I’m a big Friday Night Lights guy (the show more so than the movie). It’s just darn good television, folks. You should watch it. But if you don’t, allow me to quickly sum it up for you.
FNL centres around the Dillon Panthers, a plucky high school football team locked in a never-ending quest to capture State while shouldering the pressures and responsibilities that come with playing in the heart of football-crazed Texas. Panther Pride, baby. Again, it’s darn good television.
Those beloved Panthers, funnily enough, tend to remind me of the Leafs at times. It’s uncanny.
- Father figure coach who speaks purely in motivational-poster rhetoric while constantly fending off questions about his job security? Check.
- Charismatic star player who appeared ready to slide into a leadership role until some off-the-field shenanigans took him down a peg, (hopefully) teaching him a valuable life lesson in the process? Check.
- Quiet, devastatingly handsome loner with immaculate long and flowing hair who tries to act like he doesn’t care but never fails to show up when his team needs him the most? Check.
- Baby-faced offensive weapon whose overall talent and likability balanced out his overbearing father at first until a contract dispute caused all hell break loose? Uh, cheque, please!
What I’m trying to say here is that William Nylander is Tim Riggins. That, and the Leafs have more or less been hitting FNL’s narrative beats as of late, albeit with one noted difference: the Panthers actually beat their friggin’ rival on occasion.
We’re trapped in a time loop. There’s no other explanation.
Each year, the Maple Leafs Leafs spent the summer compiling a good team on paper, only to waltz into TD Garden and suffer the exact same defeat at the hands of the exact same opponent — driven by the exact same system flaws, the exact same inability to make on-the-fly adjustments by the coaching staff, and the exact same lacklustre effort all around. Nothing changes. If FNL pulled this crap, they wouldn’t have made it to Season Three.
Alas; here we are. So after another re-run disguised as a new episode, here are 5 thoughts from the Leafs’ loss to the Bruins.
1) Excuses Do Not Exist
“It was the second half of a back-to-back!” “The Leafs’ schedule is hard!” “It was their seventh period in two days!”
Look, all of those statements are true. It’s no secret how ridiculous the Leafs’ schedule has been to kick things off. The team is getting heaped with back-to-backs, clearly went into last night feeling the effects overtime from the night prior, and were simply too gassed to go toe-to-toe with the Bruins.
Here’s the thing about excuses, though (and they are excuses): if your team is spending roughly $13 million above the cap just to pay you, and handcuffing their depth in the process, you don’t get to use them. They simply don’t exist.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter if the NHL decides to pick Leafs as their sole guinea pig to test the implementation of three-in-threes on. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner make a combined $22,527,000. That figure means they need to show up every single night.
On Tuesday, they did not. Like, at all.
Both Matthews and Marner were downright bullied by the Bruins’ top line at even strength, the latter finishing with a dismal CF% of 37.5% while the former managed to top him only slightly with a 42.31%. That just can’t happen. Not this far into their respective careers.
No one expects Matthews or Marner to score a Selke nomination in the near future — that’s not what they’re paid to do. What they do expect, however, is both players to adequately stack up against an opponent’s top line, even one as lethal as Boston’s. So far, that hasn’t happened.
It’s not Matthews or Marner’s fault that they kept getting put out there in spite of their lacklustre results, to be fair. That’s on the coach. Which brings us to…
2) Does Babcock Watch the Game?
Okay, that’s a little harsh. We have video evidence that proves Babcock does, in fact, watch the game.
Judging by his in-game habits, though, you certainly wouldn’t know it. Babcock’s repeated inability (or refusal, I honestly don’t know at this point) to evaluate the play unfolding before him and then make a corresponding adjustment is baffling.
This is the highest-paid coach in hockey, after all. It shouldn’t be this difficult. Identifying that Matthews and Marner are getting out-matched, looking down the bench, and opting to use a few pieces from Toronto’s staggeringly deep roster in hopes of producing a different result should be the baseline expectation here.
