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The halfway point confidence check: Are the Maple Leafs Stanley Cup contenders?
By Jon Steitzer1 month ago
Game 41 is in the rearview mirror and with it the entire first half of the season. Last year at game 41 the Leafs had 57 points and a 25-9-7 record. This year has been a step backward, but some will argue that Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi won’t show their full value until mid-April. The goaltending concerns are the same as they ever were, you just need to swap Samsonov’s name for Murray’s or Campbell’s before him. Samsonov has been exceptionally bad by comparison though and putting the point gap entirely on the nights he failed to show up probably explains the point difference without getting too analytical.
Those things and others considered, I’ve asked the following question to the TLN team of writers: How confident are you that the Maple Leafs are strong Stanley Cup contenders and what can be done to strengthen your confidence in them?
It probably doesn’t help that I’m writing this at 6 am the morning after the Leafs lost their third straight game, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, the issues this team has were still present while they were ripping through California. Right now, I’ll say no. Their defence is in desperate need of at least one upgrade, their goaltending situation is still a question mark, and they still have trouble putting together a complete 60-minute effort (what year is it?).
On the other hand, the beauty of hockey is that if you get hot at the right time, momentum alone can carry you to the promised land (see the 2023 Florida Panthers). The Leafs will need to address the issues with their on-ice play, but I’m confident that the roster we see now is not going to be the one taking the ice in mid-April. Still, a sturdy stay-at-home defenceman and a two-way forward would serve the team nicely as we move toward the trade deadline, but ultimately, the main thing they need is to show up when it matters (again, what year is it?).
The Leafs are in a good spot in terms of how the season has gone up to this point, but there is certainly plenty of room for improvement to make me feel even more confident in their chances this spring.
It has been well documented that Brad Treliving is actively looking into upgrading the blue line and I believe that should remain their top priority. Players like Chris Tanev, Jakob Chychrun, and Sean Walker could fit the requirements the team is looking for, which is a significant improvement not just for this year but for the foreseeable future. The other area I believe they should look to upgrade is their bottom six because while there are some decent options there currently, I am not fully convinced that the collective whole will be enough for the playoffs. There are reports of Corey Perry and the Leafs having mutual interest and that could help out the fourth line. My top target to improve this area is Alexey Toropchenko, who I have mentioned numerous times before on this site, and Twitter as a player who could be a useful piece.
Should they address these areas while also giving their goalies better support in front, the Leafs should be better equipped for the spring.
If this question had been posed a week ago following the Leafs’ trip to California, I’d say the team had finally turned a corner. But back-to-back blown leads to the Islanders and Avalanche have me a little pessimistic about this current version of the team making a serious run.
That’s been the motto for this team since the beginning of the season.
Brad Treliving has had plenty of time to sit back and evaluate this roster, but the clock is ticking and an upgrade on defence is needed. IF they can add a difference-maker (or two) on the backend, maybe this year will be different.
They need a healthy Joseph Woll. IF he can return soon, and IF he can find his game again after two months off, they’ll have a chance.
A lot of ifs.
Strong is a bit of a stretch, that’s for sure. But yes, I feel the Maple Leafs aren’t too far off from being a legit Stanley Cup contender this season. With the core producing like they are, it gives the team a chance to hide some holes along the way but when it comes down to playoff time, it needs to be a well-oiled machine from top to bottom. Each line needs an identity and a role.
Treliving needs to address the blue line. Morgan Rielly and Simon Benoit have been solid, besides that, a lot of hit-or-miss each game. Go out and get a couple of D-men a couple weeks before the deadline, get ahead of the market, and give the newcomers longer to get accustomed to playing in Toronto. Two of Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, Jakob Chychrun, Mario Ferraro, or Sean Walker would help, that’s pretty obvious at this point. I wonder about what gets shipped out though. To me, move the first-rounder in ’24 and hold onto the Mintens and Cowans of the world. We’ve seen how inconsistent the bottom six has been this season and both of those guys can help as soon as next season. And are cheap also on rookie deals, so they’ll need it on the financial side.
Goaltending is better situated than we think. As long as Woll recovers from his injury and gets back to form, there shouldn’t be any concerns with having him starting game one of the playoffs, Jones – a Cup winner backing him up, and Samsonov and Hildeby as the backup/backup plan. Moving Samsonov is basically impossible at the moment, but man, his $3.5 million off the cap would do wonders for trade flexibility ahead of March 8.
I love the core, I’m a huge fan of how Knies, Bertuzzi, Jarnkrok, Holmberg, and Gregor have played up front and I’m very skeptical about the consistency of Domi, Kampf, Robertson, and McMann. Their blue line is a mess and if Treliving doesn’t address the matter, he’s failed to set this team up for success and a potentially long playoff run.
As of right now, not confident at all. There are simply too many better, more complete teams across the league. I’m not confident the Leafs would get through Florida or Boston in the Atlantic, nor the Rangers or Carolina in the Metropolitan. We haven’t even touched on the Western Conference.
What can be done? Well, lots… Joseph Woll will be instrumental, and strong health between now and April would certainly provide some stability. Treliving has his work cut out for him. I think they need another physical defenceman that can clear the front of their net and suppress shots, preferably that plays in the top 4. They need to add up front and figure out line combos that will make sense in the playoffs.
Is McMann – Kampf – Gregor what you want heading into playoffs? Do Robertson and Holmberg fit in? What should be done with Reaves? This current roster will look different come early March. Therefore, this question will hold more weight once we know what their playoff roster looks like. Your move, Tre!
I’ll never say I’m confident in the Leafs. I’m confident they have good players. I’m confident that they are better than their record. However, on any given night I’m not confident they will win. I’m willing to bet most contenders enjoy a bit more confidence than that.
As Vicken pointed out in his response, the Maple Leafs are consistently inconsistent and that is the biggest problem with this team. Sure, goaltending and defence looks like it needs to be externally addressed in order to make the team better but is that enough? Do the Leafs just lose with slightly better players on the roster after burning through draft picks and prospects for rental players? If I’m in Brad Treliving’s shoes I wait until the 11th hour to see if this team can be dominant night in and night out before mortgaging the future.
A lot of my limited confidence in the Leafs stems from Sheldon Keefe but I fully acknowledge that change isn’t coming this season as nothing about Brad Treliving seems like he’s a reactionary guy and if he’s going to make a coaching change it is a situation better addressed in the offseason unless Toronto wants to go the interim route. (The plan is the stand outside Rod Brind’Amour’s house with a Brinks truck the day after his contract expires, right?)
As for strengthening my confidence in the Leafs, good luck. It left around the time Pat Quinn did. I’m not sure the Leafs are one or two trades away but I’m also not sure they can’t win with who they have. The game in Los Angeles gave a lot of hope for what this team can be, and the Leafs can find that blend of talent, physicality, and responsibility on a more frequent basis, that would help convince me this team is for real.
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