By: Dan Grant
The Toronto Maple Leafs have lost five games in a row, which in this city, at this time of year, is tantamount to the apocalypse. The Leafs are currently sitting 8th in the Eastern Conference, just a point up on Washington, who has a game in hand and two points up on Columbus, who has two games in hand. The Leafs themselves have nine left to play. The situation isn’t great.
They’ve lost those recent games without goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was enjoying a breakout season, ranking 6th in the NHL with a .925 save percentage and a 25-16-7 record in 50 games played. Bernier, down with a groin injury, had been the backbone of the Leafs this season, showing any doubters that he could handle a larger workload and generally playing out of his mind behind a team that would easily have been lost without him.
His injury replacement and former Leafs starter, James Reimer, is under a slew of criticism for his recent play. The Leafs lost massive games to the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils on the weekend, with Reimer being yanked after allowing three goals on ten shots versus New Jersey yesterday.
Has Reimer played well? Well no, not particularly. He’s currently tied for 35th out of 49 qualified NHL goaltenders in save percentage and he ranks a dreadful 48th out of 49 in goals against average. He hasn’t been the last line of defense that Leafs fans have gotten used to over the years. He hasn’t been Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour. He hasn’t even been Jonathan Bernier. So you have to lay some of the blame at his feet.
But blaming him completely for the Leafs missing the playoffs? Attacking his wife on Twitter? Come on Leaf fans. This is 2014. We shouldn’t be going on a witch hunt. And yes, the view is quite nice from up here on my high horse.
The problem isn’t Reimer alone. It’s team wide, as opposed to something that is his or any goaltenders fault. Time and time again, this team lacks the adequate defense and positional play to stifle the opposition’s attack.
What does it say that even though he’s missed the past several games, Bernier still ranks 4th in the league in shots against?
What does it say that despite his sparkling save percentage, even Bernier ranks just 30th of 49 goalies in goals against average?
What does say that four of our top six defensemen are minus players?
The Leafs have allowed a league worst 36 shots against per game this season. That is madness. Even worse is that they rank 29th of the 30 NHL teams with a -8.0 shot differential. The only team behind them is lowly Buffalo, a team stripped down and ready for the NHL lottery. No other team has a differential worse than -5.3 and no other potential playoff team is lower than -3.4. That is a massive gap and a recipe for disaster, even if they had Terry Sawchuk in net.
For those unfamiliar, plus/minus is a stat that refers to the amount of a 5 on 5 goals a player is on the ice for. Plus means you’re on the ice for more of your own teams goals, minus means the opposite. It’s a fairly good indicator of how effective players are over the long term, though it’s not the be all and end all. Still, plus/minus can be pretty telling. Take the Leafs defense, for example.
Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson are both healthy plus players on the back end for the Leafs, with Phaneuf sitting plus 13 and Gunnarsson plus 14. Not surprisingly, they generally play together. Beyond that though, it’s something of a horror show. Paul Ranger and Jake Gardiner both sit in the negative, at minus 2 and minus 5 respectively. But much worse are the Leafs ostensible three and four defensemen, Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly. While Franson is touted as an offensive weapon and Rielly is just a kid, their defensive play has been atrocious this year. Franson sits at a minus 14, while Rielly cruises in at minus 17. That simply isn’t good enough for a Leafs team with playoff aspirations. If you bring mid-season acquisition Tim Gleason (minus 10) and the mid-season departed Mark Fraser (minus 8) into the mix, it paints a pretty clear picture of a hockey team that struggles in its own end.
The Leafs have the 3rd best power-play in the NHL, which fits with their narrative of being a high octane offensive team. They convert over 20% of the time, which is excellent. However, they offset this with the 3rd worst penalty kill in the league, at less than 80%, which is simply terrible. Overall, they’re a minus 13 for the season as a team, worst among any potential playoff teams.
The Leafs have only six players that are a plus for the season, beyond Phaneuf and Gunnarsson. Take a look at the names: Tyler Bozak, David Bolland, Peter Holland, Troy Bodie, David Broll and Carter Ashton.
So we have essentially one player, in Bozak, who plays a regular shift each and every night. The rest are fill-ins, fourth liners, or severely injured players that haven’t played in months. The majority of the team, especially it’s core, are minus players. That is abysmal.
Some of you might be saying that if the play of the goaltenders had been better, then the plus/minus would fall in line accordingly, and there’s some truth to that. However, the fact that this team is getting routinely out-shot by nearly ten shots a game, to the point that they require an elite goaltender just to produce a league average goals against, is an exercise in futility. It’s simply not good enough.
I’ve never been one to point at the coaches as the problem when teams struggle. General managers put the team together and players have to play the game; blaming the coach seems to me like a convenient excuse, most of the time. However, much as I like Randy Carlyle’s personality [Ed. note: Really? He has a personality?], he has to take some of the blame for a team that is consistently getting outplayed. You’ll hear Leafs apologists discuss how even though this stretch hasn’t produced results, that the team is actually playing pretty well. Yeah, well effort and and 50 bucks will get you a tank of gas. The bottom line is that this team has regressed from last year, despite adding a premier goaltender.
Losing David Bolland hurt and I think people are now seeing the value of Leo Komorov, Clarke MacArthur and other gritty Leafs third liners, since departed. This is an area for improvement in the off-season. One of Jake Gardiner or Cody Franson will likely be moved, and hopefully replaced a more stay-at-home type defenseman. And as always in Leaf land, a first line centre is a priority. Notice how nothing that can be improved has anything to do with the goaltending?
James Reimer is likely going to be traded in the off-season. It’ll be interesting to see what Toronto can get for him; he’s going to be a steal for whatever team he goes to. He’s a capable starting goalie, if not a star. Like most NHL goalies, he requires at least some assistance from his defense. Nearly every destination he might land will give him that.
I wrote earlier in the season, when the Leafs goaltending ‘controversy’ was first rearing it’s head:
“Both of the Leafs’ goaltenders, barring injury, are going to play 35 games this regular season. How the load will be distributed remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that these Toronto Maple Leafs, with their current shaky defense core, are going to need top flight goaltending each night. The best way to guarantee that is for these two fantastic young players to share the load.”
Clearly Jonathan Bernier claimed the starting job but if you look at games played, right now he’s sitting at 50 and Reimer is at 32, meaning that the load has been shared. Do the Leafs need Bernier back to have a shot the playoffs? I’ll say yes but it’s not a slight against Reimer. It’s because this team is so shoddy that it needs a savior.
So if you have to blame someone, go ahead and blame the coaching. Blame management. Blame the defense. Blame the forwards. And yes, blame the goaltending.
But remember to spread it around.