Hi everyone! I’m tired of this team losing as much as it does. I could go into reasons and preamble and all that jazz but we’ve done so very much of that. The Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club and Entertainment Conglomerate has decided to repeatedly trip over its own dick in a season where it was explicitly not supposed to dick-trip until April, in Boston, at the earliest. So here are some thoughts real quick. They may not quite have my usual analytic reserve.
1. At some point you have to fire somebody. Coaching is ultimately a question of results. The results have been ass. As an oh-so-clever numbers-based franchise we ought to be process-oriented but the process also appears to be bad unless you are exceedingly fond of Tyson Barrie denting the end boards with more loud, rubbery failure. In those rare moments I get perspective on this infinitely frustrating team, I can appreciate the humour in a nerd site finally getting its nerdy GM and having the team promptly turning into a Corsi monster that achieves jack shit else. Aside from those moments, though, I have one recurring thought: this ain’t good enough.
Mike Babcock gets blamed for his roster and his interview quotes and a thousand things that are either not his fault or not faulty. That only excuses him so much when the team loses, at last count, 398 regulation games in a row. This team has too many players who are too good for them to be this bad, at 5v5, on the powerplay, and whenever else. The assistant coaches Paul MacFarland and Dave Hakstol seem to have had their own entry coincide with a sharp and embarrassing decline, and I’m not married to either having continuing employment, but either Mike Babcock can make this work or he can’t. If the Leafs are going to make a run at this season, he has to do so now, or ideally last week. If he can’t and we aren’t going to aim at tanking into the top ten so we don’t cede our first to Carolina, well, you need to replace him.
2. Stop talking about trading Nylander. I thought I was the sickest I could possibly be of this shit, but as with everything bad this season I have found hidden depths of annoyance in myself. Our team has approximately two players who should feel good about how their seasons have gone, and those two players are Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Yes, Nylander is imperfect and blond and divisive and whatever else and he’s also one of the only guys on this team who gets to the offensive zone without looking like a tourist who’s about to get kidnapped and have his kidneys stolen. I do not care if your Etobicoke Uncle and radio show call-ins want to trade him so the Leafs can rent some defenceman they’ve never seen who gets power play points. The full and complete response to Trade Nylander stuff at this point is please just shut the fuck up.
3. Tyson Barrie, man, what is this? I didn’t think Tyson Barrie was as good as his reputation. I also don’t buy that Mike Babcock broke him personally. He’s just been bad. I don’t know what else to say about it. Trade him in a month or so if you want, if someone will give you something for him; normally I would wait for his value to regress positively but I don’t know how long we have for that to happen. I buy he has talent and I’m sure he’s as unhappy about this as everyone else. But if I look at you and Justin Holl and Cody goddamn Ceci and I can’t immediately say you’ve done the best of the bunch, that is not adequate for anyone with pretensions to being a Top Four defenceman.
4. Knives out for Dubas. Everyone who resented Kyle Dubas, the [aggressive air quotes] analytics GM, is just loving this. Mostly it seems like men past 40 who seem to have bypassed the “buy a sports car” and “have an affair” stages of their midlife crises and proceeded directly to “hate someone younger than you.”
The temptation is to respond to all of these guys with an ok boomer and call it a day, but you know what? Dubas does bear responsibility for this team. The thing is: everyone in this business who looked at this team had them as a top-three team in the Atlantic, and I don’t count Habs fans on comment boards who called for them to tank because they do that every year and will do it every year to come. This team should be better than this, has been better than this, and has the ability to be better than this in the future. If you’re cutting bait on Dubas now you were waiting for a reason to do so.
5. Where’s Johnny? Dubas’ signature achievement, it must be said, is having a rough season. Signing John Tavares was a huge move for us and I will defend it to the death, and I don’t think the most likely issue with him is that he just got old at 29. All the same: John Tavares and his line aren’t performing now and when they don’t do that, we’re a one-line team, especially with Alexander Kerfoot out. Whether it’s his finger or fatigue or pressure or the absence of Mitch Marner—smart money is always on all of the above—we need more from him. When we get it, this team will look very different. Until we get it, they’re going to struggle.
6. Tanking. God, can you imagine even having this conversation? With this team? This is absurd.
If the Leafs have another few weeks like the last few weeks, they will be sufficiently out of the playoff race that even a massive turnaround probably doesn’t get them there. I’d expect Mike Babcock to be most definitely unemployed, for one thing. For another, as mentioned above, the 1st-rounder we had to give up to trade Patrick Marleau’s contract—let’s all pause here for the people who want Lou Lamoriello back—is protected. If the Leafs pick in the top ten this year, they keep their first and give next year’s instead. The team probably has too much talent to do anything like a genuine tank, although they sure could have fooled me the last month. That said, if you do get to this disaster scenario and Freddie Andersen gets, I don’t know, a gently sprained ankle around mid-January...
...you know, maybe we should give Michael Hutchinson a second try. Seems only fair.
7. This sucks. I was very dismissive of the possibility the Leafs would miss the playoffs. I did not think it was realistic a team that was consistently at least good would get this bad this fast. Even if you use the “since January 1st” cutoff that everyone loves these days, the Leafs were still a decent expected goals team through the last part of last season. Some of their subsequent loss may be the change in gravity. I still don’t think most of it was reasonably likely from where we were. But I didn’t foresee it. My bad, commenter from October. My bad.
It still doesn’t really make sense that we’re here. We’ve been in much worse places as a franchise and not that long ago, but it’s falls from a height that hurt. We had expectations. Justified ones, even. And now we’re crashing.
The most infamous offseason in living memory for this team came off the crash of the “it was 4-1” game in 2013. The Leafs’ FO wildly misevaluated their team and damaged it for years to come. Ultimately I still have enough faith in this front office to not do anything so awful as that. But this is a defining stretch for this iteration of the team—defining in a demanding way. The GM, the old and possibly new coaches, and the players are all going to have their legacies shaped by how things go from here.
So no pressure, guys, but stop fucking losing.