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Why the Leafs' struggles should not be a surprise

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri (43) is tripped up by Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell (33) in the third period at Air Canada Centre. No penalty was called on the play. The Kings beat the Maple Leafs 3-1.


The coach is frustrated. His players are, too.

And the mood in the fan base is getting uglier as the losses pile on.

Yes, it's another Toronto Maple Leafs losing streak, the sort of thing they avoided during last year's half season but which has gripped them tightly in what some are calling Death-cember due to the team's murderous schedule.

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But the slide began earlier than when the calendar flipped.

A day after one of their better efforts in a loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Leafs laid a rotten egg in St. Louis in a 6-3 loss on Thursday night. No one played well, and it was possibly their worst outing in a season with many poor ones.

That was Toronto's eighth loss in 10 games and part of a stretch where they haven't won in regulation in nearly a month. With the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks bringing a 9-0-2 record against the Eastern Conference to town Saturday night, the smart money is on the Leafs extending that by at least one more game.

"We've let this one go long enough," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said on Friday. "We've got to turn it around. We know that. We're well aware of where we're at. We've got to get back to playing the way that we can."

After winning at a 97-point pace last season, the Leafs are currently on course for just 87, which would only be enough to make the playoffs if the East remains as unbelievably weak as it's been through the first 40 per cent of the season.

It's a drop-off that has baffled many pundits and fans in the city, but there were also some telltale signs that last year's team overachieved and that GM Dave Nonis's off-season didn't address key issues on the roster.

Not only did those working in analytics around the game roundly predict a falloff for the Leafs, but this is a team that finished last season playing very much like they have in this one. Over the final 15 games of the regular season, for example, they were outshot an average of 33.2 to 24.3 in large part due to coach Randy Carlyle taking minutes away from some of his more talented players – Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Phaneuf all had declines of between two and five minutes per game – and distributing them to bigger, slower options.

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So when management sought to give Carlyle a more Carlyle-like roster in the summer, it merely locked in some of the problems that were becoming increasingly apparent late last year.

A lack of upgrades at the Leafs two weakest positions – centre and the blueline – also meant the team's strengths would again be in goal and on the wing, which doesn't fit with the coach's desire to get away from being a "rush team."

While injuries have exacerbated some of Toronto's issues, it was predictable they would be more of a factor, too. The Leafs were remarkably healthy a year ago, losing only $2.76-million in salary to injury ($1.6-million of which was winger Joffrey Lupul's broken arm) to sit sixth in that category in the shortened season.

Nonis also put Toronto so close to the cap and dedicated so many roster spots to one-dimensional players like enforcers that they couldn't carry a 23-man roster to start the year, making a lack of depth another foreseeable issue.

This is a team that has had a remarkably healthy blueline and two fantastic performances from its young goaltenders but which still appears overmatched many nights – especially against the top teams in the league. The Leafs record against the 16 teams ahead of them in the standings is only 6-9-2, and they've been outscored 2.94 to 2.29 and outshot by 10.9 a night in those 17 games.

While Toronto still clings to the final playoff spot in the turtle derby that is the East standings, it could fall out of the eighth position as early as Monday night.

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"Honestly if we want to do anything in the playoffs, we're going to have to play a lot better," Lupul said when asked if he and his teammates were keeping an eye on the standings. "Right now we're focusing less on that seventh, eighth spot and more on just the way we're playing the game. The goal is to turn into a top level team here not just try to sneak into that last spot."

Expectations, in other words, remain incredibly high within the organization – so high that they're out of line with their talent level.

Blame the heady days of the Leafs first playoff appearance in nine years back in May for setting that bar. Seven months later, however, they're little comfort, and the reality that's setting in is a harsh one.

This very well may be what they really are.

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Leafs PDO all situations (10-game rolling average)

One reason those who use hockey analytics believed the Leafs would struggle more than last season is they won so many games with either a high shooting percentage, a high save percentage or both. PDO is a useful new statistic that combines the two measures into one and which tends to regress close to 100 over time. As the graph below shows, the Leafs surprisingly maintained a PDO well over 100 for much of last season and early on this year.


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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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