Are the Leafs Contenders or Pretenders?
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With very few games left to go in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had enough ups and downs since October to last a lifetime. They look so good in some games, and not so good in other ones. There has been no lack of inconsistency throughout this 2019/20 campaign, beating several top teams yet coming up short against bottom-feeders such as the recent California road swing losing all 3 games.
There seems to be an identity crisis, although they do know how they want to play but only when it works. Are they legit Stanley Cup contenders, or are they just also-rans just good enough to make the playoffs only to not have the capability of making any noise? Let us examine both sides of the argument, starting with why they had such high pre-season expectations:
WHY THE HIGH EXPECTATIONS?
Back in the offseason, general manager Kyle Dubas made this an all-in season. It may not be a must-win season, but a lot of chips were put on the table when filling holes on what was and still is the biggest weakness on the team, defense. When healthy it is a lot better than any of the past 3 years they had entered the postseason, but there continue to be issues nevertheless.
After signing superstar center John Tavares away from the New York Islanders prior to last season, they knew they had a luxury of having a #2 center in Nazem Kadri playing on the 3rd line, perhaps giving them the best 1-2-3 punch down the middle in the entire league. After getting suspended during the 1st round playoff series against the Boston Bruins for the 2nd year in a row, Kadri's trade status went from "untouchable" to a "maybe, depending on the offer" after that had happened.
With centre being a position of surplus, Dubas made a trade mainly involving Kadri and his heart-and-soul style at 3 years remaining on his contract with a modest $4.5M cap hit to the Colorado Avalanche for long-term forward Alex Kerfoot and a 1-year "rental" of Tyson Barrie, who was exactly the right-shot offensive defenceman the team was looking for.
With a pile of money and half of the team's salary cap structure invested into the top 4 forwards on the team - Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Tavares equaling roughly $40M between the 4 of them - there is not a lot of room for any additional long-term commitments to top end, high-salaried talent. Dubas knows he has to re-work his defense on a yearly basis, a la those rent-a-wingers they have been trading for Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh for years.
So when Barrie was on the outs early in the season with then-coach Mike Babcock, not getting a lot of power play time and ice time in general, plus bringing in veteran centre Jason Spezza who signed for the minimum just to be on a contender, not to mention the team not having a 1st Round pick in this year's draft in exchange for offloading Marleau's contract, it was obvious there was friction and a difference in philosophies between the general manager and coach.
So when the team went on a tailspin losing 7 in a row putting making the playoffs in jeopardy, a coaching change that was deemed to be impossible a year ago happened a quarter of the way into the season to save them from disaster. Dubas could not let this season slip away with the possibility of not making the playoffs on the heels of these specific trades, and made a change in what could be viewed as a band-aid solution.
ARE THEY CONTENDERS?
The Leafs have all the firepower they need to get into the playoffs and go on a long run, being right at the top of the league in goals for. Once they get back rookie Ilya Mikheyev from injury, who was having a great 1st half of the season before unfortunately going down will give the Leafs the last piece they need to solidify their top 2 lines up front. They also upgraded in goal picking up Jack "Soupy" Campbell, who along with Freddy Andersen gives them a legit 1-2 punch between the pipes as they continue down the stretch.
On the back end, once they have all their regular starting 6 defencemen to go with the depth they have as insurance, on paper it looks like a legit championship defense minus the fact that Barrie has been for the most part a disappointment being a major defensive liability plus Morgan Rielly not having nearly the season he had a year ago, clearly fighting injuries all season long before going on the shelf back in January.
There's a lot of offensive firepower coming from back there as well, and when clicking on all cylinders the weapons up and down the roster seem endless.
OR ARE THEY JUST PRETENDERS?
Starting from the net out, the flaws are clear: Freddy Andersen has not had his best year, but just need him to be in top form come game 1 of the playoffs should they get in. The Leafs are one of the worst teams in the league in goals against, and while the problems that Mr. Andersen has had to go through along with the gong show of the backup goalie problems they had all season long prior to the Campbell trade.
The defensive corps on paper looks good but they certainly don't look like it out there on the ice most nights, due to the all offence and no defence style and while it does play to their strengths, this is historically something that simply does not work in the postseason.
Another part of that can be attributable to the forwards, constantly turning the puck over on their half of the ice and standing around looking like their picking their noses or ordering pizzas letting opposition players walk in with clear scoring chances on the net. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has even admitted that he does not want the forwards, particularly their stars paying too much into defensive detail which again will work when you can outscore the other team, but not in those closer low-scoring games where this Leafs team repeatedly gets into trouble.
Based on the roster the Leafs had going into the season I found it very hard to believe when we got to the All-Star break that the Leafs would be fighting tooth-and-nail to get into the playoffs, but here we are. A 1st round matchup against someone other than the Boston Bruins, who have knocked out the Leafs the past 2 years in the 1st round would obviously be a big break for them.
Once again they will not have home-ice advantage, but unlike the last 2 years if they have to play must-win playoff hockey between now and game 82 will they be in better form and more battle tested come playoffs? Especially since how this season has gone will it take the pressure off and lower expectations?
This is still a very young team with a lot to learn. One thing is for sure - they have a lot to clean up defensively especially in their own end, especially when trying to defend a lead late in the game. And until they do that, maybe either missing the playoffs or losing to a Stamkos-less Lightning team in the 1st round will get them to wake up and learn how to win by playing - in the words of Mike Babcock - "right".