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PPP Roundtable: Sober reflections on the state of the Maple Leafs

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We convened the Senate for sober second thoughts on the Maple Leafs, their season, and their recent play.

Toronto Maple Leafs Introduce John Tavares Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Today we are considering three key questions about the Maple Leafs and how we got from a summer of hopes, tempered with a few concerns, to where we are now:

Is it the Players?

Fulemin: It's always to some extent the players, and you can never count out the role of individual failure. But the issues are pronounced across multiple players who used to be better at things like "generating high quality chances" and "not looking like they got dropped in a jungle without a map in the d zone." I would not look to the players as the first party responsible.

Arvind: To a degree, yes. Many Leafs players are, frankly, not doing a whole lot. It’s easier to name the ones that have met or exceeded expectations: Matthews, Nylander, Kerfoot, Mikheyev, Holl, possibly Andersen. That’s the list, and I’m being generous to the last three. Of course, when huge swaths of a team underperform, the natural place to look is the coach (see below), but it’s undeniable that the players have to own this, particularly the top four defensemen, who have all been varying degrees of disappointing.

seldo: Before I answer I want to shape my frame of mind as I answer these questions. I’m working 3 jobs and managing the household while my wife finishes university. I am exhausted and my brain is dead by the time a Leafs game comes on and all I ask is to be entertained. That’s it. Win, lose, tie, whatever, just entertain me. Are these players doing that? Very rarely. Are they part of the problem? Yes. Are they unhappy with the coach? Maybe, but you can’t just not try because you don’t like the coach. Prove the state of the team isn’t on you by playing to your full potential and, in some cases, to your eight figure salary. Some of you are paid too much to point to a guy making 1/6th your salary as the reason the top line hasn’t been playing as one. Do your damn jobs.

Katya: So here’s my question. Anyone miss Mitch Marner? Other than the PP sucking a little more, and the third line losing Kapanen, what the hell is the deal that Marner’s contributions so far this year have been so slight that you really can replace him with Kapanen? Alexander Kerfoot leaves a bigger hole. And while I’m here, what the hell is John Tavares doing? Sure some of the systems/weirdness/offensive choices play against him being at his most effective, but he’s barely more useful than Kerfoot.

I’m not here to rank who is most guilty, or to decide who to blame the most. I’m here to point fingers and yell at everyone who is part of the problem, and the players sure are. I don’t care one bit what the fourth line does or who is on it, nor do I blame the backup goalies for being who they are, but even Auston Matthews and William Nylander, who are carrying this team, make no mistake, are absolute ass in the defensive zone. And no one told them to do that.

Brigstew: Yes. We know what the players are capable of, and that they can be better. It should not take coaching or GM trades/signings for these players to not make some of the — frankly — idiotic decisions with and without the puck. They’ve been in most games, what is losing them games is mostly miscues and mistakes that they shouldn’t make, and that the other team doesn’t seem to be making as much. And despite point totals we have been looking at their star players all year and wondering what’s wrong, whether it’s Tavares, Marner, Rielly, Andersen, Barrie, etc.

taaeeve: In part, yes. Hockey is a team sport and we obviously can and should consider the fact that the team as a whole has been underperforming, and pick out trends that are occurring across all players, regardless of line. However, there are still players that have been performing well despite this (i.e. Matthews, Nylander, Kerfoot, November-Freddie), which really undermines any attempt to use their collective failure as an excuse for individual poor performance, especially for the star players. There are no reasons for players that have been here for years, on this team and under this coach, to have somehow, over the course of the summer, completely forgotten how the game of hockey should be played. Whoever your boss is, whatever the situation around you might be, you are, in the end, the person the most responsible for your own performance and your own output.

Hardev: I think there’s an issue separate from lineup decisions and usage and all that, that the leaders on the team are failing to push their teammates to give a full effort every night. This is Tavares, Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Muzzin. The coach can only say so much to his players, but if the leaders aren’t going out and leading the team with energy and fight, no one else down the lineup is going to follow.

Omar: They have to be part of the reason for all of this. Some of the things the Leafs have done as far as execution goes at either end of the ice has been shocking and it goes beyond missing the net. Many have pointed at the openness of the slot, the number of turnovers, and their actual actual ‘Give a You-Know-What’ (which is scary to process given the last time we thought about this), but the most significant is how scary they look in their own zone.

