Confusing Times for Leaf Fans

Leafs Logo 1938 - 1963It was during a Twitter conversation with a fellow Leaf fan that I realized these are somewhat confusing times for Leaf Nation. Fairly good times, but confusing nonetheless. Before people start cracking jokes about parade plans or reading the standings upside down, I want to point out it’s not about counting playoff berths at the quarter pole, nor is it about cautioning fans not to be excited about a 12-8-2 record. This is about trying, as fans, to balance a great start to the season against the team’s abilities and coming up with some kind of real expectations.

At the 10 game mark, Toronto sat 7-2-1, and I had some thoughts about that early success. Now, at Thanksgiving, the Leafs sit 5th, yet only 3 points up on 9th place in a very tight Eastern Conference. It’s unfamiliar territory for Toronto of late. It hasn’t been since November 2006 when Paul Maurice coached Toronto to 12-6-4 that the Leafs were over .500 at game 22. The team still missed the playoffs that season. So despite the conventional wisdom that seems to say a team holding a playoff position at US Thanksgiving generally makes the playoffs, there’s still real concern this team is far from home and cooled out.

This is not a Pat Burns- or Pat Quinn-era team, loaded with battle-hard veterans for whom playoffs were a given. This Leaf team is quite different, as only 12 current Leafs have any playoff experience (none in Toronto) and no one owns a Stanley Cup ring. In fact this is one of the youngest squads in the NHL. Under coach Ron Wilson the Leafs have hit a yearly swoon that has often seen them plummet in the standings. So the question is, can the Leafs maintain a position among the top-8 in the east? There’s evidence that supports both a ‘no’ and ‘yes’ answer.

Those who say no point out the Leafs have played more games than almost everyone in their conference, and frankly, it’s a competitive group of teams. They’d started 7-2-1, a .750 clip. The next 12 games though, 5-6-1, or .458 – a definite regression against some better teams. Then there’s that Leaf penalty kill, mired in 27th at a paltry 76.5%. Among the weaknesses the Leafs have, the PK is among the most damaging, often erasing the chance to win games almost as soon as the game starts. Another weakness seems to be the defence, prone to incredible coverage lapses, often from veteran players. The Leafs are allowing 3.14 goals a game, 24th overall. Moreover, the Leaf’s goal differential stands… even. That in itself is somewhat amazing, considering the team outscored the opposition 16-5 over the last 3 games, and that just gets them back to even. How can a young, inexperienced team that cannot kill penalties and operates with an overall negative goal differential most of the time be considered any kind of playoff threat?

Where will scoring come from? Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul may be 1-3 in NHL scoring, but they are both about a half point over their career average production. It would seem unlikely that could continue. Many nights, the Leafs have lacked secondary scoring support, which theoretically should allow the opposition the chance to key on the first line. That line should be easy to shut down, given Kessel’s history as a streaky one-trick pony, while Lupul was essentially a salary dump struggling to return after injuries.

Well, there are some counter arguments here.

Somewhat deceivingly, the 12 players with playoff experience have 290 games of experience, no small number. That’s led by Lombardi (40 games), Lupul (39), Connolly (36) and John-Michael Liles (36), 4 players who did not start last season with Toronto. That kind of experience could be helpful with such a young roster.

For the time being, the team has not fallen apart, despite having as many as 7 regulars out with injury. That included James Reimer (starting goalie), Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur (2/3 second line), Colby Armstrong and Matthew Lombardi (2/3 third line), Mike Brown (PK+4th line) and Mike Komisarek, who’d played himself into the 4/5 defender spot. The team has managed to remain near the top of the standings getting good performances from a number of call ups such as rookies Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne, as well as Joey Crabb. Additionally, back up goalie Jonas Gustavsson has done enough to garner 6 wins in spite of his shortcomings. And actually, despite some poor play early, defenders Luke Schenn and Cody Franson have reduced the brain-freeze type plays to help the goalies out. There have been mistakes that have led to losses. But, players have improved, and it’s been enough to win more than lose.

James Reimer Maple Leafs
Reimer could return soon to Leaf net.(Icon SMI)

Certainly as more of the ‘regulars’ return, the hope for fans would be better performance overall. Word is Reimer could be back soon, and he is regarded as an upgrade. MacArthur has returned and managed his 7th goal the other night to try to boost that secondary scoring. Tim Connolly has contributed 10 points in 10 games. In fact, though a 16-5 scoring outburst over 3 games may be abberant, players not named Lupul or Kessel had 11 goals and 21 assists to account for secondary scoring. The defence, led by Dion Phaneuf (2G, 14A) and John Liles (3G, 10A) have contributed 57 points already. It’s helped not only with even strength, but the Leaf powerplay has managed to be the opposite of the penalty kill… 22.6% success rate to stand 3rd in the league. Coupled with a 1.05 5-on-5 ratio, the Leafs are scoring at 3.09 goals per game, not far behind the goals allowed.

And what of Kessel and Lupul? Well, Phil’s previous career best points-per-game was 0.86 over a season. This season, he’s scoring 1.36. Lupul’s current 1.18 rate eclipses his previous best 0.82. It is arguable that their performance will trend back towards their more consistent numbers. But, most of the anecdotal evidence suggests these 2 players have elevated their games. Kessel has tried to fill out his previously one-dimensional game, while Lupul has been determined to resume his career after a number of health issues. Important to note Phil and Joffrey have been scoring while being centred by Connolly, Lombardi, David Steckel and most recently an energized Tyler Bozak. The pace may drop somewhat, but it seems this duo ould be having a breakout year.

Leaf Nation is enjoying being among the conference leaders as December approaches. They’re enjoying seeing their boys win games by 7-1 scores only 3 days apart. They’re really enjoying seeing a Leaf leading the scoring race. But, there’s no illusion that this Leaf team is a lock for the playoffs. There’s a number of things that need to be resolved, and frankly, the fans are cautiously hoping that there’s enough goaltending, defence and scoring to keep them in the hunt.

With 60 games remaining, the team sits at 26 points. Last season, 93 points was playoffs. The math works out to playing .558 the rest of the way for the Leafs. A Reimer return could knock a half-a-goal-against off, a return of Grabovski could mean and additional half-goal-a-game scored. All things being equal, that could be enough to gain the necessary wins. But it’s a lot of ‘could’, a lot of ‘things have to go right’.

Therein lies the issue. The Buds have put themselves in a good position at Thanksgiving, much better than having to claw their way up from 12th or worse. Will those performances continue? Until the math guarantees the Leafs are playoff bound, Leaf Nation just has to hope this group has found a new level that describes the normal.