Every now and then, I like to split my Leafs’ fan brain in two and hash out how I’m feeling. This is one of those times. Let’s start with the forwards.
Optimist: Well, after an early slump, it looks like the Leafs have begun to settle in nicely. That low shooting percentage was never going to persist long, and a team this talented—
Pessimist: Shut the fuck up!
Pessimist: Stop it! Stop it! Shut the fuck up.
Optimist: Look, we have to do the bit here. Come on man.
Pessimist: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take this again. I’m seriously going to go out of my mind.
Optimist: They had a really good November!
Pessimist: THAT’S THE PROBLEM. Of course they did! They were really good almost the entire month! All the best players scored. The supporting cast all outperformed their salaries, except Nick Ritchie, but he tripped Brad Marchand so honestly give him a raise. Jack Campbell—
Optimist: Hey, we’re just trying to do the forwards here, there’s a format.
Pessimist: I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE FORMAT. Jack Campbell absolutely stood on his generous, beneficent head and played like the best goalie on the planet. The Leafs didn’t even make his job that hard most nights. They actually shut down teams! I didn’t even know that was allowed! If there was a dark spot it was that Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl—
Pessimist: —as I was saying, it was that Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl look somewhat off their previous heights, but they haven’t really been awful. Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie have played just fine and Rasmus Sandin is having a coming out party as a fancy stat king. Timothy Liljegren has at least revived his expectations to the point of looking like a third-pair NHL defender, and he’s still only 22. He still has time to improve!
Optimist: You’re really throwing me off here. You’re supposed to say things that make me feel bad, and that I disagree with. That’s the whole premise.
Pessimist: Don’t you realize when you’re being set up?
Pessimist: The whole reason for Leaf pessimism is because every time something has seemed to go well for the team, the universe has pulled the rug out from under us to reveal a snake pit, and we drop down to be eaten by vipers. All the least funny people in the world shout “1967” for another summer, and then we start again, and the universe shows us another very fine rug and invites us to stand on it.
Optimist: More or less.
Pessimist: So when you see a month that’s been as good as this one, as indisputably positive, that means the universe has really decided to ruin us this time.
Optimist: Nothing’s going to be worse than losing to Montreal.
Pessimist: Won’t it? What if the Leafs lose in the playoffs to a bottom-feeder on a goalie run?
Optimist: I mean they basically did.
Pessimist: What if they lose to an AHL team? Or even worse, the Vancouver Canucks? What if they lose in so utterly demoralizing a fashion that Kyle Dubas gets sent to prison? What if all of the shittiest guys I went to law school with form a hockey team in between their jobs at Fraud & Tax Evasion LLC and beat the Leafs in Round 1? What if I wake up and it’s the first day of school again and I can’t find my pants?
Optimist: I feel like this may be more of a recurring dream issue for you.
Pessimist: The point is that yes, the Leafs have actually looked good, but they’ve looked good before, and look how that turned out. And further to that: the biggest driver in them looking so good has actually been Jack Campbell, who is a goalie.
Optimist: [turning off ominous music] So? All good teams have good goaltending, except when the Red Wings won Cups with Chris Osgood just to give themselves a challenge.
Pessimist: Right, but imagine it now. Jack Campbell, universally agreed to be a sweetheart, who has heroically led this team up the standings, has never played 35 games in an NHL season before. Does that not sound like the perfect setup for heartbreak once this cursed and self-destructive franchise finally pushes him past his limits?
Optimist: So essentially, your reason for pessimism now is that everything is going too well.
Pessimist: It’s certainly a concern.
Optimist: You are insane.