The Babcock way is playing man-to-man and the Leafs legitimately look as if they don’t know who they’re supposed to cover. One person goes after one opponent, another goes after the same one minutes later and the next thing you know someone is slamming their stick looking for the pass. You could file that under coaching but several players on the team have made some inexcusable mistakes.

Is it the Coaching?

Fulemin: Either a) this is going to get better; b) the coaches are devising a system which does not work; or c) the coaches cannot impose a working system. The ongoing nature of this problem is hurting the credibility of a) as an answer and neither b) or c) suggest much very good about the coaches. Short answer: yes.

Arvind: Yes. I don’t believe that Babcock is intentionally telling the team to play more defensive and stifling them that way. He spent three years leaning one direction, and then changed 180 degrees all of a sudden, despite the roster leaning even further into that all offense mould? That doesn’t pass the sniff test to me. That said, the results are what they are. We’re 20+ games in - it’s not that early anymore. This is who the Leafs are, and who they are is a team that is not performing well at any phase of the game.

We can point to some eye-tested systemic changes and hypothesize that they’ve ruined everything. Maybe the stretch passes were the key to everything! Maybe the point shot safety valve is becoming over-centralizing and not leading to the tips and scrambles it’s supposed to. Regardless, it’s on the coaching staff to make changes to fix it. It’s not an easy job, but that’s why they’re millionaires. In the last handful of games in particular, the Leafs have been horrible defensively without actually getting the offence back on track. Whatever they’re trying on that end has not really worked.

I also want to take a second to talk about the power play. That falls on the coaches more than anything else to me, because it’s very clear that the tactics changed from last season to this, and certainly not for the better. That is reportedly the domain of the assistants, but ultimately, the buck stops with the head coach, and it’s not a good look for Babcock right now.

seldo: Yes. Something isn’t working, and what’s being changed? Why are select players being held accountable mid-game and not others? Why is the power play ass? Why did they give up multiple two on ones to the goddamn Penguins penalty kill? We were all happy to see DJ Smith and Jim Hiller get shitcanned because hey maybe they were the issue, but nope, nothing’s improved.

Katya: So here’s my problem with the popular Fire!Babcock narratives. This team keeps finding new and different ways to be terrible. There’s the early part of the season where they seemed afraid to get too close to opposing goalies, but the defending was okay (grading on a Leafs curve). Then, when they kept losing the one-goal games they were in (because the offence sucked), suddenly it’s been total chaos out there. Massive pace, guys skating all over like they have fire ants in their jock, and the defending becomes something that Phil Kessel would look on as maybe not quite up to snuff.

I think Babcock devised a system around the players Dubas produced, put it to work, and it turned out they’d rebuilt the engine out of the Ferrari, and now the car runs like an old Dodge. Then they all just shrugged and kept driving, hoping it might go faster because they believed hard in themselves. If this recent playing style is by design as a cure, stop it, the patient is dead. This is Babcock’s sole responsibility, to manage the entire staff and to respond to changing dynamics, and so far this season, he’s really bad at it to the point that it’s impossible to tell if these players are any good or not. Try playing something resembling NHL hockey for a game or two, coach.

But having said all that, where the hell is the famous, expensive and so much better than every other team’s analytics department, eh? Where’s the evidence-based thinking on playing systems? Where exactly are all the nerds? I’m sure many want to claim they’re locked in a closet not being heard, but we simply know that’s not true about Babcock. Why the hell are the Leafs defenders shooting the puck so much? One might start asking if the guy who traded for two shot-happy guys in Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie thinks it’s a good idea.

Brigstew: Yes. I am not a coaching or systems expert, but I think we can all agree that there are some problems when it comes to things that seem to be coaching-centric. Like special teams, for example. McFarland came in with much fanfare for the power play work he had done for the Panthers and OHL teams in the past, and yet their power play has looked... meh, if not bad at times. Hakstol came with head coaching experience with a team that took too many point shots, and now suddenly the Leafs are taking too many point shots. I will not excuse Babcock either, because he is the head coach after all. I don’t think he suddenly became an idiot, and I’m sure he can see any problems that we have, but so far it sure hasn’t seemed like they’ve started showing areas of improvement.

