18

The Leafs aren’t just mediocre, they’re boring

The Leafs haven’t won a game in regulation since December 28th, which is also the last time they scored more than three goals in a game. Perhaps surprisingly, this hasn’t bitten them like you’d think it would, and they still sit well ahead of the next team in the Atlantic standings (Detroit as of now), but good lord, has anyone enjoyed watching this team for the last two months?

At the beginning of the season I wrote a little about how the Leafs, poised to be an offensive juggernaut, could actually surpass the 300-goal mark on the season, something that hasn’t been done in seven seasons. And for the first month and a half of this campaign, they were on track to do just that. Not only were they scoring a ton, they somehow had been a tad unlucky and had room to score even more.

All of that seems like a lifetime ago, because every ounce of excitement has been drained from this club over the last eight weeks or so. Stretch passes, dump-ins, deflections, icings, Polak, what an absolute snore this product has become.

Did I mention they’re painfully mediocre?

If Toronto was in the Metro division, they’d have five teams nipping at their heels right now and a real chance of missing the playoffs, but because the Atlantic is a sewer, they still sit comfortably in third place with not much to worry about…yet.

But maybe that’s the problem. The sense of urgency or panic just isn’t there, so the criticism has stayed pretty light to this point.

Still, it’s apparent even management sees there has been a struggle to some extent:

“…if you were to say in September that we’d have 53 points in 45 games, you’d take it. But you pinch yourself and look at the systematic parts of it. We score goals but we’re giving up too many at certain times in the game, so you break down your game, five on five, power play, penalty kill, and go back to the decision making process on the ice, when and where to take chances … but overall you feel good about the team, and the best part of it is, I don’t feel we are at the level we are capable of. That’s the extreme positive for us at this point.”

The funny thing about this quote is while the last part is true – the Leafs should be better – the reasoning is hilariously off. Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

Want to know what Mike Johnston’s record was as coach of the Penguins in his time there a few years back? 58-37-15. The guy wasn’t even a disaster results-wise, but he took a team with the best horses in the game and fenced them all in. He got canned, and Mike Sullivan came in and blew the doors off to the tune of back-to-back Cups.

The Leafs legitimately have five potential 30-goal threats on their team, one of them being a 50-goal threat. They are loaded with offence and should play to that strength. Instead they sit as a middle-of-the-pack puck possession team that can’t generate scoring worth a damn, and the concern from the team seems to be that they’re still not bottled up enough.

It’s difficult to point to any specific players performing poorly because, honestly, the talented guys still seem to be able to put it on display in flashes. But even when a player like Matthews, Kadri or Marleau seem to get anything buzzing, it quickly dies on the vine. The deployment is all over the place, extremely puzzling, and we see guys like Komarov and Polak getting monster minutes and just anchoring everything down. That’s on coaching.

Any losing streak or rough patch is a frustrating time for fans, especially when the team is giving away games late the way the Leafs have these last couple weeks. What’s most jarring about this stretch is just how dull the team has been in the run of play, and in the bigger picture, concern should be mounting about how they haven’t taken a step forward from last year. When it’s all said and done, they may have taken a step back.

  • lukewarmwater

    Ryan great psting sorry I’m half asleep here I meant to say posting. Yawnnnn, no, no I”m not yawning at your article. But its the leaf man they put me to sleep, yawnnnnnnnn, I mean I had this insomnia for the longest time and now I watch the leafs and all I do is fall a sleep zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  • Glen

    What can you say, I don’t like the way they are playing but who am I to question Babcock? I just hope this big picture plan of his works in the playoffs. One thing to keep in mind despite all the noise about Babcock his teams have had little success in the playoffs in the last ten years. The way this team is playing now baffles me. I don’t expect them to win every game but this?

    • lukewarmwater

      Glen I always appreciate your astute postings. I caught on to Babcock’s style in the last Winter Olympics as you pointed out despite having some very good Detroit teams he didn’t have that much success in the playoffs.
      That last Olympic team was loaded with scorers, both forwards and defencemen. Yet he insisted on playing a boring defensive style and a guy like Subban simply didn’t dress in one of the important games as Babcock wanted everything picture perfect, no gambles, no mistakes from the defence. In other words a low scoring , boring style of hockey. Yep it got a gold medal with Price at his prime and an excellent defence that could also play two ways.
      I get he is a good coach but man to some extent the fans and particularly the media think this guy can walk on water. There is a certain arrogance to the man that is grating as was illustrated when he gave a young female reporter a hard time this season. It reminds me of John Gibbons who one night phoned Mike Wilmer’s after the Blue Jay game show in which Gibbons mocked the callers by sarcastically trying to imitate them. John was right, after all these mere peasants and mere mortals were just fans of the game. They hadn’t been involved at a professional level for more than 30 years. But guess what John Gibbons. Guess what Bob Babcock those ordinary fans are the FREAKING PEOPLE PAYING YOUR $50 MILLION.

  • CMpuck

    How is the shooting percentage of the team? It seems like Marner and Nylander aren’t burying their chances from the eye test.

    Again, I advocate that if they aren’t going to run with offense, then why hold onto Bozak and JVR just flip them.

  • Capt.Jay

    I’ve been leery of Babcock since about game 10 of this season when I notice he would blast certain players through the Internet. Marner and especially Nylander the most. Even when they’d win he’d ridicule a player on one thing or another and say they played a sloppy game. He had negative comments about the opening game against Winnipeg which was 7-2 I think and of the NYR game which was 8-5. Yes they were sloppy but it was a win against good teams. This team scored their way out of trouble at will and he’d rake them over the coals in the media.

    Now he has them playing a boring defensive style that none of our core have ever played at any level and they can’t do it. He has them so wound up that even Matthews doesn’t appear to have the same jump lately.

    The hockey central panel even mentioned today that Babcock looks lost. Im ok with the loses but my biggest concern will be if there is any long lasting effects on this core group moving forward and into the future. Changing the way a player plays after drafting him for reasons that got him drafted in the first place is ridiculous asset management. Marner looks too scared to shoot (even moreso than normal) and Nylander looks scared to take any chances.

    I’m getting worried.

  • Brandon

    I’ve seen it said elsewhere, but I don’t think the approach being taken, which is to “try to make them play the right way” is workable. This isn’t a team of dump and chase players. There are other teams that don’t resort to this and still don’t get killed in the neutral zone trap. Surely we can learn from what they’re doing. Is this all being done to short Nylander and Marner in coming contracts? If so, I really hope the exercise doesn’t just destroy their confidence long-term. Are some of the strange deployment patterns about pumping JVR for a trade (low competition, 1st PP unit)? Maybe, but I’m not sure. Ultimately, I hope Babcock isn’t using his Olympic success as a template. He could choose the type of players he wanted to fit his style in the olympics. Also, lower risk strategies work great in the Olympics, where a single loss can dump you out of the tournament. Over a seven game series, I see evidence that low event teams (Kings) can have success, but that they can also flop out. And to be clear, the leafs aren’t built like the Kings. So I’m not sure they can ever play that way, and I’m not sure I want them to.

  • jimithy

    A week off. Fishing swimming and soaking up the sun when they should be going over the videos and identifying and then correcting all their head scratching mistakes.
    This team looks terrible and uninterested.
    Babcock is a phony baloney who should be fired for not fulfilling his side of the deal. But his contract means the team is stuck with this loser for awhile to come. What else is new.
    Now it’s over half a century that this franchise has failed the fans.

  • jimithy

    Lamoreillo is unqualified and completely out to lunch. The parts of this team that are guilty of having no upside are the very ones Lamoreillo sees as promising additions to his rebuild.
    Somebody has connections.

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