Reality Check

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 15: Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his overtime winning goal with teamates against Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers during their game on October 15 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

So far the Leafs are 4-0-0 on the season, and Leafs nation is frothing itself up into a ball of wonderous joy.  I don't really find this to be upsetting, and lord knows we deserve a dose of fun at the expense of the rest of the NHL, particularly seeing how often the Leafs (and their fans) are a proverbial punching bag for opposition fans everywhere.

That being said, I'm going to cave in to my contrarian bent and give Leafs fans a few reasons to remain realistic about their expectations.  Many of you that are regulars on the blog are already aware of most of this and probably don't want to hear about it (I can already imagine how many "stop ruining our fun" comments this is going to get).  Frankly though, I feel about as worried about that as I do when I'm reminding Leaf fans about the positives on this team when the team is playing like crap (i.e. most of last season).  

Things are rarely as bad as they seem, or as good as they seem... and I think the key to the Leafs being successful, and Leaf fans being respected, is a healthy dose of skepticism as far as the Leafs start to the season is concerned.  Let's face it, we don't want to be all "Habs Fan" about this - remember when we mocked "it feels like 1993" last season?

It Really Felt Like '93 - Montreal Canadiens Eulogy 2009-10 (via blogesalming)

Yeah... let's not be victimized in the same way.

So on with the reality check edition of Maple Leafs Analysis.

There are a few ways you can look at this information.  First, you could notice that almost all the goal scoring is coming from Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur, and realize SOMEONE else is going to score for the team eventually, which is a positive.  On the other side, you might also notice that Mike Komisarek is actually tied for the lead with Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle in points by a Leafs defender at 3, to go along with a combined +8 rating, while Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, and Carl Gunnarsson have combined for 1 goal, 3 assists and a +1 rating, so the idea of Phaneuf and Beauchemin leading offensively is sort of falling by the wayside a bit.

So where to begin with reality?  Well the most obvious thing is the Leafs unsustainable shooting percentages.  The top two lines have two problems:

1) aside from Phil Kessel they aren't shooting enough - 17 shots for Kessel, 34 shots for the other 5 players?  Kessel is accounting for one third of all of the shots taken by the Leafs top 6 forwards.  That's not a good thing.

2) The Power Play looks pretty, but nobody on the top unit is going to the net with authority other than Phaneuf, which immediately subtracts the hardest point shot the Leafs have with the man advantage.

What does this mean? Well if Kessel gets injured or takes a night off, the Leafs will struggle to produce offensively.  Secondly, the Leafs power play isn't generating enough offense to get the Leafs wins consistently.  They went 1 for 7 against the Rangers last night, and are now 18th in the NHL with a 15.0% production rate, scoring 3 goals in 20 opportunities.

On the good side, the Leafs are tied for 3rd in the NHL in power play chances, but if they could maximize their PP production, they would be much further ahead in terms of balanced offense.  The Leafs need a sizable forward to go to the net who has decent hands.  Unfortunately the two best forwards in the top 6 on the Leafs for that type of play, are both playing on the 2nd line, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin, which brings me to my 2nd point.

The Leafs 2nd forward unit is actually getting more done on the PP in terms of down low play with the puck, while the Leafs 1st forward unit is more happy to play with the puck around the half boards and back to the point in their umbrella formation.  Combining the two styles of play would likely be more productive overall.

For this reason, I would strongly suggest switching Kris Versteeg with either Nikolai Kulemin, or Clarke MacArthur on the 1st PP unit.  The Leafs may also want to play Versteeg on the point on the 2nd unit, and insert the likes of Colby Armstrong onto the first PP unit.  Then the top unit would be Bozak, Kessel, and Armstrong up front, with Kaberle and Phaneuf on the point, while the 2nd unit could feature Beauchemin or Schenn along with Versteeg, Grabovski, Kulemin, and MacArthur.  Such a move would improve the Leafs down low presence on the 1st unit, and upgrade the skill level of the 2nd unit from an offensive perspective... it would also reduce the work load on Kris Versteeg and Luke Schenn who have both been playing huge minutes for the Leafs early on in the season, as both of them see regular PK time in addition to their time on the PP.

Next on the list of things to be more realistic about is the fact that the Leafs are beating up on injured competition.  The following is the list of players that were either playing injured, coming off an injury, went down to injury in the game, or sat out due to injury or suspension when their teams faced the Leafs so far this season:

Montreal: Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Mike Cammalleri, Carey Price

Ottawa: Jason Spezza, Filip Kuba

Pittsburgh: Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Jordan Staal

NY Rangers: Vinny Prospal, Erik Christensen, Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury

Luckily for the Leafs the next two teams they face are the NY Islanders, and then the Rangers again.  Here is who the Isles are missing from the lineup:

NY Islanders: Kyle Okposo, John Tavares, Mark Streit, Rob Schremp, Nathan Lawson, Rick DiPietro (not that this is surprising)

The Rangers aren't going to get Prospal or Drury back anytime soon, and Gaborik suffered a separated shoulder as a result of a Colby Armstrong hit from behind, so he may not be 100% by the time Toronto faces them in the middle of next week.  Thus as long as the Leafs can stay healthy, they can capitalize on the misfortune of other teams.  This being said, we know the Leafs are unlikely to stay healthy all season long.  If the players that go down to injury are "replaceable" i.e. a bottom 2 D man, or a bottom 6 winger, then this shouldn't horribly derail the Leafs season as it progresses.  If on the other hand a player like Kessel, Bozak, or Grabovski is felled, the Leafs may be in for a bit of a rougher ride.

