Toronto Maple Leafs 2014-15 Season: 10 Games In
With yesterdays game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the books, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now ten games and one eighth of the way into the season. Every 10 games, we’ll break down the Leafs season – who is performing, who is under performing and what you can expect over the next 10 games.
Maple Leafs Stats through 10 games
The first thing we can surmise is that Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak are the hottest two Leafs, with 13 and 10 points respectively through the first 10 games. That has them on pace for 107 and 82 points, both of which would be career highs.
Other good surprises include Leo Komarov, who is on a 49 point pace early in the season, while being one of the best defensive forwards the Leafs have.
As you continue down the lineup though, some alarming numbers start to jump out at you. James van Riemsdyk is on pace for 49 points, well below last year’s total of 61. That’s nothing though compared to Nazem Kadri, who has only four after a breakout 50 point year last season. The Leafs have shuffled the lines recently, pairing Kadri with Kessel, in an attempt to get him going.
As far as the goalies go, Jonathan Bernier has struggled through the first section of the season, letting in four goals three times already. He’s been at best average, if not below, especially when you take into account how little work he had to do in his 10-save shutout against the Buffalo Sabres earlier this week or the relatively easy win Friday in Columbus. If you take away those two games, Bernier’s numbers aren’t great.
James Reimer on the other hand, has been solid. Thus far he’s looked far more calm and poised as a backup this season compared to last. He seems to have embraced his role more, and it’s showing on the ice. While seeing parts of only four games may seem low, it would put him on pace for 33 appearances which is roughly in line with what the Maple Leafs want.
The Maple Leafs have caught a bit of the injury bug this year. David Booth has missed the entire season so far with a broken bone in his foot. He was projected to be out for four to six weeks just over four weeks ago and returned to the ice prior to Thursdays practice. He’s still a ways away but likely within the next week or two.
Also injured after five games this season was the small and feisty Brandon Kozun. The good news is he seems to be keeping his spirits up:
Kozun is expected to be out up to six weeks with a high ankle sprain, as per Randy Carlyle. He’ll likely be out until the end of November or the beginning of December and will return sometime during a five-game Leafs homestand.
Just prior to Fridays game against the Blue Jackets it was revealed that Lupul broke a bone in his hand at practice on Thursday. He’s having an MRI today and is not expect anytime soon as General Manager Dave Nonis noted he was out indefinitely.
Next Ten Games
|SAT, 1 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
|TUE, 4 NOV
|THU, 6 NOV
|SAT, 8 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
|SUN, 9 NOV
|WED, 12 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
|FRI, 14 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
|SAT, 15 NOV
|TUE, 18 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
|THU, 20 NOV
|@ MAPLE LEAFS
With six of 10 games at home, the Leafs will have to turn around their fortunes at the ACC if they want to survive. Playing the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning will be a rough go of it. Only the Sabres are well below the Maple Leafs in the standings. Being behind in the Atlantic already, a disaster over the next 10 games could easily leave the Leafs looking like playoff long shots before November is even over.
Five Burning Questions
Before the season began I wrote about the five burning questions the Leafs had to answer this year. This is how they stack up to those questions so far.
Question 1: Can Randy Carlyle change?
There was a lot to look at in this question, from changing the defensive strategy that gave up the record for the most shots on net in an 82 game season, to the deployment of his forward lines.
Starting with the forward lines the answer appears to be yes, Randy Carlyle can change and adapt. A combination of Peter Holland, Richard Panik, Kozun and Matt Frattin have made up the Leafs fourth line this season. Of those four, Holland leads the bunch with over nine minutes on average. Kozun averaged just under nine minutes as well. Both have seen time on the Leafs penalty kill and done well there. With Lupul out Holland saw some power play time yesterday as well where he also looked solid. Panik and Frattin have seen far less usage, at 7:05 and 6:53 respectively, but that’s still far superior to the numbers the fourth line averaged last year.
Oct 8, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle on the bench against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. Montreal defeated Toronto 4-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
His defensive strategy has been better, as the Leafs are ranked 21st in terms of average shots against, but a big portion of that was the stinker the Sabres turned in. If Buffalo had had 25 shots on net that game, which would still be well below average for Toronto, the Leafs would rank 27th overall. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done on the back end.
