Leafs Dazed and Confused

After a week of training camp, a few scrimmages, an inter-squad game, and one pre-season tilt, the early signs say the Toronto Maple Leafs may struggle. Here are some reasons why.

1. Disorganized coaching.

There is no coincidence that Pat Quinn found success internationally with the likes of organized and technically sound coaches in Jacques Martin and Ken Hitch***** by his side. They are great at preparation and attention to detail. But when Quinn is back with the Leafs, things are not at all the same. He has wasted a week of camp looking at fringe players for roster spots that do not matter. The 4th line forwards and 5th or 6th defencemen, plus the backup goalie are not at all going to make any difference to the team’s success. It is great that Mike Hoffman has surprised a few people with hard work, or that Chad Kilger has put forth a strong effort in a supporting role, or how Bryan Marchment has surprised with his enthusiasm to win a roster spot. But none of those players will make any difference in the long run.

The roster is fairly set. There are so many guaranteed, one-way deals that it makes no sense to focus on the fringe jobs in camp.

Sundin, Allison and Lindros will be the top 3 centres

Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Domi, Tucker, O’Neill, Czerkawski are automatics for the wings

Stajan will be on the team in some role either the 4th line centre or manning the wing. and Belak will have a job as well either up front or on defence.

Steen and Wellwood will be battling Steve Thomas for an offensive role with the club. Steen so far has the inside track on a job and has been given a good opportunity to show something rather than get buried like so many other youngsters have under Quinn.

and there are a host of role forwards that are fairly interchangable. Wilm, Perrott, Kilger, Leeb.

Kaberle, McCabe, Klee, Khavanov, Berg are set on defence.

Brown and Marchment will battle youngsters Kronvall, Coliacovo, White on defence and at some point Karel Pilar is going to enter the picture.

And of course Belfour is in goal with either Aubin or Tellqvist backing him up.

as you can see, the number 1 goalie, the top 5 on defence and 10 forward spots are all taken. there is really just the fringe positions that need to be filled. Sure it is important to take a look at guys to see who can make it, but that shouldnt be the focus for training camp.

The focus on camp should be to integrate the new players into the system and to get use to eachother. The team should focus on settling the line combinations and defence pairings. More structure and less scrimmaging is what is called for in training camp.

Sundin is their best player and yet he doesnt even know who his linemates are. It could be Czerkawski, Antropov or Tucker, It could be veteran Thomas if he can make the team, it could be rookie Alex Steen. The coaching staff has to start building some chemistry among their players so that they are not doing that during the year and wasting valuable time…and points in the regular season.

I know Allison is hurt, but a game plan should be put in place to make sure all 3 top centres get the ice time they need and deserve to maximize their effectiveness.

Should they not be working on their powerplay and finding set pairs of penalty killers as there is expected to be a rash of penalties early on which will have a direct impact on the standings if teams are ill-prepared for the crackdown.

These are the little details that Toronto does not work on with the kind of special attention needed. It has been something the team has neglected in the past and the excuse of not enough practice time thanks to a poor schedule is getting tiresome and old. That is what training camp is for, the regular season is to fine tune those things as the year goes on to be at the top of their game come playoff time.

2. Injuries.

Already Jason Allison has faced nagging bouts of hip and groin injuries that have prevented him from getting into important game shape and game conditions. This has put him behind schedule to get use to the NHL again, get his timing back and get use to new teammates and understanding the team’s system.

Ken Klee has also missed time and that puts him behind schedule to get use to the new rules that will impact blueliners, get use to a new partner on defence and get himself back in shape after the one and a half year layoff.

And we havent even gotten to Eric Lindros and Ed Belfour yet who usually are out at some point in the year with aches and pains. It is only a week in and it looks as though the team won’t hold up for the rest of the pre-season, an 82 game condensed schedule that will break for the Olympics and the playoff grind. In the past, the Leafs were fairly deep to compensate for health problems, Not this year as they are thinner than past years on the wings and are still without a reliable backup goalie.

