One of the reasons that the Randy Carlyle era was so tiresome was that his shortcomings as a coach produced very predictable results for the team. Night after night of rope-a-dope hockey worked on some nights, but most nights it didn't, and it was excruciating to watch, let alone study and write about. To be fair to him, the team itself had many shortcomings, but now that there is a new sheriff (or two, or three) in town, the storylines surrounding the Leafs are changing.
Mike Babcock is already getting more out of many of the players that Carlyle was nearly ready to cast aside, but there are also some players that, if we're being honest, are not faring as well under the new regime. Let's take a look at some of the stories taking shape already in this young Leafs' season.
Tyler Bozak and the Revenge of the Corsi
For years we at PPP have been howling for Bozak to be traded. At the last trade deadline, I suggested that I would accept a plastic bag that someone farted into in return for Bozak. If his current possession stats hold up, I may have to eat my words, along with that bag with a fart in it. Uh, assuming he gets traded, which could actually happen, if he keeps up this level of play.
Sure, Bozak's scoring is way down, and no one is surprised by that. But as I write this, he is currently the Leafs' top possession player so far in this young season with a 62 CF% over 6 games. Now, Bozak will have to maintain a positive possession line over the course of at least a full season until we seriously reevaluate his abilities in this regard, but this is something worth keeping an eye on for now.
Is Dion Phaneuf improved?
Babcock has been a vocal supporter of Phaneuf ever since he arrived in Toronto, and it's believed that Babcock was even a fan when he was in Detroit. So far, the results are somewhat mixed, but although they're certainly better than what we saw from Phaneuf over the past couple of years, they still aren't really a huge turnaround.
Right now, Phaneuf has some poor possession numbers relative to his teammates, as he and his defence partner Matt Hunwick have been the Leafs' worst D pairing so far, facing the toughest competition. Oh yeah, there's Roman Polak whose possession numbers look worse, but I mean, did I need to say that? Anyway.
At first glance, it may seem that Phaneuf's poor Corsi Rel may be somewhat forgiven due to the fact that he has fewer offensive zone starts that most of the other D-men on the team, but Jake Gardiner has both the least offensive zone starts and the best possession number of any Leaf defender, so it's hard to forgive Dion too much.
On the other hand, Phaneuf is actually posting positive numbers, which is markedly better than the last few years. So he might not look great next to some of the younger defenders on the team, but at least he isn't running around in his own zone as much as he used to. Some credit for this has to go to Babcock and his systems, but hey Dion is better, and he should probably get some kudos for that, himself.
Probably the best part of Dion's game right now is his offensive production. Sure, he's likely to trail off, but he's always been an above-average point-producer in the NHL and it's good to see him get a few more points, especially on a team that is starved for goals.
Nazem Kadri can't catch a break
Poor Nazem Kadri. Currently, his shooting percentage is 2.2%, which is bound to change, but in the meantime, the Leafs are starved for goals and the spotlight is on him. Ol' Naz has certainly been playing well, with good possession numbers, plenty of shots, and hey, 6 points in 11 games isn't awful. But still. This should be Kadri's breakout year, and you want him to pick up points to shut up his detractors. Oh, and also because it's fun watching him score.
Leo Komarov: The best bad deal the Leafs ever signed?
I'll be honest: I hated the Komarov deal when the Leafs signed it two summers ago. It was just way too much money for a guy whose only NHL season ended with 9 points in 42 games, and besides, he was open about wanting to come back to Toronto, so even if there were other teams in the free agency mix, why couldn't the Leafs talk him down more than $3M over three years? (As a side note, I'm not a fan of contracts over 2 years for almost any player during a rebuild.) Even his P/60 in that first year was bad.
But hey, last year Komarov's scoring rate approached a half a point per game, and this year, he's doing even better. In fact, for now, he leads the team in CF%. Sure, he's up on the first line where he absolutely, 100% should not be, but he's fun to watch, and now has real potential as a pump'n dump. Whether or not the Leafs will want to trade him is entirely another issue, but for now, he's looking like a useful asset, even, potentially, at his current salary.
Goaltending an issue again?
Bernier and Reimer have each had a good game or two, but so far, both have been sub-par to start the season, relative to either league average or their own personal standards. I'm not really a goalie guy so it's hard for me to pin down exactly why (my eyes say rebound control and positioning, but that's not worth much), however I do have a couple of observations on their results.
I've always been a Reimer fan. I don't think he got a fair shot at being the number one goalie in Toronto after the arrival of Bernier, but I do think that Bernier has been the better of the two since his arrival, and I think it's pedantic to get into usage. This is the NHL, and you only get a limited number of chances to prove yourself. Sometimes, the odds are going to be unfairly stacked against you, and you just have to be better. Reimer hasn't been, and so, heading into this season, I felt it entirely fair that Bernier be regarded as the de facto number one.
Now, I was thrilled to see Reimer bounce back after a bad goal against to stymie the Stars. It was the kind of game we were used to seeing from Reimer before Bernier arrived, and Reimer totally deserves the start tonight against Winnipeg.
If he can run with this for a few games, all the better. Going forward though, Reimer needs to be better than a .908 goalie (which is his Sv% right now) if he is going to stay in Toronto. If he doesn't, it's time to move on, bring in Garret Sparks or Antoine Bibeau for the sake of saving a few bucks, or look outside the Leafs' system for goaltending help.
Bernier will still have get some slack if he's off this year, since he's been better in the last two, but at this point the difference between him and Reimer is shrinking. On his career, he's got a .915 and Reimer has a .912. A good year by Reimer and a bad year by Bernier could close that gap and then it's a toss-up to see which one the team should jettison.
Morgan Rielly: Yeah, he's that good.
Rielly probably has the strongest case of any Leaf to be dubbed the team's best player this season. Now, there is plenty of time for Gardiner or Kadri to get hot, but so far, Rielly has looked like the defenceman that Leafs fans dreamed of when he was drafted 4th overall three years ago.
Scott Wheeler had a good post about Rielly's play just the other day, and Rielly is leading the Leafs in points. Sure, it's unlikely to continue, but let's face it, the Rielly show has arrived in Toronto, and it looks like he is well on his way to being a stud defenceman.
There is room for improvement, for sure. Babcock mentioned the other day that while Rielly had as many points against the Stars as he had ever had in a game, but that all he could see was Jamie Benn getting to the net first all night. Rielly is young still. He'll get there.
Forgot about Jake?
Jake Gardiner was injured and out for a few games, but his possession stats are as strong as ever, and as he enters the prime of his career, Mike Babcock has noticed how good Jake is. Gardiner has the highest TOI/60 of any player on the team so far this season (though it is worth noting that he got a lot of 5v5 time under Carlyle), and though he doesn't get much time on the power play, hopefully with some extra tutelage from Babcock, Gardiner's defensive game will shore up, and then he can start getting more offensive opportunities.
Gardiner is 25 this year, and really should be in about the peak of his performance. I still have some hope that there is growing room left, though in a year or two if he hasn't got much better in his own end, it may be time for a trade, if a good one can be had.