Kyle Clifford absolutely correct in assessment of Leafs firestarter

The acquisition of Jack Campbell saw Stanley Cup winning enforcer Kyle Clifford jump ship to the Leafs. While his effort and bodyguard presence on the ice has been greatly needed, he’s also inspired more from his teammates.

With a goal and a fight on Thursday night, Kasperi Kapanen has turned into a bit of a bulldozer for this Leafs team. His greatest aspect of play is his insane speed. When he takes off through the neutral zone there aren’t too many defensemen who can catch up to him, showing this in Sunrise this week.

His goal was greatly needed against the Panthers, showing off his sniping ability, albeit on a should-have-been-saved chance. You can’t complain about pucks on net in the NHL and Kapanen has deserved more scoresheet credit in recent weeks.

Finishing the game an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hattrick, Kapanen drew the admiration of his team’s enforcer, Kyle Clifford. Kapanen dropped the gloves on the 20th of February in the 4-0 win over Pittsburgh earning this praise from Clifford:

Kapanen is likely known as a skill guy with his speed and shooting ability, but now dropping the gloves twice in a week, on top of scoring in both games he fought in, shows there is an edge and much-needed different dimension to Kapanen’s game.

As a versatile forward who moves up and down the Leafs lineup as needed, Kapanen needs the physical edge to make an impact on the bottom six and needs the finesse and skills to fit in alongside Auston Matthews or John Tavares.

There is some subtext to Clifford’s comments, which he doubled down on after the win over the Panthers. Clifford, 29, has seen what it takes for a team to go deep into the playoffs and succeed. Maybe his comments on Kapanen’s development into a Swiss Army Knife on the ice suggest the Finnish forward has what it takes to make an impact on the Leafs postseason hopes.

Three Leafs perfect in bounce-back win over Penguins

Effort should always be there at a minimum, but the Leafs have shown recently that effort isn’t a given. Thankfully, thanks to performances by three players, the Buds rebounded and are aiming to keep momentum moving forward.

Kasperi Kapanen

Don’t put Kappy in a corner. With trade speculation including his name (and Andreas Johnsson’s prior to his injury), Kapanen put in a marquee performance against the Pens. Yes, he scored the third goal, his twelfth of the season, on a second period breakaway but his general effort levels are what caught my eye.

Kapanen was in on every puck battle, was using his straight-line speed to his advantage, and wanted in on every opportunity to break the puck out or pin the Pens deep on the forecheck. The goal was the cherry-on-top to an inspiring effort that pushed the team forward.

Frederick Andersen

No one needed a win, let alone a shut out, more than Frederick Andersen. Not up to his generally Vezina-quality form in the past month, Andersen has also been feeling the pressure of a motivated Jack Campbell pushing him from the backup goalie spot.

Andersen is obviously the way forward for the Leafs when it comes to individual performances. Of course, everyone needs to pitch in for success, but Andersen has the ability to steal games for the Leafs and shutting out Malkin, Crosby and the Penguins will do wonders for his confidence.

Campbell will still factor in down the stretch with back-to-back duty as well as scheduled rest regardless of the Leafs clinching or fighting for the playoffs. Still, Andersen is obviously a lynchpin in the Leafs success this season and will take this resounding win and move forward.

Jake Muzzin

The best is left for last as Jake Muzzin had arguably his best night as a Leafs last night. He scored, he assisted, he shut down an elite offence, and he threw his weight around. It was the perfect night for Muzzin, and this type of performance is exactly what he needed especially after his recent comments.

You better be the one propelling the team forward when you’re demanding more effort from your teammates, and Muzzin did just that. He was right to call out the team (likely including himself) because every player on the roster can and should be playing better.

With a pending contract extension for Muzzin on the books after the trade deadline, it’s clear he’s a locker room and on-ice leader for the Leafs, regardless of jersey lettering or not. With huge hits to the back end, Muzzin has been a rock and will be relied on to continuously be one for the remainder of the season.

Leafs value forward will FINALLY shine on second line after early season flop

Losing Mitch Marner sucks. Yes, Auston Matthews and William Nylander have been awesome in November so far, and yes, the bottom-six is still pulling their weight for the team, but still losing an offensive catalyst blows, regardless of the team’s form.

