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The Maple Leafs Must Figure This Out Themselves

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a tailspin at the moment. And it's up to the players to get themselves out of it.
Erik Karlsson

Whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs have needed it, help has never been far behind. 

When the team needed to upgrade its center depth in the summer of 2018, GM Kyle Dubas addressed it by signing John Tavares, the most prominent free agent to ever hit the market at that point in the salary cap era. When defensive depth threatened to ruin an otherwise promising season the following year, Dubas went out and acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings while surrendering zero assets off the active roster. When the players more or less gave up on Mike Babcock in a public show of defiance to start the 2019-20 season, Dubas bent to their will and fired the highest-paid coach in hockey, replacing him with a familiar face whose mandate was to afford more freedom. 

Heck, even when injuries forced Michael Hutchinson into the starter's crease to disastrous results in 2020, Dubas swung a deal for Jack Campbell almost immediately and thereby acquired a goaltender for little cost who would go on to give the Maple Leafs three seasons of consistent play. 

The job of the GM and their front office is to put the team in the best position to succeed. And this Maple Leafs team has been given everything it could ever ask for; resources, facilities, roster upgrades, you name it. 

The front office has paid its stars handsomely while surrounding clubs prefer to nickel-and-dime. They've plundered every possible crevice of the collective bargaining agreement for a loophole to afford it and left themselves a whopping four total dollars in total cap space in the process. 

Well-liked veterans have been brought in as mentors. Friends have been brought in as reclamation projects. Heck, Mark Giordano, another high-profile deadline addition acquired for zero roster assets, re-signed for a smidge above the NHL's minimum wage this summer specifically to provide the team's high-paid stars a top-notch supporting cast. 

At a certain point, there's nothing left to give. 

After the Maple Leafs put up yet another anemic performance against an inferior opponent on Thursday night, losing in overtime to the basement-dwelling San Jose Sharks, the conversation on Twitter began to shift to Sheldon Keefe's fate as head coach. 

Is Keefe still the man for the job? Do the players still believe in him? Is he able to motivate his stars? 

Frankly, who cares? 

No team in the entire NHL entered the 2022-23 season under more pressure than the Maple Leafs. And that pressure is not the product of media-driven hysteria or irrational fandom bordering (as it always does) into toxicity. No, the Maple Leafs did this to themselves. Win and the noise softens. Lose, and it becomes deafening. The Maple Leafs lost last season, again, and now the fate of this supposed contender rests entirely upon clearing what most teams of that ilk consider to be the bare minimum: Winning four out of the seven games in a first-round playoff series. 

If they don't, it's over. The coach, GM, and likely even the president are all but gone, purging the organization of the three central figures who have made the act of catering to the players' every whim an internal mandate. 

Who knows if their replacements will share that same philosophy? 

Which then begs the question: What more motivation do you need? This team's effort level should not depend on whether the coach's Any Given Sunday-style pre-game speech was Oscar-worthy that particular night. The players must be able to generate some fire on their own now and again – if not from the pressures existing outside the room, then from within. 

Efforts like Thursday's had no such flames in sight. It was another dismal and yet all-too-familiar showing for these Maple Leafs in San Jose, as the club was ultimately out-shot, out-chanced, and out-played by a Sharks team that has its sights set on the 2023 draft's first-overall pick over winning hockey games. Two of their three regulation losses thus far have come against the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes who are both doing more or less the same thing. 

It's a small sample size, of course. But it's a sample nonetheless. And despite the club's efforts to push against the narrative of playing down to inferior opponents, the Maple Leafs have fed directly into it this season instead. 

Criticism is warranted as long as it's justified. A 4-3-1 record justifies it. The elite players have not been elite. That's just a fact. 

I was in the press room when Keefe uttered those words following the Leafs' loss to Arizona at home this month. The comment wasn't malicious or intended to embarrass the players. It was merely an accurate assessment of the team's level of play by the head coach. And yet when a borderline retraction was needed from Keefe the next day as word of closed-door meetings with those very stars swirled in the aftermath, it revealed just how fragile this core is right now. 

A new coach won't change that. Keefe has been far from perfect throughout his tenure and warrants criticism the same way his players do. But punting him out the door for the sake of a new voice would do nothing but once again placate a core that has, frankly, not earned a single thing. 

The Maple Leafs have the tools to turn this around overnight. This is an experienced team with depth at every position group – well, aside from goaltending at the moment – led by superstar athletes at the forefront of their primes. The season is eight games old. There is more than enough time. 

But help is not coming. It shouldn't be, at least. These players need to clean up their own mess for once, proving they are capable of righting the ship without having support airdropped from above. 

If they can't, no coaching change or flashy midseason acquisition will matter. 

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