Game 9 for the Leafs and a critical game against Boston.

It all happened so quickly. Only 8 games into the NHL season and they were facing the Boston Bruins in a game that could begin the undoing of the Shanahan, Dubas,Babcock troika.

After 8 games, weaknesses were starting to appear that had many fans questioning the direction the franchise was heading. So far, the Leafs had only managed to beat lesser teams, one of which was Minnesota(bottom of the league). They had even lost to arch rival Montreal, 6 to 5 in OT. When the Leafs lost to the better teams, they looked bad doing it. They seemed to lack conviction in their top 6 and were getting pushed around while avoiding any contact. They often looked they were playing in an all star game while the other teams had realized just to push them around and they would fold.

When the Leafs were pushed, such as Shea Weber's thunderous hit on captain John Tavares or last night when Tom Wilson smashed their captain, there was no response. To make matters worse, Toronto's goaltending had been inconsistent at best, exposing their brand new, super offensive defense with Jake Muzzin heading into unrestricted free agency as was newly acquired Codi Ceci and Tyson Barrie.It was possible Morgan Reilly could be their only returning defenseman next year and he hadn't even got his huge raise yet ! Both Ceci and Barrie hadn't played that well and after 8 games only 3 teams in the NHL had let in more goals against.

But it got better, Leafs Captain John Tavares had broken his finger in last night's physical affair versus the Washington Capitals. Teams had learned to target and get physical with the Leafs and shut their stars down. Both Auston Mathews and Mitch Marner had not looked worth the money they were making, especially with the play of Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid. Many were starting to say Dubas was a soft touch, much like his team, and had overpaid at $40 M for just 4 players. That his giving in to so much  left other areas weak, such as backup goaltender and defense.

The Leafs looked lacklustre at times, looking to make perfect plays and score pretty goals. On top of that Coach Mike Babcock made some odd late game decisions such as Kapanen and Kerfoot on late, when they needed a goal. He has been slow to make needed adjustments or call time outs at important times in the game . It wasn't all Babcock's fault though since his team had the wrong balance for these type of hard fought games against good teams. In addition backup goalie Hutchinson had not looked good either. Good goaltending covers many sins.

Babcock had likely asked for certain types of players and the Leafs were all offense. Was that a GM outlook because I doubt Babcock wanted to take an all offense team into the playoffs in the brutal East.Unless Frederick Andersen played the second coming of Patrick Roy this team would get slaughtered. Many said the team had even regressed after changing 9 players on the roster. They had gotten rid of all the passengers and had brought in the guys the young, inexperienced GM Kyle Dubas had specifically said were needed to win in today's new, gentler game

So, what had happened ? Well the Leafs weren't drawing penalties, so they were unable to punish other teams the way other teams punished the Leafs captain with impunity. The word was out, hit the Leaf stars and win, there will be no response the team is "soft as butter" just like the GM who designed it that way.

The net result is that Toronto's next game against arch rival, the Boston Bruins was now critical with star Captain Tavares injured. You see many Leaf fans were starting to not only question the balance the team had but if they had just overpaid for 4 players creating critical holes in the team.There defense was no better, the coaching was dull and unimaginative and the GM looked foolish as if he was stuck on some perceived NHL omnibus against physicality many years from now.

To make matters worse of  the 6 Canadian home games on Tuesday, only the Toronto Maple Leafs had sold out and Ottawa's attendance numbers were already horrible. Potentially signaling the failure of the new and improved  Bettman brand of NHL hockey in Canada. Perhaps many fans who liked NFL, Wrestling,UFC etc. enjoyed that part of the game. Perhaps those were the majority who were fed up with no cup in Canada ever since the legendary Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux overcame some nasty officiating to win it all so,so long ago.

One could sense the growing frustration of fans with Toronto. They had been sold on improvement, glowing new ideologies and techniques to help the team on special teams etc. That you didn't need defenseman unless they had skill and could skate and pass like the wind. To make it better they were in danger now of losing the only defenseman who could play defense in Jake Muzzin as a free agent.

So, in only game 8, the whole management team would go on the grill against a very good Boston team who was 5 and 1. What did it mean? If the Leafs played poorly or were pushed around or another star got injured, the heat was going to go up very early this season. Someone would need to take the blame because when you wait since 1967, no one can say your not patient and the way this team is playing they won't get far in the playoffs again without big changes.

As of this writing Toronto's 3rd line of  Moore,Kerfoot and Mikheyev was their best line with their 4th line being very effective. But the top 6 plus  their defense and goaltending were very subpar as was the coaching. At some point the howls from the fans and media will be "why?"  It was only game 9 but already a critical game was about to be played that would likely alter their direction should they lose in the wrong fashion. It was highly unlikely Leaf fans wanted to see another first round exit this year.

