Well, there was a great story out of Hockey Night in Canada this past weekend. While it did involve someone who is employed by Toronto, it was not a great story for the Leafs themselves.
42-year-old David Ayres, who by day is the zamboni driver at the Coca-Cola Coliseum (home of the Toronto Marlies, AHL affiliate of the Maple Leafs) made his NHL debut as the emergency back-up goalie (EBUG) for the Carolina Hurricanes at Scotiabank Arena. Not only is his story great because he is the oldest goalie to win in his NHL debut, but he also had a kidney transplant back in 2004 and was named the first star of the game, helping Carolina secure a 6-3 win. What a story — for Ayres and the Hurricanes. For the Leafs, not so much.
Surely after the dust settled from the embarrassing loss on Saturday the Leafs players and staff were happy for Ayres’ once in a lifetime moment. But losing to a 42-year-old EBUG points to some of the team’s deeper issues. Maybe it took this crazy scenario for people to truly see the issues the Leafs have, but they’ve been there all season long.
What a bizarre week it has been for the Leafs. After losing 5-2 in Buffalo last Sunday, they dropped another 5-2 game to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While they managed to rebound and beat Pittsburgh two days later (4-0), the 6-3 loss to Carolina and their now-famous EBUG nailed their coffin shut.
Dating back to the firing of Mike Babcock and the games leading to his dismissal, the Leafs have been poor defensively. As great as they are to watch in the offensive zone, or really the majority of the time they have possession of the puck, their play without the puck is troubling, sometimes mind-boggling. Simply getting rid of Babcock was not going to solve these problems. In fact, maybe it was Babcock’s insistence of the team, namely the star players, to play better defensively that made the players not like him.
Brendan Shanahan made it clear in November — he believes in Kyle Dubas. After the loss this weekend to Carolina, a lot of fans were calling for Dubas’ job. There may be some questionable decisions that Dubas has made, but to put this all on him? Not too sure that is right, either. The Leafs had a lot of really good players who wanted a contract that matched their worth and Dubas made it happen. The Leafs wanted to win the John Tavares sweepstakes, and Dubas helped make that happen. As the saying goes, a general manager deserves their own coach and Dubas now has his guy. Keefe has certainly had some success, but there is clearly a long way to go for this team to be anywhere close to cup-contention.
The showing this past week against Carolina, as well as the two losses to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, shows that the on-ice product is not anywhere near what is expected with what the Leafs have on paper. It’s not what the Leafs fans have been waiting for — through all of the pain over the past 10, 15, 20, 30 or 50 years. While the Leafs are struggling and there have been some injuries to key players, there is also a team across the hall from them who has managed a 42-15 record with at least as many injuries to the better half of their roster. So where is the disconnect? Is there a misunderstanding of what it takes to win night in and night out in professional hockey? Is it bad luck? Is it a lack of desire to compete?
There are a number of problems the Leafs have right now and Keefe is right, they have not developed the type of culture that breeds championships. No matter how many issues they may have, it’s time for them to figure it out, or else they’ll be heading to the golf courses early this season.