Are the Maple Leafs’ Darkest Days Ahead?

Randy Carlyle Toronto Maple Leafs
Randy Carlyle’s job could very well rely on his team’s ability to qualify for the playoffs (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

At first glance it would appear the Toronto Maple Leafs are having a nice season. They sit five points inside the playoff picture, third in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and just one point back of home ice advantage in the post-season. Despite their often weak play, many fans would still argue the Leafs are having a strong season especially considering performances of seasons past.

But as we may be about to learn it doesn’t matter how many games you win; if you’ve been playing poorly it will catch up with you at some point. This is exactly the situation the Leafs find themselves in and the only way they will dig themselves out of it — if possible — is by proving to the rest of the hockey world that they are for real.

No Real Identity

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that have struggled to find a real, positive identity all season long. Nothing has been spectacular; even their goal scoring, the best part of their game this season, sits tenth in the league averaging 2.83 goals per game.

On the flip side, the Leafs’ defenive play has stuck out like a sore thumb all too often averaging 2.98 goals against per game. That’s in no fault of the goaltenders — James Reimer has posted a .914 save percentage in 25 games while Jonathan Bernier, the incumbent starter, has impressed with a .924 percentage in his first season as a Leaf.

As for physicality no one has succeeded in making a mark. Even Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren have just six and nine fighting major respectively. In fact, McLaren was recently sent down to play for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL before being recalled due to a David Clarkson injury. Speaking of Clarkson, he has failed to prove his own worth in Toronto with a lack of offensive production and not providing much of an edge.

Maple Leafs
Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are each one half of the single biggest reason why the Maple Leafs sit third in the Atlantic Division (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

A team without an identity will never have any long-term success on the ice. The Leafs have amazingly sustained their winning form through the first 65 games but that is bound to come to a crashing halt.

Dave Nonis’ Maple Leafs have competed five times since the NHL returned from its Olympic hiatus in February. Of those five games, the Leafs dropped the first three and have played four of them to overtime.

Perhaps their inability to get things done in regulation has been in large part due to the shot differential of each game, with the Leafs being out-shot 166-141 since returning, an average of 33.2 to 28.2 per game. It only takes one shot to change an entire game and the other team is getting five of those opportunities. Continuing to look at shots, you’ll notice that the Leafs have allowed anywhere from 30 to 37 shots in the last five games while reaching the 30-shot plateau only once themselves.

But it’s not like this is a new thing. The Leafs average just 27.8 shots per game over the entire season while allowing a league-worst 36 shots per game. It’s a wonder Bernier hasn’t lost it on his teammates yet.

The only identity the 2013-2014 version of the Maple Leafs has managed to cook up is strong goaltending, shaky defence and questionable coaching. And only one of those will help their chances at putting together a legitimate stretch and playoff run.

Too Much Reliance

Aside from coaching, perhaps the most prominent reason why the Leafs have failed to impress much at all this season is the amount of work placed on the shoulders of a select few. Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Jonathan Bernier are the most notable of the bunch with Tyler Bozak and Dion Phaneuf regularly being relied upon too much also.

Tyler Bozak Trade Bait
Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have been relied upon too heavily this season (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not like none of these guys can get the job done. Kessel and van Riemsdyk make up the most dangerous offensive duo in the entire league while Jonathan Bernier was considered as a Team Canada snub by a small bunch and is widely considered as a probable name to be on the 2018 Team Canada roster provided the NHL attends the next winter Olympics. Phaneuf is having a stellar season and Tyler Bozak is nearly averaging a point per game.

Unfortunately no one, even with the talent level of these players, can be overworked without consequences. This is one of the few areas where Randy Carlyle is not at fault; the Leafs don’t have the depth to use bottom-six players like the NHL’s top tier. That’s partially because GM Dave Nonis has been unable to achieve depth — both offensively and defensively — on the trade or free agent markets.

The only way for the Leafs to overcome this hurdle is for their bottom-six players to compete night in and night out. That even means you, David Clarkson. It’s time to show what you’ve really got.

Do the Maple Leafs Even Have a Chance?

The NHL’s stretch run has arrived meaning its time for teams to put their heads to it and dig in. The Maple Leafs have one of the most difficult and intriguing season-ending schedules in all the NHL with a massive five-game road trip and a ton of divisional games that could decide their playoff future.

Maple Leafs
Dave Bolland’s return to the lineup will be much welcomed by the Maple Leafs (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto’s California swing could not have come at a worse time. The Leafs visit the Anaheim Ducks on Monday before making a quick flight to San Jose for a duel with the Sharks on Tuesday. It’s then off to Los Angeles where they will face the Kings. The Leafs will play two more road games against Washington and Detroit immediately following their California trip, kicking off a string of Atlantic match-ups in which Toronto will play three of four games against divisional rivals.

The Leafs will finish up the season in April with a three-game swing also against their own division. Games against the Lightning, Panthers and Senators could decide not only whether the Leafs manage to clinch home ice, but if they make the playoffs at all.

With the schedule set to pick up the Toronto Maple Leafs have the opportunity to prove themselves as a legitimate NHL hockey team, but their chances to succeed in doing so may be long gone.

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2 thoughts on “Are the Maple Leafs’ Darkest Days Ahead?”

  1. Damn, I hate it when the supposed experts(writers) are down on this team. Last night they won the game against the Ducks and are now in 3rd place in the eastern division. What does this team need to do to get the respect of the writers and talking heads? Because they do not live and die by “Corsi” or “Fenwick” we write them off. They have the top line in the NHL and a very good goal tending tandem. The core of this team is young and still learning especially on defense(Franson, Gardiner and Rielly) Cut them some slack and look at what the results this team has fashioned despite the injuries at center.

    • Getrdone, I think that those who cover, follow, and/or root for the Maple Leafs have been burned so many times by the team that it’s very hard for them to be bullish, no matter how well the team may be doing. Think of the Boston playoff series and how game 7 played out. Now imagine that repeated in various forms since maybe 1970. Maybe their expectations are too high, but where else should they set them but on the Stanley Cup?

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