After Friday’s mauling of a Sabres squad, with one and a half NHL lines, by the Leafs, who had brought two, I was expecting tonight’s game to be a different story.
The Leafs are playing the entire pre-season, so far, as if every game is a split squad. No one is being strained with back-to-backs, not even the backup goalies, and that is expected to continue. The story being given out by Mike Babcock is that the fourth line centre job and the third pairing defence jobs are up for grabs, which would make running a lot of non-standard lines and pairings reasonable.
It pays to keep an open mind about these try-outs because if someone stakes a claim to one of those spots, they’ll get it. So far, despite how good Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman looked beating up on the Amerks Friday night, no one has grabbed a job from a returning player.
The Leafs lines for tonight were the defensively challenged Bozak line and three variations on a fourth line:
JvR - Bozak - Marner
Grundstrom - Fehr - Kapanen
Rychel - D. Moore- Johnsson
Soshnikov - Smith - Clune
The defence pairings were:
Prognosticators have said that Rosen has the inside track on the 3LD job since Babcock keeps playing him with Connor Carrick. Many media people have claimed he’s a lock on the strength of one game — one I didn’t see, so I’m watching him with interest. My preconception of him is that he’s physically underpowered to a large degree. Martin Marincin is double-strength tough stuff compared to Rosen. Borgman beats them both rolled in together, but there’s a lot more to defence than just physical strength.
As far as the 4C job goes, while Miro Aaltonen looked good against AHL players with the very, very hot Josh Leivo on his left hand and Connor “what do you mean fourth liner?” Brown on his right, I thought he was not a very strong part of their success.
Dominic Moore is a known quantity, Ben Smith is not getting the job, but Erik Fehr is the dark horse. He’s overpaid, so he’s got to be worth it to keep up in the lineup and not have half his salary buried.
Let the battle for the best fourth line begin! It’s a tough fight, facing most of the real Buffalo Sabres lineup.
To say this game didn’t open with the uptempo domination of the Sabres that Friday’s offered is an understatement. It was a grittier, grinding sort of domination at a much slower pace. Fourth line-style!
The various gind lines are rolling out and the Sabres are not getting anywhere near the net. Offensively, there isn’t a huge range of shooting skill there on all but the first Leafs line.
The Leafs get on slight chance from Kerby Rychel.
Mitch Marner does his thing to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone. Tyler Bozak does his thing playing the offensive distributor to a T. NIkita Zaitsev jumps up in the play perfectly and Marner and James van Riemsdyk drive the net.
The Leafs best scoring line, who’d been hemmed in the D-zone for their first shift, make it 1-0.
Now, enough of that. Back to the grinding...
It’s hard to really pay a lot of attention to the grinding when the Bozak line rolls out with another sweet offensive cycle. Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev are great together and great with the Bozak line.
Andreas Johnsson, no doubt upset at me calling him a grinder, gets a nice scoring chance.
Smith draws a penalty with his speed. Really. The Sabres defence is that bad.
The first PP unit — the Bozak line, Grundstrom and Gardiner — is in need of a week of practice.
The second PP unit allows Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Carrick to make some noise, along with Rychel. but they come up empty.
Marincin gets caught, can’t catch up to Evander Kane, and hauls him down. I swear I heard the bubble under Marincin pop there.
Rosen is playing PK with Zaitsev, but they switch up fast and Gardiner takes over. Rosen is back, and he makes a good play to clear. Moore looks good here. The Leafs PK is excellent, and Rosen fits right in.
The Bozak line look good, Johnsson looks fast and exciting, and the Smith line is way over their heads. And that’s the first period done!
Martin Marincin: He made some really bad choices in passes, forced Valiev to bail him out a couple of times, and then steered Jack Eichel away from the net like he was the best D on the ice. Add in the penalty on Kane, and it’s a typical Marincin mixed bag, trending towards the bad choices at really bad times.
Calle Rosen: He made some offensive plays that looked clumsy, but was otherwise unexceptional, not good or bad, just effective. He was fine on the PK.
The centre battle: Moore looks fine and is good on the PK. I don’t see why this is much of a question, but Aaltonen has more speed, for sure. Fehr’s line did nothing of note.
What do the stats say (from Natural Stat Trick, five-on-five unadjusted)?
The Leafs outshot (Corsi, not SOG) the Sabres by a big margin, they also got to the net with ease and delivered a lot of shots from crease line. The Sabres never got close enough to see who was in goal for the Leafs.
Rosen and Moore had great CF%, Marincin and Smith did not. Fehr was in the middle.
Rosen has his offensive jam going. He is roaring down the right wing (like the Leafs need another winger) and he gets off a good shot, gets the rebound. Great shift.
Moore gets the slashing crackdown call, and he’s in the box. This is where lack of speed is hurting him. He tried the good old lazy way to deal with Kane.
Marincin with a bad play on the PK, which isn’t like him. But they keep the Sabres to no shots, even if they never clear it.
Carrick stretches the pass to speed man, Kapanen and this pair are working well together again, but the chance doesn’t get converted.
The Smith line give up a scoring chance to the newest Sabres defender, the best free agent defender signed this summer, Victor Antipin. He played last night and has been good in both games.
