Maple Leafs: more questions than an episode of Jeopardy
The Leafs' season opener may have been a microcosm of what we should expect from the team this year. A top-heavy group of forwards that can make magic with little time and space, and who have, on any given night, the ability to light up any team like a Macy's Christmas tree.
Mitch Marner is an elite playmaker. Austin Mathews is arguably the league's best pure sniper, an Alex Ovechkin in the making. William Nylander undoubtedly oozes talent and should be a perennial 30 goal guy, potentially even a point-per-game player. And Morgan Reilly is the type of elite quarterback few teams possess and drool about having.
But the plus minus of several of these stud players tells a different story. Watching this team play 5 on 5 raises significant concerns. We've seen it in the playoffs, time and time again. Players like Bergeron, Pasternak, and Marchand were able to adapt their style of play depending on the type of game at hand. Tight defensive matchup? No problem. Bruins holding a lead? These star players were more than willing to dig down and focus on solid two-way play. If the game got physical, they would battle, mercilessly, in the corners and come out with puck regardless of the size of the opponent they were up against.
Yet the Leafs' stars seem to know only one brand of hockey: the one that is played on ponds, amongst friends (ok I'm stretching a little...). Yes, they will razzle n dazzle opposing teams at times, make a defenseman or goalie look silly as silly can be, but then they will proceed to miss a key assignment in the defensive zone or be slow on the backcheck.
But the Maples Leafs players don't even need to look as far down as Boston to find a role model or to look for players to emulate. John Tavares is adaptable, he plays the right (and smart) way. He knows all about hard work, and defensive commitment. He is all in on the details that matter.
On opening night and in several games thus far this season, this Leafs team has looked every bit like the one of old: cocky, overconfident in their ability to score at will, and unwilling to pay a physical price (Leafs are consistently outhit in almost every game they play. Worse, many of their forwards seem soft in the corners and this has to change pronto).
Given Anderson's well documented inconsistent play, this is a team that can ill-afford to play loosie goosie hockey if they want to reach the promised land one day. Even less so this season, given the lack of offensive depth at their disposal (losing Kapanen and Johnson and replacing them by the geriatric trio of Simmonds, Spezza and Thornton appears like a questionable plan but I suspect it was all Dubas could afford given the team's significant cap woes). There are simply too many similar players and history has shown us that this model just doesn't work.
One thing is clear: Another end of the season like the last few, and Kyle Dubas (if he even remains at the helm) will strongly consider "blowing up" this science project.