Toronto entered tonight’s action against the Pittsburgh Penguins with 67 points in 12’th place with a game at hand on the 8th place Winnipeg Jets. The benefit the leafs have is that the race for the final playoff spot is going at a turtles pace. The bad news is that the team has to not only catch the Jets but also fend off the Lightning, Sabres, Capitals, and Islanders. The reality is that unless Randy Carlyle can install some kind of miracle in the next three weeks, the playoffs are likely not in the cards this season.
What will be important to watch the remainder of the season is how the players respond and develop under the more regimented coach. The most key player to observe will be Phil Kessel, as he needs to like working with the coaching staff for him to remain successful. Kessel will likely never qualify as a Selke winner, but Carlyle will expect his highest scoring player to show some emotion at his own end of the ice. As much as Ron Wilson and Brian Burke have been trying to sell Kessel as a reformed three zone player, his new coach has already observed different. After the Bruins game Carlyle did’nt pull back when stating that Kessel needs to play in his own end as vigorously as he does in the offensive zone, noting that Kessel was on the ice when the Bruins scored twice in a span under a minute.
It will be interesting to see how this develops going into April as Burke may have to make some uncomfortable decisions this summer. While Kessel has been a model citizen since arriving in Toronto, it may be dawning on Brian Burke that the noose is tightening around his neck and Kessel is without a doubt the best chip he may have to move. With Rick Nash being readily available at the draft, it is no longer looking inconceivable that Kessel would or should be moved in order to improve the team. The beginning of the end may have already come with the contract that Mikhail Grabovski signed two days ago. Nobody would dare to compare the natural skill of Kessel to that of Grabovski, but it has to be acknowledged that Grabovski does nearly everything that is asked of him and is without question a more complete player.
I know that it wasn’t long ago that we wrote that Rick Nash was not the right answer for the franchise, but a lot has changed since that was written. First and foremost, the coaching change signified a white flag on run and gun hockey. The new coach has implemented a system similar to that which Kessel played under Claude Julien. He didn’t fit in it then, and so far three games in he does not look like he fits in now. Nobody will deny Kessel has a great release, but Burke is trying to build a Stanley Cup contender. While his goal totals indicate that he has made progress, is this the type of player that will get Toronto closer to a championship? Given the sample size, Kessel does not look like he has the tools to be a force on his own.
The biggest issue with Phil Kessel that we can see here is that after next season he will be an unrestricted free agent, and given the Grabovski contract he will command upwards of $7 million a season. It would be neither wise nor recommended to pay this type of player this type of money. Until the summer, only Burke knows what the summer plans will be.
-Many will disagree, but the defensive play of Mike Komisarek has been refreshing. Not quite the force he was physically while playing in Montreal, but not the liability he was under Ron Wilson either.
-The power play looked concise with passing and with the puck. They did everything in the third period but score.
-The penalty kill is churning efficiently as it has since New Years. Last I calculated, since New Years Eve they have killed at a range of about 90%
-Grabovski back on the score sheet consistently.
-Phil Kessel. He scored a goal which is good. Outside of this fact, he was a liability on the ice. The forecheck and backcheck were both disgusting, and that is disheartening. This team will not win if this is how their best forward plays.
-The defensive zone coverage is still leaky and suspect at best. This was mentioned last night, but it is going to take a bit of time for Carlyle to have an adequate impact on the team. It is unfortunate, but Burke pulled the chute just a touch too late for it to make a difference
-The US Broadcast was beyond embarrassing. To interview Mario Lemieux for a good 7 minutes during play in the second period is unprofessional, and for a good hockey guy like Mike Emerick, he should know better.