Why the Turn Around?

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    Watching the Leafs play this season has already clearly demonstrated 3 distinct and separate teams.   Team1 started the season on a dreadful 0-6-1 streak.  Team2 surfaced on the teams first extended raod trip, and although losing the opener by the closest of margins in Vancouver, they managed to rally off a string of impressive games, still falling short and losing in extra time or in a shootout.  Team3, continued to pick up a point in games and more recently have managed to win their last 2 in a row.  But, I was left asking the question, why the turn around?  If one was to read the various media reports, 1 man alone was responsible for the Leafs woes early on (Toskala) and now one man alone is the saviour and is responsible for the Leafs turn around (Gustavsson).

    As per usual in Toronto, fans are constantly looking for a scape goat for all of their teams woes..  sometimes the goat horns are well earned by said player being victimized by the “witch hunt” victim de jour.  Other times, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in Toronto, fans really lack any basis for their mis-directed anger and rage, yet, we somehow cannot help ourselves but to direct and focus our venom towards a specific player.  The media feed this frenzy with taking wild journalistic liberties and failing to demonstrate even the most fundamental principles typically required to consider oneself a professional journalist.  The current victim of the Leaf nation witch hunt is Vesa Toskala – and Mr Berger for example does an outstanding job of fueling the fire and prepping Mr Toskala for the inevitable death by stoning or burning at the stake that all Witches inevitably fall victim to..  You can read Mr Bergers recent commentary on this subject here:

    http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog.php?blogger_id=3

    This is not to say that Mr Berger is alone in creating drama.  Media in this city have been using this same cheap trick for years to create villians and sell papers or generate valuable ad revenue from generating hits.  The list of players boo’ed out of Toronto, who then went on to be successful elsewhere is not a short list and includes Larry Murphy and more recently, Brian McCabe.  Absolutely embarrassing that we as a fan group can be so easliy manipulated by what is published in the media.

    Lets look at some objective data here, and lets go on the assumption that hockey is actually a team game.  The real important elements of this team game, which ultimately dictate the final results are offense, defense, goaltending and special teams.  So, lets take a look at these elements and see if we can actually determine the factors that have contributed to improvement we witnessed and are witnessing in this Leafs team.

    Offense

    The Leafs forward units which started on opening night was as follows:

    Blake-Stajan-Stalberg
    Grabovski-Hagman-Ponikarovsky
    Wallin-Stempniak-Mitchell
    Rosehill-Primeau-Orr

    The more recent roster looks like this:

    Blake – Mitchell – Kessel
    Ponikarovsky – Grabovski – Kulemin
    Hagman – Wallin – Stempniak
    Primeau – Stajan – Orr

    This is a 50% roster turn over in the top6 unit as well as considerable improvement on the 3rd line with the addition of a player like Hagman.  Considering the top6 receive significantly more ice time then the other 2 units, and considering the 3rd line tends to receive considerably more icetime then the 4th unit, an improvement in the top3 lines is surely at least “partially” responsible for the turn around in the Leafs play.  When you also consider that the previous first line center has now been moved to the 4th line, this is also likely to improve the 4th line as well, and allow them to be more effective.  Then consider that the 3 players (Kessel, Kulemin, Mitchell) inserted into the top 6 are all 24 or younger, all play with speed and all have shown various capacities for being able to score in this league, it should be of no surprise that the Leafs play has significantly improved, now possessing 3 lines with speed and 3 lines that possess at least some sort of offensive threat.  Offensive zone pressure has increased, goals scored have increased and as a result, opportunities against have decreased and the number of penalties taken has also decreased.   At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, the leafs will continue to improve as even more youth with speed and skill are inserted into their top6 (I am still begging and pleading for Bozak and the return of Stalberg now that his previous center has been demoted to the 4th line) and players better suited for the 3rd line (ie Mitchell and Blake) are moved to their appropriate positions.  Of course, as has been endlessly discussed and debated, for better or for worse, once some of these expiring contracts are able to be moved, the team will inevitably demonstrate another improvement in play – and as much as the media would like us to believe that the goaltender alone is responsible for when we have won, and when we have lost, it is abundantly clear that the composition of the Leafs forward units also play a factor in the end result.

    Defense

    The Leafs defense core underwent dramatic and significant changes in the offseason.  New faces include Komisarek, Beachemin and Exelby.  That represents an approximate 43% change in the Leafs top7 defensemen in one off season.  What compounds this problem is that absolutely zero defense pairings were maintained from a year ago, therefore the 43% turn over is actually exemplified by the fact that each and every pairing was an experiment.  To further compound the problem, Komisarek and Beachemin all exprienced incredibly poor starts, and the softmore, Luke Schenn was not far behind in that regard.  A lack of chemistry, very poor starts from key, presumably top4 players and an overall uncertainty as to their roles all contributed greatly to the poor starts shown by the Leafs.  This was clearly witnessed in their completely ineffective and league worst PK, by the number of clear break aways being given up and the number of odd man rushes being generated against.  It is of zero surprise, at least to me, that as the Leafs Defense improved, their odd man chances against and breakaways against improved dramatically and that their PK finally seems to be coming around to respectability.

