Current Maple Leafs Are Not a True Cup Contender Yet

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of one of their most successful starts to a season in team history. Their 32 wins in 50 games this season has them in a prime position to make the playoffs.

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But these are the Maple Leafs we are talking about. Simply getting to the playoffs is not good enough. Winning the Stanley Cup is their goal with their current group. After watching their 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, there’s only one conclusion I can make about them at this time.

These Maple Leafs are not a true Cup contender, at least not yet.

Maple Leafs Have Hard Work Ahead

In saying that the Maple Leafs are not a true Cup contender yet, they still have time to make important moves. We wrote on Tuesday that they are one of the teams under the most pressure to get things right at the trade deadline.

Related: 3 Teams Under Most Pressure at 2022 NHL Trade Deadline

Specifically, the Maple Leafs are facing two serious issues that have them in the tier below the top contenders. The Lightning, Panthers, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Hurricanes comprise the tier of top Cup contenders. The Maple Leafs are close but slot in just below this group.

But why? First, their goaltending of late has not been good. They are one of the worst teams in 5-on-5 save percentage since Dec 1.

Jack Campbell while good at times has not played to the level he’s capable of. Tuesday night provided a snapshot of where he’s at with his game. He admitted postgame that they should have had the two points. He put the blame on himself for the defeat.

He’s right. Campbell could have been better. After allowing Patrik Laine to snipe him in the second period, he allowed a long distance goal to Adam Boqvist and then allowed a five-hole goal to Brendan Gaunce that gave the Blue Jackets the lead. Both shots should have been handled. It ultimately cost his team a point.

Given the state of the playoff race, every point is important for the Maple Leafs. These lost points could cost them home-ice advantage later in the playoffs. Campbell is normally a source of strength. But not as of late. And it’s starting to catch up to the Maple Leafs.

The Defense

Campbell should recover as we wind down the season. That’s not the biggest concern. The biggest concern now for the Maple Leafs is their defense specifically in their bottom-four.

To put it mildly, it’s a mess. The top pair of Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie are fine. But below them is trouble. It reared its ugly head Tuesday night. Sheldon Keefe will have some interesting decisions to make.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe is not getting enough from his defense overall. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Newcomer Ilya Lyubushkin made his Maple Leafs’ debut. While he was noticeable and was physical as advertised, he found himself in a bad position trying to chase Gaunce down before he scored in the third period. He wasn’t brought to Toronto as the defensive savior. He was brought there to give them a different element they were lacking. He should be fine in that role moving forward. But in a top-four role in the playoffs, I’m not sure the Leafs want that.

Given the Jake Muzzin situation, the Maple Leafs now must turn their attention to their defense and address it if they hope to knock off the top contenders. Luckily for them they have some options especially if they have to tap into LTIR should Muzzin land there.

Do they revisit Jakob Chychrun? He does have term and would provide a solid top-four for them. Maybe they look at Hampus Lindholm in Anaheim? No matter what direction they look, this must be the Maple Leafs’ priority. They cannot start these playoffs and not add a top-four defender to their group.

Justin Holl was a scratch Tuesday night. Travis Dermott made a misplay on the 2-1 goal. Both of these players have been in rumors for some time. The opportunity has been there for someone to step up and take ownership in the bottom-four. But it hasn’t happened the way the Maple Leafs have hoped.

Kyle Dubas’ Most Important Deadline Ever

There’s no other way to look at this situation. This trade deadline is the most important one in Dubas’ tenure. He must find the right deal in order to solidify their backend. He has different options available to him.

Dubas could elect to use LTIR as we talked about earlier. He could choose to broker a deal with a team who has cap room and create something that way.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is facing his most important trade deadline ever. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

It’s not a matter of if the Maple Leafs do something. It’s a matter of what all they do. They cannot lose in the first round again. Doing so could bring massive changes for next season.

Personally, they should try to see if Chychrun is available and then hope Muzzin is ready for the playoffs. He is out indefinitely with a concussion and hope nothing but the best for his recovery. If this were to happen, the Maple Leafs could run:

  • Rielly-Brodie
  • Chychrun-Muzzin
  • Sandin-Lyubushkin

That’s a marked improvement from their current situation. If not Chychrun, insert name of top-four defenseman in his place. You get the idea. You see its importance.

But don’t discount the Maple Leafs also looking for help up front. During the first intermission on Tuesday night, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman made a suggestion that the Maple Leafs could elect to look at a player like J.T. Miller. They have to explore every possible avenue if they hope to get past one of the Florida teams in the first round.

In Conclusion

The Maple Leafs are off to one of their best starts ever but find themselves in a position where they are not quite a Cup contender yet. Their goaltending has vastly underperformed of late and their defense is a massive work in progress.

Change feels inevitable. It’s just a matter of what deal or deals Dubas can find.

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It is certainly not too late for the Maple Leafs. One or two good deals can put them into the top tier given their skill. But the onus is on Dubas to put the team in the best possible position to make a deep playoff run.

Right now, they’re not there. We’ll find out in one month’s time if they are able to do enough to bridge the wide gap that currently exists between them and the NHL’s elite.