TORONTO — The problem, of course, is that you can’t judge the Maple Leafs’ start to the 2022-23 season in a vacuum.
Fair or not, the team’s 4-4-2 record isn’t just about the first 10 games of the season.
It is a powder keg that has always been there because, for this organization as it is currently constructed, it is the do-or-die season.
It’s about general manager Kyle Dubas not being offered a contract extension last summer, after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs – after other first-round fumbles the previous years. No one is freaking out about the Lightning’s average start. For obvious reasons. When the Leafs decided not to extend Dubas, it put everyone in the organization on notice, including the players. And they can’t help but feel it, whether they admit it or not.
And that’s Auston Matthews, who will likely have to decide by the end of this season whether he intends to extend with the Leafs. His current contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2023-24 season. I still think he will want to re-sign with the Leafs. But the thing is, it’s another major franchise decision looming, and wouldn’t that decision be easier to make if the team finally did something in the playoffs?
There’s so much to do this season for so many people, and from the offseason to camp, people from other organizations have told me they can feel that tension at the front office in Toronto. And I mean, it’s understandable. People’s jobs are at stake.
What I didn’t see coming, and maybe I should have given what’s at stake, is this level of drama so early this season. I thought this team would go more or less full speed ahead through the regular season, finish first or second in the Atlantic, and then we’d be set for playoff drama, regardless of the end result.
But since training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe has hinted at his level of worry through his actions, whether it’s dropping an F-bomb during a drill at camp or leading a number of post-game comments to his players starting on opening night in Montreal.
Some of his comments at the start of the season were certainly noted in the league.
I asked Keefe at his daily press conference the morning of an Oct. 20 game against the Stars if he intended to approach the season that way or if it was just knee-jerk reactions. .
He replied, “Well, it’s a bit of both. It’s a combination of the fact that we had talked before the start of the season about the importance of being really consistent and having our game, as often as we can, look like us. From the first game, this was not the case. Even if you have a lot of good things happening in pre-season and you have a lot of confidence, you go there and it doesn’t look like that.
“For a team that has been together as long as ours – I know we have new players and stuff like that – but obviously our team identity and the core of our team has remained the same. So you are expected to start at a very high level. And you don’t. So it was disappointing.
Specifically, at the time, he was referring to the losses suffered by the Canadiens and Coyotes.
“We talked about not leaving those points on the table and it just so happens that (with) the schedule we have two opponents there who were the type of teams we struggled with last season,” Keefe continued. “And the expectation (is) that we improved there, and we didn’t. So, I think (the harsh criticism from players is) more of a symptom of that than anything.
“I don’t know if I had a game plan for how I was going to approach the start here, other than to say there’s a strong expectation that our group will continue to grow and have a good start to the season. (and), especially at these types of games, we’d be better off. And we weren’t.
First of all, I appreciate the honesty of this answer.
And since then there have been losses to San Jose and Anaheim, which would probably again be the type of teams Keefe was referring to.
What I think of Keefe’s pissed off behavior with his players so early in the season is that he’s trying to lay the groundwork as good as possible for the playoffs instead of waiting until then to level up of decibels.
What I get. Don’t prepare at the last minute for your final exam. Do the work in advance.
But in the process, he obviously risks alienating his best players, as our intrepid Leafs writer Jonas Siegel demanded after the Ducks’ loss and Mitch Marner’s bench heard the world over.
All of this, of course, has the media and Toronto fans wondering how hot Keefe is.
One thing to consider: Not that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is counting its pennies, but remember that MLSE is still paying Mike Babcock this season through June 30 for a $5.8 million last year. Keefe earns just under $2 million in salary each this season and next. If you fire Keefe, you’re paying two guys just south of $7.8 million this season not to coach. Sip. It’s MLSE so maybe that’s a drop in the bucket, but also add the salary attached to a new coach, especially if it’s a new coach with a brand name. The MLSE would be in the double digits overall this year between the new coach and the two former coaches.
For example, Barry Trotz doesn’t come to Toronto for less than $5 million a year, in my opinion anyway. Speaking to Trotz in September, it was clear that while he wanted to return to an NHL bench eventually, he wasn’t quite ready yet. He needs more time to take care of things in his personal life. My understanding is that Trotz wouldn’t be ready to consider a return to the NHL until December at the earliest.
Either way, I don’t think a coaching change is the first thing the Leafs should consider if things don’t improve.
Instead, I agree with our Leafs columnist James Mirtle that the first thing I would look at, however difficult it is this far from the March 3 trade deadline, is to make a trade to help the list.
I understand that’s tough in a flat-topped world so early in the season, but look at these two offers from Vancouver last week. Nothing big, but these are adjustments that could help the team.
Personally? I think it is too early for such a level of panic in the Toronto market. I think this team will get going.
I reached out to several rival front office executives to see if they were okay, asking for their honest opinion on the Leafs. Some politely declined to comment because it’s too early, but others replied (via text and on condition of anonymity, of course):
Team #1 Executive: “Playing .500 10 games and two points out of a playoff berth…let’s not panic here!! They obviously have to figure it out, but way too soon to panic.
Team Executive #2: “I would be a little nervous if I was in their shoes. … They haven’t looked great so far. I still think they’re very likely to make the playoffs, but I don’t think that’s guaranteed, and the bar for them is higher than that.
Team No. 3 executive: “There are 72 games left, a lot of leads. This group is about to start.
Team executive n°4: “It’s too early to panic. The matches I watched, it was really how inconsistent they were during the match. They looked great then just awful. Before the season, I thought goalkeepers were a problem, but (Ilya) Samsonov was solid. Offensively, they have a top-five team in the league, maybe even top-three. Defensively, they have to defend as a five-man unit and be proud of it. Also, losing to all these weak teams shows me they don’t have killer instincts. They go into games thinking it’s going to be easy. It is therefore up to the coaches to prepare them. With all of that, I totally think they’ll be fine.
The reality of the situation is that the kind of major changes that some Leafs fans are calling for don’t normally happen mid-season. Those who want Dubas fired, for example, and want a new GM in place, to me that’s an offseason project when you have access to a larger pool of candidates.
And deeper roster changes are easier to pull off in June than mid-season. There are just more teams willing to talk about things when there is more flexibility.
That’s not to say changes won’t happen if the season goes off the rails. They most likely will.
But I still think the most likely scenario is that the Leafs get back on track and we wait until the spring for that real final review for the organization, one way or another.
(Top photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
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