Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014-15 Maple Leafs Season Preview

The 2013-14 NHL season gets underway on Oct. 8 with the Leafs and Canadiens renewing rivalries, and what better way to get set than a season preview giving you the five reasons to be optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic about the Leafs' chances?

5 reasons to be optimistic

1. Information no longer ignored

As the rest of the hockey world slowly embraced the use of analytics in their decision making over the past few seasons, the Leafs essentially mocked the use of any sort of data whenever they could. Dave Nonis admitted the team had an analytics budget, but failed to use it. Seemingly every week last summer a new interview came out quoting a Leafs executive or coach saying something stupid like the Leafs "absolutely" could suppress shot quality in favour of shot quantity or that "Colton Orr has proven he's more than a pure enforcer... he is one of the more reliable guys at chipping pucks out."

Instead of learning from their shortcomings and fixing flaws, the Leafs management thought they were the smartest people in the room and doubled down on all the stupid decisions of the past decade, eventually producing a team that was barely above the lottery.

Since Brendan Shanahan entered the picture things have changed. The Leafs cleaned house, with only Nonis and Carlyle remaining to become sacrificial lambs when needed, and hired a whizz kid as the assistant GM, along with an ace analytics team. Now the Leafs might pay attention to information that could help them predict future performance, rather than relying on blind faith. Speaking of which...

2. Dave Nonis, although employed, is effectively neutered

The off-season that started with the Leafs trying to re-sign Dave Bolland to a huge deal, only to be saved by a Florida Panthers offer that was even too crazy for the Leafs to match (and when it comes to gritty, third liners getting paid, you should never offer more than the Leafs). It ended with a rash of low-risk, high-reward deals for very little money that gave the team some depth after Nonis and Carlyle decimated it one summer earlier. Coincidentally, the shift in thinking happened around the time Brendan Shanahan brought in Kyle Dubas, characterized in some circles as having a brain and using it.

While negotiating a new deal for Jake Gardiner, Nonis acknowledged the team was initially looking at a short deal, before switching their thinking and inking Gardiner to a long-term deal. Hmmm, I wonder what happened exactly.

At this point Nonis is in charge, but it's only in name. He might be able to make the day-to-day moves needed to run the club, but it's clear that any decision that materially affects the Leafs and their long-term future is made without his approval.

3. Stand-on-your-head goaltender still there

The past two seasons the Leafs have benefited from fantastic goaltending, although last season it cracked under the weight of a barrage of shots down the stretch.

In Jonathan Bernier's first year in Toronto he snatched the No. 1 job away from James Reimer and posted the best season of his career, notching a .923 save percentage (.933 at even-strength). Don't count out Reimer, however, as he is not far removed from a 2012-13 season in which he posted a .924 save percentage, a year he was similarly dismissed heading into the season.

Even if the Leafs can only improve marginally defensively, it will go a long way provided Bernier and Reimer can play to their career levels and clean up a lot of the mess that gets through.

4. Probably no Colton Orr

The rumblings over the off-season, combined with the whack of cheap depth signings, indicate that the Leafs are going to ice a competent fourth line next season. That means no Colton Orr and/or Frazer McLaren (side note: it's unbelievable an NHL team in 2014 would punt two roster spots, but I digress) playing a useless five minutes a night actively making the rest of the team worse.

Using three players on the fourth line that can actually do more than punch people in the face means that the rest of the roster will be fresher throughout the season and, who knows, maybe Toronto can actually get some offense from someone in the bottom six.

The major caveat here is that Randy Carlyle still coaches so it's probably best not to get too excited.

5. Things can't possibly get any worse

Toronto sports knows no bottom, so saying things can't get any worse is almost an invitation for a voodoo curse to be put on Phil Kessel that spreads through the team. But really, if things go badly heads will roll and substantial change might finally happen. That's still something to look forward to.

5 reasons to be pessimistic

1. Randy Carlyle, amazingly, is still employed

It doesn't matter how much information is free flowing through the organization because it's up to Carlyle to implement it. He hasn't been able to figure out how to stem the increasing shots against, which goes way back to when the Ducks lost Chris Pronger. He's been trying to figure it out for years, yet still can't come up with a solution that doesn't rely on Hall of Fame defencemen cleaning up mistakes. I'm skeptical that a few months of analytics boot camp has made an impact on his lizard brain.

2. One of the league's weakest group of centres still weak

It's extremely difficult to acquire a No. 1 centre, even though Dallas just traded for two over the past two summers. But it's hard to believe the Leafs are still trotting out what is essentially the same tired group down the middle that has been among the league's worst.

Nazem Kadri had a strong season last year, despite what his critics say, and is a fine second-line centre. Tyler Bozak is great at playing Call of Duty with Kessel and providing him with a top-notch BFF, but in terms of actual hockey skill, he's severely lacking, especially in his role as a No. 1 centre (and don't be fooled by all his points last season). The Leafs signed enough low-risk guys that the bottom six could be much improved from last year, especially if Peter Holland has a breakout season, but that's a lot of hope at this point. Going into the season only Kadri is slotted where he should be.

