From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
There will be no James van Riemsdyk in the lineup. No Tyler Bozak. No Shawn Matthias or Joffrey Lupul.
The goal-starved Toronto Maple Leafs – 27th in the NHL with 2.29 goals scored a game – are now without four of their nine highest-scoring forwards. Their injuries range from broken foot (van Riemsdyk) and concussion (Bozak) to whiplash (Matthias) and the inexplicable “middle-body injury”(Lupul).
So they head out on a four-game road trip through Western Canada and Chicago with a few American Hockey Leaguers in the lineup, and their coach again urging them to win ugly.
“It’s real clear how we have to play with our lineup,” Mike Babcock said before he boarded a plane bound for Calgary, where the Leafs play Tuesday. “We went through that this morning [on video].
“Obviously we’re more offensively challenged. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to win.”
Lately, the Leafs have been finding ways to lose. In their last 13 games, they have three wins (and only one in regulation), all but mathematically wiping out their playoff hopes.
Saturday’s loss to the struggling Ottawa Senators may have been Toronto’s worst of the season, especially given – as Babcock said Monday – it was over “in the first eight minutes.”
The Leafs have been in the NHL’s basement all year, but back in early January, it appeared they might claw their way higher. At that point, they were riding a streak of 15-8-5 and sat only five points out of a playoff spot. Now they’re 12 points back, missing much of their meagre offensive talent, and Babcock has resorted to praising Rich Clune whenever he can (“Clune’s been real good for us”).
Going into the game against the Flames, the Leafs playoff chances sat at 3 per cent (via hockeyviz.com). They had a better shot at getting the first overall draft pick – 8 per cent, or fourth-highest in the league. And the more they struggle to score, the more they’ll lose and the better that pick percentage will get.
None of this is a surprise. The Leafs were almost certainly going to be awful this year, and they knew it. It’s early February, and already the organization’s focus is firmly on next season and beyond. In recent days, for example, the Leafs have been heavily scouting two prospects in Finland (Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi) who are projected to be selected at the top of the draft.
A stop in Switzerland to shadow potential No. 1 pick Auston Matthews – the 18-year-old phenom who has a remarkable 24 goals in 31 Swiss league games – is also likely in order.
So the problem with all the injuries isn’t that the Maple Leafs will lose. They were already doing that in fine fashion. What’s troubling is that it’ll be more difficult to trade players such as Matthias or Bozak if they’re banged up.
Lupul? At 32 years old (going on 42) with two years left on a huge contract, he is unmovable.
JVR, meanwhile, is likely staying put, given he was turning into a legitimate star through the first 40 games (van Riemsdyk’s importance to the team is best measured by how brutal the Leafs’ offence has been without him).
All these losses open up considerable holes in an already thin lineup. At Monday’s practice, Babcock had crazy things going on, like Clune on the power play, but he also had Mark Arcobello in a prominent role for the first time in months. Josh Leivo was on the power play, and Brad Boyes was cemented in the lineup, albeit on the fourth line.
Perhaps those four get more minutes and show more than they have to date? Perhaps that shows, in Leivo’s case, that he can play in the NHL as a regular-season regular, or that, in the case of everyone else, there might be some low-end trade value there?
It’s tough searching for reasons to watch the Leafs right now, but that might be one.
Or you can tune in simply to see the latest source of Babcock’s exasperation. You might want popcorn.
“I’m dying for someone to score a goal,” Babcock said. “If you’ve scored in the past, you’re going to get an opportunity to do something.”
And even if you haven’t, step right up.