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News and Notes: The Leafs enter their break as a bubble team

Having lost five of their last six games, the Toronto Maple Leafs are limping into their off-week tied with the Florida Panthers for ninth in the Eastern Conference. Their most recent loss, a lopsided 6-2 defeat to the surging Chicago Blackhawks, represented the third time in six games the Leafs allowed at least six goals.

The Leafs exited the Mike Babcock era as a bubble team, featuring an uninspiring 9-10-4 record. Under Sheldon Keefe, things have gone pretty well, even considering this recent cold spell. The Leafs have a 16-7-3 record in the Keefe era. But where has it gotten them? Still on the bubble.

The issue for Toronto is that pretty much everyone else is playing well too. Since Nov. 20 when Keefe was hired…

  • The Bruins have gone 15-7-7 for 37 points.
  • The Lightning have gone 20-8-2 for 42 points.
  • The Panthers have gone 15-11-0 for 30 points.
  • The Blue Jackets have gone 18-8-4 for 40 points.
  • The Hurricanes have gone 15-11-2 for 32 points.
  • The Flyers have gone 16-10-2 for 34 points.

The Leafs, overall, have been better with Keefe around than Babcock. They’ve picked up 35 out of a possible 52 points. But that hasn’t resulted in them gaining any ground over Boston in the standings, it’s resulted in them being completely jumped by Tampa, and it hasn’t been good enough to separate them from Florida, Columbus, or Philadelphia in the wild card race.

Keefe had strong words for the team after the loss at home to Florida, which was the second lopsided defeat in a matter of a few days for his club.

“I think when you go through these types of things, such as Florida, such as this, it’s just a sign of where you are, that you’re not where you want to be,” Keefe said. “Reality checks come. I thought we were an immature team down in Florida, I thought we were an immature team here today. That’s how we’re approaching these things. We’re not performing, we’re not playing with any level of discipline or consistency. That’s what happens.”

So, what’s the issue? Keefe doesn’t have an answer to that.

“I don’t have that answer,” Keefe said.“I didn’t have that vibe going into it, but from the drop of the puck here, we didn’t have a lot of life, and then we’re down early and it’s a tough game from there.”

Of course, there’s the excuse of injuries. The Leafs are without their top two defensemen, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, which is a difficult mountain to overcome. Weaker defencemen are having to step into bigger roles and it’s obviously overwhelming. There’s also the case of Freddy Andersen, who hasn’t been the game-changing rock he has been in the past. Andersen has bailed out the Leafs and their run-and-gun style in the past, but that’s been far from the case lately.

Andersen owns a .909 save percentage this season, which is far and away the worst of his career. He’s been ridiculously steady since arriving in Toronto, posting a .918 save percentage in his first three seasons with the club. But this year? He hasn’t been that guy. Despite Andersen’s play, the team isn’t blaming their goaltender for their struggles.

“It’s not on Freddy,” John Tavares said. “It’s pretty clear, the opportunities that we’re giving up. “We have to do a better job in front of him. I feel bad for him because we just don’t do a good-enough job consistently with the opportunities that we’re giving up and the way we’re careless at times.”

The same can’t be said from the fans at the games. Andersen received some jeering after Jonathan Toews made the score 4-1 on Saturday night on a pretty weak goal. There were boos afterwards and there was Bronx cheering when Andersen did make stops, but that’s the reality of playing in this market.

Circling back to Keefe, he’s challenging the team’s star players to help pull them out of this mess. I mean, that’s why they’re paid they way they are. If you have injuries to your blueline, you need John Tavares and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to find a way to compensate. We’ve seen Keefe use the team’s top players a lot more than Babcock did. If they can’t turn things around, you can’t blame Keefe for not giving his stars the opportunity, as you could many times, like back during the playoffs, with Babcock.

“I think he understands the game really well. I think he’s an intelligent coach,” said Jason Spezza, the 36-year-old veteran forward, when asked about Keefe’s approach to player deployment. “I think he knows that a lot of times you live and die with your top guys, and you have to make them feel a sense of ownership of the team. And I think he’s done a great job of doing that.”