Toronto Maple Leafs: What Is Going On In Toronto?

January 10th, 2014 No Comments

1aleafsAfter making the playoffs for the first time in what felt like a decade last season, the expectations for the Toronto Maple Leafs heading in to the 2013-14 season were high.

Sure, the Maple Leafs fell to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs last year, but they competed well with the eventual Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Finals, albeit losing in brutal fashion in game seven.

Fast forward to 45 game mark of the 2013-14 season and, for the first time this season,  the Maple Leafs find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to a playoff spot, sitting tenth in the Eastern Conference standings.

After a great 6-1 start to the season, the Maple Leafs have been sliding in the standings for months. Injuries, suspensions and poor play by all parties in the lineup have all contributed to the Maple Leafs’ slide, as well as some questionable coaching decisions of late.

Given how poorly the Blue and White have been playing, Toronto’s 4-4-2 record over the past ten games is actually very flattering. Where at one time the goaltending was bailing the team out, both Jonathan Bernier and James Riemer have cooled off of late. Where once the teams power play masked a number of poor performances, the Maple Leafs are a combined 1 for ten in their past four games on the PP.

That’s right, not only are the Maple Leafs (21-19-5 record) not creating any offense on the PP, they are barely generating PP chances with only two power plays (zero shots on goal) against the Carolina Hurricanes last night, one power play against the New York Rangers (7-1 loss), two power plays against the Detroit Red Wings (a 3-2 win) and one for five on the PP against the New York Islanders (5-3 loss).

Meanwhile, Toronto’s penalty killing (a pillar of strength last season) continues to falter, humming along at a 76.9 percent success rate— good enough to be ranked 27th overall. The Chicago Blackhawks have the 28th ranked penalty kill (76.5 percent), but they are the Blackhawks (29-8-9 record) and can afford to have one hole in their game!

With Toronto struggling on special teams, both netminders struggling with their confidence and a roster that continually makes errors, this team is in an ugly funk.

Over the past ten games, most of Toronto’s top-six forwards have been abysmal. Sniper Phil Kessel has gone scoreless on eight occasions over his past ten games. James van Riemsdyk has just one goal over his past ten games and was a minus-6 rating over that span. Mason Raymond went scoreless in eight of his past ten games. Nazem Kadri has played brutal of late, scoring just once over the past ten games and accumulating a minus-6 rating over that same stretch. With three goals in his past three games and four in his past ten, Joffrey Lupul has been decent, while Tyler Bozak has been good, scoring two goals and notching six points in his past five games.

Overall, Toronto’s forwards have been very inconsistent, exhibited a paltry compete level, been limp-wristed in the physical department, terrible defensively and completely void of passion in most games.

And then there is Toronto’s defense.

In an attempt to solidify the backend, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis acquired stay-at-home defenseman Tim Gleason from the Carolina Hurricanes for little used John-Michael Liles.

Last night, Gleason and Liles went head-to-head, Liles finished with a goal and a plus+2 rating, while Gleason finished with no points and a minus-1 rating. Of course, Gleason was brought in to be a fifth or sixth defenseman, not the savior of the franchise, but Liles’ success in Carolina (however short lived it may be) was yet another kick in the teeth for Nonis. Despite comments that he believes in his team and is not in the market to make any big roster moves, Nonis better be working the phones this morning.

The arrival of Gleason means Mark Fraser will likely be seeing plenty of the press box. A physical force last season, Fraser has looked slow and has struggled to clear the net. Where did his snarl go? Where is his compete level? What happened to the player that showed so much promise just one season ago? If anyone finds that guy, let head coach Randy carlyle know, will ya?

1aaaaaCaptain Dion Phaneuf continues to be inconsistent, posting a plus+3 rating against the Carolina Hurricanes on December 29th, followed by a minus-3 effort against the New York Islanders a week later. Phaneuf’s leadership, or lack thereof, continues to get plenty of attention in the press, as does his penchant for giving up the puck on far too many occasions.

The fact that Phaneuf may have been Toronto’s best defenseman this season is hardly a compliment, rather a depressing reality for the Maple Leafs. Simply put, if Dion is your best, your team is in trouble.

After posting excellent numbers last season (45 games played: four goals, 25 assists, 29 points, plus+4 rating), Cody Franson was thought to be an up and coming defenseman. This season Franson, like many Leaf players, has taken a step backwards, accumulating two goals and 20 points through 43 games played, while posting a horrific minus-10 rating. If you are looking for a scapegoat for Toronto’s recent struggles, Franson is your man, posting a minus-8 rating over the past four games.

Carl Gunnarsson has been decent defensively, but he continues to bring nothing to the table offensively, notching four assists in 44 games played this season. For a guy with a big shot, Gunnarsson’s numbers are disappointing.

Paul Ranger’s rise back to the NHL was a nice story early in the season, but now Ranger gets headlines for all the wrong reasons, such as his horrible giveaway’s and penchant for taking bad penalties at the what seem to be the worst time in the game.

