I am as guilty as anyone else of turning the NHL into “How The Maple Leafs Turn.”You spend enough time commenting on how everyone’s always commenting on the Leafs, and well, you’re then part of the problem. But every time the Leafs do something, it’s generally causing some sort of ripple given their outsized relevance to the league.
And what they’re doing now is sending everyone in the GTA into hysterics once again, even though it’s October. That “October” part may sound ridiculous, and in some ways it is, but the way the NHL and its playoff system works is that you’d better be in a playoff spot in the next few weeks or it gets awfully tricky to elbow your way in from the outside. With the Bruins not having any fall-off so far from their usual high standard, and the Sabres and Wings looking at least spikier than they did last season, the Atlantic Division is not a place you want to be crawling back from the outer rim in.
So the Leafs just had a Western swing in which they drew an 0-fer. Lost in Vegas. Lost in San Jose. Lost the SoCal back-to-back. They’ve played 10 games, more than all but two teams in the East. And going by points-percentage, they’re on the ass-end of the division and only have Columbus beat in the conference. Not exactly to the standard that Leafs Nation demands, is it? 4-4-2 is not a pace that’s going to get them anywhere, obviously.
The Leafs’ issues were obvious before the season started. One, they were counting on Matt Murray to not just be good, but to be able to stand up for more than 11 consecutive minutes. This is Matt Murray we’re talking about, so naturally he’s only played one game so far this season and is still out for some time yet. This is what the Leafs signed up for by choosing Murray to be their guy. And that choice and the subsequent and utterly predictable injury absence is why they had to turn some starts over to Eric Kallgren, who is not an NHL goalie. He’s been crushed in all three of his starts, all losses (though two in OT). Normal backup Ilya Samsonov has been fine to good, but he obviously can’t play every game.
The other problem, and it’s been the problem for the Leafs for years now, is that their bottom six just isn’t good. It’s hard for it to be given all the money tied up in the top six, but this is acute. David Kampf, Nic Robertson, Calle Järnkrok, Zach Aston-Reese, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel are all running sub-50 percent Corsi ratings and expected goals shares.
Now to be fair to these guys, that is sort of the job on the Leafs’ bottom six forwards. The offensive zone starts mostly go to the tricked-out top two lines to score, and the bottom six has to shovel the shit. But someone here has to turn the ice over, and no one is. This is where Kyle “Rivers” Dubas has truly failed the Leafs, in that with the sporadic draft picks he’s had he hasn’t found anyone who can fill out the bottom six roles for minimum salaries that can buy them more room from what they’re spending on their biggest toys.
Some of the Leafs’ problems weren’t all that foreseeable, though. The main one being that John Tavares’ line has been woeful defensively. Yes, Tavares is leading the team in scoring, though seven of his 10 points have come on the power play. At even-strength, even though Tavares’ line starts 62 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, his attempts-share and expected goals share is under water. Tavares’ individual metrics — expected goals, attempts per game, and scoring chances per game — are all the lowest they’ve been since he arrived in Toronto. He hasn’t scored at even strength yet this year.
Another problem, though one that will be quickly solved, is that Auston Matthews can’t drop a puck onto a public park at the moment. Matthews is only shooting six percent, some 10 points below his career average. The good news is that he’s averaging the highest mark in his career in shots, chances, and expected goals per game of his career, so there almost certainly will be an explosion of goals very soon. Had he hit just his career mark in shooting percentage, he’d have three or four more goals already, which probably would have resulted in two or three more points for the Leafs somewhere.
The penalty kill is another area of concern, though how that will go is a little hard to tell. The actual structure of the PK is fine, as the Leafs are fourth in the league in expected-goals against while a man short. But they also have the fourth-worst save percentage while on the kill, which is the biggest reason why they have the 23rd-ranked penalty kill. Will Murray’s return guarantee that will get better? That’s dicey.
The Leafs may be hoping a return home will solve most of everything, but that’s dicey as well. In November, they’ll see the Penguins three times, the Devils twice, the Bruins, the Canes, the Knights, Sabres, and Wings. None of those teams are pushovers, and even if the Leafs do well, how much ground will they make up? Basically for the entirety of the cap era, 75 percent of the teams that are in playoff spots at Thanksgiving stay there. You can come in from the cold, but given the depth of the Atlantic, the Leafs aren’t going to want to have to blaze through the last two months of the season, say, while playing most of their games in a division where everyone is at least serviceable. There are no easy nights.
Still, Murray, when he returns, is an improvement on Kallgren, whatever he might actually be. Matthews is going to score a ton of goals one day soon. While fingers are always pointed at the defense, and it might not have a Makar or Josi, it’s mostly been good. They need to get Justin Holl pointed in the right way or find a replacement, but having one defective cog out of six isn’t the worst place to be. Things will turn around.
Probably in time for them to lose in the first round again. That’s where the real fun is.