Toronto Maple Leafs: Grading Their Performance in the First Half of the Season
With 26 games in the books, the Toronto Maple Leafs have begun the second half of the 2013 regular season.
Now with just 22 games remaining, Toronto sits fifth in the Eastern Conference table with a record of 15-10-1 and will look to lock up its first playoff berth in nearly a decade.
As we look forward to the final stretch of games that await over the next six to seven weeks, we also look back on the first half of the season to assess just how the Leafs performed up until now.
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Through 26 regular-season games, Toronto's offensive output has been impressive, yet not out of this world.
The surprise isn't really that this team is scoring, it's more about who is responsible for a substantial chunk of the Leafs' offensive production.
Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk (both considered by many to be behind schedule in their development) have been sensational, with Kadri leading the team in points with 25 and Van Riemsdyk leading the team in goals with 14.
Phil Kessel has also put together a solid 26-game stretch, tallying 23 points despite his catalyst from a season ago—Joffrey Lupul—being sidelined for just about the entire season.
Depth guys like Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin have also found success this season when paired with the dynamic Kadri, with MacArthur notching 15 points through his first 23 games (he's been accumulating points at a much higher rate since moving to Kadri's line) and Frattin having picked up 11 points in his first 11 contests this season.
The reason that this grade is not in the "A" range is because of the lack of production from center Mikhail Grabovski and winger Nikolai Kulemin, both of whom have had a subpar start to 2013.
At fourth overall in the Eastern Conference when it comes to goals scored, though, Leafs fans should be pleased with how this team has started the season at the offensive end.
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While the defense hasn't been a complete and total disaster this season, it hasn't been impressive either.
Captain Dion Phaneuf has not been good. Whether you want to blame that on him, his excessive minutes and who he's been paired with and playing against, I'll leave to you.
MIke Kostka has looked overmatched on a consistent basis when playing against opposing teams' top lines, while youngster Korbinian Holzer hasn't fared much better on the team's top defensive unit.
In fact, the only pairing that has really stood out has been the tandem of Mark Fraser and Cody Franson, which has served as Toronto's third defensive pairing and hasn't really faced much stiff competition.
Perhaps part of the problem is the defensive pairings, but the Leafs must find a way to tighten up defensively as the season heads into the homestretch.
That must change if the Leafs hope to hang onto a playoff spot come April.
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Just a few weeks back, this grade would've easily been in the A to A+ range.
Both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens started the season off with a goals-against average hovering around 2.00 and a save percentage creeping up on .930.
Now, however, it looks like James Reimer's return from injury has once again left him a little shaky in Toronto's crease.
While he still boasts a fairly impressive .919 save percentage, his GAA has increased to 2.66 and he's let in some questionable goals in his last few starts.
Now there's no reason to count Reimer out or start the rumors about Toronto needing another goaltender, but the Leafs and their fans better hope he finds a way to get back into the groove he was in earlier this season.
At this point, the goaltending has been about average—not great, but certainly not as big of a hole as people had anticipated during the NHL's extended offseason.
Special Teams: A-
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For a team that is accustomed to having one of the most efficient power plays in the league yet habitually has one of the worst penalty killing units, the 2013 season has been a refreshing one for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In fact, every year since 2006-07 (per ESPN.com), Toronto has been in the bottom five in the league when it comes to penalty killing.
This season, however, the Maple Leafs have killed off over 84 percent of their penalties and currently sit seventh in the league, only 0.1 percent behind the sixth-place Chicago Blackhawks.
Meanwhile, the power play is converting at a clip of 18.6 percent, good for 12th in the league.
Should the Leafs' special teams continue to perform at this rate, there's a good chance that the team finds itself playing more than just 48 regular-season games in 2013.
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Having Randy Carlyle behind the Maple Leafs bench has been a blessing for the team.
With big defensemen who fit into a more defense-oriented system (something Randy Carlyle emphasizes), Toronto has been much more successful than it had been in previous years.
The aforementioned improved penalty kill can also be partially credited to the tutelage of Carlyle, with the Leafs being much more aggressive when it comes to holding their blue line and making it tough for opposing power-play units to enter the Leafs' zone.
The reason that the grade isn't higher for the team's coaching staff for me is because of how it has paired the team's defensemen.
Why Mike Kostka played nearly 25 minutes per game for so long baffles me. The same goes for Korbinian Holzer, who has replaced him on the team's top pairing with Dion Phaneuf.
Conversely, with Mark Fraser and Cody Franson playing so well together as the team's third pairing, you would think that having them bump up and play as the second pairing would be a fairly obvious choice, while Kostka and Holzer take the ice together to square off against opposing teams' third lines and Carl Gunnarsson moves up to play with Dion Phaneuf.
Having inexperienced young guns play so many minutes against opponents' top lines has hurt the team and also affected the play of Phaneuf.