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The Leafs furious start hits a speed bump. The silver lining.

Over the course of a gruelling 82 game season every team does it, they hit the wall, so to speak, as their schedule gets tougher. The Leafs seemingly were off to a record start with Mathews and Tavares ready to score 200 goals between them and Morgan Reilly about to demolish everything Bobby Orr has ever done, they had defeated the Stanley cup champs in their own barn but then Sidney Crosby arrived. The Leafs were quickly reminded that unless Andersen was in top form and ready to carry the team's defense they weren't going to just outscore everyone 7 to 6 as Gretzky and the Oilers used to in the 1980's. The NHL had changed and now teams had defense, good goalies and their own offense. Next came St Louis, a team off to bad a start and hungry to win and  win they did, beating the Maple Leafs  soundly 4 to 1. The Leafs were off to a very respectable 6 and 3 start but a certain reality had set in. The Leafs were waiting for Andersen to win every game again. They weren't hustling and were waiting for their power play or  power fully loaded offense to allow them to cheat other teams in the NHL.

Alas, the Maple Leafs were in the Eastern conference a complete beast that would only get worse as the season progressed. They had the Stanley cup champions Washington Capitals, there was Crosby,Malkin,Murray and former Leaf Phil Kessel, Yzerman's Stanley cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning not to mention arch nemesis Boston Bruins with that damn Chara on defense, not to mention former Leaf Tukka Rask in net. And let's not mention the Leaf's record against improving Buffalo and their loss to a surprising Ottawa Senator ,team. Perhaps the golden bubble had burst after all it was now some 10 games into the season and the other NHL teams would now start finding their game. By game 20 teams have usually worked on their weaknesses and started to gel, playing to their potential, as it were. The Leafs had found their potential early blowing teams straight out of the barn with a high powered offense, a much vaunted power play and some timely saves from goalies Andersen and new backup Garret Sparks.

Kyle Dubas had just flown over to Switzerland to talk to hold out William Nylander with one GM claiming Nylander wanted more than he was worth, rumoured to be $8 Million/yr long term. So Dubas had one chip he might be able to parlay into 2 things the Leafs would need to win a cup. Grit, hustle and defense but at $8 Million per year would there be any GM's willing to gamble on William Nylander and his potential ? It now seemed dubious. You see Dubas now not only had to find a GM willing and able to eat that kind of lunch but that GM must also have a top 2 defenseman he was willing to part with and that would take time. As the season progresses teams become hungry for offense ( see Philly signs JVR) as a lack of it can mean no playoffs, something many owners dread. At that point the pressure goes on the GM to " Do something !" from both ownership, the media and of course, the fans. Advantage Dubas, his team was going to the playoffs and he had until December first to make any hard and fast decision on the future of Leaf forward William Nylander who may have put himself into an odd position. Did any team want Nylander at $8 Million per year ? Could anyone fit that under their cap ? Possibly not and with Kappanen filling in admirably would the Leafs even consider it?

In all of this there was a definite silver lining. Many of the Leaf's support players were not playing upto par yet. Players such as Kadri, Brown, Johnsson, Gardiner all had more to give while Freddie Andersen has a penchant for starting to carry the team on his back around the game 20 mark, yet to come. The Leafs had lacked hustle and the lack of grit and determination found in players such Gilmour, Clark, Tucker, Domi etc. wasn't there. Their defense wasn't as good as some elite teams yet and everyone had forgotten how Andersen single handedly won many games last year while facing more rubber than a Goodyear factory. The Leafs were nowhere near firing on all cylinders and once the scoring machine Mathews and Tavares cooled they were now losing games and their weaknesses were being exposed early in the season. This was a blessing for Coach Babcock and a wake up call for the team. There was more to hockey than a hot power play. It was, in a way, back to the drawing board for Babcock who could now say " You see ! I told you this is the NHL!" and for new GM Kyle Dubas who now had much to ponder  with regards to the Nylander situation and the Leaf's needs for the rest of the season and the Playoffs in the Beastly East. After all the Leafs could be facing Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay or even Boston in the first round. Heaven help the Leafs if they think a questionable defense or a lack of grit and determination would get them past that group. Thankfully the management now knows this and so do many of the Leaf's rabid fans. Stay tuned, this soap we call Leaf Nation should get very interesting soon,as it always does in Toronto the center of the hockey media universe.

Is it time for the Leafs to consider trading Nylander?

With the signing of star Center John Tavares this summer, the Leafs hieracrchy changed and so did their cap situation, future speak.. they said. "We will manage it" they said. Then suddenly, the Toronto Maple Leaf's cap situation managed them. Did Dubas etc. foresee this ? Most likely. By signing Tavares Dubas gave himself leverage over a younger player who couldn't just walk away. Tavares apparently, only agreed to sign after talking to star Center Auston Mathews about " He better be in it for the long haul !"

