Why a challenging road trip is exactly what the Maple Leafs need

Auston Matthews and Jack Campbell of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate after a win. (Chris Young/CP)

You can only play the cards you’re dealt. And so for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they deserve credit for taking care of business in their two games back from the Christmas break against the listless and COVID-tinged Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers in front of no fans. They mopped the floor with the Sens 6-0, and hung on in a sloppy affair against the McDavid-less Oilers 4-2, stacking up two more regulation wins that will be crucial in their quest to summit their division, an important ambition in the brutal Atlantic.

But back to the cards they’ve been dealt. They’re not necessarily bad, they've just been strange, like if the two cards you were dealt in a game of Hold ‘Em were tarot.

Here's one of those cards: According to CapFriendly, just two teams are currently listed as having zero injuries -- not including players in protocol (St. Louis and Nashville) -- and the Leafs have been on the fringe of that group, with just Ondrej Kase missing their last game. So it’s super rare you’re ever fully healthy at any point in-season let alone in January and nearly halfway through the schedule. But when you don’t play for 18 days and then have well-spaced out games to follow, it’s a little more possible. At the same time that they’re fully healthy, other teams are being devastated by COVID outbreaks (six teams are out six or more players). The Leafs seemed "fortunate" that their outbreak was timed with the pause in play -- though we were reminded how unpredictable this all is Friday when Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall were put in protocol. Perhaps they're not through it yet after all.

Another is that they’ve also had to play in front of no fans, which completely changes the dynamic of the hockey game, turning it into more of a computer simulation of sorts, and not the same “real” hockey. The emotional highs and lows have been less pronounced, allowing the better teams to just go about their business and not get overwhelmed by any surprising blows they may take.

Surprising blows, like say, falling behind 2-1 to the Oilers in the first period, then just… kinda sticking with it as the more talented team and finding their way through. Again, it’s strange hockey, and the second half of that game feels barely worth mentioning, like both teams agreed the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The problem is, this is exactly what the Leafs don’t need this season. That’s never to discount the importance of getting wins in the regular season, but throw it back to how Sheldon Keefe talked about his team in the Amazon series “All or Nothing.” During the 2020-21 season his focus was on conquering what was perceived as the team's mental weakness, and developing an ability to play the same way when the pressure mounted and the spotlight grew brighter. (That’s still the looming question mark, isn’t it?)

During that show, Paul MacLean referred to the “demons” the team was battling, coming off a 2019-20 season that saw them excel, yet blow a series to the less-talented Columbus Blue Jackets. His exact quote about the mental state of the team, was:

“They’ve got to help themselves somehow. They’ve got demons in their heads. They’ve got them in their car. They’ve got them under their f---ing beds. Everywhere they turn, there’s a f---ing demon. The biggest obstacle this team has is themselves.”

At one point in the documentary, with the team squarely in first place, Keefe calls a meeting with the team’s leadership, and expresses his concerns, which is met with blank stares and eventually Joe Thornton expressing that he thinks they’re in pretty good shape despite a recent run of questionable play.

Cut to later episodes, in which Mitch Marner is being called in for a 1-on-1 with the GM before Game 7 to get a sense for his mental state, before the team finally blows the 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens once and for all.

This is what I mean when I say “this is exactly what the Leafs don’t need this season” -- a healthy team playing in front of an empty arena against reeling teams answers no questions for them. They don’t want to find themselves going “Yeah I guess all is fine if we’re high in the standings” without truly testing what’s under the hood to better know what the machine can do when there’s the stress of real stakes and pressure.

The vibe of the Oilers wasn’t exactly ramped up judging by the always-enjoyable mic’d up segments, which included Zach Hyman amicably chopping it up with Wayne Simmonds about his family while awaiting a draw. (I see nothing wrong with them doing that. Just hearing it mic’d up in an empty barn made it feel a bit like a family’s Thanksgiving game of backyard pigskin.)

This isn’t just outside speculation. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has weighed in at length about where the team is at during this weirdest chunk of what’s now a full-on weird season:

You can’t help but feel this is another… It has a bit of a pre-season feel, to be honest. It is not just because we are coming back out of a long break with not playing games. It is also just going from a full building to an empty building. It is different, for sure. It has felt a lot different. It feels like we are still working our way back towards being the team that we need to be.

Now, we get a day off tomorrow, we’ll get a good practice day, and then get ourselves out on the road. That is going to feel a lot more like the NHL. It feels like we are ramping up towards that. It is going to be a difficult road trip for us. There are some very challenging teams we will be playing, starting with Colorado. That is where our mindset is at now.

Most of the time when a team is packing for a road trip, it’s not something they’re looking forward to. Yes, there are great trips -- to head out to California in the winter, or Florida, or Vegas. There’s returning to your hometown, and other bright spots on the schedule. But mostly it means leaving the comforts of home and constantly packing and re-packing in hotels, showering and dressing as the routine dictates, half-rushing to planes and busses and eating on the fly. It’s not always awesome.

But this trip coming up here for the Leafs, they must feel it's awesome. Not because they want to play better teams and maybe even lose a game or three, but because home right now, well, home kinda sucks. The lockdown in Ontario isn’t new around here, but yeah: not fun. There’s no fans in the building, they can’t go out to eat, and some guys would have kids home in virtual school.

They’re off to some of the best places to go on the road in the NHL right now, particularly in January: Colorado (Denver is an awesome city with tons of winter sunshine), Vegas and Arizona. They'll come home before going to St. Louis, and follow that up by a trip to New York to play the Rangers and Islanders.

That’s a heck of a stretch of six games. Five of those six teams will have packed barns. Colorado and Vegas are both first in their divisions by points percentage. The Rangers and Blues are in the hunt for their division titles. The Islanders have won a couple in a row and are poised for a better second half after a messed up first (and John Tavares in Long Island is always a head game unto itself). Outside Arizona (enjoyable for non-hockey reasons), the schedule ahead for the Leafs offers exactly what they want to see where they’re at: a true test.

This year’s Leafs team has made it pretty clear that being “good” isn’t the goal. They’ve been good, for like a half-dozen years now. They’re trying to prove they belong not in the top-10, but among the handful of teams that fans around the league consider legitimate Cup threats. Are they up there with perceived favourites like Colorado and Vegas? I honestly don’t know. They might be. I honestly think they don’t know, which is why they should be grateful the schedule is playing out exactly as it is for them. Better to find out now than later.

It’s been weird, and they’ve been winning, but it hasn’t been the type of hockey to make a believer out of anyone. With six road games ahead, and a few seriously challenging ones amongst them, we’ll get a much better idea where the Maple Leafs fit in the league landscape.

And for them, their coach, and their GM too, those answers will be important in determining what comes next for this group, with the trade deadline still in the far-off distance.

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