This isn’t just about 10 games.
If nothing else, this reality has to be recognized.
Truthfully, Sheldon Keefe set the tone in this respect after the very first game of the season.
“With everything our team has been through together, that is unacceptable.”
“With everything our team has been through together.” It is a clear reference to picking up right where the team left off last season. Even before the season, Keefe said, “It is no secret that we have a good club. I think we have established ourselves as an elite team in the NHL. I expect us to be that again.”
The head coach already deemed the Leafs elite before the first game was played this season. They have two new goalies on the roster. Mark Giordano is here for a full season. They’re attempting to integrate young players into the roster full-time, be it Rasmus Sandin (again), Nick Robertson, or Denis Malgin (if you consider him young). Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube-Kubel are newcomers. A collection of players departed, including Ilya Mikheyev.
It’s a new team and a new season, but it hasn’t felt like it from the outset. And the Leafs set that expectation all on their own.
The game one performance was called out with the tone of a March game down the stretch. The star players specifically were called out a few weeks later before maybe –- or maybe not – it was walked back in the media.
With the team now mired in a losing streak, the coach decided not to announce his lines against the 32nd-placed Anaheim Ducks, who were in the midst of a seven-game losing slide and last or just about last in every notable team statistic. He then called a timeout while leading in the game, seemingly with the goal of calming everyone down while also blatantly calling out one of the team’s stars for gifting Anaheim two goals. This star player was upset and departed the bench before returning, and the coach put him right back out on the ice.
Most of this is self-induced. These aren’t made-up or sensationalized stories. The Leafs have set the scene here all by themselves.
Any reference to it only being 10 games in any capacity – be it in a discussion about the coach keeping his job, the struggles of the team, the performance of the management group, or whatever else – is simply tone-deaf at this point.
Entering the season, I wrote the following:
Whenever this team accomplishes anything positive, there is always an air of, “But what will happen when the playoffs?” Whenever the team drops the ball, there is a clear message, “Just like in the playoffs every year!”
It is hard to escape this cloud over the Leafs, but this is what happens when management continues to run it back. These conversations will persist even when they put together their first winning streak — and they will go on a winning streak at some point.
Personally, I think this cloud over the team is contributing to their struggles, but whatever and whomever you choose to blame, there are legitimate concerns here.
Natural Stat Trick ranks them 10th in 5v5 corsi, 12th in 5v5 fenwick, and 11th in both scoring chances for and expected goals for at 5v5. Good numbers, sure, but definitely not elite. Not the team we were expecting.
The Leafs haven’t even played a team that won a playoff series last season yet. If you want a legitimate silver lining, they’re 25th in 5v5 PDO and they’re too talented for their shooting percentage not to improve. The Leafs are firmly a good team, but the goal is to be an elite contender – and when held to that standard, they look off.
The line of Bunting – Matthews – Marner has been outscored 5-3 at 5v5. Their underlying numbers are strong, sure. Matthews is getting the puck in high-danger spots, Marner is getting it to him there, and the pucks aren’t falling for them. This tide will turn at some point – Matthews is not about to have a 20-goal season.
The next line has a combination of Tavares, Nylander, and a rotating cast of characters. Let’s just take the Tavares – Nylander combination — they have been outscored 5-2, and their underlying numbers are a hair in the black, which has been the case with those two for years now.
There’s a bunch of talk about the bottom two lines, but what team is going to win most of their games when their top two lines have been outscored over the last 10? David Kampf has anchored the fourth line – tasked with tough starts and weak linemates – and has come out with four goals for and four goals against so far.
These are pointless debates, raking over the bottom six while the top two lines are outscored at 5v5. Have the bottom two lines been good? Not really. The third line, in particular, has no real identity or purpose. They simply take shifts. If the top two lines produced and outscored the opposition as they are paid and expected to do, these would be shoulder-shrug conversations. The issues always start at the top.
The lack of creativity in assembling the lineup is as confusing as it is frustrating.
Last season, early struggles served the team well. They persevered, heated up offensively, and legitimately laid waste to most of the league. Maybe this will be the case again this season.
But this isn’t about 10 games. It’s about repeated failures stacking on top of one another, running back the same core all along, and now watching them struggle some more out of the gate.
