Counter Argument: Status Quo Is the Way to Go for the Leafs

10 games into the season and panic has already started in Leaf Nation. The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a rough start to the season getting only 9 of a possible 20 points in the first 10 games with the bulk of them at home.

With a tough stretch of road games upcoming, the Leafs are in danger of having things go from bad to worse.

As a result there has been plenty of calls for change to salvage the season.

The thing is, there are 72 games remaining on the schedule and plenty of time to turn things around. The other thing is the Leafs currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot despite their bad start. Its what many predicted the team would be around in the first place so they are really no better no worse off than expected.

Change may help add a spark or even shake things up a little, but because a) the Leafs are limited in terms of resources and b) have firmly committed to what they have in place right now to try and get the job done this season, it is probably best for the team to maintain status quo and ride out the season to see what happens.

Gm John Ferguson’s hands are tied until at least the trade deadline with the Leafs brushing up against the cap maximum. Therefore the only hope is for the current group to bring the Leafs out of their struggles. There has been calls for Ferguson’s head as he has taken much of the blame for the team’s current plight. However anyone new brought in will need plenty of time to turn things around and make the necessary changes. There are too many unmoveable parts thanks to contract length, salary and player options to decline leaving Toronto. there is not much anyone new could do different for this season at least.

There has been calls for the team to fire head coach Paul Maurice. This is mostly due to his goalie management skills, his team’s inability to play defence, and the Leaf’s unsuccessful special teams. But really he is only working with what was given to him. His lineups have often been depleted due to injuries and he has had to throw in plenty of minor league talent in key roles. The talent he does have is pretty much offensive minded. Therefore he implemented an attack system based on what he had. There is plenty of skill and offensive smarts on this team and lots of size. So using this to his advantage he wanted his troops to play aggressive, forecheck and try and hemm teams in their zone using their size to control the play and cycle the puck. He also encourages his D to join the rush as most of them are quite capable. The result has been the Leafs being one of the best offensive teams in the league. Maurice is only trying to play with the team’s strengths.Like how expansion teams usually play trap hockey thanks to a lack of talent. Maurice has plenty of skill and thus uses it accordingly. 92 games, missing the playoffs by a point while the team still sits 8th currently is not enough reason to let him go. Sure he needs to improve the team defensively but thats ultimately up to the players to perform.

There are many good things to like about the Leafs and there still is a chance for the team to turn things around and turn it up a notch.

They are getting good goaltending. The numbers do not suggest this but both Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala have played well. What they need to do now is to steal a game or two in the next bit to help the team get some confidence back and not worry so much that every mistake is going to end up in the net. While the use of both goalies keeps them fresh, I think one of them needs a run of games to get their own confidence going.

Offensively they are one of the best in the league. While they need to improve their PP, they are scoring enough to win. Nik Antropov has been a huge suprise being among the leading goal scorers in the NHL. He has a ton of confidence and has probably been their best player this year. I say probably because Mats Sundin will garner some votes as well. He is among the leading point getters so far this season and looks nothing like a 36 year old on the down side of his career. He is playing with purpose and fire and creating something almost every shift. To be able to be among the league’s most potent offensive teams despite not having 3 potential top 6 forwards in the lineup is impressive. Not sure how long Antropov and Sundin can keep it up, but the Leafs will ride them for as long as possible.

It is surprising the Leafs are where they are, especially considering how atrocious they have been defensively.

Its obviously a part of the game the team needs to work on. They may not have the horses to play air tight D and perhaps as some have suggested, they should acquire a player or two who could help in their own end. But the defensive problems are a team issue and as a team they need to come together and shape up their play in their end.

Its a confidence thing as much as it is ability. The team lacks confidence in not only their abilities but the abilities of their teammates. There is no trust and therefore it has led to players running around chasing the puck and being out of position. Until they start believing in eachother, all the defensive schemes, systems and strategies will do the Leafs no good.

As mentioned earlier, maybe some goaltending heroics and stealing a couple of games in the next short while will instill the confidence in the team that a mistake will not cost them a goal every time. It may take a little while, but when the team gets some confidence, it should play much more relaxed and that can only help them defensively.

What has to stop immediately is the excessive penalties. They as much as the mistakes, breakdown and soft goals have cost the Leafs games. Their PK has improved, but still not good enough to handle 10 kills a game. The penalties are nothing short of selfish and lazy. There is no excuse for them. Maurice needs to start laying down the law for those taking dumb penalties. He tried that for a bit last game, benching Alex Ponikarovsky for a period for taking his 4th stupid penalty in 2 games. While it wasnt much of a punishment, Ponikarovsky responded with the tying goal. Maurice needs to use this tactic more often. That may be the only thing to get these players to learn.

The defensive mistakes and penalties will not stop for good. But the team can at least try to limit them. That is the best they can do and just about all anyone can ask for from this team.

While the struggles have been difficult, things are not as desperate as some may suggest. If they can someone manufacture a boost to the team, be it a strong game or a goalie stealing away 2 points, it will probably go right to their hands and legs and help them shake off the jitters. Getting away from the fishbowl with all these road games could help them gel as well and avoid hearing the nightly jeers of the early season games.

There is lots to like about the Leafs.

They have some decent young players playing fairly well and seemingly getting better. Players like White, Stajan and Steen are doing ok in increased roles and the team is chomping at the bit to have Coliacovo back as well as Wellwood.

Antropov has been a huge surprise and so has Simon Gamanche in his brief stint with the Leafs. Pony needs to avoid the box but he’s on pace for 20 goals again. And even Raycroft has looked fresher and better this season.

This is their under 30 group and while they are not world class as say the youngsters that play for the Penguins or Hawks, its not so desolete as many claim. And the fact the farm team is in first with the help of guys like Stralman, Pogge, Kronvall, Tlusty and other youngsters can only be a good sign for the organization.

72 games is a long way to go. While this road stretch coming up will be difficult until things play out, more games are played and more time has passed, there is no need for knee jerk panic moves that may not change anything for the team and where it goes. The
y’re not out of it yet.