None of these one things are the answer. Hell, if you did all of those things you might still be looking at a Leafs team that needs a lot of work. Now, I’m also not saying that some of those things shouldn’t be done, but we’ll deal with that another time.
Some of what needs to be changed goes beyond the roster, and the front office, and needs to occur on the ice. And some of it has carried over from the Mike Babcock era to the Sheldon Keefe era.
It seems like in the shortest of film sessions it is entirely possible to determine what the Leafs attack looks like. Someone posts up on the half boards, another goes low for puck retrieval, while the third forward makes half-hearted attempts to crash the net. All the while one solid defenseman plays catch with a less capable partner on the point, often leading to a weak wrist shot attempt and hopes of a rebound or deflection, but instead often results in soft bounce off the chest protector of the goaltender.
Now this can be said about most teams around the league, but the fact that the strength of the wing for the Leafs is consistently on the right, and the strength of the defenseman is consistently on the left makes it even easy to assume what’s happening.
Throw in that there is often only one player comfortable being the puck carrier on the ice at any given time, teams know who the outlet pass is going to and who is going to chase the puck in the event of a dump in and can plan their lives accordingly.
The Leafs need to mix things up a bit more. Make the opposition play their lines differently.
While the Leafs defense could definitely use an upgrade, there is no question that the blueline could use a bit more help from their forwards. Most of the contributions from the forwards defensively come from the fear that they might get behind the opposition defense for a stretch pass. It’s not bad when it works out, but for the most part it just contributes to the Leafs being penned in their own zone longer. Wingers capable of going lower in the zone, and providing adequate coverage seems like the bare minimum of what could be done.
Now that doesn’t change that the Leafs need to find a proper balance of players who are comfortable with the puck, can move the puck, and can knock the opposition off the puck. Ideally finding all of these traits in the same player from time to time.
Perhaps this is the broken record of every Leafs team since Carlyle, and it’s that the Leafs need to be tougher. In fact, under Carlyle and Burke the Leafs teams weren’t practically tough either. It was a reliance on players at the bottom of the roster who could barely keep up and at best might bump into the oppositions other bottom line players. The Leafs have lacked practical physical play since the Quinn era, which was a very different game.
Kyle Clifford and Jake Muzzin are a good first step in that direction for the Leafs, and from time to time Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott have demonstrated a willingness to hit as well, but reality is that it isn’t enough. The Leafs generally are stick checkers or do half-hearted flybys.
Now, we can make the argument repeatedly about how having the puck is how you win games, but generally even if you are doing that well, you’ve got the puck 55% of the time. When the opposition has the puck, some worry of getting him might inspire some rushed plays, or heaven forbid, might result in regaining control of the puck sooner for the Leafs.
So with the appreciation that there’s a lot more to it than that, special teams is an area that comes to mind.
There’s also a realization that buy-in is required from the players to execute better. And even though the Leafs seem to have the talent (at least at forward) to pull off some changes, there will need to be personnel changes as well. Who those players are depend on what the Leafs are truly hoping to achieve, but the reality is that trusting the process isn’t something that is going to happen much longer.
Keefe will benefit from selecting his own assistants over the summer, and with the strong chance that a team looking for a GM considers Laurence Gilman, the Leafs could have some new voices in the front office as well.
There’s also no doubt that the shallowing of the Leafs talent pool is something that will need addressing at some point, but that doesn’t necessarily impact the current state of the Leafs roster, as much as it impacts the ability to improve through internal talent.
Addressing the Leafs needs will working in a flat salary cap will be difficult, and perhaps starting sooner rather than later is critical to that, at least on Dubas’ front. With only a short gap of time between the end of Cup Finals to the draft to free agency to training camps opening up, the Leafs will want to make sure they’ve got their roster as complete as possible and fully bought in to what comes in 2020-21.