That being said, there is a golden opportunity right now for a former Tavares line flop to reassert himself as a potential top-6 forward. Yes, Kasperi Kapanen will get a more realistic and fair chance to shine on the 1-A line for the Leafs tonight and can rewrite the ugly start to the season he had on this same unit.

Why was it so bad prior to his re-ascension up the lineup? Because, in the wake of Mike Babcock never going back on his coaching decisions or adapting to any real evidence of him failing, Kapanen was inappropriately deployed as a left-winger to fill in for the injured Zach Hyman.

Firstly, Kapanen is a right-winger and has built his career on speed and shooting. Playing on his off-wing essentially neutered his ability to impact the offense how he naturally does. Secondly, Kapanen, while big and rambunctious at times, is a ‘skill’ player. He likes blazing by defenders and letting a quick wrist shot go to beat the goalie. He isn’t a grinder and again Babcock set him up to play as such, which obviously again limited his effectiveness.

Tavares and Marner still got their points with Kapanen on their line, however, it was largely due to their top power playtime instead of 5 on 5 scoring. When Trevor Moore took over, a versatile winger who can play both sides and grinds in the corners like Hyman, the line picked up their play and things were looking up.

Now, with Marner out, two thirds of that elite line will be back together again. Zach Hyman is back in the lineup on the left side of John Tavares presumably, and Kasperi Kapanen will replace Marner on the right side. It only makes sense, and should actually be effective. Hyman gets in the dirty areas, Tavares sets up the play, Kapanen uses his shooting to finish it.

This set up is much more advantageous to all parties and should help limit the loss of Marner to the best of the team’s ability. If Babcock over thinks this and decides to shuffle his bottom-6 and Tavares then he’s gone off the rails. Put Petan in Kapanen’s spot, insert Hyman and if he needs a minutes break, he can elevate Moore to the second line leftwing. On paper, this looks like an effective team… let’s hope paper translates to ice.

COACHING MASTERCLASS BY MIKE BABCOCK VS WASHINGTON

Four games too late, Mike Babcock has clued in to how his team should actually be constructed. To no surprise to anyone, he then fucked up deploying them.

Why does it always seem like one step forward, two steps backward for Mike Babcock and how he ices his team? And why does that one step forward always seem like common sense that a $6.25m coach shouldn’t need time or media pressure to figure out? Ah, such is life with Mike Babcock, who yet again showed us this pattern against Washington.

The step forward

Kasperi Kapanen is a right-winger. That’s it, that’s the talking point. Shoe-horned into the first line leftwing position, Kapanen had struggled mightily this season, that is until he was moved down the ice to flank Kerfoot and Mikheyev on his natural right side. Kapanen is a fast skating, run-and-gun shooter and doesn’t fit the Hyman role what so ever, so why did this take so long to remedy?

Call it ignorance or bravado, but Babcock doesn’t like to be wrong and playing Kapanen off-wing was so obviously wrong. He would flip sides of the ice at any chance he got and the chemistry lost on the line nullified one of the most electric offensive units (on paper) to start the year. Trevor Moore, who was bumped up to this position, fits the Hyman build way better and has looked more natural in that spot in a game and a half.

Against Washington, Moore and Kapanen connected for a shorthanded goal, capitalizing on their special teams play together. Later in the first period, Kapanen’s line again scored with him finding Mikheyev in the seam who netted a breakaway goal. Crisis over, the third line can exist without Moore. Changing these players as Babcock did and then stuck to against Washington is a positive and one the team could build on moving forward.

The mile backward

Imagine all of the positive tweaks this team has undergone lasting more than one or two games and compiling into a true Stanley Cup winning team? That would be the dream, and yes this apparently is just a dream because Babcock giveth and Babcock taketh away.

The net is empty, you’re playing a potential wildcard team in the playoffs, you have a chance to go three games unbeaten and you have the chance to win what some would view as a statement game on a back-to-back. What is the next logical move? Bench Auston Matthews for almost the entirety of the final two minutes when you have an extra attacker on the ice. Of course.

