Next TLN Blogger: The Finalists Vs. The Playoffs

Welcome to the final round of the Next TLN Blogger contest!

I’ve got to say, I think our five finalists have done a fantastic job. The content each and every one of them has submitted has been top notch stuff, but unfortunately, I can’t keep them all. Only one can win. The rest will be deported to Flames Nation

applause

Earlier this week, I posed the following question to our finalists…

Are this year’s Leafs a playoff team?

Haha, oh, wow. What a #doozy.

Check out all of the responses below, let us know who’s work you liked best, and feel free to offer your own opinion in the comments below.

Adam Laskaris

Predicting the Eastern Conference playoff positions has been a challenge where mediocrity has been the norm, with the Stanley Cup champion coming from the East just once in the past five seasons. Similarly, four of the league’s top five teams in the standings from last year came from the Western Conference, implying there’s a quite a bit of parity from several middle-of-the-pack Eastern squads.

Hockey is a sport where chance and unpredictable bounces decides as much, if not more, of the ultimate result than any other sport. In a relatively-low scoring sport where one shot or save made at the crucial moments decide the course of a game and potentially a season, it’s not exactly the easiest task to figure out who will finish in spots 1-8.  Add in factors like the shootout, cold and hot streaks for goalies and players, injuries, and dumb luck, there’s no one way to always accurately predict the postseason picture at year’s end. 

That being said, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be a playoff team for this upcoming season.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect hockey club by any means, and merely making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference doesn’t necessarily set a team up for repeatable success, as the Maple Leafs learned the hard way this past season. However, there are many reasons to believe the Leafs have what it takes to at least qualify for the postseason.

While there will still be many obstacles on the path of success, the additions of Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan as Assistant General Manager and President, respectively, pave the road towards a new way of thinking among the Leafs’ management. 

Expect a rental pickup at or near the trade deadline in the Leafs’ playoff push, because it’s something different than what the Leafs have been used to in recent years. It’s been quite some time since the Leafs have made a major splash in the trade market, so there’s a respectable chance that Leafs Nation is due for a big move to improve their lineup.

For head coach Randy Carlyle, he’s bound to either be held accountable by management for his team’s play to improve or be fired if it doesn’t within a given timeframe. While Carlyle’s visions of how to run a hockey team may or may not be contradictory to that of his bosses, pressure may force Randy to adapt and play a style more suited to his lineup. 

Carlyle’s questionable player usage and systemic issues dragged down a Leafs team with several bright spots, including star wingers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and growing defencemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. However, it’s tough to believe that same trend will be tolerable under Shanahan and Dubas.

When looking at the Leafs’ division, Boston is perhaps the only team with as close to a guaranteed playoff spot as one can get, after winning the President’s Trophy and having a similar lineup this coming season, albeit minus 30-goal man Jarome Iginla. Tampa Bay with a healthy Steven Stamkos and Montreal should have enough talent and execution to return to the playoffs. Buffalo and Florida are still deep in the rebuilding stages, and Ottawa is reeling after losing Jason Spezza this offseason. It required a late season push for the Red Wings to make the playoffs last year, with many indications that the team may finally be destined for a bit of a re-build. 

Goaltending may eventually make or break the Leafs’ season, but both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have proven in the past they’ve been more than capable as quality NHL netminders. Due to the previously mentioned necessary systemic improvements and correlating puck possession gains, the pair will only have to be slightly above average instead of elite for the Leafs to have a chance on a nightly basis.

Of course, there’s still quite a bit to be improved in this team, and likely more questions than answers at this point. 

But minor tweaks here and there up and down the lineup and a bit of luck in their favour should put the Leafs in a spot where they’re able to compete for and obtain a postseason berth, likely a wild card spot. The ceiling may not exactly be the highest for the Leafs, with a slim chance they’ll finish higher than 7th or 8th

Yet while the Leafs are far from a championship contender and won’t be great, they’ll be perfectly average, and in today’s Eastern Conference, that’s often good enough.

Dakoda Sannen

The 2014-2015 Toronto Maple Leafs will not make the playoffs.

Aw! Why not?

It’s simple, as long as Randy Carlyle is the head coach and the team is allowed to hang onto old hockey ideals about systems and one-dimensional enforcers, they’re doomed for early golfing.

