The Toronto Maple Leafs are now halfway done the 2013-14 NHL season however they are trending downwards in a big way.
By the numbers
Throughout the first quarter of the season the Maple Leafs were 12-7-1 which had them third in the Atlantic and fourth overall in the conference.
Since then they’ve gone 8-9-4 and dropped to seventh in the conference.
They were on pace for a 102 point season and are now on pace for 90. Luckily for the Leafs the Eastern Conference is so bad this season that 90 points may be enough to make it into the playoffs.
Also in the first quarter they were tied for the sixth most goals in the conference and were third best in goals against. Now they’re tied for third in goals for and are thirteenth in goals against. Only the Islanders, Panthers and Senators have let in more goals in the East and none of those teams are anywhere near the playoffs.
Not all dread for the blue and white
The Leafs have shown a clear ability to score. Phil Kessel leads the way with 20 goals halfway through the year, but James Van Riemsdyk, Mason Raymond, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul have all shown themselves to be reliable scoring options as well.
Other players like Peter Holland, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland have all shown the ability to chip in when they’re healthy and give ice time.
Other good news for the Leafs is their home win/loss record. The blue and white are 14-8-1 at the ACC which is a .608 win%. Only Tampa, Pittsburgh and Boston have a better win/loss record at home, and those are the top three teams in the conference.
While goals against is a concern, both Bernier and Reimer have shown flashes of brilliance this season. For goalies with at least 10 games played, Bernier has the eighth best Sv% with Reimer thirteenth.
Misuse of young players
On the GM side, reports have now emerged that Nazem Kadri is available. Kadri has 23 points in 37 games which has him as the fourth highest scoring Leaf. The knock on Kadri is that he had 44 points last year in 48 games which was a much higher point per game pace.
A look at extra skater’s usage chart for Kadri though shows the obvious. While he’s scoring less this year he’s also seeing a rotational of players around him.
Last season Kadri stuck mostly with MacArthur, Kulemin and Komarov for the majority of his 5-on-5 ice time. This season it’s been Kessel, Van Riemsdyk and Lupul.
While the latter are better players, Kadri only has played with Kessel and Van Riemsdyk when Bozak has been injured. He’s also played with Lupul, Raymond, Clarkson, Kulemin and pretty much every other Leaf forward. Perhaps a more stable line pairing will help Kadri get going, rather than dealing a 23-year-old core piece of the future. What would you even get for Kadri but another player of similar background?
Hasty decisions on young prospects rarely work out for the GM that trades them. Let’s not forget the Leafs got Van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn straight up because the flyers gave up on him, clearly way to early.
Other young players like Jake Gardiner have also been shopped by Nonis, again with the asking price of a top six forward. Keeping in mind that any trade involving Gardiner will mean more playing time for AHL level defencemen like Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser.
There’s also the case of Peter Holland. With eight points in his last 10 games, Holland has been demoted to the fourth line and played only eight minutes against Carolina. Holland has the best shooting % among full time players on the Leafs and is tied for ninth in primary points, which is either the goal scorer or primary assist, despite playing in half the game as most regulars.
When young core players like Kadri and Gardiner keep coming up in trade rumours and young players like Holland produce and are demoted anyways it’s very easy for the coach to lose the lockeroom.
Faceoffs and Fatigue
Only Jerred Smithson and Jay McClement have a positive faceoff ratio with at least two draws taken. That’s incredibly bad, especially when you consider that both are fourth liners and one is in the minors. In theory that means the other team’s top three lines are more likely to win a faceoff than lose it.
The Leafs other centres go from bad to worse. Tyler Bozak wins 46 per cent of the time while Holland and Trevor Smith are around 45. Kadri is at 42 and Bolland drops to 41. This is a contributing factor to less skilled players like McClement being out for defensive zone faceoffs so often, as he’s the only reliable option.
Loss of faceoff also leads to higher shoot totals against, which anyone who watches the Leafs can attest to.
Another issue for the Leafs is the lack of wins in regulation. In November and December (27 games) the Leafs won four games in regulation.
Four of the last five games have gone to the shootout with nine of the last 19 reaching at least overtime. That’s draining on a team, even more so when they give up a high volume of shots and limit themselves to three lines most of the night.
If the Leafs hope to make the playoffs they’ve got to correct at least one, if not both, of these issues.
After the Winter Classic the Leafs run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics is an Eastern Conference based schedule. Of the 20 games before the Olympic break 15 are against the East.
Nine of the 15 games played against the East are also against teams that are currently below the Maple Leafs in the standings.
Similar to earlier this year how a hot start helped weather a Western Conference heavy schedule in December, wins against lesser competition in the next month will go a long way to deciding the Leafs playoff future.
Playoff teams find a way to beat the teams they should and that sets them apart. If the Leafs can keep the scoring up, improve their defensive play, win more faceoffs and win in regulation, they should vault back up the standings into a safer playoff outlook.