The Leafs should be embarrassed about last night’s game.
The team’s effort was completely unacceptable. Coming up short in overtime is one thing, but not showing up for the first 50 minutes of the game was pathetic. It’s absolutely inexcusable to fail to start on time.
The Leafs came out flat in Game 1 against Columbus last year. They came out flat once again with their backs against the wall in Game 4, and a late rally was the only thing that got them to the fifth and deciding game. They were then shut out in Game 5. Is Jason Spezza the only player with a copy of the damn playoff schedule?
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004. Now, I’m not going to hold the 2005 NHL lockout against this group, but this is their fifth playoff series, and they have yet to win a round. It’s put up or shut up time at this point. Either get they get the job done on Monday night, or major changes need to be seriously contemplated.
This is a team that has placed a major emphasis on acquiring veteran leadership. Joe Thornton plays every night — not because he’s lighting up the score sheet, but because he apparently makes his teammates better. The Leafs acquired Nick Foligno at the deadline, rather than Taylor Hall or Kyle Palmieri, in part because of his leadership abilities. Wayne Simmonds doesn’t have a primary assist as a Maple Leaf, but he has yet to be a healthy scratch, presumably because of his physicality and veteran leadership. The three of them each have just one point in this series.
This bears the question: Where on earth was the veteran leadership on Saturday night? Were they trying to lull Carey Price to sleep? William Nylander, who everyone’s uncle said wasn’t a playoff player, has been their best forward by a mile. Jason Spezza, Alex Kerfoot, T.J. Brodie, and Jake Muzzin (who’s now injured) also get a pass, as they’ve all played well. Apart from them, there’s plenty of blame to go around here.
First, their best players need to be their best players. Matthews has one goal in six games, and that’s simply not going to cut it when John Tavares is out of the lineup. Now, he’s shooting 3.1%, and Carey Price gets paid, too, but it’s his job to put the puck in the net. While you have to expect more from him, I’ve liked his physicality thus far, and he might have another goal or two if he wasn’t the only shooting threat on Toronto’s power play.
Mitch Marner needs to play like Monday night’s game could be his last. If the Leafs lose, Kyle Dubas has to at least take calls. He didn’t score in the Columbus series, and he hasn’t scored in the first six games against the Habs. He’s amazing on the penalty kill, and he’s very underrated defensively, but you’re not paying him $10.9 million to just be a penalty-killing specialist. I like Marner, and I’m sure he’s not thrilled about his 0% shooting percentage, but he put the pressure on himself the minute he signed that contract.
The other name that could be on the hot seat is Sheldon Keefe. I know he carries a strong relationship with Dubas, but to date, he simply hasn’t been good enough come playoff time. His decision to stack the first line with Tavares, Matthews, and Marner in Game 5 last year was clearly a mistake, and he would tell you the same thing. He didn’t play Nylander at center once in the regular season last year, and he hasn’t played him there since. To his credit, he hasn’t gone back to that mid-playoff, but why on earth is 41-year-old Joe Thornton on the top power-play unit while the red-hot Nylander watches from the bench?
Marner doesn’t have a power-play goal this season. Prior to Game 4, Thornton didn’t either. Morgan Rielly, who played well in Game 6, doesn’t have much of a shot from the point. Zach Hyman, while one of the most beloved Leafs, has never been known for his shot.
Who on earth is the coaching staff expecting to score on the power play? Matthews might as well have bright neon lights on his jersey. Every single penalty kill in the world is going to make sure he’s covered, and they’ll dare one of Toronto’s other players to beat them. He’s Steph Curry, and he doesn’t have Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant playing with him — he’s got Andrew Wiggins and some guy from the YMCA. The current set-up clearly doesn’t work, and they keep going to it over and over again while Nylander sits on the bench. I’d play 52-year old Brendan Shanahan over Thornton on the top power-play unit just to have another shooting threat.
I did not knock the Thornton or Simmonds deals when they were signed, but I did say this: While there was minimal risk from a cap hit perspective, there was always a risk that the Leafs would play them when they didn’t deserve to play. Take Jimmy Vesey, for example: When he didn’t perform, they simply put him on waivers and moved on with no penalty. Neither Simmonds nor Thornton have been a healthy scratch even once this season, despite mediocre (at best) results. If Vesey had “Thornton” or “Simmonds” on the back of his jersey, he’d still be in their lineup today.
Here’s the problem: With Tavares out of the lineup, this team needs secondary scoring, especially when the first line isn’t at their best. Thornton and Simmonds both have one point through six games, and neither is strong defensively. Spezza is better off on the wing at this point in his career, which is why Keefe played him on the wing for the vast majority of the season. It made no sense to suddenly move Spezza to center just to bend over backward to get both Thornton and Simmonds in the lineup.
Simmonds, to his credit, has been good at getting under his opponent’s skin. I can appreciate his physicality, but let’s not pretend that he’s fighting Shea Weber each and every night. He’s had three fights all year, and his only meaningful one was in the first game of the regular season against Montreal. He’s a bad transition player who hasn’t scored in 15 games, and I know I’ve said this already, but he doesn’t have a single primary assist this year. You can throw him on a checking line and ask him to provide some physicality if you’d like, but the fourth line of Thornton, Spezza, and Simmonds was a mistake. If Keefe preferred Spezza at center, he would have played him there all season.
This will be controversial to some, but win or lose, I wouldn’t move on from Brendan Shanahan or Kyle Dubas. The team drafts exceptionally well, and they’ve completely rebuilt a previously struggling blue-line. They stole Jack Campbell from the Kings. I’m not sure that they even have a bad contract on their books, and before you say it’s Marner, just know that they could trade him in a second. I like the depth on this team, and I think they both did their job. While the buck stops with them, the lack of effort on Saturday night falls on the players and coaches. It was completely inexcusable.
I could have handled a “Carey Price steals the show” type of Game 6. Apart from overtime, that’s not what happened. I would have understood why they lost if Jack Campbell had a rough night, but he was the only reason that game got to overtime. It was Leafs vs. Habs on Hockey Night in Canada, and Game 6 of a playoff series. It was a chance for the team to win its first playoff series since 2004. It is a disgrace that they failed to start on time.
It’s time for your $10+ million dollar players to lead by example. It’s time for Thornton and Simmonds to not just be vocal leaders, but to perform. It’s time for Sheldon Keefe to figure out his power play, and to make the right lineup adjustments. It’s time for William Nylander to get the ice time that he’s earned. It’s time for the Leafs to win their first playoff series in 17 years.
Every single hockey fan in the universe knows that Carey Price is perfectly capable of stealing a game. By letting the series get this far, the Leafs have allowed for that major risk. If Price absolutely steals Game 7, or if the Leafs just can’t catch a break, that’s one thing. If the Leafs get outplayed, and the effort level matches what we saw in the first 50 minutes of Game 6, it’s time for major changes.
It’s put up or shut up time for this core. Let’s hope that they play up to their potential in Game 7. It is no overstatement to call this a franchise-altering game.