Ok, now that we have that little bit of unpleasantness out of the way, just know that it will be a far more entertaining season to watch than last year.

That’s reassuring, I guess. Why do you say that?

Again, it’s simple. The old hockey systems and ideals of Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis are being challenged by fresh ideas from Brendan Shanahan’s Shanalytics team. (Credit https://twitter.com/mirtle/status/517787031012130817, yes, we’re going to make it stick.)

And sticking with the theme of my first article for the contest, the crutches have been kicked out from under Nonis and Carlyle.

Carlyle’s swarm system in the defensive zone was broken down beautifully by Justin Bourne here. At the best of times, it was downright painful to watch and led to the Leafs being one of the worst possession teams, well… ever.

Oddly enough, when Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin deflected the possession woes away, Carlyle seemed perfectly cognizant of them.

The problem? He was at a loss to figure out how to solve them, and the voices from inside the organization weren’t helping.

Enter Peter Horachek, former head coach of the Florida Panthers who had an inadequate roster, but oddly enough, adequate possession numbers.

Horachek spoke of the problem as soon as he rolled into town.

Not to mention, a new team philosophy of “whenever possible, holding on to the puck and making plays.”

Words are words though, and it’s how the plan is implemented that will matter.

Which is where it gets a little more encouraging.

This past off-season, the Leafs let walk two of the biggest crutches Carlyle had in Jay McClement and Tim Gleason. If the team was up by one or two, you’d better believe you were going to see both of them on the ice for a defensive zone faceoff, and inexplicably, often times offensive zone face-offs too.

McClement was the sixth most used forward when the team led by two, and the seventh most used forward when the team led by one at 5v5.

The Leafs signed several players to take McClement’s shutdown role, which he was overmatched for, posting a Corsi Rel of -8.4%.

In his place will be a team of Mike Santorelli, David Booth, Daniel Winnik, Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin, the latter two garnering the most criticism for overpayment and nostalgia. Komarov, despite the contract will contribute at the very least by drawing penalties. Frattin might not even make the team, but the fact remains that the Leafs filled out their bottom-six with several serviceable NHLers with decent possession statistics on mostly cheap contracts.

And theoretically, this improved bottom-six will push one-dimensional enforcers like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren out of the lineup.

And here’s where it gets less encouraging.

Uh oh.

As much as Carlyle has to be amenable to changes, he will forever hold onto some old hockey ideals. On some nights, the Leafs will carry an enforcer and run three lines.

On others;

As much as that’s a little disappointing, think about last season, where on any given night Orr and McLaren could both be in the lineup.

Orr is Carlyle’s guy, and Carlyle will always have his guys. It’ll be interesting to see who he turns to this year. Without McClement, maybe Komarov gets put into those situations. Without Gleason, maybe he looks to Polak.

Without his guys, maybe he is forced to ice a decent line-up.

Or maybe he won’t, and he won’t be long for the organization.

One thing is for certain; it’s going to be a hell of a ride all the way to ninth place.

Dane Nichol

Are the 2014-15 Leafs a playoff team? Yes. I do believe this team has what it takes to be a competitive team in the playoffs and provide an entertaining series against a powerhouse like Boston. I think we were all pleasantly surprised with the results two years ago, maybe not the final result, but who expected the Leafs to take Boston to 7 games? Will they make the playoffs on the other hand is a different question, one which you may not like the answer to.

I don’t think the Leafs will qualify for the 2015 post-season. For whatever reasons the hockey Gods do not like the Leafs. Sure some may say that they start strong winning the first couple games of the season, start planning the parade, and then take the months of November through February off before making that final post-season push, but I don’t think that’s entirely it. The seemingly inevitable 18-wheeler off a cliff metaphor seems to be lingering with this team, and it has for many years now. How many times has the playoff fate of the Leafs come down to the final game of the season, most times not even ours, where the players are watching the fate of a shootout between say New Jersey and the Islanders. Are the Leafs in control of their own destiny? It certainly doesn’t seem that way and I don’t like our odds of relying on another team in our division to tank towards the end of the season in order for us to grab a playoff spot. What other team would that game 7 collapse happen to other than the Leafs? That was our Chicago Cubs/ Steve Bartman incident. I don’t know who it was that brought a goat into Maple Leaf Gardens many years ago and cursed this team when they were subsequently asked to leave (see Chicago Cubs history), but I don’t like them. Can someone tell me what it’s like to cheer for a team who routinely makes the post season in a convincing way that isn’t down to the wire every, single, year and has me pulling my hair out? Shh, that was a rhetorical question, Red Wings fans.

