Five Leafs thoughts to begin the week

A few thoughts to kick off your week, and previewing the things we’ll look at on this blog in Toronto Maple Leafs analysis…

No. 1 – Nikolai Kulemin’s scoring: Where did it go?

One of the major concerns this season has been the lack of production from Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. In 2011, those two were 3-4 on the Leafs with 58 and 57 points apiece. This season, the two are on pace for just 31 and 44 points apiece. Bob Mitchell in the Toronto Star brought it up in a column yesterday, with a quote from Randy Carlyle:

“From my memory before I got here, Kulemin had a big-time shot and I don’t see him shooting the puck as often,” Carlyle said before Saturday’s game. “He used to step over the blue line and his wrist shot had the ability to beat the goalie from the top of the circle . . . I don’t see that happening anymore.

What both Mitchell and Carlyle don’t mention is how sparingly Kulemin is used on the powerplay. We’ve mentioned a lot the difficulty of minutes played by Grabovski and Kulemin, but we don’t really mention that the two don’t get used on the powerplay at all.

In Kulemin’s big season where he scored 30 goals in 2011, he played 2:38 of ice-time per game at 5-on-4, during which he recorded 3.34 points per 60 minutes. Last year, his 5-on-4 ice-time was cut by 72%, but he scored 5.04 points per 60 minutes in that situation. In just 18 minutes on the powerplay this season, Kulemin does not have a point.

Does that mean Kulemin has lost his offensive talent? Not really. You still see a big forward who uses his size and has an excellent shot to boot. Kulemin isn’t a flashy player, but he generally makes smart plays in the defensive and neutral zones. Whichever team is able to trade for him this season is going to get a good player. His struggles have nothing to do with chemistry or with being snake bitten. He’s actually 4th on the team in points per 60 minutes at even strength, ahead of Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak. Hell, Jay McClement and Frazer McLaren are ahead of Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak in that obscure, yet useful, statistic.

No. 2 – Morgan Rielly up from juniors

Only six teams miss the playoffs in the Western Hockey League, and four of them get to miss it on the Eastern side. One of those was the Moose Jaw Warriors, and Leafs first rounder Morgan Rielly, who finished fifth in WHL defensive scoring despite playing only 60 games in the 72-game schedule.

Rielly is set to join the Toronto Marlies this week. He’s one of the more gifted defencemen I’ve seen with the puck in quite some time in the WHL, especially for a player his age, and definitely a prospect worth getting excited about. That said, he’s still very raw, delicate in his own end, and I doubt he’ll see significant minutes on a team that’s had no problems keeping the puck out of the net this season.

Another guy who could join the Marlies soon is Stuart Percy, whose Mississauga Steelheads did make the OHL playoffs, but they scraped in as a No. 8 seed after a 4-3 win against lowly Ottawa on Saturday and thanks to Peel Region rival Brampton beating Peterborough on the final day. Still, No. 8 seeds don’t have much chance in junior hockey, and I doubt the Steelheads’ series against Belleville will last more than four games. Percy could be joining the AHL team soon.

No. 3 – Where was Grabovski in the shootout?

Not to make a huge deal about this, since I’ve become convinced that shootout scoring is essentially random. The best shooters once they’ve taken a large number of shots tend to hang around at a 35-45% success rate, which is just slightly higher from the general NHL average of 33% in shootout shots.

Still, 10 rounds and Grabovski doesn’t get a shot. It’s not like Grabo’s a juggernaut: in fact, he’s scored just 3 times on 12 shootout shots, so there’s some justification in keeping him on the bench in fact (although Dion Phaneuf was 0-for-6 coming in). If we could accept that Grabo is slightly better than the other Leaf options at that point, it’s by a slim margin, if there is any margin whatsoever.

My feeling is that it’s like the Kaspars Daugavins scenario in Ottawa. Daugavins was stopped on a trick shot last week , but some of the criticism seemed to stem from the fact that if Daugavins shot a normal shot, he would have scored. I don’t think any player is flawless on shootouts, and certainly not Grabovski or Daugavins.

Overall, it’s just a symptom of a larger issue, that Randy Carlyle doesn’t seem to want to let Grabovski into big-game situations.

No. 4 – Jay McClement’s excellent work

Lost in the controversy surrounding centremen on this team, I think that Jay McClement has done everything asked of him in his role. He’s getting points at a pretty good rate, but has also stabilized the penalty kill which is up to 6th in the NHL this season. There’s a definite reduction in scoring chances allowed on the penalty kill, anecdotally, going back to last season and I think a lot of that stems from McClement’s presence.

Check it out: among forwards, McClement leads the Leafs in allowing just 38.6 shots against per 60 minutes in 4-vs-5 situations (behindthenet counts SA as ‘saves against’, so you have to add that to the goals against total). The team is also allowing just 3.02 goals per 60 minutes with McClement on the ice. With Jay McClement killing penalties, the Leafs are equivalent to the second best PK team in the NHL, behind only Boston, in both of those categories.

Put it this way: 3.02 goals per 60 minutes is equivalent to .101 goals over 2 minutes. If McClement were killing two minutes each penalty, the opposition would be scoring at a 10.1% rate.

No. 5 – What about the losing streak?

Odd thing is that the Leafs have played better, minus about four periods against Winnipeg, in this current slump. In score-close situations, the Leafs have been out-shot by just a slim margin: 86-91. They’d been much weaker beforehand, being outshot 317-381 in the games leading up to the losing streak.

One issue is goaltending, but another is shooting. Pucks just aren’t going in for them anymore, with the team shooting just 4.7% in score-close situations in the last five games (tied in any period, or the score within a goal in the first or second period) and have stopped just .857 percent of pucks. I think we knew goaltending wasn’t as good as it was in the first part of the season, but the current slide is ridiculous. It’s not just that they aren’t getting saves, but they aren’t getting timely saves. Only one of their five losses qualifies as a “clear defeat” which is a margin of two-or-more not counting empty net goals.

Allow me to say that the team is playing better than the results they’ve been getting.

  • Great Article,
    I guess using Grabbo and co. hasn’t been a winning solution in the past so maybe Carlyle is on to something. I realize that NHL goaltending is a big part of that but maybe there is more to it.
    I agree with your analysis of Grabbo’s ability but if the games are close and Grabbo isn’t playing a role you envision, then will him playing put the team over the hump? Is there an angle we are all missing? Surely someone getting paid big money has considered all of this. I need to go watch game film in big moments and consider Grabbo’s movements. There must be some explanation for Carlyle’s aversion to G.

    Thanks for putting out a great product, I’m an avid reader and fan.

    • SkinnyFish

      “Surely someone getting paid big money has considered all of this.”

      This is appealing to authority; a logical fallacy.

      Just because these guys are in a position of power, doesn’t mean they always know what’s best. Just look at past coaches and GMs who had no clue what they were doing: Dale Hunter, Scott Howson, Jay Feaster, etc….

  • SkinnyFish

    The bigger problem is the defence, they leave the net wide open, carlyle had liles out for way to long and he took out the only defenceman that actually helped out around the net, although kostka was starting to show some wear. Now that our players are healthy it should turn around we have enough offense but they need to backcheck better and the defence needs to do a much better job.