Leafs hope to reset as they return to play in roller-coaster season

Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie recaps a roller coaster season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and explains how their stars will need to lead the team for a deep playoff run.

“It certainly has been eventful.”

From quarantine, head coach Sheldon Keefe made that beautiful understatement on the unique and exciting roller-coaster that is the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Theirs is a ride — for fans whose patience is tall enough to board — that will make you scream with delight (“William Nylander, 30-goal bargain!”) and vomit in disgust (“We lost to a Zamboni driver and Maple Leafs fan… that we’re paying!”). Sometimes in the span of 72 hours.

General manager Kyle Dubas, at once architect of hockey’s most exhilarating and infuriating roster, hit the nail on the head when he described his Leafs as “Jekyll and Hyde.”

Management, coaching staff, players, critics — they all point to the same issue: consistency. Which is a helluva thing to bottle in a season that saw significant injuries to so many core players (Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott, Frederik Andersen) and a dramatic mid-season coaching change that ushered in a fresh identity and rejigged line combinations.

Fast and young, these Leafs can lay an egg against a Buffalo team in disarray. Then spin around and execute a gutsy, clinical win, like in their most recent appearance, a 2-1 victory over Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning on March 10.

This is a collective that is still searching for reliability playing in front of a fan base that, after three first-round playoff exits, is starting to worry they may never find it.

“An important distinction that should be made is we didn’t necessarily say that our team was immature, we said that we played immature. I think those are two different things,” said Keefe, reflecting on the 70-game tornado.

“We’ve shown at times that we can play very well against the best teams in the league and get great results from that. It’s a matter of us finding that more consistently. We can attach whatever description we want to it, but the reality is we need to take steps both as a team and individually. Right now, when we’re not playing, it’s a chance for us reset, but also really identify where we want to grow and how we’re going to get there.”

Again, Toronto was able to roll out elite offensive power. Auston Matthews was set to cruise past 50 goals and go hunting for the Rocket Richard Trophy as well as some fringe Hart Trophy votes. Nylander was driving to the net and enjoying a career-best performance (31 goals, 59 points). Marner, Tavares and Hyman were all delivering. The power play was even scarier than last year’s.

Since Keefe took the reins, the Maple Leafs rank first in goals-per-game (3.51), and their power play ranks second overall at 26.4 per cent.

The areas of improvement need major work.

Toronto allowed the sixth-most goals, often on Grade-A chances resulting from cringeworthy giveaways and odd-man rushes. This helps explain why the club ranks 29th in team save percentage (.902). And for the third consecutive season, Toronto’s penalty-killing worsened, settling at a disappointing 21st overall (77.7 per cent).

“We have to get better,” Keefe said. “The biggest area for us to get better at is to be more consistent in both our preparation and our effort and then, ultimately, on our performance.

“We need to give ourselves an opportunity through a foundation of work ethic and competitiveness and discipline and structure, all of those things which give you a chance to win every day.”

The good news here is the roller-coaster was embarking another encouraging ascent before the pandemic slammed off all power.

Toronto had gone 4-2-1 in its last seven. The pre-deadline trade for Kyle Clifford and Jack Campbell had injected the room with a triple dose of sorely needed leadership, sandpaper and backup goaltending. And Andersen had emerged on the happy side of a slump.

While it would be silly to believe any momentum from early March can be transported to August, it would be equally foolish to assume that a team this loaded with scorers, this unpredictable, is incapable of making this summer eventful, in a good way. (We see you, Nick Robertson.)

“We’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” said Tyson Barrie, preparing for his first and last dance as a Maple Leaf. “If anybody can come out of this thing ready to rock, it’s going to be us.

“We’ve got skill, we’ve got speed, and we’ve got youth on our side. I think we should have no problem coming out of this thing.”

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