Puck Paddy is, unfortunately, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and has been since 2011. Every once in a while, he needs to vent.
A Leaf Odyssey – Same Old Story
Why does it have to be like this?
It’s the question Leaf fans have been asking as long as I’ve become conscious of the NHL. This is my fourth season as a fan and already I feel like I’ve been put through the ringer with three epic collapses in successive seasons. In 2014/15, after a magnificent eleven game streak where they won nine times, I was preparing myself for the next spring-time implosion.
Fortunately for us all, we may be about to reach breaking point sooner than anticipated.
It’s been four losses out of the last five for Toronto since they’re great November/Early December run. More pertinently, it’s the return of being excessively outshot and terrible puck possession that is paving the way for these ludicrous high-scoring losses. Their only win in this five game stretch has been against Dallas, a team who are as equally incompetent as the Leafs when it comes to defending their zone.
There is literally no one place to lay the blame, because it is practically everywhere. Bernier has probably been the Leafs best player this year after a questionable start to season. He’s stood on his head for almost two months now. Reimer has backed up whenever he can, but I think if you have to absolve anyone on this team, it has to be the goaltenders. Here’s why: average goal-tending yields a save percentage of about .920 per game, give or take. If your team is going to allow around 40 shots per game, that results in 3 to 4 goals on average being scored on you. On a good night you can keep that to one or two, and on a bad night it can be 5 or 6.
On the blue line, you’ve seen average performances from Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak and Morgan Reilly, pretty poor play from Stephane Robidas and just downright misery from Jake Gardner. Cody Franson, again an upcoming free agent, is said to be having a good year but I just haven’t seen it on the back end. Himself and Dion have been caught out numerous times against top pairings, and while is offense is definitely welcomed, he forms part of the backbone that continues to allow teams enter the Leafs defensive zone and not get the puck out of there effectively.
To focus on the captain Phaneuf for a moment, with every game that passes I feel like I’m watching a much-maligned figure get weighed down by the excessive expectation and burden of being the supposed leader of this team. Granted, it’s not easy being the leader of a team in the most intense hockey market in the world, but with every passing season we get a clearer picture of who Dion Phaneuf is, and it’s not a 7 million dollar captain and defenseman. If you’re the kind of analyst or fan to sympathize with the kind of hole he’s been left in, then I can accept that. For me, what I’m witnessing is a broken man who has been miscast in Toronto, and who doesn’t seem to have the ability or the leadership qualities to turn around his reputation here. He needs to be freed from Toronto.
Jake Gardner is, unfortunately, becoming another serious problem. Like Luke Schenn before him, Gardner was a hot defensive prospect who is beginning to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when goals are scored. He has the lowest plus minus on the team at -12. There’s no doubting his skill and skating ability, but with increasing regularity he is making poor decisions that are costing the Leafs dearly. His concentration is a huge issue, and what I am fearing here is that the damage being caused as a defenseman on this team may become irreparable.
To simply blame the six main defensemen on this team would be unfair. The so-called “Top Line” of Kessel, Bozak and Van Reimsdyk (and recently Lupul) have been as much to blame for this team’s defensive woes as anyone. For a long time, people have complained about Kessel’s lack of defense but it had been overlooked because of his ability to score goals. Phil’s goal-scoring has been as consistent as ever, and furthermore it has elevated that of Bozak and JVR, but this season that good will is quickly fading.
I love Phil Kessel. He is a magnificent talent, an incredibly gifted skater and a thrilling player to watch. However, the more I watch him, the more frustrated I get with him. In the Boston play-off series two seasons ago, I saw a man who was going the distance for his team. Hard working, carrying the team on his back for perhaps the first time ever. He brought that intensity and on-ice leadership with him to the first half of last season. Since then, he appears to have all but abandoned his defensive zone responsibility, and it has seeped in to the game of his line-mates. Bozak and JVR are their own men and should know better, but Kessel leads them and has to lead by example defensively. He does not do that anymore. Call it coaching, call it philosophy, call it laziness.
Down the middle, the Leafs have always been weak. For me, Kadri is developing in to a really nice player, but he’ll never provide a top team with top line minutes. He’s been working harder, he’s been back-checking, and crucially, he’s been winning a boat-load of penalties. For the longest time, people in Toronto have questioned his attitude and whether he’s capable of giving the Leafs what they need. I’m hoping what we’ve seen over the last two months is what Nazim is going to deliver for the future.
Tyler Bozak is a hard-worker who is miscast as a top-tier center. He wins a lot of face-offs and scores quite a lot of points, but I think he enables Phil Kessel to not work as hard on the back-check, and I don’t think he provides enough energy as a top line center. Holland as a third-line guy is fine, and is showing signs of progression, but I’m not ready to ordain him the future either. He’s in at a good price, and he is a hard worker, but he doesn’t add a huge amount to a below-average group of centers. The bottom line is, and always has been, that they are short a top-tier center, and the reality is they’re nowhere close to getting one.
Probably the best thing about this Leafs team is probably the most useless thing to have – bottom six depth. It’s one of the only improvements from last season’s group, and the addition of Winnick, Santorelli, Komarov, Panik and David Booth has taken the pressure of the top two lines significantly. This group has also boosted the defensive power play, a huge issue last year, and has given them a legitimate scoring threat outside of the top forwards.
You know who’s not been very good despite his increased point-production this year? David Clarkson. Blogger Steve Dangle probably put it best when he said that Clarkson is “where scoring chances go to die.” I was unfamiliar with his work at New Jersey where I know he once scored quite a lot of points, but the man was given a six year, 5.25 million p/y deal. He is weak on the puck, he falls over almost every shift, he has limited puck-handling ability, he has poor possession stats and now no longer fights. Those in the know laughed heartily at the Leafs foolishness for signing him to such an albatross of a contract, and now he is regarded as one of the worst free agent signings of the decade. He’s on the books until 2020.
Which brings me to my next point – Dave Nonis and Leaf management has committed over four million dollars to each of the following players for the next four seasons: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, James Van Reimsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner. That is what we call the core of the Maple Leafs. Here’s what all of these players have in common, with the exception of the groups worst player, David Clarkson. They were on the ice for the Boston Bruins collapse. They were on the ice for Ron Wilson’s collapse. Including our boy Clarkson, they were on the ice for last season’s collapse. This is the core.
Nonis either had a hand in, or directly signed every one of these players. JVR’s contract is the only one of these he inherited. While some questionable contracts have been signed, I’m not quite ready to take him to the cleaners. I will be, however, if he cannot trade his way out of this mess. This core is rotten. It has been through too much and there’s been too many broken shells of players sent out on to the ice at the Air Canada Center. I don’t care if Phaneuf or Bozak or Clarkson leaves Toronto and flourish in the league’s best players. In fact, I’ll be happy for them. They’ve had enough time here (even Clarkson) and they’re toxic. Phil Kessel may also be included in that. Joffrey Lupul and JVR are nice players, but they’re key cogs in a downfall. Gardner is still young, but maybe it would be better for everyone if he got out of here before he goes the way of Schenn or Phaneuf.
This is the typical malaise of the Leaf fan, and people laugh. Probably rightly so. “Things go wrong, trade everyone!”. I’m generally not one to overreact to anything, but I’ve seen three years of a malaise now, and am currently watching a fourth. This is a good year to be bad. It’s nearly 2015. Take the option that lets you be bad. There is a great draft out there. It’s time to rid yourself of this core.