PK Woes Will Be Leafs' Demise

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The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2009-10 season with lofty expectations set by the General Manager, Brian Burke, which fueled a widespread notion that, despite the team’s penchant for mediocrity, the Leafs would finally attain the playoffs.

However, just a few games past the half-way mark, the Leafs sit 14th place in the Eastern Conference, and have made little improvement to suggest they will propel themselves in a playoff spot come April.

While observers of the Blue and White have pegged the club’s core issue to be a lack of scoring, specifically the need for a sniper, the penalty kill, or lack thereof, has proven to be the Leafs’ Achilles heel.

In fact, the Philadelphia Flyers had a jolly ol’ time exposing that weakness on Wednesday night, when they scored three powerplay goals on six attempts. The Leafs were often caught flat-footed in their own zone, and left Jonas Gustavsson to fend for himself — and really, having to watch Daniel Carcillo dangle around your defenders, slip one past you, then celebrate with a one-hand fist pump has got to be infuriating.

While there are no shortage of players willing to sacrifice the body to block a shot (Leafs are ranked fifth in the National Hockey League in blocked shots), the problem seems to be that the PK is simply too passive. The Leafs defenders are notorious for letting an opposition player nest in front of the goaltender and set-up the screen. That, and there’s no pressure on the point men, which gives the opposition plenty of space and time to organize the power play without worrying about a turnover. Combine those two and you have a goaltender who is blind, and prone to let out more rebounds due to the increase of traffic in front of the net (who how many times have we seen Leafs defenders screen their own goalie?).

While the play on the ice is inexcusable from the players, I think Ron Wilson needs to be held accountable as well. The PK has been predictable since the beginning of the season and Wilson has done little to improve the team’s most glaring weakness. Ranking 30th in the NHL with a 69.7% success rate a man short is unacceptable no matter how you spin it, and before the Leafs can think about importing some offensive talent to the forward lines, they need to be able to keep the puck out of their nets first. Jonas Gustavsson has proven to be a reliable goaltender for the Buds, so it’s hard to place any of the blame on the 25-year-old tender. While he’s struggled with consistency at times, he’s handled the rigors of the NHL quite admirably for a rookie player, especially considering the Leafs’ struggles to find a respectable goaltender since the lockout. The blame, ladies and gentlemen, can be distributed to a variety of things, but at the end of the day it’s up to Wilson to assure the team is making strides at improving an aspect so crucial to success.

Until the Leafs can improve on their league-worst PK rating, any hope of making the playoffs will remain nothing but a pipedream.

The Leafs have an array of problems that need to be remedied before they can realistically compete in the NHL, but the team will be incapable of taking small steps towards reaching that goal if the PK does not improve by next season.

ronguillet@gmail.com

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