Monday, October 12, 2009

Maple Leafs Must Improve PK and Face-Off Skills to get out of the Basement

Toronto Maple Leaf fans awoke this morning to see their team at the bottom of the NHL standings and it would not be a surprise if Leaf fans had trouble digesting their Thanksgiving turkey after a 5-2 loss to the Penguins on Saturday evening. Head coach Ron Wilson certainly had trouble digesting the loss and the 0-3-1 Leafs must now head to New York for a game against the 4-1-0 Rangers at Madison Square Gardens.

The NHL season is barely underway, so it is clearly too early to ring the alarms and claim the Leafs will be at the bottom of the standings all season but Wilson and GM Brian Burke certainly have some work to do in their effort to see the Leafs reach the playoffs for the first time in several years.

Watching the game Saturday evening, the Toronto penalty kill was a sad affair, as the Penguins picked up three goals on the power play; including two in the second period by Sidney Crosby. The Penguins appeared confident and moved the puck very well, with crisp passes and smart decisions. On the season, the Pittsburgh power play is 5 for 20 and the Leaf penalty kill made it seem like the Penguins were 20 for 20.

Besides waking up today last in the standings with one point in four games, the Leafs and the Islanders are the only teams without a win this season. The Islanders have picked up three points in overtime losses to keep themselves ahead of Minnesota, Florida and Toronto in the standings.

The blame for the slow start has fallen on the shoulders of starting goalie Vesa Toskala but there is more happening here then just bad goaltending, although that is a major contributor. In three home games, the opposition has outscored the Leafs 11-6 and Toronto lost their only road game 6-4. Toronto and Florida are tied for last place in the league in the goals against category, allowing 4.25 goals per game. Fans would like to see Toskala or any goalie for that matter steal a game or two, but the team in front of him has to play better, particularly on the penalty kill and in the face-off circle.

The Leafs are 30th in the league on the penalty kill, giving up 6 goals on 13 power play opportunities for their opponents. If the team is to be a rough and truculent squad as Brian Burke desires, the team will have to kill off some of the penalties that the referees will be calling on them. By announcing to the media that his new crop of players will be a hard working, in your face team, Burke also put the referees on notice to watch the Leafs more closely; which they will this season.

One of the best ways to kill off a penalty is to start with the puck by winning face-offs. Looking at the face-off statistics for the league, the Leafs are near the bottom of this important statistic as well, 23rd in the league at 47%. Matt Stajan has done well in this category, winning 34 and losing 25, for a 57.6 percentage but it goes downhill from there. John Mitchell is 19 and 19 for 50%, Rickard Wallin has won 20 and lost 23 for a 46.5 percentage and Mikhail Grabovski has a horrendous 26.5 winning percentage. He has won 13 while losing 36 face-offs. To control the puck and the clock, Toronto needs players like Grabovski to step up their game when the puck drops.

Toronto is averaging 16.5 minutes of penalties per game, which is the ninth highest total in the league. If they are to be shorthanded that often, the penalty kill must improve. Of course, a team’s best penalty killer should be their goaltender, which the Leafs have not been able to count on early in the season.

The Ranger power play is 20th in the league, scoring on 5 of their 20 power play opportunities. With a healthy Marian Gaborik on the number one unit in New York, tonight’s game could lead to more heartbreak for Leaf fans.

Another loss for Toskala could lead to Joey MacDonald getting the start Tuesday night when the Leafs host the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are a surprising 2-1-1 and their power play is 5th in the league, which may lead to more trouble for Toronto if they take too many undisciplined penalties. MacDonald may be in the Toronto net until Jonas Gustavsson returns from a groin injury and it may be Toskala getting the start for the AHL Marlies if the MacDonlad/Gustavsson duo start stealing some games and earning some wins for the Leafs.

The Leafs have never lost five games in a row to start the season, while the Rangers look for their fifth straight win after dropping their season opener. It is still early but this Toronto squad may be worse then last year’s team. Tonight will be another test for Wilson’s team and besides wondering how their goalie will play, they must also solve Henrik Lundqvist; he comes into the game with a 3-1 record, a 2.52 GAA and a .917 save percentage. It is beginning to look like another long season in Toronto and Brian Burke must be wondering if he sent a lottery draft pick to Boston as part of the Phil Kessel trade. Have a great sports day everyone.

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