Pessimist: Okay, here’s my sane reason, then:
Pessimist: The real thing that frightens me about this team is that it’s reliant very heavily on four players to score, and we’re coming off two post-seasons where those four players have, for different reasons, not totaled enough goals to win a series. Yes, David Kämpf and Ondřej Kaše have been both a lot of fun and remarkably effective, but that’s a combination of a centre who generates near-zero offence on his own and a winger whose history and playstyle make him feel like Mr. Glass from Unbreakable. (If you haven’t seen the movie, Mr. Glass is not the character described in the title.) On that note, the candidates for 3LW are respectively:
- going to rush but never score on those rushes (Ilya Mikheyev)
- going to rush and then float a wrister into the goalie’s crest from the other side of the city (Pierre Engvall)
- Nick Ritchie (Nick Ritchie)
And so we’re left with the same question that’s been inherent in this team’s roster construction since they decided to give four undeniably excellent players more money than God. Can you win with a forward lineup this top-heavy? You can win in the regular season, and of course they could have won in any of the last four playoff series. Any team that gets to a Game 7 (or a Qualifying Round Game 5) has a real chance if for no other reason than hockey is 50% pinball. But the real reason that no one’s as excited about this team as their record and their xG suggest they ought to be is that nagging fear that they’re a Goliath heading for a slingshot tournament.
Optimist: Is there anything the Leafs could do to convince you they’re going to win in the playoffs short of them winning in the playoffs?
Pessimist: There’s not much. But I’m going to remind you of something. Back before the Leafs went on this November heater, they played a game against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that had approximately zero of the star players you associate with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And they got their asses beat. 7-1, in case you’ve forgotten. The heat map for that game looked like this.
This map shows where each team’s shots were coming from on offence: the Toronto Maple Leafs on the left, and the understudies playing the role of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the right. Normally, when the Leafs are going, their heat map looks a lot like the Pens did: they have a big, terrifying splotch of red from the slot. That’s what you want: that’s where the goals are, and when the Leafs are firing on all cylinders, that’s where they get them. When the Leafs are getting shut down, it looks a lot more like the Leafs’ map did that night: as if they can’t or won’t go where the goals are. That, by the way, is how they fell to the Montreal Canadiens.
Optimist: Okay, so is the goal to have a team that never has a bad game? The standard is to win or at least look good every single night in a sport as random as hockey? That adds up for an eternal pessimist, because no team ever, including the dynasties, has met that bar over a season.
Yes, that Leafs-Pens game was awful. The fact you had to reach back five weeks for your example is a sign of just how well things have gone since, because the Leafs have been getting to the slot, including against some teams much more formidable than half the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Calgary Flames, who are probably the best defensive team in the NHL, who are coached by Checking Cowboy Darryl Sutter, couldn’t keep them away from there. Not coincidentally, the Leafs won the game.
The Leafs are the best team in the NHL by scoring chances now, as per NST. Their stars have started putting up points again, and they’ve gotten enough out of their complementary players, as you said. I’ll indulge the eye-test here, since as a split personality you and I have the same eyes: the Leafs cleanly outplayed several good teams in this stretch, to the point where they made victories over teams like Nashville seem downright boring. The Leafs have been good before. Have they ever been so good they could actually make it seem like victory was a foregone conclusion? Because this past month they’ve done it more than once.
What you’re asking for, essentially, is proof that the Leafs aren’t going to fall apart in the playoffs again. There really is no way for them to win May games in November, not even if they push the Deserve To Win O Meter to 100. The losses to Columbus and Montreal sucked, but they happened, and now they’re over. If you want to find bad games or worrying patterns, you’ll always be able to, because the game is too random. The Leafs are going to have bad games and bad stretches. At some point this year they’ll have a losing streak; hopefully a short one.
But what are they in the aggregate? They’re a good fucking hockey team. The wins, the points, the underlying stats, the star production, the goaltending, they’re all there and they all really did happen. Imagine this team were the Seattle Kraken, coming in with no history.
Pessimist: How did the Seattle Kraken get Auston Matthews?
Optimist: Just go with me on this. If this team had no history, they would be at the top of the power rankings, they’d be admired as a complete threat. Potential playoff opponents would be hoping to avoid them. They would see them rationally based on how well they’ve been playing. To be optimistic about the Leafs, that’s all you really have to do.
Pessimist: They’re more flawed than that. But more to the point: you can’t throw out the playoff history because that’s where teams are measured. Until this team actually proves something in the playoffs, I’m always going to have an argument you can’t really answer. And it’ll always hang over any number of nice regular season wins.
Optimist: Then I’ll say it: I think this is the year that argument gets put to bed.
Pessimist: YOU IDIOT YOU’RE STANDING ON THE RUG!