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HomeSports10 thoughts on the Maple Leafs after two bumpy opening weeks

10 thoughts on the Maple Leafs after two bumpy opening weeks


Some thoughts on the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of their California road trip:

The “only thing that matters is playoffs” mindset isn’t great for entering an 82-game regular season

Last season, the Leafs were told the only thing that mattered was playoff success after a crushing blown series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. And as of October 25, 2021, they were 2-4-1, tied in points with another team that didn’t care much about the regular season: the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Atlantic Division standings looked like this a year ago:


Buffalo and Detroit were off to good starts (this year the Sabres are similarly 4-2-0, and the Wings are comparable at 3-1-2), and the rest is history.

The Leafs ended up with 115 points, the Lightning went to the Cup Final, while Buffalo and Detroit missed the playoffs by around 25 points.

Now, that’s not at all to say this is going to happen again (Buffalo and Detroit are much improved). But it is to say: I believe the mindset of “It does not matter how the regular season goes, we will be judged by playoffs” – somewhat shockingly, I know – affects a team’s commitment to coming out of the gates flying in the regular season. (And early struggles can be the wake-up call that turns things around. “Oh yeah, you can’t cruise through the regular season giving 75 per cent.”)

It’s more common to see the mentality of “only the playoffs matter” affect teams who’ve had deep Cup runs, but I think it can apply to a wider range of teams as well.

For the Leafs, the lack of offence is related to the above

One trend from the Leafs’ offence so far this year is an inability to get inside to the most dangerous parts of the ice. My theory there is that it’s tied to the above: in the playoffs the season before, these guys knew that they’d take any kind of damages for a fleeting chance at a shot that could become a goal, given how challenging scoring becomes when it’s down to the best 16 teams and everyone is committed defensively. In the regular season, you’re far more likely to just shoot from distance and hope it goes in.

I tweeted this after five games for the Leafs, about Matthews not getting to the inside:

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In the great hunt for what’s going on here with the Leafs offence – currently 29th in even strength scoring – many of the red flags can be tied to a willingness to go to the areas that are most physically demanding. According to SportLogiq data, the Leafs are 29th in “rebounds recovered,” which is telling. They’re 31st in shot attempts “with no pressure,” which to me is about working to create space.

This particular Leafs team can show as night/day based on the opponent — not because of the opponent’s play necessarily, but Toronto’s perception of them. Yes, sometimes they just get beat, that happens in hockey (see: Vegas). But other times a talented team sees Montreal or Arizona coming in, thinks it will be easy, and plays accordingly.

Okay, on to some individual players…

Leafs should figure out what they have in Michael Bunting

Anthony Petrielli of Maple Leafs Hot Stove led a recent column musing on Bunting’s next contract, and the pertinent need to figure out what exactly he is at the NHL level before the Leafs commit money or term to a player who just came off a 63-point “rookie” season.

The reason he encouraged this is bang on: Bunting’s role on the top line is, arguably, the cushiest roster spot in the NHL: beside the league’s premier goal scorer and flanked by one of the league’s three best passers. Heck, Joe Thornton put up tremendous play-driving results in that same spot before Bunting. It’s almost impossible not to.

Still, No. 58 is better than average. He works and annoys, he’s a very high IQ player who sees the rink well and has a nose for the net. He makes some great little slip passes and shouldn’t be underappreciated as purely a product of a good spot in the lineup.

But with the top guys scuffling, swapping Bunting out for someone else makes sense. There’s no guarantee if you give Bunting term on a deal he stays with Matthews and Marner (you want to have flexibility as a coach and GM). What he is away from them, and his ability to help a more average middle-six line, is what you should be paying for. You want to pay for boats with good motors, not the water-skis that look fast behind them. Is Bunting capable of pulling or just good at being pulled?

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Is reverse anger management possible?

We had an unplanned discussion on Real Kyper and Bourne the other day that I think touched on a defining characteristic of this Leafs team. It’s not that they’re not tough (they have “strong” players), or that they don’t hit (they’re league average in hits), it’s that they’re too … nice? And I mean they’re inherently nice people, not as some planned strategy.

If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve played some hockey. If you’ve played it competitively, I’d be curious to know just how often can you go through a hockey game without getting mad at an opponent? I’m a nice enough guy. I rarely got into it on the ice. But even with those qualifiers, I could only play so much hockey before getting frustrated. It’s half the reason I don’t really play beer league – I hate being a nearly-40-year-old Dad who wants to beat the life out of some 25-year-old who chopped the top of my skates, but I can’t help myself. I get angry.

