What the Maple Leafs can do in the absence of significant, uprooting change

Justin Cuthbert

If the Toronto Maple Leafs’ embarrassment Saturday in Pittsburgh versus the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins was an earthquake, there’s been no associated aftershock.

No pink slips, no trades, no demotions, no nuclear reactions, or least ones we know about. And if we are to base it solely on William Nylander’s Instagram feed, the chosen remedy for the Maple Leafs after suffering their fifth consecutive loss and descending into the bottom third in the NHL in terms of point percentage was rest, relaxation and a chance to clear one’s head on a golf course somewhere warm. And that’s fine for the time being, I suppose, because major, uprooting, permanent decisions should not be reactionary or made in haste.

Still, it’s exceedingly obvious now that something has to change and that the current configuration is, at the moment, untenable. So how long, really, can you practice patience when a season with such high hopes seems suddenly dangling by a thread?

There are others who can make meaningful decisions, of course, but until a major axe falls, the onus remains on two people when it comes to reversing course on this Maple Leafs season.

So in the absence of a fire-a-multi-million-dollar-head-coach or trade-away-a-superstar decision from management, here’s what Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas can do:

The coach

Pander. Indulge. Give in.

How much of this mess is the coach’s doing is somewhat up for debate. What had been made clear, though, is that this group, as it is currently assembled, cannot perform the functions required in Babcock’s system.

So tear it down before the opposition does. Again.

Stop challenging the immensely talented players littered throughout the roster to be something they’re not, and start encourage the skillsets and creativity that brought them to this point in the first place. With their roles, and with their usage.

Sure, the counterargument to that might be that the most significant problem plaguing the Maple Leafs right now is the team’s failure to adhere to instruction and the demands of a defensive structure — but that’s the point here. Being stuck in the middle as they are, and thinking about what they need to be doing in place of reacting, these are the reasons why this team has routinely failed their netminders with collapses in defensive structure.

So how does Babcock inspire the change?

With three key injuries to the middle six, unfortunately he is somewhat limited in his options when looking to redistribute talent throughout the roster in order to place an emphasis on attack. But he does still have the ability to tinker with the reality for the player most representative of the conflict between talent base and role.

The biggest step toward promoting change might be to promote Tyson Barrie to the No. 1 unit on the power play in place of the struggling Morgan Rielly. Put the immense talent from the quarterbacking position into action and allow Barrie the opportunity to match the attacking impact he had while sharing the ice with similarly skillful players over the past few seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.

With his shackles removed, perhaps Barrie helps to influence the four forwards on the top special teams unit, and in turn the remaining pieces of Babcock’s lineup. They all should naturally be inclined to follow the lead of the most important players on the roster.

And if that’s overly optimistic, maybe just extending a helping hand to Barrie is enough. Should he have a little success on the power play, perhaps he can settle into his five-on-five function and put an end to the bleeding the Maple Leafs have done recently with him and Jake Muzzin on the ice at even strength.

The GM

Kyle Dubas’s endgame is really no secret. Should the Leafs continue to fail to meet lofty expectations, it’s expected at some point that we see Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe elevated to the seat Babcock is currently occupying.

There are no shortage of reasons as to why Dubas hasn’t chosen to make this decision already, and it likely includes a combination of the best interests of the team, himself, as well as those ranked ahead of him on the Leafs’ managerial hierarchy. But because he hasn’t triggered that move, he’s kept the onus on Babcock, and given him the chance to coach his way out of this mess.

Still, in the absence of that move, the general manager can influence what happens on the ice, mostly through adjusting what’s at the coach’s disposal.

It’s possible that he introduces that through an agreement in the trade market. But while there might be a deal out there that makes sense, and provides enhanced optimization or eliminates a certain problem, there would be significant concerns over a sell-low aspect to any trade they make in a moment of desperation. (Especially with a move involving Barrie, who is the most obvious trade chip).

What might be safer and ultimately wiser in the short term is to introduce change through the pipeline.

What’s happened with recent injuries to Mitch Marner, Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore was the inevitable being delayed. A series of roster cuts were supposed to coincide with the return of Zach Hyman, but those lasting decisions on the handful of fringe players on the opening night roster were made to wait with holes needing to be plugged in important places in Babcock’s lineup. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

This management team should have seen enough by now to know what they have with Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Nic Petan and Dymtro Timashov. Choosing to not wait any longer on those inevitable decisions, and shipping players down to the minor leagues or out of the organization entirely sooner than later, Dubas can reward those that have performed well in the minors, and potentially offer a lift to an NHL club that, because of its injuries, seems to actually require a significant talent-level boost.

Dipping into the minor-league system is a time-honoured motivational tactic, but with players like Egor Korshkov, Pierre Engvall and Kenny Agostino performing with the Marlies, it could offer more than just incentive to the big club.

Besides, in the event that the coach remains determined to play his fourth-line forwards a proportionate amount compared to the more important pieces higher on the roster, wouldn’t it be better to insert into those positions players who have the ability to have an impact offensively?

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