Saturday, October 17, 2009

Toronto Maple Leafs: November's When it Matters

I play shinny early Saturday mornings. Good bunch of older guys. The ice is full of their young kids skating laps while we assemble our gear and try to remember to put our jerseys on before our helmets (it's not as easy as it sounds at 6:30 AM).

Each week we look at who showed up, try to pair guys off according to their skill level and then red and yellow pinnies are passed out. We chase the puck for an hour or so and hope the 10 year olds that hit the ice after us don't smirk too much at the old men and the sloppy play.

Recently my side got stuck with a few too many of the guys who struggle on the ice. The teams are usually pretty balanced but we certainly missed the mark that morning. It was so lopsided that after the game our goalie turned to me and said, "Does this mean we get to play dodge ball at practice tomorrow?"

It’s the Goaltending, Stupid.

I haven't been writing much about the Leafs this season because there hasn't been much worth writing about.

It was pretty clear that the big challenge for the club was between the pipes and until the team addressed the goaltending situation they wouldn’t be able to compete. Thin forward corps and poor goaltending is a deadly combination. Giving up four goals a night is only a viable strategy if your team can notch five or six. Yes, the Leafs might have the odd six goal night but there’s going to be three times as many games where it’s a stretch for this team to score one or two.

Without any real offensive punch and unable to score at 5 on 5, it’s not much of a surprise that this team is 1-11.

That said, the Leafs are not as bad as their record and they're certainly not as good as many fans hoped/expected.

I think the main thing fans can take away from the first twelve games is that the pre-season is pretty much meaningless. A month ago, Viktor Stalberg looked like a Calder candidate and, for the first time in a long-time, the Leafs looked like a team with an identity. A dozen games into the real season and Stalberg is with the Marlies while the Leafs have the identity of an amnesiac.

Centre of Attention

Looking ahead, if goalie Jonas Gustavsson is the real deal, the biggest challenge for this team is up the middle.

How far can any team go when their top pivot is Matt Stajan? He might have outstanding comparables for a guy his age, but he’s built for the soft parade not to clash with the top lines of the East.

If the Leafs are to make the most of their high-cost acquisition Phil Kessel they also need to find a centre that can get him the puck. Yeah, Stajan had 40 helpers last year, but too many of those were secondary assists and he also tends to disappear for long stretches at time.

Ideally, the Leafs can land a pivot that can also dominate on the face-off dot. It’s an essential part of an effective PK. Jamal Mayers currently leads the Leafs in shorthanded face-off wins (admittedly with a tiny sample size) having won five of six shorthanded face-offs. The Leafs top three are not faring so: Stajan 52%; Wallin 46%; Primeau 40%. (Minnesota has the best PK in the league and their top three centres have much better results: Belanger 57%; Koviu 54%, Brodziak 43%.) It's hard to kill a penalty when you can't win a face off to get possession of the puck.

This Team Could Be Your Life

It’s November, when the games officially matter. Over the next month Leaf fans will get a chance to see how Kessel has recovered, how he fits into the line-up and if the it looks like a good deal was made to land the high-scoring winger.

We’ll also get a better idea if Gustavsson is the real deal. It’s one thing to look pretty good when you’re an unknown in the league. Once tape of him gets out and teams can isolate and identify his tendencies it may be a whole new game. Conversely, the more games Gustavsson gets under his belt, the quicker he can adapt to his team, their systems and the NHL style of play.

Should be an interesting month of hockey ahead, I certainly hope that the Leafs put up better numbers than October or is two wins in a month too much to ask?

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