taaeeve: Yes. I don’t think that the team’s incredibly baffling degree of suckitude can be laid entirely to rest on Babcock’s shoulders, but when such a huge part of the team’s failure to succeed in any meaningful way results from the complete collapse of systems such as the powerplay, the vague concept of defence, and whatever nightmare our shooting positioning has become, that falls on the coaching staff. It’s interesting, because we’ve seen Babcock coach this team for years now, and I don’t think the lineup shifted to such an intense degree over the summer that the team as it currently exists could be significantly delineated from the ones he’s coached here in Toronto over the last couple of years. I’ve had a lot of issues with him over that time period, but he has won with this team. Last season in fact, they won rather a lot. So while I do lay a lot of blame on the coaching staff, I still don’t understand the why of it.

Hardev: Yes, and I’ll reiterate what Brigstew is saying above me. I don’t trust the assistant coaches. If Babcock was such an awful offensive coach that stifled his team, why were they a top top offensive team for years? The Nazem Kadri trade hurt, but Kerfoot has done a tremendous job. The main change is from Jim Hiller and DJ Smith to McFarland and Hakstol. I don’t trust these guys because the problems they had on their old teams seem to have followed them here when Dubas hired them. And speaking of...

Omar: Yes, I don’t believe Babcock is using the players on the team the way they “need” to be used. I’ll try to be careful with that previous sentence but Babcock is trying to have the Leafs play a way that I don’t think they’re interested in. We’ve been drooling over the offence of the team and what they’re able to do when in control of play yet it’s mostly been an attempt at low-event hockey.

That’s not enough to point the finger at Babcock. My biggest frustration with him is his lack for change. Take Saturday’s disaster for example. Despite everything that happened, we saw the same forward and defence combinations. There’s a strong reluctance from Babcock to change things up and when he does, it’s usually too late.

Is it Kyle Dubas?

Fulemin: Kyle Dubas is not perfect. I don't think he owns the team's best players increasingly not looking like it, though. The backup goalie situation you might lay at his door, but he's made defensible moves on that that haven't worked. The PP is now a disaster and maybe he does own that for having hired an assistant coach who seems to have damaged the unit's performance. But I don't hold him responsible for the 5v5 issues, and those are the worst.

Arvind: He has definitely made mistakes. I think we’ve been too kind for him on the Marner deal. It is absolutely awful. No one held a gun to his head and made him sign that. No one made him sign Ceci for 200k more than his QO (man, that 200k would be helpful to get a backup goalie who isn’t complete ass). As Katya points out above, I think he’s gotten nerd cred for a lot of stuff that hasn’t really been borne out in an obvious way yet. If the Leafs have some secret sauce in their analytics department that is giving them an edge in hockey ops, it hasn’t been particularly apparent so far, nor have they differentiated themselves in a positive way from a reasonably smart fan who has a subscription to HockeyViz and EvolvingHockey.

That said, I think Dubas is the least culpable right now. Just about every projection system in the world had the Leafs in the top 10 of NHL teams in the preseason, and many had them in the top 5, or even top 3. The roster is not perfect, but no NHL roster is. There was a reason we were optimistic heading into this year.

seldo: He’s a shit negotiator, can’t evaluate a goalie to save his life, and hopefully has learned you can’t coast on a Calder Cup like you can a Stanley Cup. Aside from bringing up some Marlies and signing some free wallets, all I can do to sum up things lately is post this gif:

Katya: I found myself asking if this team is intentionally taking a bit of a step back this season, and I picked that photo up there deliberately, because here’s rule number one: You don’t piss away a season of John Tavares. But there were cap considerations that you can’t just pretend aren’t real because you’re mad, and maybe the choice was to deal off Kadri when he has value (whoops on that timing) and rearrange the pieces and be about as good as last year. It just turned into the deck chairs on the Titanic by accident.

The fact that I’m not sure is not a ringing endorsement of the man overall. Yes, he drafts short people, so he is good and pure, but holy moly was this goalie thing a cock up, and it’s been going on for his entire term as GM because that Sparks nonsense was nonsense. I don’t give a rat’s anything how good he was in the AHL, if the coach hates the backup, GET RID OF HIM. What the hell are you doing getting your, uh, brass plaque out and polishing it over something that asinine? This goes double for Justin Holl. Why the hell did Dubas not just put that guy in the AHL last year? He was not at all better than the rest of the choices, so poof, back you go. Stop being so damn terrified of waivers. I’m not on team “bad negotiator” but I can see he spends way too much time managing the marginal assets. And when he went out shopping for defenders, he got exactly the wrong kind in Tyson Barrie.

