31 games and a 12-15-4 record into the season, the struggling Maple Leafs find themselves the subject of several hotly-contested debates over many facets of the club. Is this the real Phil Kessel? Gustavsson or Giguere? And what of Ron Wilson?
My own responses to each of these questions are posted after the jump, and as always I invite you to share yours in the comments below.
Is this the real Phil Kessel?
Ever-talented, yet ever-streaky, Phil Kessel remains an enigma in the eyes of many of the Toronto faithful. Forget the assets relinquished in the trade that brought him here; that is over and done with, and no amount of consternation will undo the deal. Rather, the question is whether the Phil Kessel we’ve seen this season — he of two separate seven-game goalless droughts in just over 1/3 of the season so far, and he of the predictable skate down the wing and fire from outside the circles approach — is the player fans should come to expect.
Pure finesse players — those who rely primarily on soft hands and quick feet — are often difficult to gauge, as their success is largely dependent upon available space. That is, to be successful they require a certain amount of room in which to maximize their skillset. This is especially true of those whose game lacks two-way instinct, or a physical component. If that space is consistently taken away, the player is essentially rendered a non-factor.
Setting aside the true elite superstars (Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos), think of the top forwards on most teams and you’ll come up with a tandem almost every time: Kane and Toews. Perry and Getzlaf. Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Brown and Kopitar. Heatley and Thornton (and Marleau). The Sedins. And so on and so forth. The common denominator to the success of each? Comparable skill levels, which allow for greater creativity, expanded options offensively, and most importantly, the creation of open ice as defenders are forced to respect the abilities of more than one player on the ice.
What Toronto fans are witnessing with Kessel is the effect of a lack of a supplemental scoring threat with whom to share the ice. Current linemates Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong, while by no means lousy players, are also by no means the sort who put fear into the hearts of opposition defenders when they drive toward the net. The end result of this, we’ve seen on far too many occasions: Kessel breaks over the blueline with the puck, is forced to slow down and/or drift to the outside by a defender in man coverage, and finds himself bereft of advantageous shooting and passing opportunities as either (a) the second defender has taken away the lanes or (b) his linemates are not in proper support positions.
The reality is, until the Leafs are able to acquire or develop another forward with true top-line offensive skill/instincts who has earned enough opposition respect to draw coverage (subsequently creating space and opening lanes) and/or provide proper puck support, Kessel will continue to have to rely on opposition defensive breakdowns, and power play opportunities, for prime opportunities to maximize his immense but singularly-focused skillset. A recipe for success, that is not.
Giguere, or Gustavsson?
One of the less-discussed questions surrounding the Maple Leafs at the start of the season — when the transition from Giguere as starting netminder to Gustavsson would begin — has become a hot-button issue in the wake of the Leafs’ ongoing struggles to find consistency. Although the issue has been somewhat tempered by the re-aggravation of Giguere’s earlier groin injury, it will once again rear its ugly head when he does eventually return to action … especially if Gustavsson plays well in his stead.
Thus far on the season, the two goaltenders compare as such:
Note: GF/ST = team Goals For per start
Although Gustavsson has allowed more goals per game than Giguere, he has also faced more shots per game as evidenced by the slight difference in save percentage.Â It should be noted, however, just how similar the numbers are:Â three more saves by Giguere, and his SV % would equal Gustavsson’s; likewise, two fewer goals against would give Gustavsson the same GAA as Giguere. In other words, over the span of 14 – 17 starts each,Â the statisticalÂ difference — including offensive support –Â has beenÂ negligible at best.
You will recall that the season began with a 2-1 split in which Giguere would start two games andÂ Gustavsson one,Â regardless of the result.Â During Giguere’sÂ first stint on the IR this season, Gustavsson startedÂ nine straight games, atÂ the end of which he was noticeably fatigued. In the meantime, Giguere hasn’t been able to go more than three consecutive starts without breaking down physically.
If Gustavsson isÂ to beÂ the future in netÂ for the Maple Leafs, it would make senseÂ for the coachingÂ staff toÂ arrangeÂ a split which results in him seeing action in — at minimum — 50% of the second-half starts. Should the Maple Leafs find themselves out of the running for the playoffs, re-visiting the early season 2-1 starting philosophy, this time in favor of Gustavsson, would be a logical approach. Striking the proper balance between keeping both goaltenders sharp, and adequately rested to avoid further injury/fatigue issues, must be an area of focus moving forward.
On that note, don’t be surprised to see James Reimer get a start or two, should Giguere’s injury concerns linger.
Ron Wilson would like to trade places with you for a day
It’s an age-old cliche in sports. The fans want change. You can’t fire the whole team, but you can fire the coach. Do you do it, even if you know the problem lies with the players themselves?
To Brian Burke’s credit, he hasn’t wavered from his stance that coaching is not the problem. As he stated in an interview not too long ago on Fan590, “when we lose, I can see why we lose … it’s because specific players don’t get their jobs done,” an inference on-ice decision making as the team’s primary issue. In other words, mental mistakes as opposed to tactical.
While it is true that in-season coaching changes often do result in a short-term boost to the team’s overall play, on a long-term basis it is ultimately the strength of the roster the coach has to work with which will dictate his overall level of success with the club.Â Look no further than the New York Islanders this season. Their patchwork roster didn’t even receive a boost from a coaching change; in fact, they performed even worse after the move was made.Â Ken Hitchcock, the current “nom du jour” among Leafs’ fans, had a very brief spell of success with the Columbus Blue Jackets before they reverted back to their previous level of play … namely because their roster (which at the time, interestingly, was not constructed much differently than the current Toronto squad) was not built to accommodate his backcheck-heavy, defense-first system.
Is it worthwhile firing a coach for whom players continually express support, has yet to have one player quit on him, much less the team, and has a track record that is the envy of the majority of coaches throughout the league — for what might only be a short term benefit?
True, the change from Savard to Quenneville made a difference in Chicago … where the core of the team that would go on to win the Cup a year later was already in place. And yes, it worked in Pittsburgh, where the core of that team was already in place.Â In the meantime, one has to wonder how much rope Clouston has left in Ottawa, or Davis Payne in St. Louis.Â The difference?Â It’s much easier for a coach to find success when he has a strong roster at his disposal. Which Wilson does not. After all, even the most skilled of carpenters will struggle to produce a quality product when lacking precision tools.
I’ve always believed the most important indicator of whether or not a team is responding to a coach is the effort given by the players in a loss. Outside of a handful of games, the Leafs have generally been quite good in this regard. Come-from-behind victories over Nashville, Boston, and Washington offer further evidence that the team has not quit on their coach.
Were Wilson struggling to produce wins with a more talented roster (e.g. one that had a legitimate first line), I would probably lean closer to the side that suggests a change may be necessary. However, I find it difficult to believe another coach would experience any more success with this group as presently structured. This roster is, after all, closer to that of this year’s New York Islanders than last season’s Philadelphia Flyers.Â And if that’s the case, then you’re looking at change for the sake of change, or the sake of fan appeasement … but not for the sake of talent, which will (as the Islanders have discovered) remain theÂ root of the problem regardless of who happens to be standing behind the bench.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,