Why Are The Leafs Struggling?

The Maple Leafs Express isn't there yet but... - THE INTERNET

This is an experiment. Let's see if you can figure out which critiques we've all had and which the team has to offer up.

The last week has seen the Leafs go 1-2-1 on the back of a quartet of generally miserable performances. They were humiliated by the Blue Jackets Monday in a game that would have earned it some kind of massacre-related moniker if the game carried any kind of signifance. On Saturday, a workhorse performance from James Reimer was vital in beating the Capitals as the Leafs were generally overrun. In the previous game, a lacklustre game from the Leafs and a shaky effort from Jonathan Bernier consigned the buds to a loss against Conference III laggard Nashville. The nadir of this stretch was finishing the third period and overtime without a single shot on goal as they watched a 4-1 lead fade into a 6-5 shootout loss against the Penguins.

That string has left the Leafs with only two regulation wins so far during November while staring down the barrel of Deathly December when the schedule's difficulty gets kicked up like an Emeril-made gumbo. The fact is that the Leafs haven't played to where they think they're capable of playing and they haven't played to the template that they think they have to play to.

One of the big areas of concern is that the Leafs' offence has fallen off of a cliff. The team has potted 21 goals in the past 11 games with only 14 of those coming at even strength. While there is some speculation about whether it is the flu or a wrist injury that may have slowed Phil Kessel it doesn't change the fact that he has only picked up two even-strength points all month. The biggest evidence of the team's struggles is that that leading scorers this month are castoff Mason Raymond and AHL-lifer Trevor Smith.

Predators coach Barry Trotz referred to the Leafs as a "rush team" which a critical examination of the team's goals scored this season would suggest is entirely accurate. That's what people perceive the Leafs as but is that what they are? They don't want to be that. A superior team like the Boston Bruins - in a similar breakdown of their goals - certainly seem to have a broader variety of ways to produce offence.

The team would benefit from moving away from a dependence on their dependence on creating singular opportunities on the rush - which has been successful against teams that allow them to play that style - and develop a more possession-focused second option. A team that generates the third fewest shots on goal per game would benefit through the added second and third chance scoring opportunities. Truthfully, the defence has got to do a better job of getting pucks into that area when our forwards are there.

The frustration this year, as in the summer, is that the Leafs have shown glimpses of a team that could play so much better in every facet. Much is made of a strong period by all metrics, conventional and emerging, against the Bruins but never for 60 minutes. That's the issue. They have to be prepared to play to their style, their template for a majority of the game for them to have success. That's been their problem this year. They'll play some good hockey, but it hasn't been for 60 minutes. And that's really what they need to focus on.

Thankfully, the Leafs goaltending has wildly outperformed even the hopes of their most optimistic observers. It's always been a truism that great goaltending can hide a multitude of sins. This year's team has given up the third most shots on goal per game and been buried possession-wise and by the grace of Reimer and Bernier would otherwise be pondering whether it was time to cash in assets. been so good most nights that it's cloaked the team's troubles in these areas, but it's been a problem no less. Only the Senators and Sabres allow more shots nightly than the Leafs. The penalty kill has already shown the effects of the team's save percentage regressing as it's plummeted from 2nd to 20th. Even worse is that it appears to have more room to fall.

A major issue for the team has been that despite once again being touted as the team's best defence in years, that it is again under performing expectations. Some of those problems are probably systemic as this evaluation of Dion Phaneuf showed. Some of the problems relate to roster decisions as the Leafs insist on dressing players that are possession black holes. A suggested reunion of Mark Fraser and Cody Franson will seek to recapture the 'magic' (read: good fortune) of last season but would represent dressing a player that invites pressure over one that is better at moving the puck to the forwards and out of the zone.

The Leafs were lucky in a lot of ways that their goaltending and special teams were winning them hockey games when the shot clock was lopsided and they weren't creating enough and they were being hemmed in their own zone. That, to me, is a sign that they've got to change some of the things that they're doing out there. They've tried to implement that on a day-to-day basis, but Monday night might've been a culmination of the grand scheme of things. It was a pretty ugly game for them.

While the Leafs got off to a fantastic 6-1-0 start, it appears that the team has lost a head of steam as a number of their performance indicators suggest that they are moving backwards at full steam. Over their past 18 games the Leafs have gone just 8-8-2 but the weakness of the Metropolitan Division as well as the struggles of Montreal and Ottawa has kept them in a decent if not precarious position. They are holding the second wild card spot and have some breathing room but for how much longer? Their game hasn't been really where they wanted it to be for most parts but they're in a good spot. They've still got a lot of points and that's a good thing, right?

With files from friend of the blog Jonas Siegel.

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