In case you didn’t have enough Craig Button bad-mouthing the Leafs content after yesterday’s Matthews isn’t on Drasaitl’s level comment, don’t worry, I’ve got you. Button also said that the Leafs are nowhere near being a Stanley Cup contender.
If you follow up after Saturday night’s win against the Bruins, Auston Matthews said it was a ‘statement victory.’ Well, I’ll tell you what statement they’ve been making over the last 55 games — they’re nowhere near being a Stanley Cup contender. In fact, their ability to make the playoffs cannot be guaranteed. If you want to take a look at what they’ve done over the last 55 games, their points percentage is .545. The Columbus Blue Jackets who were the second wild card team last season? .597. That’s not a playoff team.
You heard Mike Babcock talks about, ‘we do some things good, we do some things well, but we’re not able to sustain it.’ Saturday night, Freddy Andersen was unbelievable. What does he do in this [Columbus] game? He’s beyond unbelievable. Without him, they don’t earn points in these games. Too much of the time, they’re giving up Grade A scoring chances into the heart of the scoring area. Babcock talked about the penalties they’re taking and how that leaves you on the wrong side of the puck.
It’s great to talk about ‘Oh the Leafs! Oh it’s only a small sample size!’ No it isn’t. It’s 55 games since last Christmas. This is not a Stanley Cup contender. Stop kidding yourself, they aren’t. Until they clean up these things, they’re not going to be. And they’re going to be in a fight for the playoffs because the same ugly things keep rearing in their heads, time after time after time.
Button’s comments on Matthews not being in the same world as Leon Draisaitl were a stretch. It seemed like trolling for the sake of garnering attention, which isn’t out of the ordinary for sports talk types. It was leaning into an Edmonton/Toronto rivalry and argument we’ve seen online plenty recently in order to get hate views from Leafs fans and praise views from Oilers fans.
But this one? I mean, it might be a little bit dramatic — and there’s no doubt he’s being hyperbolic to get a rise out of people — but a lot of what Button is saying this time isn’t out of the blue.
The Leafs had a mediocre finish to last season and it cost them home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against Boston. They were 25-10-2 on Christmas and they went 21-18-6 the rest of the way. Their start to this season has followed a similar pattern, which is pretty good but far from great.
What he’s saying about the team giving up way too many quality chances against is accurate too. The Leafs are in the middle-of-the-pack for even strength shot attempts against per 60 minutes, but they’re second-worst in terms of expected goals against when factoring in the quality and frequency of opportunities against. The only team worse than them in that cateogry is Winnipeg and their decimated blueline. The team right ahead of them is the Oilers. That’s company you don’t want to be in.
You can point to last season’s eventual Stanley Cup champs, the St. Louis Blues, and say that it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about the team less than a month into the season. St. Louis was in dead last at Christmas time and then caught fire in the second half when Jordan Binnington came up and caught fire. But the difference there is that the Blues were playing well but didn’t have a goalie. The Leafs have a goalie, they’re just giving up opportunities at an astronomical rate.
As I said earlier, this rant is very dramatic and hyperbolic. I doubt the Leafs are going to struggle to make the playoffs and, given the parity of the league, they can absolutely go on a deep playoff run. Looking back over the past few years, there’s really no rhyme or reason as to which teams go deep into the playoffs. You’re telling me the Vegas Golden Knights were elite defensively in 2018? Teams get hot, they get lucky, they have feavourable health, whatever. I wouldn’t count the Leafs out right now.
But when Button says the team has problems, he isn’t wrong. They do need to tighten up defensively, their forwards need to play a better two-way game, and they need to stop taking so many penalties. The reason I don’t pick up Button’s message about the Leafs not being contenders is the personnel they have on the roster. The ability is all there, they just need to put it together. You just have to wonder if the message from the guy in charge has worn thin.