Maple Leafs Must Pass the Test During Rough Stretch

Things could definitely be looking better for the Toronto Maple Leafs early on in the 2021-22 season. In the midst of a four-game losing streak, including one of the most embarrassing games to date, the struggles that many in the fan base are all too familiar with continue to be prominent in every game we’ve seen.

Related: Maple Leafs Are Not in the Same League as Contenders

For a team that’s way past its rebuild phase and in contention to battle for a Stanley Cup, it’s deeply concerning that they still play the same way season after season. Yes, teams do go through tough stretches. But when the effort level is not present and you make the same mistakes constantly, the fan base will continue to be restless. This team hasn’t seen any growth overcoming obstacles as they appear to be stuck in a holding pattern.

Something’s Got to Give

How do you fix a team that has constantly continued to play the same way that they have for the past six seasons? They know what the problems are. Yet, they haven’t learned from past losses where they lose in the most embarrassing ways. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, like losing to a Zamboni driver, it does. Most recently, the 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter and Bryan Rust.

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

After going up 1-0 against the Carolina Hurricanes and having a somewhat better start (even it may not have shown), the old habits once again crept in. I can understand if they were in the first three years of the rebuild, but this is an established group. At this point, something’s got to give.

It’s always the same old story. The Maple Leafs suffer a humiliating defeat and say that it’s a lesson learned. Yet, in the end, the same outcomes always occur. At what point do the players say, “enough is enough” and finally get their act together that this isn’t the result that they want? 

Defenceman Jake Muzzin’s post game comments were very telling after their loss to the Penguins. While he hasn’t played to the level that we’ve seen him, he took it very seriously as this is a test for the team

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This team boasts four players who can easily get 80 points plus a Rocket Richard winner. In addition, the defence remains in tact after they improved tremendously last season. While it’s still early on in the season, things can change. But this group needs to come together and play like they know they can. 

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This is a team that has been taking the test for years and has failed completely. It’s as if they haven’t studied on where they need to make adjustments. They say they need to be better in postgame conferences, but we have yet to see any sort of improvement as they constantly fall short of their goal. When you don’t study, you don’t see results. Until they buckle down, get to work and pass the test, they will continue to fail and not win crucial games. 

Lack of Energy and Compete

Whatever you want to call it; a lack of confidence, missing killer instinct, no compete, no push back, no energy, the Maple Leafs have lacked those aspects that make good teams better teams. Or even Stanley Cup contenders. This issue has been at the forefront for a number of years.

T.J. Brodie Toronto Maple Leafs
T.J. Brodie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

It seems like whenever the Maple Leafs’ have a hill to climb, like coming back after two goals were scored in 15 seconds against the Penguins, they crack under pressure. While the Maple Leafs did lose to a team that appears to be miles ahead of where they want to be, it was their response where they didn’t have an answer after the Hurricanes scored three goals in a row. 

They panic whenever pressure sets in. That’s not a good sign for a team that should be among the best in the league. Even Muzzin noticed that the anger from what happened in the playoffs isn’t there. In theory, it could be a big reason why the Maple Leafs could be 6-0-1 or 5-1-1 playing with that as motivation. Instead, they are 2-4-1. 

I’ve always said the Maple Leafs need to find that next level and play with a sense of urgency. Through seven games, we’re not seeing any of that. Not from John Tavares, Mitch Marner or even the rest of this roster. The fact that there’s no ire or high level of drive and determination with this group is concerning. 

Great teams channel their past failures into success. Knowing the Maple Leafs and what they’ve been through, it really shouldn’t be a problem with the list that they have. It’s clearly evident that they still lack in that department. If being up 3-1 in a playoff series and losing doesn’t fuel the fire for the Maple Leafs, what would it take for them to play with energy, work ethic and a compete level?

Offensive and Power Play Woes Continue

While William Nylander and Jason Spezza are carrying the offensive load, the rest are struggling to find results. In particular, Tavares (three points in seven games) and Marner (one assist) who have struggled lately. A positive is that the Maple Leafs rank seventh in Corsi for percentage with 54.09 and eighth in scoring chances for with 53.73 at five-on-five. They’re getting their chances, but they struggle to capitalize, which is likely not sustainable as the puck will start going in the net. 

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

However, there are times where they have possession, but it doesn’t amount to much. They don’t provide much support like the opposition to help the puck carrier out and give them a passing option. Their options are limited when they don’t get help and the play is broken.

The second period has been trouble for the Maple Leafs as they’re second to only the Arizona Coyotes in second period goals against with 11 and rank 25th with 13 goals for. You can see where the frustration lies as two of the highest paid players on the Maple Leafs have done very little offensively.

Related: NHL Insider Says Maple Leafs Have Three Options After Lousy Start

While the offense from the big three has gone cold, the most disappointing aspect to their offense has to be the continuing struggle of the power play. It was a major concern at the mid-way point last season and it has carried over to this season. They have three power play goals, which has them ranked 20th overall.

I talked about this in length heading into the post-season, highlighting their issues. Everything from the puck movement, to the zone entries and decision-making, it’s the same thing that’s keeping them from having any sort of success with the man advantage. There is no confidence and they’re always in a panic on what to do with the puck. They constantly pass the puck to get the right play going and when they shoot, it’s bad timing as it’s usually blocked and cleared out. 

As Auston Matthews puts it, they’re looking for the fancy play instead of simplifying their game plan. Which should be the case. Something is definitely wrong when the second power play unit does more work and simplifies their game to get more chances than the first. 

The hope is that the top unit does simplify their game instead of trying to execute the perfect setup. They can look to attacking the offensive zone with speed in order to setup, instead of relying on the drop pass. While writing this, I thought why not switch Nylander to the bumper position and Marner on the boards, as Nylander would serve as a better player in that role? That change happened during practice in hopes of getting things going offensively. 

The good news is that there is hope that this could be the tipping point and change the tides of the season for the better. This could be the point where they finally pass the test where the wins and production from Marner and Tavares start to roll. Let this be the final “teaching moment” for a team that has struggled to learn their lesson for some time.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.