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Miscellaneous Leaf Thoughts: Catch Me Doctor, I’m In A Swoon

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Nylander, Babcock and more.

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NHL: New York Islanders at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

1. Why the Leaf no play good? The Toronto Maple Leafs are 4-6-0 in their last ten games. This is upsetting!

Now, the Leafs are also still second in the Atlantic Conference, and they did play notably well against the best team in the universe on Thursday (and won!) But that’s not the point. We lost, we are sad.

I’m not telling anyone not to feel feelings or anything, but could I maybe suggest something: scale your upset a little bit. Here is a convenient 1-10 scale for Leafs Upset.

1: Auston Matthews only scores two goals in a game

2: The Leafs win based off only trying for ten minutes in the third period

3: Garret Sparks (he just makes people upset)

4: The Leafs lose to a bad team, but it’s mostly goaltending

5: The Leafs lose to a bad team, and they look like ass butt

6: The Leafs lose two out of three

7: The Leafs lose six out of seven

8: The Leafs lose like twenty consecutive times

9: Dave Nonis is hired to come in and clean up the mess

10: DAVID CLARKSON IS BACK

11: You know who would be a good fit for the coaching job? Randy Carlyle.

15: This team needs to play with pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence

28: Scientists have figured out how to raise the dead, and for some reason they resurrected Harold Ballard!

57: I WILL SHOW YOU FEAR IN A HANDFUL OF DUST

999: The movie-watching-with-eyelids-pinned open scene from Clockwork Orange but it’s just different Leafs playoff losses to Boston, forever

2. Phew. Again, it’s legit to be unhappy the Leafs are losing, or when they display dangerous flaws. It’s also totally good to question why that might be (see below). But it feels a little early to go all the way to 999 on the 1-10 scale, the way everyone wants to do.

3. But seriously what the hell is going on with William Nylander, Part I? It’s simple. William Nylander was on an expedition to Egypt with a ragtag group of anthropologists and adventurers. He cracked the tomb of an ancient pharaoh. The curse of Akhenaten descended upon him, and now he will never score again.

No? All right, well, let’s start with the easy numbers. Nylander’s shot totals are excellent. He’s the best expected goals player on the team, according to Corsica. He is shooting 3%. The pat answer here is that he’s not a 3% shooter (I agree) and this will bounce back, and it will be fine. Don’t worry. Be happy.

There is something that stands out in William Nylander’s numbers, though, and it’s exactly what the eye test would tell you. At 5v5, on a rate basis, he misses more shots than anyone on the team. Now, some of this is a function of taking a lot of shots—Nazem Kadri and Auston Matthews also miss the net bunches, but they hit the net way more than Nylander does. If you compare missed shots to shots on goal, Nylander’s rate is unnervingly high, and exceeded only by offensively limited forwards like Connor Brown and Par Lindholm. This is not the company Nylander should be keeping statistically.

The notable thing about this is that while Nylander has always missed his share of shots, he’s missing way more of them this year than last (4.73 missed shots per 60 at 5v5 rather than 3.25 last season.) He is not permanently bad at this. And in case you forgot, he clears 60 points two years running.

4. But seriously what the hell is going on with William Nylander, Part II? The baffling thing to me has been that in recent games—the Florida game notwithstanding, where the whole team was trash—he’s looked like he’s playing pretty well! He’s making an intense effort. He’s trying to get in on the forecheck, to play good defence. He’s carrying through the neutral zone as well as ever. Sometimes he seems to hold onto the puck too long waiting for the perfect play, which is a problem, but he also has the skills to hold onto it longer than the vast majority of players. It’s just he can’t hit the fucking net.

Armchair psych is always dangerous, but I think there’s a decent amount of evidence that William Nylander is overthinking the hell out of his game. It’s hard to blame him.

