Why a Toronto Maple Leafs Collapse Is Inevitable

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistNovember 7, 2013

VANCOUVER, BC - NOVEMBER 2: Goalie James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs makes a glove save off the shot of Chris Higgins #20 of the Vancouver Canucks during the second period in NHL action on November 02, 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

Lipstick on a pig.

No matter how much you slap on, it’s still a pig. There’s no hiding that curly tail.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 10-5 record, their standing among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference after Wednesday night’s action, their star player Phil Kessel contributing at more than a point-per-game pace—all makeup covering some serious blemishes.

Even before serious injuries to two of their top three centers saw Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak put on the long-term injured reserve list, the way the Leafs were winning games was proving to be impossible to sustain.

That was pretty obvious in their 4-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on the weekend. All the Leafs' flaws were exposed at the end of a road trip through Western Canada during which they somehow previously managed to beat both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames on back-to-back nights. This was despite the Leafs playing the kind of hockey that puts way too much pressure on the goaltenders.

The Leafs allowed a season-high 47 shots against in Vancouver. They took just 21 of their own—their second lowest total so far. It was the third straight game they allowed 40-plus shots. The difference against the Canucks was that netminder James Reimer was good rather than spectacular. 

The Leafs' saving grace so far has been incredible goaltending from both Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, who boast dazzling save percentages but are playing well above their career numbers.

Saving Grace: Goaltenders Lifting Maple Leafs
Current save%Career save%Current GAACareer GAA

So while Leafs fans are understandably excited by the promising start this year after their first taste of playoffs in eight seasons last spring, they should brace themselves for an inevitable collapse when the goaltenders fall back into more realistic averages.

Allowing 552 shots against over their first 15 games puts them at an average of 36.8 against per game. Only the lowly Buffalo Sabres are worse. Meanwhile, they’ve managed just 392 shots on opposition nets—a 26.1 per-game average that is better than only the New Jersey Devils and Sabres.

It’s not the plan Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle has plotted for his club. He preaches defensive responsibility. Too often, his forwards are getting caught deep, turning over pucks and leaving the blueliners and goaltenders outnumbered. The defensive group, led by a captain in Dion Phaneuf who has never made solid defending a priority, is equally guilty of making life more difficult for Bernier and Reimer.

Eight members of the Leafs are among the 30 most turnover-prone NHLers so far this season. Their offensive dynamo, Kessel, was tied for third Wednesday night with 21 giveaways. Blueliners Carl Gunnarsson (17), rookie Morgan Reilly (17), Cody Franson (16), Phaneuf (15), and Paul Ranger (15) are not far behind. Top forwards Joffrey Lupul (14) and Nazem Kadri (13) rounded out the cluster of Leafs on that list.

Carlyle told reporters in Toronto that something needs to change during a much-needed break between games this week:

We look at our team to play a tighter brand of hockey and to continue to show some growth. We think the growth has stalled for our team. We don't think that we've played to the template that we've created and some of the things that we're struggling with are things that we have to overcome or we're not going to give ourselves the best chance for success.

VANCOUVER, BC - NOVEMBER 2:  Head coach Randy Carlyle looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on November 2, 2013 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver won 4-0. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI vi
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Once the goalies fall back toward their career averages, more pressure is placed on the team's shooters for support, and they too are performing above average as a group. Their team shooting percentage of 11.99 percent is even higher than their league-leading 11.47 percent last year. The Leafs had previously managed to land at over 10 percent just once since the lost season of 2003-04.

The near future is not pretty any way you look at it.

And while optimists will point out the Leafs managed to eke out enough wins during the lockout-shortened season to qualify for the playoffs a year ago, the Leafs barely managed a .500 record over March and April as they wore down last spring before discovering a second wind of sorts and pushed the Boston Bruins to the brink of elimination in the first round.

With a re-formatted Eastern Conference making the odds of qualifying for the playoffs more difficult, things could get even uglier if the Leafs don't change their ways.