Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Setting the Course in September: Paying the Price in March

So I took a shot at Michael Grange's trade deadline entry earlier today.

Here’s the trade deadline story as I would have filed it.

You don’t need to look at the playoff races and the prices set in this sellers’ market to know that the Leafs' fate wasn't sealed at the trade deadline. It was sealed in September, when Burke & Co. rolled the dice on the goaltending tandem of Reimer and Gustavsson.

Burke, who claimed to be building this team from the nets out, elected to go with the high-risk high-reward combo of Reimer and Gustavsson in nets.

As the 2011-12 season was set to unfold, James Reimer, ostensibly the Leafs’ starting goalie, had just 37 games of NHL experience.

Gustavsson, his back-up, had all of 65 NHL games under his belt and was coming off a season with a disastrous .890 save percentage. To put that in perspective, Gustavsson’s save percentage was 47th among NHL goalies with 20 or more games played. Only Rick Dipietro and Ty Conklin put up worse numbers last year.

This is what the team decided to roll the dice on. Their contingency plan? Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

There would be no offer to Theodore, apparently no offer for Vokoun. Giguere would not be extended, Anderson was left for the Sens, and Emery signed on with Chicago. (Thankfully we took a pass on Turco).

Now, it could be argued that this was the perfect season for the Leafs to find out if either of their goalies had the right stuff. The Leafs were a bubble team, but if Reimer or Gustavsson found their groove, the club had enough up-front talent to cross the 92+ point threshold and make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

But if Gustavsson and Reimer don’t have the right stuff?

Well, let’s welcome your 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs!

A team in 10th place at the trade deadline, treading water, and feeling increasingly under pressure from all sides. A team that’s 28th in goals against and put up a collective .904 save percentage, well below the league average.

In short, the issue with this team is not the trade deadline, "it's the goaltending, stupid."

The lack of even NHL-average goaltending has plagued the Leafs since 2006 and it is also Burke's largest career shortcoming/ blindspot.

Goaltending was his undoing in Vancouver, he dropped the ball on Bryzgalov in Anaheim, and he’s been a complete failure with goalies in Toronto.

Nothing will change until it's addressed.


I don’t think Ron Wilson is the primary problem in Toronto, I do think his approach to the game have exacerbated the problems with this team.

If the Leafs were to get a competent goalie (a big if, I know) I do wonder if their approach to the game would ultimately be successful? I can’t recall the last run and gun hockey team that went deep into the playoffs.

The club lacks a true defensive defenceman and hasn’t had someone who can eat tough minutes since they enjoyed 136 games of Francois Beauchemin.

Raw goalies who have struggled, no shut-down D and a run and gun style does not strike me, admittedly a coaching layman, as a recipe for success.

I found this to be a very telling item Eliotte Friedman’s recent 30 thoughts:

Toronto and Philadelphia sniffed around Wild goaltender Josh Harding. Don't think either team got overly serious and one GM thought Harding was a poor match for the run-and-gun Maple Leafs. "He needs structure to be successful," the GM said.

Structure. Defence. Novel things in Toronto. Something the next coach should bring to the table.

I look at what Dave Tippet has done in Phoenix and I look at what the Leafs have become in Toronto and I can only conclude there’s an issue with the systems and coaching.

Development curves

Stepping back from the obvious failures in goal and the questionable decisions behind the bench, the single biggest long-term issue facing the Leafs is the composition of their forward and defensive corps.

There has been substantial work on peak performance and ageing and, no surprise, forwards peak earlier than defencemen. For NHL forwards, the average age for peak point per game production is 25.

As the Leafs are currently composed, their top six forwards are at or nearing their peak, with an average age of 26.

1. Phil Kessel, 24
2. Tyler Bozak, 25
3. Joffrey Lupul, 28
4. Mikhail Grabovski, 28
5. Nikolai Kulemin, 25
6. Clarke MacArthur, 26

NHL defencemen have a longer development curve and don’t hit their peak until closer to 28. As the Leafs D is currently composed, their top 4 guys have an average age of 23.5

1. Dion Phaneuf, 26
2. Carl Gunnarsson, 25
3. Jake Gardiner, 21
4. Luke Schenn, 22

What does this all mean?

It means the Leafs forwards are currently hitting their peak, while the Leafs D is four and half years away from their peak.

This is clearly not an ideal way to construct a hockey team and probably one more reason why the Leafs are 6th in goals for and 28th in goals against.


As a Leafs fan, I’d like to see the team address three key issues in the off-season:
  1. Bring in a capable goalie who can step-in if (more likely when) Reimer can’t get the job done
  2. Replace Ron Wilson with a coach who can fix the penalty kill and implement a system with more structure
  3. Move to acquire a few older D (who can actually play D) to eat tough minutes, settle this team down and get the development curves of the F and D more aligned.

It would bee great if this team set a new course next September.

It would be even better if that course wasn’t based on a high-risk, high-reward system that requires stop-gap solutions at the increasingly inactive trade deadline.


  1. Anonymous10:22 p.m.

    Interesting points. I would love to see a coaching change and a veteran goalie come in for sure. Think you should have included JM Liles in the top 4 D-men though... we aren't THAT young on the blue line.

  2. I don't think Liles is top 4. He's been scrambled since his concussion. I think it was a mistake to re-sign him, especially at the price/term. That's why I left him out of the top 4.

  3. Two great posts by you Forbes. I've been forming the opinion lately that Burke is more ringmaster than straight shooter. I also think that he either overvalued his roster this deadline, or was given weak offers. Likely a combination of both, but it's difficult to extract par or premium value dealing from a position of weakness, as Howson also discovered.