J.S. Giguere has been steady if not spectacular so far this season.  He is playing to the tune of a 1.98 GAA, and a .914 SV% in all situations. Unfortunately his even strength SV% is a far from spectacular .895 though, and that is a worrying statistic.  Giguere has been perfect on the PK and PP so far though.  The problem with this is, the Leafs aren't going to be perfect on the PK all season long with Giguere in net, and his even strength SV% is sub-standard.  Thus it may begin to look like the Leafs have holes in net when his numbers slide a tad.

On the other side of the coin, while he has only had one start so far, Jonas Gustavsson's numbers at even strength are an average .913 SV%, and on the PP he has allowed 1 goal on 2 shots, for a horribly sub par .500 SV%.  That will obviously improve over time.  If Gustavsson keeps working with Francois Allaire, his numbers should get better over time, so the backup position is one we should be reasonably confident in right now.

Defensively the Leafs are dominating by applying great pressure at the offensive end of the ice with their forecheck. This is having the result of reducing the number of shots against, so the Leafs so far have the 2nd lowest average of shots against per game (23.8) in the NHL.  Areas of concern will be the following though:

1) Giveaways - the Leafs are 3rd worst in the NHL with 47 giveaways thus far this season.  That's a long way behind the worst team, Buffalo, who have already had 61 on the year, but it's still something to keep an eye on.

2) Takeaways - the Leafs are middle of the pack in takeaways, with 24 in a young season putting them 16th in the NHL in that regard.  The problem is when you compare their takeaways to giveaways, they've made almost twice as many of the latter as the former.  This reinforces the problems the Leafs are having with getting a hold of and keeping a hold of the puck, in a puck possession game, they're not entirely successful at this point.

Comparing them in this regard to the other 16 NHL franchises that have played 4 or more games, and the Leafs are 14th of the 16 teams in terms of their Takeaway/Giveaway ratio at 0.51.  The only teams worse than them in this regard right now are Buffalo (0.44) and the New Jersey Devils (0.38).  The best team in the NHL in this area is the Chicago Blackhawks who have 49 takeaways, and only 34 giveaways, for a ratio of 1.44.

This may well be a hallmark of a young team, particularly one that has had the defensive lapses the Leafs have had in recent years, but they need to protect the puck better if they want to stay near the top of the NHL.  9 of the 16 teams to have played that many games have a ratio above 0.90, so the Leafs have a lot of work to do.

With respect to Blocking Shots, the Leafs are much improved.  So far they're blocking 15.75 shots per game, which is tied for the 5th most amongst teams who have played 4 or more games this year.  They're ahead of defensive squads like Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and tied with Vancouver.  They're doing a better job, with Kris Versteeg leading by example with the forwards, having already blocked 8 shots, good for third  best on the club.

As far as physicality goes, the Leafs are pretty dominant in terms of hits, although home ice score keepers are notoriously biased in this regard.  The Leafs are averaging 31.25 hits per game, which puts them over and above every team in the NHL that has played 4 games or more.  The next closest is Pittsburgh, who average 29.8 hits per game.  What bodes well for the Leafs in this regard, is their road totals (61) are almost identical to their home totals (64) and they've played an even number of games in each situation.  If you compare that to the Penguins who are averaging 33 hits at home, and had 17 in their only road game, you begin to question the numbers a bit.

Suffice it to say, the Leafs are a physical, in your face, fast, aggressive hockey team, that thus far has been a pain in the ass to play against.  They've taken an average of only 3.5 minor penalties a game so far (14 minor penalties total), but they've drawn 20 total power plays so far this season.  Colby Armstrong drawing a penalty from Sean Avery last night by letting the pest from NY drop the gloves is a prime example of how the Leafs can keep themselves in front when push comes to shove.  Only St. Louis, New Jersey, and Anaheim have more major penalties this season though, so the Leafs aren't pushovers when it comes to the tougher side of the game. 

So far the chips are falling the Leafs way, so let's not get too excited too early.  That being said, they're doing some things very well, and they need to continue to do so.  They do have room for improvement though, and relying on 2 players for most of their offense is bound to catch up with them eventually.  Here's hoping they can give the puck away less, and get some goals from other players in order to continue this fabulous run we've seen so far.

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