What’s Ailing the Leafs?

By @jakebeleafs

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.

What Now?

It was the best time to slay the dragon in their own lair, or exorcise the demons that plagued them. In the end, the Leafs were once again defeated by the dragon and their demons continued to haunt them. With another loss the Boston Bruins in the first- round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a team that was destined to make a deep run, is now starting to look for answers and quickly during a window where the time to win is now.

For the third time, it ended in defeat. But there was no egregious collapse that left the fan base with dropped jaws. This Game 7 was different where it wasn’t a blowout. This whole series was competitive and entertaining for seven straight games. I was always on the edge of my seat every single game, anticipating what would happen next. But, it’s the same old story for the Leafs where at times during this year, their mistakes caught up to them at the worst possible time.

Morgan Rielly had a career year. Newly acquired John Tavares had a career year. Mitch Marner had a career year and in the end, while all these personal accolades are great, it’s bittersweet knowing that expectations were high and that another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs was the result.

I mean in a series, and a game, where Toronto seemed to be the better team for the better part of two periods, it was the Bruins that made the most of their chances and capitalizing on the Leafs mistakes. You can fault Andersen for two goals that he should’ve had. You can blame Gardiner for another questionable Game 7 where he didn’t perform the way he wanted too. Or you can blame Kadri for the suspension that hindered the Leafs at times where his presence was needed the most.

General manager Kyle Dubas is now in a spot where he needs to find answers and change it to make this team into a true contender. But the blame does not lie with him.

It lies on the bench.

Assistant coaches Jim Hiller and DJ Smith control the power-play and penalty- kill respectively and it was abysmal for the second half of the season and in the playoffs. The Leafs were 3 for 16 (18.8%) on the power- play, which is average at best. Their penalty- kill finished at 56.3%. The only team that was worse than them in that department was the Tampa Bay Lightning. That percentage alone is terrible.

At a time where special teams is always a difference maker, this is one of the issues that killed them during this series. While they had some good looks at both ends, the success rate wasn’t there and the Bruins defenders gave them a hard time to enter the zone and setup and destroying them with the man advantage.

Before the series started I wrote about what the Leafs need to do to beat the Bruins, fixing the power-play was one of them. They’re too predictable. Although, using Matthews on the off- wing was a great new strategy, it was too little too late.

Mike Babcock has been criticized heavily this year compared to the previous years about his decisions, ability to change his style and player management. Even with the match-ups, Babcock lost those against Bruce Cassidy because he was pin- pointing out the Leafs weakness. This is similar to a chess match and the Babcock got heavily out-coached. This is another major concern. As a coach, you need to adapt and change your style to be the better team. Babcock had no answer and kept his lineups and game- plan the same. Babcock is trying to use his strategies that may have worked in the past. But none of it is working now.

The stretch pass was one of the Leafs strength at one point, but it became a burden for them. It didn’t work out as well as Leafs planned. Boston exploited that to give them nothing throughout whole series, most notably on the first Bruins goal. Travis Dermott had possession of the puck and instead of trying to skate up with it, he tried to stretch the play up and created a turnover leading to Joakim Nordstrom’s goal. It’s a great tactic to have in your arsenal, but it shouldn’t be the go-to play as it’s been backfiring a lot all year.

Early on in the season, the Leafs killed every team with their speed and skill. It was a major asset and they broke out as a whole unit. I didn’t notice this a lot during the second- half and playoffs. I don’t know if that had to do with the way Babcock wanted them to play, but they weren’t the same team when they weren’t using their speed.

With that being said, the Leafs American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, looked more fast and quick than the pro team. While it’s good for players development and playing in that moment and looking to get to the NHL, it puts everyone on the big club to shame. The Marlies are moving onto the second round under Sheldon Keefe and they are quick in every department; transitional play, chasing down loose pucks, puck movement, cycle play, defensive play, you name it. The Marlies were better than the Leafs.

Auston Matthews was scoring and producing at an important time, which he should. Although, he was doing a lot in Game 7, he only had 18:48 total ice time and only 6:16 in the third period of game 7. The teams’ franchise player played just over six minutes in a crucial game where it mattered most to try and salvage the season.

Meanwhile, Patrick Marleau was out there when game was on the line. Marleau didn’t have a strong season and he was in the final shifts of the game to try and save the year.

See the problem here?

This head scratching player deployment is all on Babcock. I’m a big fan of his and I’ve supported him for a long time, but to give your star player the least amount of ice time when it matters most is inexcusable. I don’t see Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin get the short end of the leash in terms of ice time. The fact that Babcock would rather play an aging 39-year-old Marleau over a young superstar like Matthews shows that his stubbornness is his own demise. He’s stuck in the past where the vets should be out there playing while the young guys take a seat. That’s not how it works anymore. The stars deserve more ice time and depth guys, while they have a purpose, shouldn’t be getting more than them unless you have the utmost faith in them.

Everything falls back to the coach. Player performance, special teams, everything goes back to them. This is his team and he has the carry the blame for how everything unfolded, in the regular season and post-season. They’re responsible for the way they play and the execution each game.

It’s a shame that Dubas had to take the blame for the coaching staff’s failure during the end of season press conference. Could Dubas take the blame for not making another move to improve the team deadline? Sure, there’s always an opportunity to improve the team. But as his first year as general manager, I thought he did a fantastic job. What he shouldn’t do is take the blame for something the head coach and special teams specialists are responsible for. That’s not his job.

The fact that Babcock didn’t take any ownership for the team’s failure whatsoever, shows that there is some sort of disconnect between the coach and general manager. And that is problematic.

If I’m Dubas, I’d talk to Babcock and give him an ultimatum, one more year to try and get a hold of things and turn it around. I’d fire his assistants first before anything because the PP/ PK was atrocious down the stretch and playoffs. I’d give Keefe one of the spots and if next year is another early exit, fire Babcock and make the Keefe the head coach. Keefe had an excellent track record in the Ontario Hockey League and he has showing glimpses of being a NHL coach in the AHL, winning a title with the Marlies. There’s no doubt, that he deserves a spot.

Like I said, I’ve always liked Babcock. I wouldn’t fire a guy who came in and brought the team back to the playoffs and has had success in the past right away. But the tension, issues or whatever is going on between him, his assistants, his franchise player or general manager is troubling. In addition, being out in the first round in five of the last six years is concerning and shouldn’t be overlooked.

For three seasons, the Leafs have had great regular season success but has been mediocre in the playoffs. You can write off the first season as it was their first time making it with a young core of players, same with last year as the team is still trying to find itself. But this time around, things were different. Compared to previous years, this team had the best chance to beat the Bruins and move onto the second round. There should’ve been some sort of improvement on the previous year and there was nothing to show for it. That falls on the coach. The effort wasn’t there when it mattered most. This year was a wasted opportunity, for the players, the coach and management.

And let’s not forget, Dubas’ hands are going to be full with a number of roster changes looming. This could come in shoring up defensive depth and figuring out what to do to try and make this team a contender. Will he acquire a top- four, right handed defenseman? What will he do with players like Connor Brown, Patrick Marleau and his contract and even Nazem Kadri after his selfish and idiotic suspension?

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. And Dubas is going to have an extremely busy off- season. Change is going to be coming. Whether it’s the coaching staff or roster management, it’s coming.

 

Travis Dermott, Mike Babcock, and Opportunity Missed

By Nick Richard

Travis Dermott has finally resumed skating with his teammates, albeit in a red sweater signifying that he’s not ready for contact or real game action just yet. He’s been out of the Leafs lineup since February 27th when he suffered a shoulder injury as a result of an awkward and somewhat questionable hit from Edmonton’s Brad Malone.

The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for the Leafs, or for Dermott. It occurred in the Leafs’ first game following the news that Jake Gardiner was out on a week to week basis with an injury of his own, putting the team down two of their best defensemen while trying to keep pace with the surging Bruins for home ice advantage in the playoffs. It also looked as though Dermott was in line to show he was capable of carrying more of the defensive load in Gardiner’s absence but instead he ended up joining Gardiner on the injured list.

