They are two warring factions, groups that are bickering amongst one another around water coolers, in coffee shops and at rinks across the country.
On one side, you have the optimists, who see a lot of promise in the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite their faults. They’re young, they argue, and coming off their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade, with a committed new ownership group that’s dead set on making a splash.
On the other side, there are your pessimists, who see a team that greatly overachieved a year ago, one that has predictably come back down to earth and played some pretty ugly hockey for much of this year.
In the middle of all that debate is the one Canadian NHL team everyone seems to either love to love or love to hate.
Prior to Thursday’s games, the Leafs sat in a playoff spot, on pace for just under 89 points and in the mushy middle of the Eastern Conference.
Last week, they had appeared to be headed into a full blown crisis after losing four games in a row – three in blowouts to weak opponents – and 11 of their last 16.
But with three consecutive wins, including two in a shootout, the Leafs have again dialed down the panic level to a manageable level.
What exactly that makes them, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t entirely clear.
“I think we have a quality team – I still don’t think we’ve played anywhere near to our potential,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis told TSN Radio on Thursday night. “I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement for this group.
“There’s no question in my mind that we’re a better team than we’ve played over the course of this year. And we have to look at that as an opportunity.”
Given how the pace has picked up in the East, it now appears it will take at least 90 points to make the postseason as a wild card team, meaning a team like Toronto will have to close the year at 17-13-3 or better to get in.
Whether or not you believe they can pull that off likely depends on which of the two camps mentioned above you fall into.
If, like Nonis, you’re in the glass-half-full group, you look back to a 10-4-0 record in October with centre Dave Bolland in the lineup and conclude his return from a brutal and unfortunate ankle injury will help them get back there.
The glass-half-empties will note, however, that the Leafs only won in October while being heavily outshot and often outplayed, something that has continued all year with or without Bolland and which can’t be rectified without either a coaching change or vastly different tactics.
Toronto also hasn’t had to deal with an overwhelming number of injuries overall (their 138 man-games lost is about league average) and teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have had much more significant losses and won more games.
Here are a few of the other arguments that have sprung up this season and made the Leafs such a divisive team, with fans and media at odds over just how good (or bad) they really are:
The glass half full side
– With an average age of 27, the Leafs are currently tied with the Ottawa Senators as the NHL’s third youngest team (Columbus and Winnipeg are younger). Growing pains are to be expected due to their age and potentially making the playoffs as a low seed is another good step to gain experience. Be patient with this group, and they’ll get better.
– Points are points, whether they come in the shootout or not, and the Leafs have found ways to win games. Having so many games go beyond 60 minutes is a sign they are playing in close contests night after night and perhaps getting closer to winning more in regulation.
– Being outshot and having very weak possession analytics (i.e. Corsi and Fenwick Close) doesn’t matter because the Leafs can generate quality chances and have two good goaltenders. They won games under coach Randy Carlyle like that last season and can continue to do so for the final 30-plus games.
– Nonis has only had one calendar year to improve the team and has already added Bolland, Jonathan Bernier, Mason Raymond and others who have made the Leafs a better team on paper. It’s only a matter of time before that shows up in the standings.
The glass half empty side
– Being young and good aren’t necessarily exclusive. The Los Angeles Kings were younger than the Leafs when they won the Stanley Cup back in 2012 and remain only 27.3 years old. And, with a few exceptions, a lot of Toronto’s core players like Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel are already in their peak years and producing as well as they can reasonably be expected to. Some improvement is coming from Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri et al, but not nearly as much as the half fulls are arguing.
– The Leafs are only playing in so many shootouts as a result of giving up too many leads, a bad trait that hasn’t cost them as badly as it could have due to their hot shooting in the skills competition. The Leafs also aren’t in that many close games, as 17 of their 25 losses have been by two goals or more, and their goal differential is quite poor.
– Toronto’s possession problems got progressively worse last season and have been exacerbated by personnel decisions by both Carlyle and Nonis. The Leafs have gone from being outshot by 5.9 per game last year to 8.8 per game this year – one of the worst rates ever – and there’s no evidence they can fix the problem by returning to having both a high shooting and save percentage. The top possession teams in the NHL, meanwhile, are powerhouses like the Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. No team has advanced deep in the postseason with shot differential issues like the Leafs’ current ones.
– Along with the good moves, Nonis has made some poor ones, the worst of which was signing David Clarkson to a seven-year deal for more than $5-million a season. He has eight points in 36 games and will likely hurt their salary cap situation for years to come. Failing to upgrade the blueline in the off-season has also hurt, as has Carlyle’s tendency to overplay unskilled, defensive players throughout the lineup.