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Leafs are pretenders, not contenders, until they upgrade D-corps

Don’t let the 12-point standings cushion fool you. The Leafs are 9-9-4 since Dec. 1 and will start to sink soon if they don’t trade for an impact defenseman.

Frederik Andersen’s speech worked…for a game. The typically soft-spoken Toronto Maple Leafs netminder kinda, sorta called out his teammates after an overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last week, demanding they be better and stop blowing third-period leads. The Leafs responded with a gutsy road win two days later, albeit against a weak Ottawa Senators team. But the euphoria proved temporary, as the Leafs sustained their fourth straight home defeat Monday night against the white-hot Colorado Avalanche, again falling victim to a third-period dagger. That’s five losses in six games for a team that’s supposed to have major playoff aspirations.

About those aspirations: there’s a troubling, overlooked part of Andersen’s mini-rant from last week. Asked in a media scrum about Toronto’s place in the standings, he said, “We’re sitting pretty good. We’ve gotten comfortable, but that can’t be any reason for not playing the right way.”

The Leafs are indeed comfortable in the pathetic Atlantic Division. Even after dropping five of six, they’re cemented into the third-place playoff slot with a 12-point lead on the fourth-place team in the division, the Detroit Red Wings. The lead feels so Grand Canyon-esque that the Leafs can start studying game film of the Boston Bruins in preparation for what looks like an inevitable first-round playoff series.

At least, that’s what it looks like at first glance. The lead feels a bit less comfortable if we factor in that the Leafs have played 49 games to Detroit’s 46 and that the Florida Panthers, 13 points back, have four games in hand. The Leafs also play 12 more games this season against Atlantic teams currently trailing them. That could be a positive, an easy patch of the schedule, and Toronto’s record against those five teams so far this season is a respectable 4-3-1, but it could also offer those teams prime catchup opportunities given how poorly the Leafs have played of late. The rest of Toronto’s 33 games are dotted with high-danger opponents, including 15 contests against teams currently occupying playoff positions and 21 against teams playing better than .500 hockey. The playoff spot won’t merely be handed to the Leafs.

It might be prudent for GM Lou Lamoriello to start proceeding with a bit more urgency coming out of the all-star break, then. This team is 9-9-4 since Dec. 1, with three of its victories coming in shootouts. It continues to bleed shot attempts on its own net, ranking 26th in the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 minutes. Its top defenseman, Morgan Rielly, has to skip this weekend’s All-Star Game, instead landing on injured reserve with a mysterious upper-body injury believed to be to his arm. It’s too early to know how long it’ll shelf Rielly. All we know is that we don’t know. The Leafs are New England Patriots-like in their use of smoke screens when it comes to public injury diagnoses.

As exciting and deep as Toronto is at forward, as great as Andersen has played for most of the season, this is a seriously flawed hockey team right now, and it’s time the Leafs brass start viewing it that way. The Leafs are no longer heartwarmingly ahead of schedule in a rebuild as they were last year. Expectations have spiked and, more importantly, 2017-18 and 2018-19 mark a key window of contention, as William Nylander is an RFA this summer and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are eligible to sign extensions that kick in for 2019-20. Toronto is currently maxed against the cap save for a few million bucks thanks to long-term injured reserve, meaning a major trade might involve sending a contract the other way. This July, though, the Leafs will likely say goodbye to UFAs Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov and perhaps James van Riemsdyk, freeing up money for other pursuits. Next year is arguably the best window to make bold moves, then. But since spending will tighten significantly by 2019-20, at which point Nylander, Marner and Matthews will all be on their second contracts, it’s important to pursue upgrades aggressively not just next season but this season, too.

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The Leafs can tinker within the organization, of course. After fourth-line center Frederik Gauthier got his lunch handed to him versus Colorado Monday, they demoted him to replace him with veteran Dominic Moore and finally promoted Kasperi Kapanen, who should have been in the NHL all along. After weeks of holding his ground amid repeated questions about his deference to grinding veterans over youth, coach Mike Babcock tested out lines Tuesday that included Matt Martin scratched, Mitch Marner jumping up to a second-line assignment and Connor Brown hopping from the fourth to the third line. Great idea, giving the kids some more responsibility at last, but this team needs more than a bit of roster musical chairs. It’s been obvious since Lamoriello pursued Travis Hamonic last summer that a shutdown, right-shot blueliner topped the Leafs’ shopping list, and that hasn’t changed remotely, not despite the promising early work from lefty Travis Dermott, nor will the problem be rectified when Nikita Zaitsev returns from injury. Toronto needs a high-end fix. It’s time to kick the tires on a guy like Vancouver’s Chris Tanev, who checks every box. He’s youngish at 28, under team control for two more seasons after this one and regularly plays against opponents’ top lines. He’ll cost a hefty price to acquire – but this is what you accumulate farm depth for. If it takes a first-rounder and a good prospect or two, it’s worth it. You rebuild so that you’re good enough to win, and when you’re good enough to win, you…do what it takes to win. Leaf Nation can rationalize that Dermott looks great, that Timothy Liljegren is on way, that Rielly and Zaitsev are hurt – but stop lying to yourselves. The mobile, high-quality shutdown defenseman is a breed of player the Leafs don’t yet have – the Tanev, the Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Jaccob Slavin, the Ryan McDonagh, the Jacob Trouba.

The Leafs aren’t good enough right now to realistically expect an improvement on last year’s first-round playoff loss. If they don’t attempt significant upgrades soon, that comfy gap in the standings will shrink in a hurry, and even the playoffs won’t be a guarantee anymore.