By James Mirtle Jul 27, 2020
It’s interesting to listen to the Maple Leafs front office talk about their team at times.
They do endorse this group of players and support them, but it’s clear, too, that they often find them as confounding as the rest of us.
“Immature” is a word that has often been used internally to describe their underperforming roster, a group that spent 2019-20 on a roller coaster up and down the standings before settling with the eighth-best record in the East at the time of the shutdown. A playoff team … but just.
All you had to do was watch the Leafs scrimmage in camp last week to see their upside: the incredible speed and finesse and talent. The forward group, in particular, can make plays few in the world can, as a unit.
We’ll need to wait for some games that mean anything to know if we’ll see the downside of this team: the inconsistency, lack of fortitude, and an inability to lock things down at the other end of the rink.
Most are picking the Leafs as the favourite in this series with Columbus, based on what’s on paper. But the reality is they had the exact same number of points in the same number of games. They were in a dead heat with a Blue Jackets team that led the NHL in man-games lost to injury, finished tied for fourth last in goal scoring and had just one forward net 20 goals.
Toronto didn’t have a very good year. Between the coaching turmoil to start the season, the injuries, the backup goalie imploding, and losing to a Zamboni driver, it was, frankly, a bit of a mess. (Maybe more than a bit, now that I read that sentence back again.)
Had they played out the year at the pace they were on, they would have finished with 95 points, a second straight year of decline from 100 in 2018-19 and 105 in 2017-18.
There’s plenty of self-awareness not just in the front office, but also on the roster, about what went down.
“The players know the doubts that are on them, whether it is from media or other teams,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said Monday afternoon, in his first words from the NHL bubble at the Royal York hotel. “They know what they have to prove. Them acknowledging it, and talking about it, is a good sign.
“They are not negative about it. They’re not upset people say it about them. They know they have to prove it. That’s what we will get a chance to do in the coming weeks and years.”
I actually think the shutdown and these conditions will help the Leafs. In some ways, taking five months away from the fire was what they needed. These 2020 playoffs feel almost like a different season, with the players almost at the age they would have been to start a 2020-21 training camp, in regular times. That could help a young team.
We’ve all been able to take some deep reflection as the world has slowed and the pandemic kept us at home. In some ways, professional sports feel more trivial than they did in March, when half of Toronto was hand-wringing about the mess the Leafs were in.
No matter what happens in this series next week, it feels like there’ll be less angst if the Leafs don’t advance. The fan base seems happy that they’re back at all, set to play games, and there’s a collective amnesia about how ugly the year actually was.
The funny thing is the Leafs have played exactly seven hockey games since the David Ayres game. I went back and looked at my column from that night recently, and it reads like something from another era.
But that’s where they were, seven games ago.
Leafs management is hopeful that all the quiet contemplation over the past few months, and the hard work in the gym and at the rink in Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the NHL’s return to play, will pay off against the Blue Jackets. That the Leafs will be able to wipe away the crappy memories and deliver on their talent in some truly bizarre, unprecedented circumstances.
What better way to prove the doubters wrong, to show that you are mentally tough and mature, than to win what some in the league are calling the hardest Stanley Cup tournament ever?
Or at least make a decent effort towards that end?
The Leafs really have a chance to rewrite their narrative almost entirely here because what they were has been, to some extent, wiped away. They’ll have different players in the lineup from when they last played (welcome to the party, Nick Robertson) and the new coach will have had a training camp. They have insurance in goal and on the blue line and, more importantly, almost everyone is healthy.
In some ways, this won’t even be the 2019-20 Leafs taking the ice, starting with an exhibition game against the Canadiens on Tuesday night. It’ll be some hybrid version of what they were and what they were aspiring to be next season, with a full year under Sheldon Keefe and a healthier roster.
Maybe they’ll emerge as the Bizarro Leafs, in these bizarro times?
“The objective stuff — the talent level of the group — has never been in question,” Dubas said. “It has been the maturing and mindset of the group that we know we have to take some strides in.
“I think we have a lot to prove,” he later added, before echoing his earlier comment. “I don’t think that anyone questions the talent of the group … I firmly believe that we need to continue to take steps with our defensive play. I think that, No. 1, the root cause of that is our mindset becoming an elite team that really values how we are performing defensively. Why I say it is a mindset thing and not a skill thing or a personnel thing is that we have shown in various games and different stretches that we can be a good defensive team. We need to be there consistently and there all the time in the top 10 in the league (defensively) in order to really maximize our whole group.”
Can the Leafs do that? I don’t know. But if you want optimism, here’s some.
1. This team had the eighth-best record in the NHL after Keefe took over, despite never having their full complement of defencemen. Keefe, of course, remains the coach, and he now has his entire desired top six, which will allow him to shelter who he wants and spread the load out among the group. (No more Cody Ceci in tough matchup minutes, for one.)
2. The Leafs scored more goals than any other team in the NHL under Keefe. And that was with Morgan Rielly missing half the games (he has yet to score a goal under the new coach), Jake Muzzin out for a third of the time, and Ilya Mikheyev missing all but 16 games. They’re all back, and at 100 percent. Mikheyev, frankly, looks better than ever.
3. The Leafs also had the third-best scoring-chance share and expected goals marks in the Eastern Conference under the new coach, a promising sign that his systems, while instituted on the fly, were working. They also had the second-best power play in the NHL over those 47 games, behind only Edmonton.
There are positives there in this group, under the rubble. And they should be better than Columbus.
But if you remember anything about where we were in March, predicting what you’ll get out of this team is incredibly difficult.
We’ll find out starting this weekend if the past five months changed any of that.