It’s hard to tell with the Toronto Maple Leafs how much outrage is appropriate for any given situation.
It’s not as though they’re ever good. So it seems a bit exhausting to flip out every time they are bad.
But Saturday’s game felt like a significant signpost along Toronto’s half-century-long death march through the NHL.
That the Leafs lost was an issue. That they lost to a geezer who plays net just a smidge better than any random person off the street is worse. That they didn’t seem to care during or after is the real problem.
There was a moment in the second period when Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe was throwing a fit on the bench during a break in play. One can imagine the thrust of his tactical summary: “You are losing to a Zamboni driver. And this is not a Zamboni race.”
As Keefe freaked out on the bench, his best players tuned him out. Auston Matthews was leaned up against the boards as though he was at a bar waiting to be served. John Tavares stared at his skates. Mitch Marner was huffing and puffing.
Only Zach Hyman was looking intently at the coach and nodding. Which seems like a pretty decent précis of how this season has been going lately.
This is the team Toronto has carefully built over the past five years – one that is stacked with more elite talent than any Leafs roster in memory; and one that is also occasionally bored to tears by their jobs.
A few feet the other way, we got a look at a team that plays as though they are paid to do this.
When emergency backup David Ayres entered the game for Carolina midway through the contest, the Hurricanes flipped their internal switch to “Playoff Mode.”
Most of them will have expected to lose quite badly. One of them, Erik Haula, told Ayres, “Just have fun. We don’t care if you let 10 goals in.”
None of them knew Ayres, but they played like men determined not to let a (very temporary) teammate be embarrassed.
All the open spaces the regular-season Leafs find ways to exploit in the offensive zone filled up with white jerseys. Toronto not only didn’t cope. It didn’t attempt to cope. The players were happy enough being pushed off to the edges.
The main issue for the Leafs is not missing the playoffs. With a lot of help from Florida, they may avoid that.
Right now, the big problem is making the playoffs. Because this is what the postseason is going to look like. It’s going to be a week to two weeks (Ed. note: Take the under) of Toronto being out-muscled and out-hustled by bigger, better-constructed teams who all seem to enjoy playing hockey for a living.
That’s not going to fly in Toronto.
Because there are a few things you can do after that. You can talk about growth and learning. Some executive can get out on a podium and try to take the blame on himself. You can fire the coach.
Toronto has already done all those things. The Leafs used up all their mulligans before actually getting the ball off the tee. Suddenly, firing Mike Babcock does not look like a stroke of genius. It looks like an effective way of demonstrating that the coach was not the problem.
So what we’re left with is a window of a few hours to determine what sort of team the Toronto Maple Leafs are.
Are they win-now team? Or are they a Blue Jays-lite, fingers-crossed, win-some-day-if-everything-falls-just-right team?
The trade deadline falls Monday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
There are no hidden fixes available at the moment. This roster is beyond tweaking. Based on performance, it requires radical reconstruction.
That process might be started between now and mid-afternoon, but it can’t be completed. That would be work for the summer or beyond.
The safe thing to do is tinker. Trade off an expendable second-tier piece such as Tyson Barrie (a faultless pro asked by Toronto to do a job he is not suited to) or Kasperi Kapanen (the rare man on this roster prepared to play with his elbows up).
That would look like doing something without actually doing anything, which is the ultimate Toronto sports move.
The dangerous thing would be moving one of the Big Four. The most expendable is Tavares. The most questionable is Marner. The (cue laugh track) more reasonably priced is William Nylander. The most desirable is Matthews. Take your pick. They’ve all disappointed in some way or another.
Doing the safe thing means the Leafs executives are headed to the bomb shelter. They’re going to let Toronto go nuclear, wait a few months and then emerge some time in August to see if the air is breathable again.
Then we’ll hear about maturity and off-season fitness routines and get a whole line about learning curves. Somehow, one has the terrible suspicion that this will all become Keefe’s fault, mainly because he’s the only guy who’s ever said the obvious – that this team doesn’t care enough.
Doing the dangerous thing means the Leafs executives are going the route of the Alex Anthopoulos Blue Jays and the Masai Ujiri Raptors – going all in, even if it costs everyone their jobs.
It’s hard to say of any decision taken in pro sports that it’s “brave.” Everybody’s getting ridiculously rich regardless of how things turn out. There isn’t anything brave about that.
But it would at least show some mettle. It’d be nice to see someone from this organization go out doing what they think is right, rather than what they believe can be sold on a two-minute radio hit.
Because excuses and prevarications won’t work any more. The Leafs either start selling off parts of this incipient failure, or they own it once it breaks down entirely.