3. Undisciplined play.

Yes almost every team has spent a great deal in the penalty box this pre-season so far but the Leafs have done a poor job at understanding and getting a grasp on the new obstuction rules. they had scrimmages but didnt focus at all on how the game was going to be called. They have done little in teaching their players the new obstuction rules and how to adapt and spent most of the time watching their guys play shinny. A prime example was their pre-season match versus Ottawa where a guy like Belak looked completely lost and confused on his penalties. If he was taught in the early part of camp about was is right and wrong, perhaps he would not have taken 2 poor penalties in a row.

In fact the bulk of the Leafs is full of players who take bad penalties. It has forever been Quinn’s style to not have any consequences for poor actions. The likes of Belak, Berg, Antropov, Ponikarovsky sometimes play lazy and at times undisciplined. But in most cases they are simply allowed to get away with it. I think Quinn needs to step up his authority and punish his guys for poor decisions. That includes at the top too as the likes of Sundin, Tucker, Domi, McCabe take quite a few foolish penalties. I think that is the best way for the players to learn to not repeat bonehead moves. How often do we see Antropov take a silly high-sticking minor for no reason and never miss a shift? Far too often, especially in the new NHL.

4. Learning the other new rules.

there are several new facets to the game that Toronto should be paying attention to because it greatly changes the way the game is played. For one thing, has the team begun practicing how they will handle the forecheck?The reason being because they will not have Belfour to bail them out as often as in the past. Goalies are restricted on where they play the puck and Belfour use to compensate for dump-ins by moving the puck quickly. Now defenders will have to get that puck themselves in most cases. And with no obstruction, forecheckers will have free reign on vulnerable blueliners. The key will be for them to move the puck quickly and safely at the same time. We have seen Toronto get eaten alive when their defenders are hurried. McCabe is prone to bad gaffs mid ice, Kaberle hates contact, and Berg, Klee and Belak are not good against quicker players. The breakout is the golden key to the offence. They must work on getting the pucks to their skilled forwards and because they stuggled under the old rules, they are going to have to work harder under the new ones.

Defensive zone play is also something that needs work. Toronto runs around like chickens with their heads cut off and can often be seen hemmed in their own zone for several minutes. Without being allowed to pick players, pin them against the boards, or hook and hold to impede progress, Toronto is going to have to be a smarter team positionally, and quicker on their feet. Toronto is not the swiftest team in the NHL. but if they can get some proper coaching, they can compensate for lack of speed, with smarts. 7 years under Pat Quinn and the team has not really made much progess on play without the puck. This is where Toronto should focus on the most.

The biggest difference maker may be the no redline. it is hopeful that this will open up space in the neutral zone. in the first pre-season game, the Leafs forwards were often found standing around and waiting for the long bomb pass rather than working on a breakout plan with quick passes and gaining speed entering the offensive zone. Toronto has some good forwards who can get loose, they have to use that no redline judiciously. basically the game is the same. got to move your feet, find the openings, gather speed and not holding onto the puck too long or trying to beat everyone on your own. Quinn has been a coach who likes the “flow” game but there isnt much flow if everyone is just standing around.

Yes it is early and there is still plenty of time left for the Leafs to work on things, work on their game and understanding the new stuff, for players to heal and to figure out their lineup. I think the Leafs have a strong enough team to make a strong run for a playoff berth. They simply need to put all the pieces together.

I like the Leafs to implement some youth to the team and it would be great to see Steen Coliacovo and Stajan as regulars.

I think Toronto will have one of the best centre groups in the league if and only if Allison and Lindros return to form and stay healthy.

I think the Leafs size up front is going to cause huge problems for opponents thanks to the hopeful zero-tolerance on obstuction. They have the makings of a top powerplay team.

If the team can stay healthy, find good chemistry and be disciplined, there is no reason why Toronto cannot have a sucessful campaign. It is going to take Pat Quinn to have his best coaching effort ever to mould this group of player together and prove alot of people wrong. It is a long year and hopefully Toronto doesnt take too long to figure out their A game. All we can do is sit back, watch and wait.