By Cole Parkinson
It’s only October but the Toronto Maple Leafs are not exactly inspiring confidence among Leafs Nation.
With a record under .500, it isn’t exactly a roaring start for a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender.
I’ve seen my fair share of bad Leafs teams, so I’m not in full panic mode, or anywhere close to that, yet.
That being said there are some concerning things I’m seeing in the first month of regular-season play.
The biggest is the lack of buy-in when the team is in the defensive zone.
Are the Leafs a great defensively-minded team? No.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t show a little hustle and effort in their own end and that is both the forwards and the defensive core.
With Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott and Justin Holl occupying the six d-man roles, it’s not exactly shocking the team is struggling in their own zone.
Rielly and Barrie are pretty much the definitions of offensive defensemen while Ceci has yet to prove himself as an actual top-four defenseman in the league.
I would argue, and I think most would agree, that Muzzin is easily the best defender in the defensive zone with Dermott following right behind. I think Dermott isn’t long for the bottom pair on this Leafs team either and if he had not started the year on the injured list, he may have already been paired with one of Rielly, Barrie or Muzzin.
Holl has looked very good so far and as a sixth defenseman, I don’t think you could ask much more of him.
Considering he spent a grand total of 71 games in the Maple Leafs press box last year, this year’s start has been astronomically better and I think he stays in the top-six for the foreseeable future.
The forwards don’t inspire much confidence when playing defence either.
Sure, Mike Babcock said he thinks Auston Matthews could be the best 200 foot player in the game, but I just don’t see it yet.
All of the Leafs young forwards (Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) aren’t exactly defensive prodigies but most nights it looks like they have zero interest in playing in their own end.
The good news is defence and defensive positioning can be taught, it just doesn’t look like anything has stuck in that regard.
Maybe it’s a coaching thing or it’s that the young stars are only focusing on playing offensive, or maybe a bit of both, who knows.
But this team is bound for another early exit if they don’t start playing better in their own end.
Sticking with the Leafs’ big young three forwards, I haven’t seen any of them bring much against the big teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs have played Ottawa, Columbus, Montreal (twice), St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, Washington (twice), Boston (twice), Philly and San Jose.
And sure, their point totals don’t look all that bad as Matthews has 16, Marner has 17 while Nylander has nine as of Tuesday moring, but there are large stretches against teams like Boston, Montreal, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington where the Leafs’ star players don’t look engaged.
And I get it, it’s still incredibly early in the season but all three of these guys have gotten their big payday and still have yet to progress past the first round.
So while it’s early, is it really unfair to ask them to put in a full 60-minute effort every once in a while?
Not every game is going to be points night, especially against teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington who most likely will be the best teams in the conference, but those are the teams Toronto is going to have to beat in order to get deep into the playoffs.
So far, the Leafs have lost to Boston twice (barf), Montreal twice (barf also), twice to Washington and of course, they were blown out by Tampa Bay. Not exactly a reason for any kind of excitement.
Goaltending hasn’t been stellar either in October but I have the utmost confidence in Frederik Andersen to turn that around as he’s done that every single year he has been a Maple Leaf.
The backup, Michael Hutchinson, though is a concern considering he has only played in back-to-back situations so far.
And it’s not even just Hutchinson I’m concerned about in this situation as the Leafs have yet to win a back-to-back game and while you can point to the backup goaltender, you have to look at the team’s effort in those games.
The Leafs are 0-3-1 in back-to-backs which includes a 6-5 shootout loss to Montreal, a 4-3 loss to Washington, a 4-2 loss to Boston and then another loss to Montreal with a final of 5-2.
Has Hutchinson been great in his starts? No.
But I would argue he has given his team a chance to win in each of them.
Sure, a save here or there could have been the difference but at the same time, the Leafs have looked significantly worse in the second of back-to-backs this year.
You have to think that turns around at some point but if not, that could really bite the Leafs in the standings.
The Leafs really need to get home ice this year for the playoffs, if they make the playoffs that is, because I would rather go swimming in the Arctic Ocean than have to see another Leafs/Bruins Game 7 in Boston.
And if the Leafs do happen to make the playoffs and are playing the Bruins again, let’s all just hope for my sake the Leafs have home-ice advantage.
Or better yet, they play someone other than Boston because three Game 7 heartbreaks is enough for me, I don’t know if I can handle another. But that is far in the future and we still have a regular season to play. With my first live Leafs game of the season coming up this month, in Las Vegas no less, I just hope they’ve turned the corner on this poor start.
Go Leafs Go!