For the first time in many seasons, October was not a fun month for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The team finished the opening month 6-5-3, with no shortage of fans vocalizing their displeasure about the current state of affairs in Leaf land.

Those voices only got louder when Alex Ovechkin came to town and offered his honest assessment of the team:

I think for them, they are still a young group of guys and I hope they’re going to learn. It’s up to them how they want to do it and if they want to play for yourself, or if they want to win a Cup, they have to play differently.

There might not have been a happier person in the city than Mike Babcock when Ovechkin made those statements. Babcock’s response to the comments made that abundantly clear:

“I don’t know if he is wrong. He would know. He knows. He lived it. But I mean, if you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. a lot of the guys live it. They live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide if you want to wait until you’re 30 or if you want to figure it out now. It’s the ultimate team game. You’ve got to sacrifice individual rights for team rights. I say it all the time: It is the two points in the game. It has nothing to do with the points you get yourself… He lived it. He was the guy. He then figured out, ‘This is what we’ve got to do to win.’ We talked about this last year: Fun to watch. Going 100 miles an hour. Got to learn how to play right.”

That is a coach who has been preaching this message for well over a year now.

Last season, the Leafs signed John Tavares and lit the world on fire in October. Remember when Auston Matthews and Tavares combined for five goals against Chicago and most of the team started the season on a hot streak? All of Toronto was salivating over it and couldn’t wait to tell these players how good they are.

The tone a year later is much different. Nothing came easy to this team in October and the fan base is on them over their work ethic, lack of aggression, and lack of defense.

Some of it is circumstantial (a tough schedule with four back-to-backs is difficult), but some of it is straight-up true (they are still really bad defensively… the forwards can help tighten things up as well here, but there have been no visible signs of progress there). These early struggles, though, are going to be good for the team in the long run.

First off, it’s best for it to happen now. This is not the time to peak like a number of Leafs teams have over the last decade. Last year’s team hit a wall in the Spring, and it was too late by then — they weren’t playing good enough hockey going into the playoffs.

Secondly, learning how to work through adversity is important and it can galvanize teams. I wrote in this space before the season that this is a Cup contender on paper — and it is — but there are too many games where they come out flat and coast around the rink as if they have already won something in this league and have earned the benefit of the doubt.

When you have actually been through the grind of a championship run, I think a so-so October is pretty understandable, but this group hasn’t won a single playoff round yet.

On Saturday, they were outshot by 14 by an average, tired Flyers team with their backup goalie in net (and gave up 40 shots total). That’s simply not good enough, and fans and media are right to hold the team accountable for a showing of that calibre.

At some point, the team will pull out of this – they are starting to get healthy, they generally control play, and their goaltending will steadily improve. And I do think they are going to benefit from working through this criticism (which is largely deserved) now. This is the best time of year for it to happen.


Notes

  • The struggling Leafs penalty kill is starting to receive a lot of attention – it’s killing off just 75.9% of penalties so far. The Leafs are giving up the fourth most shot attempts of any penalty kill in the league right now and are 11th in shots against per 60 minutes.  In general, it’s a shooting and scoring chance gallery. Their save percentage has been roughly average at 18th so far, also.
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    A few observations on the PK so far: The Leafs used to set up in almost a ‘T’ at times, with two defenders at the bottom near the net, a penalty killer in the high slot taking away the cross-ice pass and covering the high slot bumper, and another forward on top of him taking away the top defender. When the puck swung to the side, the forward in the bumper spot would kick out and the forward up top would kick down.
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    Watching the Leafs against Philly, they were a bit discombobulated between the forwards. This was right before Philly’s first goal. The goal itself was a bad bounce more than anything, but this is just a look at their structure:
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    If you watch the full sequence, Marner and Gauthier are wildly skating around chasing the play. There is no structure.
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    Here’s a different game with different PK forwards against Montreal. It’s not a box or a diamond:
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    For the next goal, Marner chased Giroux all the way down to the goal line basically (and he just did it on the other side, so it seems strategic). Ceci had no clue who to guard and made his way to the forward up top, opening up a lane. Rielly had no idea how to play it at this point. Honestly, it’s a weird setup:
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  • One other note for the penalty kill right now – the neutral zone forecheck is super passive. They definitely miss Zach Hyman in this regard; he is not only excellent at hustling plays down, but his instincts and aggressiveness are sorely needed. Sometimes the Leafs can sit back and capitalize on a mistake for a goal (the Kapanen goal against Washington comes to mind), but often they are hanging back and allowing teams to gain the zone easily. Routinely, they are not even engaging the other team until at least the center line – a strange tactic for a team with so much speed at its disposal.
  • Every single defenseman gets beat for a highlight-reel goal at some point, but that’s twice in a few weeks now that Morgan Rielly has been toe-dragged by a righty off the rush leading directly to a goal. The first was Kevin Shattenkirk vs. Tampa and now TJ Oshie vs. Washington. He has always struggled defensively, but defending off the rush this season, he has looked unsure of himself, at times lunging towards opponents and getting exposed in the process. Rielly and Ceci have a 48.31 CF% together at even strength and have actually been on the ice for one more goal than they have given up, although I think a large part of that is that the Matthews’ line is the forward line they share the ice with the most. In a number of capacities, that is going to have to be a five-man unit the Leafs really think hard and honestly about: Can they match up against other top team’s top-six forwards?
  • I believe this has been mentioned here, before but once again, that backhand-forehand shuffle is Kasperi Kapanen’s breakaway move. We’ve seen it a number of times now.

