When it comes to their development, the Toronto Maple Leafs bring to mind a favourite old line around the NHL – they're playing good enough to lose.
In other words, the youthful Leafs are not losing in bunches like last season's dispirited group. They attack every game with enthusiasm and offensive skills that can be dazzling at times, but there are still enough holes in their game that the Leafs are still finding ways to turn what should be wins into losses.
So far this month, the Leafs have just two wins in eight games, with their habit of sagging in the third period proving costly. Their biggest problem areas are a lack of discipline and corresponding dip in their penalty killing, faceoffs (exacerbated by injuries to two centres) and consistency on defence.
There is also the matter of their road record, as the Leafs have the second-fewest road wins in the league with a 3-6-5 mark. This will be put to the test immediately. Thanks to the world junior hockey championship taking up residence at Air Canada Centre next week, the Leafs will play eight of their next 10 games on the road. The travels start with back-to-back games Thursday and Friday against the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes.
However, all of those problems are the hallmarks of a young team and all can be remedied with experience and hard work, the latter of which these Leafs seem to possess in abundance. Plus, there was a thin margin between winning and losing in December as two of the Leafs' three regulation-time losses were by one goal and there were three shootout losses.
The biggest stride the Leafs can take in fixing their penalty killing is simply by taking fewer penalties. The unit, which was ranked as high as fourth in the NHL 12 days ago with an 85.7-per-cent success rate, tumbled to 13th (82 per cent) after giving up seven power-play goals during the Leafs' five-game homestand. That ended Monday with a 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
During that stretch, the Leafs took 23 penalties, which works out to 4.6 power plays a game for the opposition, a jump of almost two from their rate leading up to those games. Teams cannot hand out nearly five power plays a game and expect their penalty killers to be efficient.
It is the same effect seen in football when a team with a poor offence can see its defence decline simply because it's on the field too often. The Denver Broncos won the 2016 Super Bowl with an average offence and a fearsome defence.
This season, with the offence declining to poor and the defence battling fatigue, the Broncos are 8-6 and practically out of contention.
The faceoff problem is a little more difficult to solve given the Leafs' injury woes at centre. Ben Smith, their best faceoff man with a winning percentage of 53.1, was put on the injured-reserve list on Wednesday and Byron Froese was called up from the farm team for the road trip.
Their most experienced centre, Tyler Bozak, is also hurt. The Leafs' shortcomings in the faceoff circle were exposed by the Ducks, who are the best team in the league at the practice. Then again, three of the four Leaf centres going against Ryan Kesler, Antoine Vermette and Ryan Getzlaf were rookies – Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Frédérik Gauthier, who was called up from the farm team for that game.
Actually, Gauthier was the best of the Leafs, winning seven of 17 draws, although one of his losses was the one that mattered. It resulted in the winning goal for the Ducks. And Nylander was playing his first game at centre in some time thanks to the injuries to Smith and Bozak.
Given the overall excellence of Matthews's game in his rookie season, and the fact he otherwise acquitted himself well in a matchup against Getzlaf on Monday, scoring his 15th goal of the season, there is no reason to think his faceoff skills will not improve with experience.
The big concern on faceoffs is veteran Nazem Kadri. While he made great strides this season as a two-way player, his skill at the dot did not keep up. He has a win percentage of just 46.5 per cent this season, 51st in the NHL before Thursday's games.
The trouble is, this is consistent with his mark over his first four full NHL seasons. Kadri's high was 49.2 per cent last season, which was a small improvement over his first three. This is not good enough for a shutdown player and a marked improvement over the last 51 games is needed.