Blues Bag of Pucks

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Another edition of Blues Bag of Pucks has arrived and we had some great questions come in, so let’s get right to it. 

What do you think of Head Coach Sheldon Keefe so far?

This is a results based business, and the simple fact of the matter is Coach Keefe is getting positive results.

Under his tutelage the team went 27-15-5 last season, before bowing out of their play-in series against Columbus in 5 games. On top of that, they are 8-2-1 so far this season, which places them 1st in the NHL as of this writing. It’s tough to hate those results. 

The team is playing a more defensive game, so, while some of the credit can go to the addition of T.J. Brodie, a legitimate top 4 defender that can play the right side (finally!!!), as well as the continued evolution of Justin Holl’s game and better depth that has revolved around the addition of Zach Bogosian, you absolutely need to give kudos to Keefe as well. He’s making good players (Spezza, Simmonds, Bogosian, Holl) look great, and great players (Marner, Matthews, Tavares, Muzzin) look spectacular. 

Now if he can only do something about Frederik Andersen. 

If I had to criticize him about anything, it would be his constant revolving of the depth pieces, even when it seems obvious that one player, or line, is a good fit. 

If you are happy with the Anderson/Boyd/Spezza line then why not give them more time together? They got one game and they looked solid, so why not allow them the opportunity to build on that? After all, it appears that Nic Petan can have one good game and get a second opportunity immediately. These were the practice lines for the Leafs today, immediately following their 7-3 defeat of the Vancouver Canucks: 

So we have what appears to be different philosophies. In the case of Nic Petan you can have a good game and get immediate opportunity. In the case of Alex Barabanov you see a guy that hasn’t proven the ability to compete at the NHL level in any form, yet he gets multiple opportunities. Then there’s Joey Anderson, who did everything the coach wanted and is rewarded with no opportunity. 

Is there a method to the madness? Do they not want to give Joey Anderson more exposure in fear of losing him to the Seattle expansion draft at year’s end? Or are they simply seeing holes in his game but complimenting him publicly to keep his confidence up?

Also, how about Travis Dermott? The blueline hasn’t looked as steady as it has with him and Bogosian as the 3rd pair in years. The top 4 is set right now and Dermott has been far and away the best partner for Bogosian, but they keep going back to Mikko Lehtonen. 

Were promises made to Lehtonen and Barabanov in terms of opportunity? Or is it simply so management can head back to the European hockey pond, fish for more talent, and tell that talent that they always give European free agents ample opportunity to succeed? At what point does that rub the players you already have in the system the wrong way? When does Rasmus Sandin stop saying all the right things and starting asking when his turn will come?

There are lots of questions but at the end of the day we’re talking about the 4th line and 3rd pair, so if those are your big problems you have little to complain about.

One last criticism and this one has sat with me for a while. 

I understand the need to experiment with your lineup. However, I believe there’s a time and a place to throw the lineup through the blender and to test new ideas. That time and place isn’t the deciding game of your play-in series against Columbus. 

I want to see William Nylander play centre more regularly. It would raise his value to the team and on the trade market, if they ever decide to go that way with him. It would give the team some injury insurance as well. Imagine Tavares or Matthews going down to injury for 10-15 games in this shortened season and being able to simply shift Nylander, with his 12pts in 11 games, to the middle of the ice and run with Tavares-Nylander or Matthews-Nylander. Yes, you’re downgrading there, but being able to continue to have your top line centres produce at a point per game would be a tremendous boost to the team’s ability to weather injuries that are sure to come. It would also allow you to utilize your wing depth if you found yourself in a tough series. Imagine running Matthews, Tavares and Nylander as your top 3 centres. Then consider how hard it would be to line-match against those centres and the fits it would give opposing teams as they came at you in waves. 

This all hinges on giving Nylander reps down the middle now. Not when your season is on the line and he has never done it before. 

I loved the idea. I simply thought the focus went on the “Super Line” of Tavares, Matthews and Marner and left a lot to be desired throughout the rest of the lineup. Obviously, it didn’t work and that’s where the problem lies. If it had worked then Keefe would look brilliant. Instead, in my opinion, he simply looked desperate. Having won 2 of 4 games at that point, without a Super Line, was it necessary to throw Nylander into an untested position like he did? 