All offseason Leafs Nation groveled for Matthews’ ice time to go up this year. He played a shockingly low amount in the playoffs and if this team is going to grow, that needed to change. Thus far this season Matthew’s is up just under a minute per game compared to last season, as he sits at 18:53 TOI, but this is a far cry from McDavid’s avg. 22:30 a night, or Jack Eichel’s 21:16, or even Barkov’s 22:25 TOI; why isn’t our dominant center given more of a look?

He netted the game-tying goal against Montreal with the goalie pulled and is the most talented player on this team. He’s also a fixture on the first PP unit, so why was he not on the ice to capitalize on the man advantage? It’s clear Babcock has a style of play he wants to imprint upon his players but at what cost?

Leafs embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay asks question: What is this team?

It’s never okay to let in seven goals but to do it at home, against a divisional opponent and rival, in what should have been viewed as a measuring stick game, it’s even worse. Hopefully, the Leafs can answer some serious questions about their team as a result.

What are the Maple Leafs?

This team lost a shoot-out (eventually in a shootout) to the Montreal Canadians. They lost a fast, tight-checking, solid defensive game against St. Louis. Now, they lose 7-3 at home to a Tampa Bay team who were held to 2 shots on goal for over 40 minutes by Carolina earlier in the week. The sporadic-ness of the Leafs form is extremely confusing and sheds some light on their current situation.

They don’t know what they are, either. It’s clear the team is constructed to be a fast attacking squad that capitalizes on opposition’s inability to keep up with their team play and feasts on off-matchups and special teams to keep the high octane offense flying. But, when pushed to play more defensive setups, the team looks like a fish out of water and ends up doing both things poorly.

Coaching issue?

Yeah, maybe. Mike Babcock is a wonderfully tenured, Stanley Cup winning head coach and deserves the respect he’s earned from Leafs fans. That being said, his unwillingness to change or adapt faulty game plans is currently in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Babcock is a grindy, defense-heavy coach who preaches defensive responsibility over offensive excitement who has been handed a small, fast team that wants to play run-and-gun hockey.

It’s clear that it’s not a match made in heaven, and the up and down 2-2-1 results thus far show this. The Leafs homegrown young talent has undoubtedly learned why defense is important and that playing in the NHL isn’t all about scoring goals, but at some point, the coach has to adapt his style to fit the players he has at his disposal, and this hasn’t happened yet this season or in past years.

The players aren’t making this easy, either

You know what killed the Maple Leafs last night? Giving up penalties at awful times by players who don’t have long enough leashes to make these kinds of mistakes. Mike Babcock re-payed the strong effort Spezza and Petan put in against St. Louis and kept them in the lineup to play Tampa Bay. The promptly went a combined -2 with zero points combined and each had a penalty called against them.

To add to this, Kasperi Kapanen was a -2 on the day and also put a goal into Frederik Anderson’s net. He’s awfully miscast on the Tavares-Marner line on his offwing but he’s being put in that situation by his coach so I can’t blame him for not being a total homerun there. Kapanen is best when using his speed down the wing to create offense from out wide, capitalizing on his sick shot. He’s hamstrung currently and can’t really be blamed in my opinion.

Lastly, we have to end on Tyson Barrie. No player on the back end is as run-and-gun as Tyson Barrie, and last night we saw why this isn’t a fool-proof plan for sustained success. The best teams and the best players are multifaceted and can change their playstyle on the fly. With Barrie sticking to his offense-first mentality, he went -4 last night and was noticeably absent in his own zone. Morgan Rielly was also pretty awful last night; getting danced by Kevin Shattenkirk for a goal doesn’t help either.

Toronto Marlies Bounced but Timashov steals the show

The ice was tilted in the Marlies favor but a hot goalie and some bad puck luck end the run for the baby Buds. Timashov’s penalty shot was a solid consolation prize, though.

No one really expected the Marlies to challenge for another Calder Cup after losing a fair few regular players to the Maple Leafs after last season. That being said, the emergence of Rasmus Sandin, Mason Marchment, Jeremy Bracco, Timothy Liljegren, and Adam Brooks, caused an exceeding of expectations.

A name not mentioned in that list is Dmytro Timashov, but he really should be based on his elimination game theatrics. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know a penalty shot was coming, or why it was coming. The announcers had no clue for about fifteen minutes what was happening, but a closed hand on the puck awarded the penalty shot.

