By the Old Prof
As the Toronto Maple Leafs play in San Jose tonight, the team is off to a so-so record of 4-3. Bad as that is, it’s better than last season. In addition, it hasn’t been all bad. The team had several questions coming into the season. Two of these have been answered positively.
First, Ilya Samsonov looks like the real deal. His worst game still only allowed three goals; even in that game, he kept his team in the game.
Second, Nick Robertson finally got his chance and proved that he could play in the NHL. Unless things go south in a hurry, he looks to be the answer to the team’s second-line issue.
Related: 7 Observations from the Maple Leafs First 7 Games
There Are Still Problems to Solve
There are still some problems the Maple Leafs have to solve if they are to get back on the right track for the season. Let me name two that I see.
First, the team isn’t always ready to play when the puck is dropped on the first face-off.
Second, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner simply are not scoring enough points. They are nowhere near the players they were last season.
Problem One: Why Isn’t This Team Ready to Play?
Sense of urgency? I don’t see it. As Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the Vegas Golden Knights game, it’s his job to get his team ready to play. They weren’t prepared. The Golden Knights outplayed the team for the first parts of each and every period the team played in that game.
Only the stellar goalie play by Samsonov made it close. What’s the answer? Why isn’t this team – and coach Keefe especially – ready to engage from the first faceoff?
While I’m not part of the pack of Maple Leafs’ fans who want to see coach Keefe sacked, I’m also not a sycophant. Keefe has made mistakes. But, he’s also young and is learning on the job. I get that and support his growth.
In fact, I can’t imagine replacing Keefe as the team’s head coach. His record is meritorious. He deserves to stay. As well, he isn’t afraid of his own job. He hires good people around him to help distribute leadership to the coaching staff.
I find him pretty straight up with the media. Still, it worries me that the team isn’t ready to play when it hits the ice. That’s a problem that needs to be solved.
A game like Monday’s against the Golden Knights isn’t acceptable. Sure, get beat. That happens. But do show up! If this team wants to make a mark, it can’t dial in games or show up flat.
Related: The Maple Leafs Need a Jolt: Could It Be Jakob Chychrun?
Problem Two: Why Aren’t Matthews and Marner Scoring More?
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are not scoring goals. Because they aren’t, they are not carrying the game like they used to.
I know they are simply one big game away from being point-a-game players; but, while that might be fine for John Tavares and William Nylander (although I’m coming to expect more from him than a mere point-a-game), it isn’t good enough for these two young megastars.
Forget salaries and earning their keep, the team is built around their scoring prowess. They’re not doing it. They have not yet hit their stride and only have a single goal each. Not good enough.
The upside is that I think this problem will take care of itself. Their histories speak loudly. But also their mentality. Both players seem driven – determined – responsible – embarrassed when they don’t succeed. That’s especially true about Matthews. He simply WILL CREATE SUCCESS.
I’m looking for a couple of breakout games for the team’s first line. Tonight against the Sharks might be a good start. I don’t think it’s time to break up the first line yet. But, I do understand tonight’s change to put Alex Kerfoot in Michael Bunting’s place.
But, if this doesn’t do the job, how many more games can the team go without riding the success of Matthews and Marner? What I might do if I were Keefe is to cut their minutes. Make them watch.
Instead, Keefe seems to ride his two stars. He does it even if, and mainly when, they are not producing. Marner played 26:45 TOI against Vegas; Matthews played 22:32. I say, cut them by eight minutes each.
Keefe Is Making Changes
Tonight’s roster changes might be construed as a bit of a wake-up call. Let’s see how the team responds. I am looking forward to the game.