January 18 2013 10:36AM
The Toronto Maple Leafs have finalized their 23-man roster, cutting Morgan Rielly and Matt Frattin Friday to trim their roster and set the lineup they'll likely run with tomorrow in Montreal. (Meanwhile, Tim Connolly cleared waivers, and Dave Nonis says he'll report to the Toronto Marlies)
The moves aren't particularly surprising. Frattin is waiver-exempt, and as a player in his scoring peak he barely moved the needle at the NHL-level. He fits better with the Toronto Marlies and as the first-injury call-up for the Leafs. Morgan Rielly will be sent back to junior in Moose Jaw, impressive as he is as an 18-year-old, the reality of the situation is that he's too chaotic in his own end to benefit the hockey team, and it doesn't benefit Rielly as a player to play 15 minutes a night of panicky hockey.
Rielly will get his chance some day, but clearly that is not today.
So who is left on the Leafs' roster? With the cuts of Frattin and Rielly, plus the transactions involving Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly, the Leafs have a lineup that looks something like this:
Joffrey Lupul - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Nik Kulemin
James van Riemsdyk - Nazem Kadri - Leo Komarov
David Steckel - Jay McClement - Mike Brown / Colton Orr
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
John-Michael Liles - Cody Franson
Mark Fraser / Korbinian Holzer
Mike Komisarek / Mike Kostka
I'm not sure how the third defensive pairing is going to work. I've been impressed with Mike Kostka with the Marlies and wonder if he'll get a chance to play with Jake Gardiner when Gardiner returns from his symptoms-that-may-be-concussion-like-but-it's-totally-not-a-concussuion.
Who gets sent down to open up space for Gardiner? It would have to be either Kotska, Mark Fraser or Korbinian Holzer. Holzer is the only one of those who is waiver-exempt.
I don't like the idea of carrying around Colton Orr for the season, but it appears as if he's going to be a reality this year, enough to neutralize the defensive threat possessed by Jay McClement and David Steckel, whichever is centring the line. Orr, like most goons, is a possession black hole, liable to neutral zone turnovers, clumsy offensive zone possessions, and a total inability to threaten people in his end of the ice. Playing him with two good defensive players is a waste of their skills, but at least they'll get some work killing penalties that other players in their role won't get.
You have a lineup, Mr. Carlyle, how do you plan to use it?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a good puck-possession team. They were the third-worst team in the league at Fenwick Close, a metric that ranks teams by the number of unblocked shots fired at the other teams' net versus their own. When you're as poor a club as the Leafs, it's murder on the offensive players, who don't get the offensive zone benefits that teams under a better possession club would. That's why it took Nazem Kadri so long to make it to an NHL opening day roster, likely, is that the extra centreman spot needed to go to somebody who had to take 10 to 12 extremely difficult faceoffs in defensive and penalty-kill situations a night. Monitoring player usage is incredibly important if we want to understand how hockey players produce.
Just as a frame of reference, here are Quality of Competition and Offensive Zone-Start Percentage from Leafs' centremen last year via Behind the Net:
A QualComp over .500 indicates the player routinely saw ice time against other teams' second- and first-line players. An Ozone% of under 40% indicates that the player was called upon to take faceoffs in very difficult situations. You can see that Grabovski and Steckel played consistently more difficult minutes than Bozak's or Connolly's lines, but Bozak and Connolly didn't see any significant advantage in competition or Ozone%.
The hope for me is that Steckel and McClement routinely get lined up against teams' 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines when they start at the offensive end of the ice, and that Grabovski is used primarily against other teams' top lines. That second Leafs unit is offensively gifted enough to keep up with the guys they'd line up against, especially when you factor in how good defensively you are. I'm glad Carlyle decided to keep Nik Kulemin with Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur—he may not be worth a whole lot on the offensive end (particularly if he doesn't shoot) but he has admirable defensive qualities that could help him work in a shut-down unit.
If they can play those roles effectively, it would open up space for the first line, and Nazem Kadri's new line, to play hockey in easier minutes than those two lines saw last season. The first line doesn't need the help, as they were fine offensively last year, but the third line could use an injection. With Connolly, Lombardi, and Joey Crabb out and two recent high NHL picks, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk in, I like the Leafs chances of icing a more balanced attack this year, but it does depend on making sure they get the easy minutes against the right competition, or their offence could be underwhelming.
Hey, look at that, we're discussing hockey again. We'll run out a fuller Leafs' preview tonight, and, tomorrow morning, squee, a game preview for the Leafs' tilt against the Habs, the Leafs' first game action since April 7.