Months after the overachieving Raptors turned Toronto on its head, concern has begun to grow over the underachieving Maple Leafs.
So far, the defending NBA champions’ brothers on ice have not looked much like a team capable of making a lengthy dash through the playoffs. More was expected than for them to win just six of their first 13 games.
Losses have started to pile up heading into Tuesday night’s contest with the Washington Capitals at Scotiabank Arena. Another could cause them to fall significantly in the Eastern Conference standings by the end of the week.
It is still early, but pressure is building. With big salaries come greater expectations, and in Canada’s hockey capital that goes for the head coach and players alike.
Only someone wearing blue-and-white blinders would argue that these struggles were anticipated. The season has gone sideways for certain, if not backward. The Maple Leafs stagger into their meeting with the Capitals with losses in three of their past four and are 6-5-2 over all.
They got thumped in Montreal on Saturday, allowing two goals early and three late. They have beaten only two opponents with a winning record.
It brings them to a crossroads this week.
After playing 12 times in 23 days, including four sets of back-to-backs, this week gets a little easier, with Toronto facing only Washington before a contest with the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday. The busy start has left little time for practice. There is more of an opportunity now to fix mistakes and for players get some rest.
“This is a great week for us,” Mike Babcock, the Maple Leafs coach, said Monday at the team’s rink in suburban Etobicoke. “It is the first time where we have only two games.
“We should be fresher and better and it should show in our game. I think with a more balanced schedule, we should play harder. We should have a lot of energy tomorrow.”
They will surely need it.
Alex Ovechkin and Co. roll into town with an 8-2-3 overall record and five victories in their last six games. Their run started with a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs in Washington on Oct. 16. Michael Hutchinson, Toronto’s back-up goaltender, started that night. This time, Frederik Andersen will get the nod in net.
“They are big, they are heavy and they have good depth,” Babcock said. “They are really good.”
Defenceman Travis Dermott, who had a bum shoulder repaired in the off-season, will return to the lineup for the first time since the playoffs. That will strengthen the team but will trigger the first of several moves the organization will have to make between now and the weekend.
Kevin Gravel and Martin Marincin are the most likely candidates to be moved to make room for Dermott.
Zach Hyman, a rugged winger who has scored 40 points two years ago and 41 points last season, is expected to rejoin the team on Saturday. He has not played since undergoing knee surgery in April. His return, coupled with Dermott’s, will likely cause Toronto to waive, trade or farm out three players due to its extreme salary-cap restrictions.
There are a handful to choose from, including Nic Petan, Nick Shore, Dmytro Timashov or even Jason Spezza. It would make for an unceremonious end for the 36-year-old centre, who accepted a massive pay cut and signed with Toronto as a free agent this summer. He has spent 16 years with the Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars, but has never won a Stanley Cup and wished to play for his hometown Maple Leafs.
The return of Dermott and Hyman will be welcome at a time when the team is struggling. Toronto allowed three goals on breakaways against the Canadiens last Saturday, and defensive mistakes have been a particular issue.
“You can’t give away free goals,” Babcock said.
It is nearly past the time for new faces to begin to feel comfortable in their surroundings, which means that Tyson Barrie is due to revert to the form that made him a near-60-point scorer with the Colorado Avalanche.
He has proven to be inconsistent thus far and has only four assists to show for his efforts.
“It is hard not to get frustrated,” Barrie said Monday. He was acquired with Alexander Kerfoot in a trade this summer for Nazem Kadri. “I have never had a start to a season like this. It has been a bit of an adjustment for sure.”
The Maple Leafs are nearing the end of a long stretch in a schedule that has been top-heavy with home games. They leave on their first extended road trip in the middle of next month.
They need to pick up the slack between now and then before concern for them turns into panic. Toronto sports fans are still residing in the afterglow of the Raptors, but when that wears off they will be expecting a lot.