Auston Matthews and the Leafs are struggling.Photo: Getty Images
If you looked up and to the north this morning and thought you could make out a noxious cloud in the distance, don’t worry, it’s just the usual October phenomenon. The NHL season is two weeks old and the Toronto Maple Leafs have not awarded the Stanley Cup due to the majesty of their excellence and the entire metro area of T.O. is either excreting all their gas at once or simply turning into all their gas at once.
It has not been a great start for the Leafs, who got fairly well pasted by on-fire Carolina Hurricanes last night, 4-1. Which came after an ugly, though comedic, 7-1 fustigation at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oh, and they also lost pretty badly to the Sharks at home before that, and to the Rangers in overtime. They’re 2-4-1, and well, everyone’s handling it about as you’d expect:
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This is completely reasonable for just over 10 percent into the season.
Is there anything actually wrong with the Leafs? Of course not. At least not to the point that the entire fanbase needs to go Vietnamese monk over it. But they hardly need an excuse up there.
There always has to be something unquantifiable about the Leafs to those who follow them, whether they’re playing badly or well. When it’s like it is now, then clearly there’s something in their heads, or they haven’t gotten over last year’s full-body dry heave against the Habs (as if the Leafs wouldn’t be the most conditioned to return after playoff capitulation), or the players are just too soft to play in a hardened market like Toronto, or Toronto itself is simply too challenging a place to play in a pathetic attempt to make the media and fans seem valiant. It can’t be that they’re just unlucky.
Even in their 7-1 doming by the Pens, they didn’t play all that badly. They actually had the majority of attempts, and the expected goals were basically even, though the Leafs did give up too many prime chances. But there’s not much you can do when your goalie stops 3 of 7 shots in a period, as Jack Campbell did in the second. There isn’t really a plan for that.
Yeah, they were second best last night, but Carolina is one of the hottest teams in the league right now, as is their way early in the season.
Overall, the Leafs are fine. Their Corsi percentage (how much of a game’s attempts on goal they take vs. their opponents) is 10th in the league at 52.7. It’s not as good as they’ve done in the past, but it’s nowhere near scandalous. Their expected goal percentage (which weighs those attempts in terms of how good of a chance they are) is 52.2 percent, good for 13th in the league. When you’re on the positive side of the ledger in both of these categories, and comfortably so, things could be a hell of a lot worse.
Is there some worry? Yeah, sure. The Leafs have pumped those numbers over 50 percent mostly through what they’re creating, not what they’re preventing. They’re middle of the pack in attempts per 60 minutes they give up at even-strength, and the big red, flashing light is that they’re 27th in expected goals against at evens as well.
And anyone who watched Rasmus Sandin thrash about last night might be just a tad panicked. Here he is getting completely horsed by Steven Lorentz of Carolina, who’s definitely a player I’d heard of before last night.
And here he is having a bit of a wander in his own zone towards Jaccob Slavin, who had turnstiled Mitch Marner before this, which left Nino Niederreiter in I Am Legend amounts of space (pre-zombies).
The rep on the Leafs for years has always been that they’ve been defensively ropey, and this team isn’t all that different. Their numbers are comparable to what they were two years ago, the last real season we have to compare to, instead of getting to beat up on the Dickensian-orphanage of teams in Canada they did last year. This isn’t any different.
What is different is they’re not outscoring their problems, and quite frankly that’s down to luck. At even-strength, the Leafs are shooting 5.6 percent. That’s fifth-worst in the league, and not going to continue simply because. This is a team that routinely gets over 10 percent for a season and certainly will again. They’re also shooting 6-percent on the power play, a devilishly low figure that will be doubled or more by the time this season is over.
Most knives are out for Marner, who has one assist in seven games and put out that effort against Slavin last night. This stems from his no-show against the Habs in the first round last year, and Leafs Nation is not going to be satisfied until he bursts out weeping on the bench or in a press conference or simply disappears into the woods or both. Do you know what the Leafs shooting-percentage is when Marner is on the ice? 0.0. Not a single shot has gone in. It’s true that Marner’s line with John Tavares has had issues in their own end. But could that be that Tavares is still finding his feet after nearly being decapitated in Game 1 last year? No, that’s never enough for THE NATION.
There are some who can’t wait to blame the behind-the-scenes Amazon series that just came out, as if all of that weren’t filmed months ago. Do we really think the players are paying attention to that and don’t already know what’s in it?
No, this is just an unlucky team that is built to outscore and out-possess its opponents but, at the moment, can’t buy a bucket. Fans and media may gripe for a defensively-locked down team, but where’s that going to come from with this blue line? And that’s been the case for years. I’m sure Morgan Rielly will turn into a Norris candidate any day now. That kind of thing just happens with no previous evidence.
Don’t you worry, as soon as their marksmanship has a market correction they’ll be planning the parade, if only to raise the platform higher that they then throw themselves off of in the spring to intentionally make a bigger splat to make sure we all hear it. This is the Leafs way.