The no-move move or the Kucherov dangle. Either way, it was awesome. Timashov kind of quietly puts up points and stays in the background on this Marlies team, but he should be valued as a solid prospect in the team.

Out of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, it seems inevitable that one will leave this offseason, and of those two I believe Kapanen will go. Playing the opposite wing, Timashov wouldn’t be a player-for-player replacement but could bring replace the offensive upside Kapanen currently possesses.

With 49 points in 72 games, this season Timashov has continued his year-by-year growth in the AHL. He also put up 10 points in 13 games in the playoffs showing no lag between regular and postseason.

Offseason moves aside, Timashov’s no-move move was awesome and despite the Marlies success, he got one over on goalie Nedeljkovic who stole the game and the series. Silver linings, right?

Predicting Auston Matthews’ Linemates Part One: The Blueprint

In a three-part series let’s take a way too early look at the seemingly impossible task of finding Auston Matthews a forever home with suitable linemates.

From Patrick Marleau to William Nylander to Andreas Johnsson to Kasperi Kapanen. The Leafs have a lot of forward depth, but who deserves the left and right wing positions flanking the generational talent Auston Matthews?

Current Roster Options

Of the current Maple Leaf players listed above, I think we could all probably agree to rule out Marleau. He was a solid addition to the Matthews line to replace Hyman two season ago, but now his speed and ineffective play against top defensive opposition makes him a non-starter.

That leaves Johnsson, Kapanen, and Nylander as the next three obvious choices. In order to get the best out of Matthews, you need to maximize his efficiency by playing him with a balance of skill and grit (much like the Tavares line).

The solution? Nylander on the right wing and neither on the left wing. Realistically, I believe one of Kapanen and Johnsson will be gone come October 1st. A trade could alleviate cap space issues and/or help insulate a thin blue line; if I had to choose I’m shipping out Kapanen.

If Toronto could keep both Johnsson and Kapanen I’d be ecstatic, I just don’t see it happening. Now, one would assume Johnsson takes back his LW spot, right? Wrong-o! Johnsson exceeded expectations this season with Matthews, but properly casting him on the third line could increase his effectiveness, leaving the Leafs in need of another leftwinger.

Undeniable chemistry between Matthews and Nylander

Who fills the left wing?

If we have Nylander on the right wing, who slots into the left side? Ideally, Toronto dips into the admittedly shallow free agent market to find the fit for Matthews.

Of the left wing options on the market, one name shines above the rest – Michael Ferland. The rumored deadline acquisition from Carolina has played himself right into free agency. Ferland brings size and solid offensive production to a line with potentially two snipers alongside him making a formidable unit.

The only sticking point would be salary and term. Ferland has been a bargain at his 2-year $1.75m contract, and he’s due for a pay increase. Could the Leafs offer term in lieu of cash up front? It’s certainly an option and it would also allow for Ferland to be used up and down the line up. The farthest I’d commit is 4-years $2.5 a year.

Ferland – Matthews – Nylander
To me, this seems like a balanced and threatening second line that could out muster most teams’ first units. Matthews brings his elite shot and playmaking vision, Nylander beings his shot and speed, while Ferland adds net-front physicality and playmaking upside.

It could be argued that signing Ferland only makes it harder for Marlies’ prospects to break into the NHL, which is fair. However, walking into the NHL and playing alongside Auston Matthews would be a near-impossible task for a green prospect. A veteran NHLer eases this transition while maximizing return on Matthews current skill.

Nic Petan gets an extended tryout to earn his pending 2-year contract extension

Frederik Gauthier, the mainstay on the fourth line as of late, will miss a minimum of Toronto’s next two games, giving deadline acquisition Nic Petan a chance to impress in the Blue and White.

Nic Petan offers some solid usability as a gadget forward, playing both wings and center in his young career. For Toronto, that means he’s the de facto center as he was brought in for the Leafs backup option at center Par Lindholm.

Skill Over Size

Petan is certainly an upgrade on skill over Gauthier, but Toronto has to sacrifice size with the Gaut injured. It’s a bit of a loss as Gauthier has impressed with his forechecking and net-front presence this season.

