Monday's game against Boston was the Maple Leafs 22nd game of the regular season.
The Leafs are now in the middle of nearly a full week off, before their next game.
We here at Pension Plan Puppets Light Heavy Manufacturing and Pug Ranch LLC GmbH decided to use the week off to take a look back at the first quarter of the season, and how the Leafs have performed relative to our expectations. We also tried to highlight some of the things that caught our eye - good or bad - and look ahead to what we might expect as the season goes on.
However, since we're positively inept at regularly scheduling podcasts regularly, and we have a lot of voices here at PPP, we decided to convene a round table of sorts to talk about what we think of the Leafs season so far.
After the first quarter of the season, what is our initial impression of the team?
elseldo: A group of regular Leafs and filler who have improved as a team under a new coach and don't make me feel sad.
Charlotte's Webster: I find the narrative being tossed around that the team is a rag-tag group of nobodies being coached to adequacy by Babcock somewhat unsatisfying. To be clear, Babcock's done an excellent job thus far - this is a well-coached team, especially in comparison to years' past. But it's worth noting that while we don't have a lot of prototypical top-six talent, a large portion of our forward lineup are above-average possession players, and the results from that perspective aren't entirely attributable to coaching.
Scott Wheeler: The team itself is pretty much exactly what we expected them to be.
FiftyMissionCap: They are who we thought they were!
Scott Wheeler: The goaltending has been inconsistent but largely solid. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are starting to thrive. Up front, it's scoring by committee and it will continue to be a struggle for the team to win high-scoring games.
FiftyMissionCap: They're definitely a work in progress, and currently lacking in top-end talent. They're actually playing a coherent system this season, and most nights it looks as though they're improving but it is clear there's still a ways to go.
Achariya: "Confidence" is the first word that comes to mind. From the start of the season Babcock has said that in certain losses that he's "like how they played" and that "scoring would come". It's nice to know that his words ring true, and that the team is now getting recognition from players like Patrick Sharp (who noted this team plays "exactly like the Red Wings"); wouldn't you say that some of the difference is just confidence?
clrkaitken: You can definitely see Babcock's system taking hold and a lot of the team has been buying in and shaking off the bad habits that set in under Carlyle hockey. The team certainly isn't dynamic but that 's a function of a lack of top-end skill; this team works hard which was sort of the point this season.
JP NIkota: They're losing "the right way". Good systems are being implemented, good players are getting a chance to shine and a decent work ethic is obvious. The fact the team is losing isn't surprising since hey, they're bad, but that's okay.
How do we feel about Mike Babcock's job as head coach so far?
FiftyMissionCap: Based on initial returns, I'd give him an A-. The biggest changes have been the littlest things. I'm noticing a Leafs team that is strong on the fore-check, persistent in its pursuit of the puck, actually putting pressure on defenders in the attacking zone, and cycling the puck. What has really impressed me is how the holdovers from the previous regime have taken to the new systems.
clrkaitken It's night and day watching the team in its own end compared this team played defence under basically everybody going back to at least Paul Maurice. The team's not getting caught running around without a plan nearly as much anymore - goals against typically result in individual mistakes rather than major clusterfucks - and they are just so much more composed tryig to move the puck out of the zone.
JP Nikota: He's dramatically improved the Leafs' ability to get our of their own zone with control of the puck. Specifically, he's forced them to make short passes that can be easily made because of the structure of the D-zone system, and they break out more as a unit that they did last year.
Scott Wheeler: More than anything else, Babcock's player deployment has been much improved on his predecesors. Rielly has played increased minutes at Dion Phaneuf's expense, Tyler Bozak has seen his minutes reduced, Nazem Kadri is playing with good linemates and leads all forwards in TOI. It hasn't been perfect, though.
clrkaitken: I don't understand how Byron Froese is in the lineup. Like, at all.
Achariya: Babcock is a smart bastard. I noticed this in the playoffs last season against Tampa Bay; everything that he could possibly coach (line deployment, personnel on special teams, faceoffs, systems) he would coach to perfection. You notice it in his curious choices.
Why does he play Froese? He seems to like Froese because he's flexible (can play RW or C), he's good at faceoffs and the penalty kill, and he's competitive and has good hockey sense (Babcock's words). Do we see all those things on the ice? I don't, but Babcock does. It warrants a closer look at Froese's deployment.
Charlotte's Webster: Tactically, it's hard to argue. He's made clear adjustments to the team's structure, and is notably leaning on the players who we'd see as part of our core going forward.
I also want to point out that special teams have been impressive. Our powerplay takes shots like crazy and our PK suppresses shots well. There's a tendency to focus on even-strength play when it comes to coaching, but having good special teams is valuable, and is often reflective of good coaching.
Has anything happened in the first two months of the season to change your outlook for this year?
FiftyMissionCap: Not particularly. I predicted there would be a lack of talent and an improved possession game. I likened the team's offence to 2008-09, a bad roster without elite talent that had decent possession numbers.
At the start of the year I thought this team would be in the hunt for a playoff spot (but would miss) if they got decent goaltending. I don't see much reason to deviate from that now. I still think the postseason is out of the question, but I won't rule out that the Leafs may surprise a lot of people if Reimer continues to have a good season and/or Bernier bounces back.
Achariya: They are winning more than I thought they would this early. It makes me feel that maybe Babcock's not totally off-base when he talked about claiming a spot in the playoffs, especially in a division as weak as the Atlantic.
JP Nikota: The only concern I have right is that the Leafs have been on the wrong side of the Corsi battle for a number of games now, and I hope that this doesn't become a larger trend.
elseldo: I was coming into this season ready to hate everything once again, but I've moved up to just... feeling nothing. Yes, that is an improvement. When the team's winning, it's interesting to watch. When they're not, you can check out and see how the Marlies are doing
Charlotte's Webster: We lost so much at the beginning of the year that I think a playoff run is realistically out of the picture. We'd need to play exceedingly well to make it, which likely isn't happening when you consider how the team likely gets stripped for draft picks at the trade deadline. While I'm not on team tank, I think the rest of the year will focus on learning more about our players and getting a high draft pick.
clrkaitken: I think my biggest change has been that the team is working toward two goals that are kind of opposite one another - acquiring a number of vets on cheap deals to flip for draft picks, while also over-ripening players in the AHL for development.
This Marlies team is stupid good right now, and there are handful of guys that have done their time apprenticing in the AHL (Stuart Percy, Josh Leivo, Richard Panik). They're at the point where they're ready to move up to the NHL and because the roster is flooded with interchangeable guys like Brad Boyes, Nick Spaling, Michael Grabner they'll need to move somebody before one can be called up.
Also since these guys keep rotating in and out of the lineup because they're not really establishing their place, it's hard to argue they're going to fetch much return (see; David Booth last season). P.A. Parenteau and Shawn Matthias are arguably the only ones that have entrenched themselves in the lineup.
Finish this sentence; by the end of the year, the Maple Leafs will have __________?
Charlotte's Webster: A lot more work to do.
elseldo: Won Mike Babcock the Jack Adams.
Scott Wheeler: A top-five pick in next summer's Draft.
JP Nikota: A top-ten draft, but probably not one in the top-five.
clrkaitken: Some really interesting decisions to make for next year's roster.
Achariya: A chance!
FiftyMissionCap: A set style of play and an identity. That's all this year is about, really.