Solutions to Toronto Maple Leafs' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-14
The Toronto Maple Leafs, despite some early-season problems, are off to a very good start in 2013-14. To be second in the Eastern Conference with an 8-4 record and 16 points must be considered a success given the injuries and major suspension to offseason acquisition David Clarkson.
The Leafs have been productive in the offensive zone with winger Phil Kessel playing some inspired hockey in leading the team with 14 points, including seven goals.
Despite many other good signs, there have been some ongoing issues. Let's take a look at the Leafs' biggest problems in 2013-14 and some possible solutions to these concerns.
All stats can be found on nhl.com unless otherwise noted.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' goaltenders have been excellent this season. While every team hopes for this kind of netminding, what it has done is mask some very real defensive issues.
The Leafs are giving up 34.9 shots per game, and that has them ranked 27th in the NHL. If the team's save percentage wasn't as strong as it is, they would be giving up another goal or two per game.
Obviously there are no easy solutions to this, but the Leaf forwards have to provide more support to the besieged defensemen. Outside of Dion Phaneuf, Paul Ranger and to a lesser extent Cody Franson, the defense is young and on a steep learning curve.
Talented young defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner simply have to play more hockey to get the experience needed to be better defenders. It's a dilemma for the coaching staff as player development has to always take a backseat to winning at the NHL level.
The team also has to get better at puck moving in their own end. On many nights their team breakout has looked either disjointed or non-existent as teams recognize that pressure down low will cause the Leafs fits.
The team must also play better in the neutral zone and at their own blue line. Losing battles here leads to direct chances against. The Leafs have to win more neutral zone puck battles and do a better job of defending at their own blue line before teams can even get established in their zone.
While the Leafs benefit from odd-man rushes, they also give up a number of these against which puts added pressure on both the defense and the goaltenders.
Team Faceoff Percentage
The Maple Leafs have been awful on faceoffs. They have won just 44.5 percent of them and rank 28th in the NHL.
This lack of prowess has led to the Leafs giving up more shots in the defensive zone, limited their shots in the offensive zone and, more generally, has contributed to their overall lack of puck possession.
Since centre David Steckel has left the team, the Leafs have not had a centre that can win draws consistently. Jay McClement has been the Leafs' best centreman in terms of faceoff percentage while first-line centre Tyler Bozak has won less than 47 percent of his draws.
Management may have to go outside the current organization to find a better faceoff man, but there are some possible solutions.
The team does have to adopt more of a mindset that this a team event versus being a one-on-one battle of centres. The Leafs have some excellent speed on the wing and quick players like Phil Kessel, Mason Raymond and James van Riemsdyk need to provide better support to their centres.
Additionally, the Leafs may need to have some wingers take more draws. James van Riemsdyk could be a candidate here. JVR's faceoff percentage numbers are not bad and it might make sense to have him take some more key draws. Jarome Iginla did this for a number of years in Calgary.
Finally, Bernier and Reimer can help by not freezing any pucks needlessly. It's a basic solution but playing the puck more versus freezing it will result in less defensive zone faceoffs which are particularly dangerous for the Leafs.
Lack of Physical Play
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been scoring in droves, but they have not been playing the kind of hockey that made them successful last season. While Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson have been near the top of the league in defenseman hits, the same cannot be said for the forward group.
Only Colton Orr and Tyler Bozak are the only Leaf forwards among the top 50 forwards in the NHL in hit totals. This has had the snowballing effect of not slowing down opposing teams and allowing them to dominate the Leafs on the shot clock on too many nights this year.
Some of this is due to injury. Frazer McLaren, Nikolai Kulemin and David Clarkson all take the body with regularity and will help the Leafs immensely in this department.
But other players need to play a more physical style when the situation calls for it. These do not have to be thundering hits but simply laying the body on opposing players can take something out of them. Team hits can be infectious and as long as they don't cross the line, they are effective in slowing down every NHL opponent.
Phaneuf and Franson must get more support from their teammates as the debilitating wear and tear on their bodies is going to be unavoidable if they don't receive more support in this department.
The Leafs' team shooting percentage is 12.7 and that will be very difficult to sustain over an entire year. In other words, the Leafs are unlikely to continue scoring at this rate, and as the playoffs draw nearer, the Leafs are going to have to play a more physical brand of hockey to keep winning at their current pace.