With a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now 13-13-4 this season. If the playoffs were to start today, Toronto wouldn’t be part of it, which isn’t terribly surprising given how the season has gone, but would nevertheless be considered a colossal failure if measured against their preseason expectations.
Mike Babcock has already been fired and while it’s too early to really judge Sheldon Keefe as a head coach, the Maple Leafs are now a shoulder shrugging 4-3-0 under him. They started out well under their new bench boss only to falter. It’s early December and Keefe has only had a matter of weeks to work with Toronto, but there are reasons to wonder if the Maple Leafs’ problems go deeper than Babcock.
Let me play out an argument that I don’t fully endorse, but I dowonder about: Is Toronto’s root issue a fundamental one of roster construction? Was Leafs GM Kyle Dubas’ drive to keep the offensive core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander intact despite the massive pay raises they were due, wise? Especially after luring John Tavares and his $11 million cap hit to the team.
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It’s a tired argument that the Leafs are dedicating too much of their cap to four forwards, but it exists for a reason. It’s the simple reality of the cap era: Having one thing prevents you from having another. Having that kind of expensive star power up front prevents you from having a depth or a strong defense. The only way around that would be for your star forwards to be locked to very favorable contracts and while you could argue that in the Leafs case they’re getting paid what they’re worth or maybe even a little under market value, none of their contracts are nearly friendly enough to give the Maple Leafs an edge.
The counter that none of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, or Nylander is the problem misses the point. They don't have to underperform for this to be an issue. Even if they’re all playing well, if there isn’t enough cap space left over to build a proper team around them, what does it matter?
It leads to the common question of if the Maple Leafs need to make a major trade in order to be a genuine contender. That’d be a big risk to take of course. Trading away any of the Maple Leafs’ big four would likely be unpopular, especially now that they’re locked up, and losing such a trade would be devastating both of the team in general and Dubas specifically. It would also be seen as overreacting to what has been only a couple shaky months.
So I wouldn’t expect nor would I necessarily argue in favor of such a massive trade at this time. However, I do think the onus is on the Maple Leafs to prove that argument wrong. They’ve already gotten their head coach fired and if they fail to turn it around, that obviously suggests this isn’t an issue of coaching. Of course, if they do turn things around then the whole argument is moot. I will say though that if turning it around means losing in the first round again, then it’s still not good enough. Just because they might miss the playoffs entirely doesn’t mean that the bar should be lowered to them where even making the playoffs by itself is acceptable. They’re supposed to be in their window to capture a Stanley Cup at this point and if they endure another quick exit from the playoffs then the questioning this team at a fundamental level is still very much appropriate.
Moving on from the Toronto Maple Leafs to another struggling team, the Dallas Stars will scratch Alexander Radulov tonight. It’s a bold move and one that might not work, but coach Jim Montgomery’s position is understandable. He’s trying to maneuver the streakiest team in the league thus far. The Stars went 1-7-1 only to bounce back with an incredible 14-2-1 run. However, some of that gained ground has already been lost due to the Stars’ current four-game losing streak.
Dallas needs to avoid another big slump like they suffered at the beginning of the season and right now the key cause of their woes is offensive. Dallas has scored a mere four goals over their four-game skid. That brings us back to Radulov, who has been unreliable. He had back-to-back 72-point campaigns in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but has dropped to eight goals and 15 points in 29 contests this season.
Radulov’s overall offense also hides just how often he’s been ineffective because he’s had a four-point game and three-point contest, so that means he’s recorded just eight points over those other 27 games.
Perhaps sending the veteran to the press box will spark Radulov and light a fire under the Stars in general. It’s a gamble, but Montgomery is perfectly justified in making such a gamble at this point.
Let’s wrap up on a more positive note by shifting our focus to the Washington Capitals. Through 30 games, the Capitals are 21-4-5. They have a lot going right for them this season and one such example is rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Tying this back into the Maple Leafs, Toronto hasn’t gotten a single win from a backup goaltender this season – a huge problem given how often they’ve had back-to-backs – and they lack the cap flexibility to address that issue. The Capitals similarly don’t have cap room to dedicate to their backup goaltender either, but fortunately for them the presence of Samsonov has made such a need moot.
Samsonov has a 7-2-1 record, 2.42 GAA, and .917 save percentage in 10 games this season, which has helped pushed Washington from having a great record, to a league-leading one. His strong showing has also given the Capitals some options going forward. Washington has to re-sign Nicklas Backstrom this summer and Alex Ovechkin can become a UFA in the summer of 2021. Keeping those two on the roster is critical, but re-signing them likely make the Capitals’ difficult cap maneuvering even more challenging. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby can also become an unrestricted free agent this summer. If Samsonov gives the Capitals reason to feel that they can allow Holtby to walk and instead sign a significantly cheaper veteran goaltender to serve as Samsonov’s 2020-21 understudy, then that would go a long way towards getting the Capitals’ books in order.
Keep that in mind if you’re in a keeper league. While Samsonov’s limited playing time makes him a rather modest help this season, there is a real chance that he will move into the starter role on one of the league’s top teams next season. Grabbing him now and holding onto him could be a huge benefit in the long run.
Another major asset for the Capitals this season has been John Carlson. The defenseman is on an unreal offensive pace with 11 goals and 42 points in 30 contests. The only defenseman who has ever done better through 30 games is the legendary Bobby Orr. It’s strange to think that Carlson could record 70 points in 2018-19 and find still find another level this season, but that might very well be where we’re at.