Maybe this was the pain Mike Babcock talked about in the summer.
We’ve been waiting 40 games for it.
Seven goals against, including at least one that will live on in highlight reels for a while, against a San Jose Sharks team that was behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings when they dropped the puck.
The 7-0 Leafs loss on Saturday was by far the biggest blowout of the Babcock era, primarily because so many of the team’s losses have been tight ones. Before facing the Sharks, Toronto had been on the wrong end of 23 of 39 games; only four of those losses were by more than two goals.
Bad Loss No. 5 wasn’t as ugly as the scoreboard looked, but it was bad. After a goalless first period, the Sharks rang up four goals in the second and three in the third period, with the Leafs’ looking like they were already on the plane home.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was to blame on a lot of nights early this year, wasn’t the goat this time. But there was a whole herd of them.
Captain Dion Phaneuf was walked around on the first goal in a scene that’s become all too familiar to Leafs fans. The second goal was a brutal, brain-dead line change – on the power play – that handed the Sharks a 2-on-0.
On the third, the Leafs had Frank Corrado (in his only fourth game of the season), Byron Froese, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul on the ice against San Jose’s powerful top line.
On the fourth, the defence pairing was a bewildered Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak against that same top line.
Four goals in 13 minutes. Game over.
“To watch that happen, we’re obviously disappointed,” Babcock said afterward. “We got really off kilter, and they came at us.”
Perspective is important here. The rest of the road trip was fine. Even with back-to-back regulation losses in Los Angeles and San Jose, the Leafs are 15-10-5 since the start of November and on pace to finish with 12 more points than last season’s disaster.
Babcock has done an admirable job with what he has to work with, but on nights such as Saturday, it’s unmistakable that he doesn’t have enough.
Hunwick continues to anchor his top defence pair, averaging a team-high 22.5 minutes a night at 30 years old, after not having ever been more than a third-pair guy anywhere else.
Nazem Kadri’s line is going up nightly against superstars such as John Tavares, Vladimir Tarasenko and Joe Pavelski.
It’s also clear the coach doesn’t trust depth options – the likes of Mark Arcobello, Corrado, Brad Boyes, Shawn Matthias and Martin Marincin – to play regular roles.
On some nights, this works. On others, it’s going to look like Saturday in San Jose.
You can’t outsystem a lack of top-end talent forever. This isn’t the Dead Puck Era, when you could grind every game into a 1-1 tie; you need elite players to counter other teams’ elites to win significantly more games than you lose.
Babcock’s Leafs pass the eye test better than Randy Carlyle’s did, but they both have a fundamental problem that’s the same. There’s no No. 1 centre. There’s no No. 1 defenceman. There’s no standout No. 1 goaltender, James Reimer’s nice hot streak earlier in the season aside.
So everyone plays higher in the lineup than is ideal, and you try to make it work.
The Leafs next game on Wednesday against Columbus will mark the halfway point of their season. They’re five points from being in the NHL’s top 20 and having a legitimate shot at a wild-card spot. They’re also five points out of dead last in the league.
One destination will be easier to get to than the other.
As the trade market heats up around the league, Leafs management is considering its options with the eight unrestricted free agents on the roster. Every indication is – regardless of where the Leafs are in the standings – they will attempt to unload almost all of them by the Feb. 29 deadline, bringing in draft picks, prospects and seat fillers for their final 20-odd games.
Results-wise, that’s when we’ll likely witness real pain.
Yet, given what this season in Toronto is – a mulligan – it’s unlikely any of this really hurts. After the mindless futility of the past decade, an orchestrated tear down as part of a planned rebuild is welcome.
The fan base realizes this team needs more high-end talent. Management does, too. Now it’s a matter of whether they can outsmart other organizations and find those players, in the draft, in trades or free agency.
You can only coach them up so much.
Who could the Leafs trade?
The eight unrestricted free agents: James Reimer, P.A. Parenteau, Michael Grabner, Roman Polak, Brad Boyes, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Mark Arcobello.
The hard-to-move big contracts: Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Jonathan Bernier.
Likely staying: James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick, Daniel Winnik, Peter Holland.
Who knows? Leo Komarov, Martin Marincin.Report Typo/Error