Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 22-20-6   Maple Leafs 25-16-7

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network

ALL DAY: Pension Plan Puppets 

We’ve been doing this all season. The Hawks string together two or three wins, generally over bad teams, and look good in at least one of them, and a part of you wants to believe that something has clicked and just might go on a run to make the season interesting. They’re only four points out of a playoff spot, with only one team between them and that last wildcard spot, and you don’t even have to squint all that hard to make a case they could make a run at it. Especially when they’re chasing the Oilers, who are more guaranteed to have their intestines fall out than the Hawks. Vancouver and Arizona could also still make a thud.

And then usually they get thwacked by a good team and we start this all over.

So that’s what feels like is about to happen tonight, as the Hawks take their three wins against the Ducks, Sens, and Habs up against a real team. And the Leafs are the fully operational annoyance that they were forecasted to be. Casting off the shackles of Mike Babcock has had the effect that Kyle Dubas would have hoped, as Sheldon Keefe has helped everyone realize their joy again. The Leafs are more threatening, more dynamic, and quite a bit more scary now that Keefe has allowed them to “try shit.”

Which shouldn’t have been all that hard. The Leafs still have perhaps the richest array of offensive talent in the league. There certainly isn’t a team that can match Matthews-Tavares down the middle at 1-2, and Alex Kerfoot has enjoyed the sweetheart spot that used to belong to Nazem Kadri. Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Johnsson, Kapanen certainly don’t lessen the threat on the wings. If they’re on song, they can put up a touchdown on you before you’ve finished your Timbo’s.

But the problems for the Leafs are still the same, and they’re exacerbated now. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are out for weeks with a broken foot each, and this wasn’t a great defense to begin with. It’s lead them to give Travis Dermott top pairing minutes, and use Tyson Barrie as a defensive specialist, neither of which is a path you’d choose lest your life depended on it. Keefe has at least kept Cody Ceci away from the top pairing.

And the goalie is far from sure either. The Leafs haven’t had a solid backup all season, as you saw evidenced by Michael Hutchinson KICK-ing every puck into his own net here in Chicago last time they met (get it?). But Fab Five Freddie Andersen has been bad for six weeks now, partly due to exhaustion. Also he’s Freddie Andersen, which is the definition of “just good enough to break your heart.”

For the Hawks, Brandon Saad could suit up tonight, but that’s looking like a gametime decision. Brandon Hagel could make his NHL debut after being Rockford’s leading scorer. With optional morning skates we’re guessing along with all of you. Corey Crawford will get the start, with Lehner taking the back half of the double tomorrow night at home against Winnipeg.

Once again, the Hawks have risen to at least the discussion of a playoff spot. But now they’ll be facing two teams that are either good or competing with them for that spot, and it’s a spot where they’ve generally fallen flat on their face. The Leafs aren’t invulnerable here, given the state of their defense and Andersen’s level right now. But getting into a track meet with this team almost certainly equals death, and yet the Hawks don’t have the structure generally to keep things tight. They did so for most of the game against the JV version of the Leafs in Montreal, but this is the real thing.

They were able to hilariously add on to a Leafs crisis last year in T.O, even though Duncan Keith did his best to ruin all that work. It’s a big stretch here on the weekend and then Quenneville Bowl on Tuesday. The Hawks have to put it together now, so five of six points is minimum before we even consider believing they can actually take this to the wire.

Plus, beating the Leafs is always fun.

Hockey

The only team that matters. Don’t believe it, just ask them. The Leafs got Mitch Marner into the fold before the season, which was something of a minor upset. They’re going into the season with a better defense than they did last year, now a full year of Jake Muzzin, along with Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci arriving this summer (the latter already causing hilarious furor). And yet, this collection of players still doesn’t have a playoff series win to its name. The thinking is that if they get the first a whole bunch more will follow. Problem with that is they’re still in the same division with Tampa and Boston. And we know if they don’t get past them, it’ll be a national disaster and you all have to have a week of mourning. Is this the time? Could be, but it’s no guarantee.

2018-2019

46-28-8  100 points (3rd in Atlantic, out in 1st round)

3.49 GF/G (4th)  3.04 GA/G (20th) +37 GD

51.7 CF% (8th)  51.7 xGF% (10th)

21.8 PP% (8th)  79.9 PK% (17th)

Goalies: So here’s the thing. The Leafs can dress up their changes, acquisitions, and experience gained all they want, but they’re still counting on Freddie Andersen. And Freddie Anderson is the very definition of “good enough to break your heart.” It’s what he does. It’s what he’s always done. He’s certainly more than enough to rack up points in the regular season, especially when you score a ton of goals as the Leafs do. And he wasn’t even bad in the playoffs last year, with a .922 SV% in the series against Boston. But it wasn’t enough in Game 7. It never is. That’s what happens. And the Leafs seem to think they can break through the same wall this time. They don’t have a good enough defense to shield him. They need Freddie to make the saves. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team that just scores its way through four rounds. Freddie has yet to do it. I’m not betting on him to do it now.

