Jerred Bapty
BarnBurner Sports Writer


Sunday, March 15, 2020

What Happened and Where to go from Here

The 2019/2020 Toronto Maple Leafs season has been one of the most turbulent years in recent memory but, that doesn’t mean it was unsuccessful. The recent shutdown due to COVID-19 may never allow this team to prove they were ready, and yet, there are multiple lenses that can be used to break down this crazy season in more detail. 


The Leafs dealt with a significant amount of change since the beginning of the season, the primary being behind the bench. Since Mike Babcock’s dismissal as Head Coach, the Maple Leafs were 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe and had the best start for any head coach in the team’s 102-year history. 


After that record-breaking start of 15-4-1, the team proceeded to go 12-11-4, a much less impressive run. In his short tenure, Keefe completely revamped the team’s play style and increased the Time On Ice of the players whose salaries warranted such a raise.


Auston Matthews went from an average TOI of 19:50 to 21:32 and hasn’t played less than 20 minutes since February 16th versus the Buffalo Sabres. William Nylander saw an increase of over a minute in average TOI under Keefe, while Mitch Marner and John Tavares got an extra two minutes added to their average TOI. So, the stars were playing more, which led to both positive and negative outcomes. 


Many have criticized the likes of Matthews and Nylander for being poor in their own end under Babcock. Keefe has noticeably emphasized the defensive aspects of their games, which can be seen through both players’ use of their body, increase in possession metrics for Matthews, and the high-volume of net-front goals scored by Nylander. 


Both players set career-highs in goals, while Matthews had already done so in assists and points. Nylander was on pace to do the same, and they’ve been doing it through an incredibly inconsistent lineup. 


The Leafs’ had to deal with several injuries this season that put them top five in the league in man-games lost. This tracks the cumulative loss of players due to injury and each game a player misses counts as one man-game lost. 


Only two players on the Leafs played all 70 games so far, Auston Matthews and Tyson Barrie. The lines have been shaken up numerous times due to injury, particularly on defence without Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci. The team began to falter when they lost Rielly, which contributed to the barely-above-.500 record since Keefe’s blazing start. 


The team lost to a former Zamboni driver who works for them, they got blown out by teams much worse than them but, beat teams better than them. Multiple players would have or already set career highs, despite several long-term injuries. It was a rollercoaster and, now, more questions arise. 


If the NHL does return, will the Leafs make the playoffs? They are 3rd in the Atlantic and three points up on the Florida Panthers. It would be tight but, yes, they would make it. 


If the NHL doesn’t return, what then? More changes are coming this off-season. Don’t be surprised if Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci dawn different crests next year. Do Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza stay? What kind of money will Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier and Ilya Mikheyev ask for in arbitration? How much does Travis Dermott get? 


Dubas is not done building this team. He didn’t make a big deadline move for that reason but, there are other factors at play. This shutdown will put a major burden on the NHL’s financials and could cause a halt on any aforementioned cap increase. That would put the Leafs and over half the league in severe cap hell.  


All of this cannot overshadow the current state of affairs. The future is uncertain and, for now, we must all play the waiting game.