The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Maple Leafs season thus far

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Updated: December 30, 2013
Mandatory Credit: MapleLeafs.com

Mandatory Credit: MapleLeafs.com

Since the New Year is just around the corner, I thought I would invite a few Toronto Maple Leafs bloggers/writers over here to discuss The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Maple Leafs season thus far.

Our guest writers include Chris (@ReimNier) from Hockey Musing, Michael (@MLHS_Mike) from MapleLeafsHotstove, Daniel (@RegularLeafsFan) from Blue and White Brotherhood, and Sam (@13_Leafs) also from Blue and White Brotherhood. Be sure to follow them on Twitter!

THE GOOD

@ReimNier: In a season mired with suspensions, injuries, and infuriating inconsistency, it is hard to separate the good from the bad and ugly without drawing into tangential suppositions.  In addition, I have been finding it exceedingly difficult to draw any positives at the team level.  The Leafs may be in a playoff spot, but they are just barely hanging in there with one regulation win in the last nineteen games.

In a way, I think it is for the best that the Leafs are struggling now rather than later because the holes glazed over in the past are now being brought back to the forefront – such as the need for a top-line centre, or a partner for Dion Phaneuf.

However, Morgan Rielly has been a shining example of some hope for the team’s future.  During a stretch in which the team has won one game in regulation, Rielly has been one of the defense’s most consistent players, displaying high end offensive IQ and incredible skating ability.  Moreover, he has improved game-by-game, while generating more chances as he finds his comfort zone.  He is going to be a very good player, and soon.

Jake Gardiner has taken a defensive step forward.  Last season, he struggled badly with positioning, mental lapses, and an inability to use his skating ability to race his way out of trouble.  While facing somewhat weak competition, he has improved his defensive comportment immensely by being more physical on the puck-carrier and using his skating ability to reset the break out when he has no options to press forward.  One of the things that the Leafs have often been criticized for is their inability to move the puck as a unit.  Gardiner has helped alleviate that with precision passes and finding seams in the neutral zone to skate through.

@MLHS_Mike: The month of October brought Leaf fans renewed hope, a renewed Phil Kessel (signed to an eight-year deal) and a 10 – 4 – 0 record.  The addition of Jonathan Bernier has paid glorious dividends, and the netminder has the league’s 7th best save percentage (prior to Canes game) with a scintillating .929.  James Reimer is no slouch either, his .924 sv% being 10th best in the league, and identical to his numbers from last season.  Also promising is a newfound success in the shootout, which is how the Leafs have won of late.  They have 6 wins through the shootout through the halfway point of the season, after going 0 for 5 last season.

@RegularLeafsFan: Phil Kessel has continued his superstar play so far this season with 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points. His ridiculous snap shot has continued to be excellent along with his playmaking ability. The only negative has been that his goal scoring has been quite streaky. Other than that his play has met all expectations.

Another bright spot has been JVR, who has emerged as a premier player in this league. He had 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points. He has played very well with Kessel and it is becoming clear that they are one of the most dynamic winger pairings in the league. He has begun to use his size and strength to his advantage and is skating a lot better. He has shown a new creative touch with the puck and is creating offence for the team.

Perhaps the most significant positive this year has been goaltending. It has been one area of the Leafs play that apart from a few games this year, has been excellent. Both Reimer and Bernier have kept the Leafs in, and won games for the team that that they had no business winning. Both goalies are in the top 10 for SV%. Their GAA has gotten much higher but that is mostly attributed to the amount of shots the team gives up and the quality of the defence in front of them. The controversy that LeafsNation anticipated coming into the season has been much tamer than expected. Although Reimer has gotten starts in much tougher games (second games of back to back), there hasn’t been much of a controversy. Bernier is obviously the preferred starter but it hasn’t really mattered as both goalies are playing very well. They also seem to like each other so that’s also a good thing. In my opinion I think that the Bernier trade was completely unnecessary but that’s a conversation for another time.

@13_Leafs: Good teams in the NHL becomes successful, largely, due to the performance of their best players. These players are the ones that give hope to the fanbase and that step up when their team needs it most. Looking back at the last three Cup winners, the Blackhawks have Kane and Toews, the Kings have Doughty and Kopitar, while the Bruins have Chara and Bergeron. It is largely because of those players, along with the other core pieces that these teams were able to succeed.

