Are The Toronto Maple Leafs Improving?

February 1st, 2011 No Comments

Through 49 games last season the Toronto Maple Leafs had earned a total of 41 points, just two less than they have this season.

Bolstered by the additions of Dion Phaneuf, J.S. Giguere, Fredrik Sjostrom, Keith Aulie and Luca Caputi late last season and the additions of Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Brent, Mike Zigomanis, Mike Brown and Brett Lebda over the summer, expectations were high for the 2010-11 edition of the Blue and White.

While the Maple Leafs have all but failed to improve in the points department, there are a couple of positives the team can take out of the first 49 games of the 2010-11 season, starting with a much improved power play.

In 2009-10 the Maple Leafs ranked 30th on the power play with a 14 percent efficiency rate. Thus far the Buds are ranked 18th overall, with an efficiency rate of 17.5 percent.

The Blue and White have also improved on the penalty, going from 30th overall with a 74.6 percent efficiency rate in 2009-10 to 27th overall with a 77.8 percent efficiency rate through 49 games this season.

While the success of the penalty kill has been very modest (3.2 percent improvement), the power play has shown glimpses of respectability, improving by a margin of 3.5 percent, which is decent for a power play.

There is no question that the Maple Leafs still have a ton of work to do before anyone is calling their power play or penalty kill a strength of the team, but the modest improvement speaks to the fact that, if nothing else, there may be hope that this roster is on the right track.

In 2009-10 the Maple Leafs averaged 32.6 shots per game. That stat ranked them fifth overall, which is surprising for a team that finished 29th overall last season.

On the flipside, the Buds averaged 29.8 shots against per game, which ranked them a respectable 13th overall.

The 2010-11 season has seen the Maple Leafs slide to 21st overall in shots per game, averaging 29.1 shots per game.

Shots against per game are a mirror image of last season, where the Buds are ranked 10th overall, giving up 29.4 shots per game.

Averaging a paltry 2.56 goals per game in 2009-10 (26th overall), the Buds have slid to 2.47 goals per game in 2010-11, good enough for 26th overall.

In the face off circle the Maple Leafs won 50.8 percent in 2009-10, which ranked them 11th overall. This season that number has fallen to 49.8 percent, which ranks them 26th overall.

When you add it all up, outside of the power play, there has been little improvement in Leaf land.

The fact remains, this is a team that has few bright spots and has shown little to suggest they will be better anytime soon.

Individually, Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin have shown great improvement. But then there are the players that have not lived up to expectations such as Dion Phaneuf, J.S. Giguere, Phil Kessel, and others.

Off-season additions Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg have played well in spurts, but neither player has this city talking about the playoffs.

Versteeg was snake bitten for much of the first half of the season, while Armstrong was hampered by injuries and has struggled to light the lamp on the regular.

The biggest disappointment may be the play of sophomore goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who, after looking like the Maple Leafs’ goaltender of the future at the end of the 2009-10 season, has fallen off the map, recently being replaced by virtual unknown James Reimer as the Maple Leafs’ number one goaltending prospect (at least in many people’s minds).

Luca Caputi, Christian Hanson, Mike Zigomanis, Brett Lebda, John Mitchell and Jay Rosehill have failed to impress. Both Hanson and Mitchell look to be done as members of the Maple Leafs, with both players looking more suited to lace up their skates as AHL players.

Caputi is still a project, but with just five points through 11 games at the AHL level and no points through seven games with the Maple Leafs, how high should the Brian Burke and Co. be on the 22-year old?

Outside of Grabovski, the Buds have been a disaster down the middle. Tyler Bozak failed to gel with Phil Kessel, and while his faceoff abilities are impressive, one could hardly call him a legitimate number one centre.

Nazem Kadri left for the AHL after a 17 game stint with the big club where he failed to register a single goal. There are few options on the farm, but rushing Kadri along just didn’t pan out, and likely won’t until the young prospect can gain some weight and learn the defensive side of the game.

Will Kadri ever be a great two-way player? No, but he must be accountable for the bad giveaways he often makes, many of which led to opposing teams scoring goals.

Rookie defenseman Keith Aulie looked good in his 12 game call up from the Toronto Marlies, but he too was sent down to the AHL for some more seasoning.

Carl Gunnarsson came into the 2010-11 season as many of the “experts” pick as the Maple Leafs’ “surprise player”. He too has struggled to find his way, often looking sloppy in his own zone and unable to capitalize on his rocket of a shot.

Phaneuf would be the first guy to admit that he is having an off year. His early season injury took it’s tool, and while it is easy to throw rocks at the young captain, his last five games have been decent, giving Leaf fans a glimpse of what Dion was in his first three years as a pro.

Dion recently came out and suggested that he was ready to have a much improved second half of the season. That said, until he manages to find his offensive game and physical edge together, he will continue to hear the ire of the Leafs Nation.

Behind the bench both Brian Burke and the players seem to have head coach Ron Wilson’s back, but it remains to be seen if he is back for the 2011-12 season.

Nobody will question Wilson’s ability to prepare his team for war, but his penchant for calling out his players in the media is up for debate.

A recent poll conducted by the NHLPA and the CBC found that Wilson was at the top of the list when it came to which coach you would least like to play for. As much as we’d all like to dismiss the poll as rubbish there just has to be some truth to it, doesn’t there?

In the end, the 2010-11 season has failed to create any momentum. This team still looks to be underachieving, still needs to improve on the PK and, for a team that many suggested had one of the deepest backend’s heading onto this season, needs to do a better job of supporting its goaltenders and contributing offensively.

The Maple Leafs have a total of 33 games left in the season. It remains to be seen if they can find their confidence and put together a respectable finish to the 2010-11 season.

For Burke and his Maple Leafs, it’s all about baby steps. Every single improvement will start the ball rolling in the right direction. The trick is to get the entire team roiling at once, something we Leaf fans have not seen in a long, long, time.

While most people’s expectations are low, if the Buds were able to find a way to play .550 hockey down the stretch that would be a good indication that they just might be on the right track instead of this constant “two steps forward, three steps back” scenario we have been watching for five seasons now.

Until next time,

Peace!

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