Mythbusters: Do the Leafs Have Enough Offense to Compete?

Mythbusters: Do the Leafs Have Enough Offense to Compete?

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One of the key questions surrounding the upcoming 2010-11 Maple Leafs season is whether they will be able to score enough to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

An optimist will point to the Leafs‘ record following the acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere as evidence that the Maple Leafs can compete. The cynic will suggest that although the Leafs played well over the final third of the season following those moves, there just simply isn’t enough proven offensive production to buoy hopes for post-season play.

A closer look at the Leafs performance over their past 26 games following the January 31st trades for Phaneuf and Giguere, in comparison to their first 56, might shed some light on whether or not the Leafs‘ need for more offense in order to compete is fact or fiction.

Myth: The Leafs must improve their offense to compete for a playoff spot

The following is a breakdown of the key measures for the first 56, and last 26, games of the season.

Games # Record 1-Goal Losses GF/g GA/g PK% PP%
1 – 56 17-28-11 16 2.6 3.51 69.8 16.5
57 – 82 13-10-3 6 2.5 2.7 84.7 9.3

As you can see, there is quite the disparity between the first two-thirds of the season versus the final third, in all areas. Over the final 26 games of the season, the Leafs won at a rate that would equate to 91 points in 82 games — a pace equivalent to tie for 6th place (and a playoff berth) in the 2009-10 Eastern Conference over a full season.

Most notable is the Leafs’ remarkable improvement in both their penalty-killing rate, as well as goals allowed / game. Improved goaltending in the form of J.S. Giguere, and the impact he had on Jonas Gustavsson, is a major part of the reason, although one cannot underestimate the impact Dion Phaneuf (and to a lesser extent, defensive-forward Fredrik Sjostrom), had on these units also. A PK success improvement of 15% is not something to be ignored, and is perhaps the single greatest factor in the Leafs’ success over the season’s final third. Should the penalty killers be able to provide a similarly steller, and consistent, brand of play during 2010-11, that will greatly aid not only the goaltenders, but also help to offset the majority of concerns about the Leafs’ offense.

That said, this article is about the offense, so let’s take a look at the Leafs’ splits for last season. What is notable here is that despite the departures of top-line contributers Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman (and shortly thereafter Alexei Ponikarovsky), the Leafs’ overall rate of goal production remained nearly identical through the remainder of the season.

With Kris Versteeg (20 goals) and Colby Armstrong (15 goals) added to the mix to replace Victor Stalberg (9 goals) and Rickard Wallin (2 goals), and Mike Brown (6 goals) in place of Wayne Primeau (3 goals), the Leafs’ rate of production – which did not hinder a playoff-calibre record following last-season’s changes – should only be expected to improve.

The power play, on the other hand declined precipitously as a result of those departures, and remains one area of serious concern. Dion Phaneuf was brought in to — in part — boost this unit, but instead it got even worse. This is where the acquisitions of Versteeg and Armstrong are so important. Both are gritty players who will take punishment in order to create havoc in the danger areas, something for which Leafs’ forwards have been heavily criticized for not doing nearly enough of the past few seasons. Phaneuf is a shooter, not a passer; his points, and his effectiveness on the power play, are primarily dependent upon the forwards up front having the ability to create opportunities without the puck (draw defenders away, set screens, fight for rebounds and deflections, etc). Versteeg is especially good at this, and his presence down low should aid the powerplay — and Phaneuf — greatly.

In evaluating the myth of Leafs’ lack of offense within the context of pre- and post- January 31st play, the evidence seems to show that goaltending and defense — not the offense — was responsible for the Leafs’ vast improvement down the final stretch. While I would say the notion that the Leafs lack the offense to compete is false (the offense, and even the power play, did not prevent them from achieving a win rate that would put them in the postseason over a full slate), I would also say that the extent to which the team is reliant on consistent defensive play and stellar goaltending does dictate the need for some extra punch — if for no other reason than to simply ease the burden.

Most believe that the only way for the Leafs to improve their offense, barring a breakout rookie season from Nazem Kadri, is to trade Tomas Kaberle. Should that come to pass, the Leafs should certainly be able to produce enough offense to complement the efforts of their defensive units and goaltenders, while remaining in the hunt for a postseason berth.

That said, the myth about the Leafs not having enough offense to compete – regardless of what happens with Tomas Kaberle – has already been busted by virtue of their performance over the last 26 games of 2009-10. The evidence from last season is crystal-clear: the key to 2010-11 is not the offensive production, but rather the continued yeomen efforts of the Phaneuf-led defensive corps and the goaltending tandem of Giguere and Gustavsson.

Now, I know what you are going to say. A 26 game stretch does not dictate what happens over 82. And you’re absolutely correct. However, that is not the argument. Rather, the argument is that what we saw over the final 26 games was the establishment of a trend, whereby the defensive play improved to the point where GA/gm dropped to nearly the equivalent of GF/gm, while the penalty-killing success rate remained consistently in the mid-80% range and the win-rate was equivalent to playoff teams within the Conference. The additions of Versteeg and Armstrong should have a positive impact the GF/gm rate, which may foreseeably alter a couple of those one-goal losses in the Leafs’ favor. In the event that those particular trends continue over the course of the 2010-11 season, major changes to the offense shouldn’t be necessary for the team to make a serious challenge for a playoff spot.

Bottom line: additional offense in the form of another top-six forward would be wonderful and would certainly ease the burden of the defenders and goaltenders, but — based upon the results of the final 26 games of last season following the acquisitions of Phaneuf, Sjostrom and Giguere — does not appear to be at all an absolute requirement for the Maple Leafs to compete for the postseason in 2010-11.

Myth: The Leafs must improve their offense to compete for a playoff spot
Status: Busted