Posts Tagged ‘standings’

Isn't the maple leaf supposed to be red?

So, at the risk of jinxing it (here’s hoping), how about those Maple Leafs?

Traditionally at this point in the season I am breaking out the Leafs jokes such as “What is the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a triangle? (A: A triangle has three points.)” or “What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common? (A: They both look good until they hit the ice.)”

However, the Maple Leafs have ignored the usual script so far this season and actually find themselves in playoff position heading into December.  And I’m completely in the dark as to the reason why.

On paper this Maple Leafs outfit doesn’t look much different than the one that once again managed to cause hearts to flutter up until the final week of last season in the latest instalment in the will-they-or-won’t-they saga better known as the Maple Leafs’ playoff fortunes.  The usual suspects are still there eating up inordinate amounts of salary cap space: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek.  Add in the newly acquired duo of Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles and you’re halfway to the salary cap already, which is the exact same position that the Maple Leafs have been in for the past few seasons.  The management is the same too, with the crotchety duo of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson still holding onto jobs many thought they would have lost years ago.

So, in this top-heavy world of underachievers and unwanted All-Stars, what has changed between this season and last for the team known as the Blue and White?

Well, it certainly isn’t goaltending.  Toronto’s goalies have allowed 80 goals (this number does not account for empty net goals) in 26 games thus far, which is just over three goals per game.  Add in the all-important save percentage stat that reads at a rather pedestrian .901 and it’s easy to see that there certainly aren’t miracles being worked in between the Leafs’ pipes.  It’s not as though their goalies are seeing a disproportionately low number of shots either.  James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson have faced on average 31.2 shots per game, which is around or above the NHL average.  They can’t make the same excuse as Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and say that his defence just doesn’t give up many shots to begin with.

Phaneuf is finally regaining some of the form that made him such a hit in Calgary.

If it’s not the goaltending causing MLSE CEO Richard Peddie to get excited for the first time in a decade, maybe it’s the defence.  Maybe the Leafs have become stingier in their own zone than those great, snore-inducing New Jersey teams of the late ‘90s.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either as they’ve managed to give up a 26th-best total of 85 goals against in 26 games.  Of the teams currently in the top eight of their respective conferences Chicago is the only other team to have allowed more than 80 goals, with seven teams conceding fewer than 60 up to this point in the season.  This defensive frailty is hard to believe when you consider that the Maple Leafs defence core consists of a top four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, and Luke Schenn and up-and-comers in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Keith Aulie, the latter two being stars for Canada’s World Junior team in recent years.  Gone is the mistake better known as Jeff Finger, but the Leafs’ defensive woes still continue.

That leaves us with what I like to call the Washington Capitals Syndrome (WCS): play a firewagon brand of hockey and score more goals than the opposition to cover up defensive frailties.  Washington has used this method to great effect to not only gain regular season success, but also get their coach fired because it is totally ineffective in the playoffs.

However, as I mentioned previously, Ron Wilson still has his job and I think a lot of the credit for that has been the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a legitimate partner for Phil Kessel on the Leafs’ top line.  Lupul has been the Robin to Kessel’s Batman this season, matching Kessel stride-for-stride in the points scoring race while playing legitimate first line minutes.  As such it is no coincidence that the Maple Leafs also find themselves amongst the league leaders in goals for with 83 goals to their tally thus far.  Unsurprisingly, if we are continuing with the WCS hypothesis, the Maple Leafs are also getting great offensive contributions from their defence with Phaneuf and Liles racking up 18 and 16 points respectively.

While I term this the Washington Capitals Syndrome and am highly skeptical of its suitableness to playoff hockey, no one can deny that it is effective over the course of a regular season.  Washington has used it to great effect over the past few seasons, winning a President’s Trophy in the process.  Of course, the Capitals have a relatively more talented than Toronto’s current outfit.  Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, no matter how good they have started the season, are not Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Nor are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles in the same offensive category as Mike Green.

Mike Komisarek could be the key that allows Toronto to play sound defensive hockey.

What the Maple Leafs do have in their advantage over the Washington teams of recent memory is the personnel to play a more defensive-oriented game.  Washington was forced into playing a run-and-gun style because they lacked true talent on the blueline.  They lacked a true shut-down unit that could effectively combat opposing teams and such was their downfall when the opposition stopped theirs.  The Leafs have such a combo waiting in Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn.  Whether or not such a partnership will develop is another story though.  It will take time, especially since Komisarek is just getting back into his stride as an NHL defenceman.  If such a pairing ever coalesces into something more than a pipe dream the Leafs might be a greater contender than you’d think.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs can emulate Washington’s success in playing offensively-charged, but defensively-irresponsible hockey is one of the reasons to keep watching the Maple Leafs intently.  If they continue at the same pace it is very possible that Leafs fans will see their team in the playoffs, but it is also possible that they will crash and burn as their opponents learn to shut down the Kessel-Lupul tandem.

But that’s the danger of firewagon hockey.  You might win a lot of games 5-3, 6-5, or 7-4, but you can lose just as many 5-2, 6-1, or 4-0.  A hot goalie or tight checking can be your undoing just as easily as 4-on-2 rushes can be your saving grace.

Either way, the Maple Leafs just made the hockey season interesting, and not only because I might have to wait a little longer before breaking out my best Leafs jokes.

All statistics from www.tsn.ca as of December 4, 2011.

All salary cap numbers from www.capgeek.com as of December 4, 2011.

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