He sure looks like he’s trying to go top corner every shot, or like he’s waiting for that perfect pass, and he’s telling himself he just has to be better. This is pretty understandable, and it’s also probably making his life a lot harder. So after all that? My advice to Nylander would be the same as coaches have given to slumping players since time immemorial.

Pucks on net. Shoot for the pads. Shoot it right at the goalie if you have to. Just put it on net without thinking, again, and again. Given the rate at which he gets good shot locations, and the quality of his numbers in other aspects, there’s no point trying to fix the things that ain’t broke. A shot that misses the net isn’t going in. A shot on target—even a bad one—might.

And, well, once a few of those do, you’re off to the races.

5. What is going on with Auston Matthews? He’s shooting slightly less than he was at the start of the year and he’s not shooting at an insane percentage anymore. Neither difference is enough that I’m really worried. And it’s worth noting that he recently got a linemate to whom it makes sense to defer shots to now and then, even if William doesn’t seem to be hitting the net at the moment.

6. Is Mike Babcock doing a decent job? This is a results business, as people are fond of saying, and lately the results have been a disappointment for a team that views itself as a contender.

The complaints about Babcock are basically

a) The system is bad

b) He’s too quick to lean on certain types of lesser forward players when things aren’t going well

c) He’s too bound to his defence pairings

The system is imperfect, and yet it gets more shot results (and good goal results) often than not; there are times when the Leafs look stifled, and yet every team has its off nights. I think Babcock is a little too quick to go to Connor Brown, who just doesn’t add much offensive spark anywhere, but I also think the line blender is a pretty natural tool for a coach when things aren’t going well.

Does he overrely on Hainsey and Zaitsev? Yes, I think he does.

A lot of this is due to limited options. I will be honest and say I would not expect Travis Dermott is going to sustain his results playing on his off side top four. Would he be better than Hainsey at this point? Probably. Is Justin Holl going to come in and make a major difference? I doubt it.

All the same, I think every fanbase has problems with every coach of this nature. These all tend to be strong-willed men (so far they’re all men) who grinded their way up the ranks. Without a lot of self-confidence, a willingness to stick to their guns, they wouldn’t be in the NHL.

So I think every coach is going to have idiosyncracies. You can call them out and want him to change them. Yet I’ve seen Mike Babcock change his mind over time, and change his use of players (e.g. Leo Komarov and Matt Martin last year), and in the end I think Mike Babcock is a clear net positive as a coach. I have no one I’d want to replace him with, and to be honest, I don’t think I’m anywhere close to changing my mind on that.

7. Effort! Okay, enough nerd chitchat, the team just needs to get it together and PLAY LIKE THEY MEAN IT!

This is the answer on sports talk radio and half the Internet every time the team loses twice. And you know what? Sometimes I think the team just doesn’t try all that hard. Justin Bourne had a piece about this lately where he talked about the team sometimes making the easier, or higher-risk choice, over the more coach-approved play. This is pretty understandable even if it’s not laudable. The season is long. The Leafs (still) very reasonably expect to be a playoff team. If the Leafs had peak Scotty Bowman behind the bench I still wouldn’t think the second night of a back-to-back against a wimpy Florida team in January was going to get the adrenaline pumping to max.

It sucks. It sucks especially if you paid to watch the game. It’s brutal. But it happens. It’s on the coach to some extent to make sure it doesn’t happen too often, and sometimes that does mean giving some players a kick in the ass—this is why I cut Babcock some slack for his line blender in games where the team doesn’t have it. If this is a recurring problem, and this slump does turn into a spiral, Babcock will have to own that. I don’t think it’ll happen.

8. This is the bullet where I remind you the Leafs were playing their third-string goalie for a lot of the past month. He was fine. But just saying.

9. The Leafs are still second in the Atlantic. It’s not a cozy, comfortable lead, and I want them to steady. Even good teams slump, though, and if this is the depths of the slump, they’ll survive if just fine.

If they lose to Arizona I’m gonna be livid, though.