Youngsters Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner continue to evolve their games. Both players have a penchant for making defensive errors, both players are probably being asked to do too much.

Only two defensemen (Phaneuf, plus+11 and Gunnarsson, plus+9) have plus ratings, the rest have a minus, ranging from Jake Gardiner’s minus-2 to Rielly’s minus-12.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Maple Leafs backend was supposed to be a force to be reckoned with offensively. Through 45 games, Toronto’s defense has a grand total of 11 goals, three of which are power play markers. That’s not good enough.

Simply put, Toronto’s defense is in disarray. None of them seem to be able to grasp Carlyle’s “simple” hockey system, few can make a breakout pass, none of them have stepped up physically.

By the numbers, Toronto is struggling in just about every area. As mentioned earlier in the article, Toronto’s penalty kill has been laughable. Toronto ranks 25th in goals against (2.98 GA/G), 19th in goals for (2.58 G/G), 30th in shots against per game (36.4) and 26th in shots per game (27.2). Once again, not good enough.

While the loss to injury of David Clarkson, David Bolland, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak for extended periods of time and the suspensions of Clarkson and Kadri have had a negative effect on the teams’ chemistry, good teams find a way to get it done. Outside of Lupul, none of those players are irreplaceable— someone should have stepped up in their absence, nobody did.

And then there are the off-season departures of Mikhail Grabovski (41 GP: 12 goals, 31 points, plus+4), and Clarke MacArthur (44 GP: 13 goals, 18 assists, 33 points, plus+12)— should these players have been retained? Perhaps, but let’s not forget, both players had tough seasons last year, and neither one was deemed a game changer during their time in Toronto. Yes, Grabovski has speed and MacArthur had one good season in Toronto, but there were few fans of the Blue and White spewing venom when Nonis took a pass on Grabbo and Mac while bringing in the likes of Bolland and Clarkson.

Head coach Randy Carlyle has been under scrutiny of late, some of it deserved, some of it not. While Carlyle came to Toronto with a reputation for being tough on his players, reports suggest he has toned down his rants, while making a concerted effort to be more of a players coach. Night after night we watch Carlyle address the media and, for the most part, he has been more than fair with his comments about the roster and the teams’ struggles.

carlyle1236Sure, Carlyle could have named a number one goaltender early on in the season, but has Reimer or Bernier really earned that status yet? Both netminders have looked like all-stars at times this season, both have looked very ordinary at times. Carlyle was damned if he did name a number one goalie, damned if he didn’t.

Carlyle continues to ask his players to play a physical brand of hockey, which focuses on simplifying the game. Thus far, nobody seems to have grasped this concept. Is that Carlyle’s fault, or the fault of his troops, who continually fail to execute, make poor decisions with and without the puck, and make far too many mental errors?

At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs are falling well short of expectations. Too many turnovers, too many missed assignments, too many mental errors and too little attention to details are killing this club. Carlyle assumes some responsibility for this, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t lace the skates up, his players do— they are the ones that must execute.

Think of all of the line combinations Carlyle has had to ice? Think of all the injuries Carlyle has had to deal with? Think of all the poor performances his troops have delivered? Toronto’s struggles are not Carlyle’s fault— he may be part of the issue, but circumstances have greatly hurt his chances of success.

In my view, Carlyle has earned a stay of execution here in Toronto. He is a Stanley Cup winner, a man who commands respect and he is excellent in the media. That combination is tough to find, that combination is tough to replace.

If what Nonis said in December is true, the Maple Leafs will not be making any big moves. Salary cap issues limit most clubs from making moves that could impact this club and the returns for big name players continues to be large.

The addition of Gleason should help Toronto’s defense. The return of Bozak to the lineup should help the Maple Leafs in the faceoff circle. Eventually, Bolland will return, which will fill out Toronto’s roster down the middle and give the Maple Leafs a shot in the arm, both physically and in terms of confidence due to Bolland’s considerable presence on the ice.

No one thing is going to turn around the Maple Leafs’ season. Toronto needs better defense, more offense from key forwards, more consistent goaltending, better coaching, a little good health and possibly the addition of a player of consequence to the lineup.

To me, the biggest downfall of this team has been the obvious lack of leadership. When will a player finally step up and be the face of the franchise? When will a player finally kick his teammates in the butt and be the voice this team needs both on and off the ice?

Joffrey Lupul has game and leadership qualities, but he doesn’t step up enough. Dion Phaneuf is about as vanilla as they come, and David Clarkson’s poor performance on the ice limits his impact on the team. Bolland has leadership qualities— but his injury has left him off the roster for months.

One player will not change the Maple Leafs fortunes, but a player of character, attitude and confidence could vastly improve this club’s psyche.

The bottom line is this— until Carlyle gets a better effort from all of his troops this team will continue to struggle. Somebody on this roster needs to take ownership of the teams poor play and rise to the occasion. Failure to do so will result in the Maple Leafs missing out on a playoff spot and that will mean plenty of changes in the off-season.

Start playing like you want it boys, time, like your playoff chances, is ticking away.

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