Checking in with the Toronto Maple Leafs

 (ian lindsay/Vancouver Sun)  [PNG Merlin Archive]
 
Is there a tougher gig in hockey than being the coach or GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs?  On the plus side you have a passionate fan base and an owner with deep, deep pockets.  You play in a state of the art arena and you get national exposure every Saturday night.  On the negative side, your passionate fans watch the game on their flatscreens at home while a bunch of suits fill the arena, pray to their Crackberry gods and general do everything but get off their feet and cheer.  This is a common issue around the league to be sure, but especially so in Toronto.

Oh and did I mention the masses of media who call Toronto home who have nothing better to do than third guess every move and write about how the world will soon end as a result of the Leafs continued propensity to blow leads and lose in overtime?  I would say the GM and coaching jobs are 2 ounces of fun and 26 ounces of gin.

With all of that said, I am here to take a look at the construction of this year’s Leaf team and their performance thus far.  They may be the worst team in the league according to the standings, but I think they are on the right track.  Feel free to accuse me of drinking too much of the Brian Burke kool-aid if you want.  You may well be right…

Taking a look at the 2008-2009 season, the Leafs pulled their usual late season charge to keep themselves out of the draft lottery, finishing at 34-35-13 for 81 points.  They scored 250 goals (league average 239) and allowed 293 goals (average 239).  Their power play ran at an 18.8% efficiency (league average 18.95%) and they killed penalties 74.7% of the time (average 81%).   So we had a team that had an offense about good enough to make the playoffs but a defense that no momma would love.

Checking back in with Ryder’s Player Contribution numbers, the Leafs earned their 81 points through an offensive contribution of 46.2 points, defensive contribution of 26.6 points and goaltending contribution of 8.1 points (57%, 33%, 10%).  If you recall my analysis of the Western Conference, the average offensive, defensive and goaltending contributions for last season were 40%, 43%, 17%.  No team in the coverage had 57% of their points come through offense, and only the Oilers had a worse defensive contribution (though the Oilers had 28% contribution from their goalies). 

I haven’t run the Eastern conference averages, but I feel pretty comfortable concluding that the Leafs problems last year ran pretty deep on the defensive end.  These problems were made worse by the lack of consistent goaltending.

Below I have indicated the Leafs players’ individual player contributions.  A rough rule of thumb for non-goalies is that 100 points is a first team/ second team all star, 80 points is a team star, 60 is a team leader, 40 is a solid contributor and 20 is a weak link.  Goalies tend to score a fair bit higher, which makes sense given they are on the ice the entire game and quite fundamental to team success.

PCO= Player Contribution Offense, PCD= Player Contribution Defense, PCG= Player Contribution Goaltending

Looking at the players, Jason Blake led the team with 63 points and a PC of 87.  Only 7 guys could be considered ‘solid contributors’ with Toskala not included in my number.  The back end of the team stunk as back ends sometimes do.  If it were 1985, Vesa Toskala’s 3.26 goals against average would have been awesome, but alas it was 2009.  His save percentage of .891 ranked 44 out of 47 goalies who played over 25 games last year.  Given how bad the defense was, a PC of 120-140 might have indicated a solid season.  Toskala certainly didn’t hold up his end of the bargain on the back end. 

I guess I should be fair and stick up for Vesa a tiny bit.  If you play in front of a defense that gives up a) a lot of shots and b) a lot of quality shots, then you are going to have bad stats.  The Leafs D only had three guys with a defensive PC over 20 (Ian White, Thomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn) with White the only player cracking the top 100 in the league defensively.

Ok, enough bashing the 2008-2009 Leafs.  They had no bona fide offensive stars in a league where teams need 3-5 stars.  They had no defensive stars in a league where a team needs 2-3.  They rounded out the misery by also not having a star between the pipes.  To complete the perfect mess, the Leafs were by large an old and aging team.  Why am I optimistic again?