Even before the Gardiner injury, it looked as though Dermott was being groomed for a larger role down the stretch. After holding down the left side on the third pair all season, Dermott was shifted to the right side in the seven games leading up to Gardiner hitting the shelf.

Opponent

Partner

TOI w/partner

CF/CA w/partner

Colorado (Feb. 12)

Gardiner

11:00

8 / 4

Vegas (Feb. 14)

Gardiner

11:43

14 / 9

Arizona (Feb. 16)

Gardiner

11:55

10 / 10

St. Louis (Feb. 19)

Gardiner/Muzzin

5:43/9:31

16 / 17

Washington (Feb. 21)

Muzzin

10:49

21 / 13

Montreal (Feb. 23)

Muzzin

11:46

14 / 14

Buffalo (Feb. 25)

Muzzin

13:07

15 / 14

5v5 – table via @NatStatTrick

We’ve seen Dermott get the odd shift with Rielly or Gardiner late in games when the Leafs were searching for a goal but this was the first time he was getting consistent minutes on the right side in his NHL career. It’s also worth noting that in two of those seven games, Dermott played more total minutes than both Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev.

For years now, the right side of the Leafs’ defensive unit has been an area of concern and it looked as though Dermott was going to be capable of providing a much needed boost at the position sooner rather than later. He’s got all the tools to succeed on his weak side; exceptionally quick feet and confidence in his decision making, strong lateral movement and edge work, smooth hands, and the ability to make plays on his backhand.

In last year’s playoffs, the Bruins did a good job of making the Leafs alter their breakout strategy by focusing their forecheck on puck movers Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott down the left side. It forced the right side defenders in Hainsey, Zaitsev and Polak to handle the puck more than the Leafs would have liked and their transition game suffered because of it. It seemed prudent to have one of their stronger puck moving defensemen shift over to the right side so opponents wouldn’t be able to dial in on that weakness so easily and Dermott certainly fit the bill. The former Erie Otter isn’t just effective in transitioning the puck up the ice either. In fact, he may be the best Leafs defender when it comes to stopping opposing breakouts or rushes before they even get started. Moving him over to the right side would create at least one balanced pairing that opposing forwards wouldn’t be able to exploit on either side.

Like last year when Mike Babcock began playing Andreas Johnsson more and Leo Komarov less leading up to the playoffs, I think we were going to see the same thing with Dermott as the season progressed. Now, with significant time missed while his shoulder healed and just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, it seems unlikely for him to return and get back up to full speed in time for Babcock to revisit the experiment of having him play on the right side before the playoffs get underway. Don’t forget that we’ve seen Matthews take some time to return to form after shoulder injuries in the last two seasons.

We know that it takes Babcock a long time to make changes regarding player usage and he won’t just throw Dermott into the deep end when he returns to the lineup. He’s going to stick with what he’s comfortable with as they get set to face the Bruins in the first round for the second straight year. That means Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev continuing to receive top four minutes on the right side, much to the chagrin of Leafs Nation.

Even in his usual role, Dermott’s return will be welcome news to the Leafs and their fans heading into the final days of the regular season but getting a long look at him on the right side would have been a big step towards the Leafs optimizing their defense before the playoffs. I still believe Dermott ends up on the right side eventually but it might not happen as soon as it looked like it was going to prior to him being forced to miss so much time. Babcock often talks about opportunity and being able to take advantage of it but with the unfortunate timing of the injury, it looks like a missed opportunity for both Babcock and Dermott as the clock counts down towards another playoff matchup with the Bruins.

follow @_nickrichard via Twitter

Go Leafs Go

By Doug Doucette

Maybe you’re like me.

I know that we’re out there. I know that there are thousands of us–millions of us, even.

We’re the lifers–the die hards–the fanatics–those of use who have blue and white blood coursing through our veins. No matter what.

It’s a part of life–it’s a way of life. Win or lose, this is where we are. This is where we live. This is our lives.

I was born in 1985 and even though I was a Leafs fan before I even knew how to walk, my first vivid hockey memory wasn’t a Leafs moment. Not exactly.

It was the 1989 Stanley Cup final, and I found the guy who I knew, even then, would be my favourite player of all-time. As a four year old, maybe I didn’t know that people could have the same name as me. Or maybe there was just something about the way he played the game that captivated my young eyes.

He was a fresh faced twenty five year old, who hadn’t even lost his front teeth yet, wearing #39 for The Calgary Flames.

It would be another three seasons before The Leafs would acquire Doug Gilmour from The Flames in 1992. I think it was really that day, January 2nd, that my heart and soul was truly turned over to the Blue and White.

It was the first time that I could remember getting that feeling in my stomach, when it looks like everything is going to go your way. And I won’t pretend that my attachment to Gilmour was serendipitous, or really anything more than pure coincidence. I didn’t know that things would turn out for Gilmour and The Leafs the way that they did, but because they did, it made my connection with him and The Toronto Maple Leafs that much more special to me.

It added to a fire that was already burning, a fire that hasn’t stopped burning since. It’s only grown despite the many ups and downs this franchise has gone through during my tenure as a fan.

A little more than one year later, on May 1st, the flame grew brighter. It was the seventh game, the first overtime, in the first round of The Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Leafs had dropped the first two games to the Wings, and it looked like they were in over their head against a team who would go on to dominate for the next two decades. Even after taking the lead in the series after three incredibly close games, when the Wings forced a game seven in a decisive 7-3 victory, it felt like it would be a hard fought, first round exit for Toronto.

Maybe lost in the lore of what would happen only a couple of minutes into the extra frame, was Gilmour’s late goal to tie the game with under three minutes remaining in the third. And then, just like that, there was life–there was hope.

“Gilmour, to Bobby Rouse.” Joe Bowen started, only moments after the line had nearly converted on several close plays.

Bonsie already had that playoff crackle in his voice. He fought for breath, every word that spilled out, came with the same kind of gut wrenching anticipation that I felt in the pit of my own stomach.

“Shot–scores.” he exclaimed. “Nikolai Borschevsky scores for Toronto. The Leafs win! The Leafs win! The Leafs win!”

If you’re anything like me, just reading those words brings back that same feeling you had the first time that you heard them.

And after that, weren’t we all Nikolai Borschevsky at some point? Either on the pond, or in the streets, dreaming of scoring that goal, dreaming of being the hero. He was a kid that came out of nowhere that season and would soon after disappear back into obscurity, never to be heard from again–and somehow, he lives on in our hearts and memories forever because of one goal, in the first round of the playoffs, over twenty-five years ago.

It was only two days later that the feeling in my gut returned, that the flame in my heart and soul swelled, glowing brighter than ever before. In game one of the second round, in the second overtime–Doug Gilmour, single handedly, thrust a dagger into the heart of The St. Louis Blues; the team with which he’d broke into the league.

“Gilmour! Solo job! And he’s won it.” Bob Cole shouted over the roaring crowd at Maple Leaf Garden.

“The best player, wins the best game, in the best fashion.” was the call from legendary broadcaster, Harry Neale.

Gilmour had been The Leafs’ best player, almost since the day he’d arrived–and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone to see him explode in a moment of sheer dominance when the team needed him the most. But that moment was like the first, in a long line, that cemented Dougie’s place among the greats in Leafs history.

And of course I know how it turned out.

Of course we remember the sting of defeat.

Of course, we all share a common disdain for stupid Kerry Fraser and his stupid perfect hair.

When someone brings up those moments–I don’t think about the high stick. I don’t think about Gretzky dominating us in game seven. I don’t think about Montreal being the team that eventually hoisted the Cup that year.

And when I hear the emotional calls of Joe Bowen during those moments, I get that feeling the same as I did back then. The same feeling I had as an eight year old boy, watching his heroes, on the team he lived and breathed for, try and do the improbable.

So, you’ve stayed with me this long, why not just follow me down the rabbit hole a little bit further and see if we can’t get that feeling in the pit of your stomach in shape for another playoff run.

Following the 92-93 run to the conference final and a repeat appearance the following season, which resulted in a loss to eventual runners up The Vancouver Canucks–things got bleak in Leaf Land.

