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The optimist and pessimist take on the state of the Leafs

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As the Leafs round into the final stretch, our two-sided look at the state of the team.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Forwards

Optimist: This season has gone even better than I’d hoped. Matthews is going to be the first Leaf to win the Calder since Brit Selby; Marner is going to finish third in the voting, and Nylander will finish with a statline that would have won the trophy most other years. We have the best crop of rookies since Selanne’s day.

And don’t discount the other pieces. Nazem Kadri is poised to score 30 goals as a shutdown centre. Tyler Bozak is on pace for a career high in points (seriously). Even with JVR’s recent cold spell, he’s an elite scoring winger, ready to either complement the core or facilitate a trade this summer. Connor Brown continues to be the best sixth-rounder in recent Leaf memory. shorthanded speedster Zach Hyman has been found money, and the Leafs have stabilized their depth with the quality addition of Brian Boyle. The Leafs are now at the point where they have more good wingers than they know what to do with, thanks to the emergence of Josh Leivo as a secondary scoring option. This is very possibly the deepest forward group in the—

Pessmist: THEY. CAN’T. PLAY. DEFENCE.

Optimist: Hey, it’s not your turn yet.

Pessimist: This is driving me nuts. Yes, they all produce, it’s a good offensive group, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, where do the Leafs rank in goals against? 400th? I’m pretty sure they’re below the better part of the ECHL in defensive effectiveness.

Optimist: Almost every forward in the current lineup is a positive in goals-for% at 5v5.

Pessimist: Except your Selke candidate Nazem Kadri. Shutdown centre! Anyway, sure, they narrowly outscore their problems some of the time. They can fulfill all of our dreams by becoming a younger, sexier version of the Dallas Stars. Whoop-dee-doo. They can have a bunch of first-round exits until Freddie Andersen has a psychotic break from the strain.

Optimist: Outscoring your opponent, you might have noticed, is the objective of the game. Despite that tired old defence-wins-championships line, you’re not any better off as the New Jersey Devils than you are being the Stars. Offensive talent is hard to come by in this league, and the Leafs have it in spades. Not to mention—it’s coming primarily from a group of rookies.

Pessimist: Wait, the Leafs have a lot of rookies? That’s surprising. You’d think someone would have mentioned it by now.

Optimist: There’s the thing—just because you’ve heard it a thousand times this year doesn’t make it untrue. (Isn’t it nice to have all the chatter be about rookies than about whether Kessel is too fat to skate or Bernier knows who Nelson Mandela is?) The Leafs have a very young core that’s already outplaying its opposition.

Pessimist: Sometimes, and sloppily.

Optimist: Which means as they improve, which they very probably will, this team is going to move towards dominance. They’re good and they’re getting better fast.

Pessimist: [watches another failed zone exit] Mhm.

The Defence

Pessimist:

Optimist: This is always the worst one.

Pessimist: Because the defence is bad, and impressively, somehow getting worse. Rielly-Zaitsev has been a failure as a top pairing, and you know it. How two physically gifted skaters and puck movers can turn into total spectators in their own end is a mystery of nature. If they were any more detached in the D-zone they’d be watching the play through opera glasses.

Oh, and Gardiner. Jake Gardiner, the hero to all you statheads, who gets caught pinching three times a power play and occasionally feathers the puck to opposing forwards just to make it interesting. I KNOW HE HAS GREAT CORSI!

Optimist: [closes mouth]

Pessimist: Look [massages temples], Jake Gardiner is a...let’s say “useful”...NHL defenceman. He produces. He does some things well. But a D-group led by him is not going to support a contending team, no matter what you nerds say every time he puts together three good games in a row. You need better than “net positive” for your first defender, and Jake Gardiner is never going to be more than that.

