There has been much exhaustion over the fact that the Leafs have gone 11-13-5 (having won only 4 of those 29 games in regulation) since beginning the season 10-4-0. We sit here today with over half the season in the rear view mirror and the good Leaf efforts can really be counted using only one hand. Of the 21 Leaf wins this season the majority of them have been on the backs of both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier (combined to rank 5th in the NHL with a .939 save percentage). As I’ve said many times before though: goaltending is a part of this club, and – after not having it for 8 years – I’m not going to begin to feel guilty for relying heavily on it now. However, there are definite reasons for concern around the blue and white and they have been there all season.
Through the opening 43 games this year, the Leafs rank 27th in the NHL on PK (77.8%), 30th in shots against per game (36.7), 27th again in shots for per game (27.3) also, despite having the 5th highest save percentage, they are 20th in goals allowed per game (2.86). Another area for concern is that since the 10-4-0 start, the Leafs have only averaged 2.25 goals per game (which would rank 29th) over their past 29 contests. In 8 of those 29 games the Leafs have failed to register an even strength goal. We have reached the point where, other than the power play (5th in the NHL at 21.8%), the 5th highest team save percentage (mentioned above) and registering the second most shootout wins (7), the Leafs have been one of the worst teams in the league all year.
Regardless of all these things above, Randy Carlyle’s team (well, his team for now) are still amazingly holding down the final playoff spot in the dreadful Eastern Conference. So, as gloomy as it has been, this is what I would do to turn the Leafs’ fortunes around for the remaining 39 games of the 2013-14 season:
Spread It Out
The Leafs are only one of two teams (the Vancouver Canucks are the other) that has three forwards (JVR, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel) in the top 25 in average time on ice. As much as Carlyle refuses to admit it, offense is his teams strength. This year the secondary scoring has disappeared. Joffrey Lupul has been held scoreless in 21 of 33 games this year and he has far too often not been a factor. In his defense, over the last 11 games the Leafs have leaned heavily on Jay McClement’s checking line at even strength. Due to this, Lupul has begun playing third line minutes and the Leafs have become a team that relies too much on the Kessel line to produce offense.
Carlyle is going to need to bite the bullet a little and begin to use Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland a lot more in an attempt to balance out his floundering offense. As much as Carlyle has used McClement to play safe hockey, the Leafs are still the worst team in the long at allowing shots. Perhaps attacking a little will be more successful?
With the return of Bozak, Holland has been demoted to the 4th line and has once again been sparingly used (8:34, 3:52 and 8:52 of ice time in those three games). In games that Holland has actually been given an opportunity (more than 10 minutes of ice time) for the Leafs, he has recorded 9 points in 15 games.
As for Kadri, the legion of fans that he had last season have all put their 43 blue and white sweaters in their closets and begun to criticize him. Is Kadri struggling? Yes. However, he is still on pace for 48 points this season (both Bozak and Dave Bolland have a career high of 47 by the way) and – like Lupul – he has begun to receive third line minutes behind Bozak and McClement. Whether Carlyle or the new Kadri critics think he deserves it or not, the Leafs need him to turn his game around. Not using him doesn’t accomplish that.
The third member of that line, Mason Raymond, is also struggling. Raymond has 1 goal and 7 points in his last 15 games. Considering 4 of those points came in the 7-3 win against Chicago, his production has been absent for awhile as well.
The numbers don’t lie. The Leafs have been dominated this season by their opposition and have consistently received the game. Carlyle is known to be a fanatic for matching lines. Yet, in doing so, he has allowed the opposing coach to dictate the way the game is being played. That not only has led to being outshot every night, but has also left capable offensive players on the bench for longer than necessary. The Leafs control their own fate and can turn things around by using the pieces at their disposal. The goaltending is good enough to insulate the weak defensive group and if the offensive players are used properly, the Leafs should avoid allowing over 36 shots a night. As bleak as it is, the opportunity for success is available. The real question becomes whether Carlyle is too stubborn in his way to acknowledge the issues.