Everyone loves the playoffs and in a sense it was coming early this year. What better test to see what this team was truly made of than the red hot division rivals Boston Bruins who had already handed them 2 first round exits ?

Are the Toronto Maple Leafs better than last season ?

In a nutshell, the answer is yes. The Maple Leafs are a year older, there are no hold outs, i.e: no William Nylander holdouts this year. Center John Tavares is now settled in, and of course, star winger Mitch Marner is under contract for a very comfortable 6 years. Goalie Frederick Andersen has looked stellar in pre season play and back up Hutchinson should be good for 20 plus games this year. On defense often spotty defenseman Jake Gardiner has been replaced by Tyson Barrie in the Nazem Kadri trade and Kerfoot has settled into his 3rd line duties.

On paper this team looked good to go. Defenseman Rasmus Sandin had made the team and with Dermott out with injury, Marincin had taken the number 6 slot , as place holder. There was pressure squarely on coach Mike Babcock now, as another first round exit would be disastrous. Leaf  GM Kyle Dubas had his own little cult following, who believed that despite the last 2 Stanley Cup winners ( Washington and St. Louis) that size,grit and character were no longer needed and old school Babcock needed to be enlightened. There was no longer any need to protect stars, the refs would do that for them. ROFL.

There was, in fact, one small problem, Dubas had backed himself, for now, into cap Hell . IIya Michalev, at 24 years of age had replaced injured winger Zach Hyman. Hyman was now starting to feel the wear and tear of going in the corners alone. Meanwhile, the gritty Kadri had been banished for stopping his teammates from being attacked by the NHL loved(dirty play, what dirty play?) big,bad Bruins.

Nikita Zaitsev and his contract was traded away along with Connor Brown who himself had been replaced by  the up and comin Trevor Moore. Former first rounder Fredrick Gauthier had finally played well enough to get Babcock's attention and Spezza gave that veteran presence for the 4th line, if needed.

Everything is perfect for Toronto to have an even better season this year. But did that matter? No, not really. The regular season now was more of a formality. There is almost no one who would bet against this team making the playoffs. The great thing is, less could be more for the Leafs. Why? Because if they finished lower in the standings they won't have to play their arch nemesis, the Boston Bruins again. Now I ask you, just how bad could that be? To make it even better, the Leafs have no first rounder this year anyway.

This was a season to be enjoyed by the Leaf fans. Cherished even. No matter what happened this season, they were playoff bound. The worst that could happen is they play Boston again. This would be probably the best offensive season for the Toronto Maple Leafs ever. But that wasn't the question. Will Dubas make the changes needed to ensure first round success this year ? I believe he will. Dubas has no other choice and is fully committed now.

Enjoy Leaf fans, I can assure you this will be a season like no other. Expect first round victory this year ! Or heads will surely roll !

Update October 7th 2019: The Leafs had a good start to the season landing 5 out of 6 pts. In the 3rd game in 4 nights, they took a 4 to 1 lead before folding and losing to Carey Price, 6 to 5 in shootout fashion.Montreal's captain Shea Weber crushed  Leaf captain John Tavares, setting the tone and Toronto was unable to respond. It showed a critical flaw that Leaf GM Kyle Dubas must address before the playoffs and most likely before the Trade deadline. The Leafs lack the type of player who can set the tone and act as a deterrent to their Captain and star players getting ambushed. Yes, they ran out of gas, Yes, Kapanen lost it much like Kadri did in frustration. But also, moral dropped right around when Weber crushed new Leaf Captain John Tavares.

You can't blame the coach if you won't give him the tools he needs. This team is overloaded with flash talent, but does it have the right balance to finally get through the first round and take on teams like Washington, Boston and St Louis?

On an upnote, Toronto's third line of Russian rookie winger Mikheyev, newly acquired  center Kerfoot and  winger Trevor Moore has been both a revelation and Toronto's best line. They exude hustle,speed and determination and  have been very effective so far.

Leaf GM Kyle Dubas has some assets in layers like Barrie(UFA) and Kapanen that he could package for some cap relief and different type of players. The Leafs are blessed with Liljegren and Sandin and need to re sign Jake Muzzin. I don't know what to say about Kapanen but he doesn't see to fit anywhere.I have heard Barrie will want $7 Million plus and don't see how the Leafs can fit that in. They also have players like Bracco, Korshkov and Engvall pushing upwards.