Toronto Maple Leafs: Identity Crisis

By late November, it was easy to say Toronto was a guaranteed playoff team that was probably going to make a Stanley Cup run this season. Toronto scored goals at will and they defended their net handsomely. Obviously, they gave up a troubling amount of shots, but Andersen consistently stood tall and squandered any doubts about his talent, proving quickly that he is an elite goalie in this league.

Fast forward a few months, and the expectations never lessened, in fact, they increased drastically. Nylander has officially signed, Matthews is back off injury, JT and Marner are amongst the best players in the NHL and on paper the team looked to be unstoppable. Right?

Somewhere down the line, there was a shift in the team dynamic. They stopped competing. The fight and determination seemed to be lost along with any confidence they once had. Maybe it’s because the team is so talented, they believe they should be able to win games without giving their all on a nightly basis, but as the famous Herb Brooks once said, “You don’t have enough talent to win off talent alone.” Now to be fair, he was talking about his young American hockey team, comprised of talented college players who were about to face off against a Soviet Union powerhouse, but to each their own.

This Maple Leafs roster is stacked with talented superstars, albeit most of it is up front. There really shouldn’t be any reason as to why Toronto is having such trouble winning games. There is an abundance of players who have topped the 60 point mark easily in their career, 2 who have topped 80 points and one future Hall of Famer.

Toronto is 8-7-2 since the signing of William Nylander which raises the obvious question, is Nylander the reason Toronto is losing? It makes sense though right? The team was on fire, dominating very good hockey teams and making winning look easy. After the signing, the team became a nervous wreck, the decision making went out the window, the power play became obsolete, the defense was as good as a minor hockey team and their starting goaltender and eventual Vezina candidate went down with an injury. Trouble in paradise.

Using Nylander as a scapegoat has to end at some point, and there’s no better time than now. Toronto has a grocery list full of slumping players, which sees some of their best players at the top of that list. Matthews (1 goal in 10 games) Marleau (2 goals in 14 games) and Nazem Kadri, who has been snake-bitten all year (2 assists in 10 games).

There is a ton of arguments that can be made as to why the team isn’t performing well but it simply comes down to not wanting to win enough. Sure, the talent is there; but what good is talent without the ability to compete? It’s incredibly tough to win games in the National Hockey League, and it becomes even harder when the team as a collective doesn’t do their job. Conceding goals in the final minute of periods, bad decision making, the inability to make a pass and start a break out all correlates.

This team lacks an identity, which has become an organizational problem, not just one player. Babcock has mentioned the lack of intensity and the need to “play heavier” hockey in almost every interview he’s had since the Christmas break.

While looking at depth, and the amount of limited room on the roster it’s tough to come up with a quick solution to fix this ongoing issue. With the deadline looming, Toronto has the ability to make a splash and fix any lingering issues the team feels they have.

However, this hypothetical deal becomes tricky. Leaf fans are begging for a top 4 defencemen, at the expense of losing some depth along with a draft pick or two. Here lies the issue. Toronto has to be willing to give up quality in order to acquire quality, I.E moving Nylander, Johnsson or Kapanen at the very least. Does this acquisition really make Toronto a Cup contender? Judging by the reactions of fans, Toronto is only content with 2 of their starting 6 defencemen (Rielly and Dermott).

This means, even if Toronto was to bring into an elite defenceman without losing either Gardiner, Zaitsev and or Hainsey, all three of these players will remain in the lineup, assuming Ozhiganov is sent to the press box. Sure, the top pairing of Rielly and X will become a threat at all times and will make life tough for opposing teams top lines for the rest of the season but essentially this move will only be covering up the issue rather than actually fixing it.

The addition of an elite defenceman will surely help, no doubt, but to say Toronto automatically becomes a Cup favourite following this move is blasphemy. Toronto is more than just 1 defenceman away from truly dominating this league, and their cup window isn’t closing any time soon. The idea to rush a deal and get one done at the deadline may work for NHL 19 enthusiasts but in reality, it could hurt the Maple Leafs down the stretch.