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.