This is supposed to be the season of “PAIN.” As far Leafs fans are concerned, this is a season where players and management get a free pass for what should be one of the worst seasons in club history. A reward of a top-five if not first overall pick is the main objective it seems.
A problem is brewing on the horizon. Our beloved Leafs just might be too good, to keep losing. Too good to cash in at the 2016 draft being held at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY.
It has been well documented since Shanahan took over the Maple Leafs reigns that this club needed to purge the old and completely rebuild on and off the ice. Getting rid of a couple more core players should have happened, but so far so good. New management, scouts, coaches and a new culture are a part of the 2015/2016 season. The biggest coup’s were signing Babcock and Lamoriello and receiving actual assets for the now departed Phil Kessel. Restocking the cupboard with draft picks and prospects has been executed well as part of the Shana-plan.
The Leafs currently sit 29th overall and if the draft were held today, they would have a realistic shot at picking first overall. So why sound the alarm bells now?
The Leafs are looking good in losing. Most of the time. With the exception of two games, Toronto has competed hard against some quality competition. Montreal twice, a shoot-out loss to Ottawa and Buffalo, accompanied with five losses by a single goal in 10 games played. Saturday nights loss to Pittsburgh is one game both coach and players accepted as being a poor team performance.
It has been apparent that pucks getting to the net were the achilles heal of the team. Shots against are down over last year. Way down. Last year the Leafs averaged 33.5 shots against per-game and ranked 29th in the NHL. Today the Buds sit 13th at 28.8 shots against per-game. We all knew that the meticulous teachings of Babcock would address this issue and it has been done. Shot attempts are also up significantly over last year. More shots should result in more goals. No?
Speaking of Babcock, he hates losing. He hates preparing the way he does and the plan not being executed. The Leafs schedule has allowed for lots of practice time. A blessing for the coaching staff as Babcock has been able to implement his system. The players have responded by being more responsible in the defensive zone and playing a smarter transition game as the puck is moved through the neutral zone. General consensus is puck decisions in all three zones have improved. We are getting into advanced stats territory here, but we won’t get into that today.
The Leafs have played quality competition in the first 10 games. Montreal sits first, New York and Pittsburgh easily holding playoff positions while Ottawa sits tied for the last playoff spot. All playing above .500 hockey. Perennial playoff bound Detroit is within striking distance as always. Toronto’s lone win on the season comes against the last place Columbus Blue Jackets. The next 10 games will give a better indication of where these Leafs stand, although the teams on the other side ALL sit well above in the standings. The schedule ahead will be equally challenging with top notch teams like Dallas coming up Monday night. If the first ten games are an indication, then the leafs will be a tough team to beat.
Yes the loss of Kessel is significant only in offensive production. Given his defensive liabilities last year, the team also got rid of his -34 goal differential. Dion Phaneuf leads the team in points as well as proving to be the teams top defender. He will continue to put up points but shouldn’t continue leading in points much longer.
Lupul had been sent a message with a three game demotion to the fourth line. He did respond Friday versus New York with a goal and ended up serving on the second line Saturday night. If he stays healthy and committed, the points will come. He seems to have received the message loud and clear.
Kadri is playing for that big contract this year. He is doing everything that coach is asking him and is receiving big minutes playing on the top line in Bozak’s injury absence. The seventh overall pick in 2009 should be able to increase on his 0.5 points/game production as he becomes more comfortable with Babcock’s type of game.
Leo Komarov has been a very pleasant surprise this year and we can hope that he continues to add to his early season success. With all these positives, why are the Leafs sitting 29th?
Unfortunately goaltending has been less than stellar this year. One wouldn’t have that, with shots against down and smart puck possession up, both Leafs goaltenders would be sporting sub .900 SV%. Unfortunately this is the case. Neither Bernier nor Reimer have stepped up and taken hold of the number one spot and Babcock is patiently waiting for either man to take charge of the Leafs net. Now there are quiet rumblings around the NHL that the Leafs are looking around for a proven puck stopper. Perhaps these rumours start in order to give either one of them a kick in the back portion of their goalie pants.
This team is only seven points out of a bottom 10 finish as opposed to a bottom three. That is the difference in drafting an average NHL’er and a stud “10 year” player. Before the Leafs become a bonafide Stanley Cup contender they will need to get that “10 year” player into the system.
A win streak of four, five or six games is not out of the question for this team and that would not be a good thing.
Nobody on this team is willing to roll over for the sake of a better draft position and it is a real possibility that it happens. A goal here, a stop there and the outlook is much much different. Fortunately (or not) the season is still young. Time will tell just how far the Leafs have come in an attempt to rebuild from the bottom up.
Until Next Time