At The Half Way Point: Are The Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Bound?

January 3rd, 2014 No Comments

1acuphalffullLike many NHL teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had to endure a number of injuries to key players (Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Dave Bolland), player suspensions (Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson) and a few bad calls during the first half of the 2013-14 NHL regular season schedule.

Even with Toronto’s bad fortunes, the Blue and White have earned a decent 21-16-5 record, placing them Fifth overall in the Eastern Conference standings, three points up on the eighth place Philadelphia Flyers and nine points back of the Boston Bruins, who lead the Atlantic Division.

With many Ontario-born NHL players bringing their “A” game to the Air Canada Centre, wins at Home have always been tough to come by for the Maple Leafs. Thus far, Toronto has put together a 14-8-1 record at Home, which dwarfs their paltry 7-8-4 Road record.

Shootouts have been friendly to the Maple Leafs this season, where the Blue and White have posted an impressive 7-4 record. Only the Washington Capitals have more shootout victories this season with eight.

Offensively, there have been few surprises in Toronto. Phil Kessel (who sits 18th overall in League scoring) leads the team in goals (20) and points (38), while linemate James van Riemsdyk sits second overall on the roster with 30 points. If there has been a surprise, it has been the play of forward Mason Raymond who signed a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs on the cheap ($1 million) and has 11 goals and 26 points through 42 games played (Thank You, Vancouver!). Forwards Nazem Kadri (23 points) and Joffrey Lupul (21 points) round out the Maple Leafs’ top-five scorers, while Cody Franson leads all defenseman with 20 points on the season thus far.

Of course, there have been a few disappointments.

Injuries have led to low totals from Lupul, Dave Bolland (10 points) and Tyler Bozak (15 points), while a combination of a ten-game suspension, bad luck and questionable play has led to a very poor season from off-season free agent signing, David Clarkson, limiting him to just three goals and eight points through 30 games played.

Nikolai Kulemin continues to bring a solid two-way game, but with just 11 points on the season he is still a far cry from his 30-goal/57-point season in 2010-11. Trevor Smith (nine points in 25 games) and Peter Holland (nine points in 20 games) have been nice additions to the roster in the absence of key players.

Captain Dion Phaneuf is having his best all-round season as a member of the Maple Leafs, accumulating four goals and 17 points in 40 games while posting an impressive plus+15 rating. Of course, Phaneuf’s game is not without blemishes. Dion still makes too many bad turnovers and he is yet to score a power play goal this season— two areas he’ll need to improve if he wants to earn that huge contract he just signed.

Youngsters Jake Gardiner (two goals, 12 points) and Morgan Rielly (one goal, ten points) continue to evolve their games on the backend. While the offense is there from both players, considerable improvement is needed defensively.

The biggest disappointments thus far have come from defenseman Mark Fraser, who has regressed horribly this season, forward Carter Ashton, who was ineffective in his 18 games with the big club and the aforementioned David Clarkson, who is yet to really find his game since joining the Maple Leafs this season.

1aaaaBetween the pipes both James Reimer (8-5-1, 2.83 goals against average, 0.924 save percentage) and Jonathan Bernier (13-11-4, 2.40 GAA, 0.931 SV%) have been solid for the Maple Leafs, keeping them in most games and giving the team a chance to win on more night’s than not.

While head coach Randy Carlyle won’t come out and say it, it appears as if Bernier has the number one netminder status, which he has earned with his superior numbers. That said, Reimer is not far behind Bernier and continues to push for the number one billing.

Statistically, the Maple Leafs rank 15th in goals scored, averaging 2.64 per game and 17th in goals against per game, averaging 2.76 per game. In terms of special teams, Toronto ranks fifth on the power play (22.0 percent) while their penalty killing has been terrible with a paltry 78.1 percent success rate.

The Maple Leafs continue to lead the League in shots against per game (36.4), while averaging 27.3 shots per game, ranking them 27th overall.

High shots against, questionable defensive play and an offense that sputters at times have all contributed to Toronto’s overall record, which is nothing special thus far.

Recent acquisition Tim Gleason should help solidify the defense, while the return of Dave Bolland to the lineup (still pending) should round out the Maple Leafs forward corps.

Overall, there is plenty of room for improvement. Toronto’s penalty kill (ranked second overall last season with a success rate of 87.9 percent) must improve, as must their goal scoring, physical play and ability to keep shots on goal down.

