TORONTO (Feb. 13) — Barring an 18–wheeler, the Maple Leafs are en route to the best regular season in their 105–year history. Never before has the club won 30 of its first 45 games, or accumulated 63 points in 45 games. With Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Michael Bunting, Morgan Rielly and Jack Campbell all healthy, the Leafs are as top loaded as any team in the National Hockey League. This would appear to be a “different” Toronto club than any in recent annals; perhaps “different” than any in franchise history.
The question is: How “different?”
Answers, of course, will arrive in early May, when the Maple Leafs put their spotty playoff record on the line; the Stanley Cup scramble surely to be fierce within the Atlantic Division. To appear in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2002, the Leafs may have to get past Florida (69 points) and Tampa Bay (68) without home–ice advantage. It’ll be no different in the Metropolitan Division, where only one of Carolina (67), Washington (66) and the New York Rangers (64) will survive. The East has won five of the past six Stanley Cups and the Conference champion will again pose a major threat. Can the Maple Leafs, with all their talent, be that representative? Or, will the inclination to get pushed around and dominated physically (as in Calgary this week) preclude a long Stanley Cup march? Can they stay organized and compete, defensively, against such a buzz–saw opponent as the Rangers, who skated circles around the Leafs at Madison Square Garden last month? Is the exceptional .700 win percentage accrued by the club so far this season a mirage, or entirely relevant to playoff achievement?
THATCHER DEMKO STOPPED 51 SHOTS ON SATURDAY NIGHT IN VANCOUVER AS THE CANUCKS EDGED THE MISFIRING MAPLE LEAFS, 3–2; TORONTO’S SECOND STRAIGHT LOSS. GETTY IMAGES/NHL
Can general manager Kyle Dubas help make the Leafs different prior to the Mar. 21 NHL trade deadline? Will he settle for a low–impact move such a acquiring another marginal defenseman (Luke Schenn?) or might he pony up to obtain a forceful presence by offering one of his young blue–liners (Rasmus Sandin will fetch a lot more than Tim Liljegren). Dubas has stubbornly retained his core players, so do not expect a blockbuster… even if the club has no choice but to unload a mega–contract before next season (Mitch Marner or William Nylander will be dealt).
Can Jack Campbell regain his pre–All Star form and carry it into the playoffs, thereby providing the Maple Leafs their best opportunity to dispatch one of Florida or Tampa Bay? There is no career indication that Petr Mrazek can carry the load in the Stanley Cup tournament, so Campbell will need to excel. Neither is there a goaltending “controversy” at the moment — as absurdly posed by the Toronto Star — given that Campbell and Mrazek were expected to share duties prior to Mrazek sustaining yet another early groin strain. Even if Campbell recovers from this mid–season swoon, both netminders will be liberally deployed by Sheldon Keefe in the final 37 matches.
What I see from the Maple Leafs right now is a team that too–closely resembles the playoff underachievers of 2017–21. The club does not play “heavy” when the situation warrants; neither is there sufficient quality on the blue line behind Rielly, T.J. Brodie and a slowing Jake Muzzin. Given the likely first–round opponent (one of the Florida teams), the Leafs may well extend their playoff winless streak to 18 years (since eliminating Ottawa in 2004).
Even as they surely obliterate their points record in the regular schedule.
