Sheldon Keefe really looked like he had it solved, didn't he? A week or so back. The Leafs were just dazzling in that game against Detroit, hanging six goals on soft competition. They sounded happier and inspired. They made it clear the old coach was holding them back.
Well, I wouldn't hang what happened next on the new coach--he's hardly had time to justify tagging him for the state of the team--but the Leafs are now 4-3-0 with Keefe behind the bench. That doesn't get you into the playoffs if you do it for a whole season. It sure as hell doesn't get you there when you're coming in to a team that underperformed even worse prior to your arrival. I hope the early games under Keefe were more a seed for future success than a dead cat bounce, but the team is once again performing at a level that is inadequate for a bubble team and downright embarrassing for a group that used to be thought of as a contender.
The saving grace is that the NHL playoffs don't ask how you got there, they just ask whether you got there. Barring a spectacular hot streak the Leafs are no longer in a position to concern themselves about home ice or their first round opponent. Their first concern is just to have a first round opponent.
They've got ten weeks.
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The NHL trade deadline is February 24th. Kyle Dubas realistically is going to need some time on the trade market to get decent deals; he’s not going to decide to sell the team off on the morning of the deadline. Ten weeks takes us from now to February 14th. That gives him 28 more games of information, a third of the season, while still leaving ten days to canvass the market. If the Leafs are so far back that they're no longer in playoff contention, it's time for a major sale.
It’s a failure on just about everyone for it to get to that point. It’s a wasted prime year for the whole core of the roster; it’s the last season before John Tavares turns 30 and the last one before we start having to worry about Frederik Andersen’s extension. The consolation, I guess, is that Kyle Dubas had the sense to top-10 protect the team’s first this year, so there’s no risk of us giving up a winning lottery ticket. I don’t think anyone, especially Kyle Dubas, thought this protection was going to come into play.
What Do You Sell?
Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie are both on expiring contracts and seem poised to get big raises in the summer. I want nothing whatsoever to do with Barrie's next contract. If there's a reasonable extension on the table for Muzzin, take it before February, but that's a high risk deal too. Needless to say, if Dubas is going to pursue an extension with either, he should have at least an idea of how it’s going to happen before the trade deadline.
It's slim pickings after that. Justin Holl and Cody Ceci are upcoming UFAs also, but I don’t think either’s reputation has improved to the point they pull a significant return. (But hey, Lou Lamoriello got two second-rounders for Roman Polak and Nick Spaling, so you never know.) A team might be willing to give up a later pick for Jason Spezza, or there may be a futures-for-present deal for the likes of Andreas Johnsson. The Leafs are probably too good to be likely to keep their own first, which as mentioned is ceded to Carolina if it's later than 10th overall--but by points percentage right now, they’re 25th in the league, so we can’t rule anything out.
More broadly, if these ten weeks don’t show us a better team, they’ll be giving the front office symptoms, and the FO will need to diagnose accordingly. How a team this talented and this well-paid is scuffling like this needs an answer. Because as more than one person has said, the excuse walked out the door when Mike Babcock did, and if it doesn’t get better this year, a lot of people are going to be asking why.
That isn’t necessarily on Sheldon Keefe. He’s had a tough job, coming in to captain a ship that was sinking; it may simply not be possible for him to impose his vision in time to save the year. But the NHL is an unforgiving league like that. It does not take much pity on teams that rack up regulation losses, no matter how good their Corsi is. And frankly, if you think Keefe is at all competent (I do) and this team is talented (yep) there has to be a reason they nose-dived the way they did.
The gruesome retooling conversation, of the kind we thought we wouldn't have to have for years, is unpleasant, and right now it's premature. But it is getting late early for the Leafs and every loss, whether it's excused as a moral victory or not, dims the lights further. So they either start getting points--or Kyle Dubas has to start making calls.