The one thing we had to hold on to in that time was a trade that many devastated many life long Leafs fans which sent Wendel Clark out of Toronto and brought in a young Swede named Mats Sundin.

Of course Mats was coming off a couple of pretty good seasons in Quebec and anyone could see the potential was there, but we had no idea what we were truly in store for.

A pair of first round exits and a pair of last place finishes muddied Mats’ welcoming party. In 1997, after Gilmour was shipped out, Mats was given the captaincy. It would take until the following year for him to bring The Leafs back to the playoffs.

They would go back to the conference finals once again, on the back of the strong play from Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph. But it was an unlikely hero that sent them there, eliminating The Pittsburgh Penguins, two minutes into overtime, in game six.

Garry Valk, who was always a blue collar player, lay on the ice face first and found a way to shovel the puck past a flailing Tom Barrasso.

And sure, we went on to be completely demoralized by a super human goaltender in the conference finals.

And no–it doesn’t take the feeling away whenever you see the clip of Valk, sprawled out at the top of the blue paint, the puck on his backhand, with just enough strength to put it home.

If you think hard enough about it now, you can take yourself back to the first installment of The Battle of Ontario. You can specifically recall individual battles, you can vividly see the blood soaked face of an irate Darcy Tucker.

If you close your eyes, you can hear Joe Bowen’s call in the final minute of a deciding sixth game in the first instalment. His words come out in staccato as the Senators make one final push to tie the game and potentially see a seventh.

And when it was over, in his playoff rasp, he proclaimed “Bless you boys, what a game.” And it was.

The true, once and forever voice of The Maple Leafs was at it again in the 2002 Conference Final. The Carolina Hurricanes would go on to win the series in the extra frame of game six, but they were twenty-two seconds away from sealing the deal with a 1-0 victory in regulation.

‘Canes net minder, Arturs Irbe, was making a super human bid for his second shutout of the series. In fact, at that time, he’d only surrendered five goals to The Maple Leafs in the entire series. As the seconds ticked away, despite the best efforts from The Leafs, it appeared as though they weren’t going to find a way to solve The Hurricanes’ trap, or the unorthodox Latvian.

Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph was on the bench for the extra attacker. There was a scramble in the slot, Mogilny passed the puck out to Kaberle from behind the net, Darcy Tucker took a stab at it from Irbe’s right, and the puck slid through the crease. Mats Sundin, with defenders on his back, and stick blades all around, pulled the puck off of Irbe’s pad and shoveled it into the empty net.

“Don’t tell me about heart, and dedication, and resilience.” said an emotional Bowen.

And we were all emotional then.

The Hurricanes, who had drastically outplayed The Leafs the entire series, would of course go on to win in overtime, but that moment we were all suspended. Gravity did not apply to us then.

The Leafs have won exactly one playoff series since that heroic run in 2002, a hard fought seven games against the Ottawa Senators. We’ve shared some tough times in those two decades, but the moments of sheer enjoyment haven’t gone by the wayside.

On October, 14, 2006 Mats Sundin put together one of the most remarkable regular season performances that I’ve seen in my lifetime. He came into the game with 497 career goals. He’d already scored two and added an assist when the 4-4 game went to overtime.

Early in the extra frame, already short handed after a late penalty by Darcy Tucker, Sundin would steal the puck from Alex Tanguay and lead a lackluster one on two into the Flames end. He stepped over the line and sent a cannon of a slapshot over the left shoulder of Miikka Kiprusoff.

Sundin finished the game with a goal at all three strengths, and had the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment with his entire team as they poured over the boards, unconcerned with the gutsy effort in the win, only proud of their captain for yet another all-time moment.

The feeling went dormant after that. We watched long time fan favourites become villainized by fans and media. We watched half hearted attempts at rebuilding, or retooling. We watched a team that wasn’t good enough to compete, but wasn’t bad enough to secure one of the many franchise players who went high in the draft. That is, until we went through Brendan Shanahan’s scorched earth.

On April 30th 2016, without a general manager, Brendan Shanahan stood shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Cheveldayoff while Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly turned over the card that would show which club would have the opportunity to pick first overall and select franchise centre Auston Matthews.

Obviously, we know what happened. We all stood back and listened to Bruins fans, Habs fans, and Senators fans suddenly preach about The Leafs history with developing high end players, about how Matthews was, after all, overrated.

And then we watched as Matthews stripped Erik Karlsson of the puck and scored his second of four goals in his debut. We watched on social media as current and former players commented, in disbelief about how good this kid was, not how good he was going to be.

We knew we had a core of young players in Nylander, Marner and Rielly that Matthews would join, but most of us didn’t believe the team would be ready to step into the light as a competitive team for another year or two. We’d accepted our fate as a team that would be tough to play against, but would ultimately fall short.

As the 16-17 season went on, it became obvious that The Leafs weren’t going to fall out of the picture without a fight.

Even when goaltender Freddie Andersen went down in the last week of the season, with only waiver claim Curtis McElhinney behind him to get us there, they fought on.

With only days left in the regular season, it came down to a tilt against perennial cup contenders, The Pittsburgh Penguins.

And you remember the seeing eye shot that Connor Brown managed to tip from inside the circle to take the lead.

You remember Joe Bowen’s “Holy McElhinney” call when the journeyman back up stretched the limits of his body to stonewall none other than Sidney Crosby.

You remember the Auston Matthews empty netter that punched the ticket.

“We’re going to the playoffs baby.” said Joe.

No one gave The Leafs a chance to beat the first place Capitals. And maybe winning the series wasn’t the only way to be victorious then.

Kasperi Kapanen couldn’t manage to score in his first stint with the Leafs in the previous year. He wouldn’t manage to score his first career goal until that run in with his former team, The Penguins. You would think, tying that game would be the biggest goal of the season for him, but in game two of that series he put home the tying goal in the second period, and then won it in the second overtime.

If you’re like me, you can still see his reaction as he circled back behind the net pumping his arms and mobbing the set up man, Brian Boyle.

For what feels like an eternity now, we’ve been in this mode where we look a little further down the road. And when we hit another speed bump, we look a little further and a little further still. Our own pessimism gets the best of us from time to time, and more than most of us would like to admit.

And make no mistake, the future is still very bright for this club, but the time for hope and expectation is on our door steps.

And if you are like me, you pour everything you have into rooting for this team. All we have as a connection from year to year, from generation to generation are those moments. The ones that have a strange way of warming your heart and threatening to bring a tear to your eye.

And it’s okay to be emotional, and it’s okay to get frustrated, because you are a true fan–and being a fan means that you get to be unreasonable. It means that you get to dream bit. It means that you get to share in the victories the same way that you’re crushed by the defeats.

Being a fan means that you get to have hope when all reason for hope has fled.

Go Leafs Go.

@DigDoug7

Overcoming Boston: Mentality – Physicality -Predictably

By Peter Baracchini

For the last few months, Leafs fans were wondering who their first round opponent for the Stanley Cup Playoffs might be. For a moment, fans were dreaming of a Toronto vs Montreal matchup. For the most part, who could blame them? It’s one of the most fierce and historic rivalries in the National Hockey League.

Myself, I would’ve loved it as, like many, I have friends and family that are Habs fans and this would’ve added fuel to the fire.

This would’ve been an ideal match-up for Toronto and an entertaining series. However, recent events have shown that our first round opponent will be a familiar foe from a daunting and painful past.

Ladies and gentlemen of Leafs Nation, be prepared for another first round match-up against the Boston Bruins. While it’s not official, it’s only a matter of time before it is. The Bruins went on a remarkable run of 19 games with a point, 15-0-4 to be exact. This has vaulted the Bruins to second place in the Atlantic Division and the opportunity for home ice, unless a complete 180 occurs.

It’s not something that Leafs fans would want to endure or welcome with loving arms. There was the extremely disappointing 4-1 meltdown in 2013, which every fan would want to wipe from their memory as soon as possible. Then there was the utter dominance from the Bruins last year from Game 1. Even though it went to seven games, the Leafs were clearly out matched and the Bruins were by far the better team, offensively and defensively. And it led to another breakdown.