Rosen is great with the pass, makes good plays and is really easy to knock down.
Moore’s line with a good shift. It seems like on a lot of teams, both Rychel and Johnsson could find semi-regular NHL jobs, but they can’t kick Connor Brown out or jump ahead of Kapanen or Leivo.
Someone should have told Rich Clune he was here for mayhem. He looks like one of the grinder boys, playing hard in the corners and working to get the puck like he thinks he’s a real hockey player. (He is.)
Marincin takes a highsticking call and it looks like self-sabotage now.
The PK is fine, as always.
Valiev draws a penalty making that the worst D and the worst F on the Leafs creating power plays. Yes, the Sabres are bad.
Marner with a good PP chance. Then the entire structure dissolved, and look, pre-season power play units are just not real things. But that was bad.
Gardiner. He’s the guy I keep seeing and saying, well, lookee there. He pops the puck over to Soshnikov, who whirls and shoots for a wake up call to Robin Lehner.
Bad pass from Carrick to Rosen hems the Leafs in and its Eichel’s line on the ice. Even with Antipin in support, they get only one chance out of it.
JvR with a beautiful little pass that reminds what it’s like to see a top pro, not some grinder or prospect.
Marincin can’t stop a Sabres zone entry, and even with Fehr over to help, the puck pops right out to Rasmus Ristolainen at the point. That is not what you want. The shot is tipped, and it’s 1-1.
Nice rush by Moore and (I think) Smith who hadn’t got off the ice yet.
Coming back the other way, Kane gets a chance and then a tripping penalty.
Gardiner and Marner get in some sweet passing practice, but that’s about it for that PP. The Sabres fans booing down the Go Leafs Go chant was more fun.
The second period ends with the Leafs needing a bit of a blast from Babcock in the intermission to wake up.
The defensive fight: Do you want to judge on one game? Then Rosen is winning, and Marinicin just keeps digging himself in a deeper hole.
The centre fight: The world wouldn’t end if you put Fehr on the team, but Moore looks totally fine to me.
What do the stats say?
The Corsi was tied for the period, still leaving the Leafs ahead on balance, but it was very clear the Leafs dialed back the intensity a little. The Sabres got in the crease and got off shots in a meaningful way, so the defensive success of the first period faded a great deal.
Moore has the best CF% on the team and he’s playing more vs Eichel and Antipin than any other Sabres line. Rosen is still good, and offensively high event against top competition, so that’s a bigger plus. Marincin and Smith are terrible, and Fehr is a little less okay than he was.
Kasimir Kaskisuo starts the third period, and becomes the latest player to have his name mangled on the Sportsnet broadcast.
Zaitsev takes a nasty slash on the hand from Matt Moulson, which just shows you, players are learning slowly.
The other KK (Kapanen) scores the go-ahead goal, on the power play, with help from Carrick. See, if you use an old Marlies PP unit, it’s fine. (Rosen with an assist here too.)
Smith line with some zone time, and Clune looking good out there.
Bozak line with some zone time, and Marner looking good out there.
Smith line with some zone time, and Johnsson looking good out there filling in for Grundstrom.
Marner gets some faceoff practice courtesy of the crackdown, and some zone time courtesy of himself. JvR with a couple of chances.
Sabres look really uninterested in this game. I guess their team is easy to make, huh?
Fehr line with some zone time, and Johnsson looking good out there.
Bozak line with so much zone time they look like Bergeron and company.
KK the forward gets his pocket picked easy, and KK the goalie has to make a save. KK the recapper is frankly, very bored.
Rosen continues to look like a real player, but not in a wow you way. He can swap sides with Carrick easily. The communication there seems to be working well.
Grundstrom with a rush that almost woke up the crowd.
Kas-ki-su-o. It’s not even a hard name, Paul.
Leafs gradually giving up some more shots as the game limps to its end. No one could claim anyone is playing with fire in this third period.
Kane line gets some heavy zone time.
Eichel line follows up with some with the goalie pulled, but Nate Beaulieu makes an ill-advised pinch and the Leafs fill the empty net.
3-1 is the final score.
The defensive fight: Babcock played Marincin a lot in the third period, and he improved to just blandly okay all the time. He’s definitely getting a chance to prove himself. Rosen stayed better with ease. No one is knocking Carrick off the roster.
The centre fight: If you assume the real question here is can Aaltonen take the job from Moore, the answer will depend on how well Aaltonen does at all the defensive aspects of the game that Moore is fine at. He brings speed and perhaps some scoring touch that Moore lacks. Moore brings some decades of experience.
What do the stats say?
The Sabres won the Corsi battle in the third until you score adjust it. The Leafs slacked off, but never beyond what you expect from score adjusted pressure from the other side.
Moore stayed the top player by CF% and Rosen was high up. Fehr got worse in the third period and slid below Smith, although he made some nice plays, he was conspicuously not handling the increased pressure from the Sabres.
The bottom line
The Sabres were so bad, no one on the Leafs looked less than replacement level, which is absurd. Many of them are. What the Leafs need is the two games against a decent team like Montréal to see where they are really at, and yes, I am going to wash my mouth out with soap now.