The Leafs were marred by injuries last year, and it appears to be a continuing trend this year before we even get into the regular season. Many of the injured players in the bottom six were successfully replaced by Marlies’ bottom six guys who played the same role in the same system. But a lengthy injury in the top six could really hamper the Leafs’ efforts this season. Imagine how much more of an impact Joffrey Lupul could have on scoring if he could manage to stay healthy for an entire season. Tyler Bozak, like him or not, is the best we have as a centre right now. If Bozak were to be injured the Leafs would really struggle.

Personnel is another issue. There are many young and skilled third and fourth line guys playing for the Marlies who could be promoted full time to the Leafs, but yet again Carlyle and the Leafs’ brass appears intent on dressing Colton Orr, though to Orr’s credit he has had a surprising pre-season. But for how long is that level of play sustainable for Orr when he’s playing against NHL regulars and not mostly AHL guys during the regular season. Apart from Orr, management seems determined to dress other various face punchers on that 4th line, guys who are only holding this team back. And if the role of 3rd and 4th line guys is only going to grow this year in terms of increased ice time, as Nonis has said in radio interviews, I don’t like the sounds of that.

I don’t think this year’s team is as good on paper as last year’s team which also looked promising yet managed to disappoint, though it’s not all bad. We’ve gotten rid of David Bolland and his unsustainable contract and managed to pick up a few pieces in order to fill gaps on the team for a much lower cap hit. Reimer is also locked up, great asset management on Nonis’ part, who will likely be traded this season for some key pieces which could change the playoff fate of the Buds come trade deadline. I’d love to be proven wrong but if major personnel changes don’t happen and the division being as competitive as it is, I just don’t see a postseason berth happening this year.

Shawn Reis

Why the Leafs Will Make the Playoffs: One of the obvious strengths of this team is that they can score goals.  They finished 6th in the league in goals for in the lockout-shortened season and last year they finished 14th in that category.  With a bit of added depth up front as well as four defensemen that had at least 27 points each last season, you should expect the Leafs to finish in the upper half of goal-scoring again this year.

Speaking of added depth, the Leafs really are a lot deeper as an organization heading into this season.  And while guys like David Booth and Daniel Winnik are more obvious testaments of that, the Marlies should provide one heck of an insurance policy as well.  Last year the Leafs had seven guys play seven games or less, trying to rely on younger guys to make an impact before they were really ready.  This year players like Josh Leivo, Greg McKegg, Sam Carrick, and Stuart Percy really seem to be ready not just to play the occasional NHL game in case of injury, but actually push for a full-time roster spot.

Lastly, the goaltending.  This is the real strength of the Leafs’ team.  They were paramount in almost every win the Leafs had last season.  Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are two of the better young goalies in the NHL.  And while given the unpredictable nature of goalies Bernier isn’t likely to tie for 5th in league save percentage again, Reimer was below his career average save percentage last season and that number is likely to go back up.  So whatever the case may be, the Leafs will probably get strong goaltending yet again this season.

Why the Leafs Won’t Make the Playoffs: For one, I think the Leafs defense is still a concern.  I’m definitely a fan of Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner this year and beyond, but after that there’s some uncertainty.  I think Morgan Rielly will be a top-pairing defenseman one day, but he’s just 20 years old.  Only 11 defensemen aged 20 have played 1400+ minutes in a season since 08-09, so while Rielly could definitely play a huge role on the team this season, it’s tough to actually depend on that.  Robidas is also a guy I like, but coming off of two serious leg injuries within the last year coupled with the fact that he’s 37 leaves at least some reason for worry.  So again, while the Leafs blueline might be alright, the amount of uncertainty surrounding it leaves me uneasy.