Maybe they’ll right the ship, and all is well until the ultimate test at springtime. Or maybe this is just who they are now.
If these results persist until American Thanksgiving, the Leafs will have a full-blown problem on their hands.
– The Leafs’ five-game road trip started with a win against a Winnipeg team that always seems to give them a hard time. Teammates stood up for one other, emotions ran high, and it felt like it could be the start of a winning run. If nothing else, with the team off to a slow start, heading out on the road seemed like it would be beneficial – get away from the media for some team bonding time and start steering the season in the right direction. A list of rather weak opponents should’ve also helped. Ultimately, they didn’t win again on the road trip.
– We’ve seen a really strange ice-time allocation for Nick Robertson, who has been slotted in the top six in theory but has played 6:32 and 8:02 in the last two games. He even picked up a point against Anaheim on the Denis Malgin breakaway goal after winning a battle to chip a puck free.
It was a similar story with Robertson last season – he was called up and then played minimally before he was sent down again. It’s hard to figure out what the development plan is here. Either play him regularly and see what he can do, or don’t and send him down. He’s still only 21.
It is not like they have a deep group of difference-making forwards. Robertson can clearly provide one with his goal-scoring abilities.
– An underrated issue with the Leafs: Their defense’s inability to create offense. They have one goal through 10 games from the backend, and it came from Justin Holl. That’s it.
Morgan Rielly has a respectable seven assists through 10 games. Three of those have come on the power play. Without Jake Muzzin, the Leafs don’t really have anyone with a bomb of a shot. Mark Giordano and Rasmus Sandin can snap pucks through traffic nicely. Timothy Liljegren also has an underrated heavy shot and teed off on a few last season. They miss both players.
– It’s early, but there’s a notable gap between the top-four players and the rest of the lineup. Alex Kerfoot and Michael Bunting are the next two highest scorers, and both are on pace for 41-point seasons right now. Each produced over 50 last season. In behind them, Ilya Mikheyev scored 21 goals in 53 games, Ondrej Kase scored 14 in 50 while Pierre Engvall chipped in 15, and Spezza tacked on 12. There’s a notable absence of scoring depth and forwards who can create offense.
“I don’t see that it would change anything.”
– Sheldon Keefe when asked if he considered switching up the defense pairings
Sheldon Keefe likely meant the pairings don’t matter if the players don’t execute. I get that approach, but changing the mix can have an impact. Needless to say, it’s usually a bad sign when the coach seems to be continually calling out/complaining about his lineup.
“Sometimes you gotta take some frustration out, and that’s how you do it. I’m a passionate player out there… I put a lot on my shoulders, put a lot of pressure on myself, and I wasn’t happy with that second turnover especially.”
– Mitch Marner on smashing his stick after being called out and benched
One of the most confusing developments from this debacle is the commentary that it’s a simple case of Mitch Marner smashing his stick. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a player to smash their stick when they are on the bench after a missed chance or a bad giveaway. But that’s not exactly how it happened.
Marner was called out and benched, then minutes later, in a calculated move, left the bench to unleash his anger. That’s not normal. Can you name a Toronto Maple Leaf who has done this in the past 20 years?
I watch a lot of hockey around the league. I have not seen a player, minutes after a benching, decide to leave the bench and lose it. If he came to the bench after the second giveaway and smashed his stick instantly, I would have shrugged. If, after getting called out in the timeout, he fired back at Keefe, it would have been understandable. And there are a ton of examples of both of those things happening over the years.
But this? I’m sorry, but there aren’t. If you have them, I’d love to hear them.
“This is a great opportunity for our team to prove our character, to compete and to respond.”
– Morgan Rielly heading into the game against Anaheim
I am not really into making these kinds of statements, especially against a weak opponent. The overall game after was not a particularly strong response, either. A few Leafs players noted they had a good start/first few periods, but by the standards for the Leafs compared to the Ducks, they didn’t exactly run them over or handle them the way you’d expect.
Tweets of the Week
Many theories why the Leafs suck right now and there’s likely truth to all of them. The challenge of running it back again is eventually, right or wrong, some faces become symbols of failure to a market and room. At some point you can no longer battle perceptions but act on them.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) October 31, 2022
I’ve said this a few times, but one day, we’re either going to, A) Look back fondly on this core and reflect on all the signs that they were a great team that needed patience to break through, or B) Look back with sadness at all of the signs that they couldn’t get it done when the chips were down. Both are still possibilities here, but at this point in time, the latter is the dominant narrative.
