The Toronto Maple Leafs were a good, rising young team a year ago and when they made the playoffs, the 2013 NHL season was set to be a success. When they pushed the Boston Bruins to Game 7 of the first round, even more so.
But sometimes your success can get turned against you, and when the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in that seventh game, the last two goals in the final two minutes, and lost in overtime, Toronto turned from up-and-comer into a team in need of redemption.
Toronto went out and made a move at the goalie position. Without turning their back on James Reimer, whose season-long success and playoff heartbreak were a microcosm of his team, the Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings. Bernier is a respected prospect who wasn’t going to get an opportunity behind Jonathan Quick.
The early returns thus far have been mixed. Toronto would be the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs began today. It’s down from the 5-spot they occupied a year ago, but the Atlantic Division they play in is the tougher of the East’s two divisions. And in the end, as long as you get in the dance, you’ve got a chance for redemption.
Toronto is going to have pick up its defense though, and defense is not a euphemism for goalie. Reimer and Bernier have split time and each is playing well, ranking in the top half of all NHL netminders in save percentage.
But in spite of this, the Leaf rank 22nd in the bottom line of goals allowed. It’s because they allow too many shots. There are defenseman who are good passers, like Cody Franscon and Dion Phaneu, but somewhere along the line this group has to toughen up and reduce the exposure their goaltenders face. This defense is even worse, relative to the league, at dealing with opposing power plays .
Offensively, the team is the reverse. They do a poor job generating shots, but are 13th at scoring. That’s the byproduct of having a terrific finisher like Phil Kessel on the wings. Kessel has scored twenty goals, has a good career track record as a scorer and is the kind of player that doesn’t require high volume to finish his shots.
Toronto is also getting solid offensive play from James van Reimsdyk, and center Nazem Kadri, skilled at both scoring and distributing the puck. The good offensive balance has helped the Leafs to the third-best power play unit in the league.
Toronto will be on display for the nation in this year’s January 1 Winter Classic. The Leafs visit archrival Detroit in a game played at the “Big House” home of the Michigan football team. They have the pieces to make it back to the postseason and put together a nice run. The combination of an elite scorer, good offensive contributors and decent goalies gives you almost everything. We need to see them complete the equation by tightening up defensively.