WINNIPEG — Auston Matthews dismissed the late stages of Sunday’s 6-3 rowdy result to the Jets as “not really hockey … a bit of a gong show.”
It’s still in early in the season, but based on the reactions from Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans on Sunday, you’d never know the organization has 76 games to pull their season around and get things back on track. No, after a 7-1 loss at the hands of a very depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team, Leafs Nation is freaking out over a terrible start and a lack of production from some key contributors on this Leafs’ roster.
Mitch Marner has one assist in six games. Auston Matthews has played three since returning from injury and has no points. John Tavares has three points in six but is clearly slowing down. Nick Ritchie hasn’t popped up on the scoresheet yet and Ondrej Kase has one goal and no helpers. The team leader in points is the player most fans often talk about trading and everyone on the roster not named Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Michael Amadio is either even or a minus player.
These six games are being seen as a microcosm of a much larger problem, one that has plagued this franchise for a few seasons now. The window to win is rapidly closing and the prospects for the roster being productive while together are dwindling. The exodus started this past offseason and it will only continue.
Two people are responsible for this and one more than the other. You can’t blame the GM without pointing a finger at the person who hired him, but the GM has been the one pulling the trigger on a series of poor decisions that have clearly caught up to this team.
When Brendan Shanahan hired Kyle Dubas to be his new general manager in July of 2014, the decision was seen as progressive and astute. Dubas was young, he had a strong handle on analytics and he was bringing in a fresh perspective. The thought was he’d crunch the numbers, look at this team in a different way and make changes accordingly.
While much of the number-crunching speculation turned out to be true, one of the first big moves Dubas made was signing John Tavares to a massive contract in free agency. Tavares was a player the Leafs didn’t need, but he wanted to come home to Toronto and Dubas wanted to make a splash. Both the GM and the player got what they wanted.
Immediately the team transitioned into salary cap crisis mode. Giving Tavares $11 million over the course of seven seasons meant the Leafs were inevitably going to run into issues re-signing Nylander, Matthews and Marner. All contracts got done, but all negotiations were a bit contentious with the exception of Matthews who was pretty much going to get whatever he wanted.
Dubas went to work trying to plug holes in goal and on the blue line and while he was successful in some regard, he had to make sacrifices when he came to a number of crossroads. Essentially, Dubas has been lauded for his ability to work the salary cap with his numbers guy Brandon Pridham. The reality is, the two men are being applauded for barely being able to keep the team above water based on their cap restrictions.
Starting with the Tavares signing — Tavares is a great player but he wasn’t a necessity for the Maple Leafs — Dubas fell down a rabbit hole of transactions that haven’t panned out for Toronto. He moved Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie (who left in free agency then led the NHL in points for a defenseman), he traded a number of players to create cap flexibility, he made trades and signed free agents that barely moved the needle, and he lost big names to free agency, simply because he couldn’t afford to keep them.
The latest losses might be among the team’s most painful. Zach Hyman reportedly left the Maple Leafs over a no-trade clause. While there was talk the money was a big issue, Elliotte Friedman has reported that Hyman simply wanted security. Dubas wasn’t in a position to give it to him and the Edmonton Oilers were. Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen left for the Carolina Hurricanes (for a reasonable $4.5 million over two seasons) leaving the Maple Leafs without a proven starter. Jack Campbell might be the real deal, but he’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep as he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Nick Foligno was a disaster of a trade. Joe Thornton didn’t pan out. The grit is essentially all but gone and the future isn’t looking as bright as it should for a GM who was going to find gems in the draft others couldn’t find.
What’s perhaps more concerning than what Dubas has done with the roster is what he can do moving forward. As the prospect of going deep in the playoffs dwindle, some important pieces will likely be moving on.
Few expect Rielly to remain with the club after this season. He’s going to get paid on the open market and the Leafs simply can’t afford him. Meanwhile, even though he seems to love this team, Campbell could dart in free agency if the right offer comes along and Dubas can’t match. There’s always talk Auston Matthews might want to head home to Arizona and the best players on the team are taking all sorts of heat from the fan base as they band together in the face of unscrupulous critcism.
