Is It Too Early for the Maple Leafs to Panic?

Published by Mark on Thursday, November 4, 2010 — View Comments

TORONTO - OCTOBER 7: First game as new Leafs C...

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Is it too early, just 10 games into the season, for the Toronto Maple Leafs to panic? Well, maybe panic is a strong word, but no, it isn’t.

Contrast the first 2 5-game segments to this season. A pleasant surprise going 4-0-1 in the first, and a dismal 1-4-0 in the second. Compared to 2009-10′s 1-7-2, you’d think an overall 5-4-1 would be reason to celebrate. Yet, some very disturbing trends have emerged, and for all the goodwill grown by the quick start, the Leafs have reason to be concerned.

That’s the danger of a fast start… it masks some of the weaknesses and has you believing things you shouldn’t. Hey 9 points is 9 points. But looking at the quality of the opposition we find that the Leafs met teams missing key players while being almost 100% healthy. Some scoring support from unlikely sources such as Colton Orr and Tim Brent, coupled with better defense and goaltending and the Buds were on their way. But, games 4 and 5 showed some clues that the Leafs’ game was not as solid as it seemed. Defensive breakdowns led to the Rangers forcing overtime, and Leafs struggled against Dwayne Roloson and the Islanders, eventually losing in overtime.

The last 5 games have been considerably worse, with a number of serious defensive lapses, poor decisions at the offensive blueline, and undisciplined penalties. They were really never in the game against Philadelphia, and could not take advantage of an injured Ranger team. Most alarming is the lack of offense, having scored 3 goals only once, and being shut out twice.

So, what is to be done?

Injuries to Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg have seen Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson called up, and lines shuffled, with Versteeg returning on the 3rd line, Kulemin moving up, John Mitchell in and out of the line up. Yet the chemistry the lines showed in the first 5 games has disappeared. And other than Kessel, there really is no serious scoring threat up front (though MacArthur is trying his damnedest).

Why not bring up Nazem Kadri? Well, where is the upside to that? Kadri is still small-ish, and though he’s lit it up in the OHL, and is enjoying some success with the Marlies, fast-tracking him to a team with little insulation for him will certainly hinder his development. He is adjusting to the AHL level, but he still has a way to go before top-6 in the NHL, specifically his play in his own end. And at this point, the Leafs do not need another player who is shaky in his own end.

Let’s not forget that, quick start notwithstanding, the Leafs are performing as expected… better in net, better defensively, but struggling to score. And mistakes will be costly, as they don’t have the firepower to simply outgun the opposition. That is not to say that nothing can change that. Nor that they should be complacent.

Last week Brian Burke told a Toronto radio show he had received some ‘hits’ in terms of trade possibilities. The Leafs are in a unique position in the league, having cap space and some potential trade bait. Granted some players might be regarded as untouchable. I doubt Burke would be interested in parting with an improving Luke Schenn, captain Phaneuf, or the aforementioned Kadri or Kessel. Similarly, the recent free agents are unlikely targets. We know Kaberle was marketed, but his NTC is in effect and Burke says he will not ask Kaberle to waive it. That leaves some players who are underperforming, John Mitchell, Jeff Finger, Mikhail Grabovski… perhaps a Tyler Bozak or Christian Hanson included, if a young forward is coming back?

Nothing is set in stone, but there are teams that have needs, some in terms of on-ice production, others in terms of needing cap relief. The Bruins are said to be in need of some cap room once Savard and Sturm return, and underachieving Blake Wheeler and Matt Hunwick may be available (though Michael Ryder may be ticketed for the minors). No word what the Leafs would give back. Another rumor has former 31-goal man David Backes coming from St. Louis, as Backes has some grit and would fit the Burke mold. The suddenly dysfunctional New Jersey Devils have found cap room in the worst way… Zach Parise gone for 3 months due to injury. That allows them to bring players up, but they have been so cap-strapped that they can’t always ice a full 18 players. And now there is a gaping hole in what is an anemic offence. Is there a way to acquire some of the Devils young talent, perhaps by also taking back one of the greybeards that NJ will want to unload, perhaps for Kaberle?

Unless the Leafs can find a way to start filling the net (and 2 goals against Ottawa tonight in a loss will not cut it), any serious playoff chances will have to be addressed by finding a trading partner, so that some of the defenseman stockpile can be liquidated for some help at forward. Burke was not able to find it durng the Kaberle trading period, but maybe now, as the season unfolds and some teams are in unfamiliar spots, something will break.

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