Maple Leafs' struggles to overcome obstacles apparent once again

Justin Cuthbert

While not saying all that much, really, Kyle Dubas volunteering to speak with the media Thursday did at least reveal something about his level of discontent with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ unbecoming record through 20 games.

It marked the first time that the Leafs GM spoke publicly since he called media members down from the press box between periods on opening night to take questions after John Tavares was officially unveiled as captain. So in the time since, we’ve been left to only assumptions on how he’s gauging the performance of his players, his head coach, and his own offseason decisions.

His staunch and somewhat surprising defense of Cody Ceci aside, Dubas offered a far more positive outlook than most maybe would have expected, or hoped for, while holding court after the Leafs scrapped practice in favour of a team meeting.

But if we’re to look back on the key essentials he outlined before the season started, it’s clear the Leafs have failed to meet expectations when it comes to at least one important detail.

Dubas mentioned one crucial element for the Leafs in his welcome back press conference, which was an improved ability to manage and overcome adversity, indicating in that moment that it was an aspect in which they had failed to measure up when compared to the likes of Tampa Bay and Boston.

“The rest of the league doesn’t stop,” Dubas said at the time.

Beset with no shortage of unannounced difficulties to this point, it hasn’t been the only reason the Leafs have just nine wins from 20 games and are without a single regulation victory against a team with better than the seventh-worst record in the NHL.

But in a season in which it’s imperative that they demonstrate progression, the Leafs simply haven’t in this regard.

The injuries

Injuries have unsurprisingly contributed rather significantly to the obstacles thrown in Toronto’s direction to this point.

Some good has come from these absences; Justin Holl might not have established himself on the third pairing had Travis Dermott not missed the season’s first month. But for the most part, these knocks have interrupted progress — particularly with the Maple Leafs’ second line.

With Mitch Marner now expected to miss at least a month, all three components from the line that drove the Maple Leafs’ success last season have, at points, been unavailable. And it’s had a considerable impact on the team’s total offense, with essentially every iteration of the unit failing to provide meaningful contributions at five-n-five.

For example:

In 71 minutes, the initial combination of Marner, Tavares and Kasperi Kapanen were out-scored 7-1 in 71 minutes at the base condition.

In 50 minutes played in the absence of John Tavares, Marner, Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev combined for one goal compared to three against.

And in 26 minutes, Trevor Moore wasn’t able to improve things for Tavares and Marner, as the three answered two goals against to just one themselves, and finished with a 39 percent expected goals for.

This is a far cry from where the Leafs were last season when Tavares and Marner enjoyed career seasons with the facilitating Zach Hyman, together providing 3.89 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Because Marner suffered his ankle injury one game before Hyman’s return, the three won’t be able to recapture that magic until mid-December at the earliest.

The Leafs can’t afford to wait that long for contributions from their second scoring unit.

The schedule

Wedged in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings would be less of a concern if the Maple Leafs weren’t giving up games in hand to essentially every legitimate team in the chase for postseason positioning.

While to an extent oversimplified, you can essentially point to the five sets of back-to-backs — and nine points left on the table — for the position the Maple Leafs find themselves in right now.

Able to paper over some deficiencies from the second unit through high-end contributions from the No. 1 line with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson, what they haven’t had a solution for is tired legs and tired minds when competing on consecutive nights.

They’ve already had to sacrifice a goaltender (for a consecutive season) to answer for those failures.

While he can’t totally be absolved from criticism, Michael Hutchinson is in large part a casualty borne from the Maple Leafs’ inability to perform in back-to-back games. They allowed an average of 37 shots in Hutchinson’s starts, and essentially twice as many high-quality looks against with their backup between the pipes.

Without the option to do anything else, and with the first of nine more consecutive-night sets looming this weekend, the Leafs have turned to Kasimir Kaskisuo, a netminder that wasn’t reliable at the minor-league level for most of last season.

Performing firmly below average through the first six weeks of the season, the Leafs won’t soon be in a position to waste another effort.

It’s absolutely imperative that they find a solution for their back-to-back woes with another nine packed into the remaining schedule.

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