Saturday, January 23, 2010

January Jobbers

This is a follow-up, sort of, to a post I wrote at the beginning of this month. The Leafs played their best hockey of the season in the first half of December but then things came apart for the team in the second half of the month as all of Toronto's forwards fell into a deep funk. As I noted in that earlier post, the Leafs most consistent forwards for the month of December were Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak, not exactly an auspicious scenario. As I also noted recently somewhere else, usually by the time I notice a statistical trend, it starts to go the other way.

Troubles Remain In Top-Six Town

Well, "completely the other way" is a good way to describe Jason Blake's play this month. One goal and one assist thus far. After having an excelent December, Blake has simply not shown up for January. As an example, his pathetic penalty-killing effort on Thursday directly led to Tampa Bay's first goal of the game. (Check the tape - 2:15) After losing his stick and failing to throw the puck out of the zone, Blake then stands absolutely still and watches as Lecavalier sets up Stamkos for an easy one-timer. Two points in 12 games for January. So watch for Blake to start feeling the heat from Wilson and then suddenly start running goaltenders and producing again.

Stempniak continues his curious and enigmatic play. He's currently on a 4-game pointless streak, his longest slump in 7 weeks. He has 3 goals and 3 assists, 6 points in 12 games for January, but he's also a minus 3 for the month so far, the lowest plus/minus of any of the Leafs current "top-six" forwards. Stempniak's work ethic and production this season has been fairly dependable and consistent, and his value to any team, while low, is easily measured. For that reason alone, I'd be very surprised if Lee isn't dealt before the trade deadline.

Hagman was a rock through the first half of the season but seems to have lost his game now. Just 2 goals and 3 assists so far for January, however 4 of those 5 points have come in the last 3 games previous to tonight's game in Florida. Hagman has just 7 points in his last 21 games, and prior to the victory against Nashville, January 18th, had just 3 points in a 17-game stretch. The absence of production from Hagman, now coupled with Grabovski's injury, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the rest of the team's forwards, especially Stajan, Poni, and Kessel.

Ponikarovsky is not doing much better. He has 6 points for January so far. 5 of those points are goals, the most of any Leafs forward this month, but he also has just one assist in his last 13 games. Recently, he took two penalties late in the game Thursday against Tampa, and while they may have been questionable calls, they also proved quite costly. I'm at the point now where I'm disappointed with Poni's production. I expected him to be leading the Leafs in at least one offensive category (currently he's tied with Hagman for the team lead in goals; 18), but he hasn't blossomed any further then he did at the end of last season, and I now think he's the most likely candidate to not be with the team come the second week of March.

Phil Kessel is finding ways to contribute again, even if his teammates aren't able to set him up with good scoring opportunities, and even as the opposition focuses their defence squarely on him. After being held off the scoresheet for the first four games of the month, Kessel was riding a 7-game point streak heading into Florida and has 8 points for January, second most among Leafs forwards. While he has just one goal this month, he has 7 assists, a few of which were beautifully slick passes that led to wide-open, easy tap-in goals for his teammates.

As he nearly did in November (10 points, 1 less then Kessel), and December (tied with Poni, 12 points each), Matt Stajan leads all Leafs forwards in points thus far for the month of January. With 4 goals and 5 assists for 9 points, Stajan is also a +1 in the New Year, and from my perspective, has been giving the Leafs exceptionally honest efforts. He had an awful slump in the last 2 weeks of December, but it's interesting to note that ALL the Leafs forwards, except Stempniak and Kulemin, struggled with poor play at that time. Otherwise, Stajan has been a consistent producer this season, and currently has had his name appear on the scoresheet 8 times in the last 12 games. He's second on the team in scoring, behind only Kaberle.
Kulemin, not really considered a "top-six" forward for most of this season, has been the Leafs best player in 2010, in my humble estimation. Beyond consistent, Kulemin seems to be improving greatly from one month to the next, and right now appears to be the Leafs most complete hockey player. Kulemin's skills have come together very nicely to produce a forward who forechecks tenaciously, backchecks relentlessly, throws body checks in all 3 zones on the ice, and has a keen sense for creating or finishing offensive chances. For January, Kulemin has 3 goals, 4 assists, for 7 points (equal to Kaberle's production, 1 less then Kessel, and more then either Poni, Hagman, Stempniak, or Blake), while he is also a surprising plus seven over the last 12 games.

After tonight's 2-0 shutout to the lowly Panthers, it seems the offensive woes of the Leafs forwards will continue. While Bozak tallied 5 points in his first 5 NHL games, he too is getting a taste at the fountain of futility now with his third consecutive game without a point. Take it easy on the kid though, eh, he's doin' fine. I wouldn't put any more weight on his shoulders then there already is, anymore then I'd expect Wallin to step up and contribute when Grabovski gets injured, or Mitchell to lift his game when Hagman struggles, or anyone to do anything if Stajan has an off-night 'cause he gets hit in the face with the puck on his first shift. Expectations have to be realistic and achievable in order for them to be helpful, y'know?


MGR said...

i despise everything that this group of players has come to represent. truly, truly awful.

general borschevsky said...

Hey MGR! I think 16 minutes has to be the fastest I've ever gotten a comment before. I'm not even done editing it for mistakes yet. I'm in partial agreement with you except I'm not sure what, if anything, this team does represent. Truculence? Defiance? Inspired enthusiasm? Sure doesn't seem like it.

Dwayne said...

I agree with MGR, and that is a sad thing for me to say. Blake spends most of the shift skating really fast and then falling on his ass as a defenceman that outweighs him 2:1 puts him there. The balance of the top 6 don't hit for fear of hurting themselves it seems, and without any grit the other team just skate around them and outworks them for the puck.

I know it will take Burke a couple of years to fix the cock-ups that JFJ has left behind, but we deserve some kind of talent on the ice... perhaps the Marlies could get a promotion and send some of the high paid help down for a bus ride or two to remind them of the honor of playing in the big leagues.

general borschevsky said...

Cheers Dwayne. I like your suggestion of having some of the higher paid players riding buses. I'd like it even more if it was still mid-November.

Hungry Leafs Fan said...

Great post, General. I'm also sipping the Kule-aid (see what I did there?). He might not be lighting the lamp but the guy is a no stats star. I figured he would be a one dimensional offensive guy coming from Russia when I first heard of him but he has proved to be far from that. I do hope that Kulemin does find that offensive gear to complete his game though.

general borschevsky said...

HLF! I think Kulemin has that offensive gear, we're just not seeing it all the time. He's got terrific speed and excellent positioning on the forecheck and that often creates opportunities for linemates on its own. I seriously hope the KHL is not a serious option for Kulemin.