It's not often that the coach of an NHL team that has lost only once in regulation in its past 12 games sounds the alarm.
But Randy Carlyle is far from the picture of serenity these days, even as the Toronto Maple Leafs pile up wins.
"We're trying to be honest with ourselves," Carlyle said. "There's lots of things that are [needing] attention. When you play in the best league in the world, you better pay attention to details."
The details beyond the points have been well documented over the past few seasons, as Toronto is no one's idea of a defensive juggernaut. What's indisputable, however, is that the Leafs have built a very nice cushion by going 10-1-1 in the past month heading into Thursday's game in Carolina. After beating the Anaheim Ducks 6-2 on Tuesday, they have the seventh-best record in the NHL, a 108-point pace that is (narrowly) tops in the Atlantic Division.
Where they need to improve remains the same, but this is a different team than a year ago, with eight newcomers contributing regularly during this latest run.
Here are a few areas where the Leafs have been legitimately better:
1. They're deeper up front
This is the big one. The Leafs may have had the weakest forward depth in the NHL last season, with their bottom six contributors chipping in less than half a goal a game and generally playing very poor defensively as well. But they added Mike Santorelli, Dan Winnik, Leo Komarov, David Booth and Richard Panik on bargain-basement contracts (aside from Komarov), and that's changed pretty quickly. For example, no longer are Joffrey Lupul or David Clarkson on the second line; instead, they're providing some nice offensive options on the third (albeit for huge salaries).
The minutes for Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have also been pulled way back at even strength, which is a plus both in terms of the Leafs' defensive game and as a way of keeping those three fresh late in the year.
|Leafs comparison||Last season||This season|
|Shootout wins /82||9||5.3|
|Points /82 reg/OT||75||103|
2. Their usage and special teams have improved
In a few cases, the Leafs are simply using their available talent better. Some nights, Kessel's line is sheltered; last season, they always faced the opposition's top players, sometimes with ugly results.
Cody Franson is paired with Dion Phaneuf, a duo that historically had been very successful in limited minutes but hadn't been tried much at all beyond the power play. And more skilled players are on the penalty kill, which has been twice as dangerous in terms of generating shorthanded chances.
Little things but important ones.
3. Their possession game is better
Not great, mind you. But better. The Leafs were embarrassing in this department all of last season, allowing one of the highest shots-against totals in league history.
Depending on the metric you use, they've improved their possession game at even strength by about 3.5 per cent, which is the seventh-biggest improvement in the league (Minnesota and the Islanders are up the most). Credit the Leafs' new analytics department for some of that, but they've got a ways to go to be a league-average team in this department.
4. They're luckier
Luck is a controversial subject in professional sports – and especially hockey. But increasing attention is being paid to how to measure it in the NHL, and the Leafs have done quite well.
Their salary-lost-to-injury figure is relatively low, with their big guns staying healthy through 31 games. They are scoring on a very high percentage of their shots on goal, especially during this recent 12-game run. And their penalty kill has had some bounces go its way.
It's not all sustainable, but it's certainly helped build up that points cushion.
5. Nazem Kadri has taken the next step
The Leafs' two weakest positions continue to be at centre and on the blueline. While the results have been mixed at both, Kadri has given Carlyle an interesting option down the middle by meshing well with Winnik and Santorelli and playing a dependable defensive game.
A year ago, it would have been unthinkable for this coaching staff to use Kadri up against the stars he's facing now. Now, he's easily their best option.