Be it injuries, coaching, lack of leadership, poor work ethic, or a simple lack of talent, it’s clear the Leafs just haven’t been good enough this year. It’s nice to see that the Leafs are still in a wildcard position, their perseverance up to this point has stopped the season from completely going off the rails. But James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier are not the best goalies in the league, it was only a matter of time until their run of spectacular play ended and the Leafs were forced to look outside the crease for their wins. It seems the regression so many pundits warned of is here, so what can be done? Here’s a few suggestions from your resident La-Z-Boy general manager.
Fix the Breakout
Time and time again, the Leafs get penned in their own end because they are unable to form an effective breakout. It feels like they use the same strategy every time, which teams have caught on to and are getting better at shutting down. There is rarely wing support, meaning the defense usually has the unpleasant choice of long passes up the wing which get picked off, passes to the middle of the ice, or skating the puck out themselves. If the wingers hang back to provide more options for the defense, things could get better quickly. The current strategy of goal line to opposing blue line passes just isn’t working anymore.
Bench Mark Fraser
I still think Fraser can be a useful player, but it’s undeniable he’s been bad this year. Maybe he got complacent after earning his spot last season (shades of Keith Aulie), maybe he’s still labouring from the injury that felled him in Philly, maybe he’s just not that good and playing with a Cody Franson that gave a consistent effort (not to be confused with this year’s Cody Franson, legend says he only comes out on the powerplay) hid his weaknesses. Whatever it may be, it’s clear Fraser needs a rest. Paul Ranger hasn’t been pretty either for much of this year, but he’s also constantly improved since the start of the season, I’d rather have him continue to build his game on the bottom pairing than Fraser at his current level.
Manage the Fourth Line Properly
For teams like Boston and Pittsburgh, the fourth line can create energy, intimidate, and play pretty decent hockey for eight to ten minutes a night. The Leafs have seen flashes of that this year, a line of Carter Ashton, Jay McClement and Colton Orr showed promise early in the season. Lately though, it feels like the fourth line is devolving.
Injuries and questionable roster decisions have made the fourth line a bit of a mess. Six players (Ashton, Orr, McClement, Frazer McLaren, Jerred Smithson and Trevor Smith) can see time on it on any given night, which has stopped the line from building much chemistry or an identity. On top of that, Randy Carlyle insists on sometimes playing both enforcers along with Fraser. That seems pretty unnecessary.
When comparing McLaren and Ashton, there’s nothing McLaren does better except fight. With numerous players already quite capable of fighting when the need arises, I don’t see why that skill alone should keep McLaren in the lineup over Ashton. I think McLaren should be sent to the Marlies as soon as possible, followed by Trevor Smith once one of the injured players returns and claims a roster spot. Losing those two should give the line more stability, and hopefully let them get back to early season form.
Acquire a Real Defensive Defenseman
Thought I’d go an entire article without mentioning the Leafs’ need of a solid defensive defenseman? Not a chance. Even though they’re young talents and it’s great to watch their development, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Franson are too many defensemen to have who don’t get things done in their own end. I’ve suggested in the past that Gardiner should be the centrepiece of a deal to bring in some stability on the back end, ideally someone like Dan Girardi, but with the cap as it is the only way the Leafs can acquire a difference-maker is to trade John-Michael Liles too, which is no easy task. This one is probably on hold for a while.
Improve Team Discipline
The Leafs penalty kill isn’t what it was last year, but the Leafs continue to play like it is. They take the third-most minor penalties in the league, and rank second in overall penalty minutes per game, not statistics that the 24th placed PK team should lay claim to. But it’s not that they’re taking a lot of penalties that’s the biggest problem, it’s who’s taking them.
Dion Phaneuf, Ranger, James van Riemsdyk, Carl Gunnarsson and McClement are among the team leaders (ranked 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 respectively) in minor penalties taken. This has to change. These are the guys tasked with shutting things down on the penalty kill, they can’t be the ones in the box when it’s time for the unit to come out.
It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly this problem has surfaced, but I for one think it has to do with the Leafs’ style of play. When they’re constantly back on their heels playing keep-up, players are more likely to take lazy penalties like hooking, tripping and holding. Things get even worse when you take into account that (in part) it’s all their lazy penalties that keep them back on their heels.
A Coaching Change
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, firing Carlyle is a last resort, but it’s one that has to be discussed. Looking at the mismanaged breakout, strange roster decisions, and a lack of confidence and discipline, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that the coaching staff is the crux of the issues facing the Leafs. Again, it’s a last resort, and shouldn’t happen before Carlyle is given more of a chance to fix things but if he can’t right the ship, Dave Nonis will have to find someone who can before the whole season is thrown away.
That’s all for now, thanks for reading if you made it this far.