The Maple Leafs are in their own heads

The Maple Leafs are in their own heads

The Toronto Maple Leafs fixated on the wrong things? I know, it’s a crazy time and we’ll have to get through it together, with intellect and a savoir-faire.

A quick glance at the NHL standings wouldn’t signal that there’s too much wrong with the Leafs. They’re only two points behind the Panthers for the last automatic playoff spot in the Atlantic, three points behind Detroit, having played fewer games than both. But cast your gaze more to the right on the standings page and you’ll see that Toronto has only five wins in regulation, tied with Chicago, Montreal, and Seattle for the least amount in the whole of the NHL. If a team is tied with the Hawks, Habs and Kraken in just about anything, something definitely smells funny in the refrigerator.

The Leafs have been able to keep touch with the rest of the Atlantic through three wins in overtime and another four in a shootout. But winning games in various gimmicks doesn’t speak to a healthy overall machine and the Leafs are definitely making weird clanking noises, springing leaks from odd spots, and there are lights on all over the dashboard.

The Leafs aren’t doing anything particularly well. They’re 14th in goals per game, 12th in goals against per game, their power play is 12th and their penalty kill is 21st. Their metrics straight up blow, 20th in both attempts-share and expected-goals share. This just isn’t a particularly good even-strength team right now.

The main problem is what it’s always been and it’s that the Leafs’ defense isn’t very good. The Leafs cognoscenti would say the Leafs are adjusting to a new system, attempting to split how their top six forwards and bottom six forwards play. The former doing its usual puck-possession, fireworks display and the latter playing a more conservative, straight-line game with more dump-and-chase grinding. The problem is that the Leafs’ blue line isn’t built for either, if that is even what they’re doing.

The top pairing of Morgan “Rag It” Rielly and TJ Brodie is simply not top-pairing worthy for a team that has Cup aspirations. They have been mostly roasted at even-strength and that’s while playing most of their shifts behind Auston Matthews. The Leafs are giving up an assload of chances off the rush, because none of their defensemen can step up and cut off chances before they become chances before the red line. John Klingberg has already been told he’s hurt for the season to avoid telling him he’s absolute gunk at this point in his career. But that’s not going to save Mark Giordano and Jake McCabe, who are also leaden-footed.

There’s a reason the Leafs were hot on the trail of both Nikita Zadorov before he was traded to Vancouver, and Chris Tanev, whom the Flames haven’t decided to punt overboard yet. They need a blue-line overhaul, because right now their two top lines basically have to carry the puck all 200 feet to bail out their buried d-men. Zadorov would have been a hilarious disaster, as he’s not that mobile, and whatever mobility he has has convinced him he’s Bobby Orr combined with Scott Stevens and he cowboys all over the ice looking for big hits or rushes that aren’t there, no matter where it leaves his four teammates. Tanev is more of what they need, a puck-moving d-man, or at least he was five years ago.

Whatever the instructions for the bottom two lines have been, it’s not working, as they’re getting drowned on a nightly basis. That can be excused for David Kampf’s line, because that’s what David Kampf does: Takes the dungeon shifts so no one else has to. But the third line of Max Domi, Calle Jarnkrok and Nicholas Robertson isn’t really doing anything. It’s also not clear what the Leafs want out of this line.

That the Leafs are here is because those four forwards that the fans want to tie to a chair tied to a steam engine every spring are still playing at a high level –William Nylander, Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares – and can get them out of overtimes and shootouts, and get them through 60 minutes to at least grab a point. That doesn’t mean everyone won’t want them ritually killed come April.

The Leafs have made a stink about already trying to play a more playoff style in the regular season so that they can play it better when the playoffs arrive. One, you have to make the playoffs first, and two, the only playoff style the Leafs need to play is theirs, just better than anyone else. But they can’t correctly identify it, matching their Ferrari top six with an El Camino defense. The Leafs’ playoff failures have frazzled their brains so much they now seem stuck in between on what it is they want to be. They still want to play fast and skilled, but also gritty. They want to possess the puck, but they also want to go and get it in deep as well. They want to be slick, they want to be hard to play against, they want this, they want that. When a team tries to be everything, it usually ends up being nothing.

Guess which one the Leafs are more headed to so far this season?

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.