Despite being heralded as one of the elite teams heading into the 2019-20 NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have struggled out of the gate for the first quarter of the season, with an even 22 points in 22 games.
Is coach Mike Babcock to blame? Can they fix the issues internally, or will they need to make a trade to get things right? And will they get back on track to qualify for the playoffs? Our panelists serve up their takes on those topics.
1. What's wrong with the Maple Leafs?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Maple Leafs could win the Stanley Cup this season, but they'd have to win every game by a football score. They can't defend. They're currently 28th in expected goals against at five-on-five. Last season, they were 27th. Without a goaltending safety net like they had last season -- they're 26th in even-strength save percentage, down from sixth in 2018-19 -- that has been exposed. And two years running, that's a philosophical issue.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Toronto's identity is supposed to be its dynamic offense, but it's the No. 12 scoring team in the league. (It's not ideal that John Tavares and Mitch Marner have barely spent time together because of injuries.) The offense was supposed to compensate for the bigger fundamental roster issues, namely the defense. The lack of physicality and a reliable backup goaltender are compounding the issues further.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Everyone always focuses on their defensive woes and how they've chosen to construct their roster in relation to that, but the most concerning developments this season have actually been on the other end of the ice. A team that was fifth in high-danger chances generated, fifth in expected goals scored and second in goals scored at five-on-five last season has slid down to 24th, 25th and 14th in those respective categories this season. They've gone from being a devastating rush team to one trying to grind things out by firing shots from the point and working the cycle game; their personnel is simply ill-suited for that. In trying to atone for previous playoff failures, they've ironically lost sight of the one thing above all else that made them truly special in the first place.
Rick DiPietro, radio host and former NHL goalie: The Maple Leafs have lost their past five games, and in those loses have been outscored 23-13. This team continues to struggle in their defensive zone, and unfortunately this season their offense and special teams haven't been able to erase the problem with scoring outbursts. Injuries and a lack of continuity with the lineup has something to do with that, but even when they're healthy, this team still lacks the necessary commitment in their own end.
2. Should they fire Mike Babcock (and if yes, who takes over)?
Wyshynski: Mike Babcock is one of the most overrated coaches in sports, with a reputation forged through a miraculous goaltending run by Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003, having Nicklas Lidstrom as his hockey spine in Detroit and standing behind a bench of hockey immortals with Team Canada. The Leafs have shown as little interest in his voice lately as Babcock has shown in changing his philosophy in coaching them. That said ... I can't drop the ax and promote Sheldon Keefe from the AHL unless this Leafs team remains an absolute mess with the trinity -- John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews -- all healthy at the same time, which hasn't been the case for most of this season.
Kaplan: I don't know whether that's necessarily the right answer, unless Babcock has truly lost the room. The logical replacement is Toronto's AHL coach, Sheldon Keefe, but he has no NHL experience, so is that putting this Stanley Cup-ready team in a better position to win? My gut says no.
Filipovic: Yes. If he's not going to use the pieces he was provided in the way they were intended to be used, then they should find someone who will. Especially since it's easier to find a new coach than it is to completely change the makeup of the roster. The most logical alternative would be Keefe, who presumably shares a similar vision with GM Kyle Dubas and is willing to execute it given the shared history of success between the two of them at lower levels. Everyone is going to point to the success the Blues had following their coaching change last season, but the more logical comparison here is actually the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins, who shed a coach with an outdated system for one who was able to come in and get the most out of a talented group of players.
DiPietro: The Leafs' upcoming West Coast trip to Vegas, Arizona and Colorado may only intensify the pressure in Toronto to make a coaching change, but I'm not sure firing Babcock solves the problem. However, there is a possibility that because of their salary cap restraints and inability to make an impactful trade, they'll fire Babcock to shake things up. In that case, his replacement would most likely be Keefe.
3. Make a realistic trade that improves the team's chances this season.
Wyshynski: I agree with the sentiment here that attempting to pull a goalie from the Penguins would be a wise and frugal decision, but why stop there? Flip Tyson Barrie (a pending unrestricted free agent) to the Penguins with a sweetener and attempt to bring back defenseman Justin Schultz (another UFA) to fill that right-handed defense hole.
Kaplan: The Leafs need a new backup goaltender, and Pittsburgh is a good trading partner. The Leafs can either buy low on Casey DeSmith (who has struggled a bit in the AHL this season) or swing for Tristan Jarry (an ideal choice, as he's making just $675,000). In exchange, the Leafs could give up prospect Jeremy Bracco plus a draft pick.
Filipovic: The Leafs can't really make any significant improvements right now without parting with a core member of the team, which they won't do. They don't have the room to take on salary, and they're already down a first-round pick this coming summer. One easily fixable thing they could do on the margins that would go a long way is getting a reliable backup goaltender that gives them a chance to win when Frederik Andersen gets a night off. In the six games they've sat Andersen, they have yet to give up fewer than four goals against or stop 90% of the shots they've faced. That's a tough disadvantage for any team to overcome.
DiPietro: The Maple Leafs' biggest need at the moment is a reliable backup goalie, and because of their salary cap issues, he has to be cheap. Unless Barrie is traded and a goalie comes back to Toronto as part of that deal, I think Pittsburgh's Tristan Jarry is a realistic option.
4. Will they turn it around and make the playoffs?
Wyshynski: Of course. I picked them to win the Stanley Cup. A quick check of the NHL rulebook reveals that they can't win the Stanley Cup if they're not in the playoffs, so obviously they're going to be a playoff team. (But seriously, yes, they'll make it. And hopefully avoid the Bruins in the process.)
Kaplan: There's certainly time, and I think this team will get a jolt once everyone is healthy (though Marner isn't expected back for at least another three weeks). Toronto has certainly lucked out that the Lightning have also been off to a slower-than-expected start -- though Florida also poses a threat in the Atlantic.
Filipovic: Yes. There's no way to sugarcoat their performance, because they've been painfully mediocre thus far. They're currently 3-7-3 with a minus-14 goal differential against teams sitting in playoff position, and if not for beating up on inferior competition (they're 6-2-1 with a plus-9 differential against the rest of the league) the overall results would look even worse. But they still possess too much raw talent not to eventually figure things out to some degree, and I'd be leery of completely writing off a team that should theoretically still be able to generate offense as effortlessly as they've shown they can in the past.
DiPietro: As we're all sitting here writing about the Maple Leafs' struggles and whether or not they should fire Babcock, they're currently two points out of a wild-card spot. This team has too much talent and plenty of time to right the ship. They'll continue to get healthy, and once they are, I have a hard time believing they aren't a playoff team.