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Regression to the Meaningless

Why it’s not enough for the Leafs to be better than this.

NHL: OCT 23 Maple Leafs at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One thing you have to say for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs is that they have extensive experience in watching the team play seven games and lose most of them. While it’s no fun for the franchise to hit its first ugly slump by Halloween, nor to look so unfamiliar with the game of hockey in several of those losses that you’d expect their skates to be laced with Velcro, this is no one’s first time.

As such, a fair slice of the fanbase isn’t participating in the panic just yet. They point out that Toronto is last in the league in shooting percentage, something that isn’t likely to continue considering they’ve been top ten in that stat every year since Auston Matthews entered in the NHL. They note that as frustrating as Mitch Marner’s start to the season has been, one assist in seven games is probably not the new normal for a 24-year-old who’s cleared point-per-game three years running. They acknowledge that Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie have underperformed, but that unless the two of them have developed permanent amnesia about which team they’re supposed to pass to, the rest of their season ought to be better than the beginning.

More than all of that: these fans recognize that what people are mad about more than anything is a long string of playoff failures. The reality is that whatever you thought about the team before, two weeks of the regular season shouldn’t flip it all upside down.

So. Chill out. Right?

After the first period against Carolina, I tweeted that the Leafs weren’t playing all that well, despite them being up 1-0 at the time. A fair few people responded that at this point they weren’t all that picky how the Leafs won so long as they did. The Leafs helpfully resolved the argument by playing the second period like complete garbage so they neither won the game nor deserved to, but it got me thinking.

Look, as brutal as Toronto has looked the past three games, they really, very likely aren’t the 24th-best team in the league, and almost no one thinks they are. If I had to put money down one way or the other I’d still be betting on them to make the playoffs. The problem is that we don’t just want them to be a decent regular season team. Those are table stakes for a Toronto squad with this cap sheet. What we want is for them to show us something—anything—that helps us believe us the next spring will be better than the previous five.

And there hasn’t been a damn thing.

Sports involve a certain amount of wishful thinking. The most jaded fans will talk a good game about their indifference, but plenty of them will take the bait as soon as the franchise looks like it might actually achieve something. If the Leafs had won five of these games, if the powerplay got its collective head out of its communal ass, if Nick Ritchie had shown the power forward skills that got him drafted top ten instead of reacting to the play the way my cat reacts to the blender in our kitchen*, any of that would have at least given us something to hold onto.

*(My cat gets confused and attacks whatever object is closest to him until the blender turns off.)

Instead we’ve gotten this mess. About the only bright spots have been William Nylander and Jason Spezza—both of whom we knew were good and neither of whom can right this ship on his own—and some competent work from Ondřej Kaše, whom I also fear is about to get injured every minute he’s on the ice. This is not the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s not even the stuff that bubble teams are made of.

As for the coach...

There’s only so much Sheldon Keefe can say at this point, although I’m not sure this was the best of the limited options available to him. But there’s nothing quite as depressing as the idea that this team is still trying to learn lessons long after they should have earned their degrees. You can only wait so long before you doubt it’s going to happen. I’d say Keefe’s job is in jeopardy, but the Leafs gave him an extension before the season, because I guess otherwise the players might not have listened to him based on his contract status. Since that issue is now resolved one has to assume they’re listening and he’s telling them to piss away two periods out of every three they play.

All right, I’m being unfair. But that brings us back to the same old question. What about this team makes you think it’s going to be better? What’s going to be different? Not from the first seven games, but from the seven games before that, or the five against Columbus, or the fourteen against Boston? So no, I won’t really be happy if the Leafs pull out a win against Chicago and follow it up with one against Detroit. I’ll be less annoyed, and I’d rather they stopped the bleeding than not, but the “they’re just getting unlucky” answer is not much of an answer at all. This team is aspiring to clear the highest hurdle and become a real contender. We’re consoling ourselves with the idea that once the dice roll their way they’ll get their feet two inches off the ground.

I’m not howling for a sacrificial lamb and I’m not panicking over cold shooting. I’m just sick of this team aiming for the sky and landing in the dirt. And until they give me reason to believe otherwise, the “wait for regression” case sounds a lot like reassurance that the Leafs aren’t bad; they’re just mediocre.

Plan the parade.