The Bruins top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak proved to be way too much for the Leafs to handle. In total, they combined for 30 points in the series. While Auston Matthews and William Nylander were basically invisible, the only one of the Leafs young threats to make an impact was Mitch Marner.

The Leafs were also outmatched physically and intimidation set in from the very beginning.

This year’s season series was pretty much the same as it was in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs seemed intimidated most games from the constant pressure and physical presence of the Bruins. In four games, the Leafs were outscored 16-10 but their possession numbers were respectable in three of the four games.

What would it take for the Leafs to be successful and exorcise their demons against a team that has given them a lot of post- season trouble?

A couple of things.

It’s quite simple. It has to do with the way they think and execute each game.

Mental game:

One of the things that people talk about is the mental edge that teams have against their opponent. Chalk up a big win for the Bruins in this category.

They were in the Leafs’ heads heading into last year’s series with 2013 and then after their collapse last year.

It may sound easy, but for anyone, even athletes, it’s hard to try and forget those moments. It always lingers in the back of your head. When you’re out on the ice, you want to try and do whatever it takes to win, whether it be the right play or a risky play that catches everyone off guard and it might cost you the game.

The Bruins might be in their head, but at the same time heading into the playoffs, the Leafs should have a pissed- off mentality. For the 2013 collapse, for the collapse last year and for the way they Bruins have played in the season series this year. The third time could be the charm where the Leafs don’t let their emotions get the best of them and go into the playoffs with a different mindset, catching the Bruins off guard.

“Our first year, we were really excited about going to the playoffs,” Mitch Marner said at his charity event last July. “Last year we expected to be there, we expected ourselves to be in that position. We played a very good team, obviously we wanted better for ourselves. We have to challenge ourselves to be better. Every year we want to get better and push ourselves.”

The challenge to be better started this year. While the Leafs have exceeded expectations again, the major question still lies on defense. They’re still young and Mike Babcock has said too many times that the Leafs have had too many “learning experience” games. They have had too many of those, in the past and this year where they expected better from themselves. One is example is John Tavares’ return to Long Island.

“We’re a young team that learned a lot over the course of the past few years,” says defenseman Morgan Rielly. “I think that moving forward we have higher expectations for our group. As always it’s a lesson to be learned. We’re just trying to get better and get going.”

If there was anytime to remember those lessons, it’s now. The Leafs need to be focused and dialed in from the very first puck drop. Everyone needs to do their part but they should be angry and their play should reflect that. Playoffs are a different beast and the Leafs need to show that they’re one of the teams to beat, because when they’re on their game, they’re extremely hard to beat.

Physicality:

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to automatically think about enforcers fighting and taking dumb stupid penalties to enforce their dominance.

That’s not what I’m alluding to. Before you read further, you should check out Jude MacDonald’s piece on if the Leafs are heavy enough. https://trueblueleafs.com/2019/03/08/are-the-maple-leafs-big-tough-enough-for-playoff-hockey/

Physicality does matter. The Bruins play a physical game and they’re the perfect example of providing a heavy fore-check and separating player from the puck. This is the kind of play that will win you games in the playoffs. If not the Bruins, look at the Stanley Cup Champs Washington Capitals. They played a heavy game and it helped them en route to their first championship.

The Leafs have some players like Nazerm Kadri and Zach Hyman who are heavy on the fore-check, depth players who provide an impact. The Bruins get it from Marchand, Pastrnak and Bergeron. Their best players provide some sort of physical element. The Leafs best players seem to be afraid. Not necessarily to make a hit, but to get into the dirty areas and play with an edge. While I’m well aware that is not their style, at some point, you have to do what you can to make a play that’ll impact the team. Even it means getting physical.

Some seem to think that hitting doesn’t change anything in a game. However, there’s a difference between making a hit trying to take someone’s head off and a hit to gain puck- possession. I don’t see a lot of statistics for this but by watching videos of Leafs games, when teams play a heavy style and they make a hit, this creates a turnover leading to a shot on net or scoring chance. In a game against the Nashville Predators there was a stat TSN made involving hits that transitioned to puck possession and shots. The Leafs didn’t fair well in that regard. And the Bruins are known for this as well.

Now, we’re seeing the emergence of players like Trevor Moore, who isn’t a big body by any means, but he’s relentless and has a great ability to use his body to separate the player from the puck. The key to beating Boston’s physical presence would be to use their speed, get into a good position to knock the player off the puck or provide relentless pressure to gain possession. They would need that from every player, even their skilled ones.

Does the Toronto media have a point that the Leafs get pushed around a lot? In a way, yes. We do see this on a consistent basis. But can the Leafs find their own way to be “tough”? Absolutely. That way is with their offense. By having that mix of speed and relentless puck pursuit. When they play like this, they’re tough. They need that intensity on a consistent basis. However, another depth forward with a heavy element that isn’t one- dimensional wouldn’t hurt the team either.

Predictability:

Too many times this season the Leafs have predictable tendencies with the puck, particularly on the man advantage. Even though they currently rank eighth, they had a rough stretch from the start of the new calendar year to until mid- February.

Teams caught on their set-up play where Rielly and Marner are the setup guys for Auston Matthews on the left wing. Then there’s the drop- pass upon each zone entry. While it’s effective, it would help if the Leafs could try to utilize their speed to push defenders back and attack the offensive zone.

These plays were way too predictable and it showed, until they started to generate more puck movement and different setup plays. This included more of a cycle element and setting up a play from the goal line to the middle of the ice.

If the Leafs want to be successful, then they should try to avoid being too predictable in a time where one mistake could cost you the game. Yes, every team has their main plan of attack. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be the go-to every time. The Leafs have a number of options throughout the lineup, both at 5-on-5 or on the power- play.

While analytics draw a great picture of a how a team and players perform each game, this time around, these factors are something that can’t be deciphered with numbers. With another playoff matchup possibly set against the Bruins, this seems to be more of a mental game for the Maple Leafs this time around. To gain that psychological edge and momentum over an opponent is an important factor especially in playoffs. If the Leafs excel in these areas, while managing to maintain their high-octane offense, this could be the moment where they exorcise their demons against the Bruins.

The Leafs were labeled as a Stanley Cup contender coming into this season. Now is the time to prove that they are one.

@PBaracchini

Are the Maple Leafs Big & Tough Enough For Playoff Hockey?

By Jude MacDonald

We see it on the TV and we hear it on radio, framed one way or another. “Too soft”, “don’t hit anything”, “no pushback”, “_____ was taken out and nobody even blinked let alone responded.” Just left that blank since it’s happened a fair amount. You get the gist. Put it however you want, the Leafs physicality or lack thereof is a major topic of conversation. Its certainly the question I get most on today’s version of the team, both online and out and about among the fan base. It’s a difficult one to answer but I’m going to give it some sort of a try. Quite simply, are the Maple Leafs big and tough enough for playoff hockey?

If you listen to the majority of hockey media then you already know what pundits like Brian Burke feel and before I say anything further I should probably qualify my own retort with a small back story into my relationship/idea of “toughness” and it’s place in the game.

You may or may not remember I’m a guy who previously wrote a story about Matt Martin and his importance to a group that went beyond what you see on the ice and even what you did as far as making some valuable youngsters comfortable. The era before that I was the same guy who feverishly and even maybe ridiculously tried to explain that Colton Orr and Frazer McClaren’s roles in 6 minutes a night had nothing to do with shot attempts or zone time and everything to do with providing an influx of testosterone to what I would otherwise call a timid group.

Basically….I believe(d) in hockey toughness. Toughness in all it’s ugly and beautiful hockey forms. Intimidation, momentum swings, imposing will, all of it. Yes my fondest memories are of Wendel, etc. I won’t apologize for that, nor should I. That was the style I grew up on, proudly I might add. And as we now all watch the game veering in another direction (especially recently in Toronto) I still hang tight to certain aspects of a competitive sport that I don’t think ever will change. Yet in saying all this you can’t help but take the temperature of the times you’re in. Like it or not, this isn’t the NHL I once knew.

