Three Keys to Shoring Up the Chronic Goals Against Problem
From a cursory assessment of the team at the onset of a new season, many fans and pundits have predicted the Leafs were going to struggle scoring goals more than they were at keeping them out in recent years.
Preaching a net-out philosophy of team building, Brian Burke had invested heavily in the defensive corps and seemed, on paper, to have amassed decent depth on the blueline.
This inaccurate prognostication of the Leafs’ strengths and weaknesses was fueled by a few misassumptions: 1) the Leafs had a goalie in their system capable of league average numbers; 2) the number one center “myth” clouding one’s view of what was a pretty productive forward cast that could score by committee.
Whether it’s for a salvaged half-season starting January 19 or not until next October, the Leafs head towards another season with the need to heal the gaping goals against sore spot. So far, Brian Burke has only made one half-measure by bringing in a proficient defensive center in Jay McClement. Some insiders would suggest he has a big deal involving a goaltender from Vancouver on standby as we wait for this hellish joke of a CBA process to play itself out.
It is important to recognize off the top that the the Leafs have, included in their goals against problem (29th last season), a shots allowed (22nd in 2011-12) weakness. The issues extend further out than the crease.
All that said, here’s my three keys to getting goals against down where it needs to be to contend for the ever-elusive playoff spot:
1. A legitimate starting goaltender
Easy enough, right? It might be.
I vote Roberto Luongo. And I say, instead of following the Canucks fan tradition at the Rogers Arena (never a good idea) of raining “Luuu” down on #1 when he comes up big, Leafs fan should chant “strombone” in unison.
I’m going to ignore the labels sewn onto him by some fans (I don’t see enough evidence to support them), and call Luongo a consistently well above average NHL starting goaltender with an Olympic gold medal and a Western Conference Championship to his name. We also know, as a general rule, that high end starting goaltenders who retain that status into their early thirties are usually still good into their later thirties.
Brian Burke needs to stop fooling around at this all-important position. To me, this has been his biggest failing, and the only one I harbour some bitterness towards him about. No team should be questioning their goaltender night in night out, whether that team be a reliable goaltender away from being a Stanley Cup contender (Philadelphia) or if it is rebuilding and learning how to win in the league.
You could provide a litany of reasons and excuses as to why Burke made the wrong choices he did between the pipes throughout his tenure to date. I don’t want to hear them. He’s paid the big bucks to get it right and he vowed to get this right (the “net out,” “I’m never getting Cloutier-ed again” talk).
The Canucks are going with Cory Schneider for a couple simple reasons: He was as good as Luongo last season, he’s younger, and he’s cheaper. Schneider’s been signed for three seasons for $12 million. We can safely project that the new CBA’s ramifications on the Canucks’ cap situation (13 players signed for $60.2 million already for next season) means Luongo has to go. I’m not sure how reliable they were, but there’s also been reports of Luongo demanding a trade.
All this should add up to Luongo being even more affordable than one would think, with his primary cost being the contract burden the Leafs would incurring. I’d suggest the flexibility of the Leafs’ cap situation makes this risk worth taking. The Leafs may not be ready to contend for a Cup yet, but they can take a big step towards the playoffs and provide the rest of the team with goaltender they can trust night in and night out, feasibly without sacrificing significant young assets to do it.
Go for it, Burkie.
2. Carlyle’s shutdown line
Key to the success of the Carlyle gameplan is the effective implementation and usage of his so-called shutdown line. A unit of McClement (who was airlifted in for the center role), Kulemin and Frattin sounds like a decent starting combination.
Within Carlyle’s model for the structuring of his forward lines, the so-called shutdown line is the lynchpin. If its doing its job, it means Carlyle can use his scoring lines for matchup-exploiting purposes. Theoretically, this could mitigate to some extent the defensive issues of the Lupul-Bozak-Kessel line, which were exacerbated by Wilson throwing the line over the boards without much discretion. It kept him employed for a while, then the cheque came.
The shutdown line also helps Carlyle’s Leafs establish balance among the forward ranks. The ability to attack a defense from many an angle, to beat different teams in different ways over the length of a season, is key to success in the NHL. The Leafs gave us a lesson in the flaws of one-dimensionality last season when it came to Ron Wilson’s run-and-gun system and primarily rush attack. It was figured out eventually and with increasing ease in the early months of 2012.
You’ve got the Kessel-Lupul-Bozak line offering a good rush attack line that can kill with speed and skill in transition. The Grabovski line serves more as a possession line that can typically win the shots and scoring chances battle. Rounding it out is an energy line, comprised of a faceoff specialist in Steckel and two energy guys in the likes of Komarov and Brown. Theoretically, each line brings something a little different to the table.
3. Find a Physical Shutdown Defenceman
The pairing of Phaneuf and Gunnarsson was being leaned on heavily for the toughest minutes last season, in all situations. If the Leafs are going to get serious about reducing their number of scoring chances allowed, alleviating Gunnar and Phaneuf of some of their TOI with another defenceman who can play well in meaningful minutes, particularly on the PK, should be a priority.
Phaneuf plays a particularly high energy game – he likes to join the attack, throw a number of hard hits a game, fight more than he probably should, while being asked to shut down the opposition’s best – and struck me last season as needing a few less minutes a night to perform at an optimal level.
Burke may see an internal solution here, but I don’t quite see one myself. Ideally this defenceman would be right-handed with some size and an edge to him, as the Leafs’ top 4 D are all lefties and outside of Phaneuf aren’t particularly physical. Luke Schenn, however bad he was for periods last season, was all of those things (big, right-handed, physical) and Burke needs a replacement and an upgrade at the same time. It’s a shame it came to this point given Komisarek and Schenn were both paid well to be right-handed, rugged, shutdown-style defencemen, but unfortunately couldn’t do the last part.
The Leafs’ best ranking in goals against during the Burke tenure was 24th in 2010-11, not coincidently the closest they’ve come to making the playoffs during his reign. That was almost entirely attributable to rookie James Reimer‘s out-of-worldly play down the stretch, which the team rallied in front of. It’s been 28th, 29th, and 30th finishes otherwise. Based on last season’s numbers, the Leafs would have had to allow 35 less goals just to escape the bottom 10 in goals against, and 42 to break the top 16. Brian Burke has some work to do.