March 22, 2023
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TRAIKOS: Why Sheldon Keefe’s attack on the Maple Leafs’ defense might also have been a not-so-subtle jab at GM Kyle Dubas

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First the problem was Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and their inability to find the back of the net. With the so-called “elite” forwards finally producing, the problem now is Toronto’s defense and their inability to keep the puck out of their own net.

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“Starts with D,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters after a 4-3 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday. “Your touch. Your first touch has to be better.”

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We expect goalkeeping to be next in this ongoing blame game. And then the power play. Or the penalty. Or maybe Keefe is running out of options and he’s pointing the finger at himself. But after years and years of living in a house where the stairs still creak and the windows don’t close like they should, when do you stop, blame the workers and instead shift the focus to the architect who designed the house? first place?

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listen carefully Maybe we’re already there.

When asked if changing the defensive pairings could help as much as the forwards, Keefe told reporters, “I don’t see that changing anything.”

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At first it sounded like a not-so-subtle jab at the staff, particularly defensemen Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin, who didn’t look much like NHLers in the early weeks of the season. But if you read between the lines, it’s clear that Keefe’s comment was meant for Kyle Dubas and his build of a team that’s no closer to winning a championship today than it was five years ago when he took over as general manager.

Yes, the team is missing defenders Jake Muzzin, who could miss the season with a neck injury, as well as Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn. But even if they were all healthy, that defense isn’t good enough or deep enough to advance to the second round of the playoffs — let alone reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

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That’s more on Dubas than on Keefe. And it’s not just defense that’s causing the problems.

The Leafs lack scoring depth. And leadership. And sand. They’re missing a Zach Hyman type in their top six and a blue collar hull like Ilya Lyubushkin in the backend. The decision to sign the injury-prone Matt Murray, who picked up an injury in the season opener, means the team is now without a backup goalie who can beat two of the league’s worst teams.

The leaves are not as fast, young or as deep as they used to be. If the Big 4 don’t score, then nobody will. When someone gets hurt, there is no one to replace them.

In this respect, the results are not surprising.

After eight games, the Leafs are 4-3-1. Right now, that’s enough for a place in the playoffs. But that was also in a month where they had games against Montreal, Arizona and San Jose. Imagine if the going gets tough and Toronto is up against Tampa Bay or Florida or the top-ranked Boston Bruins.

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If you can’t beat the team waiting for a top draft pick, how can you hope to stay afloat in the NHL’s most competitive divisions? How can you expect to survive the first round?

It’s an unsettling start to the year for a team that has talked so much about proving themselves after yet another first-round collapse.


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On one hand, the Leafs are showing all the telltale signs of a team trying to fire Keefe and get Barry Defiant to clean up this mess. On the other hand, they look like a team that, for all their star power, isn’t quite as good as we imagined.

On paper, Toronto’s goaltender could be among the worst in the Atlantic Division. The defense, from 1 to 6, cannot compete with that of Colorado or Carolina or any of the other cup contenders. Even offensively, which is supposed to be their forte, the Leafs lack firepower once past the top 2 lines.

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However you want to put it, the team that built Dubas is in bad shape. It’s not bad at the Canucks level. Nobody talks about a one-year conversion or a re-tool. But at the same time, even someone like Mike Holmes would agree that what needs fixing can’t necessarily be fixed with a roll of duct tape or a minor league phone call.

The leaves must make a deal. The kind that involves a core player and sends shockwaves through the dressing room. They need a top 4 defender – maybe two of them. They need a better backup goalie and more than just warm bodies who can pre-check and finish their checks to fill in the bottom two lines.

If the Florida Panthers, who had the best regular-season record last year, were willing to trade their top scorer and one of their top defensemen to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk, then the Leafs may need to do something similar.

Maybe it’s time to trade in for defenders like Jakob Chychrun. Or for a striker like Patrick Kane. Or even someone like Max Domi.

Something has to change. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the coach.

If Mike Babcock couldn’t win with a group that included Hyman, Nazem Kadri and Frederik Andersen, how do you expect Keefe to win with much, much less?

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