Like most people reading this, I’ve been a Leafs fan for a while, which means I’ve seen my fair share of unsuccessful hockey teams. This season, ‘unsuccessful’ is one of the more charitable words we could use to describe the Maple Leafs. Rooting for a team that sucks is something we’re all used to. Rooting for a team that sucks when they were supposed to be good is not.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Almost no one expected the Leafs to be a straight up bad team through nearly 30 games of the regular season. It was reasonable to say that they were overrated, or that they weren’t real contenders. But bad? Three months ago, that was a hot take.
Hockey analysts expected them to be good. Dom Luszczyszyn had them as the 2nd best team in the league in his preseason preview. Micah McCurdy had them tops in the East. Vegas had them as a top 5 team. After about a third of the season, it’s fair to say they’re not that.
If we’re looking for actual hockey reasons that the team has been so far below expectations, there are obvious culprits. The Leafs got rid of Garret Sparks and somehow found one of the only people on earth who is worse at goaltending than he is. They galaxy brained an elite power play into a flaccid squirt gun. The offense took a step back, and the defense wasn’t really much better than it was previously. Injuries to two of their top four players ate away at the margins, and those two players haven’t earned their paycheque, even when healthy.
In the seven games that Sheldon Keefe has been in charge of, the shot numbers have been superficially strong, though very much impacted by a ridiculous outlier game against a truly horrific Detroit Red Wings team. They also deservedly got the worst of a home and home with Buffalo, capitulated in Philadelphia in an embarrassing manner, and sounded the alarms to prepare for a game against Colorado where they got outplayed by a team missing its captain and top pairing defenceman.
I try to stay away from the character judgement and mind-melting narrativizing that follows a poor set of results. At the same time, it’s hard to feel positively about any aspect of the organization right now.
This set of players talked a big game after Babcock was fired. You don’t need a telescope to see the shots they threw his way. They damn near put up a “Mission Accomplished” banner for beating the Arizona Coyotes. And after talking a big game, they’ve largely failed to deliver since then. They’re still awful defensively. They make hilariously silly errors on a regular basis. For a team that has accomplished absolutely nothing, the players really seem to be into talking about how much better they’re going to be in the near future. Personally, I found it especially galling when Tyson Barrie (who has been here for ten minutes and sucked ass for nine of them) starts going on about how exciting a time it is to be a Leafs fan, and how things are changing under Keefe. Do something before you talk. And hopefully, that something isn’t getting completely embarrassed in your own end or firing a shot into the shin pads of an opposing forward.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander have been the only important Leafs players who have remotely met expectations, and even then, it’s a bit of an “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king” situation. Matthews has made some important steps defensively, which he promptly undoes at the most inopportune times after getting distracted by a shiny object in the crowd and forgetting that Claude Giroux is on the ice.
I hope to god that Morgan Rielly is hurt, because if he’s just an average defenceman, then we have even bigger problems. Realistically, the smart money is that Rielly was never all that good, and rode a sky high on-ice shooting percentage last year to success. He’s a good, not great defenceman in a very fun package of elite offense and horrific defense.
Cody Ceci tries hard, and getting mad at him is like getting mad at a dog for not being able to do your math homework. The expectations are just out of whack with what he can reasonably do (which is nothing).
It’s not just the players, to be clear. Kyle Dubas has managed to overpay both great and awful players, which is almost impressive in its consistency. He refuses to waive Frederik Gauthier, who is funny when your team is winning, but annoying as hell when your team is losing, primarily because he sucks. I like Pierre Engvall, but keeping him on the roster as opposed to cheaper forwards actually constricts our (already very limited) options with the roster further, because it requires putting Trevor Moore on LTIR; this means any subsequent injury that the Leafs have (particularly on their upcoming road trip) is very hard to deal with, as we have no defence spares and only one forward spare. If we assume that Moore is truly hurt and it’s a matter of weeks before he comes back, then this is more defensible. This almost blew up in our face immediately as Andreas Johnsson was sore after blocking a shot against Colorado. Thankfully he’s alright.
Dubas’ major offseason move was making a bet that acquiring the right handed version of Morgan Rielly would help the team, and so far, that’s looking like a massive strikeout. Turns out individual offense isn’t the be-all end-all for defensemen, eh? On Back To Excited, both Fulemin and I were lukewarm on Barrie, but were generally positive on the deal because of Kerfoot. We were more pessimistic than most fans, and it looks like we were still too optimistic about how that trade would turn out.
Sheldon Keefe is too new to his role to really criticize what he’s done with any credibility. I’m mad at the team, but I’ll be somewhat reasonable. That said, if I hear another person talk about how he invented line changes, carrying the puck, or revolutionized the game by telling players to stop wearing their skates on their hands, I’m gonna punch something. I like the changes he’s made, in principle (though Total Hockey often results in players who can’t shoot well doing the shooting from good locations). We don’t have to keep gassing him up because he hasn’t been a manipulative asshole to his players (yet). The reality is, it’s hard to turn chicken shit into chicken salad, and the Leafs right now are a chicken with a bad case of diarrhea.
All of these petty criticisms are steeped in outcome bias. I’m aware of that. If the Leafs win a few more games under Keefe, we’d be talking about their new swagger instead of their hubris. When you expect to be good and aren’t, it’s not a fun time. But the Leafs aren’t making it any easier.