A Need To Improve

Photo Credit: cbc.ca

Photo Credit: cbc.ca

How do we accurately evaluate this team? Just how good are we? If you’re looking for me (or anyone else for that matter) to answer those questions right now you’re setting yourself up for a pretty big disappointment. In light of recent events, pretty much any scenario is possible.

What if we’re missing Reimer until February? How will the duo of Scrivens and, to a lesser degree, Gustavsson perform? Will Tim Connolly ever stay healthy for a considerable number of games? Is our record so far sustainable through 82 games? I can’t answer that right now, nobody can. There’s too many variables involved. Should we look to the trade route? All I can speak to is the need to still improve further, which was always a part of the plan.

First off, I need to preface this with a couple of facts. Fact is, we have our No1 center out with his second injury this season. As things stand now Tim Connolly has actually been out for more games than he played in (10-6 ratio). Our No. 1 netminder, the guy who still boasts the best save percentage of all our goalies this season (.912), is out with something certain mums and less than ethical journalists like to call post concussion syndrome. Last but not least, Colby Armstrong, a player who based on our record with him and without him in the lineup has a tremendous influence on the fortunes of this hockey club, has already missed 11 games due to an ankle injury.

Given all this, to say a trade is absolutely necessary at this point isn’t really 100% accurate. A team simply has to have all its pieces healthy for a longer stretch of games to properly assess or re-assess our needs. So far this season, Burke and Wilson haven’t really had that opportunity (with Connolly, will they ever?). However, the argument that Burke still needs to improve this team (let’s face it, Connolly and Franson didn’t exactly solve our need for a legitimate top line big body) doesn’t go away purely because we have a 10-5-1 record.

Fact is, that need isn’t going away, and it was clearly on display in the game in St. Louis, as well as in certain periods of play against Boston (both times) and Columbus. I’d argue that besides making low quality chip ins and dump ins, the biggest reason why we aren’t able to control the boards against bigger teams is our lack of a skilled player who does exactly that. On occasion, the reason why Kessel’s line struggles against bigger teams who clog the neutral zone is because Kessel has no way of getting the puck, nor can his line establish a quality cycle due to that inability to control the boards.

On the other hand, our bottom lines do a good job forechecking and creating pressure but they lack the talent to consistently get on the board. Their job is to chip in the odd goal but  they can’t be relied on for scoring. This is why you pay premium dollar for premium talent.

Phil Kessel is our money player, not doubting that for one second. Also, Phil Kessel has found consistency and is working hard on almost every shift by playing a solid two way game. But one thing Phil Kessel will never be good at is claiming the puck along the boards. Couple that with Tim Connolly, who isn’t exactly your prototypical grind it out player, and it’s no wonder that line struggles when forced to chip and chase. To be effective, that line has to be in possession of the puck and create a good cycle or attack off the rush, which is much harder to do against teams that pressure the netural zone or play a regular trap.

My second main point is that, when put against an effective forecheck, our D has serious problems making the first pass out of the zone or making the right play through the neutral zone. Too many times this year we have seen a cross ice pass that ends up as  an icing or a turnover. Too many times have we been guilty of turnovers in our own zone. Being hemmed in our own zone by our own doing negates the amount of offensive ice time for players that thrive on puck transition. Most of the time, they don’t even have a chance to attack if the puck is given up early on our own blueline or behind it.

This is a huge part of the problem and a big reason of why it can seem that Phil Kessel isn’t doing anything for stretches of games (vs. St. Louis). Still, if our energy lines can push the pace and get possession of the puck, then it’s only logical to assume our top line would benefit from a similar player on that line, a player that along with a high skillset boasts the ability to come in on the forecheck, create a turnover with a big hit, or body a defenceman off the puck in the corner, and give that line possession in the offensive zone. Lupul does this on occasion, but in my mind, not consistently enough.

So, to be quite honest, I do think our team has drastically improved, but to really compete with the big boys, more tinkering will be/is needed. Listen, there is absolutely nothing negative in wanting to improve. In fact, most GMs probably need sleeping pills for this reason, they are constantly thinking ways to improve their club. Burke is no different. Right now, if healthy, this team is good enough to get into the playoffs. Then again, when has just making the playoffs ever satisfied anyone?