This Maple Leafs team has a clear cut core, in my opinion, that’s made up of six players. Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner are two players that should be heavily relied upon in order to succeed, but haven’t yet hit their primes. The other four core pieces would be James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and, yes, even James Reimer. I think that when these 6 players are at their best, this team is successful. It was evidenced in last year’s playoffs.

So far this season, these players have played extremely well for stretches, but gone a bit cold of late. However, with the team losing recently, the core pieces are far from the reason as to why the Leafs are struggling.

Kessel’s speed and shot, JVR’s unique blend of size, skill and defensive awareness, Gardiner’s tremendous skating ability, Phaneuf’s solidity on the back-end, Kadri’s elite vision and Reimer’s flat-out superb goaltending are always on display when this team is winning. If this team wants to succeed down the road, they will need to rely on these six players and their unique skills. So far this season, these players have delivered.

THE BAD

@ReimNier: The Leafs’ penalty-kill, a strong point entering the 2013-14 season, has struggled badly in the last couple of months — and it now sits at 27th overall with a 77.9% success rate.  What’s more, the penalty kill has lost its way after Tyler Bozak and David Bolland went down.  It seems incredibly unfair that certain people believe that the faltering penalty kill was due for a regression given the goaltenders’ high save percentage last season – but it hurts more when you lose your best penalty killers.  However, the Leafs have more than adequate personnel to get by, but choose to play underwhelming defensive players such as Ranger or Franson.  This presents a problem – is it a coaching issue in judgment, or a personnel issue?

Some might say that Carl Gunnarsson is a good defensive player, but there are only so many times you can chip the puck off the glass or lose a foot race to the puck before it becomes a worrying issue.  Leafs fans discovered last season that Gunnarsson was struggling with a hip injury – that same injury has not improved.  In fact, there were some whispers on social media that the hip injury could not be improved with surgery or rehabilitation; this suggests that he will be playing with this injury for the rest of his career.  What bugs me the most that he’s not a bad defenseman – he’s just playing on the top-pairing out of necessity.  He is a top-four defenseman playing some of the stiffest minutes and yet hasn’t really shown that he deserves to be there in almost two seasons now.  At some point, the coaching staff needs to reevaluate the team’s defensive future moving forward and try out Gardiner alongside Phaneuf.

@MLHS_Mike: It’s a good thing the Leafs have the league’s best goalie tandem, as the team gives up the most shots (36.0) per game of any team in the league.  The Leafs once vaunted penalty kill (2nd in the league last season) has fallen to 27th in the league.

Also deleterious are the gambles Nonis took over the summer that haven’t panned out.  The Leafs spent their money last summer on forwards and goaltenders, and shopped for bargains in Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger.  While neither is expensive, neither is providing much value to the club on the back end.  The Jewel of Free Agency, David Clarkson, could very well be the worst UFA signing in Leaf history.  That’s a Leaf history that includes both Mike Komisarek and Jeff Finger.

@RegularLeafsFan: Paul Ranger have been bad and there’s no arguing otherwise. Although expectations shouldn’t have been very high for a player that had missed a significant amount of time, I expected a bit more. Ranger seemed like a good signing when it happened but the rust he acquired while he wasn’t in the NHL has shown. He often makes plays in his own end that leave fans scratching their heads as to what he’s doing and pinches at times when he shouldn’t. His possession numbers aren’t good, his CF% is sitting under 50% while getting pretty easy minutes. I hope he can get better and that his recent scratches give him motivation to do so, but I don’t see it happening.

Want to know someone else who’s bad? BOZAK. He shouldn’t have gotten signed, he shouldn’t be playing on the first line, he shouldn’t be allowed to drag Phil and JVR down. He makes them worse, makes the team worse. Let’s hope he gets traded.

@13_Leafs: It would be foolish for one to simply look at a team’s underlying numbers and deduct whether or not they’ve been playing well, but when you watch this team play and relate it to the underlying stats, it is very clear that the numbers do not lie.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a record-breaking season. In fact, they are on pace to allow the most shots on goal in a season since the statistic has been recorded. But that’s not the main underlying number I’m alluding to.

