The Toronto Maple Leafs are a work in progress with decent results, but as the team closes in on the quarter pole of the 2023-24 82-game schedule, this does not look like a club that will make a meaningful playoff run.
The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to emulate the famous quote by professional golf pioneer Walter Hagen, the first American-born player to win The Open Championship. They make the ‘hard ones look easy and the easy ones look hard’.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe hopes that the current incarnation of the Leafs do not end up on the links until late July next year. Significant changes must take place for the Leafs to do something different, so they can expect a better result – or they might drive their fan base insane (which most likely occurred a long time ago).
Before hitting the ice against the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, the Leafs have skated in 18 contests. The good news is that they sit in a playoff position.
Typically, 75 percent of the teams that are in a postseason slot on US Thanksgiving qualify for the NHL’s second season. There shouldn’t be any questioning if the Leafs are a playoff team, but their blue-line may have something to say about that.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Quarter Pole of the 2023-24 Season
To this point, the Leafs have scored only two more goals than they have allowed.
Their defense has been utterly atrocious and surrendered a two-goal lead for the third time in their last six games when they let an undermanned Chicago Blackhawks squad come back from 3-1 before falling in overtime on Friday afternoon.
In addition, the Leafs have not protected the Scotiabank ice as well as top flight teams must defend their home rink.
The Leafs are 5-4 in Toronto thus far. They consistently allow lower-tier teams to surpass their intensity in front of their own fans despite being able to roll out far superior talent. It can be frustrating and puzzling at times, but the truth is that a quarter of the way through the season, the Leafs still struggle with their identity.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mediocre Goaltending is Unacceptable
Ilya Samsonov is giving up over a goal more per game than his normal average and is well under .900 save percentage (he sits at .878), which is the usual benchmark for goalie proficiency. To his credit, he has been publicly vocal when assessing his own play.
“If I’m saying I feel great, it’s not true. I feel (like) s— (But) I’m a guy who will be fighting through this. I will be fighting every day,” Samsonov said. “I know I’m a better goalie than this.”
Samsonov will perform better than he has so far, but will that be good enough? At 5v5, the Leafs are in the top 10 amongst worst teams to surrender high danger shots against. Keefe needs management to improve the D corps or the back nine in Oakdale is the only place this team will be going fast.
Rookie Joseph Woll impressed early on but has cooled as of late. It’s interesting that his save percentage is much higher on the road (.962) than at home (.869). His goals against is also a gigantic discrepancy away (1.29) and in (3.99) Toronto. Those are major discrepancies. Could that be anything other than pressure?
Woll seems like the type of goaltender that can get on a heater when it is needed most, but the Leafs would benefit from one of these two guys claiming the net and stabilizing a leaky defense.
Penalty Killing is Killing this Team
The Leafs rank 23rd on the PK. They allow a power-play goal close to one in every four chances for the opposition. That is not playoff caliber. When space gets tight in the postseason, and 5v5 goals occur at a rate almost on par with the Leafs past Atlantic Division championships, special teams greatly matter.
Would anyone reading this article feel comfortable with how this Leafs team kills penalties if the playoffs started tomorrow? If trotting out the same PK units is not working, Keefe should try to get stars like Auston Matthews and Willam Nylander more involved. It would help harden a few elite players to the rigors of the playoffs and get them more ice time.
The Leafs need to be tough and crisp. So far, they seem to be coasting towards the quarter pole marker and it’s simply not good enough.