Monday, January 2, 2012

December Recap: Same Old Situation

The only two Toronto Maple Leafs, at least according to the scoresheet.
Thankfully December is a time of holiday cheer because Leafs Nation was getting little to cheer about. It’s also a good thing that the holidays are filled with drinking and stuffing your face into a stupor because if they weren’t it would be all the more painful to realize what’s happening to the Leafs.

- A 4-6-3 record in December has dropped the Leafs outside of the playoffs for the first time this season. They sit 10th in the Eastern Conference with 41 points, two behind New Jersey, Winnipeg, and Ottawa who occupy the final three playoff spots.

- The Leafs failed to gain any positive momentum, stretching their longest winning streak in the month to a whopping two games. Although, looking on the bright side, the team never really had any crazy negative stretches either. The Leafs went a maximum of two games without a point and held their longest winless streak at three games. Not horribly soul crushing.

- A penalty kill that slowly began to trend upwards in November must have been due to random, dumb luck because the true penalty kill resurfaced in December and was absolutely atrocious. The Leafs gave up 19 powerplay goals over the month, which accounted for over 40% of the total goals they gave up. They are last in the league short-handed and are threatening to drop under 70%. It’s got to the point where killing off one penalty is a moral victory and making it through an entire game without allowing one is a miracle.

- James Reimer returned from his ‘concussion that wasn’t really a concussion but we all knew it was a concussion’ and hasn’t been the saviour he was hailed as going into the season. After starting the season strong, Reimer’s save percentage is flirting with the .900 level, known as the Toskala line, and has dipped below at certain points in the season. His goals against average is over 3.00 and it’s clear Reimer is hitting a rough patch in his early career.

- Not surprisingly, Reimer’s struggles are intrinsically linked to the PK. Reimer has a .935 SV% at even strength, good enough for 8th in the league among qualified goalies, but a brutal .768 SV% on the penalty kill, second worst among all goalies – 72nd overall. So this tells us two things: 1) Reimer is still a quality goalie, judging by his outstanding even strength save percentage, but 2) he has yet to translate that success to the PK, likely due to a combination of inexperience and, more importantly, getting no help from the players in front of him.

- So for the PK to improve the Leafs will need more from Reimer. A good penalty kill usually stems from quality goaltending and Reimer will need to be Toronto’s best penalty killer. He is going to get shelled and he needs to make at least one more big save each game for the team to make any improvements. Secondly, the players in front of Reimer have to do more to help their goalie out on back-door plays and breaking up passes through the middle of the ice.

- Now you would think this wonderful picture I just painted for you would mean Ron Wilson’s job security was threatened. Well, not exactly. Wilson got his Christmas wish by signing an extension with the Leafs, believed to be one-year in length. He apparently signed it earlier in the month, but was allowed to announce it when he sought best, choosing Christmas Day in an unprofessional and vindictive gesture towards the Toronto media.

- It really doesn’t matter that Wilson signed an extension. If the Leafs miss the playoffs he’s fired, so his one-year deal is likely nothing more than something to give him a little more power in the dressing room from now until the end of the season.

- Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul continue to lead the team in scoring and sit third and eighth in the league, respectively. The Leafs rely heavily on the dynamic duo and if neither records a point it’s unlikely that the Leafs pull out a win. Consistent secondary scoring will be integral in the second-half of the season.

- John-Michael Liles suffered a concussion (although according to Wilson we should only call it concussion related symptoms because we don’t want to over-diagnose it), which highlights how lucky the Leafs have actually been with injuries this season. Sure, they have suffered quite a few, but besides losing Reimer, the Leafs have managed to keep their most important players healthy. The Leafs forged on without Reimer, but if one of Phaneuf, Kessel, or Lupul goes down so will the season.

- The Leafs once again called up Nazem Kadri and many (stupidly) proclaimed it the final chance for the youngster. If so, Kadri’s quick start (three goals in five games) will ensure he gets an extended stay with the big club. The Leafs are finally putting him in a position to succeed, playing him with talented players (Connolly and MacArthur), rather than burying him on the fourth line with the likes of Colton Orr. Kadri will be a key player this season – either by providing strong secondary scoring or being the central piece in a package used to acquire a front-line player.

- Just remember, the Leafs are still only one win away from being back on the right side of the playoffs. Plus, at the beginning of the year most people expected this to be the exact position the team would be in for most of the season. It’s going to be a fight for the final few playoff spots and it will likely come down to the final day of the regular season.

- Hey, if you’re feeling blue just look down in the standings. Way down. That’s the Montreal Canadiens you see there.


Last Minute of Play said...

Re a couple of your points about needing more out of Reimer on the PK: no leaf goalie in the past five seasons has successfully 'translated their success to the PK' or 'been the team's best penalty killer'. I don't think there's any reason to expect that Reimer can break this pattern.

Matt Horner said...

Excellent article you linked to. I was expecting that the poor PK is less of a goaltending issue, but I didn't have the stats to back that up.

I don't think the PK improves unless Reimer plays better (which, as your article suggests, isn't likely) or there is a drastic change in personnel or tactics.

Considering the PK has been so bad over many years and many different players, I lean towards tactics. Now figuring out which tactics can drastically reverse the fortunes of the putrid PK is what Wilson will need to figure out.

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