It’s deja-vu all over again for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they’re off to another poor start. Last season, they were 4-4-1 in the first month and their record in 2022-23 is very similar as they’re now 4-4-2 after another disastrous loss to the Anaheim Ducks. That’s not the kind of record you want as the team has clearly lost it’s way.
The Maple Leafs have been underwhelming as the bad habits that have plagued them from the past have once again returned. It seems like no matter how many times they’re in the same situation they never learn from their mistakes. If the Maple Leafs are going to have success from here on out, they’re going to have to buckle down if they want to be true Stanley Cup contenders.
What happened in the first month of the season, especially after their abysmal West Coast road trip, isn’t going to cut it if they want to be taken seriously. They’ve said how these are great opportunities to prove themselves, yet they’re always back in the same boat. Here are some guidelines that they need to follow before things continue to spiral out of control.
Note: All stats were accurate before puck drop.
Don’t Play Down to Opponent
Whenever it’s an opponent that is lower in the standings or a team that they should beat, the Maple Leafs struggle and play down to their opponent thinking that they can get by. Everything is harder for them as they let their guard down in those matchups.
The Maple Leafs have the firepower to be a dominant force. They have the reigning Rocket Richard winner and league MVP in Auston Matthews, two elite wingers in Mitch Marner and William Nylander and another top centreman in John Tavares, yet everyone goes quiet in games against the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks. That mentality isn’t going to get you anywhere if you think it’s going to be easy.
In the NHL, there’s no such thing as an easy game. No matter who the opponent is, you need to play as if your season is on the line. The Maple Leafs have the habit of being passive when playing teams below them in the standings and that right there is going to cost you valuable points. Winning teams don’t play down, they set the tone and make the opposition play to their standard. At the moment, the Maple Leafs are playing like a team that’s not engaged at all as they’re not mentally focused and prepared.
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There are enough veterans on this team to know how to play to a higher standard. It’s concerning that this team still needs to be brought up as they aren’t young and inexperienced anymore.
Start on Time
This plays into the first rule as they haven’t shown up consistently at the start of the game. Whether it was against the Coyotes, the Sharks or the first seven minutes in the game with the Los Angeles Kings, they need to be ready. All these players have been in the league long enough to know that if you don’t start on time, you’ll be lagging behind.
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When the Maple Leafs start a game flat footed; they’re disorganized, passes are not connecting and they’re not focussed on paying attention to the fine details in their game. So far, they’ve only scored seven goals in the first period and have allowed nine against. They only have one win when scoring first and zero wins when leading after one. With a cold offense and poor defensive play, constantly playing catchup will not work.
A stern message needs to be sent, either a team meeting needs to be held, or head coach Sheldon Keefe needs to show some tough love and let his team know that this lackadaisical start and play is inexcusable.
Even in the preseason, Keefe expressed his team’s lack of compete during a practice and told them that it wasn’t good enough. Although it came with an expletive, that kind of emotion needs to be present.
The Maple Leafs need to set the tone and dictate the pace from the opening draw. This team has an abundance of speed, skill and talent that this kind of passive and laid-back play is going to be a major reason why they won’t go far. They need to show the strengths in their game like they have done in the past and do it consistently. This team is too good to have this kind of lackluster offense that they’re currently playing with.
The fact that the Maple Leafs aren’t focussed and dialled in like many of the other top teams in the league is concerning. If they want to be successful, they’re going to have challenge, pressure and come out of the gates flying against their opponent. Start slow and then progressively get better up throughout the game isn’t going to cut it.
Don’t be Careless With the Puck
Needless to say, the Maple Leafs have been very careless with the puck in all three zones. Keefe has called out the top forwards and even said defense wasn’t good enough with the breakouts and passing against the Sharks, this is on the players to figure things out.
“Our inability to move the puck up the ice efficiently is slowing down our game on offence and really hurting our game defensively as well,” Keefe said the day after their loss to the Sharks according to TSN’s Mark Masters.
Over the last few games, the turnovers have been the reason why the Maple Leafs are down and in the situation that they’re in. They become self-inflicted wounds and it ends up being a gift for the opponent. The Maple Leafs are currently fourth in giveaways to start the season as they’ve turned the puck over 101 times in 10 games, yet, they’re second in takeaways with 93. They’re 14th in goals against per game with 3.00 and sixth in shots against with 28.7. **
While they can recover the puck extremely well and have done a good job to mitigate the amount of shots and goals against but when they give the puck up, their opponents capitalize on those opportunities. From the forwards to the defense, whenever the puck is on their stick, it leads to broken breakout plays, turnovers and a lot of time in their own end as a result of their poor decisions with the puck. They’re always in a bad spot and the outcome is costly as teams will take advantage of that opportunity.
There were two prime examples in their loss to the Kings.
On the second goal against, forward Pierre Egnvall does a great job to regain possession and exit the zone. However, a pass to no one results in a turnover as Phillip Danault walks in and finds Viktor Arvidsson to make it 2-1. At the start of the third period, Ramus Sandin loses positioning and turns the puck over and Kevin Fiala took advantage of it.
In those instances, the Maple Leafs are lacking the confidence, awareness and ability to make plays and it’s showing as they second guess themselves and end up failing to execute. Engvall had an opportunity to kill some time and just dump the puck in and Sandin wasn’t ready for the sustained pressure. Those kind of lapses and plays, whether it’s in the neutral or defensive zone, have been the Maple Leafs Achilles heel and they need to work on it as it’s those moments that cost them.
Once again, puck management was the reason for the Maple Leafs’ loss against the Ducks, especially in the third period. Marner had two turnovers resulting in goals and the team had some questionable moments in the second period. The Maple Leafs haven’t been consistent in playing smart like they have in the past. When you lose games like this, it’s ultimately on the players.
Intensity and Consistency
As it’s been said many times, the Maple Leafs need to find a way to play with purpose and intensity on a consistent basis and not just show up at certain points in the game. They need to show they have the fire in them every time they step on the ice. They need to be more assertive and show that they aren’t going to be walked all over or taken advantage of.
Even when things are going their way, when something happens the mistakes pile up and they can’t get out of their poor stretch. They can’t back down and be fragile when things take a turn for the worst. They’re going to have to find that mentality and drive in order to regroup and come back hungrier after a bad sequence.
There’s a lot to unpack with this team as they constantly continue to have embarrassing outings one after another. The clock is ticking away as they need to figure things out, before massive changes start coming.
Statistics from NHL.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.