The Toronto Maple Leafs have officially played a quarter of their season, and we are still no closer to figuring out where this team will finish once 82 games is up.

Before the start of the season, we posted our annual season predictions on MLHS and I wrote, in part:

“I can make a case for this team to finish in the top 5 in the East, or the bottom five in the East, and I think both would be reasonably valid. Neither would surprise me. They have great goaltending, a good power play, some depth scoring, and some nice defensemen.  Looking around the East, I expect Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal and Tampa Bay to make the playoffs. Then, there is a second tier with a bunch of teams.”

This is a tough team to get a read on and the range of possibilities for where they finish really is that big. But here is what we know so far, through 21 games:

Despite how up and down the team has been, they are right in the middle of the playoff race. James Mirtle has noted more than a few times that they are playing at a reasonably sustainable pace. They are still a mediocre possession team—to be sure—sitting 23rd in fenwick percentage, and 27th in overall corsi percentage; they are in the 47th percentile for both numbers.  At 5v5 play, their goals-for percentage is under 49% (18th in the league), and their PP is only 16th in the league.

What it all means is as good as anyone’s guess. They still have bottom third possession numbers, but this team is built on goaltending and scoring wingers—they are never going to have strong possession numbers with this group but they have shown they can string together wins this way . Not to mention the team has improved their depth and their neutral zone play has improved to bring the team from embarrassing to mediocre, but considering their skill that might be enough.  It’s a mess of numbers, but it’s not at all hard to conclude this team is at least capable of being in the race until the very end.

Maybe what it will really come down to is special teams. The current top ten ranked PK (it’s at 7th right now) is giving up the 8th most shots against down a man so far; not to mention they are second in the league in shorthanded goals. How sustainable will that all be? The power play isn’t awful at 16th in the league, but that’s a big drop from the unit that finished 6th last year and it’s fair to wonder if a poor possession team can win over 82 games with a middling power play.

It is good that the Leafs appear capable of sticking in the hunt this year, but it will make life that much more difficult for management. Toronto can’t afford to repeat what happened last year, when they stood pat at the deadline and collapsed down the stretch, idly watching marketable assets at the trade deadline walk for free (Mason Raymond, Nik Kulemin, Jay McClement, to name a few).

After this season, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, David Booth and Cody Franson are all UFAs. If they aren’t going to bring them back, they have to try trading them for value unless they are firmly going to make it (other than Booth at the moment, they should all be able to net at least something of value). Even if they are just getting draft picks, the upcoming 2015 draft class is being ranked up as one of the best possible classes ever. Needless to say, stockpiling picks and assets to work the draft floor would not be a bad idea this year.

But there is a flipside to this: The Leafs could look to add at the deadline if they are for real. Capgeek lists the Leafs deadline cap space to be $5.9M which is more than enough for a sizable upgrade, or even two depending on the players moving. The East is poor and it’s pretty open for the taking, which can’t be ignored. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay look very good, but after that we are looking at a watered down Bruins team, an overrated Habs team, and a growing Islanders team. Some good teams, to be sure, but not much to be scared about.

Maybe it is just as simple as this—the Leafs should move all UFAs they can’t extend the contract of by the deadline.  It might be early to some to be thinking about this, but negotiations with pending UFAs can start as early as January 1st, and a big part of the GM’s job is constantly looking to the future, almost as much if not more than the present.

Now at the quarter point of the season, the Leafs haven’t made management’s life any easier when it comes to sorting out where this team will finish.


–       In the summer I wrote about the Leafs penalty kill troubles. In it is a section on shorthanded goals against caused from losing the draw, never regaining the puck, and getting scored on. Bozak is highlighted in this section because he is the one player on the team who forces play immediately after he loses a draw, in part (I’m guessing) because his job is to get off as soon as the puck is cleared (since he’s only out there to take the faceoff in the first place). Against the Red Wings, he did it again and it turned out to be the game winner.

–       For the record, the Leafs have allowed 10 goals against down a man through 21 games, and have scored 4 shorthanded goals. That means they are scoring over 28% of the goals when down a man. The Leafs scored 6 shorthanded goals through the entire season last year, giving up 49 in the process (so they scored roughly 10% of the goals down a man). Mason Raymond and JVR were regular penalty killers last season, so it is not as if there was no skill killing penalties, but they were not nearly as aggressive in the neutral zone or pressuring the points.

–   I mentioned it last week, but it’s worth pointing out again because this is two weeks in a row that Peter Holland has dropped his shoulder on the rush, created space for himself, and scored. Holland is not a bruiser, but he is still one of the Leafs biggest forwards at 6’2, and along with JVR and Lupul (who is regularly hurt) is one of their only big players with size and skill. Size is not a prerequisite for winning, but it is important to have players that know how to create opportunities for themselves with their attributes whether it’s because of skill (Patrick Kane), shot (Phil Kessel), speed (Erik Karlsson), or size. Holland is not in that class of player and never will be, but he’s developing and beginning to use his size to create space and opportunities for himself. It is a really positive development for the team and organization.

