By James Mirtle
Dec 5, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Mirtle: With Mitch Marner back, the Maple Leafs are out of excuses
There’s really no way around this hard truth: This has been a bizarre, disappointing season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Thirty games into 2019-20, they have the 25th best record in the NHL. The list of teams better than them is long and dispiriting, with the likes of Arizona, Edmonton, Buffalo, Florida and even Minnesota on pace to finish well ahead of them in the standings.
If the Leafs don’t turn this around, it will be a train wreck.
And unlike some of the train wrecks of recent past, this will not be a case of a mediocre team failing to meet mediocre standards. It will be a team that should have been very good to great pulling a full face plant.
In many ways, it would be worse than all the 18 wheelers that went off the cliff in 2012, 2014, 2015, etc. No one, not even the quants, saw this fall coming.
The Leafs lost again on Wednesday. They played fine, but they weren’t the better team, in most respects. They certainly didn’t do a great job of generating quality chances against the Avs, which is weird when you look at their roster, which was almost entirely healthy with the return of Mitch Marner after 11 games away.
Obviously the Leafs aren’t going to fill the net every game, but a disturbing trend this season has been how offensively inept and disengaged they look. After 23 games, much of that was hung on the now ex-coach, who was blamed for trying to force a grinding style onto a team full of finesse.
But it’s still happening. And Mike Babcock’s replacement is already concerned about it, seven games into his new role.
“We’ve gotten away from some of the things offensively we focused on in the early going and that has caused us to revert back to some things we don’t necessarily like,” Sheldon Keefe said after he fell to 4-3-0 as an NHL head coach. “We’ll have to try to fix that.”
This has been a strange season for more reasons than just the Leafs poor record, though. None of their stars, save for Frederik Andersen in goal, has played well. The nearly team-wide malaise that settled in the second half of last season has carried over to the first third of this one, despite nearly half the roster being turned over.
While there was a burst of adrenaline and hope with the coaching change two weeks ago, the joylessness seems to be settling back in again.
Perhaps that’s just the weight of expectations and the growing possibility that this group cannot meet them.
The eighth-best team in the East right now is the Panthers, who are on pace for just shy of 95 points. For the Leafs to get there, they’ll need to go 29-16-7 (or equivalent) over their remaining 52 games.
With their talent level, playing at that 103-point pace for the next four months should be doable. They should be able to sneak into at least a wild-card position and “save” their season.
But I’m beginning to have my doubts that the on-paper talent here is going to translate into results.
Keefe has not been put into an easy situation, coming in with a radically different game plan to implement on the fly when every game, already, matters. He’s inherited what seems like a fragile group, one capable of folding fast when things don’t go their way, which was on display in ugly fashion late in Philadelphia on Tuesday when a close game quickly turned into a 6-1 blowout.
Players continued to explain after Wednesday’s loss how they were still trying to adjust to a much different message and messenger.
They clearly like Keefe – and they’ve bought into his schemes – but the results have so far been uneven. Over their last four games, for example, their underlying numbers at even strength are worse than what they generated under Babcock, and two of those games were against a Sabres team they should be able to outplay eight nights out of 10.
Why that’s not happening is unclear.
“We’re still, in a lot of ways with Keefer, figuring things out and a work in progress,” captain John Tavares said. “But, no question, we need results.”
The way this Leafs team is built, it needs to be driven by its stars. They’re down to a 21-man roster and only $42,000 in cap space because their six highest-paid players make more than $50-million, with one of the most top-heavy roster constructions ever in the NHL’s salary-cap era.
That’s okay, if the output meets the expenditure. But this group is nowhere close to that through 30 games.
Of that group of six, only Andersen is performing up to expectations. What’s alarming about that is, even as he’s attempted to carry this team to respectability the last five weeks with .930 goaltending night after night, their record is still as poor as it is.
If he falters, what then?
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY SportsThere have been mitigating factors here, that are worth at least a mention. The Leafs have been beat up this year, and that’s obviously impacted Tavares, Marner, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, among others. And the negative relationship with Babcock was supplying some additional baggage, without question.
But now they’re healthy, and the “bad man” is gone. Now they’ve got a new-school coach asking them to play the way they wanted to. And it’s on the best players on this team to rise up and be the all-star calibre group they’re paid to be, showing that, in fact, it was the old system that was slowing them down.
If this doesn’t turn around, it will be, largely, on their shoulders. Theirs and the second-year GM.
Kyle Dubas has begun to take the most heat we’ve seen in this market to date, and unsurprisingly, not all of it is fair. He definitely made some missteps during what was a complex off-season, one where they had to somehow try and improve while shedding payroll and bad contracts, but the reality is those mistakes have blown up to be far bigger body blows than anyone could have imagined.
Yes, they should have found a better option than Michael Hutchinson behind Andersen, but even then, based on his career performance as a nondescript No. 3 option on several decent teams, he should have been able to deliver at least a few more points in the standings by now.
No, Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie weren’t perfect additions on the blue line, but surely, most thought, they could adequately replace Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey. If nothing else, they would give the Leafs a more skilled, puck-moving group on the back end.
Even the overpays to the kids – led by Marner’s bloated $10.893-million cap hit – felt manageable, as long as the young Leafs continued to take steps forward and some of the team’s bargain bets delivered modest results.
This was, after all, a group that delivered 105 and 100 point seasons the last two years.
Two months into the 2019-20 season, however, the Leafs desperately need another goalie, the backup market is fairly sparse and they don’t have a lot of cap leeway to pull off a trade. They also need to change the mix on D, given Ceci has proven unable to handle tough minutes, but he and Barrie have quickly become net-negative assets that are far more difficult to move than they were in September.
Few voices around the league back in camp were saying this front office had a poor summer, but you’re starting to hear it more and more in Toronto. The benefit of hindsight and all that.
Some of the smaller bets Dubas and company made have paid off, with Ilya Mikheyev and Jason Spezza filling holes admirably around the edges. Justin Holl looks like he can play, too. The Marlies are again dominant in the AHL, should they need call-ups to draw from.
None of that really matters, however, if there are black holes in goal and on D and the Leafs biggest names (and salaries) don’t deliver.
Maybe that’s coming here? Maybe these games are the wake-up call? Maybe now that everyone’s back in the lineup, they’ll get it together as the rookie coach settles into his new role and the headlines on this site will be something akin to “Sheldon Keefe saves the day!” come April?
But that sure feels like a lot of maybes at this point. I was one of those people who predicted this team to finish right around where they were last year, but I’ve got no great confidence that a turnaround is coming quickly, not with the performances we’ve seen the last week here.
That’s a scary thing for the fan base to ponder given just how much this organization has committed to a group that is playing like a lot less than the sum of its parts right now.
Fifty-two games to prove they’re something more.