This year’s Maple Leafs don’t seem to have the same ceiling of past versions – now what?

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe stands behind the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. The Maple Leafs won 5-2. (AP)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are good, yet again. After a quasi-rough start, their winning percentage has them fifth in the Eastern Conference as we near American Thanksgiving, which is about where teams start to settle into their respective quadrants of the standings table.

The NHL has become a 32-team league, which makes qualifying for playoffs harder now than at any other point in NHL history. Barring a twist of fate (by which I mean injuries), they look very likely to be a team that makes the postseason for a seventh consecutive season, which in itself is no small achievement.

Here are the current longest consecutive playoffs-made streaks around the NHL:

(Damn, Pittsburgh. Penguins better get hot or that run is in jeopardy.)

Looking at that list, I see nine teams, six of which have won a Stanley Cup since 2010, five of whom have done it during their consecutive playoffs-made streak. If you’re good long enough, you usually have a season where things break right and you have a shot at it.

From there, though, the Leafs story may be the most-frequently told in the NHL. They haven’t just lost in the first round each time, they’ve lost in do-or-die, winner-take-all elimination games five years ago, four years ago, three years ago, two years ago and last year. Five straight game Game 7s (with the bubble year actually being a best-of-five).

So, going into this year, it was the same as it’s been for each follow-up season for fans: “We know they’re at least good, but what’s different, where are they better, how have they become a group that can get past the same hurdle that’s tripped them up so many times before?”

Now, 20-25 per cent into their season, I ask: What can you say this Leafs team is better at than those previous versions? Leafs fans have watched this team closely because of the high hopes and expectations over the past few years, so to your eye: What do they do better?

You likely don’t feel better about the goaltending than you did when it was prime Frederik Andersen in net, and while your mileage may vary on Jack Campbell, I don’t think many Leafs fans feel better about Matt Murray or Ilya Samsonov than they did about ol’ Soupy. At least not enough to say, “Here’s a spot they’ve improved markedly.”

Their offence is also languishing (it’s not merely better, it’s far worse), which has led to valid observations like this:

The two observations being that the team doesn’t score, but also that its defence maybe isn’t so bad.

Maybe it’s on D that they’re better?

First on the offence, though: If you’ve watched them against New Jersey and Vegas this season, you recognize that the days of the run-and-gun Leafs are here no more. They are not the “fast young team,” they don’t blow your hair back with pure speed, they don’t intimidate the opposition watching them zip around in the morning skate. They hang on to the puck and pick their spots, waiting for a break in the opposing defensive wall.

That’s OK, by the way. The Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished very little when they were finishing first in the league in scoring, but finally had meaningful success when they backed it off to about eighth and prioritized a 200-foot game.

But they backed it off to eighth, and not where the Leafs currently are, at 25th. Yes, there’s more to come in that department as a guy such as Auston Matthews has had a slow start, and former 35-goal-scorer Mitch Marner sits on pace for just 18. They’ll get rolling. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to vault them 20 spots up the league table in scoring, I don’t think.

The stats show that this season, despite more possession time, they’re creating less in just about every conceivable category:  

The other point above about the Leafs being quite good defensively: The lost narrative of these Leafs’ years is that they’ve been a good a defensive team, going on three seasons now. Last season, they were top-10 in expected goals against (eighth) just like they are this season (ninth). Last season, they got atrocious goaltending, and this year it’s been average or better (we’ll see how that holds), so their real goals against is better than last season, but they’ve played comparably.

But if I’m sticking with eye test, this team’s collective suppression of the opposing offence seems based on a few things: They have an excellent good group of defensive forwards. It was asked the other day on Real Kyper and Bourne who the Leafs’ worst defensive forward is, and it took some thinking to come up with suggestions. (William Nylander cheats for offence, but when he’s engaged in his defending, he’s got a great stick and is strong on the puck … but that’s not what this conversation is about, so let’s move on.)

They play a nice team style and still maintain possession at an elite level (it’s the one offensive category they’re a top team), so they don’t give up much. But their defence corps, player by player, still leaves something to be desired. Heading into the postseason without Jake Muzzin, and relying on Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Justin Holl and Morgan Rielly, I mean it’s not like you can’t envision defensive breakdowns under pressure from their group of D. It happens to all groups, but the Leafs do have a few D-men whose specialty isn’t playing in their own end.

Their special teams aren’t improved, so sure, if you want to say the Leafs are better defensively than previous seasons and that’s why they’re going to move past the first round, it might be your strongest leg to stand on.

The point I’m trying to make is, previous Leafs teams felt like a rising group with a high ceiling who could frustrate you trying to find it, but they would get there sometimes, and it would look incredible.

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This Leafs team feels like it has a lower ceiling – their best may not be as good as the best of previous Leafs teams – but they are more stable and can combat this issue with more consistency.

If you look at the list of teams who’ve made the playoffs many years in a row, in some cases, consistency just gets rewarded. The St. Louis Blues got rewarded for being good and hanging around repeatedly, despite just being one of the upper-middle tier teams, not the elite. The Washington Capitals weren’t blowing away the league the year they won. The Pittsburgh Penguins were flawed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting there and things going right.

If you’re a Leafs fan, maybe you can find some solace there. That this is a playoff team, that they do have some game-breakers, that they do defend well enough to win games. Maybe getting into the playoffs for a seventh straight time sees them get some bounces and win a few more games and go on a little run. It’s very possible, and I wouldn’t bet against it.

Still, the job of a GM and any pro sports team is to build a team with the highest possible ceiling that can be maintained for a prolonged stretch of games. This Leafs team, to my eye, does not have the same high ceiling it has had in the past. It’s a good team just about everywhere, that should even improve some. But it’s tough to watch them right now and say, “That’s a better team than they’ve been.”

Maybe just being good and in the playoffs yet again will make the difference.

Or maybe being just a little worse than previous versions that weren’t good enough won’t be good enough.

If you believe it’s the latter, then you likely believe the Leafs still need some roster changeups before they pass the trade deadline in March. It’s only through those transactions that we’ll learn what the Leafs front office really thinks of the group they’ve been watching thus far.

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