After eight weeks of the 2009/10 National Hockey League season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have six wins. Six.
Think about that. That’s the sort of pace that would’ve had us excited about a top-three draft choice if…well, if the Leafs hadn’t traded their next two first-round picks for Phil Kessel. But are the Leafs really that bad? Well, on one hand, they sort of are: the standings don’t lie, and teams with a 6-11-7 record in late November are not, by definition, “good.” Even with seven (!) of those ridiculous “regulation ties,” the Leafs are wallowing in the NHL standings. Yet night after night they’re competing with—and, in some instances, totally outplaying—their opponents. That doesn’t necessarily make them “good,” but we’d argue it makes them at least marginally better than their record suggests.
So what gives? Right now, despite leading the league in shots per game (a gaudy 34.7), the Leafs are a middling nineteenth in goals per game (2.75). There’s a disconnect between those two figures; boiling them down a bit further reveals that the Leafs score once for every 12.61 shots on goal, a number which, when combined with a league-worst 3.62 goals against average, explains the team’s current woes. Granted, scoring was supposed to be a problem for this year’s team; the irony is that the Leafs are actually generating plenty of scoring opportunities, yet they currently aren’t convering enough of them to be competitive. Other than Kessel, the team doesn’t have a natural goalscorer (although Niklas Hagman, with thirteen goals, has been a pleasant surprise thus far). This lack of scoring talent was glaringly exposed last Monday, when the Leafs fired a franchise record-tying sixty-one shots at New York Islanders goalie Dwayne Roloson…and lost (or, well, “tied,” since the game was tied after regulation and…oh, forget it). Roloson is a career journeyman who, prior to Monday, was best known ‘round these parts for his devastating cameo during the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals. The Leafs made him look like Martin Brodeur.
It was the sort of game a team like Toronto had to win. The fact that they didn’t, and that they only managed three goals on sixty-one shots, speaks to a general lack of killer instinct that’ll take a season, maybe even several seasons, to rectify. It’s an ambiguous concept, but killer instinct’s pretty easy to spot when your team doesn’t have it. The Leafs have shown signs of improvement lately, but until they learn how how to finish teams off they’ll be languishing in the league’s basement (besides the Islanders game, home losses to Montreal and Calgary showed a team far too willing to let its opponents up off the mat). Ultimately, any statistic only says so much. Where the Maple Leafs are concerned, the most important number is still twenty-nine—their current position in a thirty-team league.