Coaching is naturally a big concern as well.  Forgetting advanced stats for just a moment, there are other reasons to not be a fan of Randy Carlyle.  His overreliance on guys that in a lot of cases hurt the team has been frustrating.  Based on comments from players previously coached by him, he seems to rub a lot of them the wrong way.  And while I admire his desire to improve the team’s puck possession woes, he doesn’t actually seem to know how to do so.

And since we’re on the topic, yes, the Leafs are terrible at possessing the puck.  We all know it.  We’ve seen the games as well as the underlying numbers.  I don’t want to spend much time beating a dead horse, so all I’ll say is that Randy Carlyle-coached teams have finished 30th in CorsiFor% each of the last three seasons.  Needless to say, that’s a recipe for disaster.

The Verdict: All things considered, this seems like a middle of the pack team.  The goal-scoring, depth, and goaltending of the team is promising, but the Leafs are also lacking in other key areas.  Simply put, they’re an incomplete team.  Now consider some of the other teams the Leafs are going up against.  Are the Leafs good enough that we can say they’re definitely better than the likes of Montreal, New Jersey, Philadelphia, or the Islanders?  Maybe they are, but not definitively.  And I’d have a tough time imagining them being better than the likes of Detroit, Tampa Bay, Boston, or Pittsburgh.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some redeeming qualities on this team, and you can see the foundation for something good, but the team too closely resembles a puzzle with missing pieces.  For that reason, I have to say that I think the Leafs will miss the playoffs this season.

Wesley Tenneson

Alright alright alriiiiiight it’s Roundtable time again.  Looks like 1967 is still the magic year folks, because I don’t think this year’s editions of the Buds will even make the playoffs, let alone challenge for Lord Stanley’s mug.
I’m going to focus here on the two main problems facing the team: lack of depth scoring and a weak defense corps, and why they present formidable obstacles for Carlyle’s crew.  
Let’s take a look at the defense pairings from Thursday’s practice:

Dave Nonis revamped the Leafs blue line this summer by fulfilling Randy Carlyle’s wish list: trading away a Swede skater for a Czech-er.  
This year’s defence corps look about as bad as that pun.
Quite frankly, that group doesn’t cut it in the NHL today.  Sure, putting Dion Phaneuf back on his strong side and rolling his minutes back should make him more effective, and both Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly have shown elite puck-moving and offensive acumen, but this group is woefully thin and pretty bad at keeping the puck away from its own net.
Last year’s team finished dead last in the NHL with the most shots against by more than one per game; by comparison, the eight playoff teams in the east gave up an average of 6.1 fewer shots against per game than the Leafs.  All of this without a single serious injury on the blue line, meaning that the Leafs put out the defensive group they wanted night after night and still sucked.  
The defence is the team’s biggest Achilles heel, without a doubt.  It took a herculean season from Jonathan Bernier and his .924 save% for the Leafs just to finish 26th in the league in goals against.  
Speaking of Jonathan Bernier, doesn’t anyone else find it refreshing that we have not one, but two good goalies now, after spending most of a decade with zero?  Goaltending is actually an organizational strength now, go figure.
But what about the forwards?
Here are the line rushes from practice on Thursday:

Last season the Leafs relied on Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk to carry the offensive load, and they did a great job, combining for 67 goals and 141 points.  When both of them recorded a point the team was 24-7-3-2 for a remarkable points percentage of 73.6%.  When only one of picked up a point they were just 10-9-1-0, and an abysmal 4-20-0-2 when neither of them made it onto the score sheet.
At the same time, JVR finished sixth and Kessel twelfth in TOI per game for forwards in the entire NHL, and the two of them were gassed coming into the home stretch of the season.  
The two of them received so much ice time because of the team’s fundamental lack of depth scoring; it’s been a problem for years, but it looks like it will only get worse.
First, it was Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski.  At the end of the 2013 season the team lost both of them and brought in Dave Bolland, David Clarkson (lol) and Mason Raymond.  After the 2014 season Bolland and Raymond walked, as well as Nikolai Kulemin, who had been a stalwart on the second and third lines for years.  But don’t worry, those guys were replaced by… who again?  
Sure, the likes of David Booth, Michael Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, Josh Leivo, Brandon Kozun, and returnees Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin provide an improvement over the facepunchers of the Leafs past in the bottom six, but they’re a definite downgrade from some of the quality middle six players Toronto has had the last few seasons.  Who of that group can replace even a MacArthur or Raymond?  
In my mind, secondary scoring was a big problem that the Leafs needed to address this offseason.  Instead, that facet of the team got worse.
I’m a Leafs fan, but I’m also a realist.  Good teams don’t talk about putting Roman Polak on the first pair, and honestly Josh Leivo and Brandon Kozun would probably be returning to the AHL if they were a part of most other NHL organizations.  I like a lot of the changes that were made to the back office during the offseason, but that won’t immediately translate into on-ice success.  I’m willing to bet that this year the team’s PDO regresses, some of the offseason signings turn out to be busts, and we begin talking about the 2015-16 season by mid-March.  
I hope I’m wrong.

