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5-Game Process: January Slump Edition

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Is this a slump? And if so, who’s driving it?

Colorado Avalanche v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Leafs have played 45 games, and we get our first bad news five-game process report. And it’s terrible!

This is the one, the only five-game set so far that did not hit six points. So if you very carefully limit your view to the recent set of games, you’ll see a points pace that’s terrible. Of course, if you look at the whole 45 games you get 58 points and a pace of 1.29. One half point more is all that’s required to hit 1.3.

This block of five games is the only standard block at less than six points, but there have been a few before at four points if you look at the rolling count of the previous five games. So far this season, the Leafs have never lost more than two games in a row, and the rolling five-game points total has never gone below four. That’s still true.

And when you compare this year’s January blahs to last, the scale of the problem seems to shrink right up. Last year’s issues were largely goaltending, as in Frederik Andersen performed very poorly for a long stretch. This year, he’s been right out of action. Maybe these results are just what you get when you play a backup for nearly a month. Let’s see if it’s the goals against that are making this section of results anomalous.

While this latest segment is the only group of five games to not have three or four ROW — it’s only got two — the culprit can’t be said to be the goalie. That’s not the worst goals against in any set of five so far. It’s only three per game, which for the Leafs does not count as bad, merely less than their peak performance. The goals for are also not the worst ever — that came in the early part of the season when Andersen was really hot, Sparks never played, and no one noticed as much that the team had stopped scoring four per game. But the goals for are more of a “problem” than the goals against, given who the Leafs played and how their various forwards scored.

The latest five games is the only set of five where the goal differential is negative. So, I guess if you want to feel like it’s all going to the dogs, slap your hand over the left side of the graph, and imagine a downward trend.

What the players have to do is figure out what they did wrong in the last few games — nearly everything vs Colorado, while the loss to Boston had lots of good play in it. And then they need to play their game the way they’ve shown over and over that they can. But you don’t get to decide when you score. Oh, I know it seems like it. I know everyone shouts out, “You have to have that one!” (At the goalies and the shooters.) But the truth is sometimes they don’t go in. If you’re shooting a lot, from the right places, making the best plays you can make, that’s all anyone can ask of you. Anyone reasonable.

Badly managed teams make knee-jerk reactions to slumps. They trade some guy or they bench someone. They shake the lines up for the sake of it. It all starts to become mystical. They might just as well start serving lucky tuna surprise at the team meal as any of that. But the urge to do something for the sake of seeming to be in control is powerful.

If you live in Canada, you might have noticed the federal government shuffled their cabinet the other day. Politics is rife with the January shake-up to make it seem like the guy in charge is on top of things. January is when you get fired. Sometimes for the boss’s mistakes.

I’m not immune to the desire to change something for the sake of it; I came up with a lineup that might goose the forward balance into the structure the Leafs need where two lines prosper per game. Kevin picked out almost exactly what I did:

This might be a good idea, but I don’t think it’s a necessary thing.

One of the things I love most about watching the Leafs is how tough the bosses are. None of those guys, from the bench coaches to the men in the nerdy glasses, care about how they seem to you or me. When Brendan Shanahan was put in charge of this team, he didn’t just bring a modern outlook, he brought a kind of toughness that the Leafs have lacked for my entire life. The TSN and SN chatter bounces right off of him.

The best part is, Shanahan hired guys who are worse than him. There’s enough stubbornness there to make me look easygoing. Chances are they will never do something just for the sake of doing something. They’ll only change things if the process needs a change.

The games don’t get any easier (at least not until the last 10 or so). So by now, the process that underlies all these results had better be good.

Next five Games

The next two games are the second Florida road trip — Thursday and Friday, back-to-back beginning in Tampa. Sparks better be ready for the Panthers, and Andersen needs to be a bit sharper than he was in his first game back, which is fair to expect.

After that, the Leafs are home to Arizona (oh, goody, offer sheet talk) on Sunday after the rare Saturday off, and then the Leafs get two days to rest up to face the Capitals on Wednesday, January 23. That’s the last game of January, and the All-Star Game followed by the bye week plunges us into hockey doldrums with so much time to make fantasy trades for defencemen, I can hardly wait.

The 50th game is February 1 on the road in Detroit. And as seems to happen with this bye week thing, that’s a back-to-back with travel. Game 51 is at home to Pittsburgh.

All five of these games are winnable. A strong showing against Tampa like the last time the two teams met would be a good idea. But the only way the Leafs are winning any of these is if they score more goals than they have been lately. A little shooting percentage bounce in the right places, and what you can convince yourself is a downward trend, suddenly looks like a blip on the path to the playoffs.

Sometime in February, we’ll look at the Leafs after 50.