Toronto Maple Leafs 2010 – 2011: Back to Reality

12 games into the NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs look a lot like the hockey team that everyone sees when they look at the roster on paper. The Leafs are deep on defense, have two reliable goaltenders, and barely any scoring. When the Leafs started the season 4 – 0, there was a lot of optimism in the Toronto area. People were thinking, “maybe this team is for real”, “maybe they will end the Toronto playoff drought and finally bring some glory back to the franchise”. I hate to say it, but I don’t think that is going to happen. Not without a major move by Brian Burke.

The team now sits at 5 wins, 5 losses, and 2 overtime losses. That is good for 12 points, which leaves the Leafs in 11th place in the East, right where most critics predicted they would be. It is respectable. While I don’t think that 12 games is an indication of where teams will be when the dust settles and the playoffs begin, it is SOMETHING.

Looking at the numbers, something stands out. The Leafs have scored 29 goals in 12 games. That is good for 2.41 goals a game. Not the best in the league, nor is it the worst. However, the numbers are inflated because of a couple of games where the Leafs scored 4 and 5 goals. There are far too many games where the Leaf’s goalies have given up only 2 goals, and still lost because the Leafs were shut out. The difference between this Toronto Maple Leafs team, and a playoff team, is that the playoff teams would capitalize on a great performance from their goalie and score a few to either get them into over time (to secure at least 1 point) or win the game 3 – 2. Of note are the games against Boston and the New York Rangers. I expected the Leafs to lose big time, but they stayed in the game with tight defence and solid goal tending. If they actually had some consistent scoring, they could and should have won those games.

I do have some positive things to say about the Leafs. Their defense has been much better than it was last season. The penalty killers seem quicker and more efficient. Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek are having bounce back seasons, and with Lebda and Beauchemin doing their part, the Leafs overall defence corps is improved. The Leafs should not finish with the worst specialty teams in the league this year. If they have any hope of making it into the playoffs, their PK and power play need to be in the upper echelon of the league. This team is not going to score a lot of even strength goals. Unless Phil Kessel scores 70 goals (highly unlikely) and Clarke MacArthur scores 40 (equally unlikely), the Leafs are going to be in big trouble in the scoring department.

Their problems lie at the centre ice position. I have always thought that Burke’s first move as GM should have been to try and obtain a top line centre for this team. A Ryan Getzlaf type player who can play tons of minutes, and lead the power play and penalty kill. Burke seems insistent on the fact that he wants a big winger with scoring touch. The Leafs have decent wingers. Kessel, Versteeg, MacArthur, Kulemin, and Armstrong should all be good for at least 20 goals. I doubt they will all reach those totals, but they SHOULD be able to, given the ample opportunities they get on such a weak offensive team.

Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski are the bigger problems for this club. I like Bozak. Don’t get me wrong, I think the kid has upside and a world of potential. Do I think he’s a legit top line NHL centre? Not even close. At least not YET. He has great vision, great skating and passing skills. However, he is small, gets knocked off the puck easily, and much like Kessel, against big defenceman, he disappears. He is not going to be the top line centre to bring the Leafs out of their playoff drought. Burke should go after a guy like Brad Richards to be the #1 centre. That would allow Wilson to put Bozak on the second line, and the kid would reap the benefits of facing other team’s 2nd pair of defense man and probably put up much better numbers. He would be able to take time to learn his craft and probably improve drastically.

That leaves us with the Leafs current 2nd line center, Mikhail Grabovski. When Grabovski first came to the Leafs, I actually liked his game. He seemed like a legit sniper who could one day become the top line center. Unfortunately, because of injuries, benchings, and erratic play, Grabovski appears to have regressed. He has yet to score ONE goal this season, and even though he is a PLUS player on the season, he also disappears when the Leafs need him most. He has made some crafty moves and set his team mates up, but for 3.5+ million a season, the Leafs need to get 20 goals out of him.

With Dion Phaneuf expected to miss 4 – 6 weeks, and Colby Armstrong out for another month, the Leafs are going to need most of these players to step up their games. Kris Versteeg had a good game against the Capitals and will need to continue to be an offensive force. His 4 points in 12 games do not inspire much confidence and make me think that he really is a 3rd liner no matter what team he plays for. Phil Kessel needs to reappear and put some pucks in the net. He should also learn how to pass so he can actually become a complete offensive player, and pile up more assists. Goalies are expecting him to shoot all the time. Imagine if he faked shots and made nice passes to his line mates for easy goals? The Leafs would actually be dangerous. I have my fingers crossed and so do the Leafs nation, but at the end of the day, the critics are probably going to be right. The Leafs will battle for a playoff spot by season’s end, and likely end up on the outside looking in.

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