WEEKEND THOUGHTS: The Leafs will play a team from Seattle for the first time on Monday night upon visiting Climate Pledge Arena and finishing their western swing against the expansion Kraken. In the early years of the NHL, when teams from the Western Canadian Hockey League posed a Stanley Cup challenge, the Leafs twice encountered the Vancouver Millionaires, winning the Cup final in 1918 and 1922. The Seattle Metropolitans twice appeared in the championship round — against the Montreal Canadiens in 1919; the series canceled after five games as a result of the Spanish Flu pandemic, and the original Ottawa Senators, which defeated the Metropolitans in five matches the following year. The Kraken is scheduled to play here in Toronto for the first time on Mar. 8… William Nylander performed well for the Leafs in the opening–round collapse against the Canadiens last May and was enjoying a career season leading up to the All–Star break. More recently, Nylander has lost a competitive edge, staying to the perimeter of the ice — where he is most comfortable, but least–effective. Willie needs to be more involved, as he was in the playoffs… Neither am I convinced that John Tavares has enough in the tank to strongly finish the season and carry on through four playoff rounds. But, his character and competitive drive could compensate when required… Justin Holl has always been a mediocre–to–average defenseman. Why are Leaf fans carrying on as if an All–Star–caliber player has declined this season?… I laugh out loud when reading Leafs chat forums and seeing a poster exclaim “fu** my life!!” when the club loses. What if that person encounters an actual crisis?… Brad Marchand keeps getting suspended; keeps being despised across the NHL and keeps all other playoff–bound teams wishing they had him in their line–up… Can Mitch Marner dangle and dazzle in the tough playoff environment as he has in the past month? If so, the Leafs stand a much–better chance of posing a Stanley Cup threat. If not, he’ll again verify the claim of his detractors… Former Leaf Owen Nolan turned 50 on Saturday… Mats Sundin is 51 today. Sundin and Nolan were drafted first overall by the old Quebec Nordiques in 1989 and 1990… The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are impressively spending money and making noise in free agency, adding a pair of future Hall of Famers this week: running back Andrew Harris (from Winnipeg) and kick–returner extraordinaire Brandon Banks (from Hamilton). But, it will not matter so long as journeyman McLeod Bethel–Thompson is the club’s starting quarterback. Thompson has no playoff resume and will never lead a CFL team to the promised land. Right now, the Argos resemble a high–scoring hockey club with mediocre goaltending… Super Bowl LVI prediction: Cincinnati 27, Los Angeles Rams 23. It’s Joe Burrow’s year… Tonight marks 23 years since the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens: a 6–2 rout by Doug Gilmour and the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 13, 1999. For posterity’s sake, here was the press box seating arrangement (this paper carefully removed from the back wall of the box after the game). I was delightfully camped in Chair 67:
Hey Howard, I agree 100 %, but why does TSN and The FAN always build these guys up and say how great they are? I stopped listening.
Marginal Leafs players have been overrated since the beginning of time.
You said months ago the Leafs should let Marner go for nothing, whether to seattle or somewhere else, because it would free up millions of cap space. How do you justify that viewpoint now?
What I said – and maintain – is that one of Marner or Nylander will have to be unloaded before next season for futures (prospects, picks), not for commensurate salary return. Simply because no team in the flat cap universe can have five players making $48 million. With a No. 1 goalie to be resigned. I think you should pay more attention, Alex.
Don’t backtrack, Howard. It’s on this blog. I responded months ago with an astonished one line comment. Go back and see. My question stands, how do you justify that position today?
Show me. Not your “astonishing” comment, but where I said the Leafs should get rid of Marner for no return. As for justifying a trade for futures, I’ll say it again: the salary cap. But, you don’t pay attention, Alex. Never.
I’ve seen little this season to make me believe that the Leafs can make much noise in the playoffs.
1. Are they better than Tampa or Florida on paper OR on the ice. I would say absolutely not.
2. Their best players are historical no-shows in the playoffs. This has become a trend, not an anomaly. Compare that to Florida for example. Huberdeau (10 pts in 6 gms), Barkov (7pts in 6 gms), Bennett (5pts in 5gms) vs. Mathews (5pts in 7gms), Marner (4pts in 7gms), Taveras(IR), Nylander (8pts in 7gms). There are two types of players in the NHL … those that flourish under the pressure (AKA Crosby, Ovechkin, Kucherov, Pasta, Mackinnon, etc) and those that whither away (AKA R Nash, T Vanek, T Seguin, I Kovalchuk …). Mathews/Marner are verging on that latter group.
3. Campbell is streaky. The high’s are high, and the low’s are low. He hasn’t yet proven that he can win a playoff series, and frankly, doesn’t seem to play with the confidence of an elite NHL net minder. I don’t think you can look at Campbell in the same calibre as Bob (though he’s a known playoff dissapointment) or Vasy.
4. Let’s just call it what it is. The Leafs are a soft team. By personnel and in the way they are coached. They just don’t seem to be coached to finish every check. They’ve got one guy on the team that plays regular minutes that I consider to be tough, and that’s Muzzin. I’m not ready to write him off yet. I think playoffs is a time when Jake will shine.
Come playoff time, I can only see two ways for the buds will get out of the first round. 1. Campbell stands on his head and carries them, which after the first half of this year is plausible. 2. They acquire blueline depth that can lock things down, simplify things in front of the goalie, and play with some edge. My instinct tells me that both are fairly unlikely, and if I’m being really honest, they probably need both of those things to come true to have a legit shot at a lengthy run. It would be nice if their stars would play like stars when the going gets tough too.
BTW .. I find this to be unimaginable, but the top three teams in the Atlantic are all on pace for nearly 120 pt seasons … that’s crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that before.
You wanted to leave Mitch Marner unprotected.
How do you justify that now?
They ran into hot goaltending. It happens.
Yes, they need to be tougher, especially on the backline.
Mitch Marner unprotected? The Leafs have run into hot goalies for 55 years.