    Special Teams

    The Leafs PK is still rated as the worse PK unit in the NHL.  However, there has been a noticable improvement in this regard.  Goaltending certainly plays a role in effective penalty killing, however, just as important is the actual performance of the penalty killing unit.  Blocked shots, appropriate coverage, clearing the puck when the chance presents itself, etc – are all fundamental problems that existed early on for the Leafs, which have mostly been addressed.  Of course, having a goalie make the big stop and bail a team out when they make a mistake is certainly a key factor in an effective penalty kill as well.  Having said this, I find it very doubtful, that ANY goalie, in ANY league would be able to stop some of the powerplay goals the Leafs were allowing early on in the season.  Is there is a goalie anywhere that can prevent Sidney Crosby from scoring 2 PP goals while being left alone at the side of the net all night on the powerplay? 

    The Leafs Powerplay speaks for itself.  Currently ranked #1 in the NHL.

    Part of the overall improvement in the Leafs play and their record absolutely must be contributed to their improved PK and their very effective PP.  And although a goalie certainly can impact a PK positively, it should be apparent that a goalie alone does not change a PK unit on his own, nor does he impact the PP unit in any substantial way.  More accurately, the Leafs have increased their offensive zone pressure, have decreased the number of power plays they are giving up and have fundamentally improved their PK to the point where they give their goalie the opportunity to make a big save and be effective – and something certainly Gustavsson is providing.

    Goaltending

    So, onto the crux of the real issue here.  Was Vesa Toskala the reason the Leafs started so poorly?  The obvious and objective answer here is no – clearly not.  Though, I do not believe anyone, including Vesa Toskala would argue that he was not playing his best hockey and a few of those goals he aloud had no business going in at the NHL level.  having said this, would the Leafs have won any more games or garnered any more points early on in the season if Jonas Gustavsson had started instead of Vesa Toskala?  The likely answer is no, the Leafs would have gotten off to the same or very similar start.  Their PK was horrible, Their defense was playing way below par, their offense was non existent.  To suggest otherwise and attempt to victimize and vilify Vesa Toskala is simply outrageous.

    Consider the following :

    – Joey MacDonald delivered a 0.900+ SP with the New York Islanders last year.  We are speaking the absolute worse team in the league, giving up A LOT of shots and A LOT of prime scoring opportunities.  How bad exactly was it on the ice here in Toronto to have a SP well under the 0.900 watermark?  Did Joey MacDonald simply forget how to play goal?  or were there other factors?

    – Vesa Toskala is a career 0.900 SP goalie.  Consider the following, in 2007/08, Vesa had the following stats for the Leafs.  66GP, 33W, 25L, 6 OTL.  Considering the Leafs only managed 36 wins that season, that meant that every other goalie played that year, managed to combine for 3 wins in 18 games.  Even last year, which is widely considered as a “bad” year for Toskala while playing through several injuries, the man managed the following stats: 53GB, 22W, 17L, 11OTL.  certainly not outstanding numbers last year, but, very much an improvement over his stats this year.  Has Vesa Toskala, along with Joey MacDonald, both suddenly forgot how to play goal this year?

    Lastly, the most obvious example. 

    – Jonas Gustavsson.  Jonas has been outstanding, absolutely outstanding.  Simply one of the most exciting players to watch on the ice each and every night.  The Leafs absolutely need to run with this youngster, as long as he stays hot and continues to play like this.  Certainly, the way he is playing now, he is a better goalie the Vesa Toskala or Joey MacDonald ever have been or will be.  However, Jonas Gustavsson himself, although with a few very impressive flashes, did not look like he does now, did not dominate the games he played in, nor manage to win them early on in the season.  He himself had a SP well below 0.900 playing for the “early” Leafs team.  How is it, that the same goalie suddenly is so much better, just a few weeks apart?  Did Jonas Gustavsson suddenly learn to play goal in the next few weeks?  Why are his starts so fundamentally different from his first few appearances when compared to his most recent appearances?

    The answer to all of these questions is simple.  There is no single culprit to explain the Leafs poor start, and there is no single hero or saviour to explain their improved play, regardless of how badly the media would like everyone to believe this is how it happened.  The Leafs have improved, and they will continue to improve, because of fundamental improvements of their forward units via injecting youth, speed and skill into their top6 and by strengthening their 3rd and 4th lines by moving players previously playing in top6 roles into positions they are more suited for.  Additionally, a significant improvement in their defensive cores overall play likely resulting from simply starting to come together and playing to their individual skillsets.  An improving penalty kill and a very effective powerplay.  All of these factors combined have resulted in a decrease in allowed scoring opportunities and an increase in offensive zone pressure and goal scoring opportunities.  These are the primary factors involved with the change in fortunes for the Leafs team this year.  Just as Jonas Gustavssons metrics and performance dramatically improved when the above variables improved, as will Vesa Toskalas numbers and performance when he once again gets an opportunity.  Is Vesa Toskala as good of a goalie as Jonas Gustavsson.  My opinion is no.  But, this is no way means he is responsible for the TEAMS losses all year and in no way means that he should be disgarded.  A backup like Toskala is a HUGE luxury in the NHL, and if nurtured and utilized properly, and not villified by the fans and media, will likely turn into a very nice asset to be moved at the deadline.

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