With fewer than 30 days until the start of the NHL playoffs, and with just 13 games remaining on their regular-season schedule, there is one central question that’s yet to be answered about the Maple Leafs.
Exactly what kind of team are they trying to be?
Depending on the night you happen to see them, you can emerge with very different answers. Auston Matthews summed it up perfectly as Toronto’s NHL team concluded its three-game Western road swing with a grand total of one point in the standings. “We’re kind of one foot in the door, one foot out in terms of the way we want to play,” Matthews said. “We just all need to be 100 per cent in.”
At least we know what kind of team Frederik Andersen wants them to be. Andersen held an outlier opinion in the wake of Thursday’s 1-0 snoozer of a loss to the Los Angeles Kings. While popular descriptions of that game included “boring” and “uninspired,” Andersen rated it far more generously.
“I thought it was a great game. A beautiful game. A fun game,” Andersen said, channelling the ghost of Mike Babcock. “Great to play behind a team like that. The way we played made it easy for me.”
Here’s the problem with playing the style Andersen prefers. When the Leafs engage in low-scoring affairs, they’ve had lowest-of-the-low results. Toronto has scored three or fewer goals in 34 of their 69 games this season. In those 34 games, they’ve managed just seven wins. Only the Senators and Panthers have fewer such victories.
What’s that mean? It means the Maple Leafs aren’t not very good at, say, winning 3-2. (They’ve done it once this year). It means they’re not particularly adept at winning 2-1 (although they’ve pulled it off three times, all beyond regulation). And speaking of that Kings-Leafs scoreline, it means they’re not going to make themselves famous winning 1-0, which they haven’t done in more than two calendar years.
When they’ve played conservatively and responsibly, it’s often gone badly. Their record suggests they’d rather outscore their defensive lapses than sacrifice their rush game.
“Our team takes a lot of heat for how we defend and what we give up and how many goals we give up and … how wide open the games are,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters. “We’ve focused a lot on that as a team in terms of slowing a lot of that stuff down. I think we’ve done that for quite a while now … But we’ve got to find ways within that to generate offence.”
That’s the real trick, of course: to find a place where the obviously explosive offence can comfortably coexist with a stingy defence or, in the way Keefe envisions it, where the stingy defence fuels the explosive offence. So far, attempts to locate this elusive sweet spot have been mostly futile.
Not that there haven’t been extenuating circumstances to consider. Everybody understands Toronto’s defensive corps, a perennial liability, has been further diminished by key injuries to Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin and Cody Ceci. Everybody understands the damage done by allowing Michael Hutchinson to overstay his rightful tenure as Toronto’s backup.
But nobody that matters seems to have the answer for how to teach this team to play competent defence while scoring enough to produce a respectable win rate. A few months back, when Keefe’s appointment to the post emancipated the Maple Leafs from Babcock’s oppressive shackles, there was loud praise from Toronto’s high-flying forwards, who spoke glowingly about Keefe encouraging them to let their skill come out.
“I’m not focused on what this team isn’t, I’m focused on what this team is,” Keefe said then.
In those early days of Keefe’s honeymoon, Andersen only occasionally hinted that the opening of the offensive faucet was too often leaving him at risk of drowning. He was often left to clean up the botched experiments in puck possession. Already the hardest-working goaltender in the league since he arrived in Toronto in 2016, the coaching change roughly coincided with Andersen’s slide into sub-mediocrity.
“I think it’s fun hockey. Guys are up there making plays.,” Andersen said in January. “But it comes with some responsibility, too. That’s all I’ll say about that.”
This has been the No. 1 goaltender’s worst season as a Leaf by a wide margin. He’s eligible to negotiate a contract extension beginning July 1, and he’s heading into a contract year at age 30, which probably hasn’t eased his mind. Lately he has talked about attempting to overcome his mental hiccup of worrying too much about things he can’t control. But when your team has been playing a chance-trading style that is endorsed by the coach and rubber-stamped by the GM, that can be stressful for a goaltender accustomed to Babcock’s devotion to tighter control.
So let’s not trivialize how significant it was that Andersen, in the wake of Thursday’s loss to the Kings, endorsed a lower-event, lower-scoring performance. If you believe the Leafs aren’t going to achieve any real success without Andersen at or near his best, the No. 1 goaltender’s perspective is beyond important.
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But when the Leafs are being described by their best player as having one foot in the door and one foot out when it comes to how they want to play, you have to wonder if they can actually prosper when the balance gets tipped too steeply toward the kind of defence Andersen would prefer. Surely there’s a sweet spot out there somewhere. Surely there’s a middle ground that will keep the goaltender unstressed while keeping the scorers satisfied.
With fewer than 30 days and precisely 13 games to go, all the Leafs have to do is nail down its precise location.