Maple Leafs Need to Stop Playing Down to Competition

Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost both games where they should’ve won against the Arizona Coyotes. In particular, they lost 2-1 where they were met with an impressive outing by then newcomer goaltender Karel Vejmelka as well as playing down to their opponent on the goals against.

Fast forward to Oct.17, 2022 and the Maple Leafs once again played down to their opponent and suffered a 4-2 loss to the Coyotes in disappointing fashion. The Coyotes, a team that’s in the bottom of the standings in goals against with 12 and first in shots against with 48.0 heading into the contest against the Maple Leafs, managed to shock them again. 

Last season, the Maple Leafs lost valuable points to teams lower in the standings as a result of playing down to their level or making careless errors. This loss to the Coyotes, once again, is a result of that mentality where they have a poor effort and a late response that’s too little, too late. Clearly, the Maple Leafs haven’t learned their lesson. It’s sad that this has to be said again, especially this early on in the season. It’s getting tiresome of them failing to realize that they can’t keep playing like this and have a poor effort against teams below them in the standings. 

Unacceptable and Inexcusable

While the Maple Leafs were able to show some signs of life in the third period, that kind of play from a team with hopes of winning a playoff series and making a deep playoff run is unacceptable to say the least. There should be no excuses for how consistent they are at playing down to their opponent. 

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Maple Leafs want to have any sort of success and be a serious contender, they need to kick that habit and play with a sense of purpose like they do against other top teams. They can’t take any night off and have the effort like they did in the first 40 minutes against the Coyotes. They were careless with the puck on three of the four goals against and tried to get fancy to set up the right play and the power play was abysmal. There was a moment or two in the first where they were cycling very well, but had nothing to show for it in terms of offensive results. At that moment, they should’ve continued to make life miserable for the Coyotes, but instead sat back and let their opponent gain life.

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Though it was the Maple Leafs’ shot selections that was questionable at best. They were down 1-0 after the first period and the shots were 5-3 for the Maple Leafs and it was tied at 13 after the second period. Whenever the Maple Leafs had the puck, it was either blocked or deflected as the Coyotes finished with 18 blocks to the Maple Leafs’ seven

t should be noted that in the Coyotes’ first to games, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored three times in the first period and the Bruins scored twice. The Maple Leafs didn’t score until the later part of the third period. To have that kind of production and lifeless play in a game where you should be dominating the opponent like a Stanley Cup contending team, it’s disappointing. Given how much is riding on this season, this is not something that you would want hovering over your head as a lot is on the line. 

Teams aren’t going to win every single game and there are upsets that happen. Though when the advantage is in your favour and the amount of firepower that the Maple Leafs have, the expectation is that the effort needs to be there and that you’re not taking a step back as it happens so often. When things aren’t going the Maple Leafs way, they tend to struggle and loose their way. For a team as seasoned as the Maple Leafs, with their core they need to dig deep and play with purpose and a consistent work ethic because it’s missing at times and it’s too late in the game when they discover it. They can’t get defeated, because it shows in their play when they do. 

Related: The Sky Is Not Falling on the Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs need a wake-up call and they need it fast, because games like this can’t keep happening. Every. Single. Season. Winning teams don’t play down to their opponent. 

The players need to be held accountable. What will it take for them to realize that they can’t just show up whenever they want? At what point do the players say, “enough is enough” as they always have efforts like this when they should be heavy favourites. They need to start acting on it and prove that they are to be feared when being played against.

Costly Turnovers and Sloppy Play

If there’s one thing that’s been consistent in these losses for the Maple Leafs, is that costly turnovers and poor puck management are the reason why they end up losing these kinds of games. Much like the loss in the season opener, those critical mistakes and plays end up being the Maple Leafs demise as they had 14 giveaways. They put themselves in a bad situation and they can’t get out of it. 

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

It doesn’t matter that the Maple Leafs had the advantage in five-on-five Corsi for percentage of 66.67, a scoring chances for of 65.12 or zone time. But those crucial mistakes are the deciding factor where they tend to do way too much with the puck. Low and behold, it was in the game against the Coyotes.

Justin Holl, who had two strong games against the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators went back to his old ways in making questionable plays and not executing on a simple clearing attempt. On the second goal, both Morgan Rielly and Holl were caught below the goal line and were weak in attempting to regain control of the puck before the Coyotes made it 2-0. Then when the Maple Leafs showed signs of life, Holl fans on an easy clearing attempt leading to Shayne Gostisbehere’s eventual game-winning goal. 

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This is where we see the head-scratching in Holl’s play. NHL defensemen shouldn’t be this inconsistent at simple plays and yet, he still manages to earn top-four minutes. The Maple Leafs should definitely look to make a move to improve the second pairing.

Holl was at fault on two goals, but the Maple Leafs as a whole need to make better decisions with the puck. Again, the season is still young, but this isn’t a team full of rookies anymore. They have a lot of veteran players who need to hold everyone accountable for their play. They need to display the energy and effort as a team that means business, against weaker competition and they haven’t done that enough. 

Assert Dominance Consistently

It’s clearly evident that the Maple Leafs need to assert themselves from the beginning to make sure they have a dominating performance, like the opening few shifts. 

Related: Maple Leafs Roundtable: First 3 Games of the 2022-23 Season

“That shift sort of lulled us to sleep,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said according to Joshua Clipperton of The Canadian Press. “Felt like we had full confidence that we were going to have real control of the game.”

Instead of falling back, like they usually do, that should’ve fueled the team even more to continue to apply pressure and wear their opponent down. When you have your opponent on the ropes and you’re tiring them out, shouldn’t that be a sign that kind of play needs to continue? Even though there was no offense or chances generated, shouldn’t that be a talking point on the bench where you already have the speed game and need to attack the middle of the ice even more?

Games like this are disappointing and frustrating for everyone. The team and the fans. A team that’s looking to make a deep playoff run can’t be happy with this kind of play, yet they continue to have performances like these at multiple points throughout the season. Accountability needs to be held for the players on the ice as they need to play with some sort of aggression as they can’t keep having outings like this. 

We could say this is another lesson learned for the Maple Leafs to not play down to their opponent. Then again, this probably won’t be the last time until they act on it and play with purpose.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.

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