End Game For the Leafs

“The Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup”.

This was the grand promise put forth by coach Paul Maurice. While showing such confidence is admirable, the reality of the situation is that the Leafs like last season will be scrambling for one of the final few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

While some teams in the East improved a great deal, and others regressed, every team still has a legitimate shot at a playoff spot. The Leafs are pretty much on par with 10 or so teams in the conference. With the conference heavy schedule format still in place, the team can ill afford to take any nights off as we have seen in the past couple of seasons.

The talent is there to at least be competitive most nights. Whether or not the Leafs can come together as a team and form some sort of identity will be the key question that will likely make or break their season.

Coaching Staff Requires Improvement

Paul Maurice did a fine job behind the bench last season putting together a patchwork lineup and getting the most out of a pretty weak roster. To be able to keep his team in the playoff hunt right to the end despite bodies falling one after another was rather astonishing.

But the honeymoon is over and simply put, Maurice must now win or else. The pressure is on not only because of the promises he has made, but because of the pressure on the organization as a whole to deliver nothing short of a playoff appearance. His job and those above him are tied completely into the results of this season and so its make or break time for Maurice.

It certainly will not be easy as Maurice has a laundry list of items to improve upon in order to give his team the best chance at winning.
He will need to improve his goalie management skills. He failed last year not turning to backup JS Aubin from December on until the 2nd period of game 82. He burned out Raycroft and probably cost his team the handful of points needed for the playoffs. This year he will need to find a way to keep his goalies happy as he has two now he can use as his top guy.

He will need to improve the team defensively without sacrificing the aggressive style of play that allowed the Leafs to score plenty of goals. The talent is there to be a solid defensive squad. Maurice just needs his players to stay focused on the task at hand. It has proven to be a challenge for him to do that like it was for his predecessor Pat Quinn.

Special teams will need big work if the Leafs have any playoff hopes. The power play is ok but its predictable. Darcy Tucker at the side of the net or Mccabe for the one-timer. The arrival of Jason Blake should help but the Leafs could use a few more wrinkles in their playbook. The PK is atrocious. sure the loss of Mike Peca hurt them but he was just 1 guy. They couldnt win defensive draws, clear the puck or contain a consistent box. Instead they were running around and leaving opponents with open looks. The only holdover from Quinn’s staff, Keith Acton was in charge of the PK and its gotten progressively worse since his arrival. Might now be time for Maurice to improve this area of the game himself.

And definitely Maurice is going to need to improve his team in shootouts. Again adding Blake adds a pure sniper they can deploy, but like Quinn before him, Maurice neglected to practice this “gimmick” but this gimmick can be a difference maker.

One thing Maurice has already failed this fall is spending too much focus on letting a bunch of 4th line players battling for jobs or as injury fill-ins and not enough time moulding his team to play the game he wants them to play. He had a reputation as a good teacher and strategic coach but that certainly has not been too noticable this year.

Time is not an ally for coach Maurice. This basically is the only shot he has left to get this team into the playoffs. Even a season with improved play from the team, especially the young players will not save his job as he has been given just 1 mandate. playoffs or nothing.

Goalies on the Hot Seat

Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft

Success and failure for the Leafs this season is almost completely in the hands of their goaltending. Last season Raycroft, despite 37 wins, tired down the stretch and failed to prove he is capable of being a workhorse number 1. This is why they brought in Toskala who has never had the pleasure of being a true number 1 goalie. Toskala came from a semi-platoon situation in San Jose to Toronto, either to join another platoon situation, or being the number 1 job outright. With the fanfare of his acquisiton and the big contract extension that followed, there are high hopes Toskala can be a top guy in nets. Now it is up to him to prove it under the Toronto microscope and playing behind a team far inferior to the Sharks. The talent is there, and the numbers provide solid evidence that he is capable of delivering on his expectations.

This will be an interesting situation to watch play out. What will Maurice do? Will he have a strict platoon with a firm schedule in place as to who plays when, or will he ride the hot hand until it burns out? His experience in Carolina using both Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes during their 2002 playoff run will help him in this regard. Because of the cost, and what is on the line, its likely Toskala will get the first shot as the top guy, and he really needs to work out or else Maurice and GM John Ferguson will be unemployed.

Scott Clemmensen was brought in for depth in case injuries hit.

