Inconsistent Leafs still lack identity

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:54 PM ET

TORONTO - The Maple Leafs are victims of identity theft.

How else to explain that so many other NHL teams are living the good life and looking forward to the playoffs with styles that at one time or another were going to be the hallmarks of the “new” Leafs?

With the all-star break here, the Brian Burke-Ron Wilson club has yet to define itself, other than being inconsistent. Case in point are the poster boys of the 2010-11 team guide, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, who have been more dormant than dominant.

They do have many players who pay the price to win, but wins don’t come often enough. With two months remaining, who are the Leafs and how did they lose their way?

Net not neat

Pat Burns and Pat Quinn each made the conference final twice because they could rely on goaltending.

This was to be coach Wilson’s chance, at long last, to enjoy the same security. Not only was Jean-Sebastien Giguere going to get a full season, but Jonas Gustavsson would have a mentor and not an unhelpful rival as Vesa Toskala had been.

Giguere delivered in three of four wins to open the season, but a disturbing trend developed again with Gustavsson, who lost three straight games by two goals or less, with little offensive support. When Giguere’s groin acted up, a problem the Leafs thought was manageable, Gustavsson couldn’t hold the fort long-term.

Burke’s most recent signings, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens were not ready, but to the rescue came James Reimer, from the previous John Ferguson regime, up steadily through the ranks of the ECHL and AHL. He wasn’t just tall, he picked up right away on goalie coach Francois Allaire’s less-is-more mantra, which Gustavsson has struggled with.

Too early to say if this is the Leafs’ go-to goaltender, and though it puts Jiggy and the Monster in limbo for the time being, the team plays better with Reimer in net.

Defence doesn’t deliver

The blueline has become a money pit as Burke poured millions into what was supposed to be a barbed wire fence that opponents would cross at their peril.

But two years into the makeover, Mike Komisarek is playing half the minutes he did in Montreal as the fifth defenceman, Francois Beauchemin is often overwhelmed and Phaneuf is only now starting to make a statement with big hits after a leg injury. No one on the back line is scoring and while Tomas Kaberle is once more leading the in points, it’s always at the expense of physical play, which partner Luke Schenn must provide.

As for depth, free agent Brett Lebda is a minus-19 and to date none of the young turks on the Marlies such as Keith Aulie are ready to hold an NHL job full-time.

Top Six, Bottom Six in flux.

Burke’s ideal tenet to giving the Leafs a bad-ass presence up front is sound in theory, but many in this cast are unsuited to crash the net.

We won’t rehash the truculence and testosterone angle, except to say Tyler Bozak and Kessel weren’t going to scare anyone as physical first liners and have given way to the one success story on the team, the line of Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

In the lower sextet, there has to be some disappointment that Kris Versteeg hasn’t done more to date, though he has his moments when paired with Colby Armstrong. What’s left is an amalgam of hard workers such as Mike Brown, Tim Brent, Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb, Colton Orr and Fredrik Sjostrom. They all bring something to the table, but can they help the Leafs to the next step?

Need for speed

At times the Leafs look like they can skate around their problems.

In their pair of four-game win streaks, they were the picture of efficiency with quick passes between the defencemen and the north-south hockey that utilized the wheels of Kessel, Grabovski and others. You can’t hit what you can’t catch.

But it broke down at opposite ends of the ice. In their zone, the penchant for the high-risk pass or giving pucks up too easily to checkers has burdened the Leafs with a conference-high 357 giveaways.

Around the opponent’s net, prolonged slumps by players such as Kessel (now in his second seven-game drought) has the Leafs trying to force too many plays and take low percentage point shots that only pump up the other team’s block stats.


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