Despite an off season overhaul and the appointment of Dion Phaneuf as the 18th captain in club history, the Maple Leafs have yet to turn around a sinking ship and prove that they can in fact become playoff contenders.
An early season winning streak that saw the Leafs record a 4-0 record out of the gate created false hope for Leaf fans and team management that the team was poised to drastically improve on last season’s dismal 29th place finish.
Inconsistent defensive play, poor special teams, and a lack of bona fide skill up front contributed to an overall disappointing first half of the season for the Maple Leafs.
On defence, Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin appeared to have lost a step and combined for only two goals and a minus-5 rating through the first 41 games of the season. Neither is recognized for their offensive prowess, but they have underwhelmed on both sides of the puck.
Third-year defenseman Luke Schenn has stepped up in their absence, with a team-leading 134 hits in 44 games (average of 3.05 hits per game), which is good for 10th in the NHL, right behind hard-nosed Chicago Blackhawks blue liner Brent Seabrook, who has 140 hits.
Schenn is second on the Leafs with 82 hits and ranks tied for 30th in the league with several other players. Needless to say, his contributions this season have been invaluable to a Toronto club that has been among the worst defensive teams since the lockout.
Up front, the heralded first line of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin has been a revelation, posting a combined 48 goals and 105 points through 44 games. The trio sits first, second and third in scoring for the Leafs, respectively, ahead of the likes of Kris Versteeg and Phil Kessel.
In order for the team to climb out of the hole and edge closer to the playoff bubble, the Leafs will need to continue to create balanced scoring from contributions from all four lines.
If recent history is any indication, Toronto will miss the post-season, but acquiring a top six forward, along with another secondary forward, will put them in strong position to compete for a playoff spot next season.
The Leafs dismal 17-20-4 record through 41 games is not a clear indication of how they play through the opening half of the season. Not to be overshadowed in those 41 games were two four game win streaks, which included victories over the division rival Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, and impressive defeats against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings.
The most recent four game winning streak proved that the team can operate effective special teams under coach Ron Wilson (12th ranked power play at 23.0% succession and an improved 26th overall penalty kill at 81.7%). The team also showed signs of life in front of rookie goaltender James Reimer, who went 4-2 with a 2.26 goals against average and 0.933 save percentage during a six game call up to the NHL.
With the addition of another forward or two at the trade deadline, along with maintaining consistent play in the defensive zone, the Leafs are poised to break out as they continue to mature together. Not every day with be a success, but the Leafs will learn from their struggles and build a positive foundation moving forward.