    I appreciated your view regarding player age arcs and icing a team which had players at both ends of an appropriate age spectrum, to provide discipline and balance. A more disciplined system is definitely a firmer path to success.

    Consistently the most level-headed Leafs writer, in both the blogging and MSM worlds. Well done.

  4. Anonymous9:34 a.m.

    Sens fan here (albeit not one who spits vitriol and hate at other fan bases, as would be the assumption, I'm sure), who followed a link on Pension Plan Puppets to your blog (admittedly after trying to find thee pulse in Leaf Land after the "Fire Wilson" incident last night).

    I've browsed a few of your entries, and I have to say you are an excellent writer. It's a shame you're not more well read, your analysis is spot on, and your blogs are VERY well written and organized.

    1. Anonymous9:35 a.m.

      * well read AMONGST LEAF FANS. I should have included that.

      It's clear you're personally well read, in general.

    2. It is a shame I'm not read more (I kid). There are a lot of Leaf blogs out there and I get the most hits when I post my thoughts on trade rumours. I think the market is what it is. Hope you'll keep reading and commenting...

  5. Anonymous10:26 a.m.

    Well written article. Is the run and gun approach Ron Wilson's doing or Brian Burke's? If it is Burke's (he talks about it a lot), I am not clear on how a new coach is going to get better results, unless his mandate changes.

    1. That's a good question. I presume it's Wilson's doing as Burke claims to be so hands off with anything and everything pertaining to the coaching of the club.

      Then again, I don't believe a word Burke says so it's quite possible the game strategy is his doing.

  6. Anonymous11:52 a.m.

    Age matters not. Remember Kurvers? He was "worth" a first round pick because he was only 27 when acquired. Unfortunately not all players can play well enough into their thirties much less at age 30. Methinks most of the Leafs D despite their young age are in the Kurvers NHL lifespan cluster.

  7. Anonymous2:15 p.m.

    I started a Fire Ron Wilson group on facebook. Everyone is welcome to join. I hope that with enough members it can send some message to Burke and the rest of Leaf management

  8. You're going to bring in a capable goalie to back up a goalie who has tasted only a small amount of success? How does this make sense? Why wouldn't you just start the capable goalie? And how you do you obtain this goalie? Through free agency? What capable goalie is going to come to a city to wait and see if their first choice - Reimer - pans out? Via trade? Proven goaltenders command a heavy price. You'd jeopardize either a prospect or draft pick to bring in a guy to push Reimer? Doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

    Much agreement on point 2 though.

    1. Sorry if I wasn't clear. I would have liked Burke to mitigate the risk of running with Reimer by bringing in a goalie who is capable of being a starter. If/when Reimer falters, he could grab the reins. Theodore is a perfect example. Emery, who went to Chicago on a try-out basis is another.

  9. Brent - Wow. Those are some very kind words. Thanks.

  10. Paul Steckley6:30 p.m.

    Theodore and Emery are improvements on Gustavsson and Reimer? I guess the Mayans were right. Might as well cancel my dinner reservations on December 22nd.

    I would have tarred and feathered Burke if he had signed either of those guys in the offseason. The only goaltending question to which Theodore and Emery are the answer is which goalie is the most likely to completely screw up their career after enjoying success?

    I completely agree that Burke should have brought a veteran goalie into the system as insurance, just not them. Anderson has been playing far above his talent would suggest, as has his team, and Vokoun has not been the answer in Washington, a team that should be challenging for the division lead not the 8th spot.

    I think you are too quick to discount Wilson's coaching as the primary factor in the lack of quality goaltending stats for the Leafs. Yes, Reimer and Gustavsson have both given up bad goals but they haven't been Toskala/Raycroft terrible. Many of the goals scored against the Leafs are a result of sloppy defensive play by both the forwards and defencemen. The Leafs seem incapable of intercepting a pass or blocking a shot at the top of the circle, or recognizing basic defensive responsibilities. That seems more a problem of coaching, and perhaps personnel, than simply having bad goaltenders. Put either of Reimer or Gustavsson on a strong, defensive-minded team and I would wager their stats would quickly improve. Tim Thomas would have a hard time making saves on this team.

    Liles is more of a top 4 than Schenn. Liles has shown during his career that he can quarterback a power play with some degree of success (and did so for the Leafs pre-concussion) and he's certainly no worse defensively than Schenn. Burke should take mercy on Schenn and trade him in the offseason. He's a good kid but his career so far is very reminiscent of that of most young Leaf defencemen in the 80's, cast too early into a role he's not ready for. Whatever confidence he has left should be packed up and moved out, for his own sake.

    1. Raycroft sv% .885
      Toskala sv% .891
      Gustavsson sv% .890

      That's just an awful combination and must be a record for goaltending incompetence in the modern-era.

      Post-concussion, Liles has not been top 4. The Leafs should have waited to re-sign him. That signing seems awfully premature and, if Liles doesn't recover his game, is going to be one more black mark against this org.

    2. Paul Steckley9:19 a.m.

      Sv% doesn't always tell the entire story. Gustavsson's numbers aren't great but he's another example of a player that should have played a few years with the Marlies before being thrust into the NHL. His game has improved this season but I fear that the LEafs have ruined another young player by playing him too soon in the NHL.

      I agree that post-concussion Liles has not played as well as pre-concussion Liles and that it was a bad decision to re-sign him during his injury. If he does recover his game, though, the signing will be a good one.