Defence Still the Achillies Heel

Defencemen: Tomas Kaberle, Bryan Mccabe, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Carlo Coliacovo, Ian White, Andy Wozniewski

Defensively the Leafs appear to be a lost, confused group and a ton of work is required to rectify this. Much of the blame went on the team’s goaltending for their lousy goals against. But the team gave up far too many quality scoring chances that really left their goalies hung out to dry. One of the big problems is that the Leafs are quite soft in their own zone. While the additions of Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill greatly improved the size of their defence, still opponents had free reign on property in front of the net, and had no trouble winning puck battles against soft defenders. If the Leafs didnt get the puck out of the zone the first time, it was lights out for them, and a big flashing red light for the opponents indicating another goal against the Leafs. There is a definite lack of chemistry and trust among teammates.

There is talent there to be quite decent defensively, it just seems the Leafs cant bring it all together. Tomas Kaberle is the best at getting out of the zone, but when things get bogged down, he suffers because he is too soft. Bryan Mccabe is their hardest worker on the backend and most willing to take the body. Its unfortunate he is prone to giftwrap a huge turnover at least once a game that often proves to be a turning point. Gill was fairly solid however his lack of footspeed left him exposed a great deal on the outside. Perhaps their best defensive defenceman was Kubina but he could never stay healthy and couldnt find chemistry with his mates from being out so often. I think a full season from him, and giving him the role of the shutdown guy could bring much better results for the Leafs. Their younger blueliners, Carlo Coliacovo, Ian White, Andy Wozniewski have held their own and have at times been more reliable defensively than their veteran teammates.

Potential Penalty Killing Pairs:
Matt Stajan and Alex Steen
Alex Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov
Jason Blake and Mats Sundin
Chad Kilger and Boyd Devereaux
Mark Bell and Darcy Tucker

What the team needs now is an equivalent shutdown player or line up front. The Leafs do not really have that type of player currently. Stajan is perhaps the closest to developing into a top checker. He has
great defensive smarts, but he lacks sufficient strength to win puck battles and is poor on faceoffs. Overall the team is quite weak on draws outside of Mats Sundin. Steen is another who is very smart in his own end. But he is better suited to being on a scoring line who would provide a defensive presence rather than strictly a checker. There are numerous others like Boyd Devereaux, John Pohl, Kris Newbury, Chad Kilger who could fill in checking roles, but they are 4th liners at best who cannot be relied on for major minutes. The team’s lack of a strong defensive player up front is perhaps why the team’s PK is so bad. The Leafs have one of the worst groups of forwards at controlling the side boards and covering the points sufficiently. Too many times pucks get kept in by pinching blueliners or opponents are left alone in front due to assignments being missed.

Maybe the addition of Blake with his speed, and a greater commitment by veterans Sundin and Tucker showing improved leadership in this area, could really change the team’s showing defensively.

While claims that improved goaltending will be enough to solve all the teams defensive woes, the Leaf skaters still need to clean up their act and clamp down much harder than they have recently. The Leafs are simply not talented enough to be plagued by so many mistakes.

Sundin Has Help, But Maybe Not Enough

Forwards: Mats Sundin, Matt Stajan, Kyle Wellwood, John Pohl, Alex Ponikarovsky, Alex Steen, Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker, Nik Antropov, Mark Bell, Boyd Devereaux, Chad Kilger, Bates Battaglia, Wade Belak.

With the way Maurice likes to play, offence is not really that big of a problem. The Leafs are quite capable of lighting up any team in the league. The Leafs are quite aggressive in the offensive zone and really like to work down low on the cycle. Balanced offence is what Maurice wants to see and he got that last season with several players in double digits in goals. The addition of Jason Blake however gives the team a true sniper capable of adding another 30 goal man to the lineup to join Sundin and Darcy Tucker.

What really drives this solid offence is the contributions of their defence. The Leafs have often been among the league leaders for points among blueliners. Both Kaberle and Mccabe are strong contributors with Kaberle likely good for 60-70 points and McCabe hovering around the 15-20 goals, 50-60 point range. Kubina is also capable of that kind of production but with PP time at a minimum at the point, he will need to fight to get his points. Young Ian White has emerged as a very solid puck mover and good at starting the rush with a strong pass while Coliacovo has shown glimpses of his promise (when healthy) joining the rush and adding great mobility to the attack. Their prowess offensively from many sources is why the Leafs have managed to hang on til the bitter end of the season.

