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Why can’t the Leafs get over the hump this season?

Over the last two days, I’ve posted on the current state of affairs with the Maple Leafs, providing on the one hand a hopeful look forward; on the other, a less flattering glimpse of what may lie ahead.

In truth, none of us knows how Burke’s bold (?) master plan will play out.  During the moments when the team is jumping and moving the puck and finishing, it’s easy to think hopeful thoughts.

But when the team misses routine defensive assignments (as was in evidence this past Saturday night in Montreal) and gives the puck away as often as they too often do all over the ice, well, one wonders if it matters who they bring in—it’s just not “happening” for them on a consistent basis.

Yes, when you trail the Florida Panthers in the standings, in a weak Eastern Conference, it can feel discouraging.

So the question remains:  why is it that every time this team looks like it is about to turn a corner (and I’m not even talking about the long-term future of the team, just this season), they fall back?

We all recall that the Leafs started the season impressively (and surprisingly, for sure) with four consecutive wins.  No one expected that to continue.  But the thought was, that would be a springboard and at the very least they would have a cushion for the tougher times ahead.

But after that auspicious beginning, they settled into a losing pattern, managing a single win in the next dozen games, I believe it was.

The blue and white then won three out of four, but immediately slipped back to losing four in succession.  Then two more wins, but two more losses.

A single win came before three more losses.  More back and forth before the Leafs won, hey, four in a row for the second time this season, part of that during a difficult western road swing.

Would they, finally, build on some success, we all wondered?

However, that four game “streak” was again offset by three more losses, before a solitary win and three more losses still.

Finally there was the more recent four wins in five games stretch, sandwiched around a rather awful performance in Buffalo.

But then a loss to Jersey and the game in Montreal, and you have a record of 23-27-6, or 52 points in 56 games.

In the day of the “three-point games”, that’s just not enough.

So why did I go through this rather tedious exercise about when they won and lost games this season?

Mostly, it’s to reinforce what I and probably many Leaf fans have been feeling, that this team has had several “jumping off” points  this season, plenty of opportunities to build on some good performances.  And each and every time they have somehow allowed the momentum to slip away.

The thing is, nowadays in the NHL, we all know there is plenty of parity.  Many teams have similar rosters and not a ton of high-end talent.  That talent is spread around the league.  Fair enough.

So most teams are in the same boat, yes.  (And many, like Montreal and New York, have actually been hit much harder by injuries than have the Leafs.)

That being the case, every team is going to go on a “streak” and win a few games.  Even mediocre teams do that.  It’s what you do after those modest streaks that determine where you finish in the standings.

And this season, the Leafs have consistently undone the good they have achieved by prolonged stretches of poor results after those two, three or four-game win streaks.

That, as much as anything, is why they are where they are.

We can break down, as I have over the last two posts, the various aspects of their play, special teams, goaltending, individual player performance, but at the end of the day they simply need to do enough to win more often than not.  And so far this season they haven’t accomplished that.

There are no excuses.  (The Leafs seemed to be suggesting on Monday that Armstrong not being in the line-up is  a major loss.  OK.  He’s a nice player, an agitator who can do some things.  And yes, they have a better record when he is in the line-up.  But surely we’re not dependant on a third-line player to keep this thing afloat?  Isn’t this supposed to be the organization with no complaints and no excuses?)  This is Burke’s third season in town (let’s not forget that he was here for a good part of the 2008-’09 season) and Wilson’s third as well.  They have overturned the roster from top to bottom.

It’s worth noting that some of the guys that were here before Burke’s time, like Kaberle and Grabovski, and a goalie he didn’t draft (Reimer) have been integral to the limited success the team has had so far this season.

So yes, they will keep overhauling the roster, maybe even trade guys they’ve already traded for? (We just traded Versteeg?!  Didn’t we just get him?  Did I misread his bio? Is he turning 35, not 25? So we give away a guy who has won a Cup, entering his prime, for a late first-round pick?  But that's a subject for another day.)  All this to continue with the five year re-build they refused to admit they needed in the first place.

So it’s Boston Tuesday, Buffalo Wednesday.  If the Leafs win those games, well, joy will return, at least temporarily, because it will have meant two wins on the road against tough Conference opponents.

But if they don’t get at least three points out of four, my earlier stated thought—that they still can manage to slide into the playoffs—may be a fading hope, at best.  They will have played 58 games and will have but 24 remaining to jump past a few teams and make up significant ground.

Can it be done?  Well, the agenda hasn’t changed.  They need to win—a lot more than they lose—down the stretch.

Fans don’t much care how they do it.

Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Blog


  1. Some days this edition of the Leafs looks like they're coming together. The defence is bigger, and overall playing better, I think. The forwards are faster.
    Other days they look like the same stumblebums we've been watching for over half a decade. The defence regularly clear the puck to an opponent, or just lazily chip the puck on the boards to no-one (hello, Dion Phaneuf); the forwards seem to be shackled by the "Osborne" curse that apparently decrees they'll have hands of stone forever (how many times can Bozak miss an open net?); and we're still not very feisty in the offensive zone - though that improved with the arrival of Crabb and Boyce (and let's not forget Colby!).
    The good news is that in all pro sports, the margin between contender and also-ran is only one or two players. We don't have a go-to scorer at the moment, but add one (or two), give our young guys another year or two of experience, and we might have a shot.

  2. Every team can't always play good but its too frustrating when we get those big losing streaks. Too much confidence going into games maybe? Only the players know. I agree with Gerund O'Malley. We need a top center that can make a difference every game.

  3. Long suffering Leaf fanFebruary 15, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    It is the system in which the Leafs play that causes them to be streaky. The Leafs simply do not have the horses to play a puck pursuit system. To incorporate such a system you need fast moving defensemen to make those quick and crisp, short passes up to the forward unit. The Leafs maybe have four who could fit into that category, and one is about to be traded, while the other three (one just been inserted into the line up) are young and inexperience. Hopefully, overtime they will accumulate the knowledge that they need in making the wise decision of getting the puck out of their own end (hello there Luke Schenn!). However, the defense isn’t the only problem. The Leafs also do not have enough forwards or the right ones to play this system, which is why Kris Versteeg was traded. Not only does the puck have to be move quickly up to the forward unit, but the forwards has to be able to be in a certain place, to receive, and pass the puck as soon a possible. Anytime, a forward takes upon himself to carry the puck for long stretches, he causes the others to be discordant. Versteeg’s Lone Ranger rushes were hurting the offense more then helping hence, he wasn’t a good fit. The whole idea for a puck pursuit system is that the puck always moves faster on the ice then the skaters, but you need not only slick passing defensemen, but also forwards who can also deliver the mail. How many forwards on the Leafs do you see as above average passers? Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur, and Colby Armstrong maybe, as for the rest of the Leafs top forwards they are more shooters than passers, and are not strong enough to win a one on one battle in the corners. Therefore, be ready for more winning streaks, follow by even longer losing streaks!

  4. Further to Long Suffering Leaf Fan: great points. And one thing you'll see a lot of in a Leaf's game are "suicide" passes - passes that are behind their target, or in his skates, causing him to turn, look back, or just lose enough momentum to ruin the rush.
    The Leafs are also prone to pass to players who are going the wrong way - has anyone else noticed how often we work the puck deeper into our own end - often starting outside our blue line?