I cracked a joke last night on Twitter that the hockey tweets and the political tweets were hard to tell apart. One went something like this: Toronto really struggles to have the confidence to really become who they have the capacity to be. You decide which that was.
Today really is the morning after the night before in both politics and Leafs fandom. (Vancouver too, I would expect.) And the desire to craft the perfectly pithy single sentence take on either thing is bubbling all over Twitter, the place where everyone talks like a headline writer. What this amounts to is handing out a tomato, a cup of flour and a piece of cheese and calling it a pizza.
Excuse me, I’m going to go tweet that.
For the political realm, I’ll leave that to others to discuss if the tomato or the cheese is the problem when outcomes don’t match expectations. For the Leafs, I find this process entirely unsatisfying.
The one thing that has to hold a team together isn’t the offence, the defence or the goaltending, the special teams, the transition play, penalty drawing, faceoffs or any other one thing. It’s all of those things in balance. And there is no one true way to make a good team (or a pizza) but there are a lot of ways that fail. We expect the Leafs to be fast, skilled, offensively focused, risk-taking, puck-dominant, and we expect that to be fun. When those things aren’t there, when they aren’t fun, we get annoyed. And it gets distilled down to tomatoes, cheese and flour and you can’t even see the pizza for the pile of ingredients. The tomatoes are there mostly to throw at particular players.
Last night we had Auston Matthews, the best shooter in the NHL, launching longbombs from literally 50ft out.
On the power play!
He can’t buy a goal, but if that green mass near the net doesn’t prove he doesn’t need to shake things up by playing a “just try something new” power play setup, I don’t know what does. If this is a sign the coaches are losing their nerve to just hold on and let the shooting percentages take care of themselves, then that’s very bad. That’s the sort of thing that leads to constant change for the sake of it, line shuffling to shake things up, and all manner of bad ideas. Hockey results are chaotic. Don’t make it worse.
Sometime in the last couple of years everyone has decided to demand sports teams have an “identity” and to the extent that the Leafs of today play in a specific way, they have one, and its touchstones are: speed, transition, puck control. And everything but the speed seems to have abandoned them.
I’ve seen Auston Matthews cough up the puck near or in the neutral zone more than once this season, including last night, and there used to be a game you could play watching Matthews: If he loses the puck, count the seconds until he has it back. He was so puck hungry, he would never let the other team keep it, and he made Zach Hyman seem genuinely superfluous at times. Was so puck hungry.
Matthews is frustrated, and living out the hockey cliché of hitting more because he isn’t scoring. Gotta have a plan B, hur, hur. But there is more off about his game than just the shots not going in. Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting are both in the same boat. They’ve had horrible luck, horribly timed, and they also are not playing like the best line in hockey.
They’re 33rd on Moneypuck’s list of forward lines by Expected Goals %, and when you consider the early season, small-sample oddities who will wash down the list over time, that’s not bad. They aren’t bad. They aren’t playing like the two lines seriously vying for best status, though: Heinen - Crosby - Rakell and Robertson - Pavelski - Hintz. The Matthews line has, interestingly, played more than any other forward line. At 78 minutes, they top the list.
OMG! He’s so bad. He needs to be better. You can’t have your star defenceman be this bad, and blah, blah, tomato, tomato, tomato.
He’s been, like the rest of the Leafs defence, under heavy pressure. The overall team defending is well below what we would expect them to produce and it is one of the biggest reasons why the transition and puck control is failing. And naturally the defenders who are weakest in the defensive zone are paying the price. Is that price actually goals against? Are they “at fault”? Here’s the issue:
Rielly-Brodie have played 87 minutes. They have the highest rate of Expected Goals for for Leafs defence pairs, they have a 54% Expected Goals overall, about the same as all pairs that don’t have Holl on it. They have 4.7 Expected Goals against in that time — the largest of any pair because they’ve played almost twice as much as any other pair, and their goals against is seven. And naturally, because they play with the Matthews line most of the time, their on-ice goals for is only two.
Distilling the problem down to Morgan Rielly turning out to not be Alex Pietrangelo when the team in front of him can’t control the puck doesn’t seem to really grasp the complexity of his performance so far.
The case to make Justin Holl just the one thing wrong with the team is a little more solid. Pairing him with Sandin is producing some of the worst results the Leafs have. When he was with Muzzin, they were respectably average. Not what you want, but not a self-inflicted wound either. Sandin and Giordano are fine.
