Toronto Maple Leafs: The Biggest Concerns Heading Into 2012

December 28th, 2011 3 Comments

With just two games to go in the 2011 schedule for our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs there is a lot to be thankful for and yet, there is a lot of concern growing.

First, a look at what the Leafs Nation is thankful for.

After 36 games played the Maple Leafs currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings, good enough for a playoff spot. Now, sixth place is hardly epic, but it is a great improvement upon seasons past, which is why we are all so grateful.

Keep in mind, there is only nine points separating first and eighth in the Eastern Conference standings, with just three points separating sixth from tenth. Make no mistake about it, it is officially crunch time, and the Maple Leafs know it.

Phil Kessel continues to dominate the score sheets, posting 20 goals and 22 assists. His 42 points is tops on the Leafs roster and ranks him second overall in goals scored and fourth overall in points.

With Kessel playing so well one wonders if Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin will be laughing and snapping pictures of Kessel at the All-Star game festivities this time around, or choosing a more humble stance given Kessel is currently sitting with eight more goals scored and 15 more points than the so-called “great eight”.

I digress…

Kessel’s Linemate, Joffrey Lupul, has been the surprise of the season, netting 16 goals and 23 assists for a total of 39 points. Lupul’s totals rank him 14th in goals scored and eighth overall in the scoring race.

Needless to say, with the Maple Leafs having two players in the top ten in scoring (Ovechkin currently sits 52nd overall) there is plenty to be thankful for offensively, it is when you look at things from the other end of the ice that things get a little sketchy.

Defenseman John-Michael Liles has been a calming factor on the Leafs defense and has added an offensive element to the Buds power play, which has the Leafs boasting the fourth best power play in the NHL. With Liles now on the shelf with a possible concussion we’ll have to refer to him as both a player we are thankful for and a player of great concern for 2012.

Should Liles’ injury put him on the shelf for an extended period of time the Maple Leafs will need to look for the likes of Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner to step up and/or acquire another offensive minded D-Man to fill the void.

Goaltender James Reimer has had his fair share of struggles in 2011, predicated on a long-term head injury, followed by some poor positional play and a weak glove hand.

Reimer’s .901 save percentage and paltry 2.94 goals against average are pedestrian numbers at best. Heading into 2012, Reimer’s performance (or lack thereof) will be paramount to the Maple Leafs making the playoffs.

With that in mind, should Reimer’s struggles continue into late January, look for Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke to exercise a measure of caution by bringing in a veteran goalie to stop the bleeding.

As we have seen with many NHL forwards, concussions, or in Reimer’s case “concussion-like” symptoms do not come with a shelf life, which may mean Reimer is put on the shelf at some point.

Either way, through poor play or injury, should Reimer find himself on the bench or in the press box that would leave Jonas Gustavsson to mind the pipes, which is not exactly inspiring a lot of confidence from the fans and coaching staff.

After exploding for more than 170 combined points last season, the trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur have struggled to find their magic, posting a rather ordinary 47 points combined through 95 games played.

While MacArthur and Grabovski have had moments of brilliance, we are all still waiting for Kulemin to find his way. Kulemin’s lack of goal scoring has hurt the Maple Leafs in the win column, as has his inconsistent compete level.

When you consider just how frail the Maple Leafs lineup can be, having Kulemin firing on all cylinders is of the utmost importance, especially if the likes of Tim Connolly goes on the shelf again.

The Maple Leafs penalty kill continues to be of great concern with a success rate hovering around 72 percent. The Maple Leafs’ own the worst PK in the league and are not looking like they are going to improve anytime soon.

Whether it is a change in player personnel, better execution from the current crop of penalty killers or a new plan of action from the coaching staff, something has to give where the Buds PK is concerned.

Special teams success (or lack thereof) can go a long way in not only getting to the playoffs, but also getting through a round or two, which is what Brian Burke needs to see from his team this season.

Look for Burke to be front and centre when it comes to acquiring a defense-first power forward who can solidify a penalty kill unit that can only be defined as laughable on more nights than not.

Last but not least, the Maple Leafs need to address the overall toughness on their team.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we are not talking about bringing in a tough-guy to fight, what the Maple Leafs need is a gritty defenseman and/or forward that can make life miserable for the opposition.

Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Mike Brown (who has only played 18 games this season due to injury) have all done a fine job at keeping their opponents at bay. That said, none of them are regarded as premier shutdown players, which is what Burke needs.

On defense Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn have their moments, making a big hit and keeping opposing forwards honest with their spirited play. That said, with Phaneuf looking to assume more of an offensive role and with Schenn playing a shadow of last season’s well-rounded/physical game, there is plenty of room for more grit on the backend as well.

Physical defenseman Keith Aulie has been brought up from the Marlies on occasion, but he too has failed to dominate in the physical department.

Once again, if Burke can upgrade on defense he will be looking to add grit over offense. Should Liles be out for an extended period of time Phaneuf and Gardiner can step up, sadly, few of the current crop of defensemen have stepped up in the physical department, which must be alarming for Burke and head coach Ron Wilson.

There is plenty to be thankful for in Leafland. With a few tweaks in 2012 Burke will have this team in the playoffs for the first time in what feels like a decade.

Until next time,

Peace!

 

 

3 Comments

  1. leafs need a much improved PK if there going to make it to the playoffs .burkie get off your high horse and do something about it before its to late like last season .GOD BLESS THE MAPLELEAFS

  2. the toronto mapleleafs need tough players in front of rymer to clear the puck and to help out on the PK if they hope to be in the playoffs bobby bond types etc etc but getting them is a differant story .also look for another goalie with experience to go along with rymer .

  3. Mark Ritter says:

    The reality is, this is a team that is more than one player away. I see some pretty big changes coming…hopefully one is a new goalie, but the cost will be high as there are quite a few teams looking to shore up their goaltending. Agree on the toughness- Leafs need it badly!

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