One of our New Year's Resolutions here at BCP was to be less reactive on a game-to-game basis. Having said that, last Saturday's game against Montreal was representative of a larger trend at work and it's something that needs to be addressed in the worst possible way: The Leafs need bigger forwards in their top-6.
I know that there has been a large segment of Leaf Nation who have been advocating the 'stand pat' position, and a larger group still who feel that a shutdown defenseman is our greatest need (even as I write this, I'm not entirely convinced that I don't find myself in this camp) but Saturday's game showed one of the chinks in the Leafs' patchwork armor.
The Leafs have no answer for a dump-and-chase, neutral zone trap style of team.
The Leafs are at their best on the counter-attack. Quick exit passes by the defense which in turn allows the Leafs' speedy forwards to back down the opposition defense. We're one of the fastest team's in the league but when that speed is taken away, what are we left with?
Now, I understand that a lot of you are probably looking at this skeptically and feel that I'm overreacting to Saturday's loss but let's look at other teams that play a similar style. Yesterday, Darren had a look at the Boston Bruins, a team who have historically given the Leafs a hard time. The Bruins forecheck hard and deny space in the neutral zone.
Games against Ottawa and Florida also spring to mind. These teams are less talented than the Bruins so the results are clearly less pronounced but the games themselves are ones that the Leafs struggle in.
Simply put, the Leafs' cycle game is essentially non-existant. They forecheck better than one might expect given their lack of size and their puck retrieval is fairly good but when was the last time you saw the Leafs complete more than a handful of passes deep in the opposition zone?
An effective cycle is one of the best ways to deter a team from playing the style of game that we bore witness to on Saturday. Dump-and-chase essentially cedes possession of the puck in an effort to force mistakes on the breakout. If a team can counter this turnover of possession by turning it into 30 seconds of offensive zone possession, then the strategy quickly becomes one where the costs far outweigh the potential benefits.
I had a quick look at the head-to-head matchups between the Leafs and teams that play varying degrees of dump-and-chase or trap-style defenses.
Boston: 0 wins - 4 losses
Florida: 0 wins - 2 losses
Ottawa: 2 wins - 3 losses
Montreal: 2 wins - 2 losses
Winnipeg: 2 wins - 2 losses
Phoenix: 0 wins - 1 loss
Nashville: 0 wins - 1 loss
Los Angeles: 0 wins - 1 loss
New York Rangers: 2 win - 1 loss
Now admittedly, this a little unscientific as I just pulled teams that I recalled who play these styles off the top of my head but it's more than a little troubling that the Leafs' only winning record against these clubs comes against the New York Rangers.
Adding to my discomfort are the teams on the list that the Leafs seem to be losing to. With the exception of Nashville, New York, and Boston, these are not the cream of the crop in the NHL standings. Florida, Ottawa, Phoenix, and Los Angeles all have precarious holds on playoff spots while Montreal and Winnipeg find themselves well behind the pack. These are generally middling teams and the Leafs' record against the 6 weaker members of this group is 6 - 11 and that says nothing of the 2 - 6 record they have against the 3 stronger teams.
Now this is the part where I tell everyone what the answer is, and it's also where I start going a little crazy. I think that Jeff Carter and his absurd contract would go a long way toward rectifying the Leafs' problems.
I know he hasn't had a good season in Columbus and I'm also aware that his contract would keep him in a Leaf uniform so long that the Calgary Flames might be a competitive franchise by the time it expires, but I don't care.
Jeff Carter has a relatively modest cap hit relative to his average production over the past 5 years and he plays a strong defensive game. He's a good penalty killer, he's 6'3" and 200lbs and he cycles the puck well. Also, in his last 3 years in Philadelphia, he averaged 11 powerplay goals a year on a team that rolled two units fairly evenly. For context, those numbers are better than Kessel's numbers on the powerplay.
Perhaps most importantly as it pertains to Carter; he's available. It's public knowledge that he wants out of Columbus and I genuinely believe that it wouldn't take the kind of overpayment that a star player generally demands.
It would mean absorbing a monster contract but it would also address a lot of our needs and in my opinion, it's worth the risk.