The Maple Leafs do not possess the puck enough for us too believe that their play will drastically improve. The sample size is there and it shows that this team simply does not know how to play with the puck. At 5 on 5 this season the Maple Leafs are last in the league in Corsi For % (CF%) at 42.8%. The worst team in the league, the Buffalo Sabres, are at 44.5%. The correlation has been proven in the past, good teams possess the puck and outshoot the opposition. The Leafs are also last in the league in Corsi Events Against (CA) with 2011. That’s 217 more than the next team. Not only do they allow a lot of shots against, but their Corsi Events For (CF) are also alarmingly low at 24th in the league, with 1503 CF. To make matters worse, the Maple Leafs are fifth in the league in PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) with an unsustainable 101.7. Not only are the Leafs playing poorly, but their poor level of play seems unsustainable according to the PDO stat. Things seem like they will only get worse.

Considering how poor these numbers have been, it is alarming that this is not listed under “The Ugly,” which segues into the next point…

THE UGLY

@ReimNier: Let’s cut to the chase: Randy Carlyle’s inability to adapt and the pervading issues of the fourth line.  The fourth line, in a roundabout way, is treated as a throwaway line by the majority of fans and media members alike.  It’s the default line for enforcers and AHL-quality players who have no business being in the NHL.  They play five minutes a night; sometimes a minute or two more, sometimes less.  They are, by any statistical and traditional measure of observation, out of their element against the opposition’s third, second, and first lines.

And that’s a problem.

The fourth line should employ young players with good speed, skill, and effort.  It allows the coach to utilize in-game options to move players around when there’s a need to make an adjustment.  Playing enforcers means you only have three lines that can play a regular shift.  It is very rare that a team’s top-three lines are playing well, which means there’s a constant need to adapt as the game rolls on.  Carlyle is a noted line-matching master; so why cripple his strengths by limiting the players he can use?

This goes back to the concept I mentioned with regards to the penalty kill.  Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren often take the spot of a younger player like Jerry D’Amigo or Carter Ashton.  Ignoring the centres at the moment since Bozak and Bolland have been injured, the coaching staff’s refusal to use players on the fourth line as an energy line with speed and skill has been a microcosm of the organization’s inability to correctly gauge the team’s need for game to game versatility.

There’s a need to defend yourself, but fighting isn’t a dominant feature in today’s hockey game, and it won’t be going forward.  The organization needs to start adapting now, or continue to struggle against teams that have more depth and stronger development.

@MLHS_Mike: I think the ugliest takeaway from the Leafs season is encapsulated in these stats: The Leafs have allowed 11 game-tying goals in the third period this season.  Six of them have occurred in the final 5 minutes of play.  The Leafs lack a fair amount of things, but the inability to close out games in regulation is a decided problem.  The Leafs have been downright dreadful since its hot start to the season, and have left far too many points on the table. The Leafs are 9 – 12 – 5 since the start of November, collecting 23 out of a possible 52 points while losing almost twice as many games as they’ve won.

@RegularLeafsFan: I’ve never been more frustrated by a coach throughout all the time I’ve watched hockey than I am by Randy Carlyle. The lineup decisions he makes along with his systems that clearly aren’t working show me that he shouldn’t be the Leafs coach. He consistently plays inferior players like McLaren, Orr, Fraser and Ranger while better players like Liles, Reilly, D’Amigo, Ashton and Smith are healthy scratched. Due to this, the Leafs lack a competent 4th line and the other lines become increasingly tired because of it. Carlyle also gives WAAAAY more rope to Bozak and Fraser than he does to better players like Holland and Reilly. His systems aren’t working (See the excellent articles by @KatsHockey for reference) and the teams play has suffered because if it. Although 24/7 may not be the most reliable source, it also seems as though he’s lost the room, a problem that also occurred in Anaheim. Long story short…fire him.

