Will the Maple Leafs’ Nightmare End?

The start of the NHL season hasn’t been kind to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even with Halloween over, the nightmare still continues.

With the calendar changing to November, it’s time for the team to find their identity and be the team that everyone had high expectations for. Other clubs, such as the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, are in the same boat in still trying to find some consistency.

The issue so far is not the losing, but more of how the Leafs are losing. Poor positioning, bad goaltending, bad penalties and sloppy play have us all questioning the make-up of this team. This is difficult to grasp as general manager Kyle Dubas went and made some really great changes to try and improve this team as well as locking up the core players long term.

Sure, Dubas could’ve made some better decisions, however, the on-ice product and performance falls on the coach and the players on executing their game plan. With everything that is currently unfolding, will there be any changes coming?

Is Mike Babcock’s Time Running Out?

I remember when the Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as head coach of the team. When the announcement was made, he was viewed as the saviour and the man to lead the team to the Stanley Cup championship.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock could be on the hot seat if the team still struggles. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

During that span, the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs three out of the four years. However, they haven’t made it out of the first round. Even though Dubas has come out and said that he’s “all in” with Babcock as the coach, is his leash shorter now than in the early stages of this rebuild? If so, when would be the right time to cut ties with Babcock and add a new coach with a new mentality and game plan behind the bench?

The Maple Leafs have had a rough start to the season after 14 games, with four sets of back to back games, poor defense and backup goaltending, They sit fourth in the Atlantic Division with a 6-5-3 record.

At some point, Babcock is going to have to go above and beyond to get this team back on track. We know the Leafs can score, but their play away from the puck has always been the reason for the team’s downfall. If Babcock can’t get it done, then Dubas is going to have to try and salvage this season with a coaching change.

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

When current Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe signed an AHL extension, many believed that at one point he would be Mike Babcock’s successor. With a 195-87-30 record and a Calder Cup under his name, Keefe is the perfect candidate for the job when the time comes. Putting his connection with Dubas aside, Keefe is a coach who can adapt while playing a mix of skilled guys and strong depth players that can dominate in all three zones.

With this troubling start to the season, Babcock’s seat just got even warmer. If it gets worse, Dubas will have to make a tough choice.

Defensive Woes Continue

Babcock is only part of the problem. The other weight falls on the players for not executing plays properly. On most nights that is the case, but just the effort overall is lackluster considering the high-end talent this team possesses.

Here’s a look at the Maple Leafs total numbers from last season compared to this year.

Shots For/ Game33.4 (4th)32.6 (11th)
Shots Against/ Game33.1 (24th)32.8 (23rd)
Goals For286 (4th)49 (2nd)
Goals Against249 (20th)48 (29th)
Goals For/ Game3.49 (4th)3.50 (8th)
Goals Against/ Game3.04 (20th)3.43 (22nd)

The Maple Leafs can put up points on a nightly basis. Defensively, however, they continue to be a major mess in their own end with the number of shots against and goals against. The trend from the previous season is continuing into this year, tops in the league in shots and scoring, but also in the bottom in defensive categories.

If we want to delve further into the advanced metrics and heat charts, this supports the theory of the team being bad defensively.

Toronto Maple Leafs 5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates Against, 2018-19. Image from hockeyviz.com
Toronto Maple Leafs 5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates Against, 2019-20. Image from hockeyviz.com

Comparing from 2018-19 (first image) to 2019-20 (second image), there are barely any changes to how the Maple Leafs decreased the amount of shots on net. Although they do a good job down low in front of the net, the red in the high danger area is very concerning.

We knew the team might struggle defensively, but this is worse than anyone expected. The best example of this is Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.

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When you give up the opportunities and chances that the Leafs did against the Canadiens, you’re not going to have much success. The consistency from game to game and the effort that they give isn’t there compared to other teams.

It even got to a point where Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin weighed in on their recent play. Defense wins championships, and if the Maple Leafs want to win a Stanley Cup, they’re going to have to be more tough to play against in their own zone. The coverage, awareness and being aggressive on the puck carrier needs to be there.

Wait and See Before Making Any Changes

As much as Leafs Nation wants to see change or better results, the Maple Leafs did manage to stay above a .500 average and in a wild card spot. With captain John Tavares’ broken finger, the team was also down two key players as a result of offseason surgeries from the start of the season.

Although, there was some good news as Travis Dermott was able to return against the Washington Capitals.

While we await the return of Hyman and Tavares, we will see how well the team will perform with a strong two-way defender and aggressive fore-checker back in the fold.

It’s tough for any team to play well when three key regulars are out of the lineup. There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs are a more complete team. Once they’re back, it would be unfair to jump and make any decisions about either the coach or the roster without giving them a chance.

The best thing to do is to wait and see how well this team will do when they have their regulars playing more games. If we start to see some improvements, then we know that injuries and other factors played a part in their slow start. But if their play in October carries over into November and December, then Dubas has some tough decisions to make.

Mike Babcock Maple Leafs
Even with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ struggles, it would be best to wait and see how the team will improve before making any major decisions. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Teams always go through tough stretches during a season, but some have always come out on top in the face of adversity. With the Maple Leafs, we’ve seen the same thing from them multiple times. How many times can a team make the same mistakes over and over again and not learn from it?

This team needs to take ownership of their play. If there are changes coming and the team is still performing at a subpar level, then this season will be a failure. The window to win is still open, but for how long?