Monday, February 13, 2012

The Leafs' Achilles' Heel and How It Can Be Addressed

One of our New Year's Resolutions here at BCP was to be less reactive on a game-to-game basis.  Having said that, last Saturday's game against Montreal was representative of a larger trend at work and it's something that needs to be addressed in the worst possible way:  The Leafs need bigger forwards in their top-6.

I know that there has been a large segment of Leaf Nation who have been advocating the 'stand pat' position, and a larger group still who feel that a shutdown defenseman is our greatest need (even as I write this, I'm not entirely convinced that I don't find myself in this camp) but Saturday's game showed one of the chinks in the Leafs' patchwork armor.

The Leafs have no answer for a dump-and-chase, neutral zone trap style of team.

The Leafs are at their best on the counter-attack.  Quick exit passes by the defense which in turn allows the Leafs' speedy forwards to back down the opposition defense.  We're one of the fastest team's in the league but when that speed is taken away, what are we left with?

Now, I understand that a lot of you are probably looking at this skeptically and feel that I'm overreacting to Saturday's loss but let's look at other teams that play a similar style.  Yesterday, Darren had a look at the Boston Bruins, a team who have historically given the Leafs a hard time.  The Bruins forecheck hard and deny space in the neutral zone. 

Games against Ottawa and Florida also spring to mind.  These teams are less talented than the Bruins so the results are clearly less pronounced but the games themselves are ones that the Leafs struggle in.

Simply put, the Leafs' cycle game is essentially non-existant.  They forecheck better than one might expect given their lack of size and their puck retrieval is fairly good but when was the last time you saw the Leafs complete more than a handful of passes deep in the opposition zone?

An effective cycle is one of the best ways to deter a team from playing the style of game that we bore witness to on Saturday.  Dump-and-chase essentially cedes possession of the puck in an effort to force mistakes on the breakout.  If a team can counter this turnover of possession by turning it into 30 seconds of offensive zone possession, then the strategy quickly becomes one where the costs far outweigh the potential benefits.

I had a quick look at the head-to-head matchups between the Leafs and teams that play varying degrees of dump-and-chase or trap-style defenses.

Boston: 0 wins - 4 losses
Florida: 0 wins - 2 losses
Ottawa: 2 wins - 3 losses
Montreal: 2 wins - 2 losses
Winnipeg: 2 wins - 2 losses
Phoenix: 0 wins - 1 loss
Nashville: 0 wins - 1 loss
Los Angeles: 0 wins - 1 loss
New York Rangers: 2 win - 1 loss

Now admittedly, this a little unscientific as I just pulled teams that I recalled who play these styles off the top of my head but it's more than a little troubling that the Leafs' only winning record against these clubs comes against the New York Rangers.

Adding to my discomfort are the teams on the list that the Leafs seem to be losing to.  With the exception of Nashville, New York, and Boston, these are not the cream of the crop in the NHL standings.  Florida, Ottawa, Phoenix, and Los Angeles all have precarious holds on playoff spots while Montreal and Winnipeg find themselves well behind the pack.  These are generally middling teams and the Leafs' record against the 6 weaker members of this group is 6 - 11 and that says nothing of the 2 - 6 record they have against the 3 stronger teams.

Now this is the part where I tell everyone what the answer is, and it's also where I start going a little crazy.  I think that Jeff Carter and his absurd contract would go a long way toward rectifying the Leafs' problems.

I know he hasn't had a good season in Columbus and I'm also aware that his contract would keep him in a Leaf uniform so long that the Calgary Flames might be a competitive franchise by the time it expires, but I don't care.

Jeff Carter has a relatively modest cap hit relative to his average production over the past 5 years and he plays a strong defensive game.  He's a good penalty killer, he's 6'3" and 200lbs and he cycles the puck well.  Also, in his last 3 years in Philadelphia, he averaged 11 powerplay goals a year on a team that rolled two units fairly evenly.  For context, those numbers are better than Kessel's numbers on the powerplay.

Perhaps most importantly as it pertains to Carter; he's available.  It's public knowledge that he wants out of Columbus and I genuinely believe that it wouldn't take the kind of overpayment that a star player generally demands.

It would mean absorbing a monster contract but it would also address a lot of our needs and in my opinion, it's worth the risk.


Duncan said...

I agree with you completely Curt, even though Jeff Carter's contract is ridiculously long. I think he would be a great person to put inbetween Kessel and Lupul. He would add a good element of size to our top line and I think his playing style would nicely complement 81 and 19.

Another player I think they should look at would be Dustin Penner. People may not agree with me and I am fine with that. I think he would add a nice element of size to the second line and would be fairly cheap as a rental player. If he works out in Toronto, Burke would probably be able to resign him to a relatively decent contract since his play has been poor as of late.

The only issue with bringing in these two guys would be keeping the team within the salary cap. They would need to find new homes for Komisarek (would be tough, but might be able to get a 7th round pick for him somewhere), Lombardi and Connolly (he hasn't really fit with the team and paying 4.75mil for a 3rd line centre is absurd).

The line up would appear something similar to:

Lupul - Carter - Kessel
MacArthur - Grabovski - Penner
Kulemin - Bozak - Armstrong
Brown - Steckel - Crabb

What do you think?

Duncan said...

This is assuming some forward pieces have not been moved. In reality, a player like kulemin or macarthur would probably have to be involved to land Carter, in which case, Frattin, Kadri or Colborne can get some more opportunities to play with the big club.

Curt S said...


I tend to want to avoid Penner for a few reasons. First of all, he hurt his back eating pancakes. That sounds like a joke, but I'm serious. Powerforwards like him tend to break down early and if he's getting hurt at breakfast, he's probably not a guy I'm that interested in. On a less ridiculous note, he's also probably too slow to keep up with the team speed identity that we've built.

The other reason, as you kind of hinted at yourself, is the need to create some roster space for our forward prospects who are going to demand it by next year. Kadri, Frattin, and Colborne are going to need to start seeing NHL-calibre competition sooner rather than later.

Don't get me wrong, Penner has a history of scoring goals and I think he's worth some team taking a chance on, but I'd rather it weren't us.

Tap The McKegg said...

I had a feeling when I was watching the montreal game that the leafs just really suck against trap teams and seeing the numbers makes it obvious. Burkie needs to go out and get us a big forward. What do you think about nash?

Curt S said...

@Tap The McKegg

Until today, I wouldn't have thought there was a chance he'd move but given recent events...

Nash obviously has a lot of the elements the Leafs would love to add and he'd be a good fix for a lot of problems. The cost to land him would be high and the cap hit is just as scary as the number of years on Carter.

Tough to say who I would prefer but either would look great in Blue and White if we've got the pieces Columbus is looking for.