As the Leafs come back from their week off, and the second half of their season starts up I will be looking back at the first half and discussing what I think is in store for them for the rest of the season. The Leafs have had the highest expectations for this year from fans than they have had in a very long time and I believe they have lived up to them so far, but there are definitely some concerns and questions to be asked.
First lets look at what the Leafs have done so far this season month by month. The Maple Leafs had a very good start to their season. In the month of October they went 7-5-0, which is good enough for 11th overall in the league. They improved even more in November going 9-4-1, which was 3rd best in the league for that month. What stood out the most in these two months was that the Leafs had no trouble scoring. They scored the most goals in the league in the first 2 months with 91 goals total and were 4th in goals per-game with an average of 3.45. They did however give up a lot of goals and it was clear that their defense needed to improve, but nonetheless people were very excited about how good the leafs were doing.
In December however things started to change. The Leafs went 6-5-1, which was 20th in the month of December and so far, January hasn’t been any better going 2-2-1. In the last month and a half the Leafs’ scoring has dried up with a 2.42 goals per game, which is 26th in the league in that time frame. They are still in a good position being 9th overall in the league (record of 25-17-3) but there have been many questions about why they have been struggling recently, particularly in scoring when they were so good in the start.
One reason could be simply that fatigue has been an issue. The Leafs have had one of the hardest first half schedules in the league this year. Before going on their break on January 10th, the Leafs had played the most games than any other team so far (45). On top of that, 10 out of 13 games in December were played on the road. Traveling that much and not sleeping in your own bed can be tiring on anyone, especially if you’re playing NHL hockey 3-4 times a week, which is why some fans and reporters are saying that the decline has been because of fatigue. This is just one theory but there could be other reasons why they are having trouble. Maybe it is just lack of luck, or maybe Babcock – the Leafs head coach – has been trying to get the Leafs to play a different way in order to teach them a lesson by playing defensively first and giving up less goals, although no one really knows for sure.
Babcock has done a few questionable things this season that have a lot of fans complaining. A lot of people think these so-called “bad decisions” that Babcock is making are some of the reasons why the Leafs have not been so hot lately. A lot have to do with the Leafs starting line-up, who is playing/not playing and who is playing to many minutes/not enough. When one of the Maple Leafs top defenseman, Nikita Zaitsev, went out with an injury on December 15th Babcock made the decision to replace him with Roman Polak who had been in and out of the lineup playing on the 3rd pair until then. This has been a big controversy because simply put, with 10 minor penalties since coming in to replace Zaitsev on the 2nd pair, Polak has not been good and it has left Leafs fans scratching their heads as to why Babcock keeps him in, especially when he has better options such as Travis Dermott. Another thing that Babcock has been doing is not playing the Leafs star forward, Auston Matthews as much as people would like. Instead he’s playing Leo Komarov more, a player who has 11 points in 45 games so far this season versus Matthews’ 33 points in 35 games (Matthews was hurt for 10 games in December). I give Leo some credit that he is a very good defensive player, but should he be playing more minutes than the number one goal scorer? Absolutely not, especially when the team has been struggling to score the way they have as of late. Don’t get me wrong I still think Babcock is a great coach, which I why I would like to believe there is reason behind his madness. Maybe he is resting his star players for the second half of the season so they can finish strong and have a great playoff run (that’s what I’m hoping).
Overall, so far this season has been pretty great for the Leafs. They are currently sitting in a playoff spot with a 10-point cushion so it looks as though –without a huge collapse – that they will make the playoffs for the second year in a row (2002-2004 was the last time that happened). A lot of their success has been because of the Leafs great goaltending so far, in which Frederik Anderson deserves all the credit. In order to keep improving however, the Leafs need to find a way to score again as well as improve their defense immensely. Once Nikita Zaitsev returns that will help out the defense a bit but the Leafs may look into getting another top 4 defenseman from another team in order to make a push in the playoffs. However they might find that the answer is in the Leafs rookie defenseman Travis Dermott, who has only played two games but has looked very good. He is a great puck moving defenseman who can skate really well and seemed to be very confident with making plays and starting breakouts in his first 2 NHL games. I believe he can be a great 3rd pair defenseman for the Leafs going forward this season. It will be interesting to see what the team management decides to do with him and what improvements they will make to the rest of the Leafs defense this year. After all, the teams that make it far into the playoffs tend to have the best defensive lineups in the league.