As we hit the midway point in the 2015-16 season, it’s time to take a look at how each team around the league has been performing.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are an interesting team to consider. By all accounts, they’re in a rebuild year – they’ve got a poor record through the club’s first 43 games played – and they aren’t expected to do well, but they’re still looking at improved numbers from an advanced statistics and possession impact standpoint from last year.
At this point last year, the Leafs were in a free fall, but had started out the year in a position to not just make the playoffs, but take a decent seed. This year, they’re in another race – but for the first overall draft pick, which could land them Arizona native Auston Matthews.
Last year’s collapse was full of poor possession numbers and mad scrambles to make things look better. This year, every win is examined for what kind of a learning experience it was, while each loss is easier to shoulder, as they’ve been hard fought and well played.
The roster doesn’t look all that impressive, but that’s on purpose – so who’s been shining, who hasn’t, and what can we look forward to in the future?
Top of the Class
Mike Babcock: When the Maple Leafs signed former Detroit Red Wings mastermind Mike Babcock to a monstrous eight year deal, it was a fairly significant risk. Babcock was known to be good, but his salary suggested that he’d need to perform at a superhuman coaching level to make his deal worthwhile.
Sure enough, he’s risen to the occasion; in a season where the Leafs should have been absolutely falling apart, they look fairly put together in most of their games. The wheels fly off now and again, like when the club lost 7-0 to the San Jose Sharks, but poor games like those have become few and far between, and a lot of that is credited to Babcock’s roster deployment.
Leo Komarov: “Uncle Leo” has been one of Toronto’s excellent players through the first half of the season. He actually leads the club in goals scored and has earned himself a trip to the 2016 All Star Game. His success doesn’t seem particularly sustainable, but he’s still doing well enough to earn a round of applause.
Morgan Rielly: In a tough season for the Leafs youngster, Morgan Rielly has started to come into his own. His possession numbers still leave a lot to be desired, but he’s showing tons of offensive brilliance from the blue line – and some seriously hard-working defensive plays show that Rielly still believes in winning this year. For a young player on a losing squad, that’s hugely important.
The Toronto Marlies: The Maple Leafs themselves have been poor this season, but the Marlies – where the majority of Toronto’s up-and-coming stars have been playing this year – are riding high. They’ve absolutely dominated the competition, even during times when starting goaltender Garret Sparks was out for either a call-up or injury. It’s odd to say that the AHL affiliate is one of the best things that’s happened to a club over the first half of their season, but so it goes.
Jonathan Bernier: To be fair to netminder Jonathan Bernier, he’s played well enough over the most recent stretch to earn himself a move out of the ‘team stragglers’ category and simply into the ‘needs improvement’. A winless stretch to begin the season and a much needed conditioning demotion to the AHL are a black stain on Bernier’s start to the year, though, and that can’t be overlooked. What should have been the strongest part of Toronto’s roster ended up being its weakest, and that can’t happen again.
The Power Play: It may simply be because the Maple Leafs lack the offensive talent needed to deploy a strong power play, but the team’s power play leaves a lot to be desired. Through the midway point in the season, the team’s man advantage has only converted on 16.9 percent of the opportunities it provides – that’s not last in the league, but it’s certainly not very good, either. When the young talent comes in, this may change – but for now, the power play remains something that needs some serious work.
Stephane Robidas: I’m putting Robidas on the ‘needs improvement’ list, because he’s out on long-term injured reserve – so he’s pretty useless, which is mixed bag. It’s good because his numbers were poor last year, and he’d be taking up a space that could go to someone younger and with more potential. It’s bad because his contract still exists on the books, though, and that’s a daily reminder that Dave Nonis did some awful things to the Toronto roster during his short-lived tenure.
Roman Polak: Polak has a lot of heart and grit and toughness and personality, all things that a lot of pure numbers tend to overlook. From a statistical standpoint, though, Polak has been downright awful this year – he’s the Dan Girardi of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it shows. The good news is that he’s got the capability to pull out of his current slump, even if not as much as we’d hope for an NHL mainstay. The bad news is that he hasn’t done so yet, leaving him on the naughty list for now.
Byron Froese: Although there’s been more offensive output from fourth line centre Bryon Froese than there has been from occasional call-up Mark Arcobello, his possession impact has left a lot to be desired. In a system that supports strong possession numbers, Froese has consistently put up a poor showing – and while he’s still young enough to ostensibly get better at some point, he hasn’t really done anything to warrant much of an extended look beyond this year.
Overall, the Leafs aren’t as unwatchable as they once were – and with guys like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Dmytro Timashov, and Connor Brown still not even in the lineup, there’s a lot to look forward to down the line. For a rebuild year, things look pretty nice.