Keeping that in mind, where is the line between romanticizing the notions of hockey’s yesteryear and acknowledging an undeniable void of blunt force or aggression somewhere on the roster?

Around and heading into the deadline there was a relatively loud clamouring for Toronto to, as I eluded to above, “influx” some muscle into their lineup. Most of the better ideas came with the predetermination that any brutish bringer of bravado we envisioned adding could also skate and play. A rarified combination of elements in a sport transitioning away from physical engagement, thus making the acquisition of such type player come at a steep cost. A cost Leafs management measured and passed on paying.

Was this a gross miscalculation by Leafs management or an unsolicited determination worthy of support?

Feb.25th (NHL’s trade deadline) has come and gone and there’s no sense looking in the rear view mirror too long. However, was there an opportunity to “beef up” that may have been missed? Wayne Simmonds, Michael Ferland, Adam McQuaid, these were the names bandied about in the grit/presence department and a few more we didn’t hear were discussed I’m sure.

First of all, let’s just quickly look at the logistics. The price, to begin. Two picks for recent healthy scratch Adam McQuaid? Toronto’s scouting department would be enamoured with that deal, trading two swings or rolls of the dice away for a depth defender on an expiring contract. Am I rolling my eyes at the addition of a big strong defender who would bring things the Leafs don’t have? Read the intro, no I am not. But realistically is he going to help? Who is he playing ahead of? Other dominoes would’ve had to fall to make McQuaid a sensible 6D and even then, have we improved because we are meaner and our average player size took an uptick? Or what would we have truly been doing here? Satisfying an urge for instant retribution or what someone acting as a deterrent to help stop people from getting face washed in a scrum? I’m not shitting on the suggestion, don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt I’d love to see more “jam” and definitely more response. But what’s actually going to get us playoff W’s? Is that it? Makes for a better story and entertainment, but c’mon off it. What moves the needle of success here with the 2018/19 Leafs? Talent foremost.

Up front it’s even more complicated. Toronto needs a big forward, you say? Alright, so who goes? On the right side you’re already looking at Connor Brown on your 4th line when everyone is healthy, and as a matter of fact he could be pushed out altogether. You aren’t taking ice from Kappy, Willy, or Mitch. Full stop. On the left side you’ve got Hyman who already provides as much heavy and grit and grime you could ever ask for while keeping the mitts on and the mitts across the NHL are sewn on now anyways. Johnnsson, well you aren’t pushing him down anywhere. He’s gonna be latched to Auston this post season is my guess or somewhere in the top 9. He’s tenacious, hard on the puck, and a vigorously competitive player. Heavy? In his way, kinda sorta. Yes he’ll get levelled from time to time, but AJ is a battler who can rile up opponents. Then you’ve got Patty Marleau who conceivably could get bumped down perhaps if you added say a Ferland type. Though from what I see I don’t know if either will or would have the impact of Trevor Moore or Tyler Ennis as we go and include Simmonds if you want. Not to mention the other names who were available that I don’t see as a viable improvement over the “little” guys. All that’s left is adding to your 4th line and maybe just to say you did. Kyle Clifford? Wouldn’t hurt, but he’d cost something and not convinced he can play ahead of anyone we have there now. Instead the Leafs took the “soft” narrative and stretched it even further by adding more speed/skill at the bottom of the lineup with a trade for undersized utility forward Nick Petan.

Now all the above here honestly does is provide an attempt at a logical explanation as to why bringing on a bit of rough and tumble wasn’t as easy or straight forward as it may have seemed. It doesn’t quite absolve management for not instilling the perceived missing ingredient in the general team constitution. To my eye, there are times I have to say this is all a bit new. Even troubling. What am I trying to say without saying it? Yeah, it’s true. Toronto do often come across as or look “soft’ by hockey’s current definition. You can’t honestly say they don’t. But, I mean, are they truly soft? Or could it be the Maple Leafs are in the midst of redefining how we view this trait we call toughness.

Tell me, who is soft exactly? Put yourself in that room right now. You’re the coach, you’re Babcock, and you’re circling the room. Who are you calling out for playing too tentatively or without effort on the puck? Because I don’t know if there’s anyone specifically you are. Go through the lineup. We aren’t bangers guys and we gotta deal with it. Auston? Doesn’t finish checks and has a large frame, but I’m not of the thought he’s meek. It’s just something he’s never done and his energy/efforts is used elsewhere. Does his intensity have to ratchet up? I would say so but I’m hopeful that will come with the territory of being in his now third post season. There’s fire in there. Willly? Soft? No way. Don’t buy it. Bull on the on the puck along the ozone walls, great in the neutral zone, not gonna slam anybody or drive them into the boards but he’s not “weak” in any facet. Mitch? Lol. Why because he’s “small”? Marner won’t be shying away from anything come playoff time. Only gets him going more, like Dougie. John Tavares plays about as heavy as it gets without throwing his weight around other than to protect the puck when leaning on guys. Look, you could go through everyone on the roster. Do they hit? Nope. Are they cowardly or mild. I wouldn’t concur with that evaluation. Nazem Kadri isn’t scared of anything on the ice. Hyman absorbs 900 hits a game and begs Babs for more. Muzzin is gonna battle, Hainsey, Toronto won’t stay out of the trenches when it’s time to crawl in. Look at their record versus playoff teams. They’ve taken advantage even of some of the bigger clubs. The Jets for instance looked sluggish against the Leafs when enthralled in their A game. If Toronto can find something in themselves that we’ve seen in spurts against the leagues best and “heaviest” squads, maybe they can discover their own style of post season bite on the goddam scoresheet.

When the Maple Leafs say they believe in their group it’s because they do. I don’t think it’s lip service at all. I’ll promise you they aren’t making moves because conventional wisdom, consensus, or Ricky from Etobicoke on Line 3 calls for it. If you needed any further proof we saw it at the deadline. Toronto has doubled down on skill and are sticking to their template. Dubas and Babcock have an idea of who this team is and what the path to winning looks like for the Buds. As there are many routes to the same goal. Do they feel they can get it done without toughness? Not a chance. Absolutely not. Nobody wins without toughness and I don’t care what anyone thinks. What I am willing to waiver on is the root definition. Where does Toronto find their strength, their toughness? And can Toronto rebrand the NHL’s version to some extent?

The Maple Leafs aren’t taking it to the alleys. They aren’t the Broad Street Bullies and they might actually be the furthest thing from it I’ve personally ever seen. But do you know what I find really tough and in life? Being disciplined. I’m not talking about avoiding retaliation or “our enforcer is our PP”, though that fits the eventual point. No, I’m talking about self control and stick-to-it-iveness. A drive and focus on the task at hand without distraction. Getting knocked on your ass and then getting right back up and right back in there, unfazed. Time after time, you keep coming. In waves, that’s what the Leafs need to refine and master. Relentlessness in the face of adversity, challenges, and yes physicality. The Leafs know their game, their best attributes, and they have to play to them. There’s nothing to be gained trying to emulate something you aren’t. While we are at it, who are these big bad Bruins everyone talks about? For starters you don’t mould your club to beat one team but it’s mainly horseshit anyways. I see a fantastic team in Boston but I don’t see a group that runs anyone out of the barn. Are they tougher? I’d say no doubt about it and especially if it was an eight man tag match or something. I may be joking and don’t intend to play down the fact they are a battle tested group. It’s just the tough thing is more created by reputation than actuality. The Maple Leafs are best served to not involve themselves in the scrums and the face licking and the nonsense. Fill your fkn boots. It’s going to be heated and contested, just how the playoffs always are. But it’s still hockey. This idea the game suddenly morphs into something unrecognizable is severely overblown. Over/Under on fights this playoffs is like 3. Do more guys finish their checks? You know it. I’d bet you’re gonna see more Leafs doing the same. But within yourself without running around or getting out of character. Not to mention the last two playoff series Toronto has been in they weren’t pushed around for my money. Washington we embraced the tight checking, spirited head to head even if not quite fully matured for it. Furthermore Toronto was up 4-3 going into Game 7 vs Boston but somehow the story has become toughness cost them. Did they look sheepish and nervous in Game 1? Yep. They did. But that’s as much part of the learning curve than anything. Some of the grittier names are gone now but again I’m not sure those players helped as much as it just plays into thinking you need to “out-Bruin” the Bruins. Toronto, you’ve got to be you. Don’t stand up to your opponent, stand above them.

