TORONTO (Oct. 30) — No person amid the Leafs hierarchy will confess to the truth, but jobs were squarely on the line, in Chicago, one year ago this weekend. The 2–4–1 visitors, having been demolished in Pittsburgh (7–1) and Carolina (4–1) to begin a three–game road trip, fell behind, 2–0, to the winless Blackhawks after the first period at the United Center. Another defeat would have spelled the end of coach Sheldon Keefe and, perhaps, general manager Kyle Dubas. As it were, the Leafs rebounded and won in overtime on a goal by William Nylander. From that point, until the playoffs, it was clear sailing, as Toronto went 52–17–6 in its remaining 75 matches.
Here we are now, one year and two days later, with the same anxiety having gripped Leafs Nation… and a foreboding perception that sticks of dynamite are about to be kindled. Should the Leafs somehow lose to the Anaheim Ducks (TSN4, 8 p.m. Eastern) at the Honda Center, thereby finishing a western road swing with but one triumph in five games, trigger fingers at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment could become happy. In crafting a 4–4–1 mark through nine games, the Leafs give the impression of a soft, apathetic team in which the most–important players understand they can perform nonchalantly without sanction. The reigning Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews, was listed 99th in National Hockey League scoring today, providing the most–glaring example of what ails the lethargic Leafs. The confused, broken–down blue line has further complicated matters and is still the most–widely (and grievously) forsaken project of the front office. The club, right now, cannot score its way out of trouble.
THE SCENE ON SATURDAY NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES. FRIGHTFULLY FAMILIAR. ROLAND MARTINES GETTY IMAGES
A catastrophic culture has quickly emerged in the first month of the season whereby the $48 million nucleus of the team (save for captain John Tavares) is not only playing poorly, but beyond any form of censure or discipline. Some have likened it to the so–called “Muskoka 5” era of two decades ago, when Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Mats Sundin refused to waive contract restrictions, preferring the “familiarity” of cottage country. That group, however, operated in a forced–labor camp compared to the current lineup. All but Kubina were party, as well, to the odd playoff triumph; the 2002 Maple Leafs advancing to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals before bowing to Carolina. The Matthews–Mitch Marner–William Nylander Leafs are, infamously and dubiously, the lone National Hockey League outfit to be sent packing on six consecutive occasions in the first volley of playoff warfare. There is absolutely no indication, right now, that the coddled and protected core of the team will show additional enthusiasm when (or if) the post–season arrives next April. The Leafs are in a crisis.
That’s why tonight’s game in Orange County, Calif. takes on the significance of the road match in Chicago 367 days ago. It’s not that the Leafs are incapable of a similar bounce back and another 100–plus point season. But, why wait for the inevitable playoff flop to occur? There is limited fire in the bellies of the Toronto core skaters. But, none (other than Nylander) are particularly movable, with their mega contracts. As such, yet another coach is almost surely (and unfairly) to be sacrificed… unless the poobahs at MLSE have seen enough. Or, care to rattle the cage, as Bell, Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum leave the appearance of alarming disinterest. There is, of course, no economic impetus to affect change — in the front office or the lineup. It seems the ownership cadre will have to be humiliated into acknowledging what the rest of the hockey world knows: the flawed approach to pampering those that underachieve, while shuffling interchangeable deck–chairs each summer, is a loser’s paradise.
The dynamite is in the house at the Honda Center. Will the fuse finally be lit?