The Maple Leafs schedule is starting to feel like an American Hockey League situation with big gaps during the week followed by weekend back to backs.

However, it’s about to get fast and furious: The Leafs will go from having their first eight games played over 23 days to playing ten in the next 17 days, starting tonight in New York against the 2015 Eastern Conference finalists.

Phil Kessel will make his return to the ACC as a member of the Penguins for the first time tomorrow night. Do the right thing and don’t boo him for all the reasons outlined here.

Special Teams Woes

We’ve heard a lot of talk about how the Maple Leafs, currently last in the Atlantic Division, are an improved team in some significant areas, such as even strength possession, shot differential, and even goal differential. It’s of some consolation that the 1-5-2 Maple Leafs have outscored opponents at 5v5 because it usually means better times are around the corner.

Take a gander down below at just how badly special teams are impeding this Leafs team at the moment.

New York Islanders26.991.7118.6
Washington Capitals2885.2113.2
Dallas Stars27.385.7113
MontrŽal Canadiens23.187.2110.3
Vancouver Canucks19.489.3108.7
Winnipeg Jets24.183.3107.4
Florida Panthers27.379.5106.8
Nashville Predators17.988.5106.4
Boston Bruins32.172104.1
New York Rangers1687.9103.9
Chicago Blackhawks17.985.7103.6
Los Angeles Kings16.786.8103.5
Minnesota Wild23.378.3101.6
New Jersey Devils2576.5101.5
Anaheim Ducks1090.9100.9
Edmonton Oilers19.48099.4
Tampa Bay Lightning18.879.498.2
Colorado Avalanche17.979.497.3
Pittsburgh Penguins9.487.196.5
Arizona Coyotes12.283.896
Calgary Flames14.381.395.6
Ottawa Senators16.778.495.1
Detroit Red Wings16.178.894.9
St. Louis Blues10.881.191.9
San Jose Sharks11.18091.1
Buffalo Sabres23.766.790.4
Columbus Blue Jackets20.569.790.2
Philadelphia Flyers14.37589.3
Carolina Hurricanes8.177.385.4
Toronto Maple Leafs8.771.980.6

With a Mike Babcock-led staff behind the bench, it’s not only rather unexpected that the Leafs would be doing so poorly on the penalty kill, it’s a safe bet it’s not going to last. The Leafs are a respectable 15th right now in Fenwick Against per 60 while shorthanded.

The biggest thing they’ll need is better goaltending — their .796 save percentage at 4v5 is second last in the League. That’s not all on the goalies themselves, though, as the Leafs have routinely given up prime looks due to coverage breakdowns.

Meanwhile, Jim Hiller led one of the best powerplays in the League in Detroit last season, and I wouldn’t pin too much of the early struggles on him. The Leafs are actually directing more unblocked shot attempts at the net than any other team in the League at 5v4 at the moment. There’s a luck component here, although there’s no question, to me, there’s a talent one as well. Hiller has only so much to work with in terms of goal-scoring ability.

Interesting to note is that Hiller’s powerplay in Detroit last season started sluggishly as well — their start was actually more paltry than the Leafs’ current one. The Detroit powerplay went 2 for 27 out of the gates (7.4%, worse than the Leafs’ current 8.7% mark) which saw Hiller garner some early criticism, but it caught fire the rest of the way.

It’s an apples and oranges comparison, though, when you have offensive talent at your disposal in Gustav Nyquist, who potted 14 goals and 24 points with the man advantage, Henrik Zetterberg  (28 5v4 points), and Pavel Datsyuk (24 in just 63 games). Hiller was doing something right given the Detroit PP was the best in the League after the first month, but it’s hard to fail in that situation. The Leafs obviously don’t have that kind of offensive arsenal — not even close.

The return of Jake Gardiner should help here to some degree. One of the first things you notice about the Leaf powerplay so far is that it the units are moving the puck reasonably effectively and directing ample rubber at the net, but once possession is lost the puck is almost always sent 200 feet down the ice. The Leafs could be better at winning battles and recovering pucks, although it’s partially down to the fact that they’re in a diamond formation, often times with only one man high trying to keep pucks in the offensive zone after a possession switch.

“We want to be aggressive at their net-front,” Hiller told the Detroit News last October.

“When the puck gets to their net, we want to have more players than they do. To create more chances, you have to get the puck back once you’re there. It’s outnumbering at the net for your goal-scoring chances, and outnumbering so we can get it back and start over again.”

At the end of the day, the Leafs are not making enough of their shots count. It will improve, but it’s harder to bank on  marked improvement here than it is on the penalty kill.

Lineup Notes vs. Rangers

The Leafs will get both Tyler Bozak and Jake Gardiner back in the lineup tonight. In that respect, the big break has been beneficial as the Leafs played arguably their worst game of the season versus Arizona on Monday —  it doesn’t help that they were thinner than usual down the middle and on defence.

Appearing as though he will take a seat tonight in the press box is Brad Boyes, who, interesting enough, has points in his last two games (both assists). Boyes is also the team’s leader in even strength points per 60 through eight games.

Boyes makes room for Rich Clune’s debut as a Toronto Maple Leaf while Byron Froese remains in the lineup.

Said Babcock: “Clune had a great training camp and is a physical forechecker, an energy guy, good pro and does things right. Froese and Clune are two guys that can help us have an energy fourth line, and Froese and [Michael] Grabner will penalty kill, so it gives us good useable pieces.”

Nick Spaling remains out of the lineup, still listed as day to day with an upper body injury. Scott Harrington is also said to be dealing with a minor injury.

There’s an identifiable pattern down below here as Babcock has a physical/forechecking presence on the wing of each line.