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, this is the do or die season.
It’s that general manager Kyle Dubas was not offered a contract extension last summer, which came after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs — following other first-round failures in previous years. No one is panicking about the Lightning’s so-so 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 we are talking about Auston Matthews, who will probably have to decide by the end of this season whether he will extend with the Leafs. His current contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2023-24 season. I still think he’ll want to re-sign with the Leafs. But the point is, it’s another big franchise decision looming, and wouldn’t that decision be easier to make if the team finally does something in the playoffs?
So many people have so much riding on this season, and from the offseason to camp, people from other organizations have told me that they could feel that tension in the Toronto office. And I mean, it’s understandable. People’s jobs are at stake.
What I didn’t expect, and maybe I should have said what’s at stake, is this level of drama so early in the season. I thought this team would more or less push through the regular season, finish first or second in the Atlantic, and then get ready for playoff drama, regardless of the final outcome.
But ever since training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe has hinted at a level of concern through his actions, whether it’s dropping the F-bomb during a camp practice or directing numerous postgame comments to his players right from the opening night in Montreal.
Some of his comments early this season certainly caught the attention of the league.
I asked Keefe during his daily media presence the morning of the Oct. 20 game against the Stars if he intended to approach the season this way or if it was a knee-jerk reaction.
He replied, “Well, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a combination of the fact that before the start of the season we talked about the importance of being really consistent and that our game, as often as we can, looks like ourselves. Right from the first game, that was not the case. Even though you have a lot of good things going on in the preseason and you have a lot of confidence, you go there and it doesn’t feel like it.
“For a team that’s as together as ours is — I know we’ve got new players and things like that — but obviously the identity of our team and the core of our team has stayed the same. So there is an expectation that you will start at a really high level. And you don’t. So that was disappointing.”
Specifically, he was referring to losses to the Habs and Coyotes at the time.
“We talked about not leaving those points on the board and it just happened (with) the schedule, we have two opponents there that are the kind of teams we played against last season,” Keefe continued. “And the expectation (is) that we improved there, and we didn’t. So I think (the harsh criticism of the players is) more just a symptom of that than anything else.
“I don’t know if I had a game plan for how I was going to approach going out here early other than to say there’s a lot of expectation that our group will continue to grow and have a good start to the season (and), especially in those types of games, we’d be better. And we weren’t.”
First of all, I appreciate the honesty in that answer.
And since then there have been losses to San Jose and Anaheim, which would likely again be the type of teams Keefe was talking about.
What I think about Keefe’s harsh treatment of his players so early in the season is that he’s trying to lay as good a foundation as possible for playoff time, rather than waiting until then to raise the decibel level.
Which I get. Don’t cram the final exam to the last minute. Get the job done ahead of time.
But in the process, he clearly risks alienating his top players, as our intrepid Leafs writer Jonas Siegel wondered after the loss to the Ducks and Mitch Marner’s bench that was heard around the world.
Benching one of the most important players on the team sends a very powerful message.
But it’s also a risky decision that could backfire on Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe if he loses the support of Mitch Marner. @jonassiegel.https://t.co/JFznUhBMd0
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) October 31, 2022
All of which, of course, has the Toronto media and fans wondering just how hot a place Keefe is.
One thing to consider: Not that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is counting its pennies, but keep in mind that MLSE is still paying Mike Babcock this season through June 30 for one last year at $5.8 million. Keefe is making just under $2 million for each season this season and next. If you fire Keefe, you’ll be paying two guys a little south of $7.8 million this season not to coach. Gulp. It’s MLSE, so maybe that’s a drop in the bucket, but then add in whatever salary is attached to a new coach, especially if it’s a new brand name coach. MLSE would be in double figures this year in total between the new coach and the two former coaches.
For example, Barry Trotz isn’t coming to Toronto for just under $5 million a year anyway. Speaking with Trotz back in September, it was clear that while he eventually wanted to return to the NHL bench, he wasn’t quite ready yet. He needs more time to devote to things in his personal life. My understanding is that Trotz would not be ready to return to the NHL until December at the earliest.
Either way, I don’t believe a coaching change is the first thing the Leafs should look at if things don’t improve.
Instead, I agree with our Leafs columnist James Mirtle that the first thing I would look at, as far away as the March 3 trade deadline is, is to make a transaction to help the roster.
Why the Leafs should be active on the market before other big moves https://t.co/zsyUx5qyyD
— James Myrtle (@mirtle) November 1, 2022
I realize it’s tough in a flat cap world this early in the season, but look at those two deals from Vancouver last week. Nothing major, but these are tweaks that could help the team.
Personally? I think it’s too early for this level of panic in the Toronto market. I think this team is going to go.
I reached out to a few rival front-office executives to see if they agreed, asking for their honest take on the Leafs. Some politely declined to comment because it was too early, but others responded (via text message and on the condition of anonymity, of course):
Executive team no. 1: “Being .500 10 games and two points out of a playoff spot… let’s not panic!! They obviously need to understand that, but it’s too early to panic.”
Executive team no. 2: “I would be a little nervous if I were them. … They haven’t looked great so far. I still think it’s very likely they’ll make the playoffs, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed, and the bar for them is higher than that.”
Executive team no. 3: “They still have 72 games, a lot of runway. That group will go.”
Executive team no. 4: “It’s too early to panic. The games I watched, they were really inconsistent throughout the game. Back then they looked great just awful. I thought before the season that the goaltending problem was a problem, but (Ilya) Samsonov was solid. Offensively, they have a top-5 team in the league, maybe even a top-3. Defensively, they must defend as a five-man unit and take pride in it. Also, losing to all these weak teams just shows me that they don’t have the killer instinct. They go into games thinking it’s going to be easy. So it’s up to the coaches to prepare them. All that being said, I totally think it’s going to be good.”
The reality of the situation is that the kinds of big changes some Leafs fans are looking for don’t usually happen in a season. Those who want Dubas fired, for example, and want a new general manager, to me that’s an offseason project when you have access to a larger field of candidates.
And deeper lineup changes are easier to make in June than in the middle of the season. There are just more teams willing to talk things out when there is more flexibility.
That doesn’t mean changes won’t come if the season goes off the rails. Most likely it will be.
But I still think the most likely scenario is that the Leafs get back on track and we wait until spring for that real final exam for the organization, one way or another.
(Top photo: Debora Robinson / NHLI via Getty Images)