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4 paths Maple Leafs can take after rough start to season

Since the 1960s, adventurous types across the world have gone on bad trips to California.

After losing four consecutive games, including three straight in California, the Toronto Maple Leafs are feeling woozy and need to reevaluate their entire state of affairs.

Toronto reached a new breaking point after losing 4-3 in overtime to the lowly Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, blowing a 3-1 lead in the process. After six consecutive first-round playoff losses, there are widespread calls for major changes to the organization, which may involve firing head coach Sheldon Keefe or general manager Kyle Dubas.

Toronto is a market that spurs a million takes even on a slow news day, and with the Maple Leafs crawling to a 4-4-2 record during the easiest part of their schedule, it’s time to assess all the options the team can undertake. We’ll consider it a form of group therapy, if you’d like!

The Maple Leafs are reeling after a tough road trip. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
The Maple Leafs are reeling after a tough road trip. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Fire Sheldon Keefe

Keefe has been behind the bench since November 2019, taking over from Mike Babcock, who was fired after the team stumbled out of the gate. History has a peculiar way of repeating itself, but the circumstances are different: Babcock was initially lauded for his ability to get a young team off the ground, but he was eventually tuned out, and his demanding, old-school methods of dealing with his players came under fire.

Keefe, who had an extensive track record of player development with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, was considered the right man for the job. He’s still well-liked within the organization, but patience is running thin among the fan base.

It would certainly be inopportune timing for the Maple Leafs to fire Keefe. This past summer, Bruce Cassidy, Peter DeBoer and Jim Montgomery were available, all of whom have the resume and pedigree to gain credibility with the roster, while appeasing the fan base. Of course, we don’t want to merely recycle the same list of 40 men who are in perpetual consideration, and the Maple Leafs could’ve also used this as a time to explore alternative options and rising stars within the industry.

Barry Trotz is available and recently spoke about his interest in leading an Original Six team. Trotz said no decision will be imminently made and he seems to be enjoying a brief reprieve from coaching after being inexplicably dumped by the New York Islanders last spring. Trotz is the NHL’s premier defensive specialist and would overhaul Toronto’s tendency to play a hazardous run-and-gun style of game. He is the third-winningest coach in NHL history. Trotz would be a notable upgrade over Keefe, it’s just a matter of whether he wants the job if Keefe is dismissed.

There are stylistic reasons why Keefe may be dismissed. Under his watch, the Maple Leafs have been an excellent team during the regular season, but they are still prone to defensive lapses, and the lapses have devolved into outright defensive negligence through the opening 10 games this year. Auston Matthews isn’t scoring anywhere near the pace required to hit 60 goals again and Toronto’s high-powered top-six forwards look stagnant, with the team’s overall possession numbers indicating they’re playing at a league-average rate. Average isn’t good enough.

There is a practical consideration, too: if the Maple Leafs are looking for an immediate impact, the pathway to instant results would be accelerated easier by changing the coach, not the general manager. Keefe may get the axe instead of Dubas as a matter of circumstance, although you could argue both are equally responsible for the mess the Maple Leafs find themselves in.

Fire Kyle Dubas

As part of our season preview, I wrote about how Kyle Dubas is facing the ultimate referendum entering the seventh year of the Matthews-Mitch Marner era. October is now coming to a close and the proverbial vote on Dubas may be moved up.

Toronto’s struggles are a direct reflection of Dubas. He built the current roster in his own visage, electing for speed and skill above all, rejecting notions that the Maple Leafs require more grit or determination to ultimately get past the first round and beyond. Dubas has drawn criticism for his approach to roster construction, particularly the idea of paying his stars top-of-the-market money and filling out the roster with veteran minimum deals.

Dubas is almost certainly hyperaware of calls for his job. The travelling media contingent that flew to California to cover Toronto’s road stand requested that Dubas update reporters on the state of the team. Maple Leafs public relations denied the request, stating that his media appearances are generally scheduled well in advance. By itself, fair game. Let’s call it what is though: surely, the Maple Leafs — and Dubas, by extension — have to know they are the top story in the league and questions about the team’s future won’t subside, barring a sudden win streak.

