TORONTO – Ron Wilson is shuffling the deck in hopes of sparking his struggling club.
Tim Connolly reclaims the role he was expected to play this season, centering the top unit with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, while Clarke MacArthur reunites with familiar linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
The Leafs have lost four of the last five games and six of eight, squaring off with the Kings at the ACC on Monday. "We haven't been winning a lot lately so things kind of change up," Tyler Bozak said after Sunday's practice.
Bozak returns to third line duty – likely alongside Matt Frattin and one of Colby Armstrong and Joey Crabb – after a 17-game stint on the top line in which he registered seven goals and 17 points. The 25-year-old provided a capable fit with Kessel and Lupul offensively, but the line struggled at times in the defensive zone, notably on Saturday against the Canucks; the trio was on the ice for three of five Vancouver goals.
Connolly should help to patch that hole somewhat. The 30-year-old was signed to a two-year deal this summer, primarily for the fit he was projected to find alongside Kessel and Lupul on the top unit. Injuries altered those expectations early on, but in six games together the trio combined for six goals and 17 points.
"They were really successful in those six games and so were we as a team," Wilson said. "It's just a chance now to find a little more balance in our scoring and balance defensively too.
"Getting more the look of what we expected earlier in the season."
One thing that won't change is the Leafs powerplay personnel. Bozak will remain on the first unit with Kessel and Lupul, where he's produced quite effectively with nine powerplay points. Connolly sticks with Grabovski and MacArthur on the second unit.
Maybe the more significant change – considering the continued success of Bozak, Kessel and Lupul – sees Wilson reuniting the once potent line of MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin. The trio has played together in 16 games this season, combining for only 12 goals and 23 points. They've been unable to match the impact they had a year ago, struggling to find a consistent rhythm together.
"I want that line to find some chemistry and get the job done," Wilson said. "We've expected them to be our number two/number one line and for whatever reason it hasn't always worked. But I want them to get going."
Kulemin snapped a 23-game dry spell with his 3rd goal of the season against the Sabres on Friday and appears to have rediscovered his confidence. Grabovski found some unlikely chemistry with Frattin of late, but has just three goals and one assist in the last 13 games. MacArthur has struggled to post offence with the same consistency of last season, totaling just three goals and two assists in the last 15 games. The trio showed inarguable potential last season, but has yet to provide such support this fall.
Offence has hardly been a problem this season with the Leafs still comfortably amongst the top-10 (3.03 goals per game), but they've been carried by the combination of Kessel, Bozak, and Lupul. Re-energizing the Grabovski unit could help to relieve the steady influx of pressure that unit has come to face.
1. Sunday's practice featured a steady dose of work on defensive zone coverage, this after a night in which the Leafs allowed five even-strength goals to the Canucks. "We've let in too many goals against in the past few games here," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "It gets down to just being more aware in the defensive zone."
Schenn admittedly errored in that respect in the opening minute of Saturday's game when Christopher Higgins snuck free for Vancouver's first goal. "I was kind of cheating down the wall a little bit," he said. "It's just little mental errors that are costing us, but in saying that we are scoring some goals, it's just I think cleaning up defensively is going to be key going forward."
The Leafs have allowed 61 goals at even-strength this season (19th entering Sunday's action), a number they've matched (t-8th) on the offensive end.
2. Cody Franson was pulled aside for additional instruction from Wilson and assistant coach Rob Zettler during the workout. "There have been a couple plays where we didn't necessarily make the right reads and or we didn't put a guy in the boards the right way I guess you could say, stop their cycle when we had the chance," Franson said, noting the Canucks proficiency with such a style. "We're just trying to work on that, try and help ourselves out in our defensive zone and try and not let teams cycle us so much."
The coaching staff offered Franson additional techniques for containing opposing forwards. "I try and use my stick to my advantage and they were just trying to show me a couple different things and a couple different ways to do things. It's good to have different tools in your toolbox."
3. Critical as a jump-start to the offence, the Leaf blueline struggled to move pucks effectively in losses to Buffalo and Vancouver over the weekend, a focal point for improvement heading into Monday's matchup with Los Angeles. "I think we've stressed all along what's made us successful," Schenn explained. "When we have the puck less on our stick as a defencemen and put it in the forwards' hands, that's when we're better off and that's when we get to use our team speed through the puck."
4. James Reimer is 1-3-1 with a 3.39 goals against average and .868 save percentage since returning from concussion-like symptoms that sidelined him for six weeks. The 23-year-old allowed five goals on 29 shots against the Sabres on Friday, but returns to start against the Kings on Monday. "It's tough when you're a goalie to be off for six weeks and maybe four of those weeks not be allowed to do anything," Wilson said. "He's trying to catch up as fast as he can. We've got to do a better job in front of him to make him feel comfortable.
"I feel like I've been playing well and just not getting the bounces," Reimer said. "That might sound stupid or repetitive, but I feel confident about my game."
5. Reimer was unhappy with the fourth goal he allowed to the Sabres, an Andrej Sekera point shot that snuck under his right arm. While hesitant to admit as much, it appeared that Reimer's stick got caught briefly on the post, making him a millisecond late to stop the shot. "One shot often is the difference between winning and losing and you never know when that save could be," Reimer said. "It could be in the first 10 seconds of the game. It could be in the last second of the game. You ask [Coyotes goaltender] Mike Smith of [Saturday] night. It's such a fine line. And so as a goalie you're always just trying to make that next save because you never know which one is going to be the turning point."
Smith, as Reimer points out, allowed a Brad Richards goal with 0.1 seconds left in the third period as Phoenix fell to New York 3-2 over the weekend.