A few weeks ago, I covered some Toronto Maple Leafs questions and observations amid the suspension of the 2019-20 season.
Since then, more health regulations and restrictions have been put in place. On behalf of MLHS, we ask you please follow them to keep yourself, your family, your friends, and your communities safe.
As for the NHL season, a few weeks ago, Drew Doughty also came out and stated, “I don’t see how the season is going to return. I really don’t.” Larry Brooks recently noted some of the logistics that would come into play for the season to resume, and why it sounds unlikely at best. The City of Calgary, meanwhile, closed down all events until the end of August.
Personally, I don’t see how the season happens at this point. There is some discussion that they could have closed games and play three or four per day. The logistics sound like a nightmare, and it’s a lot to put players and organizations through (isolate people from their families for months on end? What of broadcasters, training staffs, etc?). Those decisions will be made by the powers that be, though.
In the meantime, more than enough happened in 70 games of the Leafs’ 2019-20 season to reflect and discuss some of the notable takeaways.
The Coaching Change
When the Leafs fired Mike Babcock and hired Sheldon Keefe, we expected an uptick in performance from the Leafs, and we certainly got one. They were 13-4-1 from the time of the hiring (before their November 21 game against Arizona) through to January 1, 2020 — tied for the most points in the league during that time and best points percentage, along with a +22 goal differential.
After that, the results were not as kind. The Leafs went 14-11-4 with an even goal differential and were tied for 18th in points percentage. Their special teams were both middle of the pack in that time, too (power play was 14th and the penalty kill was 16th). Those are decidedly average results all around, and history generally tells us that the initial coaching-change bump is the aberration — not the play of the team settling in after a few months, which is probably much closer to reality.
Keefe was visibly frustrated on a number of occasions, calling the team out repeatedly through the media. He called out their immaturity after a loss to Florida. He lamented another embarrassing night for the team after losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished out half the game with an emergency backup goalie. A number of times, the broadcast showed a visibly upsetting Keefe voicing his opinion during TV timeouts. Calling out the team like this won’t last very long in this market – eventually, those comments will turn back on the coach and questions will be asked as to whether his message is resonating and if he’s capable of addressing the issue or not. In the meantime, he will get the benefit of the doubt and should be afforded some roster changes (and possibly new assistants).
Originally, Keefe came in and force fed all of his stars ice time. It timed perfectly with the return of star players John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Everyone heated up and the Leafs went on a massive run. When they struggled, Keefe brought up the lack of depth a number of times, noting that they needed more from the bottom of the lineup. But the coaching staff has to find a better balance. Whether that’s splitting up the lines or empowering the bottom players to do more, we already looked at how top teams spread out their ice time much more than what the Leafs were doing. Part of it is the personnel, to be sure, but they need to do a better job finding a balance in their forward group.
While there were injuries to legitimate contributors in Ilya Mikheyev and Andreas Johnsson up front and Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly on defense, every team has injuries and that shouldn’t be enough to derail the club into middle-of-the-pack territory when its top four players are all healthy, as well as its starting goalie.
Unfortunately, starter Frederik Andersen was also struggling.
It’s at least worth discussing if there’s some sort of chasm between coach and goalie. Andersen was visibly frustrated with Keefe after getting pulled in a January 6 game where the team was playing poorly.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) January 7, 2020
Before that game Andersen was 21-8-4, leading the league in wins with a .916 save percentage. Since that game, he went 8-5-3 with .898 save percentage. Is that all due to the one pull? No, of course not. But he clearly was not himself for months, and whatever the reason, it needs to be sorted out.
All of this is to say the jury is very much out. The team was treading water for months and at times they were exposed at all three positions. Their forwards lack depth and versatility, their defense lacks overall quality, and for a while, they had no real options in net — although they did move to address that with the acquisition of Jack Campbell, with good early returns.
Goaltending of the Future
Speaking of goalies, it’s no secret that Andersen is going into the last season of his contract. Not only was he struggling at various points in the season, but he’s also turning 31 this year.
Goalies do not traditionally age well. It was only a few years ago that Cory Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league, signed a huge deal, and can now barely play in the NHL.
There are a number of goalies older than Andersen that are still, at minimum, reasonable starters – Ben Bishop, Tuukka Rask, Devan Dubnyk, and Marc-Andre Fleury, to name a few. But the question goes beyond whether he will provide quality goaltending over the next few seasons and into his mid-30s. It’s also a question of whether it will come at an affordable enough price.
By the time Andersen is a free agent, should everything continue as is, the Leafs have already locked up roughly $63 million (not accounting any additional contracts they sign between now and then – of note, Travis Dermott is an RFA, but it shouldn’t cost much there). Zach Hyman is also set to become an unrestricted free agent the same summer as Andersen.
Jack Campbell is signed through the season after Andersen is a UFA, so there is some insurance – I wouldn’t tab him as a starter by any means, but he has flashed the ability to be a possible 1B, so at least there’s something in place. Otherwise, there hasn’t been anyone in the organization that’s established himself as a legitimate option at the pro level. Kasimir Kaskiuo was thrown to the wolves in the NHL and has below-average numbers in the minors. He is also turning 27 this year. Joseph Woll is turning 22 this year, so he’s definitely on the goalie development curve, but he struggled as a rookie in the AHL, albeit with some extenuating circumstances given the uneven defensive performances of the team in front of him (he was often their best player in bad losses). At this point, while there is upside there worth investing development time into, it would be difficult to bank on him.
The Leafs have one full season to go to make a decision here, but it’s a big one. This team plays a free-flowing style of hockey that trades chances. It can’t just plop in average-to-below-average goalies and expect to succeed.
- While I think it’s difficult to finish the season, the one thing I keep wondering about is this: What happens with all the trades that happened around the deadline? Tampa Bay, for example, went all-in and traded a plethora of assets to bring in depth for a Cup run. Should those deals/prices stand if the rest of the season doesn’t? If they don’t, then what happens? Really tough spot.
- If games do come back, I don’t see how they don’t have at least 10 games to decide the playoff picture. A creative schedule maker could actually make it pretty fun and regular NHL schedule rules be damned (have Leafs vs. Panthers at least three times, for example).
- Again, if the rest of the season is going to happen, three weeks seems like a ridiculously long time for a mini training camp. A week and a half, ending the second week with two preseason games — off you go.
- Please stay safe everyone.