Screencap Credit: Hockey Night in Canada
Before we turn the page on Toronto’s last showing and dive into Tyler Seguin’s upcoming assault on the Air Canada Centre, I want to talk about this moment late in the third period of Saturday night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Quite simply, I don’t think we’re going to find a better visual representation of this pocket era of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This image represents the team’s goal-preventing struggles. The Air Canada Centre is on Bay Street, but Jonathan Bernier appears to be on the platform of St. Andrew Station. He is looking towards the net as a place that he would one day like to be, not as a place that he’s supposed to be protecting. Even in his attempt at recovery, his five hole is wide open. The worst part? He’s the starter! No wonder the Leafs are 28th in Save Percentage.
This image represents the systematic reinvention of players by Mike Babcock. In net for the Leafs is Nazem Kadri. Mike Babcock has emphasized repeatedly that Kadri’s challenge for this year is to play a 200-foot game and cover all parts of the ice. Apparently, goaltending is part of that. (Fun Fact: With Carl Gunnarsson and Colton Orr no longer on the team, Kadri is legitimately Toronto’s first choice as an emergency goaltender among roster players).
This image represents the sheltering of the team’s youth core. Morgan Rielly finds himself behind the net, hiding from the disaster. Much like the Leafs have kept William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and other prospects with perceived “NHL-readiness” away from the tire fire until they’re ready to excel, Rielly is being protected by his fellow teammates. (In actuality, Rielly was covering Malkin as he deked around the sprawling Bernier because he’s been ready to excel for a while now).
This image represents team’s current temp worker philosophy. Matt Hunwick is the one responsible for getting the puck away from the back of the net here. Matt Hunwick, who is on a short-term deal, trying to prove to 29 other teams that he’s worth their time, be it at a trade deadline or when he hits the market in Summer 2017. Of course, Hunwick isn’t top end talent, but rather the best the team can find on a low budget, so he doesn’t really get control. In fact, he barely looks like he can stand up.
This image represents moving on from the past. At the end of the day, this is a team that wants to forget about the past and focus on the present. Kadri and Rielly are being entrusted, for the first time in their careers, to be the anchors of their high minute lines. They’re not the guys you attach to a group anymore; they’re the guys you build a group around. Unfortunately, their group includes Matt Hunwick and Jonathan Bernier, but these things take time. You know who their group doesn’t include, though? Phil Kessel. Once (like, four months ago) the face of the franchise, Kessel is in the picture too.
In a Penguins jersey. Looking to score on his former team.
These are your Toronto Maple Leafs. A group of kids and misfits trying to find their way in the NHL, whatever way they can. But not doing a great job of it.