It sounds like I’ve turned my back on some of what I considered a vital part of hockey. That’s not necessarily true. As I make a case for Toronto not changing their makeup and going with what they are, I can’t help but wonder what lies ahead. I’m not trying to sell you on the Leafs being tough. Lol. It would be disingenuous to tell you I am comfortable. But hey, I think they are on to something.

So as we close out I’ll give you an answer to the burning question of the day, which we all know is meaningless as the only certified litmus test awaits in the post season. Most likely with Boston to start. Drumroll….Are Toronto Big & Tough enough? By the current accepted playoff standard, no. They are not. I am 100% willing though to entertain the possibility that Toronto aren’t subscribing to the banter you hear every other intermission or every lunch hour or in every arena or coffee shop where the Leafs are discussed. Toronto have their own idea of tough.

The teams in Detroit with Babcock weren’t always rugged by traditional standards but they never backed down. Never stopped working tenaciously. This, this is the toughness Toronto has to find. I would argue they aren’t capable of completely embracing it until the playoffs, but it’s in there. You can see it. Heads are up, working hard, playing sharp, game-breakers breaking games. We haven’t seen this team’s best yet and the post season will provide the Maple Leafs an opportunity to find out what kind of tough they can be and prove themselves along the way to everyone who has doubted their fortitude. That might be the word right there I’ve been searching for. Toronto must show their fortitude. Then maybe, just maybe, they can help redefine or add to the terms associated with toughness in hockey while doing so in the grandest of fashions. The Leafs were tough because they just played hard clean hockey and came at you in floods.

Man, I miss old time hockey. I do. But that’s where we used to live. That’s our old neighbourhood. That’s our old rink. I don’t want Toronto to chase yesterday when tomorrow is right in front of them. I truly believe the Maple Leafs can not only beat Boston, I believe they can run the table. Provided Tampa is expelled for doping. Nah fkn bring them on too. In order to do so though, the Blue & White will have to find a way to be tough. Toughness by no other definition than their own.

@JudeLeafs

Rivalry Restored

By Nick Richard

February 24, 2019

It’s always special when two of hockey’s most storied franchises go toe to toe on a Saturday night. It’s even more special when both teams are in the thick of the playoff race and you can feel the disdain from both sides. That was the case on Saturday night as the Maple Leafs battled back from an early 3-0 deficit and scored 6 unanswered goals to come away with their seventh consecutive victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

Coming off of their first three game losing streak of the season, things started poorly for the Leafs again and they were down 3 goals before the first period was finished. The Canadiens relied on speed and a strong forecheck in being credited with 10 high danger scoring chances to just 2 for the Leafs in the period and it looked as though they were going to run away with this one.

The language was likely a tad more colourful than that in the Leafs room but whatever was said during the first intermission worked and the Leafs came out with renewed sense of composure to start the second. After being rewarded with an early power play, Auston Matthews continued his dominant play against the Canadiens, and Carey Price in particular, by firing a bullet between the goalie’s legs and into the back of the net for his 29th goal of the season to give his Leafs a bit of life. Just minutes later, Freddy Andersen made up for his own undisciplined penalty in the first period by helping along a goaltender interference call a little bit to put the Leafs back on the power play. This time it was William Nylander orchestrating the play by calling for Ennis to get the puck up top to Gardiner and over to him on the opposite wall. Nylander proceeded to unleash a quick slap pass down low to Patrick Marleau who read the play beautifully and quickly dished a cross-crease pass to a streaking Tyler Ennis for a perfectly executed power play goal and suddenly we had a game on our hands. Aside from the Leafs capitalizing on their only two power play opportunities of the game, much of the second period was played to a stalemate with high danger chances favouring the Habs at just 3-2.

The tension began to rise in the final frame, starting with a battle between two absolute horses in Auston Matthews and Habs captain Shea Weber where Matthews showed some rare physicality in throwing Weber to the ice.

Shortly thereafter, for whatever reason, Andreas Johnsson seemed to draw the ire of the Canadiens and Max Domi in particular. The two young forwards were jawing at each other prior to a neutral zone faceoff and it looked as though Domi was attempting to bait Johnsson into dropping the gloves by delivering three or four solid cross checks when the puck was dropped. Johnsson wasn’t interested, and rightfully so considering his team had scored two straight goals and was pushing for the tying marker. Not to mention it would have been his first career fight against a player who’s done it much more regularly.

Then finally, with just over 13 minutes remaining in his 33rd game of the season, a bounce finally went William Nylander’s way. Patrick Marleau gained the red line and launched a routine dump in around the boards but as Carey Price left his net to play the puck, it took a fortuitous bounce off of the zamboni door and landed right in front of the net on Nylander’s stick and Price was unable to recover before the (unfairly) maligned Leafs youngster was able to knot things up at 3.

It was a brand new game and the fun had just begun.

With Johnsson resisting his best efforts to engage him, Domi was forced to resort to different methods of turning momentum back in the Habs favour. Johnsson scooped up a loose puck in the Canadiens’ zone but Domi caught him with a beautiful, hard open ice hit before he was able to do anything with it. A couple of shifts later, Johnsson was called for a questionable hooking penalty and reacted in disbelief along with the Maple Leafs faithful as it looked like the Canadiens were going to have a chance to retake the lead.

The Leafs penalty kill was more than up to the task and the Habs never got set up in the offensive zone. The big kill seemed to help sustain the Leafs momentum heading into the final minutes of the third period.

During a commercial break, members of both teams were seen sharing some less than kind words at the benches. Morgan Rielly and Max Domi seemed to be getting especially heated as it became more and more clear that these teams did not care for one another.

The atmosphere in the arena had reached a fever pitch by the time the Leafs completed the comeback with only 1:50 remaining in the third period. Mitch Marner sent a weak shot towards the Canadiens’ goal and like a dog on a bone, Zach Hyman fought off Victor Mete in front to bang in the go ahead goal.

In a last ditch effort to recapture a game that seemed to have slipped from their grasp, Carey Price headed for the bench to give the Canadiens an extra attacker. With some strong defensive play just inside their own blue line, Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen teamed up to steal the puck and Kapanen burst up the ice towards the empty cage. It looked as though Kapanen could have put the game away on his own, but in what appeared to be a case of trying to rub salt in the wound, he held on to the puck before dishing it over to a somewhat battered Andreas Johnsson for the insurance marker. The Leafs weren’t done and after Ron Hainsey attempted a measure of revenge against Max Domi, just missing him with an open ice hit of his own, and some more dog-like work from Zach Hyman who was sent crashing into the end boards by Shea Weber, the officials awarded Hyman with the empty netter much to the dismay of the Canadiens’ bench.

The controversial call only seemed to fuel the hatred between the two benches, even in a game that was all but finished. Brendan Gallagher and John Tavares were among those who exchanged pleasantries. Max Domi and Shea Weber continued to offer their thoughts to the Leafs bench. Kasperi Kapanen also had plenty to say between winks and blowing kisses at his team’s greatest rival. He couldn’t help himself even after the game was over, brandishing his stick as a violin bow while the Canadiens headed down the tunnel and the Leafs saluted the home crowd, in an act I’m sure the Canadiens’ players won’t forget.

This was an important game for both teams as they head down the stretch, and a big win for a Leafs team that had been reeling a bit as of late. It was the kind of game that can galvanize a team and it was only fitting that a heart and soul player like Zach Hyman netted the game winning goal. The Leafs showed something in this game that many fans have believed was missing for much of the season and in doing so, helped to restore some of the hatred between the two historic rivals.

Win or lose, I think both Leafs and Canadiens fans alike will agree that these games are significantly better when the teams both have something to play for and there is some genuine dislike between them. This is how it’s meant to be.

