By James Mirtle
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
“What the hell is going on there?”
The text came from someone with a Western Conference team, mere minutes after the Maple Leafs’ latest implosion became a 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
I don’t know if they were watching the game or not – it was a particularly ugly one – or if, like many around the league, they just had eyes on the out-of-town scoreboard and wondered how things are going so wrong for Toronto.
This was supposed to be a huge year for the franchise. The kids were re-signed and entering their primes. The defence was revamped and the excuses were going to be minimal.
Win in the playoffs – or else.
Now? I’m not even sure if they’ll get there.
Three weeks ago, I wrote that it was too early to blame what was happening on the head coach. The team was beaten up, playing through a horrific schedule and getting really poor goaltending.
Their underlying numbers, after 13 games, also appeared to be fine, with a low PDO pointing to save percentage being a big factor in their mediocre record. There was nothing that indicated they were about to fall apart.
What’s changed since then?
The Leafs have one regulation win in their last nine games (and only two in their last 15). Their special teams have been in the league basement in that span (11.8 percent on the power play and 71.4 percent on the penalty kill).
And the underlying numbers, when it comes to expected goals, are at one of the lowest points we have seen under Mike Babcock (44.3 percent) over a sustained period.
The team also looks utterly lifeless and lost through long stretches of games, especially when they get down a goal or two, which has happened frequently given how often they are being scored on first (a league-worst 17 times).
You add in the bad penalties they’re taking, their mess at backup goalie and the players they’re missing (Mitch Marner, Alex Kerfoot and now Trevor Moore) for an extended period, and it’s a really bad combination.
Some of that is out of Babcock’s control. But now there are more red flags that point to the coaching staff than there were a few weeks ago.
1. TacticsThe expected-goals issues at even strength appear to be systems-related, as they’re relying on the blue line to generate offence far more than in the past.
Many of their recent games have produced heat maps that look like this one below from Saturday’s loss, where opponents are shooting from the slot and the Leafs are firing from long distance. It’s not a winning formula.
The Leafs’ share of expected goals at 5-on-5 in Saturday’s game was just 38.8 percent. It was the seventh time this season (after only 22 games) that they’ve been under 40 percent.
That’s roughly twice as frequent as it has occurred over the previous three seasons under Babcock. This despite the current roster being better than it was for long stretches in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Toronto is playing more of a perimeter game this season. Why this is happening is unclear, but it’s on the coaching staff to find a solution and fix it quickly.
2. Special teamsThe Leafs special teams have turned into a complete disaster. No qualifiers required.
It’s hard to know how much of that is Babcock and how much lies with the new assistant coaches, Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol, but they’ve all got to wear it right now.
What feels the most alarming is that, despite their struggles, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of adjustments or experimentation taking place. The personnel on both units has been relatively consistent, even as the power play has been booed repeatedly on home ice and the PK has become increasingly porous.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the power play is at least generating chances at a reasonable rate. But the Leafs have been one of the worst teams in the NHL while shorthanded of late, allowing shots, chances and high-danger opportunities at one of the highest rates leaguewide.
3. Losing the roomThis is more of a “feel” assessment than anything you can track with data or heat maps, but I believe not many members of this team love playing for their coach.
This is nothing new. There has been simmering discontent for years, some of which has come out through media reports, but most of which has not.
We’ve certainly heard the cliché many times that NHL teams can quit on their coach. It seemed to happen, for example, with Ron Wilson and the Leafs, way back in 2012.
Sometimes the message gets stale. Sometimes big personalities can’t co-exist, after years together in the same dressing room. Babcock certainly didn’t have many fans in Detroit’s room by the end.
You can’t rule that out as a factor here, given the way the Leafs look right now.
The current mood in Toronto is grim. Social media is a mess, as the fan base wants blood. The majority of them are blaming the coach, too.
One problem with putting this all on Babcock and showing him the door, however, is it will not fix everything that ails the Leafs.
Mirtle's twitter poll:
Who is most to blame for the Leafs struggles so far this season?
60%Coach / systems
13%Front office / roster
They would still lack adequate goaltending behind their starter. They would still have a group that’s not strong enough defensively. And they would still have a top-heavy roster with several newcomers that is nowhere close to being a cohesive unit.
The Tyson Barrie situation is a good example of the dressing-room issues at play. Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday night’s broadcast that Barrie had not requested a trade. But based on what I’ve been hearing in recent weeks, that still may happen. He is clearly not happy in Toronto, and his camp has had recent talks with the front office about the situation.
Barrie is goalless and on pace for the worst season of his career, right when he’s about to hit unrestricted free agency, at a position (right defence) where the demand is often through the roof. They were expecting a big payday north of $45-million, long term. That’s suddenly in jeopardy.
Some of Barrie’s issues come down to usage. For the first time since his rookie season in 2010-11, Barrie is not getting time on the top power-play unit, which is significantly affecting the amount of time he has the puck in games.
Staying in Toronto, and not having any of that improve over the next 60 games, could cost him many, many millions of dollars on July 1. You can say Barrie should park those concerns and have a more team-first attitude, but players are human. The lack of personal success, combined with team struggles and his pending unrestricted free agency, would be a lot for anyone to handle in their first six weeks with a new team.
Maybe it’s just not going to work in Toronto. But the trouble is that if you try to trade Barrie, his cap hit is so small ($2.75-million) that it hardly frees up any space for the Leafs to replace him in their top four.
Any Barrie trade would likely have to include other pieces, which ups the degree of difficulty for the front office.
Toronto’s cap situation could be a factor in the Babcock decision, too. If they had more space, making a move to jolt this group alive would be easier to pull off without subtracting from the roster.
As it is, they’re limited to dollar-in, dollar-out transactions, which aren’t always easy to pull off.
Firing Babcock is simpler and cleaner, even with the term left on his eight-year contract. As highlighted above, there is also a growing case that the coaching staff is part of the problem, and that’s without even getting into the fact that some of these issues extend beyond just the first 22 games this season.
The Leafs have a plausible replacement waiting down on the farm, where Sheldon Keefe has the Marlies off to another terrific start.
The thing is Keefe has never coached in the NHL. A lot of people keep pointing to the Blues situation last year, when they fired Mike Yeo and promoted Craig Berube in November and made a miraculous turnaround. But Berube was an NHL lifer, with more than 1,000 games played. He had also been an assistant or associate coach in the NHL for eight years and a head coach for two in a hot market (Philadelphia). He was ready for the fire.
Is Keefe being set up to succeed if he is promoted to his first NHL job midseason in hockey’s biggest market with a team in almost complete disarray?
This decision is not as black and white as some want to make it. And I do not believe a decision on Babcock’s future is imminent.
That said, the bottom line is that if the Leafs continue to lose games, and GM Kyle Dubas can’t find a trade he likes, what are his other options?
Something, at some point, will have to give. There’s too much talent on this roster for this team to be this bad. There’s also too much riding on this season – with their window to contend supposed to be now – to let it fall away without attempting to turn things around.
To quote Yogi Berra, “it gets late early out here.”
It will now take a 35-17-8 (or equivalent) finish to get the Leafs back to 100 points this season. And they haven’t played .650 hockey over a sustained stretch like that for nearly a calendar year.
It’s not just Babcock who may be running out of time to fix this. They all are.