Optimist: How high a net positive is enough? Because Jake is killing it. He’s so far above the field in Corsi, expected goals, whatever you like, that it’s not even close. What about the actual goals being scored? In simple goals-for percentage, Jake is 20th among NHL defenders who have played 500 or more 5v5 minutes. And nine of the guys ahead of him play for Washington or Minnesota. I don’t care what you think of his style, I don’t care how often he gets caught on pinches, if he’s consistently producing a 60/40 split in goals—and his underlying numbers show he can—he’s functioning as a 1D. The end.

Pessimist: I notice you didn’t touch the Rielly-Zaitsev thing.

Optimist: A 22-year-old playing the hardest possible minutes and a guy who just crossed the Atlantic Ocean. They’re swimming in the deep water for the first time, give ‘em a bit before you declare them lost at sea.

Pessimist: Rielly has been having a great future for a very long time. Yes, he’s 22, but he’s approaching Young Tyler Bozak status in that we expect a growth that’s shown no signs of coming. He’s an offensive defenceman. That’s it. I’m not sure how good Zaitsev really is—he hasn’t been impressive defensively either—but he’s the latest of several partners who seem unable to bring Rielly to the next level. It isn’t going to happen.

Optimist: You make it sound like he’s been playing with Doughty or Karlsson. Rielly’s most recent partner was Matt Hunwick.

Pessimist: Who still plays for us. Do you want to talk about the third pair?

Optimist: Sure!

Pessimist: This should be good.

Optimist: Hunlak, as frustrating as they can be, wins the goals-for battle. If your third pair isn’t getting outscored, that’s good enough. Simple as that.

Pessimist: This is basically plus-minus. They both have insane on-ice save percentages that are masking how bad they are.

Optimist: [extremely David Johnson voice] Maybe because they’re pushing shots to the outside?

Pessimist: Look, analytics has established that—

[eight hours of argument later]

Pessimist: OKAY. FINE. FINE. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE.

Optimist: [cackles evilly]

The Goaltending

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Optimist: Frederik Andersen has been a quality starting goalie.

Pessimist: We made a very expensive trade for him, extended him on arrival, and he’s being outperformed by James Reimer this season. Pardon me while I swoon with excitement.

Optimist: He’s a competent starting goalie. Who, by the way, has played nearly double the number of games Reimer has, and who looks excellent when you adjust for shot quality—he’s 12th in goals saved above average among goalies with 30 or more appearances. The Leafs finally have someone they can rely on to take the bulk of the work.

Pessimist: Do they? Andersen’s month-to-month roller coaster has been a nauseating ride. Yes, he has those little stretches of Vezina-calibre play, and then he spends two weeks under .900. And not for nothing, but Jonathan Bernier was good his first season out of California, too. Better than Andersen, to judge by save percentage.

Optimist: Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. These are tiny variations in all-situations save percentage, they happen to everyone and they’re noise. Andersen is good enough for the job, and we no longer have to worry about our starter for the foreseeable future.

Pessimist: What about our backup?

Optimist: McElhinney’s been great.

Pessimist: I’m sure he suddenly learned how to be a good goalie at age 33. Let me tell you how this ends: the Leafs naively think he’s the safe option for backup, sign him for another year, and then he blows six or seven winnable games before getting the Enroth treatment in December.

Optimist: Goalies are unpredictable. Maybe it could go bad, but maybe it won’t. All you can really ask is to have guys who are good enough right now. Right now the Leafs do. Let’s go with that.

The Coach

Pessimist: Here a fun quote. From former Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice, now coaching the Jets:

“The mistakes that I’ve made, I did just a horrible job in relation to my colleague Mike Babcock in selling our age and the mistakes,” Maurice said. “So, when they've lost a game it’s just a wonderful learning experience, and they win it's a triumph of character, and we have the opposite thing going on here, right. But that's my choice because I don’t ever want to walk into a season and say we aren't here to win the Stanley Cup.”

Be honest with yourself, now. Has Mike Babcock done a good job managing the Leafs this year—or has he done a better job managing the Toronto media?

