The Toronto Maple Leafs could not have gotten off to a better start this season. A 4-0-1 record to open the season and a brief stretch as the league’s best team had Leafs fans all across the planet rejoicing. However, after a few rough patches as a rash of injuries, the Leafs have begun to fall. So much that people are asking once again, are the Maple Leafs a team capable of qualifying for the post-season?
When the Leafs were on their early-season tear, everything was going right. Forwards were scoring goals and playing a solid two-way game, the defenceman were shutting down the league’s top players and the goalies were stopping pucks. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
While forwards such as Phil Kessel (21 goals, 44 points) and Joffrey Lupul (17 goals, 40 points) are still scoring at more than a point-per-game average, others continue to struggle.
Tim Connolly is one of those who are struggling. Connolly, like the team, got off to a hot start this season, once he managed to return from injury. With 13 points in his first 15 games, Connolly had made Brian Burke and his staff look very smart in signing the veteran to a two-year deal. However, now with just five points in his last 11 games, the man who was supposed to take over the No. 1 centre role has run dry.
Perhaps the most noticeable forward who is struggling is Nikolai Kulemin. The 25-year-old notched 30 goals last season for the Maple Leafs, but has just four in 38 games this season to put him on pace for a grand total of eight goals in a full 82-game season. The good news is that Kulemin hasn’t been “bury in the AHL” bad; despite his disappointing offensive output, he still owns a plus-1 rating.
That’s the way it has been for many Maple Leaf players lately. As James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail pointed out Monday morning, most Leaf players were in the plus range over the month of December, all but guaranteeing that the penalty kill is at fault for the Leafs’ 4-6-3 record.
To use an old cliché, the Leafs’ penalty killing has gone from bad to worse.
As a team, the Maple Leafs have successfully killed off just 72.3 percent of the power plays they have given to the opposition. As far as December goes, nowhere was this most noticeable than the December 9 game against the Washington Capitals, when the Caps scored all four of their goals on the power play to defeat the Leafs 4-2.
Unfortunately, this has made goalie James Reimer look terrible. So much that David Shoalts, another writer for The Globe and Mail, recently said that the two games before Christmas gave hope that Reimer had “found his game.”
That’s really something, because you would think it would be awful hard to find your game when the team in front of you can’t manage to simply clear the front of their own net or get in the way of passing lanes.
The good news for the Leafs, though, is that they haven’t been all that terrible five-on-five. In 38 games, the Leafs have allowed 72 goals against while at even strength, which puts them 15th in the league. This works out to an average of about 1.89 even strength goals against per game.
Let’s say the Leafs also allowed one shorthanded goal against each game. At that point, the Leafs would average 2.89 goals against per game total, giving them a decent chance to win each night and probably qualify for the post-season. Instead, the Leafs have allowed the fourth most total goals against this season (123) and average 3.24 against per game, which makes it extremely difficult to win.
As we continue our look at the Leafs’ penalty kill, take this into consideration: 47 of the 123 goals that the Leafs have allowed have come while the opposition is on the power play, roughly 38 percent.
Getting back to what Mirtle said about player ratings, it is easy to see how much of the roster can own a plus rating and the team can still go 4-6-3. The penalty kill is definitely what has caused the Leafs’ drop to 10th in the league, two points out of a playoff spot, and it is exactly why the Maple Leafs are not capable of qualifying for the playoffs.
Unless penalty kill problems can get straightened out, expect to see the Leafs on the outside looking in after 82 games.
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Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.