good about themselves heading into the break.  Not that a win in their first game back wouldn’t accomplish much the same thing, but having a “streak” is something to feel really good about during your time away from the rink.

There were some obvious key elements to the contest, from the Leaf perspective.  I thought Monster was steady again.  We’re saying that in the same way we said it about Reimer a year ago—and that’s a good thing.  Gustavsson’s “stats” are pretty good over this latest stretch where he has played a lot and more importantly, he is helping the Leafs garner as many points as possible—which will be crucial in April.

Of course Grabovski was outstanding, skating as he can and with eyes in the back of his head (particularly as he set up the crucial first Toronto goal in the dying seconds of the second period) while earning four points on the night.  MacArthur finished twice, including that key first marker and the game-winner in overtime. (Interestingly, MacArthur only played 12 minutes…)

Jake Gardiner played huge minutes, controlled the puck smartly and scored his first goal on a shot that proved you don’t have to hammer it a hundred miles an hour—get it to the net and good things might happen.

Steckel won a ton of face-offs, at least that’s how it felt.

Yes, the Leafs caught a huge break on their third goal (when Grabbo’s shot bounced off a stick, up in the air and in behind Montoya) but the Isles caught one as well to tie the game late.  And because the refs had essentially put their whistles away, what would normally have been a penalty in overtime was not called and the resultant rush became the winning goal for the Leafs.

But it was a road win, a comeback win, a win that was worth two points and as importantly, it will indeed send the boys off their on vacation with a smile on their faces.

One sobering thought, and it’s one we are all aware of: the hockey we witnessed the last two nights against the Islanders does not represent what is coming down the road—and is certainly not the kind of hockey we will see in the playoffs. The Islanders are a team in the midst of a major re-construction and the hockey was often sloppy.  The Leafs have not been playing their finest hockey of late, either. Still, the Isles had won three in a row against some good teams prior to taking on the Leafs, so perhaps Toronto took some of the wind out of their sails.

Regardless, the points are in the bank- which is where they needed to be.


Phil Kessel was hardly the story of the game Tuesday night.  In fact, he was pretty much a bit player, relatively speaking.  But while Phil hasn’t been on the score sheet over the past few games as much as we have been accustomed to seeing this season, it was instructive to see him sparring with Islander players last night.  He drew, not surprisingly, some extra attention and was standing his ground—which he will have to do when the checking becomes closer and closer as the season moves along.

One thing that I’ve really enjoyed seeing at times this season is when Kessel swings across the ice to make an offensive rush on his off wing.  While I know he has not been blowing by guys as often lately down his customary right wing, he is especially dangerous for defensemen to deal with when he comes in on his off wing.  He is able to control the puck at high speed and cut into the middle of the ice on his forehand.  As a result, as often as not, he is able to unleash a dangerous (usually low) wrist shot.  And because of the angle he releases the shot from and the way it comes off his stick, it’s usually very tough for the goaltender to handle, often causing rebounds.

I’m not suggesting Kessel should always play his off-wing (he’s obviously had plenty of success playing his natural side). But it’s good that Ron Wilson seems to allow the kind of creativity that makes Kessel so dangerous.  It reminds me a bit of the way Bobby Hull played with those marvelous Swedes (Nillson and Hedberg) back in the 1970s with the old WHA Winnipeg Jets.  There was a lot of “crossing over” and creative play—when that sort of thing was somewhat unusual in the “up and down the wing” NHL.

Come to think of it, in this over-coached, systems-oriented NHL—where the tiniest “mistakes” are on film forever and scrutinized by coaches—it’s unusual now.

In an era when the game can be awfully boring at times, I’m glad Kessel is not.


  1. Liles should be back soon, Michael, which I think has been a significant factor pushing our offense from decent to potentially explosive. PP has dried up badly since he was injured.
    "The Islanders are a team in the midst of a major re-construction and the hockey was often sloppy."
    17 years long is a bit much to call a rebuild. If I were a Isles fan, Mike Milbury would be banned from all of Manhattan island. Forever.

  2. The Grabbo line certainly looked like their old selves last night. If that carries across the All Star break, I'll be happy. But, as you say, there'll be tougher sledding ahead than the Isles presented us with, and we're going to have to tighten up a lot, and be more committed in both ends, if we hope to make the top 8. I agree with KidK, though - Liles' return should make a notable difference. And a healthy Armstrong wouldn't hurt.
    But I still feel a deal's a-comin'...

  3. Absolutely a timely and significant win, Michael. I think it will do wonders for the psyche of this young team, knowing they can have a few days off having earned them. That was a hungry, determined group after the 2nd NYI goal and they were relentless till OT.

    Very happy to see Gardiner net his first--he's been terrific since his call-up. Almost seems like he's out to prove he belongs and displayed a sort of "I dare you to send me down again" mentality.

    Would love to see that from Kadri,now. Tho' he's looked way better of late. This brings up a 'vintage' (of sorts) memory for me...I remember the words of the dear late Pat Burns. After each training camp, he would get into his typical "huff" in his media scrums and address what he called the "Drake Berehowsky" question. Another kid with so much talent but started each camp/season with a question mark followed by back and forth to Junior/St John's/big club. Here's hoping there's no "Kadri" question ongoing!

    Back to the topic at hand--yes, it was wonderful to see Kessel show some emotion. And as we saw, it's contagious when guys like him do it. Hope he has a blast in Ottawa and keeps it going after.


  4. KidK...I hear you. I think I was just looking at the Isles right now, not so much the state that MM left them in!

    Gerund O'...You're right about the Grabbo line, though yes, we both know there are tougher games (and teams) ahead. (Your weaknesses really only tend to get exposed in a long playoff series...). Long Suffering, I will look forward to your thoughts (and those of many other thoughtful posters here) on the question/questions I will be posing in the planned column later tonight....

