It’s hard to believe we’re back in Panic Land so soon in Toronto.
Although maybe it shouldn’t be.
Earlier this season, there was a tendency for some to write off the Maple Leafs’ struggles as a redux version of what happened last year, when they started slow and then played at a 119-point pace from November 1st.
Only Colorado was better at this track.
However, there are a number of differences between that slow start and this one. For one thing, Auston Matthews isn’t coming off major surgery. Secondly, goalkeeping wasn’t really the issue like it was a year ago when Michael Hutchinson was still starting to play for some reason.
More importantly, in my opinion, the Leafs were faced with a very weak schedule – one of the easiest in the league to date – and their underlying records in terms of puck possession and expected goals were extremely mediocre.
You don’t score. They don’t defend well. They don’t control the game and are just unlucky. They’re just real, to put it charitably, meh now.
The easy part of the Leafs’ schedule is also effectively over as of this weekend, with a clash against Boston and Carolina looming. The rest of the way, the Leafs have one of the toughest runs of any team.
If they can’t fix some of their problems relatively quickly, major changes will be required.
This isn’t really new if you follow the latest firestorms around town. Various media outlets and betting sites have had Sheldon Keefe in the hot seat since the beginning of the campaign, and this latest four-game losing streak only took that talk to 11.
And I understand. In such situations, the coach is often the first to leave. They’re more available than big-money stars, especially in a tight-ceiling environment where about two-thirds of the league is either on long-term injured reserve or within half a million of the $82.5 million cap.
Keefe wasn’t perfect during his tenure with the Leafs, but he has a .669 point percentage — one of the highest in league history — and led them to a 115-point campaign a year ago. He’s also not to blame for much of the mess in the squad, including a lack of scoring chances in the bottom six and a lack of defensive depth with Jake Muzzin, Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn.
I think they should give him more time to fix the ship. And they should give him more to work with too.
This brings us to the main alternative to firing the trainer in early November – a trade.
While the start of the season isn’t the best time to scour the NHL’s trade market and the Leafs will be operating from a weak position given their lost slip, GM Kyle Dubas has a thing in his favor. With Muzzin on LTIR — likely for the rest of the season based on what I’m hearing — Toronto can put a large chunk of his $5.625 million salary to the open market.
Part of that has to be attributed to Liljegren, who only played a couple of games with the Marlies over the weekend as part of a rehab spell. But even in the worst-case scenario, the Leafs will have an additional $4 million in financial flexibility, something the vast majority of teams likely to be in the playoff race just don’t have.
At best, Dubas could look to swap out some of his underperforming players as part of a move, freeing up even more salary headroom.
Some of the top contenders who could shake things up could be Justin Holl ($2 million), Pierre Engvall ($2.25 million), Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million) or Nicolas Aube-Kubel ($1 million) be.
If they keep losing there might be some even bigger names in the mix.
But even without subtracting a significant roster chunk, the Leafs are now capable of being players for a difference maker in a deal — provided part of what they give up is prospects or picks.
Jakob Chychrun is a name out there although he has played almost exclusively at left flank and with his recent injury history there are a few factors buyers should be aware of. (The asking price from the Coyotes is also sky high.)
John Klingberg has an interesting idea with the ducks in free fall. He only has a one-year contract and could help with Toronto’s puck problems down the right flank.
Other pending UFA types the Leafs could target? Vladislav Gavrikov at Columbus is very intriguing considering how strong he is defensively. Damon Severson, Scott Mayfield, Shayne Gostisbehere, Dmitry Kulikov, Justin Braun, Kevin Shattenkirk and Troy Stecher are also potential loanees Everyone of them can play the right side.
Defense is paramount given how much some of the Leafs’ blueliners are wobbling, but they could also use their cap space to find goalies for the bottom six forward group or look to add another goalie to fill the third stringer to improve Erik Kallgren.
With the injuries they had early on, the Leafs have iced out a lineup that earns about $10 million below the cap on some nights. Recovering at least some of that by spending Muzzin’s salary will be crucial in the coming months.
The Leafs were lucky enough to nail those midseason deals and get a shot in the arm, dating back to when they added Muzzin almost four years ago. They also acquired Jack Campbell in a similarly difficult situation and beefed up their blue line two years ago by signing Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano.
It can be done.
But aside from improving the roster, the other positive thing about the trade route is the message it sends out, especially when it comes to sending a longtime teammate, even someone downplaying the lineup. Part of the message is that the Leafs won’t just fire the coach at the first sign of trouble.
It’s also a message that more deals could be coming should they continue to falter.
Because honestly, this looks a lot like a group of players who could use some of that outside motivation.
(Top Photo of Leafs Sadness: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
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