Maple Leafs’ Struggles Continue

About a week ago, I wrote about the adjustments that the Toronto Maple Leafs have to make in order to salvage their season after a less than stellar start. In that short span, the team has continued to get worse with their overall play and the lack of effort in each game. The poor starts, the defensive woes and miscues have piled up and they haven’t improved on what ails them.

That is a real concern considering that each game is more important than the last. The playoff picture starts to become clear by American Thanksgiving. With more questions than answers the Maple Leafs need to solve this as soon as possible otherwise their season could be over sooner than later.

Mike Babcock’s Seat Is Getting Warmer

On the “Saturday Headlines” segment during Hockey Night in Canada, both Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston talked about Babcock’s future. Johnston said, “Everything has to be considered,” while Friedman mentioned that before the slump, the Maple Leafs wanted to see how the group would respond with the main roster in tact without any injuries. Fate had other plans.

If we thought that Babcock was on the hot seat at the beginning of the month, his seat is getting warmer with every loss.

Mike Babcock Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock’s job could be on the line if the team continues to play poorly. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The players aren’t fully exonerated from their struggles and inconsistencies, and there’s no way that a team with this much talent should be playing this poorly. In the end, everything goes back to Babcock and he must shoulder the blame. It’s his strategy that the players are following. His system clearly isn’t working and he hasn’t done anything to change the way they play.

With the team already in the midst of a long road trip and continuing to fall in the standings, general manager Kyle Dubas is left with a tough decision. Do you hope the Maple Leafs turn it around now or do you make the decision to salvage what’s left of this mess to try and rebound like the St. Louis Blues did last season?

When it’s all said and done, Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, in the American Hockey League, continues to be Babcock’s replacement when the time comes.

Keefe’s Marlies are first in the North Division of the AHL with a 10-2-2-1 record and a points percentage of .767. The Maple Leafs, with more offensive firepower, are at .500. It’s not fair to compare an AHL to an NHL team, but it should be noted that the minor league team has played with more urgency and more structure than the NHL team.

It’s both shocking yet not surprising considering that Keefe has had success no matter who is on his roster. He will be better at utilizing his players and play them to their strengths while having a team-first mentality. You can’t argue with his results since becoming head coach in 2015-16.

Poor Shot Selection and Decisions

The Maple Leafs’ overall play and poor efforts extends to the offensive, neutral and defensive zones. You would think a team that ranks in the top five in goals scored (70) and 10th in shots for per game (33.2), would have no concerns about their offensive ability.

However, during this stretch, the offense has been not steady. What’s become a more disturbing trend is their shot selection and decisions with the puck. Here’s a look at the Maple Leafs’ shots for heat map for the season.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates For, 2019-20. (Image from hockeyviz.com)

The amount of shots from the point and from outside the high danger area shows that the Maple Leafs aren’t doing enough to get quality scoring chances. They’re below the league average in front of the net and in the high slot, an area where they were dominant last year.

What’s noticeable is that they aren’t using their speed as often to push to the high danger area. They are reluctant to get a shot from the far side and the point, where they really don’t have a strong shot. It’s always on a wrist shot from those areas and they are blocked or intercepted very easily.

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

This is hurting them in terms of quality scoring chances and goals against their opponent. It has to change considering their talent, not just in their top-six, but in the bottom-six as well. Their speed was once an asset but has become virtually invisible and they are unable to drive to dangerous areas of the ice.

Tyson Barrie Hasn’t Been Working Out

There were great expectations for Barrie heading into this season after coming off a career year with the Colorado Avalanche. After his first four games, Barrie recorded four assists and looked to match his 59-point total from the previous season. Since then, he has only recorded two assists in 19 games, and is a minus-10.

Tyson Barrie Toronto Maple Leafs
Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While plus/ minus is not the best tool to evaluate a player, Barrie has been on for a lot of goals against. In descending order on Natural Stat Trick, he’s second on the team in 5-on-5 goals against with 23 and third in high-danger goals against with 14. Even Barrie isn’t happy with how things have started in Toronto.

As a result, his name has already appeared in early trade speculation. His early season struggle is difficult to take in because he’s an extremely talented puck-moving defenseman. But overall, his defensive play hasn’t been great, like the final goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he didn’t know how to handle the two-on-one.

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Barrie’s confidence is low and Babcock has done nothing to try and help him regain it. Could it help playing him on the first power-play unit to see what he can do? It’s possible, but even with the puck, Barrie panics and isn’t at his best.

Tyson Barrie RAPM Chart, 2019-20, from evolving-hockey.com

It’s evident that his defense is an issue. He’s generating scoring chances but his goals for and expected goals for per 60 are on the negative side. This supports his defensive struggles in his own end in terms of expected goals against per 60.

While the on-ice issues continue to be a major problem for the Maple Leafs, there is a strong chance that they will be able to turn things around. Yes, the injuries are piling up to key players. Yes, they still haven’t had a full roster where they can evaluate where they are. However, they are two points out of a wild card spot, four behind the Montreal Canadiens and seven behind the Boston Bruins, who are starting to run away with the division.

The team is extremely talented and they’re too good to be in this rut. If they want to be the team they’re supposed to be, everyone needs to be on board. Babcock needs to change his game plan and the players have to execute and play better. Should they continue down this path of less than average play, then Dubas will be forced to make major changes.

Statistics are current as of Nov.19 before game time.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com. Charts from Hockey Viz and Evolving Hockey.