Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sustaining the Surge

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First place. It's got a nice ring to it doesn't it.

The last time the Leafs were in first place this late in the season was in 1998. Yup, I think that about sums up what's happened around these parts lately. The Leafs already have nine wins, which they didn't achieve last season until early December.

It is truly miraculous that the Leafs sit first overall in the league despite owning the league's worst penalty kill and one of the worst goals-against per game. But they have outgunned their problems on the way to a 9-3-1 record, and when you win, nobody cares how you do it.

But there is legitimate reason for concern. If the Leafs don't rectify some of their problems, it won't matter that they've started the season like gorillas out of a cage, they'll find their lead atop the standings slowly slip away, and they'll fade, joining a long list of teams that looked like Stanley Cup champions in October, only to find themselves forgotten by January.

For the Leafs to continue their impressive start to the season they need to do three things: get more shots on net, tighten up defensively, and most importantly, somehow manage to improve their penalty kill.

The Leafs' shooting percentage will plummet. That is certain. They are currently scoring at a ridiculous rate for the amount of shots they are generating. They have the third highest goals-per-game with the seventh lowest shots-per-game. That isn't going to hold up all season. They won't face a sloppy Martin Brodeur or a crumbling Steve Mason every night. The bounces aren't always going to go their way.

When the Leafs stop scoring at such an obscenely high rate they will need to start generating more shots to compensate.

When the goals stop coming easily it will be of utmost importance that the Leafs shore up in their defensive end. Toronto is in the bottom third of the league in shots against and they have conceded the sixth most goals-per-game, which seems about right when you consider the amount of breakaways the Leafs give up on an almost nightly basis.

Luke Schenn has been lost to start the season, logging a season low eight minutes against Columbus. His confidence looks shot and it might be time to sit him a game or two. Conversely, Mike Komisarek is gaining enough trust in the coaching staff that he actually played close to 20 minutes on Thursday, but he still takes too many penalties to be counted upon.

Dion Phaneuf has climbed back to elite status, but for the entire defensive group to get better there needs to be a more consistent effort from everyone.

But what's most important will be finding some way to fix the penalty kill that hasn't managed to dig its way out of the league's basement in three years. The Leafs amazingly were four-for-four against Columbus, which could be the start of something, but the Blue Jackets also have won fewer games than anyone else in the league and sit third last in power play proficiency.

Tim Connolly spent time killing penalties against Columbus and seemed pretty adept. He even shows a willingness to drop to the ice to block a shot if the opportunity presents itself. Jonathan Willis over at The Leafs Nation had a good post before the season started proving Connolly's worth a man down, so maybe there is hope in the current personnel.

If the Leafs' penalty kill does not begin to make major positive strives Ron Wilson will have to admit his system does not work and he'll have to adapt. Brian Burke has provided him with new players each season and there are even new assistant coaches to help, yet the penalty kill barely tops 70%.

But enough negativity - surprisingly, this is a post about a first place team, although you wouldn't guess by the tone of it. I'm just glad my criticism is about how the Leafs can stay atop the standings, rather than how the Leafs can climb out of the basement.

Aside from a shooting percentage that will come crashing to the ground any day, a defence that hasn't yet lived up their potential, and the ever woeful penalty kill, all is well in Leafs Nation, and for the first time in many years, there's a legitimate reason to smile.

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