To answer Steve Simmons question regarding the whereabouts of the critics of Nonis’ offseason moves from his condescending article early this season, one of them is right here. David Clarkson is a bust. He’s not as good as the contract he was signed too. He plays with one hand on his stick, falls more than a housleauge player, doesn’t score and doesn’t create offence (although his possession numbers are high, he’d probably be the only argument against advanced stats). This contract will go down as one of the worst in Leafs history. The cap hit will handicap the Leafs for years to come. The worst part is that no once can say we didn’t see it coming. He had never scored 50 points in his career. He was coming from a team on which he got a lot of PP time which made his already underwhelming numbers seemed better than the were. He should have never been signed and now him and his cap hit aren’t going anywhere for a long time.

Even casual fans are now aware of the ongoing issue of the Leafs giving up too many shots and not controlling the puck enough. The teams Corsi is 42.8%, which is abysmal. The team gets outshot by a significant number almost every game. Goaltending is relied upon way too much and will eventually become a crutch that can no longer be leaned on. The team has to figure out a way to fix their possession issues. I refuse to believe the argument that some teams can win without possession. Possession is everything and this argument has essentially been proven wrong (mc79hockey wrote a great article about this). If the Leafs want to make the playoffs and attain sustainable success, this trend of terrible possession numbers must change.

@13_Leafs: It is no secret that I’m strongly against Randy Carlyle’s coaching abilities. I think that this team is talented enough and strong enough in important aspects of the game, such as goaltending and offense, to be a playoff team. However, I do not think that this can be achieved with Randy Carlyle behind the bench. As so many have said before, James Reimer was the only reason why the Maple Leafs made the playoffs last year (that and “opportunistic” offense). Carlyle’s teams are playing no differently than Ron Wilson’s lowly Leaf teams of a few years ago. In fact, sometimes, the team has been worse. The only thing separating these two teams are goaltending. Wilson had horrid goaltending, while Carlyle has elite goaltending.

Carlyle is often applauded for preaching “accountability” and for holding his players accountable. That is, frankly, a moronic thing to say. Players like Jay McClement, Paul Ranger, Mark Fraser, Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, Jerred Smithson and Tyler Bozak can do no wrong. They are consistently making bone-headed plays and not being held accountable for them. Meanwhile players like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles, Morgan Rielly and, even, James Reimer are on unreasonably short leashes, despite the fact that their positives strongly outweigh their negatives.

The problems with Carlyle don’t stop there. Not only are the personnel decisions extremely poor, but this team is systematically retarded. A coach’s job is not only to decide who is playing but also to define the team’s systems. And it’s clear that these systems are creating huge problems while, largely, being responsible for the laughable underlying numbers. For example, this team struggles with simple defensive zone breakouts while under pressure from the opposing team, despite icing multiple mobile puck-moving defensemen on defense. Furthermore, the team often seems unable to enter the offensive zone if Phil Kessel isn’t on the ice. Their forecheck that seemed somewhat apparent last season has vanished. And the salt on the wound is the penalty kill. Carlyle was lauded by media members for his ability to fix the Maple Leafs penalty kill. Simply speaking, the PDO dust wore off. Their luck ran out on the PK. It wasn’t Carlyle’s doing, it was simply the game of chance (along with some insanely good goaltending on the PK). What does Carlyle have left to be falsely applauded for? The team is consistently making excuses for themselves, despite losing to teams that have iced far worse lineups than the Leafs due to injuries.

This season we’ve seen a lot of Randy Carlyle being Randy Carlyle. The stubborn man, who doesn’t adjust his ways, and whose prehistoric systems and coaching philosophies result in teams that simply can’t succeed. Many will point to Carlyle’s Stanley Cup ring to explain why he is a good coach. That Anaheim team had, arguably, two out of the three best defensemen in the decade. Let’s not give him credit for that. For me, the ugliest part of this season has to be Randy Carlyle’s coaching.

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Dale Lamontagne

Dale Lamontagne

Dale Lamontagne is the CEO and Founder of The Hockey Report, and is the lead NHL writer. Along with his NHL coverage, Dale covers the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL, and the Milton Icehawks of the OJHL. You can contact Dale via email at dalelamontagne5062@gmail.com or over at Twitter @Dale_Lamontagne.