  • When it comes to breakaway moves, last season in the AHL, Dmytro Timashov scored a number of times with the “Kucherov” move by faking the shot and leaving the puck to slide through the goalie’s legs. Nonetheless, it was slightly eyebrow-raising to see him try it after Matthews had just tried it himself and didn’t even come close to score in the process. Not surprisingly, Timashov was stopped easily, too.

Quotes

We’re still trying to figure it out. That is what I am saying to you. Normally, after 20 games, what you try to do is you try to get out in the first 20 and you try to get yourself established. You know what you are. You also want to be in a good position so you aren’t under duress. We are in a situation after 14 games where we’ve got six more here and we’ve got to find a game that we can bottle or that is our formula, where we can say, “This is what we do,” and do it every day, so that when we say, “This is what we do,” we know what we do.

– Mike Babcock on what style of play the team can hang their hat on

For me, it was the game against Boston in Toronto. They were physical, aggressive, and scored goals by creating turnovers. If they can play like that consistently, they will be a really tough team to beat — while adding Tavares, Hyman, and Dermott into the lineup.

“He’s kind of pulling the Bozie from like two years ago it was, when Bozie was on that program.”

“No, no. Bozie was faking it.”

– Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly discussing Rielly continually missing practice

Well, it must be something noteworthy considering Rielly is seemingly missing every practice at this point. I don’t know what the cause is, so it’s difficult to suggest Rielly sit out a few games (or something), but it is noteworthy news at this point and something worth monitoring.

“People don’t understand. In 1973, I came to a new country, a new league, a new city, a new culture, a new language, a new everything. And he was always there for me. Without him, I’m not sure I could have coped … [Gregory] was like family… No, he was family. He’d make sure I was settled in and had everything I needed. If I needed anything, I’d come to him. That was it. I remember one of the first times I was going back home after I’d joined the Leafs. I wanted to bring some souvenirs back to Sweden with me. He just sent me downstairs where all the jerseys and things like that were and said, ‘Take whatever you like.’”

– Borje Salming on the late Jim Gregory

Awesome story that speaks to the quality of both of these men. RIP Jim Gregory.


Tweets of the Week

I don’t know why this trade even gets brought up. The Senators are clearly going to win the deal in a bubble in terms of the quality of players changing hands. Connor Brown is a solid, honest player. But the Leafs needed the cap space and the Zaitsev contract is really bad. If the Leafs can’t turn $4.5M into a better player(s) than Zaitsev over the next four seasons after this one, I would be shocked.

Now, should the Leafs have even qualified Cody Ceci… That’s a legitimate debate.

There was no big fight here. The first guy in was Jeremy Bracco, who is rather generously listed at 5’11, 185. But at least they cared and showed a pulse. This is all anyone is really asking of the Leafs. It took a number of runs by Tom Wilson for the Leafs to even acknowledge it. The Leafs even scored right after, too. 

Something beautiful coming out of a sad story. Well done, Leafs.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think a John Tavares return should be met by shaking up the lines a bit. First off, if everyone is being honest, they shouldn’t be too happy with the way the team is playing. I’m not sure it’s the right message to have Tavares return and just go “back to normal.” I’d put Johnsson with Tavares and Marner (which I think makes more sense stylistically anyway), put Moore with Matthews and Nylander, and Mikheyev with Kerfoot and Kapanen. It’s not a massive change, but it’s enough to change the flow of things for what has been a pretty stale-feeling group.
  2. While I’m not in the room and have no idea how Travis Dermott is feeling, I think I’d move him up to the top four as soon as possible. Not exactly a ground-breaking claim here.
  3. I think the LA game is a good opportunity to get Michael Hutchinson a win. This is also a good time to note how many times we have looked at Andersen’s performances in the playoffs and thought to ourselves, “I wish he sat a bit more during the season.”
  4. I think the Leafs putting out two defensemen for a five-on-three power play, with this forward group, was the most confusing thing I have seen in quite some time. Of all their top-end forwards, I think Nylander actually has the best pure one-timer and I’d put him up top with Tyson Barrie along with Marner, Matthews, and Johnsson.
  5. On the note of the Leafs power play, it just lacks an identity and purpose right now – I’m not sure what play they are even trying to set up. It used to be Marner on the half-wall either hitting Kadri in the high slot, shooting himself, or getting it to JVR on the post down low. We all knew what was coming, and generally speaking, it worked. It would either be that or Matthews and Nylander playing catch in the high slot until one of them could walk into a shot.