The Toronto Maple Leafs enjoyed a wealth of success to start the NHL campaign, but have been struggling of late. The team has lost its step. The recent slump can be attributed to a number of reasons, but the fact is, the team needs to right the ship and make a legitimate playoff push. The city needs it.
How will the team respond?
For one, the injuries early on have been insane. So many key players have missed games, which has hurt team chemistry and the fluidity of play. Players are continually moved around and cannot find their rhythm.
Luckily, over the past week or so, most injured players have made it back into action or have made big strides in their recovery. The most important member of this group is James Reimer, who is just now back to his comfort level between the pipes. The injury bug is a part of hockey and, so far, the team has avoided the dreaded concussion injuries that are plaguing the league.
Hopefully, it stays this way.
Also, the top line from last year has played like crap all year. Nikolai Kulemin is a different player right now. He does not have the confidence he used to have. He still is a good contributor on the defensive end and is a solid team guy, but he isn’t producing. Clarke MacArthur hasn’t been effective thus far, and it's looking like last year was a fluke.
These guys need to pick up their games and start producing. Maybe these guys need to take a step back and start playing a more reserved role. Start them on the penalty kill and in energy roles, then when they regain confidence, throw them back on a five-on-three power play and see what happens. It’s the way to do it.
As the team continues to get healthy and Ron Wilson has the full roster to work with, he should look into changing line combinations. The first change, despite their continued production, is moving Tyler Bozak from the Kessel/Lupul line. Tyler Bozak should be playing an energy role, and putting him with Colby Armstrong and Matt Frattin would create a line that would make trouble for teams offensively and defensively.
This laves Tim Connolly to play on the top line and the reuniting of the Mac/Russian line as it has been coined (despite the fact that Grabo isn’t even Russia). Connolly without a doubt needs time to sync with the top guns. The fourth line should always be competitive with a pool of guys sharing time. David Steckel should center this line with a healthy Matthew Lombardi on one wing and Mike Brown on the other. Philippe Dupuis and Colton Orr can battle it out to get some games in.
On defense, the team has looked good of late. Cody Franson has played his way onto this team, so I do not know what should be done. It looks more and more like a trade needs to happen, as the team cannot have a quality player rotting away in the press box.
This leads me to another route—management making a move.
If the team cannot regain its fabulous form, then changes might be needed. Maybe the team needs a game changer to add some scoring and open up the ice for everyone else. Maybe another voice in the locker room is needed?
Just to speculate, if Toronto traded one of its defensemen with a few depth forwards, the team would still have legit NHLers to fill those holes, and the insurance backup guys would be available as well. Toronto’s AHL team is full of talented youngsters who can have an impact at the NHL level. They are the injury insurance.
And if personnel changes don’t work? Well, then Ron Wilson doesn’t get his contract extension and the team takes on a new form next year. I personally think the team plays too risky. We don’t have the offensive upside to play the risky hockey we do, and too many times the defense is left out of position.
When Jake Gardiner is on the ice, then fine—let him rush. However, don’t give the green light to every player on the ice. It is not in the team’s best interest to have a scoring duel with other teams. We will not consistently win.
There are my steps to gaining back the Leafs' opening-season form. Now I’m going to print this off and mail it to BB. Have a good one, folks!