Peter Baracchini The Hockey Writers
Maple Leafs Facing Tough Decisions Heading Into Offseason
It’s the same story that the Toronto Maple Leafs and its fan base have seen for the last four seasons. Their 3-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 was another disappointing outcome after a poor performance in a do or die game with a chance to advance into the playoffs.
From the beginning of the series, the Maple Leafs’ high octane offense was challenged by the pressure of the Blue Jackets’ defence. In a season where there was a lot of uncertainty, the Maple Leafs had a lot of confidence heading into the new playoff format to prove people wrong.
But here we are. Still reeling from the frustration of another “postseason” where there is nothing to be proud of. There is no other option. General manager Kyle Dubas needs to address some serious questions throughout the lineup. In particular, a defence that has been absolutely porous, not just this past season, but for many years since this core has been intact.
Something has to happen. If we thought that Dubas was going to be busy after their first-round exit against the Boston Bruins last season, there’s no doubt that’s he going to be even busier this time around in finding a solution to make this team a true contender that can compete for a long time. Aside from a few players, no one is safe. This current roster isn’t going to cut it. And it showed.
Defence Needs to Be Addressed
If you thought that there should be confidence in this team’s defence, then you are sadly mistaken. This play-in series showed that the Maple Leafs lack the defensive depth and presence that it takes to be a Stanley Cup contender. While Jake Muzzin would’ve been a big factor if he were healthy, the team lacks any depth where someone else can jump into the top-four. While they showed improvements in their own end, it wasn’t enough.
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Comparing Martin Marincin, Cody Ceci and Justin Holl to the depth the Blue Jackets have after Zach Werenski and Seth Jones was no contest. Even when given the opportunity, they were less than stellar in trying to shut things down, while the Blue Jackets engaged with their aggressive forecheck. Tyson Barrie was a non-factor offensively and struggled in his own end as well in odd-man situations. The Nazem Kadri deal backfired big time.
While the Maple Leafs were leading the charge in terms of Corsi For percent at five-on-five, 53.05, they were outscored 10-3. That’s not a good look for an offence-heavy team like the Maple Leafs. The Blue Jackets’ forecheck and physicality was simply too much to handle, proving that the Maple Leafs are unequipped to play a physical game, which is what the playoffs are all about.
Defence is at the forefront of Dubas’ offseason to-do list. No one wins a championship with that kind of defence. For quite some time, there has been a major imbalance on the Maple Leafs when it comes to their forwards and defence units. The Maple Leafs have all the offensive firepower upfront. In order to get that balance, there needs to be a major shake-up upfront.
Given what we saw during the play-in series, aside from Auston Matthews and John Tavares, no forward is safe. We know that Kasperi Kapanen, Alexander Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson might be on the trade block. But why are Mitch Marner or William Nylander not on that list? If you want to land a marquee defenseman for your team, you’re going to have to give up something of substantial value.
Both Marner and Nylander have value. There is a major debate as to who should go between the two in Leafs Nation. No matter what happens, one of the two will be offered up to help the Maple Leafs woes on defence. And the trade talk has started.
There are also a few names that may intrigue Dubas that can bulk up and support Muzzin on the right-hand side. Or, do you go big as you did with Tavares and attempt to sign Alex Pietrangelo, who fits the bill of a steady and reliable defenseman with championship pedigree. Given that the current cap is slated to $81.5 million for the next three seasons, it proves to be a challenge for the cap-strapped Maple Leafs.
Players Need to Be Held Accountable
I’ve asked the same question at least a hundred times, during the postseason and regular season. How many times do the Maple Leafs have to learn this lesson before it actually sinks in?
It’s absolutely frustrating that this seems to be happening so often. There’s no reason that Maple Leafs should struggle with the talent that they have, but they do. The Maple Leafs shooting percentage at 5v5 during this series? A mere 1.97 percent. This team was tied for third with 158 goals at even-strength in the regular season and 11th with an 8.57 shooting percentage. The Maple Leafs offense dried up because their opponent did a great job at defending them. They took away every lane and opportunity to mitigate their scoring chances and ability to score.
They talk about learning their lesson after poor losses and playoff failures. They talk about being better. Yet, they keep on making the same mistakes. They continue to go back to their old habits, which should’ve been resolved already.
It’s time for them to take responsibility for their on-ice performance and finally learn from their mistakes. This should be the final straw. They can’t waste these opportunities anymore. It’s time for Dubas to re-evaluate who wants to be part of this winning environment because what we’ve seen lately isn’t enough.
What is Andersen’s Fate?
It’s really disheartening to see that Frederik Andersen can’t seem to get over the hump of playing in games where a lot is on the line. This time around, Andersen was far from the reason the Maple Leafs aren’t in the playoffs as he posted a 1.84 goals against average (GAA) and a .936 save percentage (SV%).
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In fact, like many times before, he was the reason that they had a fighting chance to stay in the game. He was there to make a key save and bail out the defence. Although, it’s always one goal where it proves to be a deal-breaker. This time, it was Liam Foudy’s bad-angle shot that was the dagger.
Andersen is 3-7, with a 3.54 GAA and a .871 SV% in series-clinching games. Which begs the question, will his performance be the reason why the Maple Leafs could move on from Andersen? It’s tough to say.
The goaltender has been the backbone in the crease since he’s come in and he’s been one of the busiest goalies in the league. If he leaves, who will replace him? Braden Holtby is an unrestricted free agent, but he may be asking for a higher price and his numbers weren’t encouraging at all (3.11 GAA, .897 SV%). Andersen had better numbers than him (2.85 GAA, .909 SV%) and Holtby has a far better team in front of him.
Do they try and sign Tuukka Rask or Jordan Binnington next year? Given where the Bruins and Blues are, it’s very likely that they won’t go anywhere else. And they’re asking price might be higher than Andersen’s. Do they give the title of starter to Jack Campbell? He showed some promise (a small sample) in the games he played going 3-2-1 with a 2.79 GAA and .915 SV%. He could very well be a possibility if there is a change in goal.
While Andersen has shown he can be a starter, he hasn’t risen to the occasion that can push the Maple Leafs to victory at critical moments. But, if the defence is addressed, Andersen may be more confident in the net knowing that he has players in front to help him out.
There are so many questions to be answered now that the Maple Leafs are in the offseason. Dubas has made some difficult decisions in the past, both good and bad. This time around, it’s going to be even more difficult given the disappointment of not even winning their qualifying series and a season full of inconsistencies.
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