The problem is that the Leafs don’t defend people, they defend territory. That’s not a new problem, which I wrote about last year. If the opposing team has nobody in front of the net, you can bet a Maple Leaf will still be standing there. Sometimes two Leafs will be guarding nobody in front. Not only does that mean that someone on the other team is open, it also means the Leafs player is flat footed and stopped. A big problem on the penalty kill in recent years has been the lack of movement – the Leafs were passive and allowed the other team to pass around them. One reason the penalty kill has looked stronger this year is because of players like Komarov and Kozun who are aggressive and challenge the shooters into making a mistake.
Despite that, Carlyle does appear to be making better situational adjustments.
In the game against Buffalo, Bozak got the Leafs on the board with a beautiful shot after a gorgeous pass by Kessel (2:15 into the video). What stands out here is where Kessel is positioned. Bozak took the faceoff with Jake Gardiner on the left wing, with Kessel as a left defencemen set wide to the outside and Morgan Rielly setup as the right defencemen. Bozak wins the draw to Rielly, who passes to the wide open Kessel who has moved to the far wall. Kessel steps back to free up the passing lane to Bozak, who has Gardiner right with him while Rielly has dropped back to his own blueline. Bozak breaks in and buries it, and the Leafs are on the board.
That’s a set play that comes down from the bench. It gets Kessel, your best offensive weapon, open on the far side by himself. Rielly is back deep in case anything goes wrong, as Gardiner is set up to follow Bozak in, with Van Riemsdyk on the other side in case of a rebound. Buffalo Goalie Michal Neuvirth had been stellar at that point in the game and this play was designed to get a clean shot, from either Kessel or Bozak, with Gardiner and van Riemsdyk ready for a rebound.
Designed plays like that from Carlyle last year looked a lot worse and often put the wrong player in the wrong situation.
Question 2: How much of a difference can the bottom six make?
With a totally revamped bottom six, the Leafs were putting a more competitive team on the ice from top to bottom. Some of that has worked out, other parts haven’t.
So far the line of Komarov, Mike Santorelli and David Clarkson have been one of the Leafs best. The line was so good that Clarkson got promoted to play with Van Riemsdyk and Bozak. The line is high energy, it can hit, cycle the puck and create scoring chances. Furthermore, it doesn’t get scored on as all three players have a positive +/-. Komarov and Santorelli, neither of whom was on the team last year, have combined for 11 points so far. If they can continue that production, then the Leafs third line is infinitely better than last season.
Oct 14, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Leo Komarov (47) skates with the puck against the Colorado Avalanche at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Another good change has been Daniel Winnik, who has played on the second and third line where he’s been a positive defensive presence. He’s also one of the best penalty killers on the Leafs and just as importantly, can draw penalties as well. Along with his defensive acumen, Winnik can chip in offensively as well with six points in his first 10 games.
Other members of the bottom six haven’t panned out. The Leafs gave up a solid penalty killer in Jerry D’Amigo for Frattin as well as a late round draft pick and have seen little to nothing so far. Why trade for someone who’s a healthy scratch? If Kozun was still in the lineup, Frattin could be nailed to the press box like Carter Ashton has been.
Another new addition is Panik. who has been invisible thus far and is averaging far less time on ice than he did in Tampa Bay. He’s been promoted to the third line with Lupul out.
Also struggling early is Holland, who showed flashes of being a strong third line centre when given ice time last year, but so far this season has been very limited. He’s getting penalty kill time now due to the injury to Kozun and power play time due to the injury to Lupul, but Holland has to show more ability to control the play and maintain possession if he wants more ice time.
Question 3: Can James Reimer rebound?
So far the answer is clearly yes. He’s only had three starts this year, but in his limited duty he’s 2-1 with a .914 SV% and a 2.63 GAA. The big drop is in GAA, where he finished last year with a 3.29. His SV% is also up on last years .911.
Those are just the numbers though and what most people see is a goalie who looks calm and poised in the backup role. If Bernier is struggling, he’s ready to go. He can play back-to-back games without issue and seemingly can battle the stronger teams. He’s beaten the Colorado Avalanche and Rangers already this year, and pitched a shutout in relief of Bernier, when the Leafs got hammered by Boston. His only poor outing was against the Detroit Red Wings, who looked like themselves after battling injuries all last year.
So so far so good.
