December 16 2010 10:25AM
Canada's Hockey Team and their accompanying horde make the ritual appearance in Calgary this evening, and the recent trading history between the clubs is dominating the coverage of the affair. That's understandable, obviously, but I think I'll let the professionals beat that shared history to a pulp and concentrate on what the Leafs actually are at the moment.
What they are, of course, is not very good. Toronto might have the least imposing group of forwards in the league save the Islanders, with Phil Kessel being the only player that could pass for front line talent, and as Gabe Desjardins has pointed out, he's a talented player that has got a hole or two in his game. That team weakness up front shows itself in the 5v5 numbers, where the Leafs get outshot and outscored by a fair margin.
It's down the middle where the Leafs are weakest. I'm not sure that Toronto even has a player that would be considered a good second line center on a decent team, which is a pretty stunning situation for a team spending that type of money to find itself in, and one that might be distressingly familiar to people in these parts. Their best current hopes for a breakout player down the middle are Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri, and those two gents don't really give the vibe of being the foundation for a good team, although Kadri has been OK against soft competition since his call up, and expecting anything more from a 20 year old would be somewhat unfair.
Bozak's case is one that's always intrigued me somewhat. He was a pretty expensive college FA signing, and for the life of me, I can't understand why people are surprised by his inability to succeed in the big leagues. His NHLe during his first season at Denver University suggested that he might produce like a third line center if all went well, and his second year, where his age would have made him the equivalent of a fifth year senior, should have been analyzed a bit more harshly, in the same way an overage junior's numbers get discounted. He followed that up by doing nothing in the AHL and after a hot streak last spring as a call up, he's right back to doing nothing. Here are his NHLe and actual NHL figures:
07/08 NCAA age 21: .34 PPG
08/09 NCAA age 22: .50 PPG
09/10 AHL age 23: .22 PPG
09/10 NHL age 23: .60 PPG
10/11 NHL age 24: .36 PPG
He'll be 25 in March, and needs a new contract in the summer. I doubt he'll get anywhere within hailing distance of his current ticket, and that might be a good thing for both him and the club.
The Leafs have gotten decent value out of Clarke MacArthur after picking him off the scrap heap. The arbitration award that freed him ended up being more than double what he signed for, and his underlying numbers are good enough to suggest the Burke did well with that move. Mikhail Grabovski also seems OK by the numbers, which means his play likely rates a closer look, since the standard reports from Toronto always rip the guy as bordering on useless.
Toronto has loaded up on expensive defenders in the last couple of years, but Brian Burke's mantra about building from the net out appeared to work better when he had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer playing half the game. The Leaf D isn't that bad though, and it's certainly a better group than the forwards, even if a few folks would be happy to see the back of Mike Komisarek. Luke Schenn has rebounded from a tough second year to be a solid NHL defenceman, albeit one that still needs a bit of sheltering, and the other player in the Phaneuf deal, Keith Aulie, is playing in the league as well, but he's only there because of injury. He likely needs another year or two on the farm, which isn't a knock on the young man as much as accepting the reality that very few defensmen can rush into the NHL, and those that do are almost always high skill guys that can help a PP.
One other thing that I noticed was that the Leafs PK, beyond the obvious poor kill rate, has once again suffered from an horrendous 4v5 SV%. It's the worst in the league at .819, and given that the Leafs give up the fewest shots of any team in that scenario, it bears watching to see if if every PP chance teams get is into an open net, or if the goalies are stinking the joint out. Gustavsson and Giguere aren't great goalies by any means, but something seems amiss when a goalie posts a .926 at EV and .769 on the PK, which is what Gustavsson is currently sporting. The Leaf goalies have had terrible PKSV% numbers for several years running, so maybe it wasn't just ToskaLOL's lousy play that was to blame. At any rate, as I said, it does bear watching.
Gamewise, the Flames are a deeper bunch up front, and the Leaf PK is, as mentioned, not good for whatever reason, so a decent forecheck and a PP that can, just for a start, enter the zone before the PP is half over might be the ticket. Oh, and the team really shouldn't waste any extra energy on Dion beyond exploiting his weaknesses in coverage. Winning the game is a better message than any other nonsense, and the Flames don't have a game to waste dicking around with some ill-considered attempt to prove something else.
Update: for a look at matters from a Leaf POV, Skinny Fish has posted a preview at Leafs Nation.