Gotta appreciate the sheer Leafiness of fans worrying/complaining about goaltending all summer to have the start of the season sunk by everything else.
— Phil (@AlsoNamedPhil) October 30, 2022
The most surprising thing is that it really hasn’t been on the goaltending. Ilya Samsonov has been solid, and the Leafs are 13th in 5v5 save percentage. If I told you that they’d rank 13th in 5v5 save percentage and showed you their schedule for the month, you are probably guessing they start 7-2-1 or so.
Almost 3 years ago to the day the Leafs fired Babcock because the players stopped playing for him after he was mean to them. They got their nice guy coach and have stopped playing for him. Firing Keefe lets them off the hook and is entirely the wrong message #Leafsforever
— corey landsberg (@coreylandsberg) October 30, 2022
I think a new coach only lets them off the hook if the new coach is another player-friendly individual lenient on discipline. Whether the current GM should be allowed to hire a new coach, on the other hand, is a completely valid question.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would blow up the lines, starting with splitting up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Even beyond the emotional attachment to making the move – which I think is the right message to the group and long overdue – the Leafs’ third line is, at best, a bunch of warm bodies. They need a needle-mover.
The only way they can address it is by splitting up the top four across three lines. They have a number of decent complementary players they can pair up with their top players. I’d ask Matthews to carry Michael Bunting and Calle Jarnkrok. I’d reunite Marner and John Tavares, and I’d pair up William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot while asking William Nylander to play at center.
2. I think Pierre Engvall and David Kampf just work as a pairing. It’s nothing special, but they take positive shifts and Kampf works well off Engvall’s puck-carrying skills. I’d leave them together and rotate the winger beside them. Zach Aston-Reese, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Wayne Simmonds – take your pick. That’s the rotation, though.
3. A less from last year that is showing itself again: You can’t ask Justin Holl to be the best defenseman on his pairing. If you play him with Rasmus Sandin in the top four, that’s what you’re asking him to do.
Holl wasn’t leaps and bounds better alongside TJ Brodie or anything, but it was a lot steadier and easier to digest. When Jake Muzzin has been on his game or when he’s paired with Brodie, he’s been fine. In all other situations when asked to carry a pairing, it has been an unmitigated disaster.
4. I think I get managing Mark Giordano’s ice time — he’s playing under 18 minutes per game – but the team is a bit of a mess right now. I’ve always liked Justin Bourne’s description of Giordano: He’s an adult out there. That’s what it feels like. He’s a responsible adult making responsible plays.
I’d play him up with Morgan Rielly and leave a very inexperienced pairing in Ramus Sandin – Victor Mete to fend for themselves. Both are young, but they have played a reasonable amount in the league. I don’t think it will be that bad. But the bigger thing is I can’t watch these guys in the top four. Go with experience. Rielly – Giordano and Brodie – Holl.
5. As many regular readers would know by now, in the football world, I am a Seattle Seahawks fan. I have really struggled to grapple with and articulate all of what’s happening with them. They had a superstar quarterback who was at odds with the head coach, and it permeated throughout the organization. They eventually cut bait and people laughed at them all offseason. How could you pick a coach over a star QB?! I’ll be the first to admit I was upset when the trade happened.
What happened next? The Seahawks doubled down on their culture and identity of who they want to be as a football team. Without the massive salary of one player, they built depth. They are leading their division at 5-3 through eight weeks. Their betting line for the season was five wins. Maybe they fall apart down the stretch and this proves to be a mirage. It doesn’t matter. They’ve established an identity moving forward, and they are going to be fine.
On the other hand, we have the Leafs. I’m not making a direct comparison – these are different sports and circumstances – but culture and identity matter. Building appropriate depth matters.
When certain players are treated one way and the rest of the team another, it pisses off the rest of the team. These are human beings. If Pierre Engvall went down the hall to smash sticks, is he playing again that night? If Calle Jarnkrok spits out two brutal giveaways for goals against, is he playing again that game?
Is Mitch Marner a better player deserving of more rope? Absolutely. But what if the rope never runs out?
That’s what this feels like.