The Leafs’ loss Wednesday to the Islanders was their third straight. The script was much of the same; early flurries in the offensive zone, bad mistakes leading to goals against, strong play in the second, daggers mid-late game, and pushback late. As of November 14th, the quarter mark of the season, the Maple Leafs have won six games in regulation, one fewer than they’ve lost. They’ve won nine games total, collecting 18 of their 22 points in wins, the delta earned by losing games after 60.
This Leafs team is not the juggernaut we expected them to be before the season. They’re a bottom tier xG team and an upper third shot share team. Their mammoth roster on paper doesn’t hold up to strong opposition play. The goaltending has been poor, especially on SEGABABA’s (2nd of back to backs) but the team of skaters haven’t performed to standard in second legs. In fact, they’ve been markedly worse in xGA and shot share in these games.
The Leafs are down early and often, having been scored on first in 15 of their 20 games. They’ve been tied or trailing for more than 500 minutes in their last 10 games.
Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING, is going well.
These results don’t pass the smell test. This team, boasting two top-ten-ish centres, two elite right wingers, good play drivers filling nearly all wing and centre depth positions, three top pair-ish defencemen, and a top five goalie, shouldn’t sit under .500 in late November, at least not with these underlying metrics. The Leafs are not a team waiting to break out. Their poor results have been earned. All 11 losses earned.
Unless we’re to accept the team has suddenly developed a fear of the net front, I’m not ready attribute this season’s failures to the 20-man roster. Some of the poor results can be attributed to Michael Hutchinson, who was, frankly, useful as a sieve catching flour. The rest is on the men whose responsibility it is to run the team. Coaching is a hard job. No team is like another. No group of guys is like another (although, if any sport is monocultural, it’s hockey). That said, the job of the coach is to take a roster and make something of it. Insofar as that hasn’t happened in Toronto this season, the coaching has been a failure.
I asked friends on Twitter to make a list of the responsibilities of an NHL coach. It’s rudimentary, sure, but the list goes something like this: Handle media appointments, establish a team culture and motto, design and implement on-ice systems, deploy the roster as fit, schedule and organize practices, (sometimes) schedule team outings, travel, and sleep schedules, conduct opposition pre-scouting, implement video learning, co-sign free agent recruitment.
I see a coaching staff whose excelled recruiting free agents, even when they’ve not been successful with the team. I see a coaching staff who regularly meets with the media and who shows the same face regardless of results. This, I think, is an asset. There are things to nitpick here, like the head coach’s repeated public slights at William Nylander. But I think, broadly, Babcock handles media duties with professionalism. Babcock seems to schedule practices at the right times, and the players aren’t injured by overuse as you’ll often see with teams like Tampa Bay. This is evidence of the strong MLSE physical training programme, as is the health of the Toronto Raptors. This is where the successes of the 2019-20 Maple Leafs coaching staff end.
I’m unsure exactly what the team identity, or culture, is. I’m unsure if they’re fast, slow, hard working, tough, or weak. I really don’t know. A different team shows up every night. Teams with talent deficits play to their systems with much more regularity than do the Leafs. The Islanders are an outlier, and rely on goaltending for many of their successes, but generally play the same way against all oppositions. This is also true of teams like Vegas, Vancouver, and Boston. The Leafs identity seems to be something between young and fast and old and tired; so torn between the two that they’re jaded fifteen years early. Of note, too, is the head coach has made a habit of visiting players to “smooth things over” in successive off-seasons. What with these visits and loud opinions from ex-players (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Commodore, Chelios, among others), I wager there’s something there. By my estimation, Mike Babcock is a coach who players don’t like playing for. This alone can potentially make a big difference to team results.
Opposition scouting and video coaching isn’t to par. If it were, I imagine the Leafs wouldn’t show up every night looking ready to play the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres. They’re slow off the jump, often falling behind the play early. Teams that clog the neutral zone still give them problems and, in games like Wednesday’s against New York, facing teams whose central objective is to limit xG and increase low risk shot quantity, the Leafs seem to cede their preferred play style. Since 2016 the Leafs have been an elite offensive team. This season, they’ve traded their patented high xG rush and slot offence for something dull. They generate few high danger chances regardless of the opposition. Their shot map is curiously warm at the points. The defencemen are simply taking too many shots. Welcome to Toronto, Dave Hakstol.
Special teams are a nightmare. The powerplay and penalty kill are low movement, effectively useless systems that concede quality and generate nothing. The powerplay under Jim Hiller was magnificent, with last year’s Leafs finishing top-five in PP chances generated following two years of similar success. Under Paul McFarland, it is no longer. The interesting caveat is the Paul McFarland PP in Florida, despite having much less talent to work with, was designed with more movement and generated much more offense than has resulted this year. The systems need to change. They’re costing the team standings points.
Player deployment is a persistent problem for this Leafs team, though arguably the most nitpicky. 55 second PP shifts for the first unit, low ice time totals for some top end players, eight-minute games for Travis Dermott, the Morgan Rielly PK experiment, rolled lines down multiple goals in the back half of third periods; these are problems easily fixed. The bulk of publicly available data seems to support the notion that you should use your best players more in all game states, but especially up a man or trailing a game. I’m unsure why we haven’t seen changes to deployment strategy. And yet, here we are, five years later, with Alexander Kerfoot seeing 3-on-3 ice time, and a Hyman-Kapanen-Kerfoot second PP unit taking half the opportunity.
All of this is to say, I know that the coaching staff isn’t doing all they can to get the most out of this Maple Leafs roster. The results so far are unacceptable. The team is at risk of missing the playoffs, a tragedy that seems so inescapable as to almost pre-emptively numb the devastation. April golf will become us if nothing changes. There are too many good teams hanging around, especially in the Atlantic, and the Montreal-Florida-Tampa-Boston contingent seem hellbent on mounting multigoal comebacks to force three-point results. A coaching change can be a scary thing, but, like the Stanley Cup winning teams in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2016, and 2019, maybe it’s time to ask, “What do we have to lose?”
PS: The Leafs play exceptionally well when they scrap the system at the end of a game and just fucking go off.