Are the Maple Leafs Simply Not Good Enough?

After John Tavares signed as a Toronto Maple Leaf last summer, the hopes of the fans were buoyant. Certainly, this was to be the season the team would contend for the Stanley Cup after so many seasons of frustration. With the exception of the drama of William Nylander’s extended holdout, everything looked so promising. This team would rock!

That hasn’t happened. After a strong start, the Maple Leafs are on a losing skid no one saw coming. In fact, with last night’s 4-2 loss against the suddenly-surprising 22-22-4 Arizona Coyotes, the Maple Leafs have now lost six of their last seven games at Scotiabank Arena. After Christmas break, the team simply hasn’t come back from vacation.

Every once in awhile, the team rises up to beat a strong opponent such as the 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Florida on Jan. 17. But, after being teased to believe things surely are now on the right track, the team tanked 3-1 the next night to a weaker Florida Panthers team. Then, they lose the next game at home. It’s been that kind of season.

Related: Should the Maple Leafs Trade Nylander for Simmonds?

Reasons for the Ups-And-Downs

There are at least two reasons for this up-and-down, back-and-forth season.

Reason #1: The Defense Needs Fixed

Perhaps the one positive thing about the loss to the Coyotes was that Jake Gardiner wasn’t on the ice. Not that the fans needed him as a target: they were equal-opportunity booers.

Gardiner is injured and has been suffering back spasms. But Gardiner aside, the Maple Leaf defense hasn’t been good enough this season. Morgan Rielly can’t carry the entire back end alone. Travis Dermott jumped into the top-two and scored against the Coyotes, but he’s young and still makes glaring errors.

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammates (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

We’ve talked about Gardiner before. If he could be used in a clearly offensive role, that would be better for the team, but the defense hasn’t been good enough to allow that to happen. He’s been used almost entirely at five-on-five, which is a role that doesn’t allow him sustained success. Ron Hainsey is doing better than people expected, but he’s not a long-term answer. The pieces just don’t seem to be there.

I say “seem” because, surprisingly, when you study the Maple Leafs’ NHL defensive statistics, the team doesn’t rank like a weak defensive unit. Before Sunday’s game, they were tied for fifth-best in goals against with the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights (133 goals against). They were eighth-best in goals against per game, just after the Calgary Flames. However, they were ninth-worst in shots allowed per game (32.4 shots). That said, it is interesting that the team they are tied with is the Lightning – with exactly the same number of shots allowed per game. The Jets are even worse at 32.8 shots allowed per game. And, they’re good teams.

Given these statistics, one could make a case that the defense isn’t as bad as people think. But, fans know better. It’s obvious on the ice. In a recent post, I discussed what defensive help the Maple Leafs might trade for that would help them this season and next. I believe fixing the Maple Leafs’ defense is a long-term issue.

Boston Bruins Noel Acciari Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Hutchinson Nikita Zaitsev
Boston Bruins Noel Acciari celebrates a goal as Toronto Maple Leafs Michael Hutchinson and Toronto Maple Leafs Nikita Zaitsev look on. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

The good news is that help seems to be coming from the Toronto Marlies. These young defensemen look like strong prospects, which is good because home-grown talent usually comes cheaper than acquiring help through trade. Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin all have potential as NHL defensemen. Even if Gardiner moves on, which I believe he will, with Dermott and Reilly, that group could grow into a strong top-six defense. The bad news is that it won’t happen this season.

Reason #2: Scoring Aside, the Team Lacks Something

There is no doubt that the Maple Leafs are blessed with a strong top-six forward unit, plus other young talent. The team can score. They were ranked fifth in goals (166) before Sunday’s game. It’s not as if they are tripping over their skates. It’s more like they are smoothly skating miles but heading nowhere. They shoot lots, but keep missing the net. The team hits more crossbars than it scores goals, which, given the relative size of the net vs. the iron, seems tough to do.

During Sunday’s game against the Coyotes, they controlled the puck much of the game, but didn’t score. That’s so typical. When the same thing happens over and over, as it does, that isn’t bad luck. Something is missing.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

In fact, the Maple Leafs controlled the play for long stretches against the Coyotes. They had 76 shot attempts compared to the Coyotes’ 51, but 30 of their shots were blocked. Watching the game, the team simply doesn’t seem to have “push.” Even young Dermott suggested that the team could use some “extra urgency” in their game. I’m seeing the same thing.

Related: Have Maple Leaf Fans Turned on Nylander?

Post-Game Notes

The Maple Leafs seem to play much better on the road than at home, which is a bit of a mystery. Their record is 13-11-1 at home and they are 1-6-0 over their last seven games after their loss to the Coyotes. It was their fourth-straight regulation loss at home. That’s horrible. The team currently stands just a point ahead of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens for second place in the Atlantic Division.

Andreas Johnsson, rumoured to be trade bait for a defenseman, had to leave the game with a concussion. Mike Babcock reported that Johnsson won’t play against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, which gives him the All-Star break to heal.

Nylander, who has been in a scoring slump since coming back from his self-imposed exile until Dec. 1, played on the fourth line against the Coyotes. His assist on Dermott’s goal was his first point in seven games since Jan. 3. He has one goal in the 19 games he has played this season. This news is getting stale.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Auston Matthews is also struggling. After his goal-a-game start this season, he has only one goal in his last 13 games. After the game, he noted, “We’re going through some adversity. Hopefully in the long run this is something good for us and we learn from it.”

His comments, if taken seriously and not just as media-speak, suggest he believes losing should be educational. As a fan watching the team closely, it seems that education should have happened a long time ago. Last night’s loss was not a new thing: it’s no longer even a surprise.

The Maple Leafs play has seemed consistently poor for the last while. Unlike Matthews, I’m not seeing that they have to learn more: I’m seeing that they have to do more. But, are they able? I’m left wondering if we were fooled about the team being good enough to contend this season.

Related: Why Jake Gardiner Will Leave the Toronto Maple Leafs