Right or wrong, Dubas has committed to his core four guys: Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. He seems unwilling to trade any of them, even though almost everyone knows that’s the one thing that can help him balance out his roster. His formula for winning hasn’t worked and Dubas seems relentless in his need to beat a dead horse.
What might be the most troubling is that if he makes a move, it will likely be the wrong one. The player with the most tradeable contract is Nylander, yet he leads the team in scoring and might be the most naturally skilled player of the four. Tavares isn’t going anywhere thanks to a full no-move clause and the fans seems to be chasing Marner out of town, which will inevitably bite the Maple Leafs in the a– if and when he’s traded.
As Corey Landberg accurately wrote on Twitter, “Imagine being Kyle Dubas and walking into Matthews, Marner, Nylander entering their prime, Rielly and Kadri on great contracts, a solid goalie, depth all over the roster and then you turn them into this crap 4 years later.”
Fans are losing their minds over the rough start to the 2021-22 season and many are blaming Dubas. What’s crazy is that this downward trend started a while ago. The 7-1 loss to the Penguins only shined a light on something most fans should have been aware of.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”
WINNIPEG — Auston Matthews dismissed the late stages of Sunday’s 6-3 rowdy result to the Jets as “not really hockey … a bit of a gong show.”
But a stumbling start was just as difficult for him and the Maple Leafs to watch, falling into a four-goal hole that made their attempt at back-to-back rallies near impossible.
While the loss was a missed chance to retrieve top spot in the division from idle Florida, leaving just one point from their Central Time Zone road trip, there were added damages. Defenceman Rasmus Sandin had to be helped to the dressing room after a knee-on-knee hit from defenceman Neil Pionk, a player who has a history of such incidents with the Leafs.
Coach Sheldon Keefe could provide no immediate update on Sandin before the team flew home, and Sandin’s Sunday night defence partner, Morgan Rielly, could only add he was in a lot of pain when they talked post-game. Sandin was a little off balance after shooting wide during a frantic 4-on-4 play around the Jets’ net and the replay showed Pionk’s attempt to impede him by sticking his leg out.
“It looks to me like it’s a five-minute major,” Keefe said. “Knee-on-knee, a guy gets carried off. But I didn’t get much from the officials in terms of how they saw it. Obviously, they didn’t see it, if they did, they probably would’ve called it differently.”
Before that, the stripes let Matthews and Pierre-Luc Dubois wrestle before eventually sending both off, while post-Sandin, Jason Spezza took a run at Pionk. Wayne Simmonds came out of the box for a crosscheck and 10-minute misconduct to engage Jets’ giant Logan Stanley, who exited the game like a WWE character, exhorting the crowd at Canada Life Centre. Kyle Clifford and Brenden Dillon had the only true fight of the night, but eight roughing minors and four cross checks were called throughout.
“There was a snowball effect, things spiralled out of control a bit,” said Matthews, who rarely takes penalties.
Captain John Tavares said Pionk lit the fuse.
“Obviously, we didn’t like the hit on Sandy. Any time you see a teammate go down like that and have to be carried off, we’ll stick up for one another.”
In the end, the thirst for revenge came back to bite them. Simmonds was in the box when Pionk and Kyle Connor set up Mark Scheifele for the insurance goal, the Jets’ third on the power play, after Matthews scored for the sixth straight game (a 5-on-3) and Ondrej Kase then cut Winnipeg’s lead to two.
It was the first loss for rookie goalie Joseph Woll in four starts relieving Jack Campbell and even he was shaken up, an accident when he came out of his crease to cover a puck from an on-rushing Jet with a glancing blow to the head. Woll finished the game but was not made available to the media.
“The first two periods, so many odd-man rushes, we didn’t give him any help,” Matthews said. “That’s on us. And he still made some pretty amazing saves (on 41 shots). The way we let them fly through and have all these odd-man rushes, that’s not yhe way you want to play.”