The Leafs came out on top in this chapter but in the process, plenty of fuel was thrown on the fire that is the Maple Leafs and Canadiens rivalry. There is sure to be some fireworks when these teams next face off to close out the regular season, and if we’re all lucky, maybe even more after that.

follow @_nickrichard via Twitter

Is a Captain Needed in Toronto?

By Doug Doucette – @DigDoug7

The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the last hundred years have had it pretty easy when it came to the captaincy, and which player was given the honour of wearing the ‘C’. There was no shortage of great leaders in the early days. Hap Day, Syl Apps, George Armstrong—just to name a few, we’re obvious choices, respected not only by their teammates, but by the entire league.

 

Many of today’s fans grew up watching Sittler, Clark, Gilmour and Sundin—some of them quiet presences, all of them an absolute force on the ice. All of these guys were clear cut choices to lead the team into the future and all of them did an admirable job.

 

And then, one day, Mats was gone and there was no obvious choice for anyone to take over. The team was trending down, there were no stars in the making in the locker room, there were no drill sergeant-type veterans passing through.

 

Insert Dion Phaneuf. He was cold and calculated with the media, he wasn’t afraid to speak up in the room. He worked hard on and off the ice. He was, and still is, a good leader in this league.

 

It’s unfair to say that Dion Phaneuf is entirely to blame for how things turned out during his stay in Toronto. After just twenty six games in blue and white he was thrust into the conversation with the aforementioned legends. Dion played well on a bad team and got paid as a top defenceman, despite not having the tools in his bag to do the job, and he fell out of favour.

 

It’s hard to say that handing Dion the C in 2010 was a good decision, but the problem was, there were no other options—and so, Burke and company, shrugged their shoulders and handed it to him, hoping that the rest of a leadership group would fall into place.

 

Now we can look back at that situation and know exactly why this management group has no interest in rushing a decision. It isn’t as simple as stitching a big C on someone’s jersey. The job comes with expectations and pressure that could effect the player and the team in a variety of ways. This we know, because we’ve seen it as a positive and a negative factor.

 

The best problem we can have, regarding this matter, is that there are so many options to choose from. There will be guys on this team going forward that don’t even wear a letter unless someone is hurt, that could be captains on other teams.

 

Patrick Marleau is an unassuming leader with plenty of captaincy experience. He was brought in to be a positive influence, on and off the ice, with a young group of guys and it’s a position that he’s performed with great success, despite the highly debated subject of his on-ice performance.

 

Marleau wore the C for five seasons in San Jose, and even though he handed it over to Joe Pavelski in 2009, he was was a key part of their leadership group until his last day in black and teal. He’s worn a letter, one way or the other, for fifteen seasons in the National Hockey League.

 

I won’t suggest that he’s a candidate for the captaincy, not as his career winds down, and not with some many other good options in the locker room. But it would be unfair to everyone involved to not mention his name in this conversation.

 

It has probably been the most widely shared opinion, at least since June of 2016, that Auston Matthews would eventually be the captain of this team for many years to come. Many people were surprised when the captaincy wasn’t handed to him in his second season, and even more so when he wasn’t given reigns before the 18-19 season.

 

Matthews is still maturing as a player and as a man. He appears to be growing into a very good leader, under the tutelage of some very good veteran leaders, but outside of the locker room; it’s impossible to know if he’s ready for such a responsibility.

 

A new five year deal, and ringing endorsements from both Tavares and Marleau, it still seems likely that he will eventually be awarded the job—the more pressing question seems to be when it will be done?

 

Matthews may have already been named captain, prior to this season, if not for the signing of John Tavares. Tavares was captain for five seasons with The Islanders and for his last season, as a seventeen year old, with The Oshawa Generals. He clearly has the resume to do the job admirably, and even after a short time with the club, he has earned the respect of his teammates.

 

Both Tavares and Matthews have agreed that the other would be a great choice to be Toronto’s next captain. While, on the surface, neither will admit that they would be upset losing out to the other—it’s obviously an honour that they’re both interested in.

 

Tavares, like Mats Sundin was for many years, is unassuming. He goes about his routine and shows his teammates a formulate that works and one that has worked for a decade in this league. He’s not your typical Mark Messier type—his post game interviews don’t offer candid looks at his emotions and personality—but he can be a very calming presence in moments where it feels like the sky could be falling.

 

Morgan Rielly might be the biggest voice on the roster, in the locker room and on the ice; a trait he may have picked up after two seasons playing alongside the very vocal Ron Hainsey. In the last two years, he’s been the first guy out of the locker room to face the media circus. He tells it like it is, and he isn’t afraid of delivering a message to his teammates.

 

In my years of playing hockey, being the biggest voice in the locker room always seemed like the most important job bestowed upon a captain—and if that is the case, it seems like Rielly is already acting like the captain of this team, regardless of the character on the front of his jersey.

 

Maybe lost in this whole conversation is Mitch Marner. Mitch is no stranger to the C himself, having captained The London Knights to a Memorial Cup in 2016. He’s all smiles, all the time—and it might not be the prototype for a leader—but he gets the job done and it’s quite clear that his teammates look up to and gravitate towards him.

 

In the short time, since becoming a star with this team, Mitch has set the tempo for community outreach and it seems like every other day he’s being given praise for philanthropic works on the region.

 

To be a star on this team, and certainly to be the captain of this team, you have to be able to sustain the constant barrage from the media—and as well as anyone, Mitch has shown, not only that he won’t shy away, but that he’ll embrace the circus.

 

The options are seemingly endless—and we haven’t even discussed the guys who have shown excellent leadership qualities who would never be considered for the job, like Hainsey, Gardiner, Andersen, Muzzin and even rookie Travis Dermott.

 

The topic has been brought up week after week for the last three years it seems. Some have suggested that the lack of an alpha dog, in the trenches of the playoffs, will be and has been a detriment to this team. But with the wealth of leadership, is there really a purpose to having one voice?

 

If The Leafs are headed into the third period of game seven down one goal; does it matter if it’s Rielly or Tavares or Matthews or Marner or Marleau that is the voice that cuts through the noise? The most important matter to be discussed is; do these guys respect each other? And I don’t think there’s any question that they do. The leadership qualifications of every player willing to pipe up and say the things that need to be said.

 

So, if Toronto manages to be the first team in over forty years to win the Stanley Cup without a captain, who gets to be the first to touch it? I don’t think there’s any question, if you help an anonymous vote in the locker room, the guys would unanimously vote to give the honour to Patrick Marleau.

 

In the end, this is a good position to be in. For the first time in a long time, the leadership of this team can not be called into question. And every team that’s ever made a deep run in the playoffs has been rich with personalities like these.

And Then There Was Mitch…

By Nick Richard

On Tuesday afternoon, Auston Matthews’ new contract extension with the Maple Leafs was made official. The young star and his team came to terms on a five year deal at an annual average value of $11.634 million, bucking the recent trend of star RFAs signing for the maximum of eight years coming out of their entry level contracts and potentially resetting the market. Kyle Dubas and his management group are surely happy to have the face of the franchise locked up before the offseason rolls around but, as has been widely reported, they’ll have to wait until the summer to hammer out a deal with another budding star in Mitch Marner. In just three seasons, both Matthews and Marner have already played enormous roles in reversing the fortunes of the long struggling Maple Leafs franchise and every team around the league would be all too happy to have either one of them. While they’ll have to wait at least five more years after this one for a crack at Matthews, teams around the league will have the opportunity to approach Marner and his camp with an offer sheet if he and the Leafs don’t have a contract in place by July 1st. If Marner were to actually sign an offer sheet with another team, it would leave Kyle Dubas with the option of matching the contract to retain the player or letting him go and accepting compensation in the form of draft picks.

Offer sheets haven’t exactly been prevalent in the NHL with Ryan O’Rielly being the last to sign one back in 2013. The last player to actually change teams via offer sheet was Dustin Penner when he went from Anaheim to Edmonton in the summer of 2007. In order to acquire a player through the offer sheet process, a team has to be willing and able to pay more than the player’s original team and give up significant draft picks at the same time. Historically, NHL teams have either avoided paying such a price or have been unable to convince restricted free agents to sign. The bottom line is offer sheets are rare.