  • CMpuck

    A lot of received ideas here, Orr isn’t the reason the Leafs will or will not make the playoffs. Carlyle bashing… ok… is Carlyle the worst coach in the game now? Worse since Wilson? or Maurice, Quinn was pretty lazy… Carlyle is the only guy to get this team in the playoffs in eight years.

    I get that theleafsnation is the birthplace of analytics but Shanny hiring a few smart marks doesn’t be ‘this team is being run by analytics’, they’re influence remains to be seen.

    Tonight’s blueline looked pretty good without the constant eye test failures of Cody Franson. It’s pretty obvious that the Leafs lost the Ledba trade on all fronts, don’t let him suit up again.

    Percy looked ready, Rielly looked amazing, Phaneuf gave a great performance and Gardiner despite one ugly giveaway looked great, all Burke moves, given Burke doesn’t get all this fancy stats new world order, he found some great pieces.

  • SavardianSpinorama

    Agree with Wesley, the Leafs are a team not deep enough offensively or strong enough defensively to stand a chance in the playoffs. This lack of depth is what’s killing our team, we can’t rely on our big first line to carry the load the entire season and then come crunch time be too gassed to give their team the extra push they need to make it into the post-season. I’m much happier with our defensive corps than I was last year, but at the same time do not expect anything spectacular from this team. We have and look to continue to be a team lacking in depth and passion. Literally the only thing I as a Leaf fan have to look forward to is the mere possibility of Stamkos coming to the team in 2016 because with this management and this team, there’s not much excitement… (but I hope they prove me wrong!).

  • giproc

    I thought Wesley Tenneson’s article had the best combination of opinion, data and references, plus the tone seems to be a solid match for LeafsNation. His piece frames the Leafs exactly as we’ve come to expect each fall through the down decades: a work in progress shrouded with more doubt than definition. In other words, a team with flashes of potential that will break fans’ hearts more often than not.

    As for the Leafs in 2014/15, I believe they’ve taken baby steps sideways. Santorelli should add some spunk and hopefully push Kadri to concentrate every night. Kozun, Leivo and Percy have earned spots; Ashton and Frattin have not but still should be kept over the fossil face punchers that serve no worthy purpose in the 21st century… despite what Carlyle insists we should believe. Booth, Holland, Komarov and Winnik may eat minutes but will add negligible production. Nylander is 18 months away. A 30-year-old Clarkson will be a boat anchor for any line he graces. The backend will continue to be a slightly-improved roller coaster with plenty of highs, lows and dumbfounded stares at our screens.

    The names change, the prognosis stays the same. 8th – 13th in the east, the dead zone of mediocrity. On a positive note, I predict JVR will be this year’s team MVP by a significant margin over Kessel and Bernier.

    Shanny will probably start the major structural changes at the trade deadline. Unless he can figure out a way to score a magical hat trick over the next two years (McDavid – Babccock – Stamkos,) this is going to be another long haul back to sustainable respectability (as opposed to that 48 + 7 game tease.)

  • Leaf4

    I’ve enjoyed the contest. Lots of good analysis and opinions. Overall I think Wesley Tenneson has the best style that draws you in, and good fact gathering and analysis. Thought his first article was the best of the contest – excellent choice of topic for a pre-season post. Now, about the Leafs this year…uninspired offence will sink them again.