By the time the Toronto Maple Leafs play again, they may be in second place in the North Division. The team has lost five of its last six games, and that one win was in overtime. A disastrous stretch is made worse when you consider where this team was at the beginning of the month. Toronto played its best hockey of the season, and in recent memory, during a three-game stretch against the Edmonton Oilers. The Leafs won all three games and shut out the high octane Oilers for 2.5 games. Since then, Toronto has been a shadow of itself.
It’s rare to see a coach get a penalty. In his 76th regular-season game as an NHL coach, Sheldon Keefe got his first bench minor. It happened on March 13th, late in the third period of a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He wasn’t asked about it after the game, but I’m sure he was more frustrated with his team than the referee. His first two answers during his post-game interview were: “I thought we had a hard time stringing together two passes tonight,” and “I didn’t think anybody had a good game for us tonight.”
He has been the Leafs coach for more than a year and a half, but he still doesn’t have a normal regular season under his belt. His players and we, as fans and observers, are still learning about Keefe and his style. Was his frustration warranted? At that point, no. He was still steaming from a brutal call against the Leafs minutes earlier, which led to a powerplay goal and put Toronto down 4-2 deficit. The refs then penalized the Leafs again, a much more deserving penalty, but it ended any chance they had at coming back. Keefe lost his mind on the bench, putting his team down another man; Winnipeg scored again. It’s the first time we’ve seen his face on the bench as he actually pulled down the mask to yell at the stripes. The bigger question may be will his players respond to it. We got the answer the following night, and the answer is no. They came out the following night and looked far worse in a 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators. See the Leafs’ writers breakdown of the Leafs-Senators game in the video below.
The score is not an accurate reflection of the game. The Senators had a back-up goalie in net, who earned his first-ever NHL win. Toronto goes into a long break with a terrible taste in its mouth.
Four Days Off
Toronto has four days off before hosting the Calgary Flames for a pair and then another four days off after that. After playing nearly every other night since the start of the season, the Leafs have some time to heal and refocus. It’s hard to say if this break comes at a good time or at a bad time when you consider the circumstances. The players and coaches have to live with those bad performances for a long time before they have a chance to get back in the win column. Still, they’ve had chances to correct the problems during games and have not been able to, which means the break may be at the best time.
This break also provides the best opportunity to pull a trade. Due to Canada’s quarantine regulations, if Toronto traded for a player currently south of the border, they would have to wait 14 days to get him on the ice. However, the Leafs have a very light schedule over the next two weeks. Toronto did make a move, trading Mikko Lehtonen to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for 24-year-old goaltending prospect Veini Vehvilainen. Lehtonen got a few looks, but Keefe went with Travis Dermott in his top six.
Wayne Simmonds and Jack Campbell have been skating for Toronto, but there is still no confirmed return date. Still, it’s becoming more apparent those two players are needed because right now, Toronto has lost that early-season swagger.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.