The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2011-12 NHL season with plenty of optimism. They had finished the previous campaign on a memorable hot streak, led by their phenom rookie goaltender: James Reimer. After trading older expensive defencemen like Kaberle and Beauchemin, their blue line was no longer cringe-inducing. The signing of Tim Connolly promised to help Kessel mature and the second line trio of Macarthur, Grabovski and Kulemin was confident they could continue terrifying opposing goaltenders. Sadly for Leaf fans, it was another season to forget. I'll discuss why and suggest some areas for improvement.
Ron Wilson's offence was run and gun for most of the season. This had its advantages; teams with slow defencemen had difficulty reacting. The emergence of Joffrey Lupul, coming off of numerous serious injuries, was inspirational for the entire team. He made Kessel even more dangerous. Few teams could skate with the Leafs when they were confident. As the season matured, well-coached teams realized that they did not have to skate with them - they simply had to wait at their own end for the Leafs to rush up ice.
There are two ways to enter your opponent's zone: You can skate through the blue line or dump the puck in. Faster and more skilled teams tend to prefer bringing the puck in so that they do not have to sacrifice possession of the puck, which can be difficult to reclaim through a battle on the opponent's boards. To keep your opponent on edge, it is essential to vary your approach to zone entry. The Leafs failed to do this, allowing smart opponents like the Bruins to wait for them and block their entry. Dumping the puck in allows you to avoid an opponent's blue line wall. Unable to very their playing style depending on their opponent, the Leafs thoughtlessly tried to outskate every opponent. It is typically much worse to lose the puck at your opponent's blue line than behind his net - facilitating a superior counter-attacking opportunity.
Phaneuf was relied on far more than is healthy. He is a talented defenceman with a huge shot, the potential to crush any opponent and an instinct for the big play. But he takes needless risks and in the second half of the season, played dismal man to man coverage and was unable to improve the players around him. Schenn's play improved, but even he and Gunnarrsson, normally thought of as the teams's stalwart stay-at-home defenders, were far too lazy in their own zone. They lost their fair share of one on one battles on the boards and did not clear the puck from the zone quickly enough. The D needs to go back to the drawing board, as Randy Carlyle clearly understands. The biggest bright spot defensively was the emergence of Jake Gardiner who is far more thoughtful with the puck than his mates.
The Leafs' goaltending faced too much criticism this year. Reimer suffered through the traditional sophmore slump. The Monster had a few strong flashes, but ultimately was unable to compensate for the team's swiss-cheese defence. Both goalies are too inexperienced to be expected to carry the team so it is unsurprising that both finish the season with weakened confidence. The defence and goaltenders should share the blame for the outrageously high number of goals allowed, though the defence should be allotted the lion's share.
The goaltenders will gain confidence if they have a better blue line in front of them. This was clearly the team's greatest downfall and must therefore be the greatest area of focus in the off-season.