As the old saying says, it’s time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to fish or cut bait. They play four games between today (November 1) and next Tuesday (November 8). How the team performs in these games might well be the tipping point for whether big changes will be made with the team.
In this post, I’m going to look at three questions that are looming over the team this coming week.
Question 1: Can the Team Win 3 of Its Next 4 Games?
None of the Maple Leafs’ next four games will be easy, but what happens if the team doesn’t win three or at least take five points in those four games? Should the team win three of those games, perhaps there will be some easier breathing around the Blue and White nation.
It’s one game at a time, but ascending the points ladder is the key. Further descending just won’t cut it.
On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs take on the Philadelphia Flyers. After a poor 2021-22 season, the Flyers have surprised coming out of the gate. They currently have a 5-2-1 record after eight games. The advantage for the Maple Leafs for this game is that they’ll be rested and should be well-practiced. Whereas, the Flyers will have played the night before in New York against the Rangers.
After that game, the Maple Leafs have two days off and play the Boston Bruins on Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada. (I’ll talk more about Boston later in this post.) The Bruins, too, will be coming in from playing the Rangers on Thursday night. They will likely be more than ready to play Toronto.
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After Saturday’s game, the Maple Leafs make a quick flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a game against the Carolina Hurricanes and former team goalie Frederik Andersen. That will be a tough game for several reasons, including the quick turnaround. The Hurricanes are currently first in the Metropolitan Division with a 6-2-1 record after nine games. They’re a tough team.
Finally, a week from today on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs play the Vegas Golden Knights at home. That game should carry a measure of intensity given that it was the first slip downward in the poor western road swing the team just completed. Although Vegas will be in the midst of a road trip, they’ll come in after a couple of days off from playing the Montreal Canadiens the previous Saturday.
In summary, should the team be able to win three of those four games – on the books the toughest would seem to be the Carolina game – they would go a long way toward settling the background murmuring that seems to be accompanying this team.
Question 2: Will the Bruins’ Experience Work Against Head Coach Sheldon Keefe?
Probably the hardest game and certainly the most interesting will be when the Bruins come to town. For many fans, the Bruins represent two things. First, they’re a clear adversary – with all the history that comes with it. Second, they represent an example that can be pointed to about the upside of possibility.
During the offseason, firing Bruce Cassidy was a surprise to most of us who don’t keep our fingers on the pulse of that team. But in early June 2022, Cassidy was relieved of his job. Less than a month later, Jim Montgomery was hired as Bruins’ new head coach.
In some ways, a case could be made that Cassidy shares similarities with current Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe. The Bruins never missed the playoffs during Cassidy’s six seasons as Bruins coach, but couldn’t make it past the second round after their seven-game loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
If the Bruins can make such a radical change and do it successfully, why not the Maple Leafs? No one would have thought the Bruins would have started their season with the best record in the NHL 8-1-0. They did. Was it the coaching change?
Question 3: Can the Maple Leafs’ First Line Revitalize Itself?
Every Maple Leafs’ fan knows Auston Matthews’ scoring woes thus far this season. Although Matthews is averaging 21:37 TOI, which is exactly a minute more than this season’s 20:37 TOI, he’s not been nearly as productive. Matthews still leads his team in shots on goal (SOG) with 48. That’s 10 more than John Tavares (38 SOG). However, his shooting percentage has dropped to 6.3 percent, which is a more than 10 percent dip from last season’s 17.2 percent.
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Believe it or not, Matthews is tied with seldom-scoring David Kampf for third on the team in goals scored with three. However, Kampf’s shooting percentage is 23.1. He’s scored those three goals on only 13 shots. Neither Kampf’s nor Matthews’ shooting percentages will likely stay at their rates, but it does show the level of problems Matthews is having.
Mitch Marner has been scoring, but much less than his fans are used to. He has scored two goals and added seven assists in 10 games. Although he ranks second on the team in time on the ice (with 22:50), similar to Matthews, he hasn’t come close to his former productivity.
Last season, Marner scored 35 goals and added 62 assists (for 97 points) in 72 games. In 2021-22, both he and first-line partner Matthews were well above being point-a-game players. This season neither is close.
Things with Marner have gotten so bad that, after two giveaways directly leading to two goals in Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks, coach Keefe wasted a time out to yell at his team and literally pointed his finger at Marner to scold him for his errors (one would have to guess).
Keefe also made his point further by benching Marner the next time the first line went over the boards for a shift in the third period.
Michael Bunting is having his own problems. He hasn’t registered a point in four straight games. Last season, he was a revelation playing with both Matthews and Marner. He came in third in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s top rookie.
Bunting’s been playing all over the lineup this season, but success hasn’t followed him as easily as it did in 2021-22. Although he’s working hard, the first-line genie has slipped back into the bottle.
By Next Week, After 4 Games, Fans Should Have a Better Picture
We’ll all have a better picture of what’s happening with this team. There seem to be dire signs that all is not well. The Toronto-based media is auguring that perhaps changes are on the horizon.
For these reasons, the next four games the team plays might be crucial for how the season transpires. We’ll see. Fish or cut bait.