The problem is an obvious one. It’s right up on the scoreboard every night.
Where exactly the blame lies, however, isn’t always as clear.
After an ugly road trip through Western Canada that extended their slide to 1-5-0, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goals-against average has once again crept up to the three-per-game mark.
With 23 goals against in their last five games, the Leafs are now tied for third last in the NHL in goals against – a trend that, more than any other, threatens their bid for a playoff spot.
The team’s latest loss – 6-2 last Saturday to the Vancouver Canucks – in particular, seems to have roused the fan base on the issue, with members of Leafs Nation turning to radio call-in shows and social media to play the blame game as it pertains to Toronto’s defensive woes.
Goaltenders James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson have become the most popular targets after a few tough outings, although head coach Ron Wilson and the team’s defence core are also drawing fire.
With the Maple Leafs about to begin a four-game homestand that starts Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, here’s a closer look at the guilty parties and how they’ve contributed to far too many pucks in the net:
Is it the players?
Part of the problem comes down to personnel, as many of the core players simply aren’t stalwarts on the defensive side of the puck.
Captain Dion Phaneuf, who leads the team in ice time, has had a couple high-profile gaffes that have led to goals in recent games. Top forwards Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are offence-first types who have had issues with coaches in the past over their defensive shortcomings.
The Leafs blueline, meanwhile, has had its shutdown types (mainly Mike Komisarek, Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn) struggle to contain players in front of their net.
“There’ve been too many slip-ups the last couple games,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “They’ve ended up biting us. We’ve got to really kind of focus in on our system.
“We know what we did wrong.”
Is it the goalies?
Goaltending has been a problem for the Leafs since the 2004-05 lockout, with a revolving door of starters that included Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala.
This year, Reimer and Gustavsson have combined to give Toronto a .903 save percentage – 24th in the league in that category.
“If the team has a subpar game, the goaltender can either steal you a point or even a win,” Reimer said. “We’d like to play solid [defensive]games, but goaltending is a big part of that. … That’s our job. If the team didn’t break down, we’d be out of a job pretty quick.”
A week after singling out Reimer as the main offender in a 5-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Wilson defended his goaltenders on Monday.
“We’ve got to play better in front of the goalies,” the coach said. “They know what the situation is. They worked hard in practice today and hopefully they can get the job done.”
Is it the coach?
Wilson may have been voted as the coach players would least like to play for last season, but no one in the Leafs dressing room will ever openly criticize the way the team’s staff does business.
Toronto, however, often looks disorganized in its own end and gives up plenty of odd-man rushes, even as Wilson continues to preach a wide-open style of play.
The Leafs defensive play appears to lack structure many nights, which points to either the players not executing or the coaching staff missing the mark on their game plan.
“We get caught up the ice in unwise situations,” Wilson acknowledged. “The other night with Vancouver, you’re out against the top line, and we got caught up the ice and it shouldn’t happen.
“Those quality players have to earn their goals – you don’t give them to them. That’s what we’ve got to get better at.”