Maple Leafs: Who deserves the blame for disappointing start?

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 22: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts after the Maple Leafs 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on October 22, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 22: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts after the Maple Leafs 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on October 22, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are still early into the season, but it seems that they are on the verge of where something has to give, but who do you really point the finger at?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Toronto Maple Leafs and how they need to find some energy and new life to their game if they want to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I suggested that Mike Babcock, for the most part, was the problem because he wasn’t doing enough to make adjustments or change philosophies.

At that point, the season was merely 10 games old, so taking the next couple of weeks to see how the next handful of games play out was the right move. 13 days and five games later, they’ve posted just one win in regulation during that stretch. The Leafs lone win came against the Sharks on October 25.

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They dropped games against the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, took tough words and a tough loss from Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in overtime, and squeezed out the extra point against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday in one of the worst shootouts in recent memory. It’s only been fifteen games and the Leafs technically haven’t had a full, healthy lineup since the season started, but there’s more to it than that.

The Leafs still look disinterested, slow, and most of all, boring and predictable. Their overall play has shown bright spots of speed, skill, and creativity. But time and time again, they still are missing intangibles like toughness, competitiveness, work ethic.

I am not saying they have a terrible work ethic or don’t have a need to compete, they are professional athletes. Each player must have an outstanding work ethic since they ultimately made it this far in their careers. But right now, they don’t show it on the ice and that’s where it really counts. Someone always wants to point the finger at someone to blame, but for the Leafs, who really is to blame here?

There isn’t one person or group of people to blame. It’s almost as if they are in a circle full of finger-pointing. The players clearly aren’t doing their part. William Nylander was benched against Philadelphia. Tyson Barrie has been virtually invisible since the first week of the season. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have been just okay for guys who are supposed to drive lines.

Despite the number of points Morgan Rielly has (15 points in 15 games), his defensive play is lacking. Babcock has started to experiment with his lines here and there, but let’s be honest, rotating between guys like Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, and Martin Marincin is having little to no effect.

Furthermore, the moves general manager Kyle Dubas made during the off-seasons are starting to come to the surface. This includes contract negotiations. It is a rotating circle of the players not playing great and the coach taking the heat, which then turns into questioning if the general manager has done enough to help the team succeed.

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Dubas has been criticized for the way he handled the negotiations between Nylander, Matthews, and Marner. Matthews, in my opinion, is the only one he got right on the money (no pun intended). He is the franchise player with elite goal-scoring ability. His size, position, and talent all point towards the type of contract he ultimately ended up signing. No problem there.

With Marner and Nylander, he caved and gave them what they wanted. Too much money for wingers who play with top talent. With Marner, his production went from 61 points in his first season to 69 in his second and skyrocketed to 94 playing with Tavares last season.

While that’s an incredible season, making the guy the seventh highest-paid player in the league after one spectacular season seems a little quick to the trigger. If the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov, who is also a winger and got 128 points last season, makes $9.5 million annually, no other winger should make as much as him.

As for Nylander, we all know how last season played out. He missed two months of the season and could never catch up. Now with a cap hit of $6.9 million this year and for the next four years, Nylander has shown little no signs that he will be worth that much for Toronto.

It’s almost as if he has an internal on and off switch that is more often than not, switched to off. Because of this cap structure, Dubas has been forced to bring in a ton of guys into the organization on PTO’s (Professional tryouts) and league minimums.

With all this turnover and movement within the roster, Babcock is constantly on his toes. He has expressed multiple times he looks for a certain type of player to play his style and it seems Dubas has tried to move on from that. It was pretty evident when he got rid of Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Roman Polak, and Leo Komarov. All guys who Babcock loved on and off the ice.

As one of the most highly regarded coaches in the league, you sometimes have to work with what you’re given and try and make the most of it. Dubas has replaced those guys with more skill and speed guys, and Babcock still would love to see more toughness.

Regardless if you don’t have the guys you want or not, it is your job as the coach to prepare with what you have and adapt to it. The only people that can fix that problem are the players themselves, and with the way they are right now, I am not sure they can. It seems like Babcock has lost the players’ attention after all these years.

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Is that because he doesn’t have the players he wants? Maybe. They can’t really make deals or trades this season to fix that problem because they are right at the cap ceiling. Is this the Dubas’ fault? Not sure. I do know one thing for sure though – if the players don’t start playing to their full abilities, the Leafs are another average month of play away from having the entire city of Toronto calling for someone’s head.

Leave a comment below or send me a tweet @WriterGiovanni and let me know what you think the next step should be for Toronto or who you think is to blame here.