Mirtle: The Maple Leafs’ difficult season now feels destined for disappointment
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
By James Mirtle
What possibly could happen next to the Maple Leafs to turn a season that had such high expectations into even more of a disaster?
I’ve seen a lot of weird things covering this team the past 13 years, but Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Hurricanes ranks up there among them all. The Leafs failed — on every level — to win a game where their practice rink Zamboni driver was in goal for half the night for the other team.
An actual beer-league goaltender beat them, on an important night for their playoff hopes.
Then their coach tore them apart, saying it didn’t actually matter if anyone was in the other net, given how poorly they played.
“It’s another embarrassing night, right?” Sheldon Keefe lamented.
“We know it’s just unacceptable,” John Tavares added. “And not even close to good enough.”
The Leafs and their fans know disappointment. They’ve lived it for a long, long time. The cast of characters here is different, but this franchise made a habit of late-season collapses for years, falling apart with their season on the line again and again in many previous eras. In 2012, Brian Burke called it an “18 wheeler going off a cliff” because their collapse was, to him, so unique — and then it happened again and again to the Leafs in the years that followed.
What’s new about this year is that this was supposed to be a contending team. This team had earned real expectations, after back-to-back seasons with 105 and 100 points. The front office didn’t substantially alter the core of the roster, either, with the same starting goaltender, No. 1 defenceman and top two lines as last year.
And yet …
The Leafs won nine of their first 23 games, which ended in Mike Babcock getting fired. (Deservedly.)
Now, after going on a 15-4-1 run under Keefe immediately after his hiring, they’re in another tailspin that’s lasted seven weeks. In that span, they have just two regulation wins in their past 12 games and five in their past 20.
Their season now hangs in the balance, with less than a quarter of the schedule left to play.
The strangest part of all of this is the Leafs’ record is still quite good since the coaching change. They have the eighth-best points percentage in the league since mid-November when Keefe took over in Arizona. They’ve scored a ton of goals — nearly 3.7 per game — in that span. Their special teams have been strong. And their underlying numbers are solid, too.
Goaltending has been a considerable negative, as Frederik Andersen is in the midst of an inexplicable, career-worst season (.906 save percentage) and former backup Michael Hutchinson flamed his way out of the league after losing 10 of his 14 decisions (.886 save percentage).
The Leafs have also had several significant injuries this season — namely to Morgan Rielly, Ilya Mikheyev, Zach Hyman and Andreas Johnsson — but they’re certainly not alone on that front in an injury-plagued league. Toronto’s big-money stars have, for the most part, been healthy (and productive).
Even if you add all of that adversity, it doesn’t fully explain this strangely disappointing season. If they miss the playoffs — they’re currently on pace to finish with fewer than 94 points — you can’t tie it all entirely to bad games under Babcock, bad goaltending and missing a few key players.
There’s more going on here. There has to be. This team has turned in so many no-effort games in key moments that it’s become a theme — under both coaches, in front of four different goalies and with various configurations of healthy skaters.
To be perfectly honest, it has been a maddening thing trying to analyze this team this season. There’s so much talent on the Leafs’ roster that it’s hard to write them off, even when so many games are listless affairs. When they do play well — as they did against the Penguins on Thursday — they look like one of the best five or six teams in the NHL.
So, those nights, you write about their potential, and about how, hey, maybe they’ve finally figured things out.
Then they lay an egg the next night out and away we go again, trying to explain the dropoff.
At its heart, this team is unbelievably inconsistent. The Leafs are so all over the place that trying to define what they are, overall, is harder than with any Leafs team I’ve covered. But it’s beginning to feel safe calling this a lost season — and not just because they’ll face Boston or Tampa in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
If, in fact, they find a way to make it.
Before Babcock was fired, it certainly felt like something was rotten in the Leafs dressing room. And many people around the organization — including some of the top talent — believed the coach had contributed to that malaise.
But three months after he was let go, it hasn’t been eradicated. There’s still a lack of confidence and/or fortitude in this group that’s hard to pin down. Perhaps it simply stems from all the losing, early in the year and now on this latest slide.
Or, perhaps, it’s something more.
There’s been a lot of calling for heads to roll of late, in the media and on social media. Knowing this market, that’s only going to pick up. People want someone to answer for what’s happened this season — even if it’s simply sending Tyson Barrie packing before Monday’s trade deadline.
That’s probably more likely after the way they’ve played the past week.
Increasingly, however, it’s become clear there needs to be a far more thorough audit of this roster and even the organization itself. How it was built. Why it doesn’t work. And how it can be fixed.
That kind of deep, dismantling soul searching can only really happen in the offseason. Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas will have to determine if this group went sideways because of all the turmoil around the coaching change, the goalie issues and the injuries, or if there is something deeper that is wrong with the core of the roster.
They’ll have to decide whether they can really run things back next season with a similar cast, given how much of it is locked in contractually.
I know that’s not going to be a satisfying answer for many die-hard Leafs fans who are gutted over how this season has gone and want instant action. But the reality here is that there are no easy answers with this group. There are no obvious conclusions. This isn’t the Carlyle era, where the system was a mess and the coaching staff a massive, easily identifiable problem. It isn’t the Nonis era, when they were signing crap contracts like David Clarkson and putting Coke machines on skates on the blue line.
What’s worse is this should be a good team.
What’s also worse is that charting the path to getting better is far less clear than when the Leafs were a basement-dwelling basket case all those years.
“Trade everyone” or “fire everyone” might be cathartic rallying cries for an enraged fan base, but it’s not reality. It’s not what’s going to happen here. Maybe they punt Barrie and retool their back end by 3 p.m. on Monday, but that’s not going to fundamentally change what this team is. That doesn’t redefine the Leafs. That doesn’t inject a new spine into a group that might well need one.
I don’t believe Kyle Dubas is going to get let go if this team flames out the rest of the way. I don’t believe he should be, either, given he entered the season with a coach he didn’t want and some of the other extenuating circumstances this season. But he has contributed to the problems they have. And the task in front of him, to figure out what’s wrong with this roster and fix it — potentially by dismantling some of its core — is monumental.
It’s also very complicated — thanks to the salary cap and the commitments they’ve made — and it’ll be questioned at every turn. It feels like it’s becoming a bigger challenge by the day, too, as the Leafs, once again, show us who they really are by falling apart on the ice.
Nineteen games left to prove us wrong.