Goaltending controversy? Trading Jake Gardiner? The Toronto Maple Leafs will hit the ice at Mastercard Centre Wednesday morning with much more pressing issues after a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. They’ll face the wrath of Randy Carlyle knowing they’re not good enough to have a goaltending controversy. Not good enough to consider trading Gardiner. Not yet.
Giving up 33 shots is nothing new. In fact, it’s just below the Leafs average through four games, and as Carlyle posited before the loss to the Avalanche: if his team keeps winning while it gets out-shot, will it still be a topic of conversation? What ought to be a bigger concern is the manner in which the Leafs were out-shot 15-7 on their own ice in the second period by the Avalanche; the manner in which the Avalanche managed what Dion Phaneuf adroitly described as “too many chances within the good ice … in the critical area. Give up that many and your odds of winning go down.” The Leafs actually won the period in the faceoff circle after a slow start; but the Avalanche still forced them into mistakes. “They got to us in the second period,” Joffrey Lupul admitted.
Lupul thought the Leafs gave up 20 shots in the period. Phaneuf guessed 18. Officially, the NHL statistics sheet said 15, but you get the drift: winning while you give up an average of 34 or 35 shots per game is not a sustainable trend. This isn’t the Ron Wilson era any more; and as much as Carlyle will continue to be at his disarming best whenever it’s suggested that being out-shot is becoming “a thing” with his team, it is in the very least a reminder that despite that 3-0 start this team is as it was described by Lupul: a work in progress.
David Clarkson has six more games left on his suspension. Nikolai Kulemin is hurt and so is Mark Fraser. For whatever reason, Lupul and Nazem Kadri have yet to develop that intuitive sense of the other that Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel seem to possess. Kadri, in fact, played just 13 minutes on Tuesday because with all their injuries (Jay McClement’s absence was a one-night matter,) the Leafs are a two-line team and Dave Bolland offers them more than Kadri. Morgan Rielly looked much more comfortable compared to Saturday’s debut – it was Rielly who in fact energized the Leafs during one of their very best bursts in the third period, swooping in for a backhand, circling around the net and picking up his man and then lugging the puck back into the Avalanche zone, drawing a tripping penalty from Cory Sarich at 10:08 – but he is still a rookie. And Paul Ranger and Gardiner are no sure things, either.
It all means that it’s difficult to get a handle on who will be contributing and to what degree when the Leafs are whole. Until there is a better sense of that, fretting about whether Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer is the No. 1 guy – it’s a small sample size, but Bernier’s rebound control and glove hand seem better than the incumbents – or wondering whether Gardiner might be traded for a forward seems a little bit like a leap. And that’s before Phaneuf’s contract status or Rielly’s junior eligibility are put into the equation.
Cody Franson, who seems to have taken the initiative physically in recent games (he had four hits Tuesday) was asked about the second period shackling by the Avalanche – a team that is easy on the eyes and going to be very good very soon.
“They played a very patient game and pounced on us,” Franson said. “I just think it’s early season stuff. I mean, you’re just coming out of exhibition games, and you’re still making mistakes that you won’t be making at the end of the year. Maybe it’s a focus thing … but it’s something correctable.” Until it’s corrected, the Leafs don’t know what they are – let alone what they have to offer to another team.