The Toronto Maple Leafs have now lost 9 straight games, and before their current losing streak, they were an abysmal 3-8-0. Adding up to a grand total of 3-16-1 in their last 20 games. The only humour in the otherwise bleak situation might be that before this current 3-16-1 stretch they went on a 10-1-1 streak. The Leafs recent record has many scratching their heads. Not many people thought the Leafs were a cup contender, but many had them at least battling for a playoff spot. Currently, the only thrills Maple Leaf fans can hope for after the regular season will be possessing a draft lottery pick. The struggling Maple Leafs have not technically been eliminated from the playoff race. However, it would take something like a 22-8-1 record in their remaining 31 games to get them to 93 points, which was how many it took to get into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference last season.
The team seems to be having a massive identity crisis. Are they the offensive juggernaut who plays fast and loose and often pays for it? Or are they the team who is committing to strong defensive play, even if it means a lack of scoring? It has not been much longer than a month since the Leafs led the NHL in total amount of goals scored. A style change brought about by interim coach Peter Horachek has seen their ability to score goals dry up. The Leafs have been shut out in 4 of the 11 games since Horachek became the interim head coach. Despite their inability to score goals this could be a blessing in disguise of sorts. These could be the growing pains of a team which is finally playing the game in a manner necessary to have long term success.
The defense first strategy has seen the Leafs keep the opposing teams shot totals to much more respectable numbers than in the Carlyle days. Offense may win games but time and time again the better defensive teams win more championships. If the Leafs can keep up their positive growth defensively and salvage some aspect of their offensive success, maybe the team can change their fortunes. If not this season, maybe for seasons to come. However, what if there was a reason that Randy Carlyle, a coach generally revered for his defense first philosophy chose to have the team play a more offensive style?
Carlyle may have believed that the team lacked the personnel necessary to have success with a defensive style and instead devised a system that would play to their strengths. Phil Kessel may be a good example for this theory. Kessel, who is one of the best offensive players in the league has been scrutinized at times for his defensive play. If the Leafs truly adopt a defense first strategy are they also adopting a strategy which limits the success of their most talented player? A very similar situation occurred in Washington with Alexander Ovechkin who appeared to struggle under a defense first system.
Teams who have offensive players like Kessel and Ovechkin as their best players can have success during the season but often struggle to succeed when it matters during the playoffs and with maintaining organizational consistency in general. Having pure snipers like Kessel can help any team be more successful offensively but without guys who can effectively complement that style with strong defensive play, the team will struggle. The Leafs ultimate lack of success could be due largely to lacking defensemen and top 6 forwards who can successfully play a defensive style of hockey.
The current collapse might be the tipping point for the organization with its current core and roster. If the Leafs management has lost confidence in some of their best players, there will likely be massive restructuring in the off season with notable trades also occurring up to this season’s trade deadline. If the Leafs decide to go this route players like Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul who represent the core of the Leafs, may be some of the names in play. If the organization has learned lessons from past mistakes they should look to hang on to their young talented players who may possess the ability to grow into players who are strong on both sides of the puck. Players including Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, James Van Riemsdyk and yes, even Jake Gardiner are players that the Leafs should avoid moving at all costs. Those are the types of players that when moved end up burning the Leafs in the future.
This has been a trying time for the Maple Leafs roster and fans alike. Maybe changes are necessary, whether they are huge roster shaking moves or just a few tweaks here and there remains to be seen. It’s possible they just need time to adapt to the defensive systems currently being implemented. It will be a daunting test for Leafs management to decide if these are growing pains or evidence that it is time to blow up the team and start over.
If you were the General Manager of the Leafs what would you do?
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