Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Poor Starts, Hutchinson & Keefe’s Anger?

Given that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ three losses have each been by a single goal – not counting the empty net goal scored last night by the San Jose Sharks as the game wound down – getting the first goal of the game is a key. And, that’s something this team has not done.

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Item One: A Continuation of Slow Starts

After the game, head coach Sheldon Keefe noted how the slow start favored the Sharks. He said, “To get behind the game is not ideal for us. It took us a while to really find our way towards getting to the net and generating some meaningful scoring chances. There was not a lot to be had out there both ways, really. It was a pretty dull hockey game all the way through, which is exactly what San Jose was looking for.”

The Maple Leafs’ season has been the sorry saga of slow starts. In fact, the Maple Leafs have allowed the opposition to score the first goal in four of five games they’ve played. And that has to disturb the coaching staff. It certainly is disturbing the fan base because it’s becoming a trend. And, I’m not talking about just this regular season. I’m also including looking back at the team’s postseason lack of success.

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How can a team just keep not showing up? I was looking forward to – after the frustrating 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers early last week – a game where the players would simply overwhelm the next team they played. The Sharks should have been ripe for the picking. Not so much. Instead, if anything the team took a step backward. The Sharks, who were playing their third game in four nights, just “looked like the more organized and determined group.”

Item Two: Michael Hutchinson Wasn’t Good Enough

Michael Hutchinson was the difference-maker in the Maple Leafs 5-3 loss, but not in a good way. He was beaten on clean looks a number of times and, not surprisingly, the Maple Leafs’ fans responded by booing. That’s their way. 

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Although the Maple Leafs often out-played the Sharks and applied tremendous pressure, Hutchinson couldn’t make the saves he needed to. His porous last line of defense just didn’t give up scores, although that was most of it, it chocked off the team’s offensive momentum. 

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson
Toronto Maple Leafs’ goalie Michael Hutchinson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

In this case, the loss was a team effort. The 31-year-old Hutchinson didn’t allow a Sharks goal during a dull first period; but, starting in the second period neither the Maple Leafs’ defense nor Hutchinson played well. Given his play last night and the fact that Petr Mrazek seems to be ready to play, it isn’t likely Hutchinson will have many chances to play in the near future.

Item Three: John Tavares Scored a Lucky Goal

John Tavares scored his first goal of the season, but it certainly wasn’t a vintage hand/eye coordination goal. Instead, William Nylander did the work and hit Tavares with his shot that deflected over the goal line. That cut the lead to 4-3 and, while I kept waiting for the team to tie it up, it wasn’t to be. 

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Center John Tavares (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As a result, the Maple Leafs lost for the third time in their last four games. Part of that is on Tavares, who’s off to his own cold start with only a single goal and two assists in five games. That said, the entire team hasn’t played well enough to win. 

Keefe also noted that “Special teams, or at least our power play, couldn’t be the difference that we needed it to be, especially early in the game. As a result, we are chasing it all the way through.”

Item Four: Is Sheldon Keefe Getting Angry?

It was interesting to see Keefe’s reaction to the media after the game. A number of questions were directed to him about Nick Ritchie’s lack of performance and his subsequent drop from the Maple Leafs’ first line. It’s true that Ritchie has underperformed in his trial period. However, Keefe seems to believe that the big left-winger is getting too much blame for not scoring.

Keefe noted that he could “just tell by the line of questioning I’ve been getting over the last number of days that we want to pile on Nick Ritchie here, but let’s not narrow the focus too much.” 

Keefe added that the entire line wasn’t going and pointed away from Ritchie by adding, “You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you should be Ritch.”

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The team plays again tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Given that this team is constructed to be carried by its top two lines, that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Tavares only have one goal in 12 combined games spells disaster. Specifically, Marner’s 13-game goal-scoring drought is his longest since 2018.

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That group has to perform much better. And, if the team is to win, it likely must start tonight.