By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 18) — Yes, it’s true: A goalie in the American Hockey League has been more prolific over the past nine days than all forwards combined on the Toronto Maple Leafs. You read that correctly.
Reto Berra of the Lake Erie Monsters scored into an empty net Friday night during a 5–1 victory over the Chicago Wolves in Rosemont, Ill. The Colorado Avalanche goaltender, on a conditioning stint in the AHL, thus drew even with Toronto’s National Hockey League output of the past four games, while outscoring every Leafs player other than defenseman Roman Polak. Berra has more goals than all Toronto forwards dating to a week ago Friday (Jan. 9) when James van Riemsdyk found an empty net against Columbus at Air Canada Centre with 1:15 left on the clock. Earlier in the 5–1 triumph over the Blue Jackets (at 17:23 of the first period), van Riemsdyk scored with a goalie in the opposition net and is — as we speak — the last Maple Leafs forward to do so.
Since then it’s been a 2–0 loss at Los Angeles; a 4–0 defeat at Anaheim; 3–1 set–back in San Jose and a 3–0 whitewash at St. Louis.
When Toronto hockey fans awoke on Dec. 18, 2014, their club was the hottest in the NHL, riding a 10–1–1 wave to within three points of first place in the Eastern Conference. One month later, the Leafs are destitute — 3–12–0 in 15 games and seven points removed from wildcard playoff territory in the East. A flip–flop of true Leaf–ian proportion.
THIS WAS IT: JAMES van RIEMSDYK (21) CELEBRATES WITH TYLER BOZAK (ABOVE) THE LAST GOAL BY A MAPLE LEAFS FORWARD — AGAINST SERGEI BOBROVSKY OF COLUMBUS (BELOW) — AT 17:23 OF THE FIRST PERIOD, JAN. 9, AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. FIVE LONG GAMES AGO. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
So, one of two things has happened to the Maple Leafs.
Either the club has found its assumed level — middle to lower–middle–of–the–pack; hovering around .500, or there is simply no way this group of players can perform with defensive structure and discipline. Perhaps it’s a lot of both. Peter Horachek has engendered more framework in two weeks since replacing Randy Carlyle as coach but clearly — and glaringly — at the expense of goal production. Had this group accomplished anything of significance, maybe its hither–and–yon tendency would settle nicely into a balance of defensive acumen and offensive flow. But, without the benefit of prior achievement, these players do not trust anything that resembles structure. They wouldn’t listen to Carlyle and they’re listening too much to Horachek.
All we know, for certain, is the Leafs have again fallen into a season–killing slump. Last year, it was 2–12–0 in their final 14 games; this year 3–11–0 since Dec. 18. In the three–point–game era, it it nearly impossible to recover from prolonged ineptitude. It has befallen the Leafs, at one point or another, in every season of memory except for the 48–game, lockout–abbreviated schedule of January–May 2013. Whether it’s 0–7–1 out of the gate (as in 2009–10); 1–8–2 (between Oct. 21 and Nov. 13, 2010); 1–9–1 (from Feb. 7–29, 2012) or a total collapse in the final weeks (as in last season), the downtrodden Leafs cannot avoid the killer funk.
So, what to do?
Given that it appears the team will again miss the playoffs and finish out of reasonable draft–lottery range, I’d let the boys loose. The 10–1–1 eruption happened while the Maple Leafs were playing to their strengths and weaknesses at the same time — trading chances; hoping for supernatural performance between the pipes and leading the NHL in goals scored. Run–and–gun is the only language these players understand and it provides them at least a fighting chance for victory. It also enhances potential trade value. Phil Kessel’s $8–million salary for seven more years looks far more appealing when his name is in the scoring summary each night. While vectoring between offense and defense, Phil the Thrill been heard from since mid–December.
Such deployment, of course, wouldn’t be fair to Horachek, for the players would need to virtually ignore whatever message he’s trying to impart. But, that’s another strength of the current Leafs — pretending there is no coach behind the bench. Until on–ice leadership is cultivated by assembling yet another cast of skaters, pond–hockey is the only hope for a win now and then, and for the glazing over of season ticket subscribers that cough up the NHL’s highest stipend.
Once summer arrives, management can begin to start over.
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