The Toronto Maple Leafs are dangerous — to themselves and others.
What makes them the greatest show in hockey also leaves them vulnerable to becoming the most frustrating.
All run and gun and fun, in less than a week the Leafs can send three unique talents to the All-Star Game and still slip on the sad side of the wild-card bubble.
“A lot of speed, a lot of high-end skill, a lot of ability with possession of the puck. A very dangerous team on the attack,” future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville recently complimented. “They can strip pucks, and they can turn defence into offence really quick — their transition is outstanding.”
Then Coach Q threw his less-celebrated Panthers over the boards and tore the Leafs to shreds.
“We’re showing here that we haven’t been able to find a level of consistency that we were happy with,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, amidst his first mini crisis, a 1-3-2 stretch.
“You’ve got good efforts, but it’s the discipline, it’s the consistency to be able to do it all the time, and I think that’s what we’re looking for and that’s what I think is reflected in the journey of our group. It’s a test even more with the loss of [Jake] Muzzin and [Morgan] Rielly, two workhorses on the team. It’s a reflection of where we are and how we need to get better.”
Let’s be clear: We do not believe the Leafs are doomed. Every team is flawed, and there is way too much talent here to whiff on the playoffs.
But in the midst of a six-game stumble that has seen two quick goalie pulls and 28 goals allowed, it’s worth looking at some areas in need of repair as the Leafs return to action Monday in Nashville.
Depleted defence getting exposed
We beat this horse when the Connor McDavid Show rolled through town and again when the Panthers scorched the Leafs for a touchdown plus a two-point conversion in Sunrise, but the high-risk, high-reward identity Toronto is carving under Keefe relies on smart decision-making and forwards covering up for chance-taking defenders.
Part of the problem is a health issue and a roster issue. It’s unreasonable to expect elite defending when you rank among the NHL’s bottom third in blue-line payroll, especially when your most physical defenceman (Muzzin) has a busted foot and your most used defenceman (Rielly) had been skating hurt until he got really hurt. A broken foot will keep Rielly out seven more weeks, minimum.
But part of the problem is not choosing to make the prudent (if boring) play. Keefe’s unconventional Rielly-Barrie experiement may be Exhibit A in the gamble.
Blurring positions can work, until all five guys blur towards the enemy’s net.
There is a direct correlation between the Leafs’ bad nights and the nights they hand out breakaways and 2-on-1s like Halloween candy, or leave star players unchecked in the slot.
Yes, it’s preferable to strike first and play with the lead, but balancing pressure with patience can go a long way. Especially now that the opposition understands.
“We need to be connected through all three layers of goalie, D and forwards. I think that support is so huge for us to just sustain pressure and not open up the ice for them too much,” Frederik Andersen explains.
“When we turn it over in the wrong places, sometimes there’ll be a little bit too much room for the other teams when their skilled players come out.”
Zach Hyman sums it up nicely: “We want to play that high-tempo, possession-type game, but we can’t give up the Grade-A stuff.”
Goaltending must be stellar to succeed
We’ve heard the quote time and again from Leafs stalls: Andersen is the backbone of the team.
So, what happens when the spine is a little creaky?
This roster is constructed and deployed in such a way that superior netminding is necessary to mask mistakes. The defencemen are encouraged to pinch when the time is right. The forwards are allowed to hold the puck and get creative in the offensive zone.
The theory being that if Toronto has, say, 12 high-danger chances and its opponent has 10, the Leafs’ combination of elite finishers around the net and an all-star goalie will win four out of seven tries.
In order for that style to produce results, however, the Leafs must dress the better goalie.
Over the past month, that’s been happening less often. Toronto’s 24th-ranked .899 team save percentage is much lower than the league average of .909.
The skaters wear part of that for gifting so many odd-man rushes and carelessly covering their own zone for stretches of time, but Andersen and Michael Hutchinson can’t escape unscathed.
When Andersen gave up three to Edmonton on Jan. 6 and got pulled, Hutchinson came in and gave up three more. When Andersen gave up four to Florida on Jan. 12, Hutchinson came in and gave up four more. A nasty bit of symmetry.
While Andersen was outwardly angry about getting pulled in the loss to the Oilers, beatdowns by the Panthers and Blackhawks (on Jan. 18) left him looking inward.
“I want to be able to make saves in big moments early on,” Andersen said, “and I wasn’t good enough.”
Moreover, the organization, which pinched pennies on the backup role, seems to be scrambling at how best to set Andersen up for success.
Keefe has tried early pulls and lightening wear during practice. He’s also given Andersen both ends of a back-to-back and started Hutchinson in a non-back-to-back situation. These are all tactics his predecessor didn’t attempt.
Keefe has wondered if maybe Andersen actually needs more work to rediscover his groove and has challenged the No. 1 publicly to rise up along with the rest of the group.
We don’t doubt Andersen is a top-10 goalie worldwide. Unfortunately, on the nights he doesn’t have it — for whatever reason — the Leafs look ripe for the sniping.
“I’m sure he’ll be hard on himself,” John Tavares said. “He’s strong mentally. He digs in every day, works hard, and his professionalism and leadership are crucial for us. So, he’ll get back on track and be himself.”
Leadership, experience in short supply
Because they’ve reached the playoffs three years running and because they’re cashing cheques like champs, fans sometimes lose sight just how young the Maple Leafs core still is.
Of Toronto’s four letter-wearing leaders, no one has celebrated his 30th birthday. That quartet has a combined one playoff series victory to rub together.
Which is why grizzled rarities like Muzzin and Jason Spezza – and Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau before them – are held in such high regard in these parts.
Rielly hasn’t looked the same since Hainsey left for a higher bidder. Holl certainly is a more trustworthy defender with Muzzin at his side than Travis Dermott or Martin Marincin.
“He’s the guy that’s been there, done that. He’s won a Cup. He knows what it takes, the kind of competitiveness that you need. He’s a guy that’s super vocal in the locker room as well as on the bench,” Holl says. “So in terms of leadership, we definitely miss him.”
Penalty killing remains soft
When Hyman got healthy and Keefe took over, the Maple Leafs’ troubling special teams enjoyed a noticeable uptick, but that was only temporary.
A parade of injuries to penalty-killing personnel (Ilya Mikheyev, Rielly and Muzzin currently) are partly to blame, but the PK — Toronto’s Achilles’ heel last spring versus Boston — simply hasn’t delivered despite a focus on coaching and player tweaks to the unit.
Toronto’s penalty kill ranks 25th overall (76.3 per cent). No club in the bottom eight in that category is in a playoff position.
The Leafs are also tied with giving up the eighth-most shorthanded goals (six).
Strength of schedule isn’t so kind
A handy site called Power Rankings Guru does the math for us, calculating and rating the difficulty of each team’s remaining schedule based on the excellence of their opponents.
Among Toronto’s closest foes in the tightening Atlantic Division race, the Leafs have the toughest run toward the post-season.
The third-place Panthers have the fourth-easiest remaining schedule league wide and hold games in hand over Toronto. The powerhouse Lightning have the sixth-easiest, and the first-place Bruins hold the seventh-easiest slate.
Way behind in this category are the Leafs, with the 22nd-easiest schedule.
Which puts a premium of coming back from vacation strong. Toronto wraps up January by travelling to Nashville and Dallas, then kicks off February by hosting Ottawa and Florida. Anything less than five points over that stretch should be considered a disappointment.
“It’s not a good feeling leaving the rink,” said Tavares, right before the bye week. “The type of hockey that we can play, the type of team we are, we just know this isn’t good enough.
“We’ve got to dig down and ask ourselves where we want to get to… and how bad we want to get there.”