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Early slump has heat building on Toronto Maple Leafs

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Pressure is picking up on the Toronto Maple Leafs early in the 2021-2022 season. The Leafs are winless in their past three games and the last two losses have been particularly galling.

A source close to the Toronto front office says that there is genuine concern about their status if the team lays another egg. “Everyone is going to be on high alert,” said the source.

Bad Losses

Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the San Jose Sharks, a team that had played the night before in Ottawa and has not seen the postseason in the past two seasons. With third-string goaltender Michael Hutchinson starting for Toronto, the Maple Leafs were listless against the Sharks and lost 5-3. On its own, the loss should not have been a big deal. Even the best team will stub its proverbial toe from time to time during the regular season.

Besides, Toronto would have an opportunity to bounce back Saturday night in Pittsburgh, facing a Penguins team that is missing major core pieces. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, and Jeff Carter were all out of the Penguins lineup. The depleted Penguins were running Evan Rodrigues, Teddy Blueger, Drew O’Connor, and Brian Boyle down the middle of the ice. Under the circumstances, this was a prime opportunity for the Maple Leafs to earn a road win and get back on track.

Of course, the Maple Leafs did just the opposite, getting their doors blown off by a Penguins team icing a patchwork lineup.

There is no denying that the losses to San Jose and Pittsburgh were terrible. But terrible enough to start costing jobs at the top of the organization?

The Numbers

Coming off two clunkers, the Maple Leafs rank 10th in the league in score and venue adjusted shot attempts (53.5 CF%) and 13th in expected goals percentage (52.6 xGF%).

They are also scoring on 5.8% of their shots at 5-on-5, which ranks 25th.

During 5-on-4 play, the Maple Leafs rank 21st in goals/60 (5.96) despite ranking third in expected goals/60 (9.91). The issue for the Maple Leafs is that they are scoring on 7.0% of their shots during 5-on-4 play, which ranks 29th.

They are getting chances but have not been able to finish. That matters, of course, but statistical probability matters, too.

In all situations, the Maple Leafs have scored on 5.7% of their shots, which ranks 31st. The Vegas Golden Knights (5.6%) are the only team with worse finishing early in the season.

In the previous three seasons, the Maple Leafs scored on 10.4% of their shots, which ranked third in the NHL over that period. Is the reasonable evaluation of this team that they have forgotten how to score? Or would it make more sense to believe that this is a small-sample slump?

When a team is slumping because their shooting percentage stinks, it would be an extremely short-sighted time to overhaul the organization.

The Reaction

Understanding the probabilities regarding what is most likely to occur in the future is one thing. Responding to criticism in the wake of a slump is another.

Defenceman Jake Muzzin has had a tough start to the season, but he understood the gravity of Toronto’s loss in Pittsburgh. “Obviously not good enough,” Muzzin began. “We got outworked, out-competed. We gotta go back to the drawing board.”

“It’s inexcusable,” Muzzin continued. “Myself, everyone, we all need to be better. It’s early in the season. It’s a test for us and let’s see how we respond.”

When asked about Monday’s upcoming matchup at Carolina, with former Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen playing for the Hurricanes, Muzzin’s frustration was evident.

“I’m not too worried about that, to be honest. We’ve got other things to be worried about in our room,” said Muzzin.

Sounds like some introspection from a veteran player who understands the frustration of the moment.

Then there was the response of right winger Mitch Marner.

“I don’t think we can be concerned. We’re still early in the season. Obviously, it’s not what we wanted.”

That first sentence is a killer. It’s the one getting big play online and it sounds like Marner does not appreciate the gravity of the situation. However, listening to the rest of his responses, Marner sounds a lot more like a player who finished fourth in the league in scoring last season and has generated a lot of chances. Unfortunately, he is still sitting on no goals and one assist through the first six games this season.

“I think we’re always confident,” Marner continued. “We are controlling the puck well and we’ve gotta make sure that we get guys inside.”

“Stay patient with this and stuff will start dropping.”

The trouble here, is that while Marner’s optimism is a reasonable position, the general public does not care much for whatever process the Leafs are going through if it is not leading to victories.

Fan Reaction

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference.”

This now applies to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a way that it has not in a long time.

While the Scotiabank Arena is open to capacity, the Maple Leafs have not been selling out. Some of that may be due to Covid. People may still be hesitant to sit in a full arena for hours with 18,000 others yelling at players to shoot the puck.

After last season’s playoff defeat, though, there is a percentage of the fanbase that is not lining up to have their hearts broken by the Maple Leafs again. Maybe they will come around as the season progresses, but not if the team is playing like they have in the past couple of games against the Sharks and Penguins.

In general, the Toronto Maple Leafs fan base is not nearly as patient, and maybe not as invested, as they might have been in past seasons.

It looks bad now, but it’s not really that bad

If there is any justification for front office firings this early in the season, it would have to be around the negative feelings of the fanbase. Cleaning house at this point would be an incredible choice after deciding to stick with this front office in the aftermath of last season’s playoff loss.

There is some doom and gloom about Toronto’s roster construction after these most recent losses. General Manager Kyle Dubas can easily find his name trending on Twitter after Maple Leafs defeats. But those criticisms ignore the fact that last season the Maple Leafs had the highest points percentage (.688) in franchise history, beating a mark that had stood for 70 years.

The statistical likelihood is that the Maple Leafs will come out of this and end up just fine on the other side. But fans don’t want to hear about statistical likelihood from a team that was statistically likely to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs last season right up until Game 7 when they didn’t.

After Monday’s matchup against the unbeaten Hurricanes in Carolina, the Maple Leafs visit winless Chicago and then have five straight home games. Making changes before allowing that stretch of games to play out, at the very least, would be premature.

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