The Toronto Maple Leafs had an atrocious start to the season last year. The team looked solid in the pre-season going 6-4 but fell into a tailspin out of the gate - a free fall they were unable to fully recover from.
Much ink has been spilled on how poor the Leafs' goaltending was last year and you'll get no argument on that point here. Having said this, pinning all of the Leafs' travails on Vesa Toskala doesn't fully capture the spirit of the thing. The powerplay and penalty kill were both abysmal and perhaps most telling was the complete lack of chemistry the team had coming out of the gate.
This shouldn't surprise us - Brian Burke was engaged in a full-roster overhaul. The defense saw the additions of Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Garnett Exelby. With half of our defense new to the team, chemistry was always going to be hard to come by on the back end. At this position, where understanding the tendencies of your partner is so critical, we were a team in flux and it showed.
Komisarek didn't seem to understand his role and his desire to earn the money he was being paid resulted in overly aggressive play. Beauchemin was nearly as disappointing early in the year for many of the same reasons. He was consistently caught pinching in on the boards in the offensive zone as he tried to make something out of nothing.
As soon as someone says, "there was a problem with chemistry on this team" fingers immediately point at the coach. That's not where mine are pointed.
The chemistry issues our team had last year were an inevitability. It wasn't a stylistic problem with the pairings. It wasn't personality or demanding too much. It was a simple lack of familiarity.
Ron Wilson is no dummy. He recognizes the chemistry issues that plagued this team early on last season. Changes on the back end were minimal. Lebda is likely the odd man out and he's the only body that is brand-new to the lineup. Wilson has committed that he will find his line combinations early this pre-season and stick with them. With this in mind, Leaf fans can expect to see Phaneuf skating with Kaberle to start the season as he was against the Senators. We'll likely be privy to the other pairings as the pre-season wears on.
Personally, I'm less concerned about trying to establish chemistry between forwards at even strength. Offense is about creativity, defense is about predictability. As a defenseman, you need to know when to switch coverage, when to move from high to low and what your partner is likely to do on those 50-50 pucks in the offensive zone. That means that familiarity is a must and that predictability is precisely what Wilson is trying to establish from the outset.
This year's squad is better on paper than the 2009-10 edition but paper doesn't play paper. It will take more than the improved talent of this year's team to get the Leafs into the playoffs. They'll have to stay healthy, particularly up front, they'll have to get consistently solid goaltending from Giguere and Gustavsson, and they'll need to bring out the best in each other.
As Leaf fans, we can only hope Ron Wilson's latest experiment is a successful one.
I am also paying close attention to the defence pairings. Specifically to Kaberle and Schenn because I believe the slot for the fourth "top four" defenceman has a lot of uncertainty. Did a blogpost on the subject.
Just noticed as I am typing my comments that there are multiple contributors to this blog. Including you, Curt S. Excellent insight on the Leafs. Also appreciate your comments on my posts.
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