“The best reality television going” is what Chris Johnston called the Leafs after their week from hell that eventually saw them get run over by the team with the best chance to win the draft lottery (for the Avalanche). And he wasn’t wrong; Last week was one of the most bizarre stretches of hockey I’ve seen from Toronto in the Auston Matthews era. That it’s come so close to playoff time, where fans are again rightfully nervous about another date with the Bruins in round one, has caused things to spiral into a level of panic most wouldn’t have predicted to happen this season. It was supposed to be all roses in 2018-19.
But here we are. Panicking. Upset with Babcock about playing not-very-good defencemen too much, complaining about the lack of urgency from management at the deadline, absolutely frightened to death by the idea of Freddie Andersen getting injured down the stretch and having to rely on a shaky backup.
These are all real concerns, no doubt. I’ve complained about them enough myself. But let’s keep things in perspective here. The reason the heat is turned up on this team is because…well…the heat has to be turned up on this team now, and for the next decade with any luck. They aren’t rebuilding anymore, they’re firmly in “go run” mode. They aren’t in a tanking season, where no one really cares if you win or lose. Everyone cares if you win or lose, every night. That’s what contending brings with it.
If you take a step back from all the insanity, the Leafs are still fine overall. They’re fifth in the league in total points in the standings, tied for third in regulation or overtime wins (ROW), and outright third in goal differential. They won’t cruise past their point total from last season, but they also haven’t been racking up shootout wins and loser points like they have over the past couple years. I get it, we all wanted them to be the best team in the league. They aren’t, but they’re still one of the best.
Again, this is the sort of drama that comes with the team not being garbage anymore. Two big letdowns for this club recently, outside the Sens debacle, were the Tavares homecoming in Long Island and the potential playoff preview game against the Lightning last week. Toronto laid eggs in both and people were rightfully pissed. But this is what you get now, big games against other teams high in the standings, and sometimes they don’t go so well. On the flipside, think about when the Canadiens could have passed the Leafs in the standings a few weeks back and got roasted by Toronto’s offence for that late-game comeback. It looks to have completely derailed Montreal’s season. Way it goes.
And don’t get me wrong, “it could be worse” is definitely no excuse for complacency. That isn’t what this is about. Toronto has things to work on, some adjustments to make, and it won’t be easy, especially on the salary cap end of things. But in terms of making a grocery list of things they need to be a contender for years, they’ve ticked nearly all of them already – top goalie, elite core of forwards, arguably the best center depth in the league, two legitimate top pairing defencemen (and that’s excluding Gardiner, who unfortunately might not return to the lineup). Some of their depth and decision-making doesn’t seem to be there yet, but talks around those areas are pretty nuanced.
Oh, the drama.
— Kyle Dubas (@kyledubas) March 18, 2019
A lot of folks were quick to point to this tweet from Kyle Dubas yesterday as some sort of dig at Mike Babcock, or maybe just dismay at what’s going on with the team in general. I didn’t really see it that way, especially given Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets’ GM) as the source. When you’re getting near the top of the standings, that’s when these operations are most complex. Morey himself is going to be paying a 36-year-old Chris Paul over $44-million dollars because he’s tried so hard to make a run at beating the Golden State Warriors. Hell, he traded a first-rounder for Iman Shumpert. If you’re not a basketball person that’s fine. These are just examples of very questionable risks that probably will not work out. There’s a constant struggle of process vs. opportunity window that leads to this, and Toronto is headed into that storm.
Whether it’s getting Babcock on a different page in terms of his player usage or finding some way to get out from under Zaitsev’s money this offseason, these are the sort of complex tweaks Dubas and co. are going to be making going forward. They’re trying to make marginal upgrades to get the most out of what’s around that aforementioned contender checklist. It creates some headaches for people who want to talk about the team for hours every day, but I’d much rather have these types of conversations than the ones had prior to 2015.