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Leafs trying to win isn’t making us happy. Maybe they should become trade deadline sellers instead

Is it too early to give up the season? Statistically no, but of course in the world where we have a defending Stanley Cup Champion that was the worst team in the league last January, well, it’s a bit of a hard sell.

I love Freddie Andersen, but I am not expecting a Jordan Binnington-esque run. I’m excited for what Sheldon Keefe will do, but it seems like he might be working through some team issues that Craig Berube didn’t have to. Also, he doesn’t have Jordan Binnington. The reality is the Leafs are in an uphill battle that never really looks as bad as it seems because of the fact that the Leafs have a number of games at hand on their conference rivals which inflates their standings.

Wildcard Race by Points GP Pts
Atlantic Division
Boston 28 45
Florida 27 31
Buffalo 28 31
Metro Division
Washington 30 47
New York Islanders 26 38
Philadelphia 28 37
Wildcard
Pittsburgh 28 34
Carolina 28 33
Montreal 28 30
Toronto 30 30

Look at that. Only one point behind second in the division? How can you give up now?

Wildcard Race by Pts% GP Pts
Atlantic Division
Boston 28 80.4%
Tampa Bay 25 58.9%
Florida 27 57.4%
Metro Division
Washington 30 78.3%
New York Islanders 26 73.1%
Philadelphia 28 66.1%
Wildcard
Pittsburgh 28 60.7%
Carolina 28 58.9%
New York Rangers 26 55.8%
Buffalo Sabres 28 55.4%
Montreal 28 53.6%
Toronto 30 50.0%

Oh, cool, the Leafs are actually the 7th worst team in the league this year and could reasonably be leap frogged by the Blue Jackets and Ducks before the weekend.

Moneypuck generously still has the Leafs at 42.2% odds of making the playoffs, although only 8.9% odds of grabbing one of the Wildcard spots. Within their division the Bruins, Habs, Lightning, and Panthers are all given more favourable odds. (In your face Buffalo, I guess.) 

So not completely out of it, but it’s looking rather bleak, do we probably need to give it a month until we know for certain whether we should throw in the towel? For optimism’s sake, I’ll say yes, but with a caveat. The caveat being, we look at some of the positives of this year being a chance for the Leafs to reset.

The Leafs would be selling what teams are buying

Maybe it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that teams will be in the market for defensemen at the trade deadline. That never really seems to happen, and reasonably priced options like Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and (a potentially salary retained) Cody Ceci would have no market all. Of course, I’m just joshin’ you, those are three great assets for a team that will be golfing by mid-April to be holding at that point.

Jake Muzzin is a player I legitimately think the Leafs should be trying to retain, but given the steep price that Toronto paid for him last season, if they can’t get him under a friendly contract extension by mid-January he needs to go. In fact, that might be true even if the Leafs are in a playoff position at that point. Losing Muzzin and having mortgaged Toronto’s future by giving up a 1st round pick, Carl Grundstrom, and Sean Durzi seems like an action that would even get the most loyal Dubas supporter sharpening their pitchfork. Gambling the future on the chance to remain a bubble team would be extremely irresponsible.

The Leafs also have the benefit of having set the asking price for Muzzin at what they paid, although dialing it back slightly if the lack of term is considered a drawback. At the very least the Leafs would be picking up a 1st round pick, and having cheap, potentially high end talent is something the Leafs have lacked this year now that all of those previous players have started getting paid for real.

Tyson Barrie had a slow start, but has come around of late, and there will undoubtedly be teams looking for right handed shots that can quarterback power plays at the trade deadline. The fact that the Avs are already footing half the bill on Barrie makes him a great thrifty option for buyers and the Leafs should be able to price gouge because of it.

The idea of moving on from Barrie might be bittersweet given that they had to give up Nazem Kadri to bring him in, but alas, we need to be forward thinking, and take comfort in the fact that Kerfoot wasn’t a half bad inclusion in the deal.

Cody Ceci isn’t very good, but that really doesn’t seem to matter when he is capable of playing big minutes, fits the mold of playoff type defenseman, and shoots right. His expiring contract is our friend in more ways than one, and if the Leafs decided to retain salary on him, he might have been worth all the suffering we endured watching him try to make decisions.

Jason Spezza has picked up 11 points in 19 games so far and makes the league minimum. He’s a veteran looking for a chance to win before the sun goes down on his playing career, someone is going to want that, and at $700k the Leafs might get more than they should for him.

What about the non-rentals?

Well, the Leafs have an abundance of wingers, an abundance of salary, and an abundance of areas that will need to be addressed. Ideally the time to trade players like Johnsson and Kapanen was last summer, but the fact that their results haven’t shifted too much from where they were before and their contracts aren’t actively terrible, they are a couple of names to watch as well as the Leafs slowly slide out of contention.

While it seems as if a portion of the Leafs fanbase is rapidly falling out of love with Morgan Rielly, I’m hesitant to include the one defenseman the Leafs have under contract for the next season in with the group of tradeable players. There is little doubt he has value, but the Leafs are not in a rebuild, rather an expedited retooling, and it’s hard to imagine that Rielly and his experience wouldn’t benefit Dermott, Sandin, Liljegren, and whatever two other defensemen grace the Leafs with their presence next season.

It’s probably at this point where I should acknowledge that I’m not arguing for trading everyone or blowing up the Leafs, but rather allowing the Leafs to take a step back, examine who the core of this team is or should be and retool around it. It’s entirely possible that the Leafs maintain the status quo, and feel that time will heal all wounds. That’s certainly a way to go with this, but it’s hard to see the case for not turning over some personnel after the setback which has been the past two months.

Playing time for the kiddos

What better time to get to know some of the Marlies. Egor Korshkov, Mason Marchment, and Jeremy Bracco are names we’ve heard about long enough, why not test to see what our opinions are of them in the NHL? Ditto for Sandin and Liljegren who seem to be 2020-21 roster locks in most eyes already. There’s no reason why the post trade deadline can’t be one big audition for next season and gives Keefe a chance to put down the foundation of his system with the group that is most likely to play in it.

The sky is not falling and (for now) there’s still a chance

Right now in the early days of the Sheldon Keefe the Leafs have picked up 57% of their available points. If they did that over the course of a full season, that is a pace that would at least challenge the Panthers for the 3rd spot in their division or narrowly miss the final wild card spot. Given that the Leafs were able to hit a 61% Point percentage last year, it seems reasonable they could do the same this year. If they do that they’d finish the year with 93 points and that could put them in the conversation for a playoff spot. (For comparison, Craig Berube has a 65% point percentage in his 63 games last year getting the Blues into the playoffs.)

Giving up on the playoffs may be premature right now, but post holiday roster freeze it will be a different story.

For now it makes sense to force some optimism that things can get better, but a month from now, if the glass is half empty instead of half full, the Leafs are in a great position to cut their losses and move forward. And again, this isn’t about a rebuild.