Why Aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs Trying Harder?

The Toronto Maple Leafs are now at the 20-game mark in the schedule. Should the team continue to play as it has, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t even make the playoffs this season. After all the hype and hopes the team carried with them before the season began, that’s simply gobsmacking.

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As a hockey commentator, I admit I’m simply not wise enough to figure out what’s wrong with the team or why it isn’t playing better. But that someone in the Maple Leafs organization can’t figure it out seems troubling to me. These folks are supposed to know what they’re doing. I only know what I see, and what I see isn’t working that well.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Furthermore, for all the chatter about a trade for a backup goalie, a horrible schedule, or being hurt by injuries, I think those are not the biggest issues. To me, the team simply looks disorganized and seems to lack consistency in the “try” department. That is, at times other teams seem to outwork them. Not all the time, mind you, but enough where the mistakes made become costly.

Comparing the Maple Leafs Game to the Raptors Game

Two Toronto teams played games on Wednesday, Nov. 13, and I was able to watch both because of the time zones in which the games were played. The Maple Leafs lost to the New York Islanders by a score of 5-4 and the Toronto Raptors beat the Portland Trail Blazers by a score of 114-106. It was really a tale of two teams, under similar circumstances, with totally different results.

I admit that watching the Maple Leafs lose to the Islanders was one of the most frustrating games I’ve seen, and you might detect that frustration as a subtext within this post. In contrast, watching the Raptors beat the Trail Blazers was one of the most heartening games I’ve seen.

The Maple Leafs, to my eye, played really hard some of the time. The Raptors, to my eye, played really hard all of the time. And, in short, the differences in the two teams’ “try” (how hard they worked to win) seemed exceedingly different.

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When the Maple Leafs really tried, they dominated the play and had virtually all the offense. They were able to keep the puck in the Islanders’ end and away from their own goalie Frederik Andersen. And, it seems obvious to me that, when the puck’s in the other team’s end, you won’t get scored on.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The other difference I saw was how each coach organized his players to take advantage of how the opponent was playing. Granted, hockey and basketball differ and there was a time during the second period of the Islanders/Maple Leafs game where the teams went over seven minutes of game time without a whistle. That wouldn’t happen in basketball, so coaching each sport differs in that way. However, the Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had workable responses about how to organize his team in ways that Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock didn’t.

Where Analytics Fail

I read this review of the game’s analytics last night. “Toronto boasted the majority of possession against the Islanders, posting a Corsi For rating of 62.37% while generating 54.72% of the scoring chances.”

That’s no doubt true. However, here’s one place where the numbers mean very little to me. What I saw was that, when the Maple Leafs really worked hard, they were hugely successful. But there were also times – not many of them, but enough – when the team simply seemed overwhelmed by the play of the Islanders.

The first part of the third period was one of them. What’s the difference? I’m not certain, but the team defense looked disorganized.

Defenseman Jake Muzzin spoke to what I saw when he said, “We’re just having some weird lapses through the game and it’s costing us. We just have to be sharper throughout a full 60, shift to shift, more focused, better preparation and we’ll come out on top in these games.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Again, basketball differs. A lapse in basketball can cost a few points; but, in hockey, it can cost the game. In the Islanders game, the team’s lapses cost them the game.

I appreciate that Muzzin has reported what I’ve seen. I saw the Maple Leafs switch from focused to unfocused and, in hockey, because there are so few goals scored, the lack of focus (lapses) can be deadly.

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Although the Maple Leafs offense dominated during the second period, they couldn’t get a shot on goal during two power-play chances. And, the team gave up two goals when the Islanders had the power play. Those two problems were enough to seal the team’s defeat. Had the special teams been better, the Maple Leafs likely would have won the game.

Frederik Andersen Is not Infallible

Give Anderson credit. He looked amazing during the first four games of November, posting a 3-0-1 record, with a 1.66 GAA, and a .938 save percentage. And, during the first part of the season, he carried the team to a number of victories.

However, in the Islanders game, he only looked good for part of the game. Specifically, both Anthony Beauvillier’s goals seemed soft. He wasn’t ready for the sneaky backhand Beauvillier fired through his legs.

I have two thoughts. First, as I’m watching this season particularly, goalies are often at the mercy of how the team plays in front of them. And, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares admitted as much when he said the team let backup goalie Michael Hutchinson down. Last night, they did the same thing to Andersen – and, he lost. That might not be exactly on him. Still, he isn’t infallible either.

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Second, Babcock protected Andersen by suiting him up in the easier games – not so much against the easier teams, but in easier circumstances. Specifically, Babcock’s philosophy is to play the backup in the second game of back-to-backs. I get it, but Andersen and his overall record benefits.

Currently, after the Islanders game, Andersen sports a 9-3-3 with a 2.72 GAA and .912 save percentage. It was his first regulation loss in more than a month (since Oct. 10).

So Here the Maple Leafs Sit

So here the Maple Leafs sit. I can only imagine how the players feel. I believe they expected to make the playoffs easily; alas, that hasn’t been the case. The team seems to be struggling because it can’t put together a solidly consistent effort for an entire game. Call it a lapse or a lack of focus, but it’s killing chances of winning.

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The team has shown it can dominate, but it hasn’t yet shown the consistent “try” to do so. It’s not simply bad luck.

In that way, the Maple Leafs differ from their Toronto counterparts the Raptors. I’m hoping that I will soon be looking forward to watching both teams play. Right now, I look forward more to the Raptors where I know what I’m going to get night after night. I hope the Maple Leafs will get there soon.