The Leafs of 2009-10 – Abysmal, or Mediocre?

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The Toronto media has a tendency to hop on and off the Leafs bandwagon at the slightest hint of either success or mediocrity. A disappointing game can lead to a chorus of boos and screams for change, and an exciting win leads to a wave of euphoria and optimism. I try to resist basing my thoughts and feeling for our beloved Leafs on their last couple of games.  However, now that the NHL season is no longer so young, with around 23 games played on average, I can begin to make a strong estimate on how good or, more reasonably, how bad, the Leafs of 2010 really are. Beyond that, I can also make some recommendations on how they could become a better hockey team.

In today’s watered-down NHL of thirty teams, the difference between making the playoffs or not is a thin line separating the mediocre teams in 7th and 8th and the abysmal teams in 9th, 10th and so on.  So the first question that the Toronto management has to ask is: are we mediocre or are we abysmal? It is sad that such a storied franchise with such highly touted management is reduced to this, but it is the reality of this team. And if Brian Burke asks himself this question, and his honest conclusion is that they are abysmal, then if he values his own job he had better find a way to make them mediocre, and fast.

I guess he could start by breaking this team down into smaller sections that are easier to analyze, and determining how good or bad each section is compared to the rest of the league. And that is exactly what I am going to do, and if based upon the twenty-two games played so far the chosen section is not rated at least mediocre, I will recommend a possible solution.

First, I am going to look at coaching because the lack of quality is so painfully obvious and the remedy so blatant. I have yet to hear a sound argument as to why Ron Wilson is still coaching this team. He has a combined winning percentage of only 39% over his two seasons here, with his team finishing in 13th his first season, 14th his second season, and on pace to finish 11th this season. Wilson was hired partially because of his acclaimed proficiency at coaching special teams, yet the Leafs have gone two years running with the worst PP and PK in the league and are still ranked in the bottom half of the league in both of these categories this season. I could flaunt more awful statistics, but one of the most painful effects felt by Wilson’s arrogance is the performance of Tomas Kaberle, who has slipped from a premier NHL defenseman to a defensive liability. Wilson sucks, and I rank his coaching performance as abysmal, and it is time to kick him out of Toronto and hire a new coach. I personally recommend Dallas Eakins, who has done an outstanding job of running the Toronto Marlies for the last couple of years.

Toronto currently sits in 27th in goals per game, which brings me to their offensive capacity. This team has some offensive depth, and with Phil Kessel, Mikhael Grabovski, Kris Versteeg and Clarke Macarthur all capable of netting 30 goals, they should be better. I am sure a lot of this can be blamed on Wilson’s pathetic coaching strategy, but there are some other remedies for an offense I currently rate at less than mediocre, but not abysmal. Kessel has been bad over the last ten games, and although I have criticized him in the past, he could be a much better scorer if he had another forward who could skate with him. The number one name that is being circulated amongst fans and pundits is Brad Richards, who could be shipped off by a Dallas franchise in an awkward ownership position. They are looking for a steady defenseman in exchange for Richards and many say Kaberle could be that guy. I would make that trade in a heartbeat, and would love to see Burke pull it off.

Fortunately, there is a relative bright spot for this Leafs team, and that is on defense. They rank 11th in goals against per game, and although that may not be among the leagues’ best, a statistic that is better than 15th in the league for this team is worth noting. A solid, if not stupendous, showing from Luke Schenn accompanied by improvements in play from Francois Beauchemein and even Mike Komisarek (minus his awful giveaway in Montreal on the 20th of November) has given this team a decent and reliable back end. Giguere and Gustavsson have also provided a reliable goaltending tandem. If Kaberle could get back on his game the Leafs’ defense could be their saving grace and maybe even earn them a coveted playoff berth.

At the quarter mark of this season, the Leafs performance thus far has been predictably bad, but I really think that some quick fixes could put this team back on track. If Burke fires Wilson and picks up a top line forward, I think the Leafs could jump into a play-off spot. However, if Burke cannot gather the courage to fire his old friend Wilson and fails to make an impact move this team will continue their tradition of losing and will to make the playoffs. Burke needs to realize that Toronto is no Anaheim, and failure will not be welcomed by fans. It is the Toronto Maple Leafs after all, and they are walking a thin line between abysmal and mediocre, and right now I, like many other Leafs fans, am praying for mediocrity. For a Stanley Cup winning general manager with 23 years of NHL experience, that cannot be too much to ask for.

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