That being said, Reimer will still be tested. He’s clearly the number two here and will draw the tougher assignments. There’s a reason Bernier started against a Columbus team missing half their regulars due to injury and Reimer got the second of the back-to-back against the powerhouse Blackhawks. Bernier is always going to be put into a position to succeed, while Reimer has to deal with the end of back-to-backs and stiff competition.
Question 4: Is the defensive overhaul enough?
The early answer appears to be no. Rielly, Stephan Robidas and Gardiner are all in the red on +/-, Dion Phaneuf is more than double the next closest Leaf in terms of penalties. Outside of the power play, almost every defencemen has been ineffective offensively. There’s been 11 power play assists thus far and defencemen have eight of them.
Also concerning is a lack of shots generated from the point. While Rielly, Phaneuf and Cody Franson are getting shots through, Gardiner has only five attempts on goal.
Robidas, Gardiner and Franson have already been healthy scratches, while Stuart Percy has been sent down (and recalled).
Oct 18, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) checks Detroit Red Wings center Joakim Andersson (18) off the puck in the third period at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit won 1-0 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Of the new defencemen, the best thus far has likely been Percy, who started very strong but cooled off to the point where he was exposed several times before being sent down. The demotion was more to do with Percy seeing top-line minutes in the AHL, including power play and penalty kill time, than it had to do with his level of play. That being said, he is a rookie and rookie defencemen make mistakes – it’s part of the process.
The two veteran defencemen added were Robidas and Roman Polak and neither has looked overly strong.
Polak has been a minutes eater for the Leafs, sitting third amongst defencemen with just over 20 minutes a night. That being said, he’s been caught flat-footed several times and may be the king on the Leafs of standing in front of the net when there’s nobody to cover.
Robidas has averaged the least amount of time of all defencemen at 16:38 and looks old. That’s got to be a huge concern when you realize he’s 37 and signed for three years. He’s got a lot of hockey smarts, which will help keep him relevant in the NHL, but he’s being paid $3-million per year, which is a lot for a bottom pairing defencemen. Polak makes less and plays four more minutes a night, while RFA’s Percy and Rielly make less than one third of that.
Of the returning blue liners, Franson looks to be the most improved, while Gardiner continues to fluctuate between excellent and sub par. Rielly has been solid and consistent, which is very impressive when you consider that he’s still only 20.
Question 5: Can the Leafs avoid a fourth straight collapse?
For three years in a row the Leafs have looked really good just before looking really bad. Ron Wilson helped steer the 18 wheeler right off the cliff. Carlyle replaced him and in a shortened season the Toronto surprisingly hung with a Bruins team in the first round, before utterly imploding. Then last season, the Leafs went from looking at home ice advantage to looking at a top draft pick within a two week period.
So can they avoid that again?
To do that they’ll have to be mentally tougher than the previous Leaf teams. Once again this is a team filled with Olympians and all-stars who play in by far the weaker of the two conferences – they should be able to make a run for a bottom end spot.
But already this season, there’s been seriously questions about their mental toughness and lackadaisical attitude. Gardiner has been in the crosshairs for that and rightly he should, as he seems to take five to 10 second timeouts on the ice that end up costing his team. Those kind of mental errors aren’t the fault of Carlyle, they’re the fault of the player.
If you want to look at this team in the larger picture, Brendan Shanahan is here to build a team that can contend for a Stanley Cup. To do that, he’s evaluating every part of the franchise, from players to coaches to trainers to scouts. A lot of people called for Carlyle’s head last year, again rightly so, but this year Carlyle has improved both his rotation of the forwards and his set plays and offensive schemes. While the defense remains a work in progress, he has not been the problem.
The spotlight is now shining squarely on players like Gardiner, Kadri and Franson. These aren’t young kids anymore. Franson is in his fifth full season, while Kadri and Gardiner are in their third. This is the point where players need to take a step forward, show some improvement and prove they deserve to be a part of the future.
The Leafs remade their bottom six, they have solid goaltending and brought in better defencemen. If Carlyle is fired and they continue to falter, how can you ignore that it’s the players that are the problem? Out of those three players, only Franson has taken a noticeable step forward. There’s still plenty of time to prove themselves this season and coming out of a difficult section of the schedule ahead is a good place to start.
So what do you think of the Leafs 10 games into the season? Let us know in the comments section below.