Same Old Story For The Leafs

     Ray Stubblebine/Icon SMI
The first 4 games of the 2007-08 season have already described the Maple Leafs plight in a nutshell.

While hopes were high going into the season and grand predictions were made that the team was going to make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup, early indications show the team has a long way to go to meet those expectations.

To no one’s suprise, the same old issues are plaguing the Leafs now as they have the last season and the last decade for that matter. It is unlikely these issues will go away any time soon.

Goaltending

This time Andrew Raycroft cannot be blamed for the team’s early struggles. Last season the focal point of the team’s failure was place solely on the young goaltender’s shoulders. Should we now blame the goaltending again this season for letting in 17 goals in the first 4 games?

Should we now blame the team’s supposed savior in Vesa Toskala for the 7 goals against stinker against the Canes? Afterall, Toskala came in with great fanfare as the team’s big summer addition and with the price the Leafs paid to get him, coupled with the contract extension given prior to him even lacing up the skates, I guess fans expected something better than 13 goals against in 3 games and a save percentage of less than .900.

Raycroft only played 1 of the first 4 games so far and while he was his ok but not great self, the team’s ability to only take 3 of a possible 8 points in the standings is this time not his fault.

To be fair, it has not been goaltending that has failed the Leafs, not now, not even last season, no matter if its been Raycroft or Toskala. Sure both goalies have been victimized by some soft goals but the two goalies this year have made some pretty amazing saves so far. Unfortunately they have been wasted.

Defence

The root cause of all that ills the Leafs has been the hideous team defence the Leafs display night in and night out. Only standing on their head goaltending has bailed the team out and masked what truly has been the teams achillies heel for years. While fans love to play the blame game on specific players, its always been a team effort in futility when it comes to defensive play.

Lets take last night’s debacle as an example. Keep in mind it was not the sieve Raycroft playing in nets. If it was, the so called “experts” would find it easy to see who truly was at fault for the blowout.

This time for the first time, it was Toskala who endured the punishment for having inept teammates. In one night, he felt what the likes of Cujo, Belfour and Raycroft have felt for at least a year. It was hard to blame Toskala on any of the goals scored, except maybe the own goal he put in himself.

Last night was something we have all seen several times throughout the last decade of Leaf hockey. In fact the first 4 games have shown truly what the Leafs have always been made of when it comes to play in their own zone.

Giveaways as usual have come in great numbers. It hasnt been the usual culprits in Bryan McCabe and Hal Gill, its been a team effort. Whether its been the futile attempts to use the stretch pass on every breakout, the forwards standing around too far ahead of their struggling defencemen, or blueliners panicking at the sight of forecheckers, its the same old things that have dug in the Leafs.

The inability to clear the puck out has been yet another one of the team’s failures. This often sets off a chain of events that lead to utter chaos in the Leaf zone. It seems that once the puck is not cleared, the Leafs seem to lose their sense of responsibility and positioning and run around chasing the puck leading to opponents left open, a penalty and most times ultimately a goal against. We saw that opening night on the Heatley tying goal, we saw that Saturday against the Habs when the 4th line got hemmed in and let Dandenault open the scoring, we saw that on the Cane’s 4th goal where a feeble clear out turned into a breakaway goal. Its a combination of soft board play by the forwards to go with a defence that mostly panics when the going gets tough in their zone.

Speaking of soft, the team is very weak when it comes to man to man coverage. The team has no trouble sticking with the player they are to cover. Its the fact they do nothing while covering those players which kills the team. There are many things a player can do to effectively cover an opponent without taking a penalty. Problem is the Leafs do not seem to always want to do those things and either they make a bee line to the penalty box or the puck is being dropped at centre ice. Stick checking is not a strength of many of the Leafs. They are either too weak or unwilling to do it. the Heatley winner opening night was clear evidence of this. He was covered, but not really. Players like him do not need much time or space. If you give them an inch, they’ll take you to the cleaners.

You can quote numerous stats like shots against and so forth to claim the Leafs have a “good” defence, but the fact of the matter is, the team does not and likely will not ever be strong in their own zone. The evidence to suggest this is in grand supply and its been a broken record repeating the same problems that plague the team over and over. Until they can clean that up, playoff aspirations are a mere fairy tale.

Penalties

What compounds the team’s defensive issues is the constant trips to the penalty box. Over 160 games have not taught the Leafs a thing. It appears the team cannot grasp what is needed in today’s new standard of officiating. Is it the players? Is it coaching? Is it a lack of effort? It seems that its a combination of things that lead to the never ending number of penalties the team takes. It seems that most teams and players have had trouble, not just the Leafs as the standard has been changing as the league tries to work out the kinks. However when your team is brutal on the PK, its of even greater importance for the team to resist the hooking, holding and foolish tripping penalties that put the team down a man. Its bad enough they have so much trouble at even strength, they dont need to give any more help for their opponents. Last night the team gave up 3 PP goals against and pretty much killed any chance of a comeback with the penalty parade. It also cost them the game in Ottawa with 3 late penalties in a row giving the Sens top line multiple chances to take the game over.

