It’s fairly clear that, 13 games in, the Toronto Maple Leafs remain very much an unfinished puzzle for their coach and their GM.
Yes, they injected a lot of talent in the form of seven rookies onto the roster this season, but there is a lot missing. The kids have been all right – better than that, many nights – but the veterans are a growing source of unease after Tuesday’s 7-0 embarrassment against the Los Angeles Kings.
“We got slapped,” was how coach Mike Babcock put it to reporters, a day later, after an extra strenuous skate in the dark when the lights malfunctioned at the team’s practice rink.
“I think everyone kind of got the message,” defenceman Jake Gardiner said. “If we’re not going to skate during the game, we’re going to skate the next day. Nobody wants to be embarrassed like that.”
“I had hockey dreams last night,” added Connor Carrick, the lone Leafs player who has played the majority of their games and isn’t a minus player.
He likely meant nightmares, given how easily L.A. steamrolled Toronto’s defence.
More and more, the Leafs look like a team short two good defencemen – which perhaps includes a No. 1 who can shoulder the toughest load. Their goaltending also remains a question mark, with Frederik Andersen inspiring confidence one game and then concern the next.
Babcock, meanwhile, has been Babcock-ian in his love of run-of-the-mill grinders. Leo Komarov is second among forwards in ice time, despite no goals and only three assists in 13 games. Zach Hyman is third, despite managing one point while playing with two of the three most gifted offensive players on the roster.
The Ben Smith Experiment has also been a failure, as eight games after claiming him off waivers from Colorado, he has by far the worst possession numbers on the team (38.4 per cent). With Smith on the ice at even strength, the Leafs have been outshot 58-34, mostly by a host of fourth liners.
Add in the ice time given to Roman Polak, Matt Martin and Matt Hunwick this season, and the Leafs have lost something on the margins.
You watch these players against a team such as the Kings – who have physical players who can also play and who fit better into their coach’s system – and the difference is unmistakable.
You wonder if Toronto would be better off not even attempting to match that kind of style, which suits a bigger, burlier team.
It will be interesting what happens this weekend when the Leafs’ crowded roster finally gets a shuffle. Josh Leivo will be back from a conditioning stint – for a dubious injury – in the minors after Saturday’s Marlies game. Hunwick is expected to be healthy and off injured reserve, too. That puts the Leafs at 24 players on a 23-man roster.
Peter Holland, Frank Corrado and Seth Griffith have all been sitting a lot, despite signs that they can add some skill around the edges of the roster, where Toronto has been beaten up. They’re good possession players, although not really the grind types.
But someone will have to go at some point, and it may well be Corrado landing back on waivers after a 13-month stint in Toronto spent mostly in the press box.
If ever there was a time to give these players a chance, now is it. The Leafs have two tough games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, two teams that have put a premium on speed and skill the past couple of years. Babcock could attempt to mimic that, with a few changes, including providing some higher-end talent to Nazem Kadri or Auston Matthews on the wing at even strength.
At the very least, some experimentation is in order. Mix and match the lines, the way the staff started to when things went pear-shaped against the Kings. Don’t be afraid to lean on skill. Find out what you have in the press box every night, before Sunday, when the Leafs will be over the roster limit, the clock runs out on sitting so many players, and a change has to be made.
The reality is the bigger changes this roster needs will likely have to wait until the off-season, when they can look at flipping some of their talent up front for help on the back end. Routinely beating teams such as Los Angeles and Pittsburgh now isn’t of the highest priority – or even that plausible – but the Leafs have to try to be competitive in this three-year window where Matthews and Mitch Marner are playing on low-cost entry-level deals.
They might as well do that by getting their strongest lineup on the ice and seeing what they can do.Report Typo/Error