It’s okay to be skeptical about the Leafs

When I was younger, I had a yearly habit of keeping physical track of the Leafs’ point totals on the season, crossing off each point they’d earned on a list heading all the way up to 95 immediately following each game. 95 was the number, I figured, that would undoubtedly guarantee a playoff berth for Toronto. (It’s been accurate in 4 of the last 5 full seasons in the Eastern conference, save for a 2014-15 96-point Bruins team who saw themselves on the outside.)  

The countdown was a nice visual reminder of both the pain of being a Leafs fan, but also a way to stay optimistic about the team’s postseason chances. After 2 or 3 years of unsuccessfully doing that in the late 2000s, I figured if I wasn’t cursing the team, at the very least it wasn’t exactly helping matters. 

59% of the way through the season, the Leafs are 57% of the way there to that 95-point benchmark. 

And if there’s ever been a time when it’s been harder to figure out exactly what the Leafs are, it’s probably right now. After a stretch of hot play, the 3-game losing streak has some fans on edge. 

Just about everyday, there’s the conversation going on: Are these Leafs good enough for a playoff berth?

Well, it’s natural to be optimistic, but it’s also quite fair to be skeptical of the Leafs right now.

I should add that like many Leafs fans in the pre-analytics era, I tended to be clouded by homerism.

There was always some sort of justification about why the Leafs would qualify for the postseason.

They went from reasonable to laughable. You can decide which is which:

  • Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Jeff O’Neill has been exactly what the Leafs are missing! 
  • Jonas Gustavsson is probably already a top-5 goalie in the league.
  • They almost beat Boston, so they’re only going to get better!
  • If Jason Blake scored 40 before, he’ll do it again!
  • Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are the league’s top offensive duo!

And so on… since 2004, that prediction’s been right twice: in the shortened season of 2013, and last season, when for the first time I’d predicted they’d miss it.

Fastforward to today. It’s hard to argue that this season’s been anything but fun, and it’s a step in the right direction. They’re not, of course, yet contenders. Perhaps a few pieces away from being elite, or just a little bit of aging, it’s obvious that barring a miracle, they won’t be Stanley Cup Champions come June, 

But this is Toronto, and merely making the playoffs would be satisfactory for many.

With every passing game, it seems like the picture gets a little less clear of exactly how good this team is… it’s okay to be skeptical about the Leafs

Let’s get some points out of the way.

The Leafs are fun

You can look at a lot of stats that will compliment the Leafs. Total points percentage, time spent with the lead, Auston Matthews’ goal total, Frederik Andersen’s save percentage. Heck, just look at the team’s +5 goal differential and you can tell that they’re doing more right than they’re doing wrong.But, the second half of the seasons is clouded with “ifs”.

The Leafs are young

Though there’s a serious lack of NHL playoff experience, it’s tough to assume that will be the reason for the Leafs’ downfall this season. Looking at a team featuring more than a few key players from the Marlies’ run last postseason, Mitch Marner’s Memorial Cup Championship and a man behind the bench in Mike Babcock who’s done and won this whole playoffs thing before, it’s not a problem that should plague the Leafs should they match up with a more experienced team in the first round.

But the thing is, the Leafs still have to, you know, get there. There’s two teams in Florida who have been both recent visitors to the postseason, one of which . Tampa is still under a year removed from a Conference Final visit and wouldn’t be the most surprising team for a late-season surge. 

Which leads us to our last, and probably most important point:

The Leafs are volatile

Hockey is a fickle sport. Whether it’s something that needs to be coached out of their system, just a product of bad luck, the Leafs are performing a way of hockey right now that’s seen them become notorious for blowing third period leads. This is a team that’s generating the third most shots for at 5v5 while allowing the fourth-most against. And while they’ve allowed their strong offence to bail them out of many situations this season, this is still a team that’s failed to win more often than not. And that’s the bottom line. The numbers might swing their way in some categories, it might not quite swing their way in other categories. It’s looking quite like it’s going to be the matter of a coin flip.

A lack of consistent dominance this year makes the Leafs fun (or excruciating), but it also makes them easily susceptible to missing out on the postseason. And whether they make it there may have to do with catching heat at just the right time. 

Take a look at the standings and you can see how tight it is. They haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt yet that they’re going to be an annual contender.

Whether the Leafs are playing come mid-April right now is anybody’s best guess, but there’s nothing wrong with losing a little confidence in them.