After a blistering 9-3-1 start to the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have quickly trailed off to a style of play that has become customary to watch the past couple years. A 7-10-1 run since their fiery start has them sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of first, and most importantly – a single point inside the playoff bubble.
When you watch this club play, to put in the simplest of terms, they look tired. They’re often second to every puck, which has resulted in excessive periods of time where they’ve been pinned in their own zone. However, they’ve also had trouble generating any offensive rhythm and flow when entering the opposition’s zone. I realized after re-watching a few of the recent game in sixties that they often are too predictable. The Leafs will either – a) have the defenseman carry it in down the wing and skate around the net back to the point or b) drop it for a forward in the neutral zone to carry in. This is what can be said as a ‘run and gun’ style of offensive play, to which the Leafs have a forward corps not properly assembled to play that style.
I see the Leafs assembled group of forwards better suited to play a possession game, due to the size of the wingers, and the excellent puck control the centers feature. In fruition, you’d have a team utilizing a power-play breakout when even strength. You’d have the center carry the puck in to the wing and take a turn to either dish it off to the point of down low to one of the wingers, to start a cycle and pass game. We’ve seen how effective this style of play can be, as the line Frattin, Colborne, and Crabb have scored a combined 9 goals in the 9 games they played together. That’s not to suggest that the Leafs would instantly receive goal-per-game results, but Wilson has to be the one to recognize which lines suit the run-and-gun style (Lupul and Kessel have the skill and speed to burn), and which are better off playing a possession game (Connolly, Grabovski lines).
That isn’t all that has plagued the Leafs though, as Toronto is severely lacking consistency throughout their second and third lines in the scoring department. With Kulemin’s fall from grace, Toronto’s lost the energetic, game-shifting forward that they so desperately need. Outside of the solid play from the first line, the rest look disinterested and aren’t putting in 100%. You have to wonder if that’s just lack of motivation right now or if there’s more to the story. If’s the former, a trade seems to be the most likely route with Burke and Wilson talking extension. I feel the Leafs need a prototypical second line winger – someone who can put the puck in the net, while being physically imposing and being an energetic, inspirational presence on the ice. I’ve been throwing out names like R.J. Umberger, Tuomo Ruutu, Brandon Dubinsky, and Ryane Clowe are all examples. Would they be cheap to acquire? Of course not, because they’re all important pieces to their current teams, but even if it means sacrificing a pick or two, with a prospect(s), it’s a move that’s necessary. I really do not want to see another scenario where Burke waits too long to right the ship, as has been the case the past seven years.
Is it time to panic? No, definitely not (yet). Nonetheless, it’s definitely not time to see how things play out, because that’s what the first thirty games have been for. I don’t think any substantial move is needed (like a #1 center), but a few subtle changes (like the style of play employed, and a decent #2W acquisition) could go a long way in solidifying this team’s spot in the Eastern Conference’s top eight.