It was an embarrassing segment to be shown across the country.
The Hockey Night in Canada panel broadcast a sped-up version of a one-minute clip of the Chicago Blackhawks controlling the puck and cycling it around the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second intermission of Saturday night’s game.
In the background was the Harlem Globetrotters theme music as analyst Glenn Healy offered his thoughts.
“Talk about skill level,” Healy said. “It’s not even close here. Sorry.”
The sequence was on a first period power play, but it had a lot in common with the rest of the game, a 3-1 win for the defending Stanley Cup champs.
The Leafs rarely had the puck – they were outshot 29-9 in the first two periods, including 20-6 in the second alone – and their possession rate on the season dropped to 42.2 per cent, second lowest in the league.
The game served to highlight what’s become Toronto’s central weakness under coach Randy Carlyle, as even last season, the Leafs won a lot of games despite a poor possession game, benefiting from good goaltending and strong special teams.
That then continued during a 6-2-0 start to this season but proved difficult against the Blackhawks, who are well established as one of the league’s best clubs with the puck.
“They were just flying out of their zone,” Carlyle said. “They were making either a goaltender to D pass and bumping it to the middle or a D to D pass and bumping it to the middle. For whatever reason, we weren’t able to shut that down.”
“Definitely the first 20, 25 minutes were difficult,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “We were kind of under siege a little bit.”
On one hand, you have to credit the opposition. But, on the other, Toronto’s problems breaking out of its own zone and maintaining control in the neutral and offensive zones have been particularly glaring in each of the last three games, which included a win over the Minnesota Wild and a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes last week.
The Leafs have rarely been able to cycle the puck and build pressure, which tires out opposition defenders and can create a flurry of chances in a single shift.
Instead, they have often been “on the receiving end,” to quote one of Carlyle’s well-worn phrases.
At even strength alone, the Leafs have been outshot 81-44 and out attempted 169-90 in their last three games, their most lopsided outings of the season.
The trend has been most pronounced with some of Toronto’s top players on the ice, too, with captain Dion Phaneuf and the first line duo of Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak most heavily snowed under.
Shots for and against at 5-on-5 (via extraskater.com)
Corsi per cent
Phaneuf on ice
31.9 per cent
Kessel on ice
31.1 per cent
*– Corsi per cent is a ratio of all shot attempts
Part of the problem is those three have been tasked with the heaviest load and in situations where they’re often starting in their own zone. The Leafs have won only 45 per cent of their draws this year (26th in the NHL) and have had close to double the number of defensive zone faceoffs compared to offensive zone ones in recent games.
That has had a negative effect on their ability to generate offence as much as anything, as the Leafs top offensive players spend their shifts trying to clear their own end.
One boost Toronto will get in the near future is the return to the lineup of forwards Nikolai Kulemin (out with a broken bone in his ankle) and David Clarkson (who is eligible to make his Leafs debut on Friday in Columbus after serving a 10-game suspension).
Both have been solid possession players in the past, and their presence will improve the Leafs forward depth and help them win more battles along the boards.
But it’s also clear that those who have remained in the lineup need to elevate their game, too.
While the coaching staff is clearly concerned despite the Leafs 6-3-0 record, the players are trying to take some positives out of the fact they can play much better.
“We have to find something to build on,” Carlyle said after Saturday’s game. “Right now we’re not finding enough positives to build something. That’s what’s disappointing.”
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Kadri said. “But we are six and three. We’re still in a pretty good spot right now, and we haven’t even come close to playing our best hockey. So really that’s the positive we’re looking at.”
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