Five games into the 2012/13 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit in an uncomfortable position: 13th in the Eastern Conference, with two wins and three losses. Five games might seem like a small sample, but it represents more than 10% of the season in the lockout-shortened season.
The early narrative for the Toronto Maple Leafs is blown leads. Throughout the first five games, the Leafs have surrendered two leads after leading in two periods. Coincidentally, both times were against the league’s two New York-based franchises: the Islanders on Thursday and the Rangers on Saturday night.
Apart from suspicious goaltending, the Leafs’ inability to maintain the lead is a result of poor puck possession. Early in the season, the Leafs struggled to string together passes in transition from the defensive zone to the neutral zone, leading to turnovers and sustained offensive zone time for the opposition. Improvement in this area will lead to increased offensive zone time for them and, more importantly, less time defending on their own side of the ice.
As for offence, the team’s top goal-scoring threat, Phil Kessel, has failed to find the back of the net, registering just two assists in five contests. Part of the problem is the adjustment to a new system and poor puck luck, but the biggest cause of Kessel’s struggles is the injury to linemate Joffrey Lupul. A season ago, Lupul and Kessel combined for more than a point per game, assisting on over 80% of one another’s points. In the absence of Lupul, Kessel has been forced to play alongside Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur, neither of whom possesses the speed, size, or skill of Joffrey Lupul.
On the plus side, the Leafs’ penalty kill appears to be much improved from last season. Over the five games, the Leafs’ PK% is 84.2%—good for seventh in the NHL. In addition, the Leafs have limited their shots against to fewer than 30, which ranks in the top half of the league.
The positives don’t end there. Top prospect Nazem Kadri appears to be emerging as an impact player. Kadri has five points in five games and has registered a point in all but one of the Leafs’ contests. In addition to his offensive prowess, Kadri has demonstrated an improved commitment to defence that wasn’t there in previous years.
When asked for their opinion of the Leafs in these five games, fans’ opinions were mixed.
“The last two games against the Islanders and Rangers were tough, but it’s important not to overreact after two games,” says UTM alumnus Moiz Badar. “I think the Leafs are still adjusting to a new system, and with that comes growing pains.”
“The Leafs are the Leafs. They have been losing for eight years, and nothing has changed this season,” says Joe Sycekwski, a second-year accounting student. “Until such time as the Leafs acquire a legitimate number-one centreman and goaltender, they will continue to struggle to win games consistently.”