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Toronto’s collapse from a below-average team to a cellar-dwelling disaster has been the product of their stars struggling to produce.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The entire concept of a "slump" hardly seems to apply to the Toronto Maple Leafs any more.

A slump in the NHL is a rough 10 or 15 games, when star players' sticks go cold, or a goalie struggles, or injuries strike. They happen to everyone.

But, in Toronto, it's been 40 games with only eight wins – or three full months of futility. And it's been much, much more than one thing that's gone pear-shaped.

Because of their history, the Leafs always invite a lot of cynicism every fall, but few forecasted a season as disastrous as this. An 84-point team a year ago, Toronto is now on pace for only 69 – the franchise's lowest total relative to the NHL average since 1990-91 and one of the lowest by that measure in the franchise's nearly 100-year history.

Given how poorly they've played of late, there's also little chance they even get to 69.

The strangest thing about the Leafs slide is how complete it's been.

Toronto was, until 40 games ago, the definition of a slightly less than middling team. This was a roster with obvious flaws but also some talent, one that got by on timely goals from its top players such as Phil Kessel and strong goaltending from Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer.

The Leafs were never very good, but they were also never this terrible.

What's changed since mid-December has been the total disappearance of those key strengths, leaving only the struggling shell of a team that will take the ice on Thursday against San Jose.

Maple Leafs by the numbers

 

The 40-game collapse

Previous 113 games

Goals for

1.93

2.91

Goals against

3.43

2.99

Shots for

28.4

28.6

Shots against

32.5

35.3

Shooting percentage

6.8%

10.2%

Save percentage

0.895

0.915

Scoring chance share

45.2%

43.5%

Possession rating

47.2%

43.6%


If you look back at the Leafs since the start of last season, the most alarming change in this nosedive has been their inability to score.

And, more specifically, Phil Kessel's inability to score.

During the past 40 games, the Leafs have fallen off by about a goal a game, dropping to a Buffalo-like 1.9 goals per 60 minutes. Statistically speaking, they haven't been shooting less or getting fewer scoring chances; they've simply received very little offence from their top players.

In the 113 games from the start of 2013-14 to the beginning of the collapse, Toronto's top line of Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk scored a combined 128 goals, or 1.13 a game.

In the 40 games since, that line has only 0.62 goals a game, which means that trio has accounted for half of the Leafs lost offence despite continuing to get top unit power-play duty.

Kessel alone has fallen from a 39-goal pace to a 14-goal one, a crippling drop-off, much of which has been at even strength.

He has been on the ice for only 12 five-on-five goals in the past 40 games (0.3 a game), down from 0.8 a game.

The other dagger in the Leafs season has been their goaltending woes.

Prior to these past 40 games, Toronto had enjoyed pretty spectacular success from Bernier since acquiring him from the Kings in the summer of 2013. Between the start of his first season until the falloff, the Leafs as a team had the fifth-best even strength save percentage in the NHL, trailing only Boston, Los Angeles, Montreal and the Rangers – four clubs with very strong starters.

By mid-December of his second year, it appeared Bernier was going to lead the Leafs to a much better record than they otherwise deserved.

Instead, they have posted an .895 save percentage that is better than only the Edmonton Oilers ever since, the equivalent of allowing an extra two goals every three games.

Like Kessel, Bernier has struggled, taking the team down with him.

Because of the timing of the Leafs coaching change, interim coach Peter Horachek has been saddled with a lot of the blame for what's happened in Toronto. But it's really been the disappearance of the Leafs stars that has sunk their season.

There is not a lot of evidence that a coach can have a dramatic, sustained impact on either shooting or save percentage, meaning the collapse can't land entirely at Horachek's feet.

No coach could have coaxed many wins out of a Leafs team where Kessel wasn't scoring and Bernier wasn't making saves. That was how they were built, from Day 1.

A mediocre team with their co-MVPs from last season at the top of their game, this group was bound to be a bottom feeder when they both struggled.

And that's exactly what's happened the past three months.

The Leafs goal differential drop

 

The 40-game collapse

Previous 113 games

Even strength
goal differential

-0.90

-0.08

With Kessel on ice

-0.50

0.06

Bernier's GA share
versus average

-0.33

0.32

Reimer's GA share
versus average

-0.29

-0.18

Breakdown: The Leafs even strength goal differential was close to average when Bernier highly outperformed the NHL's average save percentage, but it has cratered as he's posted below average numbers. (His struggles may also be partly influenced by the fact the Leafs blueline has been decimated recently by trades and injuries.) Toronto has also gone from breaking even with Kessel on the ice to being outscored by half a goal a game, largely due to lack of production from he and his linemates. Both of those are stark differences from the team's high PDO (percentage driven outcome) most of last season and early this year.

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