“But he doesn’t have John Tavares right now!”
Cool. Neither do 30 other NHL teams. Losing one of your TWO first-line centres should not really be a death blow to a coach whose reputation paints him in the light of a mythical god/genius.
Figure it out. One matchup isn’t working. Countering with a different matchup just might change that. It’s a novel concept. Here’s hoping the guy tasked with overseeing the Leafs’ best shot at a winning cup since the moon landing gives it a shot.
Last Babcock thought, I promise.
Prior to last night’s game, reporters asked Babs to share his thoughts on how well the Morgan Rielly–Cody Ceci pairing has been when it comes to shutting down opposing top lines. This was his response.
Asked about using Rielly-Ceci against top lines, Babcock highlights play of former-Sen:
"He's never in anything. To me, you're doing your job. No chances against, you're not an issue. You’re just playing good. That is a real good player."
Also likes Holl of late
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 22, 2019
Look, I’ll be the first to say that the Ceci hate this season has been a tad stronger than warranted. The 25-year-old’s underlying numbers at 5v5 have more or less broken even to this point, in fact; Ceci’s xGF% is 55.56%, his HDGF% is an even better 62.5%, and he’s been on the ice for exactly as many scoring chances for as scoring chances against (88).
That being said, “real good player” might be a bit of a stretch.
Ceci hasn’t been the black hole of talent he was advertised as, but that doesn’t mask how he simply cannot move the puck out of his own end despite playing next to one of the game’s most gifted puck movers. Not to mention, Ceci routinely winds up on the losing end of puck battles on a nightly basis — both in open ice and along the boards.
These are all problems. Problems, mind you, that get amplified when the player in question receives top-pair usage.
It’s not as if Ceci is a disaster. He’s not. Rather, it’s that Babcock seems to view his performance thus far with a “good enough” attitude. That’s the scary part. In a contending year, the bar can’t be that low. And when going off past decisions, the prospect of Babcock trying out a Dermott-Rielly experiment upon the former’s return is looking doubtful at the moment when it would mean bumping down a “real good player”.
4) Kerfoot Proving to be a Steal
Tyson Barrie isn’t quite on Kawhi Leonard‘s level. Few living humans are. But if we’re going to compare the respective trades that brought both players to Toronto, Alexander Kerfoot is looking like a pretty darn good Danny Green.
Even a bump up to 2C hasn’t been daunting a test thus far. Impressively, Kerfoot’s possession numbers have remained stellar since his promotion all while his offensive production continues to spike. The 25-year-old has done exactly what the Leafs have asked him to; his two-point effort last night in Boston being, truthfully, the only reason they remained in the game past the second period.
And all for the low price of $3.5 million per year? That’s a steal, folks.
When considering that Kerfoot was more or less the throw-in to the Nazem Kadri trade, gaining a versatile centre capable of playing up and down the lineup who was promptly locked down to term might prove to be one of Dubas’s strongest moves to date.
5) It’s Early. Relax
Have the Leafs played well to this point? No. Absolutely not. But the Stanley Cup also doesn’t get awarded at the end of October, either. There’s plenty of time left to right the ship. This team is too talented, and missing too many key players to not turn it around soon.
In fact, the numbers even hint at it.
At the moment, the Leafs sit with an even-strength PDO of 98.2, putting them 24th league-wide. A collective .898 save percentage will do that to you, after all. However, given Frederik Andersen’s penchant for dismal Octobers followed closely by an immediate return to form, it’s not unreasonable to expect that to change very soon. Couple that with imminent recoveries from John Tavares, Zach Hyman, and Travis Dermott on the horizon, and an influx of talent is but mere days away from hitting their roster.
So, relax. The Leafs of today are not the Leafs destined to clash ith Boston in April for the third straight year. Changes are coming. And if this mediocrity continues even after gaining back a number one centre, top-six winger, and borderline-top-four defenceman, then you have my permission to panic.
Until then — coaching performance notwithstanding — just wait a bit to shovel dirt on their grave.