Initially lauded as one of the first proponents of analytics, the rest of the league has caught up and applied Dubas’s data-oriented style of decision-making. And when you build a roster as talented as the Maple Leafs that consistently underperforms relative to expectations, there has to be a measure of culpability.

Maple Leafs assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser is ready for a promotion, and having an in-house option could certainly make the uncomfortable decision to fire Dubas a bit easier to stomach.

Trade one of the stars

Toronto’s core consists of the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Matthews, star forwards Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander and veteran defenders Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin. Let’s start from the top: Matthews is the lone player who cannot and should not be traded under any circumstance.

Muzzin is currently on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) with a neck injury, which frees up $5.625 million of Toronto’s LTIR pool. There hasn’t been a clever internal solution to account for Muzzin’s minutes — Justin Holl in particular is struggling miserably without his normal partner — and the team is rumoured to be interested in pursuing Arizona Coyotes star defenceman Jakob Chychrun, a 24-year-old lefty with a booming shot and a checkered injury past of his own.

Pursuing Chychrun without trading one of the core members appears to be the Maple Leafs’ optimal solution, but it would likely require a first-round pick, a top prospect such as Nick Robertson or Matthew Knies, and a promising, young established NHL player like Rasmus Sandin. Do you spite the future to save what’s left of the present?

As for extracting value from the rest of the core, it’s also tricky. Marner carries a $10.93 million cap hit through 2024-25 and more pointedly, also has a no-movement clause built in. Although he’s often subject to blunt criticism that most players of his stature avoid, Marner wants to be a lifetime member of his boyhood club and it seems unfathomable he would waive his NMC. There also doesn’t appear to be a clear hypothetical trade in the mix, considering Marner’s contract status and value as a top-20 player in the league: Matthew Tkachuk was just dealt to the Florida Panthers and the Colorado Avalanche assuredly wouldn’t trade Mikko Rantanen for Toronto’s star playmaker.

Nylander’s cap hit runs just under $7 million, which is a bargain for the Maple Leafs. There’s no reason why they would trade him, unless it was also for a player entering their prime with a below-market deal, or an array of first-round picks if they decide to add some future flexibility. Tavares has arguably been Toronto’s best player to start the year, but he’s 32 and it’s unlikely the Maple Leafs will be able to get someone who replicates his immediate value, either.

Although they’ve struggled to begin the year, the Leafs seem unlikely to break up their top defensive pairing of Rielly-Brodie, especially because the defensive corps have been in flux due to Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren’s injuries. It would be so easy to hit send on a trade in theory, but figuring out who the next pieces may be is easier said than done.

Stay the course

No one would blame you if you started booing here, but maybe the best course of action is to run it back?

Marner was benched Sunday after a series of errors that led to two Ducks goals and was among the star players singled out by Keefe for underperforming to start the year. And yet, he’s not taking it personally. Marner braced for an us-against-the-world complex following Sunday’s game.

"We started off a lot worse last year and everyone tried to put shambles in our brain," Marner said postgame Sunday. "It's not going to happen with us. We're getting to go back home now. It's time to regroup."

Toronto’s stars — with the exception of Tavares and Nylander — simply haven’t been good enough to begin the year. There’s plenty of room for optimism surrounding Matthews, however: he leads the NHL in shots and drawn penalties at 5-on-5, while ranking second in individual expected goals and chances for, per Natural Stat Trick. Matthews is due for a Vesuvian eruption soon enough, and the Maple Leafs should reasonably follow his lead.

There’s plenty of animosity toward a core group that has flamed out in six consecutive first-round series. We’re also talking about a group that has, at minimum, won 57 percent of its regular season games, lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion in seven games last season, along with two heartbreaking, seven-game losses at the hands of an equally matched Bruins side.

We’re not trying to make excuses for Toronto’s core and the collective apathy, rage, despair and indifference are all valid. But it’s worth remembering it has only been 10 games and it may be wise to exercise patience.

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