Oh yeah.  The Leafs have Brian Burke and Burkey likes himself a good challenge.  My take on Burke is that he is a guy who has figured out how to build a team.  I understand and agree that Hartford was a bit of a mess, but in fairness he was only 37 when he got that job.  Vancouver was one part brilliant and one part stupid (so my brush paints in broad strokes).  I think that all of that learning was put to use in Anaheim where he did in fact build a winner.  He built his team from the net out, with a great defense.  He brought in a number of young, big forwards and sprinkled in a bit of skill. 

Looking at the past offseason, you can clearly see Burke breaking out his recipe book and attempting to bake the same cake in Toronto.   In net he took a risk in bringing in Jonas Gustavsson, who Leaf fans hope will turn into a true number 1 goalie.  Out went Martin Gerber and Justin Pogge. 

On defense he brought in Mike Komisarik and Francois Beauchmin to add some grit, some offense and hopefully some solid defense.  He also added Garret Exelby as a tough, stay at home defensemen.   Bye-bye went Kubina and Anton Stralman.

Offensively it looks like a two year plan.  He brought in Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau to add a bit of grit, and signed Tyler Bozak, Robert Slaney, and Viktor Stalberg to entry year deals.  Basically, Burke is stocking the cupboard with young big players and hoping someone becomes the next Ryan Getzlaf.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see Burke trade for another couple of young guys as this season progresses.

To get a start on the offensive end he traded away 3 first round picks for Phil Kessel.  I’m not sure I can justify giving up that much for a guy with an injury history, but I’ll keep the faith for the time being.

Add all of that up and I think we can all agree that this team is still a pile of garbage, but one that is smaller and a little less dank.   Through Saturday, the Leafs had the worst record in the league at 4-11-6.  They’ve scored 9 goals less than the league average and have allowed 15 more than the average.  Their power play has been good thanks in large part to Kaberle, while the penalty kill continues to struggle.  The goalies GAA is well into the 3’s and the save percentage is still below .900. 

At a glance, this is the same team as last year but I am not sure that is the case.  Before their shootout win on Saturday night, they were 0-6 in overtime and shootouts.  Add to that the loss on Monday night and they are now 1-7 in the extra frame.  Tack on another 3 one goal losses and I am going to say that this team is pretty close.  Sure they have had 4 or 5 blowout losses, but they have played pretty well most nights.

I watched the Saturday night game against the Capitals and had a few observations.  First was that the Leafs absolutely dominated the game for most of the 60 minutes, yet the third period buzzer sounded with the game tied up at 1-1.  What I saw was a bunch of grinders who had no ability to score.  I saw an electric Kessel playing like he was 10 years old, not passing the puck and shooting at every chance (never allowing his teammates a chance to get in position for rebounds). 

I saw a team without a captain and without anyone on the ice who looked like he could will the team to score a goal, nor anyone who looked like they had the ability to calm the waters should the opposition catch fire.  I saw a team having some fun in the shootout wearing their ‘rally helmets’ on backwards. 

Basically, I saw a group of guys playing hard and hoping that the results would somehow work itself out.  They don’t know how to win and they don’t know how to avoid losing.  And that is ok by me and I think ok by Burke as well.  Of course it is maddening as hell to watch a team play like that, but the seeds of success are being sewn.  Burke knows there are more pieces of the puzzle to be added.  He still needs 2-3 bona fide offensive stars, but he now only needs 1 more defenseman.  I think he will roll the dice on another goalie or two until he finds the one that gives the team a chance to win every night.  If Burke is lucky, this team will start to contend next season.  If not, I think they will be right there in 2011.  Let’s just hope the Mayans aren’t right about the world coming to an end in 2012

I will leave you with what I thought was a funny pre-game insight from CBC’s Elliott Friedman.  After yet another nauseating tribute to some old Leafs who may or may not have been important, Friedman says, “Well, they lead the league in ceremonies if not victories”.  We can build on that!

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