For a team that prided itself on physical play last season, the Maple Leafs have struggled to establish themselves in that department in all areas of the ice. Where he once showed great promise last season, Mark Fraser (who has earned a minus seven rating on the season) has been ineffective, while fellow pugilists Colton Orr, Fraser McLaren, David Broll, Jamie Devane and Troy Brodie have also been largely ineffective as their skill-sets limit their ability to play meaningful minutes, thus limiting their ability to establish a physical presence in a game.

With fighting being cast aside by the NHL and more and more penalties being called for interference, holding and questionable hits, the likes of Fraser, Orr, McLaren, Broll, Devane and Brodie have a limited future in the League, never mind the Maple Leafs, if any.

What Toronto continues to need (with all due respect to Tyler Bozak) is a genuine number one centre— a physical player with some offensive pop that can win faceoffs and compete in all zones. Trouble is, as we all know, first line centres do not grow on trees and are rarely traded in today’s NHL.

Some pending unrestricted free agent centres that may be available at the trade deadline may include, Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche), David Legwand (Nashville Predators), Steve Ott (Buffalo Sabres), Marcel Goc (Florida Panthers). Given his playmaking abilities, Stastny is an interesting player, but is he much better than Bozak? Is he really available? And at what cost would he come to Toronto? Let’s face it, none of those centres really offer up the upgrade or skill set that Toronto needs, so I expect Nonis to be luke-warm on acquiring any of them.

On the wing Nonis may have some interest in fellow UFA’s Matt Moulson (Buffalo), and Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers). Both players would command a hefty return, both may not be available.

The Leafs could also use a stud defenseman— a player who can clear the net, solidify the penalty kill and establish himself physically. Again, every team is looking for this type of player, so don’t expect Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis to get a player of this ilk anytime soon.

Some of the pending UFA’s who may be available at the deadline include, Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey), Nick Schultz (Edmonton) and Kimmo Timonen (Philadelphia). None of those players are having excellent seasons, none of them would change the dynamics of Toronto’s defense much.

After Toronto’s most recent struggles, general manager Dave Nonis said he was relying on his troops to get them out of their funk. Outside of the minor move for Gleason, Nonis seems content to let his current roster ride out the season. Bottom line— unless a deal that makes sense pops up (and they are hard to come by these days) don’t expect any players of consequence to join the Maple Leafs this season.

1aleafsFinal Thoughts: Watching the Maple Leafs over the first 42 games of the season you get the sense that they will not go far in the playoffs unless they can get their overall defense and penalty killing into shape.

While centre Dave Bolland will be a nice addition to the roster once he heals his injury, he is only one player. Bolland, Bozak and Nazem Kadri must perform better down the middle and in the face off circle if the Maple Leafs are to be successful down the stretch.

While Gardiner and Rielly continue to evolve their games, it is tough to foresee Carlyle awarding either one with more minutes until such time as their defense gets better. Both players can rush the puck, both players have offensive upside, it is the rest of their game that is holding them back.

Between the pipes the time has come for Carlyle to pick a true number one. Both Reimer and Bernier have played well, but there comes a time when you need to roll with one goalie— that time is now! Based on the stats, it appears as if Carlyle should ride the season out with Bernier.

If the Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs, injuries will play a major role. The loss of Bolland, Boazk and Lupul for extended periods of time hurt the club in the standings and took it’s toll on the team physically. Both Lupul and Bozak have been fragile of late, which means the team is vulnerable.

Pop quiz: Does anyone out there think Lupul will stay healthy over the next 40 games? I sure don’t. Another long term loss of Lupul will definitely hurt this club. Despite Lupul’s obvious skills, it may be time for Nonis to move on from this injury-plagued forward. Question is, what does an injury prone forward command in return? And what would the price tag be on a top-six forward?

With 47 points on the season, the Maple Leafs record puts them right in the middle of the pack (14th overall). Toronto must get on a hot streak if they are going to keep the wolves (Philadelphia, Ottawa, New Jersey, New York Rangers) at bay. All four of those teams have the ability to turn it on in the second half of the season, all four have enough talent to make it very tough on the Maple Leafs down the stretch.

It has been a disappointing first half for the fans of the Blue and White. This is a team that still lacks an identity, is thin on leadership and has issues in all areas of the game except the power play. Let’s hope we get a better effort from every player in the second half.

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