Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Late Season Surge: Mirage or Reality?

leafs kessel bozak bffs
There was a point where I truly believed the Leafs late season successes were harbingers for the following seasons. This led me to believe that all the Leafs really needed after both 2006 and 2007 was a capable goalie. Well, I was totally wrong. The problems afflicting the team ran much deeper than that. At that point I was still blinded by the pre-lockout Leafs who consistently made the playoffs and on occasion looked good enough to seriously contend. I was probably blinded then, too.

When I began to realize the deep-seeded problems afflicting the Leafs during 2008 I prayed the Leafs did not excel when the pressure of actually making the playoffs disappeared. Unfortunately, this was the time they did win, ruining the strength of their draft picks. I was a full supporter of Tank Nation over the past two seasons. They needed to fully re-build or else they would never win a Stanley Cup.

Now, most of this season has been very difficult for me to handle (I will go into further detail at another time of just how I dealt with the futility). And now the Leafs are transforming into the late-season good team that somehow appears every season when the pressure is off. Usually this is not indicative of how the team will play the following year. So, is this year any different? Is the Leafs performance over the final months of this season a mirage or is it a sign of things to come?

This is no mirage.

Stop laughing.

Normally the Leafs only turn it on when there is no pressure and some might be quick to point out that this year is no different. If this was the same team as last year, or even the same team that started the season, I would fully agree with you. But the Leafs team that is playing now is a completely different team than any of the previous futile squads. It isn’t fair to judge them based on the past failures of other players.

This is a new team. I’ve been calling them the New Leafs for a few months now. The entire team has undergone a radical transformation since January 31, when Brian Burke traded for Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere. The Leafs were further altered at this year’s trade deadline when both Alex Ponikarovski and Lee Stempniak were traded. Those trades represent 40% of the Leafs starting line-up at the beginning of the season. Gone from the opening day roster are Jason Blake, Poni, Stempniak, Vesa Toskala, Jamal Mayers, Ian White, Matt Stajan, and Nik Hagman. It’s clear that this is a completely different team.

At this point the only player on the team who was on the Leafs in 2007-2008 is Tomas Kaberle. And once he is traded during the off-season it will be the complete destruction of the Old Leafs.

The arrival of Dion Phaneuf has had the greatest impact on the Leafs’ transformation. While Phaneuf has not put up the gaudy offensive statistics many expected, he has completely revitalized the Toronto defence (which looked good on paper at the beginning of the season, but turned out to be horrible). Phaneuf is the clear number one defenceman on the team and this has helped everyone, especially Francois Beauchemin.

Beauchemin has had an underwhelming first season on the Leafs and on many nights it seemed as if he was totally overwhelmed taking on the responsibility of a number one defenceman. This was especially apparent with the injury to Mike Komisarek. Beauchemin was trying to do too much for the team, much like Komisarek was, and was performing badly. Phaneuf's arrival has seemed to calm Beauchemin (although he still makes egregious pinches). They are playing well together as the team’s top-pair and are playing hefty minutes, easing the pressure on both Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson (the only two plus defencemen on Toronto).

I fully expect the same benefits to extend to Komisarek when he returns next season. Komisarek started the season horribly, but began to look more like the Komisarek that played in Montreal as he simplified his game. Komisarek was good in Montreal when he was able to play a safe and reliable game as Montreal’s number two defenceman behind Andrei Markov.

A top-four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin, and Schenn looks pretty good heading into next season.

Statistically, the New Leafs are far superior defensively to the Old Leafs. The Old Leafs were absolutely atrocious defensively, giving up 3.53 goals per game. The New Leafs have dramatically cut that total and are only giving up 2.65 goals per game, which would place them 10th in the league.

One of the main reasons for this defensive turn-around is the Leafs penalty killing proficiency. Before trading for Phaneuf and Giguere the Leafs PK was historically bad, killing off only 70.2%, which would be the third worst penalty kill of all-time. Since the trade, the Leafs’ penalty kill is around 85%, which would be good enough for fifth best in the entire league if they played at that rate all season.

Phaneuf has been a major factor on the penalty kill, as has the other member of the Calgary deal, Fredrik Sjostrom. But the most important reason for the Leafs turn around, which is symbiotically linked to better defence, is the Leafs improved goaltending.

J.S. Giguere has added a reliable presence in the net for the Leafs, eerily reminiscent of Ed Belfour, including the frightening adventures that took place whenever Eddie ventured outside his crease. Giguere has started 12 games for the Leafs and has only won 4 times, but he has a 2.61 GAA and .913%. Those are pretty decent, but look Vezina worthy when compared to the 3.66 GAA and .874% stats Vesa Toskala treated Leafs fans to. Giguere is aided by his enormous equipment, which I guess he’s still allowed to use under some grandfather clause. Or maybe nobody has noticed yet. Either way, the Leafs are noticeably calmer with Giguere in net, which is likely a product of knowing that not every shot has a chance of going in (I’m talking about you, Vesa).

Giguere’s addition has also had a tremendous impact on Jonas Gustavsson. Since the trade the Monster is 7-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .920%. Now the Leafs actually have Gustavsson sitting next to Giguere in the locker room, while before they preferred to keep their young netminder away from Vesa Toskala (isn’t that the most telling anecdote about Vesa Toskala?). Gustavsson is looking more like the player described to Leafs fans in the summer, opposed to the one who battled through the first half of his rookie season, over-playing pucks and swimming in and out of position.

The Leafs offense has also managed to stay consistent, despite losing 88 goals. Any notion that the Leafs would have a hard time scoring is being proven false. Since January 31 the Leafs have scored 53 goals in 20 games, or 2.65 per game. Before the major trade the team was scoring 2.66 goals per game. I know Stempniak and Ponikarovski were still around for some post-January 31 games, but their contributions were negligible.

At this point the Leafs are a young team that is starting to play well together and win some games. In the past when the Leafs have won consistently down the stretch when all pressure faded they were mainly a team of veterans (apart from last season when they went 15-12-5 after January 31 – but this year’s Leafs hardly resemble that team). It is encouraging to see the Leafs young core win games and develop together.

The overhaul of the Leafs lineup is hardly over, but they have finally established a fairly decent core of young, talented players to build around and that bodes well for the future. It is not hard to imagine that the Leafs will improve from being an awful team to a mediocre or even average team next year. And because the Eastern Conference is so lousy, that’s good enough to be anywhere from 9th place to 6th place.


Ted Rigby said...

Only 4 points separate the bottom 5 teams in the Eastern Conference, if the Leafs finish 11th or 12th in the East, I don't think anyone would be quite so heart-broken over the Kessel deal. I'm thinking that's got to be the motivation for the team, as long as someone points it out... I'm sure Ronny Wilson's still too busy glazing over and touching himself to the thought of Travis Zajac...

Ted Rigby said...

Also, when I saw the topic of this article Roy, I was going to bash you for being obviously delusional... too bad I share your hopeless dreams... except the one where Luke Schenn flies in the window, that one's kinda weird...

Matt Horner said...

It's really hard to say if this recent play is for real. I mean, it's a completely different team, but I've been burned in the past (repeatedly!)

I say it's for real. But I'm hopeful...or hopeless, depending how you look at it.

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