Potential Power Play Units:

1. Blake, Sundin and Tucker with Kaberle and McCabe at the points
2. Wellwood, Ponikarovsky and Antropov with Coliacovo and Kubina at the points

The team had high hopes to have even greater depth this season with the addition of Bell and hopes he would round into the 25 goal man he was with the Blackhawks. However his absence from the team due to his lengthy suspension could result in a long learning process for him and the team. It could take a while implementing him into the lineup, finding consistent linemates and figuring out what role Bell could fill. With him gone til November, who knows what kind of contribution he will make.

The team was also hoping for Wellwood to be healthy however once again he has succumb to the same sports hernia injury that plagued him last season. He is now out indefinitely and his ability to contribute has been left up in the air. This has cause a significant gap at the centre position as Sundin really is the only true offensive threat down the middle. Stajan has not proven to be any more than a 40 point player, while hopefuls like Pohl, Newbury and others are merely depth players who are not long term solutions.

For now they will need greater contributions from Steen, Stajan, the twin towers Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky plus Wellwood whenever he returns, as these players are the current young core the team will require to step up like we have seen happen on other teams. Pony looks like a player who has learned to use his big body well and seems quite capable of being a consistent 20 goal scorer. Antropov needs to stay healthy and if he can, he has the skill level and the size to be a difference maker.

They will need Sundin to avoid another late season slump and hope Tucker can stay healthy as he looks like someone who could really reach the 30 goal plateau. Blake is unlikely to get 40 like he did on the Island but 30 will do just fine. He brings so many other things to the table like great speed that he’ll add other dimensions to the attack.

If they get anything else from the likes of Bates Battaglia, Kilger, Devereaux, Tony Salmelainen, Simon Gamanche, Ben Ondrus, Wade Belak offensively, the team should consider themselves quite lucky. But they shouldn’t need it as long as their top guys stay relatively healthy and producing as they are capable of doing.

Youngsters Need to Wait Their Turn

Rookies: Jiri Tlusty, Jeremy Wiliams, Staffan Kronvall, Anton Stralman, Justin Pogge.

The Leafs are unlikely to use too many rookies this season as there are few roster spots up for grabs. But possibly due to injuries, some young players could see some significant actions this season. Its unlikely Justin Pogge will see any time with the Leafs in goal. But what they would like to see is continued development for their prize young goalie. He might have a better team in front of him this season with the Marlies and that could really boost his game and take some pressure off himself from carrying them. The presence of veteran Clemmensen will help immensely.

Staffan Kronvall looks to return to being a key part of the Leafs future after a lost year last season with injury. He is big and can skate and if he can stay out of the infimary, he could bring something to the table. His countryman, Anton Stralman has much to learn about the NOrth American game, especially handling things when the going gets rough. He has the skillset to be an NHLer right now and would add plenty of speed and mobility to the Leafs defence. But offensive defencemen are not what the team needs right now so probably his place is apprecticing with the Marlies.

Jiri Tlusty for two training camps in a row showed off his speed and skill level and looks to carry plenty of potential to be a good offensive player. Experience is simply what he needs and he’ll likely be with the Marlies to at least start the year. He had injury problems last season limiting him to half a season so really he just needs some game experience to get him back on the development track. With the injury woes the team has endured, it would surprise no one if Tlusty made his NHL debut this season.

Final Thoughts

Training camp so far has been a disaster with injuries and very poor play and if that carries over to the season, things could get far uglier than the recent backlash seen after merely a couple of pre-season outings.

This is probably it for the current Leaf brass and coaching staff. There is only one option for the Leafs and that is making the playoffs. Jobs will be terminated if they dont. Based on the current setup at MLSE, the mandate this season is quite black and white.

John Ferguson is as good as gone if the team misses out on hockey in the spring and he could be gone even sooner if the team struggles the first half of the year. His hand picked coach will likely also follow him out the door if the team doesnt succeed. The only question is whether their bosses, people like Richard Peddie, remain where they are.

If the team miss
es the playoffs there no doubt needs to be a complete house cleaning including Peddie and the philosophies of MLSE that have failed miserably. Whether the infighting and backroom dealing will allow that remains to be seen.

Those running the team now have clearly shown already that they havent a clue as to what it takes to build a winner. For this year though, there are little options that remain other than to let things play themselves out. The bed had been made for the 2007-08 Leafs and now they must lie in it. All Leaf Nation can do is sit back, watch, wait and hope. For what…well that remains the constant mystery surrounding the Leafs.