To be a Leafs fan, it seems, is to vacillate between wild-eyed optimism and despondent pessimism, sometimes several times in the same sixty minutes. As this coming season approaches, the pulse of Leaf Nation seems to be favour the former sentiment - some even dare to hope that this year's squad will be the ones to end the Leafs' half-decade-long playoff drought.
If the Leafs manage to wheeze their way into the 8th spot they will have exceeded most impartial observers' expectations, but dare we hope for even more? Is it possible the Leafs could challenge for their Division or even the Conference title? Could the Leafs be this year's Phoenix Coyotes?
[Shortly after beginning this story it came to my attention that Editor in Leaf had already written a very comprehensive and similarly-themed series on the subject that is definitely worth a look. I decided to write this article anyway as I took a slightly different approach.]
I feel the comparison is more reasonable than it might initially appear to be - both this year's Leafs and last year's Coyotes entered the season as underdogs in a tough division and neither could boast high-powered offenses or star-studded lineups. As with so much in life, the statistics light the path that the Leafs will have to follow if they are going to emerge as this year's Cinderella story:
Score More - Last year the Leafs managed as many goals per game (about 2.56) and similar PP production (14%) as the Coyotes, even without the likes of Kessel, Bozak, Grabovski and Phaneuf for much of the season. Further maturation from the Leafs' young forward corps and the addition of Kris Versteeg should help edge those figures higher. I feel better goal production this year should be almost a given.
D-Fence - The consensus seems to be that the Coyotes marched their way to the playoffs on the strength of a defense as stingy as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Looking at the figures from last year, the Coyotes defense appears to have been only marginally more effective at keeping the puck away from their net as the Leafs were - both teams surrendered over 29 shots per game (29.6 for Phoenix and 29.8 for Toronto).
At any rate, this year I believe the Leafs have a defense corps that stacks up on paper better than the one the Coyotes' had last year. Barring injury trouble the Leafs should be able to dial down the shots allowed this year.
PK Performance - Although they allowed as many shots on goal as the Leafs last year, the 'Yotes made up the difference in penalty killing, where they were able to stymie their opposition's PP a full 10% more often than the Leafs did (84.5% vs. 74.6%). Hopefully Komisarek and a beefed-up Luke Schenn can help shoulder more of the load from PK mainstay Francois Beauchemin this year. Of course, it's a well-used cliche that a team's best penalty killer has to be the one standing in the blue paint...
It's the Bryz - The numbers show (and most of us will recall) that the Leafs' similarity to the Coyotes last year came to a skidding halt when it came to keeping the puck out of the net - the Leafs allowed a full 0.82 goals per game more than the Desert Dogs over the 2009-10 season despite allowing similar shot totals. This points squarely to the thing Leafs will need most this year if they are going to be contenders - a goaltending performance similar to the one Ilya Bryzgalov provided the Coyotes with last year.
Bryzgalov performed so well that the Coyotes even managed to win almost 75% of the time when they were out shot by the opposing team - . Although it would be foolish to expect this to occur, I feel that it is a definite possibility. As I have said before, goaltending is a crap shoot, and you never know when a goalie is going to have a breakout year (Steve Mason in 2008-09) or come crashing back to Earth (Steve Mason in 2009-10). If one of Giguere (who has done it before), Gustavsson or Rynnas can catch fire this year we'd be in business.
Gut-Check Time - There was one final thing that was striking looking at the stats from last year. It was easy to see why most of the teams at the top of the standings were there - they significantly outscored their opponents. Washington scored 1.05 more goals per game than they allowed. Chicago won its games by an average margin of 0.72. For San Jose that figure was 0.58 and for Vancouver it was 0.61. But Phoenix was a different story - they allowed an average of 2.39 goals per game and scored an average of only 2.57. That's a margin of only 0.18.
What does that mean? Quite simply, the Coyotes won close-fought games - a lot of them. If the Leafs are going to bring spring hockey back to Toronto this year, then that is almost certainly the way they will have to do it as well.
The bottom line is that, statistically, Toronto has a long way to go defensively from last year's showing to post the same kind of figures that the Coyotes did last year, but with a hot goalie in net and an improved offense it is definitely possible for them to duplicate the success Canada's future 7th team enjoyed last year. But it won't be easy even if they do - Leaf fans who are hoping for the best should still be prepared for a lot of low-scoring, hard-fought, nail-biting wins.