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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Taking Inventory: Making The Most Of The Leafs’ Imperfect Situation

There’s a saying about March – in like a lion, out like a lamb. 

For the Leafs, the saying should probably be something closer to “in like a slightly wounded and underperforming lion, out like a lamb that should hopefully have its D-core back together soon”. Then again, that doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it.

To say that the back half of the 2018-19 Leafs season has been an emotional rollercoaster for fans might be an understatement. The dominant early-season Leafs with their Vezina-calibre goaltending and killer Power Play have, at times, withered into something hardly recognizable. With the Special Teams well running dry and Frederik Andersen’s save percentage running down the drain of late, it’s hard not to be feeling the heat with the playoffs rapidly approaching.

Take a second and look at this:

And this:

Forget for a moment about the absurdity of the NHL’s playoff format, and how it’s tailor-made to ruin the Atlantic Division for all three of the Leafs, Lightning and Bruins.

Look at the Leafs, 20 games over .500 on March 28th despite the fact that the patented “Leafs January” seemed to bleed into February AND March this year, with 45 wins through regulation and overtime (already three better than last season’s 42, and with five games still to play!).

Leafs Twitter has been a nightmare this season. It’s been miserable – and I’ve probably been smack in the middle of making it that way.

But as I said, this season has been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us. And it’s time to settle it down. Because screaming at the Leafs to pull it together while we continue to run about volatile and unhinged is probably a bad idea.

So that’s the fans’ side of things at this point in time. On the ice, with five games left in the regular season, the Leafs have tasks of their own to complete, too. Let’s run through them – calmly.

If Freddie Doesn’t Rest, Help Him Bounce Back

Oct 28, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (31) reacts after Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning (not pictured) scored a goal during the first period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Since losing Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner to injury, Frederik Andersen has not been particularly good. Shocker, huh?

Andersen held the fort for 3 of 4 games after both D-men went down to injury, but since March 11th, things have been… bad.

Andersen was yanked twice in a row against Tampa and Chicago, somehow won with a .793 save percentage against the Flyers on March 15th, and has only put up two games above .900 in this 7-game stretch.

Last night, he had a (decent!) .909 save percentage in a game THAT INCLUDED THIS:

I saw this in person and Martin Marincin’s decision-making destroyed every fibre in my body that once thought it could anticipate what play would happen next. The fact that Frederik Andersen has routinely been playing behind a rotating cast of spare parts plus Nikita Zaitsev (what’s the difference?) just might suggest that there’s more to this than Andersen potentially being banged up and needing rest.

On that topic, though, it’s worth pointing out that we may have overreacted to some out-of-context quotes yesterday. Regarding Andersen’s workload and his decision to continue playing, Mike Babcock had this to say:

There’s some pretty valid stuff to unpack here. First, Andersen wanting to get his groove back is completely understandable, and arguably better than forcing him to sit and letting him stew in the lingering stink of a rotten month.

Whether or not he can get out of this slump behind the current blue line is another argument, but I digress.

If Jake Gardiner Isn’t Ready, Look To The Future

Oct 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Calle Rosen (48) skates with the puck behind his net against the New York Rangers at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Rangers 8-5. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Since being listed as week-to-week on February 27th – now over a month ago – there hasn’t been much word on how close Jake Gardiner is to returning.

The good news we’ve heard (and seen) is that Gardiner has been skating in Toronto for about a week now. The bad news? Even if he is, he still might not be ready to go by the start of the playoffs, for all we know.

You can take that and be upset – I wouldn’t blame you for it. But before you do, consider this:

Remember last season, when Travis Dermott wasn’t even an every-night player for the Leafs after his January 15th callup from the Marlies? Now, he’s inarguably a top-four defenseman for the club, whose absence in the last month has been glaring and who, unlike Gardiner, seems poised to finally return to action this weekend.

Potentially joining him is Calle Rosen. Remember him? The 25-year old Swede appeared in four whole games for the Leafs at the start of the 2017-18 season before being shipped off to the Marlies, where he’s since blossomed into a promising prospect who earned himself a 2-year extension from Kyle Dubas in December.

Dubas, without a doubt, envisions Rosen as an NHL player. The Leafs should, too. Without any guarantee of Gardiner’s return next season – whether he’s ready for the playoffs or not – it’s time to see what you’ve got. Embrace it.

If The Wins Don’t Come, They Don’t Have To (Yet)

Nov 28, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and forward Kasperi Kapanen (24) and forward Auston Matthews (34)watch the action against the San Jose Sharks at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto defeated San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know the Leafs are making the playoffs?

They’re all-but-locked into the 3rd spot in the Atlantic Division; no longer realistically chasing the Bruins, who sit six points ahead of them in 2nd with 5 games to go. They’re here – they’re going – and the five games remaining in the regular season are all but a formality.

Would it be nice to string together some wins to end the season? Sure. There’s no doubt it would help with morale and momentum, especially with the Bruins continuing to perform well, too.

But for now, don’t freak out if the Leafs drop a weird game in a shootout or get goalie’d by someone you’ve never heard of. Let this in-between period be for growth, not for mental breakdowns.

Breathe

Feb 3, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Mitchell Marner (16) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a goal during the first period against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
  • Sometimes teams lose games
  • Sometimes goalies get cold
  • Sometimes you’re missing two really good defensemen and that makes your team a little bit bad
  • Sometimes (all times) NHL coaches are stubborn
  • Did you know the San Jose Sharks, widely regarded as a contender, are 4-5-1 in their last ten? Of course you didn’t, because they’ve been getting March Andersen goaltending the entire season, and the sky only falls in Toronto.
  • The playoffs are a new season. They matter. The Leafs may still be ironing out some kinks, but they’re not late to the dance.

I could end this by saying It’s Going To Be Okay, but wouldn’t you rather it be great?

It’s Going To Be Great, then.

 

 

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  • al m

    Most understand impact of injuries to a weak D, yet, this team seems terribly coached with systems and starting on time, let alone playing a full 60.
    When they score, they let a lot in the other way. When they tighten up, they seemingly don’t score.
    The grit simply is not there with this team. The depth on D more than obvious is not there.
    The compete is sporadic. Almost like tossing a coin to see if they’ll compete in a game.

  • Stan Smith

    I find it interesting that a team can leave it’s goalie out to dry time and time again, give up a ton of really good scoring chances, and then the media, and fans alike, will wonder why the goalie is struggling.

    As it is, this team will be judged this season, on one thing, how it does against the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Win it, and the season will have been a success. Lose and this season will have been a failure. Despite this teams weaknesses, I think the Leafs have the horses to beat the Bruins, but they will have to ride the h3ll out of those horses to do it. If they do win, I expect them to be battered and bruised, with not much left for the Lightning, which will be fine with me.