But this is setting up to be a unique summer in the NHL with the Matthews contract perhaps changing the landscape and several of the game’s young stars potentially headed for restricted free agency. There are plenty of worthy candidates if a team decides to attempt an offer sheet: Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Patrik Laine, and Matthew Tkachuk, to name a few, could be targets if they haven’t signed extensions with their current teams by July 1st.

Speculation from the top insiders in the business has Marner and his camp seeking a contract with an AAV of at least $10 million, leaving no reason to believe that he would be willing to risk leaving the team he cheered for as a boy to sign an offer sheet for anything less than that. The compensation for the Leafs, if they decided not to match such an offer, would be the signing team’s next four first round draft picks. Signing a shorter term offer sheet seems highly unlikely because teams won’t want to part with that much draft capital without some guarantee that Marner would be with their franchise long term.

Aside from the hefty price of four first round picks for any team that would sign him, there are other advantages the Leafs have when it comes to retaining their young star. As we’ve seen with the recent contracts for John Tavares, Auston Matthews and even William Nylander, the Leafs have still found a way to flex their financial muscle under a hard salary cap by structuring contracts to have most of the money paid out through signing bonuses up front. Matthews’ new contract will have the Leafs cutting him a cheque for a lump sum of $15.2 million on July 1st for the next two years and the first three seasons will see him earn $42.25 million of his $58.15 million deal. Not every team around the NHL has the ability to pay out that much cash at once and players have proven to value the lockout protection provided by a contract that is paid out mostly in signing bonuses. The Leafs also have the ability to sign Marner for eight years while another team can offer him no more than seven years on a new contract.

The other, perhaps larger, advantage the Leafs have in defending against an offer sheet is that standard contracts are inherently structured differently than offer sheets. While a standard contract’s cap hit is derived from the total value of the contract over the number of years, offer sheets have their cap hit derived by the total value of the contract divided by no more than five years. For example, the Leafs could sign Marner to a seven year, $77 million contract and be charged with a cap hit of $11 million per season whereas a team signing Marner to a seven year, $77 million offer sheet would be saddled with a cap hit of $15.4 million. A seven year, $70 million offer sheet would result in a cap hit of $14 million for his new team. A six year, $60 million offer sheet would still have a cap hit of $12 million per season. Those numbers would make anything longer than a five year offer sheet tough to swallow, even if it meant acquiring a star like Marner, and the Leafs won’t let Marner walk away if the price is $10 million per year. Never mind the four first round picks the signing team would be sending to the Leafs on top of that.

If another team around the league has legitimate designs on luring Marner with an offer sheet that the Maple Leafs can’t or won’t match, they’ll likely have to accommodate a cap hit north of $13 million on a long term deal. Looking around the league today at what teams have committed in salary for the coming season, there are only a handful of teams that project to have that kind of money to throw around. Several of those teams still have their own players to try and get under contract, and most of them are in no position to part with four first round picks. So while Marner may or may not be looking to use a potential offer sheet as leverage in extension talks with the Leafs, the reality is that he won’t have an abundance of suitors or the choice to go wherever he likes. Besides, word is he seems to like it quite a bit where he is right now anyway.

*Photo courtesy of The Globe and Mail

follow @_nickrichard via Twitter

See You There

By @LifeofaDman

A letter to Leafs fans, from a Leafs fan. 

I grew up a Leafs fan, I’ve loved them since I was a little kid. When I was 11, I was a Sick Kids patient living in the Ronald McDonald House undergoing treatments for a rare tumour called an Optic Nerve Glioma. I had treatments Monday to Friday, and played house league hockey Saturday and Sunday. 

It was the lowest level hockey I had ever played, but it was one of the best hockey seasons of my life. Why? Because living at the RMH had its benefits, Leafs alumni would stop by on occasion and drop off tickets, as the only hockey fan living there at the time, they always ended up with me. 

That’s how I ended up sitting in the ACC with my dad, jumping and screaming and knocking a Wendel Sundae flying when Mats Sundin scored his 500th goal. That memory is etched into my brain, which is saying a lot, after 5 concussions my memory isn’t what it used to be. 

Then came the bad years, years of teams not good enough to make it, but buying up rentals and shipping off draft picks year after year without ever bothering to re-tool, rebuild or anything of the like. Missing the playoffs again and again, cursing Wade Dubielewicz for his heroics costing us the playoffs in 2007. I watched us trade Rask for Raycroft, the Kessel deal that cost us Seguin, Phaneuf being named Captain and a parade of has beens and nearly theres in the crease. 

Sure, the Buds were dragged kicking and screaming to the playoffs by James Reimer, but even he couldn’t carry us past the first round into the promised land. 

When Shanny and Babs told us there would be pain, my first thought was, “if there’s pain coming what have we been dealing with the past 15 years?” Year one, yeah that sucked, but we knew it was for a purpose, we won the lottery, we got Auston Matthews! Suddenly we had 3 rookies lighting up the league, Marner, Matthews, and Nylander flanked by the grit and determination of the lunch pail guys like Hyman and Brown. We made the playoffs and took Washington to 6 games in a series we weren’t supposed to play more than 4 in. Pain? What pain? 

Last year we had our hearts broken again by Boston, but, as heartbroken as we were, we knew, we knew that our best years were ahead of us, we were young, fast and talented, we were on the cusp of doing something big. 

A next generation team needs next generation staff, we said goodbye to Lou, a battle hardened vet with decades of experience, and said hello to, wait, who is this kid? This child is supposed to run our team? Oh no he’s gonna ruin every- oh, he signed Tavares? John freaking Tavares! And for seven years to boot! I love this kid! Sure, let him run the team he’s doing great! 

Now we were ready, we had our 1C, we had our future franchise C, we had 2 dynamic young wingers growing into stars, this team is the one. You know, once Willy signs, he’s gonna sign right? Right? Kyle? 

I apologize for rambling, but it’s important to remember where this team has come from. As I’m writing this, Leafs Twitter is imploding over the Auston Matthews extension. Some of us think he’s been over paid, some think the term is too short, and the rest don’t care, we have Auston Matthews! 

The arguing over contracts really started when JT signed, suddenly we weren’t fans any more, we were asset appraisers, instead of just cheering for our team, we were too busy critiquing them based on their AAV, when what we should be doing is enjoying this. We have a great young team. And we have most of the key players locked in. 

The stress is understandable, we’ve been deprived of a true contender for a long, long time, and none of us have been here before. Older fans remember the good Leafs teams, but we didn’t have a salary cap then, younger guys like me have faint memories of guys like Sundin, Roberts, and Cujo, but we’ve never had a true contender to cheer for. Now we have this incredible core needing to be paid, we have internet trolls (looking at you Isles fans) telling us it’s all going to be taken away from us. We’re so close we can taste the beer flowing from Lord Stanley’s Mug. But on the other side is the cliff that leads back to mediocrity. We’ve been down low for so long we’ve become afraid of heights, so we lash out, anything to avoid falling. 

I’ve played hockey my whole life, been a Leafs fan my whole life, but I won’t call myself an expert, just another one of you, yearning for a taste of glory. I don’t know what to tell you, or what the right moves are. I do know what I’m going to do though. I’m going to cheer for my team, I’m going to cheer for every player on that roster regardless of their contract, because every drop of sweat is spent in the effort to try to bring that elusive silver mug home for us. If a player slumps, I’ll cheer like hell for them to break it, when someone (Marner) makes a magical play, I won’t worry about his contract, I’ll cheer like hell and wake my wife up. If the Leafs make it to that final game of the final series, I’ll stand among my fellow fans at Maple Leafs Square, and if they do the thing, I’ll jump and scream and lose my mind like I did all those years ago watching Mats. 

Hopefully you’ll be there cheering beside me, and if you are, I guarantee you won’t be worrying about AAVs, Corsi, or agents. 

See you there.