Anyway, Michael Hutchinson is backing him up. There’s not enough time for all that I want… to say about him.

Defense: It’s new look, and if it doesn’t work everyone here is a free agent after the season except LGBTQ spokesman Morgan Rielly. You would think that would create some urgency, which could help. I’m bigger on Tyson Barrie than most, and provides someone who can get the puck up himself or to the forwards better than anyone they had last season save Rielly. Cody Ceci is already causing Alka-Seltzer sales to go up in Ontario, as everyone expects Mike Babcock to use him way too often. They’ll get a full season of Muzzin, who was surprisingly good last year after arriving from LA. But beyond those four it is ugly, which is probably where the Ceci fears are springing from. Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, The Other Schmaltz, Ben Harpur, you don’t want any of these idiots skating more than 10 minutes a night. Which might leave the top four exposed and exhausted by the time the games really count.

Forwards: If any unit can counteract what the defense can’t do, it’s this forward group. Everyone’s locked in now, so they don’t have that hanging over them. There’s still no team rolling out a better top six than this, with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and whatever other jokers you want to pair with them. Nylander should rebound after getting a full training camp and having Marner take all the recent-signee pressure off of him. They’ve lost some depth in trading Nazem Kadri for Barrie, and Kadri did a lot more for this team than people realize.

There isn’t anyone around to take up that role, and you don’t want either of Tavares or Matthews to do it. Nick Shore? Nic Petan? Those are huge steps down from Kadri, who was a shutdown center who could also score a lot. Nobody is going to replace him on either side of that ledger, and the Leafs downfall might be either having some top line go off on them in the playoffs (again) or having to use Matthews to fight fire with fire and losing his production. It’s an issue.

It’s not much different on the wings. where only Andreas Johansson looks like a useful bottom-six piece. Jason Spezza is dead. They’ll be hunting depth via trade.

Prediction: With all the pieces locked in now, one wonders how much patience they’ll have under Mike Babcock again. He’s not a soft sort to play for, and now the Leafs have made their commitments. What happens when Marner and Matthews start rolling their eyes at Babs in January or December even? That’s one iceberg they’ll have to avoid, and it might help that Babs is going to have to play his top six a ton. But if Ceci ends up being a disaster, there’s not much anyone can do about the defense.

And there’s not much Babs can do about Andersen, either. There’s more than enough talent here than make a run…and there’s enough holes to eat it in the first round to any of Tampa or Boston or any surprise like Montreal or Florida as well. Whatever it ends up being, there’ll be far more noise than is warranted.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

 

Everything Else

“You’re not special. So who you foolin’?” – Axl Rose

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. And really, that’s it. But for Leafs fans and media, it can’t be that simple. It has to mean something. Not just that, it has to epically mean something. Maybe even epically mean something. Because everything around the Toronto Maple Leafs has to be definitive or a referendum not just on the team, but on the entire sport and city and possibly society. Because to everyone associated with them in any way, the Leafs have to mean more. They can’t simply be just a hockey team, even though that’s what they are. They’re in Canada’s largest city, the only team there, and even though Canada is a vast nation they’ve dubbed themselves the epicenter and YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION. But it’s just not the case.

Take the opponent. Leafs Nation will have you believe that the Boston Bruins are some mythical monster conjured by some wizard twisted on quaaludes  specifically to keep the Leafs down. But it’s not really the case. In truth, lots of teams lose to the same team twice in a row. Sure, Leafs fans will rush to remind everyone about 2013 (Sir, this is the DMV), but this is a completely different Leafs team. Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri were the only Leafs on that team and this one, as we know Kadri wasn’t even really on this one. That series doesn’t matter to this team. Fuck, the Rangers and Capitals played way more than this recently in the playoffs, and you don’t hear anyone describing it as fucking Helm’s Deep, do you? The Leafs were lucky to be in those playoffs at all, certainly never deserved to be in a Game 7 against a pretty-close-to-a-juggernaut Bruins team. It has nothing to do with this one or the last one.