Who on the Leafs gets angry (say, more than two or three times a season)? Who has some ill-temper to their game or will even tell an opponent “Hey, maybe don’t do that again” after someone gives them an unnecessary shot?

This isn’t a call for some fighter to come make them “harder to play.” This isn’t a call for a solution at all really, it’s just an observation about what this team is and will be, as long as their core remains intact. It’s a great core, and not a reason to mix it up. But it’s definitely a collective team trait.

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Which brings me to…

Fourth line identity already in question

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I loved how the Leafs re-made their fourth line this off-season. And I’m right here to say I don’t think I fully understood how Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube-Kubel had their success in the NHL prior to joining the Leafs. I saw a couple guys who would forecheck and hit and work, more of an energy fourth line that the Leafs could use on all 200 feet of the rink.

I still think there’s something to that. But Aston-Reese is different stylistically than I realized, a more talented guy than expected who plays very “in control” hockey. Not so much an aggressive player running around with energy, rather a thinker staying in his bubble hockey tracks. And Aube-Kubel is a guy who can forecheck, but doesn’t seem to get that he must forecheck to be effective, and doesn’t always move his feet, leaving him purposeless at times (which equals time in the pressbox for a player who was waived just last season).

And so with that lack of “ill-will” on the team, and a fourth line that’s pretty controlled and not always skating, the Leafs sought to bring in some personality and bite in Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford. But the team knows that’s not the solution, as they kinda half-tried that in playoffs last year. It also doesn’t help them find any offence in the bottom half of their lineup.

So, what is the solution then? Ask Aston-Reese and Aube-Kubel for more is a good place to start. Inserting Clifford and Simmonds on nights it makes sense — that works. But between now and playoffs, will Toronto need to find some guys between those four names, who work and hit and occasionally get angry?

In the big picture, they still control the play

The things that make the Leafs the Leafs are still present. They typically control the battle for O-zone possession time, they enter the zone with the puck well, and their best guys can still make game-breaking plays. After seven games and a 4-3-0 record, it’s not hard to see this is still a 100-plus point team.

Ilya Samsonov is doing the very thing they sought

The Leafs’ off-season goalie acquisitions combined to form one plan: they got two guys, hoping one of them could simply make the saves they were supposed to make. That’s all they needed. Stop the ones from the outside, the unscreened and unpressured ones, with no muffins. Samsonov hasn’t been perfect (rebounds aplenty), but he’s done what they’ve asked of him and then some, which is a bright spot at a position they needed one.

Erik Källgren goes Thursday against San Jose, who currently own the league’s worst offence. Toronto is hoping he can be like Samsonov, and just give them “good enough” for another game.

Fresh-looking Tavares eliminates a big question and worst-case scenario that loomed

There were a couple ways this Leafs team could’ve imploded after their latest playoff disappointment, and yes, the goalie situation hung as a large one. But the other was that their $11-million captain would decline to the point of not being able to drive an effective line. But he’s been stellar so far this season, and outside of his linemate William Nylander, I’d argue he’s been the Leafs’ best skater to start this season. Tavares and Nylander show up all over the SportLogiq top-20 lists for chance creation (off cycles, off forechecks, in all game states really), which has kept the Leafs afloat while they wait for Matthews and Marner to find their stride.

Note: the Leafs’ 5-on-5 goal leader is currently David Kampf, with two. So, there’s still some work to be done on finishing from the top lines.

Not sure what to do with Jake Muzzin

Like the case of the team just being generally nice, I’m not sure there’s a solution for what they can do with Jake Muzzin, from a hockey perspective. It’s terrible the man is going through this, as all I hear is he’s everything a person aspires to be: caring, funny, hard-working, and just generally beloved. But beyond that deserved compassion, the Leafs have to figure out what to do on their back end, and Muzzin on LTIR handcuffs them a bit. They can spend that Muzzin money while he’s on LTIR, but if he’s to come back at some point they’ll need a solution.

This is where they have a better grasp on Muzzin’s situation than they’ll share publicly (his health is obviously personal business), and we’ll only know how serious everyone thinks things are by whether the Leafs choose to pursue someone to fill that void or not. If they don’t add a replacement, there’s also concern about what kind of player Muzzin will be when he does come back.

And finally,

All preseason predictions stand

Like Dennis Green once said, they are who we thought they were. Toronto is going to be good, a playoff team and maybe better. There will be on and off nights, the flashes of brilliance and tragedy that make them a delight to cover.

The big question is, if they look like the same team they’ve been, do they see themselves headed for the same ending? And if they do, will they do something more drastic to change course?

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