I think most of us can recognize that the Leafs currently have more trouble preventing goals than they do scoring them, but that doesn’t mean that Brian Burke shouldn’t add to his forward corps if a good player comes available. It wouldn’t take a Rick Nash or a Dustin Brown to improve this current Leafs’ forward group either; there are other names out there, I’m sure, that could help the Leafs that aren’t being discussed on message boards all over the internet.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that I think Burke should acquire a forward next instead of a defender – or potentially even a goaltender, for that matter – but that we should perhaps consider an alternative point of view.
I have identified three issues that indicate that more help on forward is not only needed, but that it might even be the correct next step to take with this young Leafs team: shots allowed, youth in the defensive corps, and puck recovery.
The first point I should make is that although the Leafs’ goals-per-game stats look overwhelmingly better on offense, the story becomes slightly less clear as we delve into the numbers. Overall, the Leafs are 7th in the league in Goals For Per Game at 2.97. Meanwhile, their Goals Against Per Game is 27th in the league at 3.00. In terms of overall shots, the offense looks less potent, sitting at 18th overall in Shots Per Game with 29.0, and the defence doesn’t look quite so bad, sitting at 21st overall in Shots Against Per Game with 30.8.
Not a fan of such raw, simplistic statistics?
Looking at Behind the Net’s Road-Tied Fenwick, the Leafs sit 22nd overall, sitting 25th in SF/60, and 19th in SA/60. So with the numbers parsed thusly, the defense actually looks better.
OK, OK, so it’s something of a small sample size. I still believe, however, that Burke can ill afford to pass up an opportunity to acquire a good forward, just because his team’s offensive numbers are better than its defensive ones. There’s still room for improvement there, no question.
Moreover, the Leafs’ forwards can’t be let off the hook for allowing so many shots on their own goal, either. A group of forwards that are generally hard-pressed to maintain puck possession and recover it isn’t doing our goalies any favors, and it’s not just the Kessel line that sometimes forgets to backcheck:
Of course, in many of these cases (I’m looking specifically at David Steckel), Zone Starts have a lot to do with these figures, but the point remains that the forwards could stand to do more to help prevent goals.
The next item on my agenda is to point out that the Leafs’ defence corps is a rather young one, as the team has leaned heavily on the likes of Carl Gunnarsson (OK, he’s 25, but still), Luke Schenn (22), Jake Gardiner (20), Cody Franson (still only 23), and the odd stretch of Keith Aulie (21).
They haven’t always looked very good this season; Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie have both struggled mightily so far, and they will both have to play a better positional game in order to make up for a lack of foot speed. Aulie will definitely need to spend a bit more time playing for the Marlies. But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Jake Gardiner has had some very impressive flashes of play, and Carl Gunnarsson has been the Leafs’ best defender all season, possibly with the exception of Phaneuf.
The point here is not that the Leafs need to trade for veteran help, but rather that they could conceivably develop it out of what they have now. A trade may be necessary down the road, but if there is no urgency, why cut bait on a kid that could have played top-4 minutes in a year or two?
The only problem with this approach that I could see backfiring is the Leafs’ current need for cap space. The defense, as a unit, is overpaid for the work they’ve been doing, and trading someone like Mike Komisarek could be an enormous boon to GM Burke’s efforts to re-sign Kulemin and Grabovski in the coming off-season. It’s just tragic how unlikely it is that Burke is able to move Komisarek.
The phrase "to the line, but not out" has a certain alarming resonance with Leafs fans, because they know that their team has just turned the puck over, and is unlikely to get a chance to come up with the puck again unless the other team takes a shot.
The Leafs seem to struggle in 1-on-1 battles along the boards, which they seem doomed to fail at anytime an opposing team manages to shut down the middle of the ice to take away the Leafs’ rushing speed. Games against Boston are particularly difficult to watch for this reason, though the canyon divide between the talent in both nets certainly factors into that example, as well.
This is just one instance where some size may be helpful.
I confess to be making a somewhat old-school type of observation, because there are probably several teams with relatively small forwards that have good possession numbers, but I am willing to accept than an extra player or two with size and a willingness to scrum for pucks anywhere on the ice could help the cause.
I won’t even begin to speculate about who this mystery forward may be – even this close to the deadline it’s tough to guess who Burke may turn to as a trading partner.
At the end of the day, while I would never argue size up front is the Leafs’ biggest problem, it’s certainly an area where the Buds could use some help. The key here is opportunity. If a chance arises to acquire a truly elite player, I guess I can’t be frustrated with Brian Burke’s decision, provided the deal makes long term sense. At this point, any playoff games are a bonus, so I’m less worried about fixing the leaky faucet that is Jonas Gustavsson – he’ll be out of our hair soon enough – than I am about Burke completing the core of a really scary offense that will pose a threat for the next few years.