Let’s start by rewinding the clock a few days.
After 20 games, GM Kyle Dubas held a press conference to discuss the state of the team. The team’s record at the time was 9-7-4, meaning the Leafs had lost more than they had won by that point.
Through those 20 games, the club didn’t have a single impressive regulation win. For reference, here are the opponents they’ve beaten after 60 minutes of play this season:
- San Jose (playing on the second night of a back to back)
That’s it. That’s the list.
There have been some injuries of note, an adjustment period to two new assistant coaches, and a number of new players getting acquainted with the team and even the league. It’s not an excuse, and it’s something most teams deal with in some capacity at the start of each season. The tone of the press conference was remarkably levelheaded. When asked how he felt the team has dealt with early adversity, Dubas said:
Any time you go through a stretch where you maybe miss your expectations by a little bit, or maybe pucks aren’t going in, or you aren’t winning as many games as you think you should, it gives you a great opportunity as a group to examine where you are at and how you can be better. That’s all I really look for.
It is the same sort of tone head coach Mike Babcock has often taken with the team — a sort of, “Everything is going to be okay and we are right there.” It has often felt like a team searching for moral victories despite the fact that they have paid all the core players on the team and there are big expectations in the city following the contracts handed out as well as the three straight first-round exits.
A few days after the Dubas press conference, the Leafs lost to Boston and Babcock assessed the performance after the game:
I thought we played well. I thought it was a good hockey game. We had lots of good players up front. We carried play at times, and they carried play at times. They’ve got good players. But we’re coming up short. You can say that through the game there were stretches where we were really good at times. We had the puck a lot, but you leave frustrated, or disappointed, I guess, is a better word.
At some point, though, the moral victories have to be replaced by the actual victories. In this space, I have written a few times this season — as have a number of other writers and analysts — that this team would figure it out and right the ship. On paper, they are too good not to. But that does require a sense of urgency from everyone in the organization.
After the Bruins game, John Tavares noted, “There’s a huge sense of urgency.” The team proceeded to give up 19 shots on goal in the first period to a shorthanded Pittsburgh team, and it was 5-0 before the game was halfway over. There was no urgency.
It’s understandable to some degree that the coach and GM wouldn’t come out swinging in the media. The Leafs purposely stay quiet and toe the company line as much as possible. Assistant coaches are not even allowed to be interviewed (For reference, at the Hockey Coaches Conference this past summer, Paul McFarland was slated to speak, but he was then hired by the Leafs and no longer allowed).
At some point, though, there has to be some urgency and emotion shown here. It’s fine if it’s not stated publicly and they want to brush it over to avoid giving the media any more talking points than it already has, but it’s not okay if there’s nothing happening on the ice, either.
This team has officially hit the point where the issues are real. They can no longer gloss over it. They have to put up, or else changes need to be made.
- I thought the game against Boston was one of the better games of Auston Matthews’ season. It was certainly his most physical, even though he was only credited with three hits. Matthews legitimately showed leadership by example by getting in on the forecheck, finishing hits, winning battles, and playing physical against a strong team. He scored, put five shots on net, and was just involved a lot overall. Matthews has had a number of games this year where you don’t really notice him for most of the night and then he suddenly scores; at the end of the game, you look at the scoresheet and he has two or three points. Against Boston, though, he was legitimately involved all night and showed some growth in his game.
- It was nice to see Frederik Gauthier lay a big hit against Boston, which helped turn the tide of the game a bit. The crowd woke up after the hit, the Leafs had a big shift right after, and they scored not even two minutes later. Gauthier is so big that he’s capable of laying those types of hits regularly with little effort or technique. He just has to commit to it more.
- For large stretches of the game against the Islanders, the Leafs deserved a better fate. They dominated the play for most of the first two periods but were still losing going into the third period. What was concerning about the game took place in the first period. After the Leafs gave up the first goal of the game (again), they just sort of fell apart for the rest of the period. There were a lot of positives going for them, but they gave up the goal to go down 1-0 and it just had a “here we go again”-type of feel to it. This is becoming a real mental hurdle at this point.