So what did this all mean ? Radical culture change. This was now a family with a cause. To bring the cup back home for the first time since 1967, a  massive feat, given the history of this franchise that has only been matched by the Chicago Cubs. Alas, William Nylander advised by those not so interested in accomplishing that goal and more in longterm dollars derailed his chance. For better or worse the perception of many Leaf fans was that Nylander and his dad were greedy or Nylander was a spoilt millenial kid who said " I have to look after myself." And he was right perhaps, if one doesn't care about winning silverware. What he doesn't appreciate is that he hasn't really accomplished that much so far in his career. His play in last year's playoffs was underwheming to say the least, especially when you are playing alongside the likes of Auston Mathews, a player who many consider of the highest order. He hasn't shown anyone he is better than say Ehlers of Winnipeg who makes $6.5 Million per year, nor is he any better than The Maple Leaf's Morgan Reilly or Nazem Kadri, who make far less with more impact and a more substantial track record. Nylander is still all potential. His agent looks at Mathews and Mitch Marner and speculates what they might sign for or be worth and doesn't want his client to miss out on his big payday. The problem is Marner grew up dreaming a Maple Leafs cup at night and will never leave without one. Auston Mathews has already given his word to John Tavares who signed below market value to come here. Reilly and Kadri took fair market to be here.This left Nylander, the black sheep outside looking in.

The major point of weakness that will stop the Toronto Maple Leafs from winning the cup is and always will be defense. It is weak and pourous. The only 2 defenseman I wouldn't trade are Morgan Reilly and a young kid in Travis Dermott who is still learning the game. Veteran Ron Hainsey is now 37, Jake Gardiner will be a unrestricted free agent soon. Zaitsev was fresh coming off a brutal injury plagued year that left him as a question mark as was the rest of the whole defense. Everyone keeps saying it is "team defense." it isn't, it is a bad defense, a gambling, offense driven defense. The Leafs have the likes of Timothy Liljegren and newly drafted Sandin in their prospect pool and can't afford to get nothing for Gardiner. Their forward ranks are stacked and Tavares is an upgrade on Nylander supplying both proven experience, loyalty to the cause and leadership for Mathews.

Like it or not, this is a business yet no one should be above the team/ family and Nylander has broken rank. The Maple leafs have no choice now but to try and trade William Nylander and his dad/agent for the badly missing piece on defense. They have the assets to trade with and can throw in the likes of Gardiner, Zaitsev or even a first rounder/ prospects, if need be. I don't see that Dubas has much choice anymore. The season has started and once again the Maple Leafs defense has looked bad to many fans. They are simply outscoring the opposition as Tavares slowly adjusts to his new team, it often takes at least 10 games to gel. As the games get tougher, the need for a defenseman and more grit will get more pronounced. The last thing this team needs is to give up assets such as Gardiner( see JVR) and lose in the first round again. Maple Leaf fans need to brace for it, William Nylander could soon very well be gone and if he is, it is for the good of the team. If he must "take care of himself first." then so must this team. When you consider a trade you must look at many variables and one is, does this player want to be here and win ? The answer is "no !" For better or worse he has put himself above the team at a time they have a glaring need only his value can draw in a trade. No team will give you a star defenseman under contract or of major value for nothing anymore. They are simply too valuable and there is no way Toronto can fit one under cap and sign William Nylander to major dollars longterm. Something must give way and I highly doubt it is Dubas or Shanahan who will do so. Brace for it Leaf fans but unless Nylander and his agent give in, his days as a Leaf are now numbered.

I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on William Nylander's value to another team but you have to admit a package of say Nylander, soon to be UFA Jake Gardiner and a conditional first rounder will get some GM"s attention and I will bet those discussions will now start in earnest.

Update Oct. 22 2018: Dubas feels no pressure to trade Nylander. Both rumours and Nylander can sit. The minute Dubas signed Tavares he had till Dec 1st. Let's put one ice on it. Odds of Nylander being traded right now . Low.

Update Oct 27 2018 : Kapanen is more than filling in for Willy and I doubt he seeks $8M / yr. Kappanen was rated higher than Nylander before the draft, maybe they were right because he scores the big goals consistently.

Update Nov 17th 2018. All is quiet on the Eastern front. The Leafs minus Mathews and Nylander are in first place. The Leafs can now ice Nylander for the year causing a loss of $$$ he will never recoup sending a loud message. Think I'm crazy ? See Bell, NFL: Pitts Stealers.