Stats don't lie

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

I never considered myself an amateur Einstein, or a mathematical genius, but occasionally numbers do fascinate me.

Like in the case of the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs.

With just over 15% of the hockey season in the books, it is certainly too early to make accurate assessments and judgements of the various teams in the NHL. That said, the case of the Leafs is one that has several glaring problems with not a lot of solution in sight -- with all due respect to Mats Sundin and his return to action.

Going into last night's contest, the Leafs have not shown stats that will make anyone believe they are a serious Stanley Cup contender. The best category for the Buds as a team is the power play percentage, in which they were ranked second in the league. However, if you remove their blowout win over the Atlanta Thrashers from the mix, the Leafs would be out of the top 10. The penalty kill was also doing well, ranked sixth.

The Leafs ranked 10th in goals scored per game and tied for 14th in goals allowed per game. The team is a negative combined statistic in those two categories. In contrast, 13 teams have a positive combined statistic in the goals per game categories. Again, removing the Atlanta game would drop the Buds even lower in both categories and widen the negative margin.

Recently, much has been made of the shots issue with the club and for good reason. The Leafs were a dismal 26th in total shots per game and an equally dismal 22nd in shots allowed per game. On average, the team was giving up six more shots per game to its opponents than it generated.

Everyone is aware of the worst statistic for the team -- its five-on-five record. It is with good reason that everyone is concerned because the team was ranked near the bottom (27th).

Team stats are always made up of individual performances and, obviously, the Leafs do not have much to crow about. The early season bright star, Bryan McCabe, was, at one time, tied for first in the NHL scoring race with 15 points. However, that was several games ago and McCabe (before yesterday) still had 15 points and had fallen into a tie for 24th place with 10 other players. However, out of 232 defencemen to play so far this year, only SIX had a worse plus/minus than McCabe's -6.

In the forward lines, eight forwards (Nik Antropov, Wade Belak, Marius Czerkawski, Tie Domi, Chad Kilger, Nathan Perrott, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Clarke Wilm) had combined for a grand total of 18 points and are a collective minus 17 (NOT including Belak's minus-9 accrued mostly on defence and with only Antropov being a plus.) That is almost three full lines of players, five of whom dressed every night in Sundin's absence and four of whom will continue to do so now that he is back. One wonders where the team would be without the three kids -- Matt Stajan, Alexander Steen and Kyle Wellwood.

While the top defensive pair of McCabe and Kaberle is generating lots of points (24), they are a combined minus-9, the lowest combined total in the NHL for a team's top pairing.

The solutions, as mentioned earlier, are not jumping forward. However, due to the new NHL, foot speed is a definite issue to be addressed in the forward lines and on defence. The defensive zone coverage has to have a drastic improvement from all five players on the ice. Also, more forwards have to be able to put the puck to the net.

Whether the improvements can come within the current ranks or the farm (from forwards Bates Battaglia or Jeremy Williams, or from defencemen Carlo Colaiacovo, Brendan Bell, Andy Wozniewski, Ian White or Karel Pilar) or through crafty trading, the onus clearly rests with the entire organization from executives to players to make it happen.

If it doesn't, the current gap between the Leafs and the upper echelon of the NHL will only continue to widen.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Toronto's Ed Miller (88) and his friend George Hitzroth (85) will attend their 70th and 60th Grey Cup respectively in Vancouver later this month. Miller, who survived cancer, a heart attack and diabetes, attended his first Grey Cup game in 1930 ... Contributions continue to trickle in for the Toronto Sun Variety Village Christmas Fund. Please keep the contributions coming.

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