February 04 2013 10:11AM
Photo via Gregg Forwerck/NHLInteractive
The Toronto Maple Leafs suffered an off-ice defeat on the weekend, adding another body to the swelling pool of key injured players that has left the club shorthanded of a few of its good players. First it was Joffrey Lupul, then Clarke MacArthur, and now Carl Gunnarrson is on the shelf with a lower-body injury and has no return timetable.
While Lupul and MacArthur's injuries were tough, albeit the Leafs have been able to replace them with the production of both Matt Frattin and James van Riemsdyk early on in the season, Gunnarsson's injury presents a different challenge. Toronto isn't exactly a team with a terrifying top six, and Gunnarsson has arguably been the Leafs' best defenceman early on, with a +4.51 Corsi rate per 60 minutes and ranked third on defence in Quality of Competition.
So Mike Komisarek will likely have a spot in the top four, replacing Gunnarsson on the second pairing with John-Michael Liles. Komisarek has been killed in both scoring chances and possession this season, frequently on the wrong side of botched transition plays and weak clearing attempts. I wrote in the summer that Brian Burke really ought to think about adding another top four defenceman, as François Beauchemin's spot in the lineup was never really claimed by anybody after he got traded away. Now Jake Gardiner is rehabbing in the minors, a career AHLer is thrust into top-pairing duty and Mike Komisarek comes back into playing a prominent role. Here's hoping Korbinian Holzer, coming up from the Marlies, takes Mark Fraser's spot in the roster alongside Cody Franson.
James Reimer will start against the Carolina Hurricanes Monday night, and he's been instrumental in keeping the Leafs' close to .500 all season. Goaltender stats are a little out-of-whack since it's still a young season, but he has an overall save rate of .922 and an even-strength save rate of .929, which is better than Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard, Henrik Lundqvist and Cory Schneider. Given the secrecy around Randy Carlyle's lineup decisions, it's surprising to see Reimer named the starter this early in the day, but it's a pretty easy call given how well he's played in the past week. Though the Leafs got dominated by the Boston Bruins on Saturday, Reimer kept the score at 1-0.
Puck Drop: 7 PM EST
TV: Sportsnet Ontario
Who are the Carolina Hurricanes this year? They've gone from a Southeast Division team made up of 'B' prospects and spare parts to the early favourites to win the division with a strong start at even strength. They finished their offseason neglecting to stock up on a thing called "defence" but they have been very, very good to start the young season. Having a dangerous offensive corps bolstered by Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin has helped to cover their defensive shortcomings, although at just 3-4 and playing catch-up a lot, the shot clock is curiously slanted in favour of the 'Canes.
Carolina are one of two teams to have all of their regular players as plus-Corsi players, which is a small-sample quirk, but also an indicator of an improved team at even strength that will probably spend a lot of time in the Leafs' zone tonight. They're led by Justin Faulk, a mid-sized 20-year old defenceman playing 22 minutes a night in all situations playing alongside veteran shutdown man Tim Gleason.
What does Carolina's lineup look like? After sending down Zac Dalpe, who had been riding shotgun with Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner on their second line, that's a little up in the air:
Jiri Tlusty - Eric Staal - Alexander Semin
Chad LaRose - Jordan Staal - Jeff Skinner
Drayson Bowman - Jussi Jokinen - Patrick Dwyer
Tim Wallace - Tim Brent - Andreas Nodl
Tim Gleason - Justin Faulk
Joni Pitkanen - Jamie McBain
Jay Harrison - Bobby Sanguinetti
Kevin Westgarth could take the spot of Tim Wallace on the fourth line conceivably, but those defensive pairings should be set. While the team didn't pick up any top four defencemen in the offseason, management has done a sufficient job with both Faulk and Jamie McBain, who have become serviceable NHLers next to veterans in Gleason and Joni Pitkanen. (I've also been told Joe Corvo could go in for Bobby Sanguinetti)
UPDATE: Sanguinetti stays in, but the forward lines are all screwed up. Andreas Nodl will be "out" and Westgarth will join Brent and Wallace on the fourth line. Patrick Dwyer up to the second line with Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, and LaRose remains on the third line.
Up front, Carolina is without Tuomo Ruutu to injury and lost Zach Boychuk on waivers to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Chad LaRose I presume will take the spot there (Chad Larose fantasy owners take note) but he doesn't have the history of driving play against forward toughs like Jordan Staal does. It's a bit of a sleeper line because the younger Staal doesn't have any goals on the season, but Jeff Skinner has five goals in seven games and a team-leading 31 shots on net.
The first line, led by older brother Eric, offseason pickup Semin and former Maple Leafs first rounder Jiri Tlusty, gets the prime offensive minutes but weaker competition compared to the second line. Tlusty, Staal and Semin have respective offensive zone start rates of 65.2%, 63.8% and 66.7% so they're getting the minutes to be Carolina's offensive leaders at this point in the season. They're scoring a goal-a-game between the three of them (although Tlusty is held scoreless) but have very high on-ice shooting percentages and PDO numbers to start the season, so don't expect that to last.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Carlyle mixes up the matchup and sends Mikhail Grabovski against the Carolina top line and Tyler Bozak against the second line. That makes more sense to me since three bonafide NHL top six players on the first forward unit posit more of a threat to the Leafs and Grabovski is a man to shut down the toughs. I don't think Kirk Muller would sweat having Jordan out against Phil Kessel so it shouldn't be too difficult a matchup to come by. I'd also hope Carlyle goes back to sheltering the piss out of Nazem Kadri and avoiding any defensive zone matchup unless they come with Tim Brent also on the ice. There is no good situation to use Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren, who I presume will draw back into the lineup.
At evens, you can see why Carolina would have a decided advantage. Special teams, however, present more of an issue for the Canes. Their powerplay is 26th in the league and penalty kill is 27th by basic NHL measures. They've been good at generating shots on the powerplay, but they're awful at preventing them on the penalty kill, third last in the league with 62.7 shots per 60 given up over 60 minutes, third last in goals given up per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 at 12.3. That's a number that's unsustainably high, but does showcase the Canes early season struggles with the PK. If the Leafs win this game, it will be in part getting their own powerplay going, which is 0 for its last 8 and 1 for its last 15. Not a huge worry to begin the year, but Phil Kessel's goal-less games number is increasing.
Cam Ward is in net for the Canes. He's a shots faced workhorse with a .922 even strength save percentage over the last three seasons, respectably above the NHL average. Comparatively, Reimer is a .926 but has faced much, much, much fewer shots. Somewhat surprisingly, given Ward's workload over the last few seasons, Dan Ellis has three starts as the Hurricanes' backup. Ward had 140 starts in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, so that's rare territory for him.
Second Update: We also learned from line rushes that Clarke MacArthur is playing as a centreman. Okaay...
- Game Preview: Carolina Hurricanes @ Toronto Maple Leafs (Jamie Kellner, Canes Country)
- Leafs new goalie coach has Reimer playing like a No. 1 (Michael Traikos, National Post)
- James Reimer gets fifths straight start (Bob Mitchell, Toronto Star)
- All the Leafs goals against Carolina in 2011-12 (PPP, Pension Plan Puppets)