Matthews, Tavares, Rielly and William Nylander (injured Mitch Marner was kept out a second game, but due to return) were unable to cash their first power play, leaving it to Michael Bunting and the second unit to tie it after Dubois scored with Simmonds off. Ditto when the No. 1 unit had another opportunity late in the first. Then came wave after wave of Jets, goals by Andrew Copp, Evgeny Svechnikov, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. The guy everyone in the house wanted to score, captain Blake Wheeler, settled for two assists after a pre-game ceremony with his family on the ice.
Keefe’s team arrived around 1 a.m. local time after the shootout loss in Minnesota, but he was reluctant to go down that avenue of excuse.
“We did have lack of attention to detail, lack of structure, lack of purpose in the things that have made us (16-5-4). It would be easy to go to the fatigue factor, but that’s not good enough. This is the reality of the schedule; you have to play back-to-back. So you just have to be that much more focused, that much more detailed.”
As they did the night before in Minnesota down three, the Leafs didn’t break. They made the most of a 5-on-3, after some initial stick squeezing, isolating Matthews for a high snap on Connor Hellebuyck, giving him 15 on the season. Kase struck next with 24 minutes still to play.
As well resting Campbell, Keefe put Clifford in for Joey Anderson and Timothy Liljegren for Travis Dermott, though he tried splitting the Swedes up, putting Liljegren with Jake Muzzin.
“A gong show.”
That is how Auston Matthews described the spiraling debacle — on the ice and on the trainers’ table – that brought the Toronto Maple Leafs’ eight-game point streak on the road to a screeching halt on Sunday.
Heading into this frigid weekend back-to-back in the northernmost outposts of the Central Division, Minnesota and Winnipeg, things had been going so swimmingly for the lads in Blue and White that the events of the past 48 hours served up a harsh reminder of some of the club’s weak spots.
Let’s dig into a few takeaways from the Leafs’ 6-3 loss to the Jets on the night Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler celebrated his 1,000th game.
Dubois ragdolls Matthews
Referee Brad Meier might be wise to steer clear of Leafs Twitter for a minute.
Here’s where the gong began to clang.
With the score 5-3 Jets in the third period, Meier dinged both Matthews and Pierre-Luc Dubois for coincidental minors for this exchange:
Matthews took the high road post-game, allowing only that he’d be leaving the rink with a sour taste in his mouth.
“One of the best players in the world is in a situation that should be a power-play there,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, grabbing his sniper’s back. “That’s how it should work, and it didn’t.
“On the very next shift, you get one of your guys carried off and there’s no call there. Should be a 4-on-3, a five-minute power-play in a two-goal game, and it’s not. I just felt at that point, we needed some response.”
Pionk takes Sandin down with controversial knee
Through 26 games, the full health of the Maple Leafs’ seven-man D corps was a lingering source of mild tension, as every night a deserving blueliner was getting scratched.
Well, if Rasmus Sandin’s injury is as serious as it appeared, GM Kyle Dubas will be thankful he didn’t pull the trigger on a trade.
Immediately after Sandin let a shot fly in the third period, Jets defenceman Neal Pionk clipped the 21-year-old with a knee-on-knee hit.
No penalty was called on the play.
Sandin left the ice with assistance from Wayne Simmonds and Ondrej Kase and did not return. There was no immediate update on his condition.
“It looks to me like it’s a five-minute major. It’s a knee-on-knee. A guy gets carried,” Keefe told reporters postgame. “Obviously, [the officials] didn’t see it. I think if they see it, they probably would’ve called it differently. The league, I’m sure, will have a look.”
The Pionk hit set the Leafs off, captain John Tavares admitted.
So, we saw mild-mannered Jason Spezza lunge at Pionk’s head, and Wayne Simmonds chuck knuckles with Logan Stanley as the thing winded down to its messy conclusion.
