Toronto Maple Leafs Early Season Thoughts

Maple Leafs early season
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 02: Frederik Gauthier #33 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal with teammates during an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena on October 2, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Are the Toronto Maple Leafs early-season troubles due to a systemic problem? Or are they just growing pains as a new season unfolds? Maybe a little of both. We’re 13 games into the regular season. That’s not enough to pre-buy playoff tickets or write any team off, except for the Ottawa Senators, but it’s enough to take a look at what’s working and not working.

Toronto Maple Leafs Early Season Review

They’ve got 14 points. That’s a middle of the pack point total. Without improvement, they’ll be fighting for a playoff spot all season. This may not be a bad thing considering the team coasted into the playoffs the last two years and got out-worked and out-played in two series against the Boston Bruins. A little late-season desperation may be just what this team needs to take their game to the next level in the playoffs, but they have to get there first.

Mitch Marner Leading The Way

Mitch Marner is leading the team in points with 15, but he’s not looking exactly like himself out there. He’s been good, but has he been $10 million a season good? Not yet. That’s not to say it’s not coming, and losing John Tavares for a few games isn’t helping. Auston Matthews is in a similar boat. He’s been good, but not the dominant player he can be, that the team needs him to be.

They know it too.

“Defensively and in all areas,” Matthews said, according to NHL.com. “Obviously I want to put the puck in the net and create on offence but it starts in the D-zone. That’s an area we’ve been trying to work on lately, especially today at practice. I’ve got to be better in that area moving forward.”

Speaking Of Defence

It’s been the team’s weakness for years now. This season is no different. They’ve got offence in spades from their defencemen. Morgan Rielly has 13 points in twelve games. Jake Muzzin has another nine. Tyson Barrie needs to be better at both ends of the ice.  He’s only got four points so far this season.

It’s not just the defencemen that are to blame for the team being tied last in the NHL in goals-against though. They’ve been needing to improve that position for years, but they have with Muzzin and Barrie. It’s a team commitment to defence that will really make this team more responsible defensively. They’re not there yet, and it’s tough to say whether this group can get there or not.

It sounds like they’re on their way. Matthews’ comments are encouraging, but for a team that’s really offensive driven, it can be tough. Maybe now that the core players are locked up and not worrying about their contract, they’ll be more willing to focus on the defensive side of the game. The good news is there are still 69 games left to practice their team defence.

Goaltending

Frederik Andersen

Frederik Andersen always seems to struggle a bit in October. We’ll give him a pass, knowing that his numbers will climb. He’s got a save percentage of .901, and a GAA of 3.19. He’s had stellar games already. There’s no reason he won’t be his usual self all season. The biggest question with Andersen is how many games will he play, and if he plays more than 60, will it hurt him come playoff time? Unfortunately, his backup is struggling considerably.

Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson is sporting a 0-3-1 record with a save percentage of .885 and a GAA of 4.49. Mike Babcock has consistently played his backup in the second half of back-to-back games since he arrived in Toronto. While the logic behind that is debatable, there’s little doubt that he’ll continue with that process.

The Maple Leafs have 14 back-to-backs this season. That leaves 68 games for Andersen. If Hutchinson can’t start winning and putting up better numbers, Babcock isn’t going to play him in those additional eight games. That’s not a good sign for those convinced, (and I’m not one of them) that Andersen can’t play more than 60 regular-season games if they expect him to play well in the playoffs.

Andersen has a career .911 save percentage for Toronto in 20 playoff games. All in seasons in which he played at least 60 games. Last season he played in just 60, but he only missed games due to injury. Considering the level of opponents in the playoffs is consistently better, a save percentage of .911 is only a five-point drop off from his regular-season save percentage of .916 with the Maple Leafs. There is little real evidence that Andersen suffers due to fatigue.

If Hutchinson doesn’t play better, or if Kyle Dubas doesn’t find someone that can expect Andersen to play closer to 65 games this season… what then?

Not Themselves

Not to be forgotten is that the Maple Leafs have a fair amount of turnover with their coaching staff. It should be expected that there will be an adjustment period. They need to be better, there’s no doubt, but there’s no reason to panic just yet.

Not only is the coaching staff new, but the team is missing two regular skaters in Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman. We haven’t seen the full team yet this season. While neither Dermott or Hyman are Matthews of Marner level players, they have a role and it’s safe to say they’re both missed at the moment.

Salary Cap Moves

Dermott and Hyman are both nearing a return to the lineup. When they do, it will create an issue with the team’s salary cap. Dermott makes $863,000 a season. That can be cleared by moving a defenceman. Kevin Gravel at $700,000 is the easy choice here. Finding room for Hyman is tougher.

Hyman makes $2.25 million a season. That’s three minimum-wage players. Likely candidates are Nic Petan and Dmytro Timashov. The former is already on the trade block. Dubas will look to move Petan to a team that will play him. Expect a late-round draft pick in return or the ever-mysterious future considerations. Timashov has looked good at times, but he can be moved to the AHL without going through waivers so he’s an easy choice to move for Hyman.

Another player will still need to be moved. Martin Marincin is one option, although that would leave the Maple Leafs with only six defencemen. The other options are either Jason Spezza or Nick Shore. The most logical decision is Shore, but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

It’s October

The Toronto Maple Leafs early season woes have been concerning, but it’s a long season and every team goes through ups and downs. You just need to ask a St. Louis Blues fan.

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