Do the Marlies have a fantastic collection of AHL-NHL tweeners? Yeah, they do. Are any of them capable of filling a spot on the third line where it freaking well matters? No, they aren’t, and Dubas was trying to trade the only one who is good enough. Imagine if he’d managed to move Nic Petan? Right now this team has to rise and fall on the top six and a half, because, for real now, Egor Korshkov is the best forward prospect even in sniffing distance of the NHL. Carve that into brass and nail it to your office door.

Brigstew: Yes. My opinions on this come from what I’ve read from Katya, to be clear here. I know finding goalies isn’t easy. I know he inherited bad contracts and cap troubles that he did not make. I know he seems to have hit some home runs on drafting with Sandin and Robertson both as later picks (though they haven’t stuck in the NHL yet). And yet he made a lot of depth moves, with none of them seeming to pan out... except for maybe Mikheyev, and even he’s been a bit invisible lately. Shore, Spezza, Gauthier, Moore, Timashov, Marincin, Petan, Lindholm, Ozhiganov, Holl, Sparks, Hutchinson, Kaskisuo, whoever else you can think of on their bottom lines/pairings/backup goalies have simply not been good enough. I don’t know if he ever plans to try some of the other depth that hasn’t played on the Leafs in the NHL yet, but I think at this point we can try something else. And while I think it’s unfair to expect depth guys to be difference makers when the star players aren’t carrying their weight, I’d also like them to be better than they have been.

taaeeve: My kingdom for Dubas to have handled the Marner negotiation better but overall, no, I don’t think so. Obviously he’s not perfect (see: Barrie, Tyson and Backup Goalie, All Of Them) but I don’t think that he’s mismanaged this team, and the players he’s chosen to put on it, to the point where what has happened this year can be pinned on those moves. Our defence has been terrible forever, and while I would have really liked for it to have gotten significantly better, we’ve made it work before with worse. I think the most damning thing that is currently affecting this team’s performance, and is completely on him, is the backup situation. Even then, I would point to the fact that Sparks sucked last year, and they still managed to eke out wins in front of him. And I think that’s the crux of my confusion: that there has not been enough of a seismic shift in any single part of this team – from coaching to players to staff – to easily explain the incredible drop in quality of play. So who knows, maybe it’s just a massive superstorm of all three of these factors joining together in a black, billowing cloud that completely obscures diagnosis and exists only to absolutely wipe out our hopes and dreams.

Hardev: The lore of Kyle Dubas was that he could find bottom of the lineup players that can outperform expectation. That hasn’t happened this year. I’m going to give the fourth line a bit of a break, as the coaching staff are giving them less than 5% zone starts this season, and it’s hard to do much with that, but the whole bottom six needs to provide more. Trevor Moore has been the worst forward on the team and yet I feel he’s earned a spot in the lineup for life. Hope he heals up that shoulder, though.

I want the Leafs to be meaner. Bring some truculence, or whatever they’re calling it these days! It’s not about fighting (it never is), but this team needs a level of aggressiveness and urgency that I’m not seeing anywhere in the lineup. Energy, fight, intimidation. The things teams have been doing to us all season. But before I go too far, let me be clear that this needs to be skill with the presence of toughness, not toughness with the presence of skill. Bring in some size that can move the puck, be creative, but also shove guys after a whistle and look like they mean it. Small is fun and looks fast on the ice, but there are a couple of giraffes on the Marlies that can move just as well. Call up Pierre Engvall, Egor Korshkov, and Garrett Wilson. Maybe find space for Kenny Agostino, Tyler Gaudet, and perhaps even give Matt Read an NHL contract. See what they have, that’s why you signed them, right, Kyle?

Omar: Dubas was active over the summer signing depth, adding Kerfoot and Barrie, and dealing with all the evil money stuff. Considering the perception of the Leafs ahead of the season and what they are now, he can’t be absolved from this.

It doesn’t take a lot to figure out the disconnect between Dubas and Babcock in the sense of playing style. The question is whether Dubas talked to Babcock about the style he wants for the Leafs or if he’s hoping the head coach changes his tune. Will it? Who knows.