The Blame Game

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    It’s no secret that the Leafs’ biggest disappointment amid a conference-second-worst 15-20-9 first half of the schedule is a total lack of progress in the area of goals against and special teams, where Brian Burke focused much of his off-season efforts.

    The Leafs have committed 21.2 million of a 56.8 million cap to their current 7-man active defense core, nearly 10 million of which was spent on new acquisitions over the off-season in Mike Komisarek (4.5 million), Francois Beauchemin (3.8 million), and Garnet Exelby via trade (1.4million). The top three most effective defenses in the league belong to the Chicago Blackhawks (2.05 goals against per game), New Jersey Devils (2.15 GA/G) and Buffalo (2.22 GA/G), franchises which dedicate 18.75 million, 13.6 million, and 15 million respective cap dollars to their 7-man defensive units. There are a number of schools of thought existing here: 1) Brian Burke may have gotten it all wrong in the off-season in identifying players in Mike Komisarek – coming off a poor year defensively in his last season in Montreal – and Francois Beauchemin – who doesn’t quite have the defensive support he enjoyed in Anaheim in the form of Chris Pronger or Scott Neidermayer at his side – as pieces that could be extracted from their former situations and employed effectively within Ron Wilson’s defensive system, and overpaid them. As seen below, neither Komisarek or Beauchemin have responded well to big situations; 2) There’s a systemic issue here and not a personnel one; 3) Until the blue-line receives consistent support from a consistently healthy goaltender, we can’t really evaluate any of the above. The Leafs have not had as many close games torpedoed by goaltending blunders this season as they had the last, but the netminding situation can still be described as inconsistent in terms of both health and performance.

    DEFENCEMAN         QUALCOMP   D-ZONE FACEOFFS       PLUS/MINUS
    Mike Komisarek                3rd                         144 (4th)                   -9 (6th)
    Tomas Kaberle                  4th                          191 (2nd)                  -7 (4th)
    Francois Beauchemin      1st                           220 (1st)                   -7 (4th)
    Jeff Finger                         5th                            80 (6th)                  -11 (7th)
    Ian White                          2nd                          186 (3rd)                  +8 (1st)
    Garnet Exelby                  6th                             59 (7th)                   -3 (3rd)
    Luke Schenn                    7th                            144 (4th)                   0 (2nd)
    (Seems to me Kaberle should perhaps be on the ice for fewer defensive zone faceoffs).

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Brian Burke has JFJ’ed the defense core. In spurts, both Komisarek and Beauchemin have flexed their physical tools effectively and have shown signs they can be a part of a working system, as they have in prior settings. As the results on the scoreboard have been negative more often than not, overextension as a result of frustration becomes a tendency for all players and especially defenseman, and Beauchemin would certainly benefit from reining in the mistimed pinches and getting back to the basics within the system at hand. The nature of off-season bidding is that the marketplace becomes the price-setter and there’s always shades of overpayment involved, but I don’t think either contract is unbearable. While Chicago will have much different cap number dedicated to their defense core come next season when the Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook extensions kick in, both the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils are marked by a defense corps of few household names that work extremely effectively within a system (great goaltending doesn’t hurt, either). I hate to jump on bash-Ron-Wilson bandwagon that’s gaining increasing steam, but there’s something to be said about how a good coach, no matter the pieces he has to work with, can assure his special teams are at the very least respectable by establishing a defined and clearly communicated system and assuring each player within it is prepared to perform their task.

    It’s tough to argue that Wilson possesses the tools that will help him establish a league-leading PK system as he boasted in San Jose, however, and this is something that falls on Burke looking towards the future. While cheaper, Wayne Primeau and Rickard Wallin are not improvements on Dominic Moore in this department. Nikolai Kulemin has the makings of a specialist in this area but is still young (there’s a reason why PK specialists are so often veterans). Establishing and communicating a clear system of team defence is still half the battle, and it’s one that Wilson, not the players, is losing to the tune of the convincingly worst PK rate in the league at 69.7% and the league’s second worst goals against per game average.

    Consistently, Wilson and his coaching staff have not included themselves in attempting to rationalize the team’s defensive woes. It’s the lack of execution, dedication, or willingness to bring it every night, or that this team only cares enough to start playing when they’re down a few goals. A re-building club requires a certain level of selflessness from their coach as means of deflecting heat in inevitable times of poor play; and it appears Wilson’s ego’s far too large to practice the accountability’s he’s preaching on his players. Tim Hunter has pointed to a lack of dedication to the cause in the form of shot-blocking recently, and you have to wonder whether or not that commitment is being perceived as a one-way street within the dressing room; if it’s the players onto whom the blame’s being solely dumped, what makes them want to lay it all on the line for the coaching staff in return? I hate to say it, but there’s perhaps a reason why the dedication wasn’t quite there during those many disappointing post-season one-and-outs by Wilson’s San Jose Sharks.

    As they say, winning cures all woes, and some post-.500 hockey throughout the back half of the schedule could go along way if the Leafs maintain a consistently high compete level and receive consistent goaltending from a healthy Gustavsson. While playoffs are but a mere pipedream at this point, some form of climb up the standings would be welcomed by a fan base that finds itself in a unique position of praying to escape draft lottery territory. Sounds like there’s still some learning and acceptance of blame to go around for both the players and coaching staff before any of that happens.

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