Toronto Maple Leafs' Blueprint for Reaching the Postseason in 2013
At 4-5-0, the team is still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and there's still plenty of time to improve its standing.
Yet it seems like this Leafs squad really struggles to play inspired hockey every game for a full 60 minutes.
Yet in most other games, especially those at the Air Canada Centre, the Maple Leafs looked lost or unable to compete for an entire game.
So how can this team reach the postseason? What needs to be done to get this team to the promised land and reward some of the most loyal fans in all of sports?
Play a Full 3 Periods
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Blowing two-goal leads was the calling card of the Toronto Maple Leafs just a few seasons ago.
It was a running joke that any lead held by the Leafs heading into the second intermission was bound to be squandered.
Well, it seems like that tradition has been rekindled in Toronto.
Already this season, the Leafs have scored first and wound up losing the game, with the team holding two-goal leads in two of those contests (against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders). If a team is going to make the postseason, blowing leads at such a frequent clip is unacceptable.
Even in Buffalo, the Leafs blew multiple leads and, though they ended up winning, they conceded a point to the Sabres, allowing the game to reach overtime.
Now contrast that with how the Phoenix Coyotes (a perennial playoff team, yet always considered a surprise team) have played when scoring first under Dave Tippett:
— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) February 5, 2013
Big difference. Holding onto leads and securing wins, especially in a season where you're only playing your conference rivals, with whom you're competing for those precious eight playoff spots, is crucial for any team to make the postseason.
Win Games on Home Ice
The typical formula for a team to make the postseason in just about any sport is to play well above .500 at home and try to win as many games as you lose while on the road.
Well, the Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a dismal 1-4-0 start this season at the Air Canada Centre.
How this team expects to make the postseason while losing 80 percent of its games at home (where fans pay an average of $135 for a ticket, no less) is beyond me.
While the atmosphere may be lagging well behind other venues, starting 1-4-0 at your home rink just won't get you to the postseason.
If the Leafs expect to make the playoffs, they should be looking to win at least 14 games at home this season (with some of those losses come in overtime). That would mean winning 13 of their final 19 games at the ACC, which won't be an easy feat.
Fix Team Defense
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been a decent offensive team up to this point in the 2013 season.
James Reimer has looked solid in net for the Buds as well.
The team defense on the other hand has been one of the worst defensive corps in the NHL.
Despite the excellent play of Reimer, the Leafs still rank among the bottom third of the league when it comes to goals against per game, tied for eighth worst allowing 3.00 goals per game.
They're also 11th worst when it comes to shots against per game, with opponents peppering over 30 shots a contest on the Leafs' netminders.
On the penalty-killing front? They're also among the bottom third of NHL clubs, killing just 75.9 percent of their penalties through nine games.
Having Mark Fraser penciled into the lineup on a regular basis is killing this team. With two fighters and tough guys up front (Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr), there is no need for Fraser to be playing regular minutes on the back end.
As for the top pairing, both Dion Phaneuf and Mike Kostka have looked terrible, with each making a slew of errors game in, game out. Some of that is attributable to the fact that Randy Carlyle is playing each of them for about 25 minutes per game, but they both need to step up their game if this team expects to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Mike Kostka cannot play more than 18 minutes per night. The experiment is over; he is not a top-pairing defenseman and Randy Carlyle must adjust his lineup as such.
Dion Phaneuf has the potential to be one of the game's top blueliners, but he hasn't been good since the All-Star break last season. Reducing his minutes and the burden on his shoulders is also a must.
Shake Up the Power Play
This may be the most obvious point of them all.
Finding a way to fix Toronto's power play, which is converting just 12.8 percent of its opportunities, is essential if the team wants to start winning some games.
At this point, the Leafs' power play has been far too stationery.
With both Phaneuf and Kostka staying put on the blue line and James van Riemsdyk staying in front of the net, the responsibility of moving around and forcing defenders to abandon their set formations falls to Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
While Kessel tries his best, he just can't do it on his own.
With all due respect to Bozak, he's just not a first-unit power-play kind of player and just doesn't have the talent to break down a team's penalty kill.
If the Leafs want to start creating some chances on their man advantages, replacing Mike Kostka with John-Michael Liles (who is a much more gifted setup man on the blue line) and Tyler Bozak with Nazem Kadri (who has much better hands and is more capable of creating chances) would be a great start.
Having your most talented setup artists on the ice with your best sniper will be much more successful than having a rookie defenseman and borderline third-line center in the long run.
Switch Around the Team's Offensive Makeup
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Switching up the team's forward lines is the final piece to the Leafs' playoff puzzle.
After two consecutive games of scoring just one goal or less (although they did have many opportunities against the Carolina Hurricanes), one has to wonder if the team wouldn't be a bit more successful if it juggled its lines a little bit.
I know I started off by saying the offense was looking good, but would Toronto not benefit from moving Mikhail Grabovski up to the first line to play with Phil Kessel?
I mean, Tyler Bozak is just not the center to get Kessel going. He's not as gifted offensively as Grabovski, nor does he have the ability to force defenders to pay attention more to him and open the ice up for Toronto's best sniper.
That would also open up a top-six center slot for Nazem Kadri, who has been unbelievably good through Toronto's first nine games and has really altered his style of play and mindset, allowing him to register nearly a point per game while logging third-line minutes.
Bumping Kadri and fellow young gun Matt Frattin up to the second line with Nikolai Kulemin could really help Toronto get more production from the first two lines and would also allow Tyler Bozak to assume the third-line center role, which he is more suited for.
It would also bump Clarke MacArthur down to the third line, allowing the Leafs to use their best six offensive weapons on their top two lines.
It's clear that the chemistry that once existed between Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur hasn't been that imposing in quite some time and there is no longer any reason not to start juggling the lines.