The hangover in the post-Phil Kessel era hit the Toronto Maple Leafs right away.
To start the season, they couldn't score. Ten games in, they had 20 goals. Twenty-six games in, they had only 55. Through 26 games last season, they had scored 89 goals.
Scoring is down around the NHL, but not that badly. An average team now puts in 2.6 goals a game; teams that can only muster two or less are almost always doomed to draft-lottery territory, which was the most likely forecast for the Leafs anyway.
Of late, though, they have been hitting the back of the net more often. Before back-to-back losses in Los Angeles and San Jose, the Leafs had a run of 44 goals in 12 games, part of an impressive 8-2-2 streak that put them back in the wild-card conversation.
Then came Saturday's 7-0 loss to the Sharks and some lasting damage. James van Riemsdyk, the hottest of Toronto's shooters, broke his foot – a non-displaced fracture – and he'll be out anywhere from 18 to 25 games.
JVR has become the front-of-the-net engine of the Leafs offence. With 14 goals in 40 games, he was on pace for 30 goals – his third-straight season in that range – and 60 points. He leads the team in power-play points, is second in shots on goal and has happily emerged as a great possession player under coach Mike Babcock.
For a team that's just starting to find its way offensively, his loss is as big as they come.
Tuesday's lineup at practice wasn't encouraging. Babcock had little-used defenceman Frank Corrado on his top line filling in for Leo Komarov, who is recovering from an unknown ailment after three games against the bruising California teams.
So Shawn Matthias took van Riemsdyk's spot on the second line, and Marlies call-up Josh Leivo slipped in on the fourth unit.
"The way I look at it, whoever puts on a uniform, it's their job to help us win," Babcock said of moving on without one of his best players. "So that's what we focus on."
Even with the recent scoring outburst, there are still several players suffering through droughts on this team. Joffrey Lupul has two points in his last 17 games. Matthias has been buried in the lineup and has scored only once since mid-November (23 games). Brad Boyes has had nearly 40 points in each of the last three seasons, but has been almost a non-factor so far as a Leaf, with four goals in the first half of the season. And except for a four-point game last month, Michael Grabner has been equally quiet.
Given their makeshift lineup out of training camp, it was a given the Leafs would need a score-by-committee approach this season to surprise in the standings. And they need some of these slumping players to start scoring in order to become more tradeable, because flipping rental players and overpaid vets for draft picks and prospects before the Feb. 29 trade deadline was a central goal of this rebuilding season.
So far, the only pending unrestricted free agents who have played well are P.A. Parenteau and netminder James Reimer. Most of the scorers haven't scored, which will make them hard to deal before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
In a way, losing van Riemsdyk to injury could open a significant opportunity for someone to play with linemates Tyler Bozak and Parenteau, who have produced well. JVR's spot on the top power play unit in front of the net is also a glorious one, although Babcock was testing Leivo there at practice, so it may not fall to a cold vet to fill-in.
While Komarov's shooting percentage is unsustainably high and will likely come way down over the second half, some Leafs are due to break out – Boyes, Matthias, Nazem Kadri and Dion Phaneuf, among others, are well below their career averages.
In fact, based solely on the number of shots the Leafs have generated and their players' career average shooting percentages, they should have 16 more goals this season.
If some of them find the scoring touches in the coming weeks, they should offset the loss of their top gun.
"The beginning of the year I was just fighting it," Matthias said. "Sometimes it's just nerves. When things aren't going right, sometimes you've got to relax. Sometimes you take it the other way and just get tense and grab your stick. You've got to give your head a shake and not worry about too much."
"I think I've been playing a lot better lately," he added. "I'm confident going in there [on the second line]. I'm excited for the challenge."
Babcock, meanwhile, remains positive, despite the lopsided loss to the Sharks. He sees a slow build happening – offensively and otherwise.
"I like the direction we're going," Babcock said. "I don't like [where we are in] the standings, but I like a lot of things about us. I know a lot more obviously about the group than I did to start – who's going to be part of things moving ahead, which is real important. And we've just got to keep getting better."
Leafs projected goals based on career shooting percentage
|James van Riemsdyk||14||13.9||-0.1|