The Key to the Leafs' Season
On Monday, September 19th, the Toronto Maple Leafs will take to the ice for the first time in five months. The pre season opener will see the Leafs hosting the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. Regardless of the result that night, Leaf fans will finally have that hockey itch scratched. With the summer of longing ending, it is being repeatedly said that if Reimer can continue his strong play, and if the second line plays as well as last season than the Leafs will reach the playoffs. As stated before, I believe the Leafs will end their playoff drought this season, and although the fans are right about Reimer and the second line, the key to the season is whether the special teams can finally have some success.
In the six playoff-less, post-lockout seasons, the Leafs have finished 24th, 27th, 29th, 30th, 30th and 28th, respectively, in penalty killing. These horrible rankings have been the most telling statistic in understanding why the Leafs have struggled so mightily in the obstruction-free NHL.
A combination of horrible goaltending, terrible scheming and an inabilty to clear the front of the net combined to make Leaf fans cringe everytime they were down a man. Other than the goaltending, the aspect of the penalty killing that stood out to me was that no Leaf forward would block shots. My voice has gone hoarse screaming at penalty killers standing up at the blueline while pointmen wound up. However, last season that tune changed. Players such as Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent and Darryl Boyce all demonstrated a willingless to sacrifice their body for the team. Although the Leafs still struggled on the PK, with Reimer between the pipes there was definite progress.
In the off-season, the Leafs brought in two new assistant coaches: Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon. A major point when announcing the hirings was the poor record of the special teams. Both Cronin and Gordon were said to have good reputations as special teams instructors among hockey people. The acquisition of Tim Connolly will also boost the penalty killing. Connolly had been a key member of the Sabres PK which finished in the top half of the league the past four seasons (as high as #2 in 2009-2010).
With the new coaches, a willingness to sacrifice ones body, proven penalty killing forwards and a legitimate goaltender, the Leafs are expecting to finish in the top half of PK rankings this season.
While the penalty killing has struggled since the lockout, the power play for the Leafs has gone from good to average, and finally to poor in those six seasons. Finishing as high as second in the first season after hockey armageddon the rankings have continously slipped to 16th, 15th, 16th, 30th and 22nd. The reasons for the struggles have varied, but not having a net presence, as well as having a quarterback allergic to shooting the puck (Tomas Kaberle), were two of the main reasons that the Leafs have had such little power play success.
In his brief time with the Leafs, Joffrey Lupul has demonstrated an ability to get to the front of the net and cause a disturbance. If Lupul is able to provide that on a consistent basis then the skilled players (Kessel, Connolly and John Michael Liles) should have more room to find seems for Dion Phaneuf's one timers.
This summer the Leafs acquired two proven power play performers. John Michael Liles was brought over from the Colorado Avalanche to fill the vacant role of puck moving defensman. In the 2010-2011 season Liles finished with 3 goals and 18 points on the power play. Those numbers ranked him ahead of defenders such as Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty just to name a few. The Leafs are hoping that Liles will be a perfect compliment to Phaneuf and the rest of the Leaf power play. As mentioned above Tim Connolly is an established penalty killer, yet his strengths are playmaking. With the Sabres last season Connolly recorded 19 power play points; tying him with All-Stars Claude Giroux and Paul Stastny, and ahead of Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and Rick Nash. Keep in mind that Connolly played significantly fewer games than most of these players.
With the influx on new power play talent the Leafs have the pieces in place to finish out of the bottom half of the power play standings.
When the season begins, Toronto Maple Leaf fans and management post season hopes lie with what happens after the referee's hand goes up. If the Leafs finish in the 20's in either special teams discipline then it will be another spring of Leaf free hockey.
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