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October 27, 2009
Illegal Curve
Fallen Leafs Have Porous Defense To Thank

by Richard Pollock

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The Toronto Maple Leafs' struggles on defense this season have been extremely surprising to some, but not to Puck Prospectus, which pegged the Leafs as one of the NHL's worst teams in projected goals against this season. Those projections came despite the roster overhaul carried out by new GM Brian Burke, who sought particularly to shore up the team's defense.

With the additions of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to the group's top four, it looked as though the Leafs would have a healthy balance of size, speed and offensive ability on the back end. At least, that's how it seemed. As the team's 0-7-1 start vividly illustrates, Toronto's defense has been anything but solid.

As the early-season media storm indicated, part of the Leafs' defensive struggles have been attributable to the team's goaltending. While the opening-night tandem of Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson has battled injuries in the early going, neither has performed well. Add in replacement Joey MacDonald and the picture gets no brighter. None of the three keepers supports a save percentage above .900, while Toskala sports a wretched .812 mark in his four games.

Making those figures all the more dubious: The Leafs are actually 11th in the NHL with only 28.6 shots against per game. However, some would attribute that total to the fact that teams gain leads on the Leafs and then sit back to protect the lead rather than consistently attack. Regardless, the Leafs need more production out of their netminders, as well as their defensemen.

One metric used to gauge defensive effectiveness is a player's Corsi rating. Invented by former Buffalo coach Jim Corsi, this metric counts the number of even-strength shots taken by and against a player's team while he is on the ice. A shot by his team is added to his total, while a shot against is subtracted from it. By this measurement, as of Monday, Ian White has been the Maple Leafs' best defenseman. With all due respect to Ian White, that has to be awfully worrisome for Burke.

White currently leads the team's defense in Corsi with a rating of 22.1. Next in line is puck-mover Tomas Kaberle with a Corsi of 17.2. After that, Komisarek is the only other player on the Leafs' back end with a positive Corsi rating and he is sitting at a measly 0.3. With top-four defenseman Luke Schenn (-10.6) and Francois Beauchemin (-12.5) sitting with such poor Corsi ratings, it is no surprise that the Leafs are giving up over four goals per game.

The Leafs' top four defensemen have a combined Corsi rating of -5.5, but that figure is scarier still when you consider it in terms of salary. Those four players are raking in $13.3 million this season, sucking up 23 percent of the team's salary-cap space. That does not leave a lot of room to address the problem. So how can they fix their early-season ailments?

With suspect goaltending and poor play on defense, the Leafs need to start scoring to be competitive again. Remember, last season the Leafs allowed the most goals against per game (3.49), but the Leafs were the 10th-highest scoring team in the entire NHL with 2.98 goals per game. That combination led them to only 81 points in the standings last season, but it's a big step up from the abyss the Leafs find themselves in at the moment.

So far this season, the Leafs cannot score (1.88 goals per game) and sit 29th in the NHL in total offense. Toronto's fourth-most efficient offensive player at even strength is Jay Rosehill (1.57 points per 60 even-strength minutes). If you asked even hard-core Leafs fans who Jay Rosehill was before the season, you would probably have received a blank look in response. So far this season, both Matt Stajan and Jason Blake have zero points at even strength. That is astounding, considering last season Blake registered 2.35 points per 60 minutes of even-strength play and Stajan produced 2.42 points per 60 minutes of even-strength play. Let's just say it is no surprise that Stajan has already been made a healthy scratch once this season by Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson.

The introduction of Phil Kessel (36 goals with Boston in 2008-09) into the lineup in the first week of November will help that offensive production, assuming he's recovered from his offseason shoulder surgery. However, priority No. 1 for Toronto is shoring up its goaltending.

Some believe the Leafs should be/are in the market for a new goaltender and the name tossed around most often is Burke's former netminder in Anaheim, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. However, Giguere's contract is huge -- he makes $6 million this season and $7 million next season. Are the Leafs that desperate for netminding help that they'd take on that kind of contract? Not likely. Instead, expect the Leafs to hold out until Jonas Gustavsson can handle the load and let the young Swedish netminder develop. Gustavsson has been dinged up to start the season, but there is a reason he was the most coveted European goaltender on the free-agent market this season.

More likely, the Leafs, if the struggles continue, will bite the bullet and not make any rash moves. Remember, while the team does not have its next two first-round draft picks (now in Boston via the Kessel trade), the Leafs do have a ton of salary-cap space coming up this offseason. Conspiracy theorists are already out predicting a Marc Savard-Phil Kessel reunion in Toronto.

For the time being, if Leafs fans want to cling to something, it is that this team, especially with the eventual presence of Kessel, almost has to get better offensively. Beyond that, summer free agency may be the light at the end of the long tunnel. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Puck Prospectus' prediction of a 29th-place finish looks pretty accurate thus far.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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