Power-plays on fire
To be clear: When it came to the actual hockey portion of the hockey game, the more deserving side earned the two points.
That’s thanks, in large part, to Winnipeg’s reawakened offence, which struck thrice on the man-advantage.
The Maple Leafs, too, looked dangerous on the PP, with Michael Bunting and Matthews both cashing in on clean shots.
Matthews extended his goal streak to six games and is the first player to have four goal streaks of at least five games in a single calendar year since Brett Hull.
Toronto has 16 power-play goals over its past 18 games, solidifying it as a weapon. Which is probably why Keefe believed a couple calls might’ve salvaged his club a point.
Not unlike Tavares’s absence in the 2021 post-season, when you subtract Mitchell Marner from the Leafs lineup, the trickle effect exposes a lack of depth on the wings and on the PK.
Spezza filled in admirably in Minnesota and on the man-advantage, yet the rejigged first line took on water against the high-powered Jets attack.
With Pierre Engvall dropping to Spezza’s spot on the fourth line and Nick Ritchie moving to David Kampf’s line, that checking unit had a rough go dealing with Winnipeg’s speed.
The Leafs fed the home team’s transition game and exposed rookie goalie Joseph Woll to a rash of odd-man rushes. Plus, Marner’s instincts could’ve come in handy on the kill.
“[Marner] is not a guy you can just replace,” Matthews said. “But we have a lot of belief in our group. No matter who I play with, I have confidence in every single guy out there.”
Campbell or bust?
The 3-0 career start of Woll is a lovely story.
He’s a great, hard-working kid who has endeared himself to the big club.
But until he stared across at Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets, Woll had only faced offences in the weaker half of the league: Sabres, Islanders, Sharks. Non-playoff teams, all of them.
The likes of Wheeler, Dubois, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Nikolaj Ehlers pumping 41 shots in your direction?
That’s a whole other animal.
Sure, Woll could’ve used more help in his own zone. But he let in six — a reminder why Toronto spent millions on an NHL-proven backup over the summer.
So… how’s he doing?
Petr Mrazek lost 5-1 to Laval on Sunday starting for the Marlies in Game 1 of his AHL conditioning stint, stopping 22 of the 26 shots he faced. Coach Greg Moore liked what he saw.
“He looked good, didn’t look like he was hesitant. I thought he gave us a great effort and kept us in the game and a lot of mistakes and reasons for the pucks going in the net were on us,” Moore said.
After 53 days between starts, Mrazek said he felt great despite the loss.
“It’s good to get the action going and see the plays from the ice and how the game goes,” Mrazek said. “So, happy to be back and happy to see the action.”
WINNIPEG — It would have been easy for Zach Collaros to throw up his hands in the air and get discouraged.
After all, he’d driven the Winnipeg Blue Bombers down the field on each of the first two possessions and done his part to ensure his team found its way into the end zone in Sunday’s CFL West final.
Instead of watching his team build an early two-touchdown advantage after a pair of impressive drives, the quarterback was probably left in disbelief by a bobbled ball by Nic Demski in the end zone that led to an unlikely interception and a fumble by Drew Wolitarsky at the two-yard line that turned into a 94-yard recovery going the other direction.
But that’s not the way that Collaros rolls.
He wasn’t about to feel sorry for himself and he was quick to look for solutions and for ways to lead his team to victory.
So, no this will not go down as an offensive explosion for Collaros, but thanks to a stout defensive effort and an impressive ground attack led by the return of running back Andrew Harris from a knee injury, the Blue Bombers are heading back to the Grey Cup after earning a 21-17 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday before a raucous crowd of 31,160 at IG Field.
“There were some things that happened where there were some turnovers but nobody panicked in any phase of our team,” said Collaros, who finished the game 17-of-21 for 229 yards, with one touchdown (to Rasheed Bailey) and three picks. “(Coach Mike) O’Shea came in and gave us a little talk, obviously not rah-rah or anything, just told us to be ourselves. We were able to do that.”
