Recently lots of talk has been in the offing around what and where the Leafs need to change if they hope to make the playoffs. The main stream media has been discussing the trade possibilities posed by this young Leafs squad, and much of this is due to Brian Burke's stated view that he would like to make moves that improve his team's long term outlook. This does not mean the team should - or will - mortgage the future in order to pick up veterans for a push right now. But if a trade is made, what do the Leafs need more of?
Alternatively - there are the occasional rumblings from Leafs fans that - despite a contract extension - Ron Wilson is the main problem in Leaf land. Fingers are pointed at the team's woeful penalty kill ranking (surprising given the fact that it has allowed 1 goal against since 2012 began), and much is made of Wilson's "inept" inability to counter different approaches thrown at the Leafs by their opposition.
I propose that we examine some of the underlying numbers from the past three seasons - both at the 56 game mark and the end of the season - in order to assess where the problems with this team may lie, both now, and into the future. Let's see if we can get at what is working, what will get better, and what might get worse.
|Fen % Close||51.55%||8||46.39%||26||48.64%||23|
|RD Fen % Close||48.55%||16||43.29%||29||46.93%||17|
|56 Game Mark|
In the 2009-10 season, the Leafs were struck by a number of issues. Firstly, Vesa Toskala was atrocious, and rookie Swedish import Jonas Gustavsson was asked to carry the load of team starter. Secondarily, they couldn't score, despite shooting - a lot of shots - at the opposition net. The team was actually fairly decent from the perspective of out shooting and out chancing the opposition, but nothing they did could produce goals or keep them out of their own net.
Brian Burke came to the conclusion that this was a team that needed to be stripped down and rebuilt on the basis of a lack of production from it's key players. He moved out Ian White, Matt Stajan, and Niklas Hagman in exchange for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and prospect Keith Aulie. Lee Stempniak was jettisoned at the trade deadline for draft picks that turned into nothing. Alexei Ponikarovsky was moved out for the now moved on Luca Caputi, and lastly Jason Blake and Toskala were eventually moved for JS Giguere.
In terms of the cold hard stats - You can see from the chart that the Leafs were actually pretty good as a unit at even strength. Unfortunately shooting luck never seemed to go their way, so their possession advantage didn't earn them much in the way of offense. Their goaltending was well below par, their penalty kill was pretty brutal, and their power play didn't do enough to score. As an end result, half the team was traded and a more dedicated rebuild was begun.
Last year was much better in some regards. The team shot for a higher percentage and their goaltending was vastly improved. James Reimer made a huge difference in net, and having two decent scoring lines helped out a lot by the end of the year. Defensively, the team was improved on the penalty kill in terms of shots allowed while down a man, but the younger group gave up more shots on goal 5v5 - particularly when Kaberle and Beauchemin were moved in February.
The team was dominated from a possession standpoint, and that in many ways attests to inexperience. They improved their goal differential mildly and luck wasn't against them at every turn. While the shooters improved their percentage, Goaltending was the largest improvement. The team did take a significant step back defensively on the blue line as a result of a youth movement.
So far the team looks much better. They have two of the top scorers in the NHL in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and they have promise in the likes of Mikhail Grabovski and Dion Phaneuf. Carl Gunnarsson seems to be rounding into form as a decent defenseman, and Jake Gardiner seems destined to be a solid puck moving defender.
John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson have helped to increase the offensive output of the blue line and add an air of stability and depth. Jonas Gustavsson has rebounded from a porous 2010-11 season, and James Reimer - despite his on-again off-again performance is still probably an improvement over the likes of Andrew Raycroft or Vesa Toskala.
The Leafs have improved their SF/60 and SA/60 at 5v5, both solid signs of a young team developing a more consistent identity. Their Close Fenwick % have improved both overall and on the road from last season. The Power Play has been far more productive, generating more shots, and scoring on a higher percentage of them than in either of the previous years. On the penalty kill, while not as stellar as last year, the SA/60 is still respectable at 50.0 and 15th in the NHL, but the team's SV% while down a man is still not good enough at .851.
This last number is largely the result of brutal numbers on behalf of the aforementioned Reimer. Whether it's luck or a flaw in his blocking style of play, the puck seems to go in a lot when Reimer's the man killing penalties, often on shots from the point. This continues to be an area of concern for the club.
So what else is there to worry about? Well - the main problem right now is that the team is likely to regress a bit. PDO - the sum of team SV% and SH% at even strength - is generally destined to head towards 1000 over the course of a season. Even if it doesn't make it there this year, the Leafs can't necessarily assume it remains above 1000 for next season. The team's shooting percentage at even strength of 9.2% seems relatively steady - and has hovered around that level since the 18th game of the season.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So what problems can the Leafs address via trades or coaching changes? Well I don't think Ron Wilson is controlling the Leafs' PK SA/60 as much as some others might. I think that is more a matter of personnel playing roles they may or may not be skilled at. Luke Schenn is having a rough year on the back end and is playing far less on the PK than he has in the past. Last year he was on the ice for 40.3 SA/60 at 4v5, this year he's on the ice for 45.4 SA/60 at 4v5. He also seems to be as unlucky as can be with a 4v5 on-ice SV% of .803.
Perhaps a calming influence on the blue line would help the PK out. I do think a shut down type defender would help in this regard, although if the Leafs are seeking a way to reduce shots against, they could play Komisarek more often.
For the Power Play to improve (which would be difficult) they need to play Franson and Liles more, while getting forwards on the ice that generate more shots... specifically Grabovski, Connolly and Bozak.
Overall I'm not sure I'm of the opinion this team needs a major overhaul. They're improving over time as pieces are being added. Luck is playing a big part in their offensive results, and their goaltending has been hit and miss at times this year. Going into next year, I think space needs to be made in the line up for some developing prospects, and I wouldn't mind seeing some of the veterans on the team moved for picks or prospects, particularly the likes of Lombardi, Connolly, or Armstrong.
I do NOT think any of the core pieces should be removed, and I don't think it makes sense to remove Ron Wilson. He's improved the team year over year, as has Brian Burke. This is a rebuild process, and you don't rebuild by taking foundational pieces and tossing them aside for shiny objects that look glitzy when you purchase them but add nothing to the long term health of your team.
I think I'm slowly falling into the Status Quo camp. If a serious upgrade is out there - go for it, but I don't think anything being rumoured would amount to a serious upgrade. As always comments and discussion are welcomed.