June 5, 2023
The Athletic

LeBrun: What rival NHL executives are saying about the Maple Leafs’ churning powder keg

TORONTO — The problem, of course, is that you can’t evaluate the Maple Leafs’ start to the 2022-23 season in a vacuum.

Whether it’s fair or not, the team’s 4-4-2 record doesn’t just apply to the first 10 games of the season.

It’s a powder keg that has always been there, because that’s how it is for this organization as it’s set up right now the Do-or-die season.

The point is that general manager Kyle Dubas wasn’t offered a contract extension last summer after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs — which happened after other first-round fumbles in previous years. No one panics about Lightning’s mediocre launch. For obvious reasons. When the Leafs decided not to renew Dubas, everyone in the organization, including the players, was made aware. And they can’t help but feel it, whether they admit it or not.

And it’s about Auston Matthews, who will likely have to decide by the end of this season whether to renew with the Leafs. His current contract is expiring and he will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2023-24 season. I still think he wants to re-sign with the Leafs. But the point is that another major franchise decision is about to come, and wouldn’t that decision be easier to make once the team finally does something in the playoffs?

There’s so much to do for so many people this season, and from the offseason to camp, people from other organizations have told me they could feel that excitement in the Toronto front office. And I mean it’s understandable. People’s jobs are at stake.

What I didn’t see coming, and perhaps should have given what’s at stake, was this drama so early this season. I figured this team would more or less roll through the regular season, finish first or second in the Atlantic, and then whatever the outcome, we’d be primed for playoff drama.

But since training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe has indicated his concern through his actions, whether it’s dropping an F-bomb during a practice session at camp or directing a series of post-game comments to his players straight from opening night in Montreal.

Some of his comments earlier this season were certainly noted in the league.

I asked Keefe during his daily media availability on the morning of an Oct. 20 game against the Stars if he intended to approach the season this way or if these were spontaneous reactions.

He replied: “Well, it’s a bit of both. It’s a combination of the fact that before the season started we talked about the importance of being really consistent and making our game look like ourselves as much as possible. From Game 1 it wasn’t anymore the case. Even though there’s a lot of good things happening in preseason and you have a lot of confidence, you go out and it doesn’t look like it.

“For a team that’s been together as long as ours – I know we have new players and stuff like that – but obviously the identity of our team and the core of our team has stayed the same. So there is an expectation that you would start at a really high level. And you do not. So that was disappointing.”

In particular, he was referring to the losses of the Habs and Coyotes at the time.

“We talked about not leaving those points on the table and it just so happens (with) the schedule that we have two opponents there that we struggled with last season,” Keefe continued. “And the expectation (is) that we improved there, and we didn’t. So I think (the harsh criticism from the players is) more just a symptom of that than anything else.

“I don’t know if I had a game plan for how I was going to approach the early start here, other than to say there’s a high expectation that our group will continue to grow and have a good start to the season (and, especially in such games we would be better. And we weren’t.”

First of all, I appreciate the honesty in this answer.

And since then there have been losses to San Jose and Anaheim, which would presumably again be the kind of teams Keefe was referring to.

What I make of Keefe’s nervous behavior towards his players so early in the season is that he’s trying to lay the groundwork for playoff time as best he can, rather than waiting until then to crank up the decibel levels.

what i get Don’t cram at the last minute for your final exam. Get the work done in advance.

But in doing so he obviously risks alienating his top players, as our intrepid Leafs beat writer Jonas Siegel marveled after the Ducks’ loss and Mitch Marner’s bench press was heard around the world.

All of this, of course, has the Toronto media and fans wondering how hot a spot on Keefe is.

One thing to note: Not that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is counting his pennies, but keep in mind that MLSE is still paying Mike Babcock this season through June 30 for one last year’s $5.8 million . Keefe is making just under $2 million in salary this season and next. If you fire Keefe, you’ll pay two guys just over $7.8 million not to train this season. gulp. It’s MLSE, so maybe that’s a drop in the bucket, but then you also add in the salary that comes with a new coach, especially if it’s a brand-name new coach. MLSE would be in double figures overall this year between the new coach and the two former coaches.

For example, Barry Despite doesn’t come to Toronto for less than $5 million a year in my opinion. When he spoke to Defiance in September, it was clear that while he wanted to return to an NHL bench at some point, he wasn’t quite ready. He needs more time to take care of his private life. My understanding is thatdiocese would not be ready to consider an NHL return until December at the earliest.

In any case, I don’t think a coaching change is the first thing the Leafs should consider if things don’t improve.

Instead, I agree with our Leafs columnist James Mirtle that the first thing I would look at, however difficult it is so far from the March 3 trading deadline, is to make a transaction to help the squad.

I understand it’s hard this early in the season in a flat cap world, but look at these two Vancouver deals last week. Nothing major, but they are tweaks that could help the team.

Personally? I think it’s too early for this level of panic in the Toronto market. I think this team will go for it.

I reached out to several competing front office executives to see if they agreed and asked for their honest opinions on the Leafs. Some politely declined to comment, saying it was too soon, others replied (via SMS and on condition of anonymity, of course):

Team Leader #1: “To play .500 after 10 games and two points away from a playoff spot…let’s not panic here!! You have to find out, of course, but way too soon to panic.”

Team Principal #2: “I’d be a little nervous if I were her. …You haven’t looked good so far. I still think they’re very likely to make the playoffs, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed and the bar is set higher for them.”

Team Captain #3: “72 games to go, lots of runway. This group will get going.”

Team Principal No. 4: “It’s too early to panic. The games I watched really got into how inconsistent they were during gameplay. They looked great, then just awful. I thought goalkeeping was a problem before the season, but (Ilya) Samsonov was solid. Offensively they have a top 5 team in the league, maybe even top 3. Defensively, they must defend as a five-man unit and be proud of it. Also, losing to all these weak teams just shows me that they don’t have a killer instinct. They go into the games thinking it’s going to be easy. So that’s up to the trainers to finish them off. With all of that, I think they’ll be fine.

The reality of the situation is that the kind of big changes some Leafs fans are clamoring for don’t typically happen during the season. For example, those who want Dubas fired and put in a new GM is an offseason project for me when you have access to a larger field of candidates.

And deeper roster changes are easier to make in June than in mid-season. There’s just more teams willing to talk about things when there’s more flexibility.

That’s not to say there won’t be changes if the season gets out of hand. Most likely they will be.

But I still think the most likely scenario is that the Leafs get back on track and we wait until spring for that real final exam for the organization, one way or another.

(Top Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

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