"Defense wins championships."
That is a very famously known quote that flies around the world in all of sports, largely and virtually first known as a football quote.
If you examine the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the run they are having, the majority of the success they have been having in this postseason is significantly thanks to their defensive end (Hall Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, P.K. Subban) and goaltending (Jaroslav Halak).
Should the Boston Bruins go on to the conference finals, which it seems like they will as they currently hold a commanding three to one lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, they will have their blue-line and goaltending to thank (think Tukkaa Rask, Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Wideman).
As for the Toronto Maple Leafs, defense and goaltending has unfortunately and quite annually been a weak point in their depth chart for a fair amount of time now. Whether it was Brian McCabe, Carlo Colaicavo, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Jeff Finger, Vesa Toskala, or Andrew Raycroft, the Toronto Maple Leafs back end was one of the worst in the league year after year.
If we go back to the years before the NHL lockout, the years where I like to recall as the "Golden Years" for the Maple Leafs, statistics show that when their defense was fairly solid, the team was very solid.
In the 2000-2001 regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs averaged 2.52 goals against per game, which was ranked a solid 11th in the league. Their penalty killing that season was ranked 10th in the NHL at 84.9 percent. That same season the Toronto Maple Leafs finished 15th in the NHL and made the postseason.
In the following season (2001-2002), The Maple Leafs GAA was ranked at 13th in the NHL and fifth in the Eastern Conference, at once again 2.52 GAPG. Their penalty killing was ranked 16th at 84.4 percent. The Leafs were just one of three teams to achieve 100 points in that regular season, finishing an astonishing third place in the NHL.
In the 2002-2003 season, the blue and white blue line was once again holding their ground finishing at a solid 2.54 GAA (10th in the NHL). Their penalty-killing improved and it finished at 86.6 percent, which ranked them at an excellent third place in the league, behind Anaheim and New Jersey, which were ironically the two teams that would meet in the finals that season.
Funny how things work, the two best defensive teams in the NHL meet in the finals—now that is living up the quotation of "defense wins championships." New Jersey was ranked first by the way (they won the Stanley Cup that following season). The Leafs finished ninth in the NHL season.
In 2003-2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs saw a decrease in defensive numbers, they finished at a solid 2.49 GAA (15th in the NHL). However, they had a 83.4 percent penalty killing rate and finished 20th in the NHL in that department in that season. The teams would make the playoffs finishing a rather very solid fifth in the NHL.
Those were the "Golden Years" and once the NHL lockout came in effect, the after-effects certainly did not favor in the Leafs direction.
In 2005-2006, the Leafs began what was going to be the next worst five seasons for the defensive system. They finished a below average 3.21 GAA and sat at 21st in the NHL for that category. Their penalty killing was at 80.0 percent (24th in the NHL). The Toronto Maple Leafs would go on to miss the postseason that following season.
The next season (2006-2007), the Maple Leafs finished 25th in the NHL at GAA (3.20 GAA) and an awful 78.5 percent penalty-kill, which ranked at 27th in the NHL.
In 2007-2008, it kept getting worse. With Andrew Raycroft not living up to his expectations, the Maple Leafs faltered at 3.12 GAA for 27th in the NHL. As for their penalty-kill, it was an embarrassing worst in the eastern conference and 29th in the NHL (78.1 percent), ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings by just one decimal.
Come 2008-2009, the Toronto Maple Leafs hit a league low, averaging 3.49 goals against per game, which was 30th in the NHL, dead last. Their penalty-killing was also last place at 74.7 percent. This was the year that Vesa Toskala failed to prove that he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
As for this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs GAA did improve, by just one rank—they went from 30th to 29th in the NHL in GAA this season at a finishing result of 3.21 GAA. The penalty-killing ended up being once again a league worst at 74.6 percent.
The only up-side to this season's defensive statistics is the final month or two of the regular season, when Brian Burke landed defensemen Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean Sebastien Giguere at the end of January.
The Toronto Maple Leafs played a total of 26 games since the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf and Jean Sebastien Giguere. In those 26 games, they had a total record of 13-10-3. They allowed in 67 goals over those 26 games, averaging a solid and steady 2.57 GAA.
Over the last 26 games the Toronto Maple Leafs have played, their defensive core group has mainly consisted of Luke Schenn, Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beachumein, Garnett Exelby, and Carl Gunnarsson. Not to mention that Mike Komisarek was out with injury during this time.
If you add the plus/minus rating of Schenn, Kaberle, Gunnarsson, Phaneuf, Beachumein, Komisarek, Exelby, and Finger, the defense of the Toronto Maple Leafs plus/minus rating is an un-acceptable -46.
However, reviewing the final two months, when Dion Phaneuf became a Leaf, and when Jean Sebastien Giguere became a Leaf, their penalty-killing immensely improved, their goals against average largely improved, and their overall record improved and was three games above .500 Percent.
With the Maple Leafs defense expected to be much more stable next season seeing that Luke Schenn had one of the biggest turn-around of any Leafs player this season (about the half-way point of the regular season), and Carl Gunnarsson being one of the best rookie defensemen in the NHL this season, the Leafs will have a good mixture of veterans, and young guys to complete a big and tough blue-line for next season.
Should the defensive core work at a solid and steady and consistent pace next season, with the addition of Jean Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson in between the pipes in net, it could very well be the reason the Toronto Maple Leafs make a splash in the NHL standings and surprise more then a few people.