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.
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:
- Bring in a capable goalie who can step-in if (more likely when) Reimer can’t get the job done
- Replace Ron Wilson with a coach who can fix the penalty kill and implement a system with more structure
- 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.