It’s November, and as per usual, the walls are crashing in around the Toronto Maple Leafs. In Leafland, if there isn’t some sort of miraculous surprise to start the year, it is met as a disappointment. Years ago, we had Auston Matthews’ four-goal game and the hype that followed. The pleasant surprise that was Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and so on. Now, those surprises have grown into expectation; expectations from not just Toronto fans, but fans of other teams around the league.
Ultimately, understanding the NHL is more difficult than ever. The game is faster, there are more statistics and unexplained losses to go around. For those who do not watch the Leafs on a nightly basis, it is hard to understand why their start has seemed flat. For those dedicated fans, it’s a little easier, but it’s still unexpected.
Overall, the Leafs’ start has still been okay. Toronto currently sits 14th in the NHL with 62 games to go. That is definitely fine. Their special teams are underachieving, and their 5 on 5 play has slipped, but ultimately they are putting forth good efforts on average. Yet, many Leaf fans are up in arms about what the major source of the problem could be. These online debates range from whether the Leafs’ need to fire Mike Babcock, if the backup goaltending is largely to blame, or if Kyle Dubas should trade for more toughness, as if the Leafs’ are in crisis mode. Which sort of begs the question: are the Leafs’ actually in crisis mode?
The first thing I wondered is whether or not Stanley Cup champions from years’ past came out to a hot start. Comparing the Leafs’ start to past Stanley Cup champions, there are some encouraging signs.
- 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs: 20 games, 9-7-4, 14th in NHL, 5 back-to-backs (3-0-2 first half, 0-4-1 second half)
- 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks: 20 games, 13-5-2, 7th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (1-2-1 first half, 3-0-1 second half)
- 2010-2011 Boston Bruins: 20 games, 12-6-2, 11th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (2-2-0 first half, 2-1-1 second half)
- 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings: 20 games, 10-7-3, 10th in NHL, 2 back-to-backs (1-1-0 first half, 1-1-0 second half)
- 2012-2013 Chicago Blackhawks: 20 games, 17-0-3, 1st in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (3-0-1 first half, 4-0-0 second half)
- 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings: 20 games, 13-6-1, 9th in NHL, 3 back-to-backs (2-1-0 first half, 2-1-0 second half)
- 2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks: 20 games, 12-7-1, 12th in NHL, 3 back-to-backs (20th game was first half of a back-to-back, so 1-2-0 in first half, 1-1-0 second half)
- 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins: 20 games, 12-8-0, 10th in NHL, 2 back-to-backs (2-0-0 first half, 1-1-0 second half)
- 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins: 20 games, 12-5-3, 5th in NHL, 3 back-to-backs (2-0-1 first half, 0-1-2 second half)
- 2017-2018 Washington Capitals: 20 games, 10-9-1, 13th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (4-0-0 first half, 0-4-0 second half)
- 2018-2019 St. Louis Blues: 20 games, 7-10-3, 30th in NHL, 2 back-to-backs (1-0-1 first half, 0-2-0 second half)
Perhaps the first thing to notice is that none of the Cup winners from the past ten seasons got out to a particularly hot start, excluding the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. It does stand to reason that the first twenty games can be a glorified pre-season for teams, as long as they are good enough to steal some games on nights where they don’t play particularly well. For the Leafs, a hot top line or a dialled-in Frederik Andersen has stolen them a couple extra games. The same could be said about the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings, who played their way out of a playoff spot shortly after this 20-game benchmark, and had to play their way back in following a coaching change.
Here is a look at each of those teams records’ after the 10 games that would follow. After 30 games, there are still some notable numbers. For arguments’ sake, I am going to exclude the 2012-2013 Chicago Blackhawks. It is very clear that they were hockey voodoo on each end of the spectrum. Although I disagree with the take, a lot of people consider the 2012-13 Blackhawks to be one of the best teams’ of all-time. So, they don’t exactly factor into this as a typical team.
- 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks: 30 games, 19-8-3, 8th in NHL, 7 back-to-backs (2-4-1 first half, 5-0-2 second half)
- 2010-2011 Boston Bruins: 30 games, 16-10-4, 16th in NHL, 6 back-to-backs (3-3-0 first half, 3-2-1 second half)
- 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings: 30 games, 13-13-4, 24th in NHL, 5 back-to-backs (3-1-1 first half, 2-3-0 second half) *Coach Terry Murray fired after 29 games, eventually replaced by Darryl Sutter
- 2012-2013 Chicago Blackhawks: Hockey Voodoo, they won every game they ever played by 100 goals
- 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings: 30 games, 19-7-4, 5th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (3-1-0 first half, 3-1-0 second half)
- 2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks: 30 games, 20-9-1, 4th in NHL, 5 back-to-backs (30th game was first half of back-to-back, so 2-3-0 first half, 2-2-0 second half)
- 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins: 30 games, 15-12-3, 20th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (2-1-1 first half, 1-2-1 second half) *Coach Mike Johnston replaced after 28 games by Mike Sullivan
- 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins: 30 games, 20-7-3, 3rd in NHL, 5 back-to-backs (2-2-1 first half, 2-1-2 second half)
- 2017-2018 Washington Capitals: 30 games, 18-11-1, 9th in NHL, 5 back-to-backs (5-0-0 first half, 1-4-0 second half)
- 2018-2019 St. Louis Blues: 30 games, 12-14-4, 28th in NHL, 4 back-to-backs (3-0-1 first half, 0-4-0 second half) *Coach Mike Yeo replaced after 19 games by Craig Berube
A few of these teams were on the playoff bubble heading into Christmas. While none of these teams (excluding the Blues and 2011-2012 Kings) seemed to be having major issues, many of them were not exactly setting the world on fire. The fact is that the Leafs’ are in a very similar spot to many Cup champions of the past. Of the teams listed above, about half of them were “struggling” through 30 games.
