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article imageOp-Ed: Criticism toward Maple Leafs is misguided

By Tyler Hunt     Dec 13, 2013 in Sports
After a horrid stretch of hockey and falling to fifth in the Atlantic division, the Toronto Maple Leafs have drawn criticism from fans and media alike. But the team that is currently disappointing Leafs Nation isn't exactly what it was meant to be.
Following a 10-4-0 start to the regular season, and a goaltending tandem that was one of the best duos in the National Hockey League, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gone 6-10-3 since the start of November, and the critics have been loud in their disapproval of the way the team has played.
Out shot in all but four of 33 games thus far, many are pointing to the struggles in the defensive zone as the reason the team has taken a back seat in the Eastern Conference. There is no doubt that the workload both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have faced pales in comparison to most of the other netminders across the league, and yet both goaltenders are in the top 10 in save percentage among NHL starters with at least 15 games played.
For many, the issues defensively are nothing new, and not very surprising considering the biggest addition to the blue line this past offseason was T.J. Brennan, who is playing in the American Hockey League (and coincidentally, leading the Toronto Marlies in scoring).
Offence and special teams struggling
But perhaps even more concerning for the Leafs is the decline in offence since the end of October. The team was second in the league in scoring after the first month with 53 goals for (a rate of 3.64 goals per game), behind only San Jose, and had a powerplay operating at 25.5% (Pittsburgh's PP currently leads the NHL at 26.1%).
Since Nov. 1, the scoring rate has dropped to 2.05 goals per game, and the powerplay has scored as many goals in last 19 games as they did in the first 14.
Surprisingly throughout the most recent stretch, the Leafs top forwards of Phil Kessel and James van Riemdsyk have continued to produce at a respectable level, but their numbers have dropped off a bit as well, combining for 31 points in October and contributing roughly 2.2 points/game, but just 26 points in over the next 19 games at a rate of about 1.3 points/game.
The penalty kill, which was second in the entire NHL last season, has fallen to 27th this year, including killing off just 52 of 74 (70%) since November, which is an even lower percentage than the New York Islanders, who currently rank 30th.
The Bolland-factor
Despite the lack of sympathy for excuses at this level, much of the decline can be attributed to injuries, and specifically the loss of Dave Bolland, who was one of the Leafs best players through the first month of the season.
Bolland's last game was coincidentally the Leafs first in the month of November, in which he played only 6:18 of ice time suffering a severed tendon in his left leg after colliding with Zack Kassian. Through the month of October, Bolland had six goals and ten points through 15 games, optimistically on pace for 32 goals and his best statistical season yet.
He was also a big part of the Leafs penalty kill, which had been operating at a spectacular 87% through the month of October. He had one of four shorthanded goals for the Leafs this season and is still top five in PK time per game on the team if you factor out his replacement, Jerred Smithson.
Clarkson, Bozak and other disappointments
Much of the blame has been laid on free agent acquisition David Clarkson, who missed the first ten games of the season due to suspension and has only been able to contribute six points in 23 games since entering the lineup.
Clarkson has been shuffled around on lines with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, but has mostly spent time alongside Mason Raymond and Trevor Smith on the Leafs third line.
Clarkson is still trying to find his role within the team, and with the injuries the Leafs have suffered down the middle, you have to wonder if he's having trouble finding chemistry with the centres he's been paired alongside. He and Bolland would have made for an interesting third line on the Leafs, but the two only played five games in the same lineup before Bolland went down.
Other than Clarkson, Tyler Bozak's inability to stay off the injured reserve has compounded the lack of depth at the centre position, and has forced Nazem Kadri to play top line minutes, which could be a factor in Kessel and JVR's drop-off in point production.
Not who we thought they were
Perhaps the biggest factor in the disappointment Leafs fans have been feeling is unrealistic expectations. Following a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season that saw the team make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, many would classify the team's performance this year as somewhat of a failure thus far. Even when the team was winning, head coach Randy Carlyle alluded to structural issues and poor defensive zone play, which have shot to the forefront of discussion over the past month and a half now that the wins are harder to come by.
With the additions of Clarkson, Bolland, and Jonathan Bernier (who, alongside James Reimer, has provided stability in the Leafs net not-seen since the likes of Ed Belfour), there was certainly reason for optimism entering the season. But without upgrading a defence corps that has a severe drop-off in talent after Dion Phaneuf, compounded with Clarkson's early suspension and injuries throughout the lineup, this is not a team that screams contender, and may have some difficulty even making it back to the playoffs despite the 48-game euphoria that the lockout-season provided.
While general manager Dave Nonis deserves some blame for not adding the pieces necessary to be a bonafide challenger in the Eastern Conference, there is a strange impatience among Leafs observers that the team needs to take the next step this season (which is understandable given the teams lack of success over the past decade).
Many of the forwards are under contract for the next few years, and with the salary cap going up and some much-needed cap flexibility, there is no reason to believe this team can't grow stronger over the next couple of years. Toronto has come a long way from the 'Muskoka-Five' and nearly unwatchable seasons of the late 2000s, and with the right moves and some health for the current core in-place, they aren't far from competing for the Atlantic Division lead for years to come.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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