Barely past the quarter pole of the National Hockey League season, and it has already been shown that the Toronto Maple Leafs is reality TV at its finest. The early season storylines are hard to believe. The Leafs entered the season with their general manager, head coach, and core four under immense pressure to perform following six first-round playoff exits.
Most assumed that the team would qualify for the postseason, then the real test would begin. At a minimum, they needed a victorious playoff round, or substantial change had to occur. The postseason exam remains far off in the future, but the path to get there has already provided more twists and turns than a season of the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
Early Season Slump Recovery Among Toronto Maple Leafs Storylines
Looking at the Leafs’ early season schedule, it seemed certain the team would get off to a quick start. A handful of home games was followed by a West coast swing against some of the dregs of the National Hockey League. A nice recipe for piling up some points and building confidence. Oops. Never mind.
The results of the first set of home games were uninspiring. After a convincing win in Winnipeg on October 22nd, a four-game losing streak occurred against the Vegas Golden Knights, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks. The scrutiny of the team and management increased. Most thought Kyle Dubas had constructed a weak roster without depth. Head coach Sheldon Keefe had lost his way. The team needed a major shakeup.
Leafs Hit With Injuries to Key Players
Despite the slow start, much of the roster remained from last year’s regular season record-setting team. The results were bound to improve as long as critical players remained healthy. Yet, a healthy roster was not to be.
First, the Leafs most (only?) physical defenceman, Jake Muzzin, suffered a cervical spine injury that could be career-threatening. Next, their most consistent defenceman, T.J. Brodie, was sidelined with an oblique injury. Minute-munching defenceman Morgan Rielly then went down with a knee injury. Before long, capable depth defenceman Jordie Benn, who provided a brief spark to the team, was also injured.
All of this left the team with aging Mark Giordano, youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, everyone’s favourite whipping boy Justin Holl, and fresh-faced Mac Hollowell to anchor the team’s blue line.
Leafs’ Goaltenders Also Hit With Injuries
GM Dubas took a major offseason gamble with the team’s goaltending. He decided (correctly) not to ante up for the amicable Jack Campbell. He replaced Campbell with the declining and injury-prone Matt Murray and unproven Ilya Samsonov.
It didn’t take long for the injury bug to hit this position too. Murray got hurt in his first game and was placed on long-term injured reserve. Luckily, Samsonov capably replaced him and won some games until he also got injured while trying to stop a penalty shot against the Leafs’ number one antagonist, Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins.
That left the Leafs with Erik Kallgren and emergency signee Keith Petruzzelli as the goalies for many games. Their third and fifth-string goalies behind a depleted defence corps.
Team Responds In Unexpected Ways
On top of the injury issues, reigning two-time Rocket Richard winner and last year’s Hart winner, Auston Matthews, has been scoring at a relatively pedestrian pace. Also, a team known for its offence has scored at a middling pace, ranking around 20th in goal-scoring for most of the year.
Despite all this adversity, the Leafs recently finished an undefeated road trip. They’re winning with structure and a focus on defensive play. Their other superstar, Mitch Marner, just set a team record for most consecutive games with a point. Murray and Samsonov have both returned to health and are providing the team with strong goaltending. Brodie and then Rielly should soon be back. Most importantly, Toronto is solidly entrenched in second place in the Atlantic Division, hovering around a .700 points percentage.
Imagine the preseason odds gambling establishments would have given on these storylines happening over the first twenty-five games. Maybe Leafs’ fans finally have a team to believe in. The Toronto Maple Leafs: reality TV at its finest.
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