Offence

The style the Leafs play is more geared towards a strong offence than a shut down defensive squad. The team has no trouble generating chances but it seems that so far its been the Mats Sundin show. The captain has been in on 70 percent of the Leafs goals so far. He and just 3 other forwards have goals with 3 goals coming from their D. The Leafs get plenty of shots on net, but miss the net quite a bit and have plenty of them blocked. when they do get it through, they seem to not generate enough traffic in front unless its the big bodies like Sundin, Alex Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov on the ice. Without the kind of depth that teams like the Rangers and Sens enjoy, its of even greater importance for the Leafs to do the simple things like get it on net with traffic in front. with the way the team is built with a focus on size, for once maybe they should use it to their advantage.

Coaching

Paul Maurice has made some strides in improving the Leafs defensively, but from what we have seen so far, there is still plenty of work still required. 17 goals in 4 games does not describe a good defensive team whatsoever. If its not the goaltending this time and with the repetitive miscues carrying over year after year, maybe its time for the coach to do something about that.

Maurice has employed an offensive style of play that is both aggressive and entertaining. But it has not been successful. The tal
ent is not there to be a juggernaut offence so maybe its prudent for him to scale back and try to improve his team’s defensive play. But not even Maurice has been able to make much change from the freelace Quinn days.

The PK is still atrocious. Sure it is hard to kill off 9-10 penalties night after night but the team seems to be getting worse with each passing year. It has always puzzled me why Keith Acton was retain from the Quinn era when he has brought the team no success in this area.

I am sure Maurice has gotten his team to practice what he has tried to preach defensively but it looks like his pleas have gone unheard. I think he wasted pre-season auditioning for useless depth jobs when he should have used the games to shore the team up at their end of the ice. We have seen that play in pre-season carry over this year. you look at a team like Ottawa who went unbeaten in exhibition and has carried over their strong play with a 4-0 start so far this year. they work on their game and try to perfect it and it appears to be successful.

I like what Maurice has done, considering he has little to work with. But because he lacks the talent, he really needs his players to be sharp and strong in their own end at the very least. The blowout loss versus the Canes and the big Ottawa line lighting them up 2 nights in a row kind of show that his message is not getting completely through to his players. Unless he can change that tune, its only going to get worse from here on in.

Personnel

Perhaps the issue with the Leafs is a lack of talent. the injuries to Kyle Wellwood and Carlo Coliacovo coupled with the lengthy suspension to Mark Bell have not helped matters any. while some boasted of the Leafs “depth” with so many bodies battling for jobs at camp, the fact was that the team had depth in certain areas like 4th line role players and spare blueliners. There was no true depth in terms of skill. It has been quite obvious so far this year with the lack of scoring output beyond Sundin’s line. 4th line players have been forced to fill in for their injured teammates and so far have failed miserably. This should have been expected. Players like Chad Kilger and John Pohl are simply not good enough for extended roles. Without them producing offensively, and not even contributing defensively, there are simply too many passengers the Leafs can afford to have.

The Cap system has spoiled any advantage the team had financially over others but even when they could spend, they still could not bring in the right mix of players. Foolish spending has hurt their ability to bring in the depth the team needs.

They have a “backup” goalie making $2 million. And in consecutive years, a goalie unproven as a starter was brought in for a 1st round draft pick.

Their top shut down defender Hal Gill makes $2 million and has failed in slowing down the likes of Heatley, Koivu and Staal in that role. In fact almost 20 million has been spent on their defence that has continued to be a pourous, ineffective bunch.

The team is stocked with the same types of players giving the team a lack of variety in terms of skill. For example, Coliacovo, McCabe and Pavel Kubina play a very similar type of game as offensive defencemen with a willingness to play physical. The Powerplay has struggled with forwards Jason Blake and Darcy Tucker providing the same type of role on the team. And as mentioned earlier, there is a bevy of 4th line talent that bring the same elements to the team: no offence, lack of defensive ability, unwillingness to give premium effort.

Perhaps above all else, its the mismanagement of the team that has killed the Leafs the most. Those that have built the team have failed in their attempts to bring the team out of their doldrums. While key members from the Quinn era remain with the team, this is clearly John Ferguson’s squad and the proof is in the pudding that his team is not going to be able to get it done.

It may be a bit early to draw such conclusions, but the team’s play and record the first 4 games is a cause for concern. Nothing I have seen is any different than what I have witness last year and really the last several years.

Despite the coaching changes, the goalie carosel, and personnel additions geared towards improving the team, nothing seems to have really changed in Leaf nation. Like the last two years, its going to be an intense struggle from here on in to fulfill their expectations. This time however, heads will roll if those expectations are not met. Perhaps that is what the team really needs in the end.