March 22, 2023
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SIMMONS: Maple Leafs in court; Heads can roll. Pretty much everything in question

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This isn’t about blue-and-white noise or a product of an overly active media landscape.

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This is not being pushed by the outside lunatics or the “Who are we going to fire today?” internet provocateurs.

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This is about performance and nothing else, and the rather precarious state of the Maple Leafs at the start of the season is beyond galling. This is a crisis circumstance today that will draw the attention of owners, that will draw the attention of management at the highest level, and will very likely be a spreading crisis tomorrow.

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This isn’t the usual early-season concern, the guy shrugging. There is every reason to believe the Leafs are nearing implosion time, whether that means a shot or shots or a trade of monumental impact will depend on how the team reacts Wednesday vs Philadelphia, Saturday night vs Boston, Sunday night Carolina, next Tuesday against Vegas: Suddenly this ice hockey season is about game after game. And suddenly the Maple Leafs are on trial and a verdict at the beginning of the season is imminent.

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It starts with the players, more than anyone else. This team has enough talent to keep up. This team should be one of the better teams in hockey. This roster has holes – every roster has holes in today’s salary-constrained NHL – but it comes back to performance.

game quality. game level. degree of determination. level of intelligence. Level of game intelligence. execution level. The Leafs have already lost to Arizona, San Jose and Anaheim — three of the absolute worst teams in hockey. They should be embarrassed.

But if you listen to the players, before the games, after the games, and maybe they’re just spewing the usual collections of clichés and nonsense for the media – but there’s almost no desperation in their words or their play, no outward recognition of it an underperforming mess, with 12% of the season already over.

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The Leafs have scored 27 goals in 10 games played and unsurprisingly rank 27th in the NHL in points, just behind Arizona and just ahead of Columbus. Last year they were second in goals scored.

Last year they had the best power play in the NHL: they currently sit 11th in the league by man advantage and were 8th best on penalties. They are 25 this year.

Hart Trophy winner and Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews was first in goals a year ago, second in points per game and sixth in points totals after missing nine games all season. Right now, Matthews is just like his team trying to find himself, trying to rediscover his brilliance. He is 76th in the NHL in goals, tied on points with fourth-liner David Kampf, tied on points with 60 other players who have scored three goals. He is 54th in points, tied with 24 other players. Matthews shouldn’t be here – not even a collapsing Matthews – and he’s by no means alone.

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Matthews linesmate and dance partner Mitch Marner gave up his usual defensive ability Sunday night in Anaheim, giving up the puck far too easily. Two of his giveaways ended up in goals for the Ducks. That earned him a spot on the Leafs bench, and coach Sheldon Keefe benched Marner, who was under enough heat himself early on, for just a shift or two.

Many coaches would have ended Marner’s night after the second giveaway, which sent Marner down the Anaheim hallway with enough energy to angrily break a stick and then return to the bench where he should have spent the rest of the night.

This is Keefe’s dilemma. He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. He has a six-man defense, which is a Rubik’s Cube. No matter how many times you move the parts, the problems remain. Without a healthy Jake Muzzin, who may never appear again, and without a healthy Timothy Liljegren, the parts don’t fit. He’s trying to make it work, but that’s all his general manager Kyle Dubas has given him. On the Leafs side, you can count on TJ Brodie. You can’t count on any of Toronto’s other defenders when you’re under pressure.

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This is the split you often find in losing teams. There is too much separation between defense and offense. Forwards blame the defense when they don’t get the puck clean and in good positions. Defense blames forwards when they don’t get enough puck support or physical or positional support. When teams lose, the defense blames the forward, the forward blames the defense, and little is accomplished. Keefe needs to find a way to make this work.


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That’s one of his many challenges so early in the season.

Linemates John Tavares and William Nylander are ranked 23rd or 34th in the NHL, depending on how you want to do the math. Their game was reasonable for most of the season. The majority of strikers can’t say that. The Leafs were hoping to have a fourth line that could be difficult to play against. They don’t. They hoped to have a third line that was difficult to play against. They don’t.

Their best players have to be their best players and their worst players have to be way better.

This is the list Dubas provided for Keefe. The coach fails. The manager doesn’t help. The President, Brendan Shanahan, who hired the GM and approved the hiring of the coach and is eternally patient, must lose patience. As the owners tell us.

Players can change all that. They must find their form, and quickly. Before anyone asks for someone’s head – and it could very well be one of them.

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