Meet the new Leafs same as the old Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs installed a revolving door at the Scotiabank arena this summer as several players were jettisoned. Even though general manager Kyle Dubas spent most of his energy working on Mitch Marner’s new contract he still found the time to usher Nazem Kadri, Tyler Ennis, Nikita Zaitsev, Conor Brown, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau out of town. Toronto also made changes to its coaching staff as Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol were hired as assistant coaches to replace D.J. Smith and Jim Hiller.

Newcomers include Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Ilya Mikheyev and Cody Ceci while Dmytro Timashov and Rasmus Sandin made the team from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. In addition, the Leafs faced off for the new season without the injured Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman. In addition, five of last year’s starting defencemen on opening night weren’t in the lineup for this year’s season opener. Morgan Rielly was the only returnee with Dermott sidelined.

But even with the massive overhaul, the Leafs of this season have started out like the Leafs of last season. They’ve already lost three games at home to Montreal (shootout), St. Louis and Tampa and were 3-2-1 after six games. Their victories were against two of the league’s weaker sisters in Ottawa and Detroit and they also managed to beat a Columbus side which lost its best players to free agency this summer.

Many experts feel this year’s roster isn’t really better than last year’s and it was basically assembled simply because the salaries were slightly lower. Even so, when Dermott and Hyman return, Dubas will have to clear some salary cap space somehow as he has to pay the massive contracts of Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander. It’s true that Tyson Barrie makes the team stronger on the right side of the blue line but without Gardiner they’re now weaker on the left side.

As usual, goaltender Frederik Andersen has gotten off to a mediocre start in October and was pulled in the Leafs’ 7-3 home loss to Tampa after allowing all seven goals. The defence still doesn’t appear to be strong enough to win a playoff round even though it’s been retooled but the team seems to have enough offence to make most games close. Their defensive zone coverage leaves a lot to be desired and perhaps it’s not the players who should shoulder the blame. Instead it appears to be the coaching tactics.

The Leafs have changed players but are still playing the same old questionable system in their own end. They could stick Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Borje Salming and Nicklas Lidstrom back on the blue line and still struggle if the coaching tactics are wrong. The team often relies on long stretch passes to leave its own zone but this means they have to chase down and fight for loose pucks if the passes are intercepted or miss the mark. It also results in a lot more icing calls and the Leafs already iced the puck the third most times in the league last season.

Offensively, the only real change so far has been on the power play as Matthews and Marner are now playing on their off-wings to be better positioned for one-time shots. It’s worked well early on but the team’s penalty-killing still isn’t up to par. Based on pure talent, the Leafs boast one of the best lineups in the NHL. But they will continue to play inconsistent hockey unless the coaching staff realizes they need to play to their strengths and change their defensive system.

They may end up with another 100-point season but if this team doesn’t finally win at least one playoff series the campaign will be a failure. Head coach Mike Babcock has lost all three playoff rounds since being hired and with Sheldon Keefe coaching the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and former Philadelphia Flyers’ head coach Hakstol on the staff, Dubas might not hesitate to send Babcock packing during the season if the team doesn’t live up to its potential. Perhaps then and only then, the new Leafs may lose shed their resemblance to the old Leafs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *