When the Toronto Maple Leafs landed John Tavares in free agency last summer, an already talented roster climbed into the heart of the Stanley Cup race. Head coach Mike Babcock, who lifted the trophy with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and was entering his fourth season at the helm in Toronto, seemed like the ideal man to help this team take the next step in the postseason.
The Leafs are indeed heading for the playoffs, but the rosy optimism from October and November has been replaced by nagging doubts and some head-scratching losses. The offensive fireworks from the beginning of the campaign have gradually faded, and Toronto appear short on answers as to how to rediscover that form. With just a couple of weeks of the regular season to go, the clock is really ticking.
Embarrassed by the Ottawa Senators
Saturday night’s 6-2 loss in Ottawa (in front of a crowd dominated by Maple Leaf blue and white) was a classic example of why their contender status is being called into question.
They did not play too badly (though backup goalie Garret Sparks had a forgettable evening) but were outworked and outmaneuvered by a fired up Senators team belying their lowly spot in the standings. Ottawa were unafraid, went at Toronto and got the result they deserved.
Where does that leave the Leafs?
That weekend result capped off a disappointing weeks and improvement has to come from various areas. Better goaltending is a must, with Frederik Andersen and Sparks in a mini tailspin. Andersen, who gave up six goals against the Philadelphia Flyers and four apiece against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, is certainly capable of getting on a hot streak once the postseason arrives.
At this point, the defense is what it is (somewhat shaky in some pairings and generally unspectacular). But collective effort in skating back and limiting turnovers is table stakes for a Stanley Cup contender. The players are saying the right things about rediscovering their mojo - now they have to prove it on the ice. That starts with a visit to Nashville on Tuesday and Buffalo on Wednesday.
The oddsmakers still have Toronto among the Stanley Cup contending pack, but they have fallen back with their form dipping. At 12-1 to win it all, the Leafs have some value if they can finish the regular season on a more positive note, though it is starting to feel more like a long shot bet. The playmaking quality is there in Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, even if the defense is somewhat suspect, but postseason history has taught us that may not be enough.