Maple Leafs not alone in struggles with lofty contender expectations

Auston Matthews talks about the level of confidence in the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room and a disappointing game against the Penguins.

For what it’s worth, despairing Maple Leafs fans, you’re not alone.

The Leafs get a lot of attention no matter what they’re doing because more people are invested in their results than that of any other NHL squad. Don’t forget, there’s a big portion of observers who are interested because they hope there’s never a sequel to 1967, and that bunch is positively gleeful right now as the Leafs — who lost twice on the weekend and were battered 6-1 Saturday night in Pittsburgh — continue to sewer.

By record, the Leafs are a .500 club. By reputation, this is supposed to be a flowering league power that, at the very least, chews through the regular season and wins a round or three come playoff time.

Thus far, there are no comforting explanations for how Toronto — which just looks out of sync and has lost five straight — can turn things around. Buds supporters can, however, commiserate with a surprising number of other fan bases because there’s no shortage of high-aspiration teams that are wheel-spinnin’ right now.

Roughly six short weeks ago, Toronto was part of a group of teams like Tampa Bay, Vegas, Nashville and Dallas pegged as pre-season conference and Cup favourites. The best points percentage from that five-pack of teams right now is Tampa’s .588, which has the Bolts on a 96-point pace. Put another way, not one of those teams is tracking a season that would have cleared the 98-point bar required to make the Eastern Conference playoffs last year.

So which clubs that we tabbed Cup threats are really living up to prognostications a quarter of the way into the season?

The Islanders look amazing, but they’re outstripping external expectations, as are the Oilers and, really, a Blues team I don’t think anybody outside Missouri wholeheartedly believed had a great shot to go back-to-back. It’s hard to do an honest evaluation of Colorado other than to say, in the face of several significant injuries, this young club is hanging tough and may yet prove worthy of bold forecasts.

You could make a case the only teams which were circled in red as Cup contenders before the season and who continue to look the part now are Boston and Washington, two clubs who clashed Saturday in a 3-2 shootout win for the Caps.

Of course, as teams continue to clump closer together in this league year after year, where you finish becomes a secondary consideration to getting into the big dance at all. So while a handful of supposed contenders look pedestrian through 25 per cent of the season, their most pressing goal — just get in, baby! — remains attainable.

Other Weekend Takeaways

• Seeing Matt Calvert bleed on the ice after taking a close-range Elias Pettersson shot in the head was an awful look for the league. Pettersson himself was trying to signal that something serious had occurred. Vancouver’s chance to score a goal cannot be the top consideration in that moment.

• Your scoring leaders in November: Leon Draisaitl (18 points), Connor McDavid (17), Patrick Kane (17). Kane had one-and-one in Chicago’s 7-2 win over the Preds on Saturday and another goal in Sunday’s 4-1 victory against Buffalo as the Hawks continue to dig out of an early hole by going 6-1-1 in their past eight outings, outscoring opponents 33-21 in those games. Chicago has struggled to keep up the past couple years, but No. 88 has never stopped being a force.

• Jack Eichel scored four times in Buffalo’s win over Ottawa on Saturday. Every team but Columbus played that night and Eichel wasn’t the only one finding the net.

• I hate myself for not realizing Cale Makar was the obvious pre-season Calder pick. Makar has been 21 for less than three weeks and he’s putting up better than a point-per-game from the blue-line after registering four assists in Colorado’s overtime win in Vancouver. Seeing Pettersson in that game got me thinking about the 2017 NHL Draft, which saw Miro Heiskanen (20 years old, playing 25 minutes a night for the Stars) go third overall, Makar picked fourth and Pettersson land at No. 5.

I took at a look at the past 30 years of drafts and the only 3-4-5 combo that rolls off the tongue like those three are Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel in 2006.

• Could Steven Stamkos have netted No. 400 in a more appropriate fashion?

It’s easy to forget — before breaking his leg six years ago in November of 2013 — this guy was the best goal-scorer on earth for four years from his age-19 season through 23, when he netted 185 goals in 294 games. The second-highest total over that stretch was Alex Ovechkin’s 152.

I wonder if Stamkos — who also battled a blood clot following the busted leg — goes crazy again one of these years and puts another Rocket Richard Trophy on his shelf.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Edmonton Oilers (13-6-3): Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the third set of teammates in the past 30 years to both reach 40 points through their team’s first 22 contests.

2. Montreal Canadiens (11-5-4): Rookie Nick Suzuki is really starting to find his way at the highest level, netting a point in each of his past three games and looking very comfortable and dangerous at centre.

3. Winnipeg Jets (12-8-1): The Jets pulled off a great Florida sweep, beating the Panthers on Friday and the Bolts 24 hours later.

4. Vancouver Canucks (10-7-4): With one win in their past seven outings, the Canucks now head out on a six-game roadie.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (9-9-4): Let’s just take a minute and contemplate how crazy it is that we live in a world where people are legit wondering if Mike Babcock will be the coach of this team when it completes the five road games coming up on the sked.

6. Calgary Flames (10-10-3): Two games on the weekend, zero goals scored and nine surrendered for a Flames team that can’t find its way.

7. Ottawa Senators (8-11-1): A win over Philly on Friday and a loss to Buffalo on Saturday leaves Ottawa a respectable 5-4-0 in November. The way the teams above them are playing, the Sens could soon moving up this ranking.

In Your Ear

Co-host Rory Boylen and I broke down the NHL at the quarter mark — naming both a league MVP and one for each Canadian team — on the latest episode of the Tape to Tape podcast.

The Week Ahead

• The Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomes Hayley Wickenheiser, Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Zubov, Vaclav Nedomansky, Jim Rutherford and Jerry York on Monday night. Congrats, all.

• The league’s GMs will meet this week in Toronto. Bank on some talk about off-side reviews.

• The resurgent Sharks go for their seventh straight win when they host Edmonton on Tuesday.

• Nazem Kadri hosts his old buddies on Saturday in Colorado and if the Leafs don’t have a win by then, the Buds might all ask to move in with Kadri and just stay in the mountains.

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