Leafs Report: What is going on with the team right now?
As of yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now winless in 4 and have a dismal 27 points in 32 games, third worst in the NHL over that span, and are effectively out of a playoff spot at the moment. It is obvious that something is going on in Leaf-land, but what that is exactly is not so obvious.
The team was in the midst of putting together a solid season, despite some injuries, and they were showing evidence that the momentum of last season and a big off-season was finally pushing them to the next level. Then it all went cold and nothing seemed to go right and, over a 32 game span which is almost half a season, really hurt their playoff chances compared to what could have been. There isn’t one exact reason why this has been happening, but rather several things all coming together at once to make things difficult for the team.
The Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the league, which is easy to forget sometimes. In fact, with an average age of 26.494, they rank as the 4th youngest team overall. Like I said, it is easy to forget this sometimes because the majority of the players on the team all started their careers at young ages and have been playing for multiple years, but not too many of the stars on the team are much older than 26 or 27 years old if that. The biggest problem with this is that there isn’t a strong, veteran presence in the locker room. The team relies on guys who are still relatively young to lead the team every night throughout the year, and that doesn’t always work. Not only that, but when the guys you expect to lead are not performing well, who does the team look to in order to get themselves out of a rut? Where’s that proven guy who has been through it all before?
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Leafs are in a good spot going forward with a solid core of young guys who have long term contracts, but I just think they lack a proven leader who guys can lean on in lean times. What needs to happen on a more consistent basis is guys like Lupul, Clarkson, and Phaneuf, who are among the older players on the team, need to step up more and lead by example to push the rest of the team to the next level. When the team is struggling, these are the guys that need to get them out of it and get the team going, which each guy can do in his own way.
This is a team that is still finding their identity as well. It is a team led by the old-school, defense first Randy Carlyle which is filled with new-school, offensive players. It is obvious most nights that the square peg doesn’t fit in the circular hole. It could be argued that 4 regular d-men on the team are widely considered offensive d-men (Phaneuf, Franson, Gardiner, Reilly) yet the team is not receiving much offense from them.
They have a lot of skilled forwards who theoretically can score points, but lack a sense of grit and effort needed for the majority of games. When the going gets tough, you just don’t see Kessel, JVR, Raymond, Kulemin, Kadri, or even Lupul sometimes, fighting for pucks in the corner or finishing their checks. The 4th line of this team almost serves no purpose most nights, where as other teams use their 4th line in a lot of different situations.
Colton Orr is a premiere enforcer in the league, don’t get me wrong, but when the guy plays 3 minutes or less a game, it means that other guys are getting over worked. So does that mean he should play more or should the team find someone else to man the 4th line who can be used more? That’s up for debate.
Finally, Jay McClement is a great two-way player, probably among the leagues best, but I believe he is being used inappropriately. I really believe that he needs to be the center of a shut-down 4th line with two other players who can be put out in similar situations. Not a third line with guys who the team expects to put up offensive numbers like Kulemin, Clarkson, or Raymond, because A. historically players who play with McClement do not put up much for numbers and B. they are constantly being used in unfavorable situations which severely limits offensive potential. Which brings me to my next point.
The Maple Leafs have dealt with their fair share of key injuries this year, in particular with centres. Arguably the most important injury of the bunch is Dave Bolland. To me, he is the perfect third line centre for this team and his absence shows how important he really was. He was creating offensive depth but he could also be used in every situation. He allowed McClement to remain on the 4th line and have fresher legs for penalty kills and key face-offs. He also allowed the top two lines a bit of a break and less pressure to be the ones who had to score, which in turn seemed to help them score even more.
Aside from Bolland, we have seen injuries to Bozak, Clarkson, Lupul, and Gunnarsson among others. This has forced the coaching staff to constantly shift the lines around to find chemistry and add/subtract different players every night. At one point, the team relied on Peter Holland, Trevor Smith, Jay McClement, and Jarrod Smithson as their 4 centers. This isn’t exactly an intimidating group of guys, even though they did play fairly well in their time with the big club. The point is, the team has not seen a consistent lineup too often this year, which will more often than not lead to inconsistent play.
Finally, I am a firm believer that it is good if your goalie is your best player most nights, but they cannot always be your best player night in and night out. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have been besieged by shots all year and most of the team’s success can be placed squarely on those guy’s shoulders. They have played well above their perceived skill levels all year facing 30+ shots at least most nights. But they cannot be relied on like this all the time if the team expects to turn this ship around and gain success in the long run. Give the guys a break and tighten up defensively and I think the Leafs will not only regain their playoff spot, but make a strong playoff push.
In the end, these reasons cannot necessarily be used as excuses, but the bottom line is the Leafs are breaking down and simply not playing good enough on a consistent basis. It will be up to Randy Carlyle and the management staff to pick up the pieces and decide whether the team needs stability or if a change needs to be made through a trade. Time will tell.