But that’s not enough for THE NATION. They can’t just lose to a team. They can’t just play a pretty decent series against a pretty good team and lose a coinflip Game 7, which they all are. Because that would just make them normal. That would make them just another team. And they’re not! Don’t tell us they’re not! These are the Leafs AND THEY ARE SPECIAL WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND DON’T YOU SEE THE LATEST DIPSHIT IN SOME RIDICULOUS OUTFIT OR DOING SOME JACKASS STUNT THAT JUST GOT HIRED BY SPORTSNET?! CLEARLY WE’RE SPECIAL! PAT MY HEAD!

But they’re not.

Take a look at how they view their best players. Any player can go two or three games without scoring. No one scores a perfectly regimented one goal every two games. But Auston Matthews goes to or three without a goal and he’s not just going through the normal course, it’s a referendum on if he can handle playing at the epicenter of the universe and on his entire being and oh god maybe that contract was a terrible idea! He’s fine, it’s not, it’s just what happens. Patrice Bergeron didn’t score last night either. I guess he sucks too? But no, that can’t happen to the Leafs, because it’s no epic enough. It must be an exquisite choke-job that can only happen to players under the unique crush of being a Leaf. A crush that they themselves created.

Take the bleating about 1967. But no one really cares, because it’s not like there’s been a ton of close calls and heartbreaks. There was basically one on a missed call in 1993, and if you don’t know about it Down Goes Brown has been writing a weekly column about it for 12 years. And all that would have done is set the Leafs up to get stonewalled by the Canadiens and specifically Patrick Roy just like the Kings did, and imagine how much more unbearable both fanbases would be if that happened. All the talk of THE WALL here wouldn’t be pointed south but north and everyone would be in agreement on it construction.

The Leafs and everyone around them want to be the pre-2004 Red Sox, but also the Lakers. But there’s no Impossible Dream, there’s no Fisk Homer, there’s no Bob Stanley in 1986 (which is who Sox fans really hate, or did, instead of Buckner). There’s no story. And there’s no winning tradition. They want both, and they aren’t either. The Leafs are scenery, but scenery that wants to chew itself.

It can’t just be that Mike Babcock isn’t quite the coach they’d hoped. He arrived as a messiah, because only messiahs take the Leafs job (even if they can’t make toast). And now he’s a relic, a dunderhead past his sell-by date. Could it just be he’ll get out exactly what the roster you give him is capable of, no more no less? Give him the best roster in the competition (’08 or ’09 Wings or Team Canada) and he’ll win it or come within inches of it. Give him a mediocre team (pretty much every Wings team after those) and he’ll get you mediocre results. Give him a bad one and they’ll be bad. Give him a pretty good one and he’ll get you a loss against another pretty good team. But no, it can’t be that easy in Toronto. He must’ve lost something, or Toronto did something to him, or he’s been replaced by a collection of hyper-intelligent roaches wearing a Babcock suit a la MIB.

Kyle Dubas must be a genius…because he figured out to sign the most prized free agent in years? Keen strategy. But now if he doesn’t go out and bring PK Subban or Drew Doughty home (and I suppose there’s a symmetry to a rape-apologist acquiring a rapist) he won’t just be another GM who can’t get his team over the hump. He’ll be The Great Miss, the Great Lie Of Modernity, The One Who Let Us Down.

Even the Leafs playoff series drought isn’t that much. 15 years is a while, but it isn’t unheard of. The Panthers have a longer one, in fact. The Islanders had a longer one. Until this season the Avs were working on a 10-year drought. The Sabres haven’t won a series in 12. While it’s certainly one of the worst streaks around, it doesn’t stand on its own. Like just about anything else concerning the Leafs, if you really look beyond the noise.

It can just never be simple. This loss means that there have to be massive changes and new directions and severe internal study and possibly a few defenestrations. But we didn’t learn anything new about the Leafs. We knew they didn’t have a very good defense and a shaky goalie when things really mattered. Why’d they lose? Because they couldn’t keep the Bruins best players on a leash and then their goalie spit up a bad goal or two in Game 7. Which is what teams with bad blue lines and questionable playoff goaltending do. It doesn’t need to be decoded in the stars or a team on NASA engineers. It’s an easy fix, if you can find the players. But no, that explanation won’t do for a blue-clad mob that has to be more important than everyone. Their problems are bigger, don’t you see, and you wouldn’t understand. You’re not here, you don’t know what it means, you can’t, you won’t, it’s just different here.

It’s not, though. The Leafs are just a team. A pretty good one struggling a bit to take the last step. Happens a lot. Happens to most. Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. What it won’t be is unforeseen or unheralded or unparalleled. Nothing about the Leafs is. They may scream different, but it’s the truth.