    Caedmon- you are right on in each of the points you make. I appreciate the Pat Burns/Berehowsky reference. It's true. So many young players come in with talent. But that's rarely enough. Pat Quinn used to say, and I'm probably paraphrasing..."That's why they're called prospects- they haven't done anything yet..."

  5. Craig Custance at ESPN

    "Can confirm reports that a contract extension announcement coming for John-Michael Liles. Expected to be a four-year deal."

    Liles for 4 years means they might be moving a defencemen...Schenn? Komisarek?

    I hope they don't give away Grabovski. I like Franson and Gardiner too.

  6. Apparently, the Leafs front office reads my comments here. 4 @ $3.875M for Liles.

  7. DP...I don't know what the implications will be. Liles is a nice player, still only what, 31? We'll see what affect this will/won't have on Burke's trade talks....

    KidK...clearly you are more influential than you realize...

  8. I'm glad they got the two points last night even though I wasn't able to watch. I am eager to re-sign Grabbo, although there seem to be rumours in the media that the Leafs would only sign Liles OR Grabbo and not both.
    I do wonder about some of the salary on the back end again. Especially with Komisarek unable to play in the top 4 and Liles mostly being a power play specialist (although that term and AAV seems pretty much perfect to me). I feel like one of Gunnarsson or Schenn gets moved although that's based on nothing but my gut.

  9. Well that was a pretty sloppy game for both teams last night, but it was a really exciting finish. I could stand to see them lose a few games if they have the entertainment value that game had.

    Gardiner looked silky smooth last night. Can't wait to see how this kids turns out in a couple years. He skates so fluidly with the puck that he can control the flow and speed of the game. They got a real special kid with that trade, just hope he gets his opportunities with this Liles extension and having Franson in the line up.

    Glad to see Mac score a couple and Grabbo put on his magician hat. I don't really like the thought of moving out Grabovski, but they won't be moving Connolly and I can't imagine Bozak has as much trade value as Grabbo, so almost like the writing is on the wall there if they're able to land a top center.

    I liked your points about Gustavsson, he's been a very big contributor to this team this year. And I'll be the first to admit, I never saw this coming. But as good as he's been, hes made the guys in front of him better. They all looked more composed playing against him than they did last year, or even at the beginning of this year. Amazing what a little confidence can do for you!

    All in all, really pleased with the result of the last couple games. Love your site! Keep it up!

  10. I have to admit, Karina, I get confused and my eyes kind of glaze over when faced with having to understand the cap world and the realities that that obviously imposes. (I'm thinking about your reference to signing Liles but maybe having to trade Grabbo.) I understand that this is precisely what GM's have to work through nowadays. From a fan perspective, it's a bit of a challenge because suddenly everyone seems to be a capologist- and I'm certainly not!

    I will say this: I hesitate to suggest any particular signing is "great" or not, simply because we have no idea how a player will play throughout the whole of their term. On the surface, signing Liles seems to make sense. It's not an outrageous number (well, they're all outrageous numbers, but you know what I mean) and teams always want defensemen who can skate and move the puck.

    I'll be disappointed if Gunnar is moved, but that's life in the big city, I guess...Thanks for taking the time to post.

    The Shawn- on your first point, if you have a second, check out the post planned for tonight. It will address that very point.

    No question Gardiner is smart and so poised. Skating along with great instincts can take you a long way at this level. I doubt he will sit much again in the future. They already rely on him a lot.

    While the signs are pointing to Grabovski leaving, they would be losing a care who cares (and I wouldn't have said that two seasons ago!).

    Gustavsson's confidence is something I've talked about here seemingly forever. I'll just say this: it helps a ton when you feel- and know - that the organization believes in you. As I often have said, you can't play high-level sports - whether you are a teenager or a pro - with a piano on your back. You have to be able to make mistakes and be allowed to grow and learn...

    Thanks for the kind words...

  11. I'll be sure to take a look...

    That's kind of my point about Grabovski. The Leafs may not have drafted him, or turned him pro, but they definitely turned him into a pro through development and now hes paying dividends for that. 25-30 goals and 50-60 pts is pretty ideal for a second line center, not to mention drive and effort he shows every night. I understand you have to give to get, but I'm not sold on the fact that he should be one to be traded.

    I've been reading a bit about "a possible big move" involving players like Schenn and Kadri. That's not the kind of move this team should be making, this is a bubble team that needs time to develop and was advertised as such. As far as I'm concerned, I think there are only two moves the Leafs should be making at this point. One is finding a taker for Komisarek. Not necessarily for the return, not because he's completely terrible, but for the cap space and the roster spot. Holzer or Aulie could easily fill that spot right now.

    The other move, and possibly more difficult one, is finding a winger with size that will go to the front of the net. It's getting pretty tiresome to watch the Leafs set up in the zone with no traffic in front...

  12. Great posts by all. I think trading Grabo would be a problem for the Leafs. I am concerned that neither Bozak or Connolly have worked well with Mac & Kulie. The new acquisition will not be expected to replace Grabo on this line so their contribution will likely be diminished.

  13. Also, a big welcome (?) to Karina.

  14. Good point, Ed.....much talk about trades. I guess the question is: will it be major or a tweak??

  15. Haha, fair point about calling a signing "great" Michael. I get excited and toss around words that I later wish I hadn't, but such is my attachment to the team.

  16. Karina, when I responded to your post, I was not saying you had called the Liles signing "great". (I don't think you did, in fact...) I was simply stating broadly that I'm almost always reluctant to endorse a signing as great or not great at the time of signing because what may look good (or lousy) today, may not look so good in two or three years. And even if you had said it, if we can't use superlatives when discussing our favourite teams, where's the fun? Thanks.