So the issue here is that injuries have put Rasmus Sandin in for Jake Muzzin, and that’s not a good idea outside a summer roster take-stravaganza where waiving Muzzin was considered clever.
Holl can’t handle the pressure the Leafs are putting on him, and there’s two ways to fix that. The Leafs aren’t likely to do a blockbuster trade for a legit top four defender, and they can only hope Timothy Liljegren’s results last year were legitimate and he will come off of LTIR ready to roar. But the way to deal with this particular problem more likely to succeed is to take some of the pressure off.
If a player can’t handle the job they’re given, for some weird reason, the hockey chemists out there distill that down to anger at the player. In the Holl case, like the Cody Ceci case, and the Nikita Zaitsev case and the Ron Hainsey case, there isn’t actually a lot of choice for the coach in what jobs he hands out on defence. But the pressure isn’t coming from where he’s written in on a line chart, it’s from what Holl and the entire team is doing right before the camera zooms in on Holl, the goalie, and impending disaster.
No one is throwing tomatoes at Samsonov. A lot of that is because goalies are judged by what they let in and when. In that respect, and given the bar for Leafs goalies was “don’t be horrible”, he’s been fine, and it’s reasonable everyone calls that scrambling mess in his crease last night “keeping the Leafs in it” because that’s how it seemed at the time.
The third period in Winnipeg and a great deal of that Vegas game could more truthfully be described as a goalie getting away with it. This might not matter at all in the future. This might be just a thing he needs to work through, and when you’re lucky enough to work through it without letting in too many stinkers, the pressure stays off.
Another way to look at it is that the Leafs gave out Expected Goals Against like Diwali candy last night, and he somehow kept most of it out of his net. Luck or skill or both, it got the job done, and it’s not his job to get the team to stop with the defensive breakdowns.
It’s interesting when that argument resonates with people and when it doesn’t, though.
The tomatoes are really flying at Keefe, and fair enough. He’s in charge, they lost in the playoffs, he should be fired for losing. It’s how hockey was done for generations. It’s not how it should be done, but that doesn’t mean Keefe right now is not part of the problem.
The breakdowns in play are coming all over the ice. It’s — well, let’s be honest, there is something similar to this year’s start and last year’s as well as the infamous month that got Babcock fired. The team is playing better (seriously) than they did under Babcock. The shooting % troubles are very similar to what was going on during both those past occasions, and the defence all look terrible because they are being asked to defend the indefensible.
Keefe keeps telling us that what the team is doing is unacceptable. We know! We can tell! And if you think he needs to stop doing that, well he’s been at it for years, he’s not going to. Has he turned into the exasperated dad saying, “Stop or I’ll say stop again?” Maybe. And if he has, if he’s been tuned out... let’s go back to Babcock.
We wrote a roundtable about the dreadful Leafs just before Babcock was fired, and I asked, if the problem was the players, the coaching or the GM. This was the coaching take that, heh, distills things down to the size of a tweet:
Fulemin: Either a) this is going to get better; b) the coaches are devising a system which does not work; or c) the coaches cannot impose a working system. The ongoing nature of this problem is hurting the credibility of a) as an answer and neither b) or c) suggest much very good about the coaches. Short answer: yes.
A few days later, we talked about the new guy, Keefe, and I said this about his then short Marlies season:
He has repeatedly complained in post-game interviews about the team’s 5on5 performance and their missing players. The systems employed are largely Leafs-standard: balanced lines, rolling three or four, mobile defenders who join in offensively. It’s all familiar. And, unlike the Leafs, they get outshot all the time.
Then last fall when the Leafs were bad, Fulemin said this:
As for the coach...
Sheldon Keefe: "I think we leave here a better team... I think there's a lot of good things that our team did here but also in the lessons that we'll take away that'll make us a better team."— James Mirtle (@mirtle) October 26, 2021
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.
And I said this:
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.
And then what happened? Well, depends on if you want to talk about the regular season where they outplayed a terrible tandem of goalies or the playoffs where they couldn’t outplay the Lightning.
Pick your conclusion:
This poll is closed
This is unacceptable
They need to take some lessons from a loss like this
The shooting will regress
It’s just seven games
Trust the process
They start slow every year
All they have to do is stop turning the puck over
The system is broken
You can’t spend that much on four players and expect to win, and really I mean Nylander, you know it, I know it, and I didn’t get this commentator gig by paying attention to how much they did win and who the best forward is right now, and...