- Similarly, so is the Bruins’ physicality on them and the general lack of pushback when confronted. Chris Wagner crunched Trevor Moore really hard and nobody moved a muscle (again, not calling for a fight, but nobody even looked to hit him the rest of the game). Even more interesting, I thought: As the first period ended, the puck was in the corner and the buzzer was going, and Wagner hit Travis Dermott. He knew the period was over and there was nothing to accomplish, but he just did it anyway. On the Leafs side, there was no pushback, or anyone stepping in, or even Dermott really standing up for himself (from what I could see on camera, anyway).
- Somewhat quietly, William Nylander is on pace for 30 goals and 63 points, both of which would be career highs. He’s having a strong rebound season production-wise. There is a lot to like about his game, and sometimes his negatives get embellished because of the nature of this market and just how soft the rest of the team is around him.
Against Boston, though, there was a sequence that just sort of ties together some of the criticism he gets at times. He lost the puck to Sean Kuraly in the offensive zone and it led to a breakaway — hey it happens, but the puck circled up the wall after Kuraly airmailed the shot, there was a 50/50 puck between Kuraly and Nylander (who was backchecking), and Kuraly won the battle because Nylander tried to stick check him. After the first time, okay. On the second occasion, some pride has to kick in. You can’t enter that battle trying to stick check against Kuraly (a player he should be well aware of by this point). It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
- Noted a few weeks ago that Morgan Rielly has had some trouble with 1v1s this season – more than usual, it seems – and another example can be added to the list against Boston. After he didn’t gap up properly, he gave up the first shot, and he was fine. He then didn’t track Marchand properly after, leading to a pretty easy rebound goal from there. Against Pittsburgh, Rielly and Ceci were lost in transition a number of times; the sequences that really stood out were in the final five minutes of the first period when they gave up back-to-back slot chances off the rush as Rielly went (sort of) down (on one knee) and pucks went right by him.
- I also noted Andreas Johnsson having trouble on the backcheck in the past and that has continued – it was his job to switch onto Malkin for his goal on a 3v3 rush. Bryan Rust shot through the middle gap and he was ahead of Johnsson; Muzzin has to switch over, and Johnsson has to peel off and find his man. After the goal, he stared at Muzzin, too.
Later in the game, he was beat by Branden Tanev off the rush, leading to another goal against. The night before, he took a bad penalty against Boston in the neutral zone nowhere near the play. He was frustrated because he got crushed by Charlie McAvoy the shift before (and it was probably interference), but he still can’t take those penalties. Johnsson is tied with Jake Muzzin for the second most penalty minutes on the team (with 14); the two players ahead are Morgan Rielly and Alexander Kerfoot (each with 16).
- With the news that Tyson Barrie has spoken to management about how important this year is for him while acknowledging that it’s not working out so far, you can understand to some degree why the coaching staff would be loath to cave to the demands and place him on the top power-play unit — especially considering he doesn’t deserve it based on the balance of his play. According to Hockey Reference, Tyson Barrie put up 2.0 points per 60 last year; Morgan Rielly posted 2.2. This season, it’s .8 for Barrie and 1.8 for Rielly. On the power play last year, Barrie was at 4.7, while Rielly was at 5.4. There really is no debate that Rielly earned the first shot at it. There is a debate now as to whether he should continue to be the guy, but with Barrie not producing (six assists in 22 games) and him (or his agent) speaking to management about how concerned he is about his contract-year production, why would the coaching staff be chomping at the bit to give Barrie a promotion?
“It’s tough to get worse from here. It’s frustrating. In the locker room, confidence isn’t exactly high right now. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s really up to us.”
– Auston Matthews on the current state of the team
I just hope they channel this frustration into something positive and potentially galvanizing for the group. Against Pittsburgh, they looked like they felt sorry for themselves throughout the second half of the game.
“We went through it yesterday … The team that scores first in the League is winning at a .714 winning percentage. We’ve got to work on this. Any way you look at it, we’ve been through it & talked about it”
– Mike Babcock on the team allowing the first goal in what feels like every game this season
If there’s one thing I’m confident in: Slow starts are on the players. These are adult professionals. Everyone is on them about this. Show up at the arena ready to go. This isn’t that hard.
