Toronto Maple Leafs- At The Halfway Point

January 9th, 2012 2 Comments

With 41 games in the books for the 2011-12 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have officially met the halfway point of the season.

After a fast start, the Maple Leafs stumbled a bit in November before bottoming out with just four wins in December.

Still, having earned 47 points in their first 41 games the Buds are on pace to earn 94 points on the season, which would put them nine points ahead of last years pace of 85 points and right on the cusp of a playoff spot. With the Buds still in a playoff position at the halfway point (seventh overall in the Eastern Conference) most Maple Leaf fans will take it, for better, or for worse.

On special teams, the Maple Leafs made huge strides on the power play, going from 16th overall with a 16 percent success rate to an incredible third overall with a 21.6 percent success rate.

The jump may not look huge when you look at the percentage points, but a 13 spot jump in the right direction is massive for any team.

Of course, it’s the other end of the ice where the Maple Leafs have been having their issues.

The Buds penalty kill has been downright embarrassing at times, prodding along at a pathetic 73.6 percent success rate, good enough for 30th overall in a 30 team league.

For the record, the Blue and White had a success rate of 77.4 percent on the penalty kill last season, ranking them 27th overall. Who would have thought they could do any worse than the 2010-11 totals in that department?

As bad as Toronto’s penalty kill has been, their overall defense has been equally inept, giving up an average of 3.15 goals per game, which ranks the Buds 24th overall. Last season the Maple Leafs ranked 25th overall, giving up an average of 2.99 goals per game.

When you consider how high the Maple Leafs were on James Reimer as their starter coming into the season, the goals against has been a crushing blow for the Blue and White.

Of course, when your offense is averaging 3.17 goals per game (fifth overall), you can make a lot of mistakes on the penalty kill and have a sub-par defense/goaltending tandem. Toronto’s 3.17 goals scored per game is more than a half a goal per game more than their 2010-11 total, which saw them average 2.60 goals scored per game, good enough for 23rd overall.

While statistics can be useful in identifying the good and bad points of your team, it is the end results that matter, and with the Maple Leafs in a position to earn a playoff spot, I suppose that’s all that matters, right?

For the most part, the offense has been led by Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. With a total of 48 and 47 points on the season, respectively, Kessel and Lupul are currently ranked second and fourth overall in the scoring race, which is astonishing.

Between them, Kessel and Lupul have accounted for 43 of Toronto’s 133 goals on the season, or approximately one-third of the Maple Leafs’ offense.

Helping out in that regard have been Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, who each have 12 goals on the season, while long time linemate Nikolai Kulemin has been a disappointment with just four goals on the season.

Tim Connolly, Tyler Bozak and David Steckel round out the top performing forwards with seven goals apiece on the season, while Dion Phaneuf leads all defensemen with seven goals on the season as well.

Clearly, Kessel, Lupul and Phaneuf have been the early season MVP’s for the Maple Leafs, while the recently demoted Philippe Dupuis, who was supposed to solidify the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill, has been the early season flop.

Also not pulling their weight have been defenseman Luke Schenn, who has been a shadow of the player he was in 2010-11 and the aforementioned Kulemin, who has just 16 points through 41 games.

Toughness has been an issue for the Maple Leafs for much of the season. Most of the Blue and White’s troubles in the physical department have come due to long-term injuries to the likes of Colby Armstrong and Mike Brown. With Brown in the lineup the Maple Leafs play bigger, should Armstrong come back, he too will add an element of grit that this team badly needs.

After a tremendous start to his rookie season, defenseman Jake Gardiner has fizzled of late. That said, with a little rest one has to think that Gardiner will get back to where he was at the start of the year. It’s always tough for a rookie to go from college to the NHL, Gardiner is no exception.

Another rookie that got worn out is Matt Frattin who, after a solid start as a checker, has been sent to the AHL to round out his game with the Toronto Marlies. The NHL is not an easy place to play at the best of times, even tougher for a young kid.

The emergence of Carl Gunnarsson as a legitimate 20-plus minute per game defenseman has been a nice surprise. Gunnarsson’s ability to read the play, make quick decisions and play physical when called upon is well documented. What we’d like to see more of  is Gunnarsson’s shot, which tends to be big, but also tends to miss the net.

Should Gunnarsson add an element of offense to his game he could get All-Star consideration. And no, that last sentance wasn’t a joke!

Veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles has been a rock on the backend, while boosting the Maple Leafs power play numbers to a new level. With Liles on the point teams must attack him, which allows Kessel and Lupul additional time and space to get open and for Phaneuf to become a huge threat on the other side of the ice.

Say what you will about Tyler Bozak, the kids a gamer. The chemistry Bozak, Kessel and Lupul have together is undeniable. Bozak’s effort is solid and his defense has improved dramatically from last season when he finished with a minus-29 on the season to a plus+4 this season. Sure, Bozak is no All-Star, and he has benefited from playing alongside two of the NHL’s most potent offensive players this season, but a line consists of three forwards, which makes Boazk and integral part of both Kessel’s and Lupul’s success.

