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Leafs Look To Improve Defensive Play

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs are dead last in goals against.

Thirty teams. Number 30. Seventy-eight goals against in 19 contests. That’s better than four a game, thank-you-very-much.

Before the season started, you may have expected disasters of biblical proportions: locusts, darkness, hail.

You may have expected the Leafs to score about as often as TFC.

But this, this you did not expect.

Not with Vesa Toskala, widely regarded as a top-10 goalie.

Not with the acquisition of defencemen who specialized in, you know, defence: Jeff Finger, rookie Luke Schenn and hulking Swede Jonas Frogren.

And mostly, not with new coach Ron Wilson.

Wilson chafes at being called a defensive coach the way Jessica Simpson complains about being typecast as a perky blonde.

Wilson has never had the worst defensive team in the league. Not in 14 seasons behind the bench. Not with an expansion team in Anaheim that never broke .500 in his three years or a 19-win San Jose team.

He’s never had the second worst.

Three times his teams have been in the bottom five of the league for goals against. That’s not too bad a ratio.

Ten times, a Ron Wilson team has been in the top 10 in goals against.

So it’s safe to say Wilson has had some success teaching hockey players how to keep the puck out of their own net.

So what gives?

It’s a bit of a mystery. Toskala certainly knows the system. He played for Wilson in San Jose.

Clearly, some of the blame has to start in goal. The Leafs have outshot their opponents in 17 straight games.

Joseph hasn’t won a game for the Leafs since 2002, which of course is not his fault. There was a fear that even at 41, his formidable skills would pose a threat to Toskala. But, Joseph has lost all three of his starts.

Frogren is out for four to six weeks, which isn’t that big a setback considering the fact that he was scratched for half his games. The Leafs have acutely felt the loss Mike Van Ryn, who has been excellent this year and even the eerily mature Schenn and Finger have struggled. Wilson has referred to needing more out of Tomas Kaberle or Pavel Kubina. Kaberle, whose defensive weaknesses have usually been outweighed by his smoothness and vision of the ice, has struggled at times.

The defence, of course, is just part of the problem. Jamal Mayers, acquired to boost the team speed, kill penalties and boost the team’s checking is minus-9. Nikolai Kulemin, advertised as a two-way presence is still getting a sense of the North American game and has not yet emerged as a defensive presence.

What plagues the Leafs is a team-wide malaise. Offence often comes down to individual brilliance and skill. Defence is co-ordination and co-operation. The Leafs didn’t figure to have that much of the first commodity. The second could be learned. So far it hasn’t.

If anything, the Leafs are going backwards defensively. Most good things involve a few steps back instead of a straight shot up. But Ron Wilson is the only guy at practice with a five-year-contract. If I was a Maple Leafs forward, defenceman or a goalie, I’d be keeping that in mind.

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