Over the next few weeks heading into the draft and free agency, The Leafs Nation will be updating readers daily on potential shortterm and longterm solutions to some of the problems facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Obviously, the Leafs are afflicted in certain areas. They couldn’t score without their top players at the end of last season. They don’t have a goaltender that has shown to be successful over a full season at the NHL level, and they have a number of depth players making way too much money to be worthwhile, given what they bring to the table.
This isn’t in any way an attempt to disparage the effort that some of the players bring each and every night. The effort has never been a problem over the past few seasons. The problem has been that the players that management, both old and new, has forced the coaching staff to deploy needed to bring too much effort to be legitimate NHL players.
You don’t want to need nine guys who have to bust their buns to impress fans, coaches and media. The bulk of star players in the NHL make it all look so effortless. Phil Kessel, one of them, is a player nearing free agency for the first time, and the Leafs have to surround him with winning pieces and get the team back into the playoffs.
What they have
The current top nine, if everybody is healthy, looks something like this:
Joffrey Lupul – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
Nik Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Clarke MacArthur
Matt Lombardi – Tim Connolly – Colby Armstrong
Obviously there’s some discrepancy between right and left wingers and linemates from time-to-time, but all of those players, save restricted free agent Kulemin, are under contract. It’s reasonable enough to save that these players will all be on the team next year.
Except it doesn’t look very good. Forget Corsi for a minute, and Lupul is the 22nd best even strength points/60 scorer in the league and a legitimate top-liner. But Bozak hasn’t made the most of his opportunity, and he’s way down at 158 in that ranking among regular NHLers last season. [Behind The Net]
At centre, the Leafs don’t necessarily need a 50 or a 60-point man. They need a player who can clean up in the own end and get the puck forward to Kessel.
The second line is fine. Kulemin I think has the best chance of these nine to not be on the team thanks to his snake-bitten season last year. He shot 17.3% in 2011 and 6.5% last season, and I’m guessing his career norm is somewhere in the middle. Still, at just 1.5 shots per game last season, Kulemin would have needed a 16.2 shooting percentage to reach the 20-goal plateau, and that’s just something you can’t expect out of an NHLer.
MacArthur and Grabovski were fine offensively last season, but they need another wheel turning. The top six is okay when healthy, but they do need another couple of pieces and figure out something to do with Tyler Bozak for now.
Onto the defence:
Dion Phaneuf-Carl Gunnarsson
Jake Gardiner-Luke Schenn
Mike Komisarek-John-Michael Liles
The real problem here is the same one with the forwards: too much money is given to the depth guys. While Armstrong, Lombardi and Connolly are all off the books next year, the cap hits of Schenn, Komisarek and Liles last next year as well, and those three, the three weak links in the Toronto defence make close to $12M per season.
Since Gunnarsson and Gardiner work out into this team long-term and Phaneuf is the captain, holding onto those three is key, but the team does need a shake-up in the top four. Whatever the team can get for Schenn would be a bonus, and it also clears up room for Korbinian Holzer or Cody Franson to get more deserving NHL minutes, or opens up the spot for a guy to come over via trade.
In net, the Leafs still have James Reimer, but Jonas Gustavsson is an unrestricted free agent, and both Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens are restricted. Still nobody who you can trust to play 60 games.
What they need
Well, by using Behind The Net’s Team Fenwick pages, you can assess the Leafs’ performance in the most important of game states: 5-on-5 score-tied situations, particularly on the road. Since certain arena shot counts wildly differ at home than away, counting only road shots susses out some of the arena bias that’s inherent in tracking shot metrics. Here’s how the Leafs stack up:
Goals For / 60 – 2.45 (22nd)
Road Shots Against / 60 – 31.42 (18th)
Road Save Percentage – 90.6% (22nd)
Injuries at the end of the season definitely caught the team off-guard and they had difficulty adjusted to a more defensive system. Overall the offensive performance took a huge hit when Randy Carlyle was employed, but with everybody healthy, this is probably still a top-half group.
The team was actually alright in protecting against shots against, but they were overall 22nd in goals against, in part due to a below-average defence, but I think a lot of it was due to goaltending.
Casually, the Leafs need these pieces:
-Top-Six Forward: Centre
-Top-Six Forward: Winger
-Top-Nine Forward: Cheap
-Top-Nine Forward: Cheap
-Top-Four Defenceman: Cheap
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll begin to discuss some names, as well as begin to look forward to the draft on June 22/23 and what the Leafs can pick up from there.