–       Kontiola’s contract being terminated and going back to the KHL is not insignificant. With Kontiola the Leafs had 50 contracts signed, which is the limit. That means that they could not have added a player without subtracting, but now they can. Their defense depth is about to get tested with Roman Polak out at least a month while Stuart Percy and Petter Granberg are also hurt. I wondered if the Leafs should have claimed David Schlemko 11 days ago, but doing so would have required another move to make room. Now, they can add a player however they want because they have the contract space.

–       During the Tampa Bay game I tweeted that JVR’s skating appears weaker compared to last season. A video of the play I was talking about can be found here, when he struggled to pull away from the backchecking Valtteri Filppula. Now here is a video of JVR from last season, flat-out embarrassing PK Subban in a race for the puck and pulling away clean (and Subban is one of the more powerful skating defensemen in the league). Before the season JVR said, “This is the first year I’ve put on some weight,” and while the article says it’s only five pounds and it’s “good weight” (also known as not body-fat), he has not had that explosion and hop to his step this year. He wouldn’t be the first player ever to put on weight and maybe realize he is better off going back to his original weight.



[quote_box_center]“That’s a tough market to play in, I don’t envy those guys at all. They have two great goalies, leave ‘em alone. Be quiet and enjoy it. Don’t create a problem that isn’t there. Every game they lose, they reflect on them. I know I haven’t been in the league long but every year it’s the same thing. Leave your goalies alone.”
–  Robin Lehner on the Leafs goaltending situation.[/quote_box_center]

The man has a point.

[quote_box_center]“I know a lot of people say Toronto is the best place to play, but that’s only if it’s going miraculously well. And the only way you’re going to be cheered in Toronto is if you happen to be leading with five minutes to go. And you’ve got a significant lead, then they might happen to get off their hands and give you a cheer.”
–  Ron Wilson this week, on Leafs fans.[/quote_box_center]

Why is the idea of the Leafs, you know, actually playing well “miraculous?”

[quote_box_center]“Pat was bigger than life, and we would call him Frosty, as in Frosty the Snowman. Every year at Christmas, he would pull out this Frosty the Snowman tie. We just knew he’d wear it every year around that time. He’d come into the room for the pregame speech, and lo and behold, he’d have the Frosty the Snowman tie. It would take everything we had not to laugh. … It was awesome.”
–   Bryan McCabe, reminiscing about Pat Quinn.[/quote_box_center]


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think it’s a no-brainer that when David Booth and Joffrey Lupul return, Trevor Smith and Josh Leivo should be the two players that come out. Leivo needs ice time, which he isn’t getting with the Leafs, while Smith is not a full-time NHLer.
  2. I think when Booth and Lupul are both back in–provided a forward doesn’t get hurt—I’d like to see Santorelli back at center playing with Booth and Panik as the fourth line, and then I’d build the lines up there. The Leafs need to keep pushing Holland in the top 9, and with Santorelli as the 4C, that’s a fourth line you can trust and easily give at least 10min/game. It is a forward group capable of attacking in waves like few teams in the East can boast, so use it to your advantage.
  3. I think I would also like to try Santorelli on the penalty kill. Right now, Trevor Smith is getting reps on the second unit, but if he is out of the line-up they will obviously need to find someone new, and the returning players—Booth and Lupul—aren’t exactly what you’d consider penalty killers. Last season, Santorelli was on the Canucks second PK unit before he got hurt with Brad Richardson, as he ended up averaging 1:43/game with a man down. Santorelli is fast, drives play because of his board work and his good positioning; all things that will serve him well in a penalty killing role. Plus, I’ve always considered penalty killing more systemic than player driven, so a capable and above average NHLer will be able to pick it up provided the structure is in place.
  4. I think I still see no reason to have Phaneuf and Franson together on the PP. Phaneuf breaking out with the puck is an adventure at least once per game, with teams waiting for the drop pass to Kessel in the neutral zone. The second unit is equally damaged, as Rielly and Gardiner spend a lot of time passing to each other wondering which one of the two will shoot. Phaneuf and Franson are shooters, Gardiner and Rielly are skaters that can gain the zone and move the puck. This should not be not that difficult for a coach(es) to figure out with their eyes, and with an expensive analytics/video department to back it all up.
  5. I think I would change up the PP#2 unit—I know that it will happen with players returning, anyway. The returning Joffrey Lupul is an automatic power play player, but I think I would take out David Clarkson, instead of Lupul. Last season the second power play unit was remarkably successful (the Kessel unit had 22 goals, the Kadri unit had 19), with two left hand shots and Lupul (a righty) roaming the front of the net. I wouldn’t expect Holland to be as productive as veteran scorer, Mason Raymond, just yet, but his offensive game is growing and adding a top producer in Lupul, over Clarkson, is a big spark to that unit. This allows Kadri to work the half wall, Holland to go in the corner, and Lupul to set up for a one-timer or go to the net.