The best teams are deep down the middle. Even in a weak Eastern Conference it's hard to see Toronto's group being better than anyone other than Buffalo and Ottawa, and maybe New York and Carolina thanks to injuries.

3. Puckless possession

Teams that posses the puck more than their opposition win more often than not. It's not overly complicated. Teams that have the puck more than the opposition out-shoot the opposition. Teams that out-shoot the opposition generally out-chance the opposition. And teams that out-chance the opposition usually out-score the opposition. Last year the Leafs essentially gave their opponents the puck 60% of the time at even-strength. That's historically awful.

If Toronto has any hope of becoming a true contender (or even become halfway respectable) they will have to learn how to better manage the puck and maintain control of it. Gifting your opponent with 35-40 shots a game is a tough way to play, and over an 82 game season it's going to catch up with you.

4. The penalty kill still stinks

The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing Maple Leafs fans that the penalty kill wasn't horrible. We'll always have fond memories of 2012-13, a time when the Leafs didn't give up a short-handed goal every game.

Aside from the fluke half-season, the Leafs have been abysmal short-handed for years. Last year's 78.4% mark (better than only the Panthers and the Islanders) is somehow their second best penalty kill percent of the last seven seasons. Let that sink in.

5. If things get ugly there's always Connor McDavid

If the Leafs seasons get truly ugly there are two positives to take from: 1) Nonis and Carlyle will undoubtedly be sacrificed; and 2) the Leafs should have a great shot at drafting Connor McDavid, one of the most hyped prospects since Sidney Crosby. This year's draft also boasts American Jack Eichel, who is closely ranked to McDavid, meaning there are two stud prospects available, unlike some of the past few seasons where the top prospects were good, but none view as transcendental (Nathan MacKinnon being the major exception of the past five years).

5 reasons to be realistic

1. Revamped defence is a huge question mark

It would almost be impossible for the Leafs defence to be any worse than they were last season, although the changes they made during the off-season are no sure thing. Stephane Robidas, who has done well in the past in a shutdown role, is 37 and coming off a major injury which might not even be fully healed by the start of the regular season. Roman Polak was a bottom-pairing defenceman for the Blues, and there is a very strong argument that he's actually less effective than Carl Gunnarsson. Both will likely be used to take some of the tougher minutes away from Dion Phaneuf, but whether they are more capable of playing those minutes remains to be seen.

Unleashing Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly could go a long way to making the Leafs more dynamic from the backend and could give them a completely different look. Just how unchained they are depends on Carlyle (or Carlyle's successor).

The Leafs certainly made changes to the defence, but it's hard to say before puck drop whether they are actually better.

2. Entirely new system in place

The swarm is dead, which is a good thing, because as Justin Bourne broke down in detail, it "created a domino effect that hampered [Toronto's] ability to exit their zone, left them hemmed in, and tuckered their skaters out."

The Leafs are trying to be more aggressive this season, especially in the neutral zone. New assistant coach Peter Horachek is responsible for rescuing the defence and said "if you can control the neutral zone, you control the game."After a pre-season win against the Flyers, Bernier mentioned "in our neutral zone we were actually more aggressive and we forced them to dump the puck," something that could go a long way to stemming the offensive onslaught the Leafs have endured over the past few seasons.

New tactics, new coaches, and a brand new system are major positives, but whether the Leafs can actually implement them effectively remains to be seen.

3. The East is weak

The Bruins and Penguins will battle it out for tops in the Conference as always, and the Lightning made big improvements to their defence, but the rest of the conference is different shades of meh. Some you can more easily see as contenders (the Habs are thin at centre but strong pretty much everywhere else; the Rangers lost some key players after a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but they still have Lundqvist), but even flawed teams can reasonably grab a five or six seed and bad teams have a shot at squeaking into the playoffs. This conference is ugly. The Leafs are ugly. Might just be ugly enough to work.

4. Injuries already a concern

A thin defence might already have to start the season without Cody Franson as he suffered a knee injury in the pre-season. Right now it's described as a bruise, but he needed help leaving the ice and put no weight on his knee. And a bruise/swelling might be masking the fact that the injury is more severe than initially believed, like David Booth's bruise from blocking a shot which turned out to be a fractured foot, sidelining him for four weeks. David Clarkson broke an orbital bone getting into a useless fight with Cody McCormick, but he should be back for the start of the season (whether you take that as good or bad is your prerogative).

Those aren't monumental losses, and it gives an opportunity for a young player to step up, but it isn't the best way to start the season. Plus, there's always the threat of a Joffrey Lupul injury and last year Bernier was unable to log a full starter's workload without injury.

5. You don't want to contract Blue and White disease

If the last few years hasn't completely beaten the hope out of you and made you take a sober look at this team you are surely incurable. Just sit back and let the Blue and White disease consume you.

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