We can chalk up the Maple Leafs’ perceived struggles to a few things. The first is that the defence has not exactly looked comfortable. Whether or not Cody Ceci is better or worse than Nikita Zaitsev for Toronto, he has looked out of place on Rielly’s pairing. Morgan Rielly has also been disoriented, and the adjustment period for his partner hasn’t helped that. That pair plays heavy minutes every night, and they probably should be playing a bit less. Jake Muzzin has been Toronto’s best defensemen by a country mile, but he’s played a large amount with Tyson Barrie, who is having a very difficult start as well. Barrie is clearly adjusting to a new system, but when many people considered him to be a solid upgrade to Jake Gardiner, expectation’s are high. He is not meeting the bare minimum right now. Barrie has no goals and just five assists with a 45.47 expected goals percentage (which puts him in the bottom quarter in the league) in 20 games. Not good, but he’s historically been a great player, so I’m still not panicking. Consider all of that with the fact that Travis Dermott is still getting back up to speed after missing time. The Leafs’ defence, which is better and deeper than last year, is still a work in progress.
Secondly, the Leafs’ are waiting on more of a contribution from many of their forwards. There has been a lack of consistency from forwards not named William Nylander, Ilya Mikheyev, and Auston Matthews. As the Leafs head on the road for 13 of the next 17 games, the Leafs’ need a better effort from their forwards. Without Mitch Marner, everybody is going to need to be better defensively. This is a big opportunity for guys like Frederik Gauthier, Ilya Mikheyev, and Trevor Moore. With Zach Hyman returning Wednesday night, there is no need for everybody to be in panic mode just yet about Marner’s injury, but it certainly isn’t a good thing.
Another issue has been Mike Babcock’s deployment of his star players. It has become very apparent to Leaf fans that Babcock is a big believer in what I would call the “Neutral Shift Fallacy.” By this, I mean that Mike Babcock would rather deploy players who are less likely to make a catastrophic mistake than players who are likely to create opportunities out of nothing. In Babcock’s final season in Detroit, forward Luke Glendening averaged 14:43 in ice-time through all 82 games, despite recording just 18 points. Babcock has often discussed how Glendening is a superior defensive player. While he definitely does have defensive IQ and is above average in the faceoff circle (just 51.8% in 2014-2015 though), he is not a player that will break the game open for you. Simply put, Mike Babcock would rather tie shifts than lose them. Hey, I can sympathize with that. I have coached hockey, and sometimes you have to think that way. The difference is that I did not have Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner-Pavel Datsyuk-level players at my disposal. Babcock has become unwilling to open the game up despite having a team built to do just that. Playing safe can often limit the offensive potential that a team has because that’s the whole point of playing safe; to slow the game down. The Leafs should be one of the fastest teams in the league, but they do not often look like it. Babcock’s unwillingness to adapt and use the roster they way it was built to be used reminds me of the 2011 baseball classic Moneyball, where Athletic’s GM Billy Beane constantly battles with coach Art Howe to use the team how it was meant to be built. I often wonder if Dubas and Babcock battle like that, and if they don’t, maybe they should at this point.
However, the thing that looms the largest from this data is how the Leafs’ have done on back-to-backs. It is worth noting that the Leafs’ have played more back-to-backs than any Stanley Cup champion in the last ten years. They have three more back-to-backs in the next eleven games, which is one more than the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks’ in terms of Stanley Cup champions. Perhaps the most notable detail about this is that the Leafs’ have not been particularly good in the second half of a back-to-back this year. While a lion’s share of the blame has been placed on Michael Hutchinson, the team in front of him has been weaker on the second night of the back-to-back. By calling up Kasimir Kaskisuo on Tuesday, the Leafs are hoping he can provide more stability than Hutchinson. Right now, the Leafs’ are relying on their goalie to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the second half of a B2B, but there is no question that they need to be better.
The Leafs’ sit 14th in the NHL. The fact of the matter is that many Stanley Cup champions in years past were fairly average coming out of the gate, and sputtered at some point of the year. The Leafs should not be treated as a disappointment quite yet. A lot of Leaf fans are getting very frustrated with this team on a nightly basis. While I would include myself in that grouping, it is important to stay focused. A team cannot win the Stanley Cup in November, but they certainly can lose it. Right now, they are playing well enough on average to make the playoffs, and that’s sort of the important thing. Without question, they need to be better. Their coach definitely needs to be better. They need to find a way to get more out of their back-to-backs because right now they feel like a death sentence. It would be unfair for us to think this season is spiralling out of control quite yet. Having said that, perhaps it will take something drastic to wake this group up. At some point, this train needs to get back on the right track.