Sorry we ever doubted you Mr. Bozak, you have been a nice surprise this season!

Youngsters Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri have had moments of brilliance with the big club.

After a decent stretch which saw Colborne register four points in his first nine games with the Maple Leafs this season, Colborne has since been returned to the AHL to earn his stripes with the Marlies, scoring 24 points in 26 games. Kadri has also played well in spurts, scoring three goals in 11 games this season, but he is still believed to be hanging onto his roster spot by the skin of his teeth.

Early season acquisition David Steckel has helped elevate the Maple Leafs puck possession game by way of winning an incredible 57.1 percent of his faceoffs. Steckel’s skill set has seen him get some time on the power play, the first line, as well as finding himself out on the ice in critical defensive and offensive situations late in the game.

Steckel’s size and compete level are under appreciated at times. That said, those who watch Steckel night-in, night-out, know how great a job he has done, albeit in a lesser role than some players.

After a tough start to his season, backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson looks to have turned the corner. Playing a much more confident game that has seen goals against average and save percentage round out to a respectable 3.07 and .903, respectively, Gustavsson looks ready to assume a major role with the Maple Leafs. Whether that role turns out to be as starting goaltender is anyone’s guess, but he has been doing a good job as Reimer’s stand in.

While Gustavsson’s numbers are not All-Star worthy, they are a heck of a lot better than the bloated numbers he posted at the beginning of the season, and with a record of 12-7-0 on the season, he has more wins and a better save percentage than James Reimer, who has earned just seven wins on the season while posting a .901 save percentage.

Reimer has struggled to find his game after concussion-like symptoms kept him out of the lineup for an extended period. Since returning from injury, Reimer has just three wins in 11 games played and a spotty save percentage throughout most of that 11 game stretch.

Behind the bench, the trio of Ron Wilson, Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin should be applauded for the job they have done putting together the Maple Leafs offense. Conversely, they should be given equal amounts of criticism where the team defense is concerned.

With Wilson earning a contract extension this Christmas there is every indication that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke believes he has the right man in place to take his team to the playoffs and beyond. Time will tell if Burke’s confidence will pay off, or cost the organization millions of dollars.

Either way, you have to be impressed with the results Burke’s troops are getting. In his short time as GM of the Maple Leafs, Burke has demonstrated a keen ability to identify talent, acquiring players via trade or free agency, while ridding the organization of a ton of dead weight.

The Maple Leafs look headed in the right direction. That said, they can ill afford to have another slip like they did in December. Should the Maple Leafs start to slide in the standings we may see some changes in Leafland, but if the Buds manage to stay the course and get the results the teams is capable of it is conceivable that your beloved Maple Leafs will be making a playoff appearance for the first time in what feels like a decade.

Since hockey is a team game I opted out of giving individual grades to players in favor of giving the Maple Leafs an overall grade as a team. From my seat, when you consider all the injuries and where the team is in the standings, I think the Maple Leafs have earned a B-, with plenty of room for improvement, especially on the backend.

What say you? What grade would you award the Maple Leafs 41 games into the season?

Until next time,

Peace!

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Marco says:

    I will give it a B+

    They showed they can be the real deal during these 3 matches.

  2. Hudson says:

    A very well balanced and detailed article.

    Before the recent three game winning streak, my grade would have been precisely what you have given. A B-. But 3w have put us where I thought we might be – around 7th place and in the thick of it. Were it not a bit streaky of late (in both directions), I think the troops deserve a B+. Who would have, with any certainty, said we would be in 7th place at the start of this year? It was entirely not a sure thing. And it still is not…

    So I temper that B+, and award them a solid B. There are too many good things going for the Leafs. We have a couple of career years from our most important O man. And the D have some good stories too. Goal tending is on the rise. Our overall depth is a real improvement. All of this you wrote about. And everyone, even if at times not succeeding, is busting their ass.

    And despite our recent struggles, I think this team has real confidence. When was the last time you could talk about a Leaf squad never giving up a third period lead? 15-0 in that department. They almost have me confident now. Last year I remember rocking on the edge of my seat every time we had a lead in the final frame…ready to drop and turtle into fetal position.

    In my opinion, if they were in the top 5, that would undoubtedly be an A+ for this group of players (we are a bit shy of a top 5 lineup). We are three points from that. While we can also say we are three points from 10th, we are not there either.

    I totally agree that the main improvement needs to come on the back end. I would rather that second line keep misfiring in exchange for giving up -0.5 GAA and running with a consistent 80% PK. 80% + 21.6% = doing just fine. That 100 mark really is the goal.

    Summing up, here is how they’ll be rated for me this year. It really is about the finishing position. Good stories aren’t enough any more, after this long.

    5th = A+
    6th = A-
    7th = B+
    8th = B
    9th = F

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