From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
It certainly feels fitting that Leo Komarov is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lone all-star in Nashville this weekend.
Lovable Uncle Leo is in a slump. A big one. He has one goal in his past 16 games, part of a swift regression back to what he likely is: a dependable worker bee who produces in the 15-goal range in a typical year.
Likewise, the Leafs may be regressing into what they truly are.
It isn’t pretty.
The Leafs players not named Komarov are spending their five-day break this weekend on a beach somewhere, pondering their worst stretch of the season. They have one win in their past 10 games. Worse, they have scored only 11 goals in those 10 games, including three outings in which they were blanked.
Their share of quality scoring chances at even strength over that time has been dismal (44 per cent), well down from their first 38 games, when they were fourth-best in the NHL in that category (54 per cent).
Of late, they’ve played a lot of good teams and been exposed as unable to keep up, especially defensively.
So the woes are coming at both ends, as they say. They can’t score. They can’t defend.
And, realistically, with only 43 points in 48 games, they can’t make the playoffs – not when they’d need to go something like 25-9-0 the rest of the way to have a chance.
Even though missing the postseason has felt inevitable since training camp, the losing has worn on coach Mike Babcock, whose last non-playoff team was the 2003-04 Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Last week, after a shutout loss to Carolina, Babcock grumbled that his team couldn’t score because it had no one capable of doing so.
“What are you expecting? I think these forwards are doing what they do,” Babcock said. “How many guys really score? You know what I mean?”
The next day, he clarified he meant that the Leafs lacked an Alex Ovechkin type and had to create goals by committee. But the frustration that night was unmistakable.
But Babcock is one of the few feeling it in Toronto. Among the fans and the pundits, there won’t be much hand-wringing over another lost year – the Leafs’ 10th consecutive 82-game season out of the playoffs – because the 2015-16 campaign was engineered to be exactly this.
A controlled demolition. A mitigated tire fire. A disaster with a purpose.
A lot of that purpose is playing down the road at Ricoh Coliseum. The Toronto Marlies are not only the best team in the AHL but potentially the best team in that league’s history, given their 35-8-2 record projects to break the win and points-percentage records.
They’ve done it mostly with prospects, too, icing a homegrown team that has 14 players who were 22 years old or younger when the season started.
The rest of that purpose? Let Babcock evaluate the roster, punt out the unwanteds for draft picks before the trade deadline and make more deals in the off-season to open more doors for those young Marlies.
Add another future star (or two) in the draft – where the Leafs will have more than 10 picks, including one at the top of the first round and potentially another in the middle, as long as the Penguins make the playoffs – and they’re in good shape.
Even if their record obviously isn’t.
That’s the glass-half-full version of where the Leafs are. No matter what management did last summer, this roster wasn’t going to contend for a Stanley Cup, so the Leafs brass accomplished the next best thing and took the long view toward being the next Chicago or L.A.
Has it made for a dull season? Absolutely. Ratings are down from even last season’s mess because the fan base has fully bought into the idea that the entire year – let alone the individual games – means very little. And it doesn’t help that general manager Lou Lamoriello is the lockdown king in terms of letting almost nothing intriguing slip out from behind closed doors.
So, folks cheer every loss, hoping it will help at the draft lottery and otherwise largely tune the Leafs out. No one’s scoring, no one’s watching, no one’s winning. Even with more than 40 per cent of the season remaining, this is a dead team walking.
And waiting for what’s next.