“The one thing I would say is that up until recently, I think they really didn’t want to do it. I think they wanted the group to grind through it together to see if they can find it together. I think they wanted to send a message they were backing the coach and the group especially since a bunch of guys were hurt and out. Now, this season could slide, and I think all options could be on the table.”
– Elliotte Friedman on the Leafs possibly firing Mike Babcock
I think the rest of this road trip will be extremely telling. The season isn’t in make-or-break time just yet, but how they play with their coach’s job now legitimately in question will say a lot.
Tweets of the Week
We all have takes on Babcock and Dubas, but the players have embarrassed themselves here. This is a joke.
— Bryan Hayes (@HayesTSN) November 17, 2019
Yes, they really should be.
Teams are setting up at center and forcing the Leafs to make more complicated zone entry decisions and negate the Leafs speed as a result. Toronto is a rush team, that doesnt recover pucks well after an initial shot/chance. Essentially giving the puck to the other team.
— Gus Katsaros🏒 (@KatsHockey) November 16, 2019
This is a good breakdown. If you click on the tweet, the thread keeps going. I wrote about how the Leafs have gotten away from off-the-glass breakouts and neutral-zone foot races and their struggles to adjust to this change. One of the reasons, as noted here, is there less space in the neutral zone because the Leafs aren’t stretching opposing out defenses. Instead, teams are sitting right on top of them and forcing dump-ins, and the Leafs aren’t able to get the puck back.
The Leafs are having a News Conference!
Us: this is it! This is fuckin it!!
Kyle steps to the podium, clears throat and pushes up his glasses:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not concerned with Cody Ceci…..”
— JoeD (@JoeyLeafs34) November 14, 2019
I still think this is one of the weirdest things that happened over a whirlwind past seven days. The question posed to Dubas was, “How do you feel Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie have fit into the top four this year?” and he launched into a soliloquy of sorts defending Ceci.
From what I have seen, this is barely a conversation other than on Twitter. I have barely heard the radio rigorously debate Ceci as an issue, and I can’t recall him getting much attention on TV broadcasts. He’s not someone I hear fans bring up often. While the team is struggling, is Dubas that concerned about what is being said on Twitter to the point where he felt it necessary to give his take on the debate? Of all the issues he could be concerned about, this?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- Let’s start with this: barring five more games similar to the Pittsburgh debacle, I think Mike Babcock should at least get this road trip to turn this around. This road trip is coming at the best possible time – get away from this market, get away from the expectations and the media, and focus on playing hockey away from the distractions. However, if they put up — say — a 2-4 road trip and then come back and lay an egg in their first game back (which is the second half of a home and home vs. Buffalo — we know how the Leafs do in those), the knives will be sharpened and it will be a disaster in this market.
- I think I don’t understand the continued reports that the Leafs aren’t in the market for a backup goalie. What are they watching to think otherwise? If they aren’t sniffing around, at a minimum, they aren’t doing their jobs. Plain and simple.
- I think I would shake up every line. It is head-scratching to me to just keep everything together and trust these players to work through things when they have no history of doing so. It’s a bit of a breath of fresh air to change everything up, which is something they clearly need at the moment. Put Zach Hyman back with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Drop Andreas Johnsson to pair with John Tavares (two players that like to mix it up in battles, I think they’d do well together), and get Dmytro Timashov back in the lineup. Try to spark the group with change instead of just rolling out the same old thing and hoping for different results.
- I think I’d do the same thing with the defense. Put Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie together, and place the onus on them to figure it out and get better. No excuses for those two. Move Justin Holl next to Jake Muzzin and put Cody Ceci with Travis Dermott. See how it goes.
- Ultimately, my thought process would be, if you’re going to go down, go down swinging. Play your top players over 20 minutes each, give them extended power play looks, mix them in on the penalty kill if your depth players aren’t getting it done, and realistically, you have to ride Frederik Andersen right now. Don’t ride this on getting the fourth line ice time or get bogged down about roles. Put it on the shoulders of the stars.