It’s no secret that Toronto’s fourth line, which saw a surge in productivity through January and February, has been slumping in March. An injury is never a good thing to a team (see Toronto’s struggles with the polarizing Gardiner out), but a shake up was certainly needed on the bottom-6.

Statistically speaking, Petan is a bit up and down in his three games with Toronto this season. He’s scored one goal, which was a no-doubt laser beam in front of the net, but he’s also got a -3 rating. Gauthier’s injury will give him a chance to show he’s got some defensive prowess as well.

Silver lining?

Where one injury subtracts from the team, it seems like another will add to the team as Kasperi Kapanen is back in practice. Kapanen, who initially missed time due to illness, was then diagnoses with a concussion and has missed the last four games.

With his reassertion into the team, the likes of Connor Brown gets pushed down to the bottom unit and Ennis is the odd man out. Ennis, who has looked good since his return from injury, has blown cold in recent weeks. Like Gauthier’s absence, Ennis’ pushing out of the lineup could refresh and remotivate the tenacious forward.

Hyman has also returned, so Kapanen’s return makes it s 2-for-1 swap of injured players. Of course, having no injuries would be better but Kapanen and Hyman provide that front end depth Toronto has been missing. Hopefully Petan can capture lightning in a bottle with his extended tryout and prove he has what it takes to contribute!

Where in the world has Connor Brown gone?

The Toronto Maple Leaf’s up-and-down the lineup, versatile forward who scored 20 goals two seasons ago has seemingly dropped off a cliff. Has he played himself out of a future with the team?

Remember this? The Leafs are deadlocked with the Penguins at the then ACC 3-3 with just under two minutes remaining in the third. If the Leafs win they clinch the playoffs, lose and they have the win out against Columbus in the last game of their season.

Matt Hunwick shoots wide of the net and the puck finds its way back to the point where Jake Gardiner collects it and flings it towards the goal. Connor Brown jets out his stick high in the slot and the deflection sneaks past the goalie and the Leafs would go on to win the game 5-3 with Brown’s 20th and game winner.

It was Brown’s 20th goal of the season, and it sent the new-look Maple Leafs back to the playoffs after an impressively solid season. He was the homegrown talent that went on to play the hero in Toronto but, as No Mercy sang – “where do you go” Connor Brown?

Brown’s performance in the 2016/17 season had fan’s excited about his style of play. He brought intensity with his hard skating and willingness to get into the corners to grind out pucks regardless of where he was cast in the lineup.

Unfortunately, what we all hoped would be the floor of his skills now looks to be the ceiling. Brown regressed regressed in 2017/18, totaling 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points. This was an 8 point drop from the season prior.

As of today, Brown is sitting on 15 points, 5 goals and 10 assists, and is projected to end the season with 28 point.

This production from a 3rd/4th line winger is completely acceptable, however the problem comes with his price tag.

At $2.1 million for one more season (after this), Brown is effectively costing the Leafs an extra:
– $1.175m in comparison to Trevor Moore (925k)
– $1.237m in comparison to Kasperi Kapanen (863k)
– $1.313m in comparison to Andreas Johnsson (788k)

The math doesn’t always show the whole picture when explaining contract value, especially with minor league and entry-level contracts. However, using sub-million dollar contracts on the bottom-6 will be the way forward through salary cap Hell for the Maple Leafs.

The sad reality of 2019/2020

It’s a hard truth, but moving forward Connor Brown doesn’t have a place on the Toronto Maple Leafs. His $2.1M cap hit can be invested in 1-2 depth wingers, freeing up cap space for the Leaf’s big-ticket earners next season.

That being said, Brown VERY MUCH has a job to do this season. Starting tonight, with the absence of concussed Nazem Kadri, Brown will play on a William Nylander centered line. Nylander has the je ne sais quoi to drive a line and Brown will need to be his grinder and net-front presence.

Best case scenario for the Leafs is that Brown helps them in the playoffs and propels himself into a better situation, via trade, in the offseason. And don’t get me wrong I like Brown and think he’s a good, effective player. It’s just a shame that he hasn’t taken the next step forward, but players like Brown are the unfortunate casualty of the top-heavy Maple Leafs in a cap-crunched NHL.