With the auditions you’ve seen so far, and if we we’re fully healthy going into the playoffs, what would be your 3rd and 4th lines?  Would there be any players you would target at the trade deadline to augment the current bottom 6?

The bottom 6 is an interesting bunch. While I know some people will think that I suggested above that Keefe should stick with the Anderson/Boyd/Spezza line, I should point out that I didn’t actually say that. My criticism is that HE liked the line and didn’t stick with it. 

How I see it is this: 

I like Simmonds and Spezza in the bottom 6. They have different roles, obviously, but both can serve a purpose. I also like Kerfoot and Boyd, but you’re starting to run low on players I have a use for after that. 

Jimmy Vesey, Alex Barabanov and, unless he turns last night’s game into a regular performance, Nic Petan should all be removed from the lineup. 

If the team is perfectly healthy that means Nicholas Robertson and Joe Thornton draw back in. So your lineup looks something like this: 

Hyman Matthews Marner

Mikheyev Tavares Nylander

Thornton Kerfoot Simmonds

Robertson Spezza Boyd

You can mix and match those players however you like, I’m not about to discuss how Thornton might look with Kerfoot etc etc. The point is these are the players that have risen to the top, in my opinion, as the Leafs best 12 forwards. 

So, where’s the weakness? 

To begin the year I would have said their left wing position needed boosting. However, if you remove Vesey and insert Robertson, it makes it look a lot better. An argument can be made that Robertson could sit and it wouldn’t hurt his development, but he isn’t just one of the Leafs best prospects, he’s one of their best left wingers right now, so I think he needs to see playing time. 

I’d say a 3rd line, checking centre would be just what the doctor ordered and you can allow the rest of the roster to fall in place around that addition. It wouldn’t just boost your centre position and roster flexibility, but it would also allow Kerfoot to move to left wing, which would further heighten that side.

It’s early in the season so it’s tough to peg sellers and buyers, but some names I’d suggest, from teams that are currently outside of the playoff picture and have rentals that are cheap, would be Carl Soderberg, Lucas Wallmark, Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund. 

While it’s possible for the Nashville Predators to turn things around, which would result in Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund staying put for the playoffs, it’s likely that the Blackhawks will be selling again this season. Carl Soderberg would be a massive addition to the group and would top my list of free agent rental forwards. The veteran is big, solid defensively, can help on the scoresheet and can play the grinding style of hockey you need in the playoffs. 

An example of what a lineup might look like with that addition is this: 

Thornton Matthews Marner

Kerfoot Tavares Nylander

Mikheyev Soderberg Hyman

Robertson Spezza Simmonds 

It’s a small change, but I believe having that big, defensive centre to create a true checking line would be a big addition when the 2nd season begins. 

What do you think the chances are players are actually promised good spots in the line up? Some players just seem to Marincin their way around the team.

It’s all but a guarantee that this happens. 

Jimmy Vesey…..Why?????

See the previous question/answer. 

Jimmy Vesey….why not????

I’ll actually answer this in all seriousness, even though I know it’s a joke response to the previous question. 

If you want to win the Stanley Cup everybody needs a purpose and a role. Whether that’s grinding out a shift to give your 1st line an extra few moments to catch their breath, or to score on the 1st powerplay unit, they’re all very important. 

Jimmy Vesey serves no purpose. He isn’t a great penalty killer, scorer, playmaker, grinder, or defensive forward. He simply has all the tools to play at the NHL level and no focused role. Unless he finds one and thrives at it, then he’s simply taking up a roster spot and that isn’t good enough. 

Your biggest complaint on roster line up and coaching strategy.

I think we covered the coaching strategy part of this earlier. 

My biggest complaint on the roster line up is that this team still isn’t heavy enough. If I’m being perfectly honest I’d love to see two more players, such as Sam Bennett, added to the roster. I’m perfectly aware that the cap situation this team is in will prevent that, but I’m still concerned that this team doesn’t have what it takes to grind out the type of wins it takes to make a deep playoff run. 

They can be 1st in the NHL in the regular season all they want, we’ve seen many President Trophy winning teams fail early in the postseason. It’s what they do in the playoffs that matters now. 

Here’s hoping that the team, as a whole, is willing to sacrifice their bodies to bring home the real prize and stop the Cup drought.