The Leafs so far this season:
Seven games played (and I use that term loosely), with: 13 GF and 23 GA for the third worst goal differential in the NHL. They have two wins, for a percentage of .357, which is just inside the bottom ten teams. Somehow Ottawa and Montréal have been worse, so they are sixth in the Atlantic.
1. It’s only week three of the season
Tampa Bay is almost as bad with a win % of .417 and only three wins. However:
They can put in their backup and shrug off a loss to the Sabres. Can the Leafs be that blasé about their poor start? Let’s ask the Florida Panthers who are undefeated with six regulation or overtime wins.
The rapid rise of Florida is key to the Leafs’ future prospects, because they’ve made the Atlantic tougher. Tampa Bay is weaker, not weak. Boston is ageing, not old and Montréal is unlikely to stay this bad. Neither is Toronto, to be clear. But you can do irreparable damage to your season in any short stretch of games if the margins are tight enough. The Leafs haven’t backed permanently out of a playoff spot, but they’ve made getting a very good seeding contingent on other teams helping them by losing. Even Buffalo isn’t cooperating.
2. So it’s panic time?
When the power goes out, you don’t start by setting your house on fire with a flame thrower. Maybe light a candle, first, see how it goes.
Besides, the Islanders got him from Detroit in a very strange trade and then waived him to the AHL where he is scoreless in three games, so I don’t think he’s the answer on left wing.
Some sort of token move seems inevitable on the surface, and would be the standard hockey response to fill the fans’ demands for ritual sacrifice. The trouble is, making Nick Ritchie work hard for nine minutes on the fourth line might just be all they can do.
The Leafs started the season with a collection of peripheral players in excess to fill in where what they needed was Zach Hyman and James van Riemsdyk. Ditching Ritchie is just dumping out your weak cup of coffee to make another one that’s still weak. It might be hotter, that’s all you can hope for.
3. But I want them to blow it all up!
Trade Rielly! Trade Marner! Fire everyone! Blow it all up and start over because this is a results based business. (And rebuilds are at least fun.)
That is the traditional view. The fact is, we’ve seen that Maple Leafs in their current construction doesn’t let the emotions of the moment rule their decisions. They sometime act in a way that seems too late in hindsight, but they rarely do things too quickly.
As for this results based business stuff — it depends on how you measure your results. Go ahead and scream, “Winning!” but the Leafs’ management up to the top of MLSE actually do know that good teams lose, have stretches where it just doesn’t quite work, and good staff is never perfect. They’re going to keep believing that the team they’ve constructed is the best they could make it in the circumstances for longer than seven games. Which is likely a good thing, even if it isn’t emotionally satisfying.
But he’s just the entire thing wrong with the team they have to get rid of him!
4. Who’s he?
There are as many opinions as there are podcasts, radio shows and blog comments about which single individual is just ruining the Leafs, but it’s not actually obvious who that person is to someone not campaigning for their candidate. Everyone at every level has failed in some way and succeeded in others, so whoever you want fired or traded or made to say he’s sorry at a press conference isn’t a universal choice.
The Leafs are a group effort disaster right now.
5. What will fix it?
Some player — and I want to say it was on the Flyers, but maybe that’s just too on the nose — caused a stir a few years back by saying that when everything is going really wrong, sometimes you should just go out on the road and get wasted. Let it all out.
I don’t actually think this is a bad idea, so instead of ritual punishment, benchings, bag skates and even more power play practice, maybe they should just all have some kind of Covid-safe knees up in Chicago.
The Leafs actually started last season very poorly, they just papered over it with power play success, so it’s not like we should expect them to just play this bad every game from now on.
Sometimes procrastination does make a problem go away.
6. What if this doesn’t get better, though?
Wrong question. The right question is: What if it doesn’t get better fast enough?
The Leafs have an easy end to October with two days off after Chicago on Wednesday, a home game against Detroit and two more days off. Lots of time for that power play practice. But then they play seven games in 12 days to start November against:
- Tampa Bay
- Los Angeles
There’s a few more games and then they head out on a western road trip over American Thanksgiving.
Seven games of mostly losing isn’t going to destroy a season, but if this team is still floundering in that period before the California trip, something will happen. Some change will be made, even if it’s a forced sale type of trade or an assistant coach that gets bounced.
If you can’t handle a tough schedule in November, you really can’t handle the NHL playoffs.
7. Making a meaningfully improving trade is very difficult
There’s no excess of players suddenly with Ilya Mikheyev hurt and Nick Ritchie not contesting for the top six. Alexander Kerfoot kept looking tantalizingly surplus and a trade to clear his contract and add somewhere else was a popular idea in training camp. Even just to cash in his value as a centre for a better winger seemed like a good idea.
That might still work, but finding a team that wants Kerfoot and has a winger to trade back is not easy. The list pretty much starts and ends with Rickard Rakell, and you have to figure the Ducks want deadline prices for him, not an October swap meet deal.
8. This is very frustrating, annoying, and the Leafs make me angry
Yes, it is, they are, and they do. But considering half the ownership of the team is embroiled in boardroom and family drama, it’s really unlikely that MLSE is going to make big changes right now. Your emotions aren’t on their minds, so much as the turmoil a level above them.
But make no mistake — the owners of the Leafs want TV revenue, ticket sales, merchandise profits and they don’t want another lost year crushing the opportunity to cash in in the biggest hockey market there is come playoff time. Once the Rogers house is in order, MLSE and the Maple Leafs will need to look like a winning proposition or that reorganization might continue on down through the layers.
Mike Babcock was fired in late November. I don’t think the Leafs can afford to wait that long this season. Vegas - Tampa - Boston. Those games have to go well, or it’s over. For someone.