The Toronto Maple Leafs entered December with a record of 14-9-2, having avoided a repeat of the early meltdown that doomed their playoffs hopes last season, and were ranked among the top eight clubs in the Eastern Conference.
December, however, proved a cruel month, with the Leafs winning only four of 13 games, sliding out of a playoff spot for the first time this season.
Not even a 7-3 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first game of the new year helped them gain ground in the standings.
The Leafs struggles over the past month have Toronto fans and media understandably nervous about the team’s chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Injuries, of course, have contributed to the recent decline.
The Leafs were able to find ways to win in November, despite losing goaltender James Reimer, defenseman Mike Komisarek, centers Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Matthew Lombardi, right wingers Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong, and left winger Clarke MacArthur at various times.
But as the injuries piled up, it finally took a toll in December. As many of those players returned to action, others (defenseman John-Michael Liles and center Tyler Bozak) were sidelined or re-injured (Armstrong).
Goaltending has become a problem area. Reimer was considered the starter at the beginning of the season, but a head injury sustained in an Oct. 22 game against Montreal knocked him out of the lineup for 18 games. He’s struggled to regain his form since returning, posting only three victories in December.
Backup Jonas Gustavsson, meanwhile, failed to seize the opportunity to finally prove himself a capable NHL starting goalie.
As a result, the Leafs entered the new year with the third-worst combined goals-against average and the sixth-worst save percentage. Only the Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have given up more goals.
To be fair to Reimer and Gustavsson, their defense hasn’t done them any favors, giving up the eighth-most shots per game of all NHL teams.
Secondary scoring has also become an issue.
Forty of their 122 goals entering Thursday’s game against Winnipeg were scored by first line right winger Phil Kessel and left winger Joffrey Lupul.
Second-line center Mikhail Grabovski has 11 goals, including nine points in his past 12 games. Third-line left winger Clarke MacArthur also has 11 goals.
The decline of right winger Nikolai Kulemin’s production has been a significant factor. With only four goals, he’s well off last season’s career-best of 30 goals.
Penalty-killing has been a serious problem for the Leafs for years. Since 2005-06, they have never been better than 24th overall in that department and in two of the past three seasons they were the league’s worst team on the penalty kill, a position they once again find themselves in this season.
In the past, Burke has shown a willingness to make significant deals well ahead of the trade deadline – he acquired Lupul on Feb. 9, 2011, and defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Jan. 31, 2010 – hence the anticipation in Leafs Nation he’ll pull off a major trade soon.
Those previous moves, however, were made to improve the Leafs over the long run, rather than as short-term fixes to bolster their playoff hopes.
It would be easier to pick up a second-line scorer or a penalty-killing specialist than it would be to land an experienced and reliable goaltender – a scarce commodity. If Burke is searching for a goalie he will have to compete with the Lightning, who are believed to be shopping around for goaltending depth.
The problem is, there are not many teams in “sell” mode right now. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Anaheim Ducks – Burke’s former team – are considered sellers. It will be another three or four weeks before the number of sellers swells.
However, given Burke’s history of making significant moves well before the trade deadline, he shouldn’t be sold short.
The Maple Leafs improved performance earlier this season, coupled with the heightened expectations of Toronto fans, will make Burke’s foray into this season’s trade market his most challenging to date.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.