By Cole Parkinson
The Toronto Maple Leafs looked like the best team in the North Division for the vast majority of the season, but now — not so much.
After three immaculate games against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in early March, the Leafs have hit an ugly slide that has seen them lose five of six, and the only win came in overtime against Winnipeg on Friday night. Sure, they outplayed Winnipeg two out of three games last week, but they only walked away with two points, which just isn’t good enough.
It sure does seem like the Maple Leafs do this most years — where they start hot and inevitably blow it in the second half of the season, but this year feels different.
There is still no reason to panic just yet, even if it feels very reminiscent of seasons’ past.
Leafs fans have already put the cart before the horse in the sense the regular season doesn’t matter much and everyone’s waiting to see if they can finally get past the first round.
Hitting a slide now may be a good thing because it was foolish to think they were going to completely run away with the division, no matter how good they were playing.
Auston Matthews has been dealing with a wrist injury that has kept him out for a handful of games and it still doesn’t look like he’s back to 100 per cent. I mean he’s still scoring goals, but there’s been plenty of times in-game where you’d expect him to rip his signature wrist shot — but instead he dishes the puck off. It’s obvious it’s still hampering Matthews, but he’s so good it doesn’t affect his game in any other facet. The goal he scored on Connor Hellebuyck in overtime was a thing of beauty.
But that’s about all that has been cheer-worthy for Leafs Nation over the past week. This Sunday’s game against Ottawa was a complete stinker. And like the previous night’s game against Winnipeg — the Leafs only played for the last several minutes, which made the score look closer than it truly was.
Freddie Andersen is public enemy number one during this slide and there’s not much to defend. Sure, the defensive play hasn’t been top-notch (far from) — but the best goalies in the league bail their team out. Hellebuyck did it for two straight games against the Leafs last week. Andersen, meanwhile, has posted save percentages of .871, .826, .889, .844 and .929 in his last five games.
Ugly is one way to put it.
His highest save percentage of .929 came in Sunday night’s game —where he came in relief of Michael Hutchinson, who let in two weak goals to begin the game.
Now, the Leafs have the week off and for my mental sake — it’s a good thing.
Hockey insiders have been pointing to this break in the schedule as a prime opportunity to make a trade, especially since Canada is still enforcing a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country. And while it’s been stated for the past several days the NHL is hoping to get a slight relaxation on quarantine lengths, it doesn’t sound like it’s anywhere close. So any Canadian team hoping to add at the deadline will want to do it sooner than later and the Leafs have no doubt been looking.
I know everyone has been pointing to adding a goalie over the past several hours, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the challenges are steep. Any deal would likely have to see Freddie and his $5 million salary go the other way. So if you make a move for a goalie who plays down south, you’ll be without a starting goalie for 14 days.
If Jack Cambell was healthy, I wouldn’t be nearly as worried, but he’s been injured most of the season and riding Hutchinson and rookie Joseph Woll for that long scares me. Unless Freddie is going to take a massive decline in salary, he’ll likely be gone as a free agent — which opens the door to add some new blood in the blue paint in the offseason.
On the forward end, if they want a top-six forward, someone who may be worth a look is Max Domi.
He’s had a mediocre year so far (11 points in 30 games), but I think adding him to play with John Tavares/Willy Nylander or Matthews/Mitch Marner would work. He’s not a centreman, despite Columbus, and Montreal before that, playing him as if he is. I think putting him in the top-six could be a beneficial move for both the Leafs and Domi. The salary cap is going to be an issue in any trade this season, but I think they could make it work if Alex Kerfoot ($3.5 million cap hit) and Pierre Engvall ($1.25 million cap hit) go the other way plus a prospect or two.
Nick Foligno with the Jackets could also be interesting and his cap hit is just a touch higher than Domi’s.
Eric Staal has been linked to the Leafs for practically his whole career, but I see a fit here this year, as their third-line centre. Playing for the God-awful Buffalo Sabres, I’m sure he’s begging to get out of that dumpster fire and the Leafs have no doubt been checking in. At $3.25 million, there’s a ton of different routes they could go if Staal is their guy, but again, Kerfoot sure seems like the odd man out.
In Anaheim, winger Rickard Rakell could also be a Kyle Dubas target, as he could certainly slot in the top-six. Considering the Ducks have been pretty forgettable this season, he’s been able to contribute with six goals and 13 assists.
The defence could also use some bolstering, as Justin Holl and Travis Dermott have both looked out of place the last several weeks. After several solid weeks, especially Holl, they have yet to regain their early form.
Mattias Ekholm out in Nashville is constantly pointed as one of the top defensemen who could be available and he would no doubt be an upgrade. Whether or not the Leafs would want to part with the prospect capital the Preds would want is another story.
David Savard, also with the Jackets, is another defender who could play with Jake Muzzin and slide Holl down to the bottom pair.
Looking at TSN’s trade bait board, there are certainly several names that would be interesting for the Leafs. Other than the names already mentioned, obviously, Taylor Hall will be one of the biggest forward names dangled, but at $8 million, I don’t see how the Leafs fit that. Jake DeBrusk is listed at number 10 and that could be an interesting piece to add for a playoff run. He’s got one more year left on his deal at $3.675 after this year, so if Boston was to trade him, I’d imagine they’d want a hefty return.
Whether or not Toronto would want to deal prospects to their rival Bruins, who knows, I mean, last time Toronto dealt a touted prospect, it didn’t go in Toronto’s favour now did it? Tuuka Rask is still in the league and he’s still arguably a top 10 goalie in the league.
Would you rather Rask or Andersen if the playoffs started tonight? I think the majority would go with the proven track record of Rask and I would have a hard time arguing against that.
But enough of the past, the Leafs need to regroup in short order before their two-game matchup with the Flames this weekend. Will we see a trade before then?
With how they’ve played the last week, a shakeup might be just what they need to head into the homestretch.