There is finally some relief in sight this week for head coach Randy Carlyle and the Toronto Maple Leafs, they of the pop-gun offence.
No. 1 centre Tyler Bozak is expected at practice Monday and he is eligible to come off the long-term injured reserve list on Thursday, the same day No. 2 centre Nazem Kadri can come back from his three-game suspension. While there is hope Bozak will be able to play Thursday against the Nashville Predators, he may not be able to return from his hamstring injury until early next week.
But even the prospect of getting two of the Leafs’ four regular centres back in the lineup has to be tantalizing for Carlyle, who still has to get his troops by the New York Islanders on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre. However, repairing the Leafs’ feeble offence will require a lot more than simply getting Bozak and Kadri back in the lineup.
The problems go deeper than the jerry-rigged lineup at centre over the past couple of weeks, as first Bozak, then Dave Bolland (lacerated ankle tendon) and then Kadri were lost. They range from not taking enough shots, a malaise that goes back to last season, to the inability of the secondary scorers to contribute.
For every pleasant surprise such as winger Mason Raymond (15 points in 20 games while playing on the second and third lines) there are problems such as David Clarkson, who has yet to score in 10 games and has a mere three assists, and Nikolai Kulemin, who finally scored his first goal of the season on Friday.
After 20 games this season, the Leafs have exactly one player among the top 60 point-getters in the NHL. Phil Kessel sits 26th with 19 points. Next is James van Riemsdyk at 61st with 15 points. It isn’t any better on the back end, either, as Cody Franson leads the Leafs defencemen in points with 12 assists and no goals, which puts him 17th in the NHL. Dion Phaneuf is next with eight points, which is 43rd in the league.
Last season, the Leafs finished the lockout-shortened season with Kessel eighth in NHL scoring and Kadri 22nd, not great, but better than this season. It also helped that Franson and Phaneuf were eighth and ninth, respectively, among NHL defencemen in points.
Until the injuries to their centres caught up to them, the Leafs were able to hide their offensive shortcomings through two things – a good power play and great goaltending. Even now, after a five-game stretch leading up to Saturday’s win when it went 2-for-19, the power play was third in the NHL before Sunday’s games with a success rate of 23.5 per cent. Last season, the unit finished 14th with a success rate of 18.7 per cent.
And even though only two teams in the NHL gave up more than the Leafs’ 35.8 shots per game as of Sunday, they boast a 12-7-1 record because goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have save percentages of .938 and .942, respectively.
Kulemin, whose goal on Saturday was his first in 25 games going back to last April 4, is a good barometer of the Leafs’ scoring woes.
In the first three years of his NHL career, according to statistics furnished by Jonas Siegel of Toronto radio station TSN 1050, Kulemin scored 61 goals in 233 games, once every 3.82 games. He did that on 1.92 shots per game, not a prodigious rate by any means but far healthier than the 1.44 he’s managed in the past two seasons, as his scoring output mysteriously sagged to one goal every 8.4 games.
As the advanced statistics crowd can tell you, the Leafs are not much in the shooting department as a group. Last season, they managed an average of 26.3 shots per game, which was 28th in the NHL. This season, they are still 28th at 26.6 per game.
Once the injuries piled up, this was bound to become a bigger problem. Bozak may not be a scoring force by himself (six points in 11 games) but he allows his wingers, Kessel and van Riemsdyk, to do their thing. When van Riemsdyk had to move to centre to fill Bozak’s vacancy, his scoring dried up with no goals in four games before Saturday.
But van Riemsdyk was able to score twice on Saturday simply because the Leafs traded for another centre, 22-year-old Peter Holland, which allowed van Riemsdyk to go back to his natural position and cash in on pucks around the net.
Once Bozak and Kadri get back in the lineup, the Leafs will need more than just van Riemsdyk to embrace the idea of shooting more and going to the net.
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey
Follow us on Twitter: