by Mike Chen on 12/16/09 at 03:35 PM ET
Don’t look now, but those Toronto Maple Leafs—the team left for dead about a month ago—are within two points of a playoff spot (of course, they’re tied with five teams, but that’s parity). All of this happened despite having a horrific goals-against and an ungodly 70% penalty kill rate.
Part of this coincides with the arrival of Phil Kessel, but part of this seems to follow a pattern Ron Wilson had when he first arrived in San Jose.
In his first year with the Sharks (2002-03), San Jose was on the tail-end of an implosion that started with Stanley Cup aspirations and ended with the trade of Owen Nolan and the free-agent departure of Teemu Selanne. The next season didn’t start out much better with a horrific October (one win and an inability to keep the puck out of the net).
In November, some things started to happen for the Wilson-led Sharks. Remember, the pre-lockout days still had ties in the ridiculous four-column standing system. In the first three weeks of that November, the Sharks couldn’t really figure out a way to win, though they managed to get close—in nine games, the Sharks went 2-1-4-2 (that’s two wins, one regulation loss, four ties, and two OT losses). To close out November, they rattled off five wins and set off on a course that led them to a Pacific Division title and a trip to the Western Conference finals against Calgary. It also marked the beginning of San Jose’s ascendence to regular-season dominance.
Is that too much to ask of the Wilson-led Maple Leafs? Perhaps, but the mid-season comparisons offer up some similarities. In October, the Leafs regularly gave up more than three goals and only managed a single victory. The first half of November showed a few signs of life but still a miserable 2-4-2 record until Toronto closed things out going 3-1-2. Things seemed to have come around in December as the Leafs have put together a pretty nice 6-2 record while returning to relevance in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Statistically, the biggest difference between the 03-04 Sharks and the current Maple Leafs is that at this time of year, San Jose could keep its goals-against down. If you look at how November and December went, there were many games where the team gave up two or fewer goals. Not so with Toronto, which is a bit surprising considering how one of Ron Wilson’s trademarks is the five-men-back defensive system—something I figured the Leafs would eventually pick up.
Back when the Leafs hired Wilson, Pension Plan Puppets asked for my thoughts on their new coach. Here’s a little snippet of what I said:
Every coach obviously has a shelf life, and while I may seem pretty harsh on Wilson, I do think he’s a good coach, just not a flawless coach. I think his shelf life is accelerated because of his attitude, though, and unless he changes his prickly personality, you’ll see higher peaks and frustrating lows probably faster than other coaches.
If Wilson maintains the pattern he’s set in San Jose and other places, you might see the Maple Leafs surge in the second half of this season, then put in one solid run next year (the ceiling is the question, and that depends on many different things) before the team burns out on hearing Wilson’s voice. Back in 2003-04, Wilson was able to take a bunch of third-line players with one emerging top-flight talent (Patrick Marleau) and solid goaltending (Evgeni Nabokov) into a functioning unit that was far greater than the sum of its parts. So far, he’s followed a similar second-season pattern with the Leafs, but Toronto fans should be wary of one of the key roster differences between the squads: Nabokov’s 2003-04 run was one of his best statistical seasons. Toronto’s current goaltending stats are far uglier, with all three netminders putting up 3+ GAA and unspectacular save percentages.
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