Saturday, January 7, 2012

Will the Maple Leafs make the playoffs?

The most burning question being asked by members of Leafs Nation is whether the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs.  I had indicated at the start of the season that teams would likely need at least 94 points for a playoff spot.  That works out to 1.15 points per game. I also suggested that it was important that for each 10-game block that the team shoot for 11.5 points.

So how are the Leafs making out at the midpoint of the season?  Well they are at 45 points in 40 games which works out to exactly 1.15 points per game.  Yet there is still room for pessimism.  When you break down the Leafs' season into 10-game blocks there is less certainty.

Games 1-10 = 15 points
Games 11-20 = 9 points
Games 21-30= 11 points
Games 31-40 = 10 points

Only in the first 10-game block did the Leafs actually exceed 11.5 points.  In fact in the subsequent 30 games the team has only been on a 1.0 points per game pace.  If this trend continues the Leafs will finish with only 87 points which likely translate into another 10th place finish. That's not to say that the team can't pick up some steam in the second half and finally earn that playoff berth.  There have been some positives and negatives in the first half of the season and hopefully over the course of the season the positives outweigh the negatives.  Still uncertainty prevails in Leafs Nation.

  • The duo of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel have been one of the best in the NHL this season.  They have scored in 32 out of 40 games this season and the team can pretty much count on a goal per game from the pair.  This takes a lot of pressure off the remaining 10 forwards.
  • The Leafs are one of the youngest and fastest teams in the NHL.  There are games like the one this week against Winnipeg that you are mesmerized by the flow of the team.  Opposing teams now worry about games against the Leafs need to develop a game plan to defend against their speed.
  • The team has some organizational depth for the first time in at least a decade.  Call ups from the Marlies have done more than just fill a roster spot and have battle to stay in the lineup.  Give credit to Marlies coach Dallas Eakin who prepares both prospects (Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri) and minor league veterans (Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb) to compete for NHL jobs.
  • You can't knock the second best powerplay in the NHL.  The credit goes to improved contribution from the defense on the point.  In the past Tomas Kaberle "quarterbacked" to powerplay but scored few goals.  In fact he scored his first goal of the season during the past week.  Meanwhile the combination of Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson has made the powerplay potent.
  • Most pundits noted that the Leafs were pretty thin going into the season.  Yet Brian Burke insisted that his goaltending was fine despite the fact that their goalie contingent had played barely 100 NHL games going into this season.  Their inconsistent goaltending is one of the major reasons why the team has been just clinging onto the final playoff spot.  Injuries to James Reimer have had a large impact and he has had problems with finding some consistency since he has returned.  Better goaltending depth would have helped.
  • The other obvious weakness is their terrible penalty killing.  Interestingly both the Leafs and Marlies employ the same system but the Marlies are at the top of the AHL in penalty killing.  I put full blame on coaching.  If the system works then it is up to the coaching staff to get it executed properly.  Eakin is accomplishing that but Wilson has failed.
  • Injuries have impacted on consistency.  Few lines have remained intact for extend periods of time because players have been in and out of the lineup.  At one point 7 players were on Injury Reserve.  This has been partially mitigated by better organizational depth but players like Colby Armstrong, Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly have had little impact on the team because of their extended layoffs.
  • The search continues for a 1st line centre for Kessel and Lupul.  Trade rumours involving Ryan Geflatz are encouraging.
So the key to securing a playoff spot is better goaltending and penalty killing.  Both are fixable this season.  You also want to avoid finishing 7th or 8th which will mean a first round playoff match up with the Bruins or the Rangers.  Those would be short series.

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