For all his vaunted coaching acumen, Mike Babcock has not succeeded in teaching this Leafs’ team to play defence. He’s gotten great offensive work out of his rookies, sure, but a series of now-fired Edmonton coaches got offensive production out of lottery picks. He’s put up a mediocre team that’s going to narrowly miss the playoffs thanks to a late-season collapse and an inability to hold leads. And instead of calling for his head, people are calling for him to win the Jack Adams.

Optimist: Since 2008, no last place team has had more than 81 points the following season. And none of them have made the playoffs. Babcock’s team will almost certainly break the point-a-game barrier and they may easily still make the postseason. Babcock managed expectations, yes, because he had to deal with a fever-mad media that continually wants to either plan parades or fire everyone employed by the franchise.

Disentangle the two things. Mike Babcock has managed the media, which is part of his job—and Maurice, by the way, may well be bitter at his failure to do it so well during his Toronto tenure. Babs has also been improving the team as fast as you can reasonably hope. Was Babcock supposed to win the Cup a year out from the draft lottery? Of course not. The last two years have gone almost exactly according to plan, and Maurice’s bitterness over his goalies ruining his team yet again doesn’t change that.

The Front Office

2016 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pessimist: Boy, that was a great deadline, eh? We traded a decent AHL player and a second for a rental fourth-line centre. And we traded Frank Corrado after reducing his value to zero. We picked up the remains of Eric Fehr, the remains of Eric Fehr’s contract, and a fourth. Yay.

Optimist: These were small but solid moves. The Leafs upgraded their C depth nicely at a very manageable price—they’re still drafting in the second round, and now they have present-tense help. They also leveraged their cap space to add additional picks. For all the crowing over Frank Corrado, he cleared waivers a few weeks ago and the Pens immediately stashed him in the AHL. If he has so much value, you’d think an NHL GM would have seen it by now.

Pessimist: Here’s how these trades likely work out: Boyle walks in the summer to go chase a Stanley Cup (because he has the brains to know Toronto won’t get him one), Fehr takes over as a “solid” 4C, the kind you can find on waivers every two weeks, and we lose cap flexibility. We’re out a 2nd and up a 4th. Good work, Lou!

Optimist: If they’re really squeezed for cap, the Leafs can demote Fehr and get relief for nearly half the price of his one-year-remaining contract. I can’t see how they’re going to even reach that point—the Leafs have way more cap than they’ll need next year, which is why it makes perfect sense to use it to buy a pick. Is a fourth worth paying a guy $2M? Sure, when you have money and cap to burn. As for Boyle, he may just as easily stick around, and then the Leafs can finally put all those terrible Ben Smith/Frederik Gauthier/Peter Holland debates to bed.

Pessimist: Oh good, so he might stay. I’m excited for Boyle to sign a Cal Clutterbuck contract starting at age 33. Anyway, at least we didn’t do anything rash, like stabilize our defence or make the JVR trade we all know is necessary.

Optimist: Easier to do both those things after the expansion draft.

Pessimist: ...honestly I’m just mad the deadline was boring.

Outlook

Optimist: The Leafs are in the playoff hunt heading into the home stretch led by great rookie performances. What more can you ask for at this stage of the rebuild?

Pessimist: Micah McCurdy has a thing he calls a “sadness index”, which is the risk that a team will both miss the playoffs and miss out on a top five pick. The Leafs, at time of writing, are at a 64% chance of sadness, and rising. It seems very likely all this not-good-enough-improvement is going to do is ruin the Leafs’ first overall draft choice. The Leafs can return to their post-2005 normal: not good enough to make the post-season, not bad enough to improve. I’m glad you like this lineup, because more help isn’t coming.

Optimist: At some point you have to stop losing. We’ve stopped losing, and started rising. The league is watching us and soon they’re going to fear us, whether or not we make the playoffs this year—which we’re more than good enough to do.

Pessimist: I eagerly await being eliminated in game 79 when the Leafs lose their 14th shootout.