Optimism abounds when the calendar turns over to a new year, marking an opportunity to put troubles behind and begin anew.
For the 2023-24 Maple Leafs, the optimism has to be muted.
With this group, it’s hard to say how the next several months will unfold.
Certainly, it’s not a satisfied team that hits California for a three-game trip that starts on Tuesday in Los Angeles and continues to Anaheim on Wednesday and San Jose on Saturday. The trek kicks off a month in which the Leafs play only four home games, and nine on the road, before the National Hockey League’s all-star festivities take over Scotiabank Arena Feb. 1-3.
The win-a-few, lose-a-few Leafs ended 2023 in a bad way. After shutting out Pittsburgh 7-0 on Dec. 16, the Leafs lost five of their next six games, including the humiliating 9-3 defeat in Buffalo on Dec. 21. The skid accounts for four of the Leafs’ 10 losses in regulation. Coach Sheldon Keefe had been making a point of stressing the fact the Leafs hadn’t been losing much in regulation. He can’t make the same claims now.
The Leafs are 17-10-7, so in half of their games, they have trudged back into the dressing room and taken off their equipment after a loss. Still, Toronto is in third place in the Atlantic Division, tied in points with the Tampa Bay Lightning with 41, while the Detroit Red Wings are just three back with 38. The Leafs have several games in hand on both, but that will be beneficial in the end only if Toronto wins the majority of them. That’s not a guarantee.
After the Leafs had an early practice on Monday at the Ford Performance Centre before flying to southern California, Keefe pointed at the two most recent losses, against Carolina and Columbus, and stressed the positives that can be taken from both. Despite not winning either, the Leafs were stingy defensively, giving up a total of just nine high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five.
“We have not got the results that we want since coming back (from the Christmas break, going 0-2-1), but we felt quite good about a lot of the things we’ve been doing,” Keefe said. “That continues to drive you. That sets us up well for this trip to start off in L.A. Coming out of that Carolina game, we should know exactly what we’re in for in terms of the challenge that we have (against the Kings).”
No argument here. The Kings have allowed 2.33 goals a game, the fewest on average in the NHL. On Halloween night in Toronto, the Kings smothered the Leafs and beat them 4-1.
Individually, the accolades for Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 29 goals in 33 games, and William Nylander, who is seventh in NHL scoring with 48 points in 34 games and has at least one point in every game but four, are well-placed. Neither should be making plans to get out of town for all-star weekend.
On the whole, though, the Leafs have plenty of roadway ahead before any serious thought can be given to adding them the NHL’s list of Stanley Cup contenders. And by no means are we implying that the Leafs will become one of those teams.
As much as general manager Brad Treliving has tried to upgrade the Leafs’ defence — something he has no choice but to do before the NHL trade deadline on March 8 — and more recently the goaltending with the injury to Joseph Woll and the poor play of Ilya Samsonov, he has not found a willing trade partner.
The Leafs have regressed defensively, falling to 24th in goals-against in allowing 3.44 a game after they were seventh in 2022-23, giving up 2.68 goals on average. Treliving tried to add more physical bite to the Leafs’ game, but that hasn’t had an impact on the results.
Is there time for the Leafs to find a true identity, not one as group that plays inconsistent hockey? Sure there is, but those indicators have to start coming more often.
“There’s no time to relax,” captain John Tavares said. “You want to recognize what’s going well, but there’s always that in the back of your mind pushing for more.
“We want to challenge for the top of the division. That’s what we want our standard to be and what we expect of ourselves. There is lots of hockey left.”