The remarkable thing is that Collaros had only one pass attempt hit the ground and that came on a drop by fullback Mike Miller.
The three other misses ended up in the hands of an opponent, including two ill-advised passes — one into coverage and the other caused by pressure when he was trying to throw the ball away but put it into the hands of linebacker Nigel Harris.
That first interception came at the end of an impressive drive to open the game and should have been a touchdown for Demski, who lost the handle and deflected the ball right into the waiting hands of Ed Gainey.
However, when his team needed him most, the West nominee for the Most Outstanding Player award delivered a couple of important strikes on methodical drives that put Winnipeg ahead.
The first of those was an outstanding grab by Kenny Lawler late in the third quarter as he was falling to the turf and the other was a Darvin Adams completion early in the fourth that extended a drive.
One of the feel-good stories coming out of the game was the return of Harris, a Winnipegger who had been plagued by a knee injury for the past seven weeks.
Although he was officially listed as a game-time decision and his only full practice came on Wednesday before he suffered a setback, Harris wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to play in front of his hometown crowd with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line.
Harris, who was the MVP of the 2019 Grey Cup, played the role of a bulldozer in this one, pacing the offensive attack with 23 rushes for 136 yards, averaging nearly six yards per carry.
And these weren’t easy yards either, as many of them came with Harris dragging the pile along with him.
Earlier this week, Blue Bombers offensive lineman Pat Neufeld called Harris the heartbeat of the team.
On Sunday, Harris did his part to provide an emotional lift.
When he wasn’t in the backfield providing protection or running the ball ferociously, there was Harris running up and down the sideline, trying his best to get the fans into it as the defence pushed for a stop.
Harris recognized the importance of playing in a West final against the team’s biggest rival and as he’s done so often during the course of his career, he raised his level of play on the grand stage.
“Definitely a memorable one for the fans and for this organization,” said Harris, who was limited to seven games during the regular season after suffering the knee injury following a touchdown against the Edmonton Elks on Oct. 16. “I’ve been in this league for a long time and played a lot of snaps. I know that it’s win or go home in these situations. There’s a certain attitude, a certain stigma, a certain feeling that you get in playoff time. I never want to go home in these situations. I want to give it all that I have. That energy, that enthusiasm, that fire in your belly just elevates and your play kind of comes out after that.”
Harris was quick to credit the play of the offensive line and also shared his appreciation for those on the defence.
“It means that we’re resilient and we’ve got thick skin,” said Harris, who finished with 145 all-purpose yards and scored on a one-yard touchdown run. “There’s no quit in our team. We didn’t give up, we didn’t falter. We came in at halftime and really just looked around and said ‘hey, what are we doing here guys?’ We were just making small mistakes, little things. We definitely secured our emotions and came out in the second half with a different attitude.”
Speaking of that vaunted defence, the Blue Bombers had some extraordinary performances from the defensive dozen this season.
But it was the collective unit that delivered what was mostly a masterpiece in this game — with the exception of a couple of missed tackles on a 67-yard catch-and-run for Duke Williams.
However, the defence was the biggest reason the Blue Bombers faced only a three-point deficit at halftime, despite a whopping five turnovers in the opening two quarters.
In the final minute of the fourth quarter, with the Roughriders putting a drive together much like they did a week earlier to defeat the Calgary Stampeders, the Bombers defence came up big again.
On a third-and-three, Blue Bombers defensive back Nick Taylor knocked down a pass that was intended for Mitchell Picton.
That was the exclamation point for a defence that kept Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo in check — especially in the running game as the fleet-footed pivot was limited to 21 yards on six rushes.
Speaking of impact plays, Blue Bombers defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat each finished with two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
But Winnipeg has things to work on before next week’s Grey Cup in Hamilton against the host Tiger-Cats.
In addition to the three interceptions, the Blue Bombers had a couple of fumbles that were forced by good defensive plays.
Punter Marc Liegghio failed to convert on a botched fake in the third quarter as he was trying to catch the Roughriders with too many men on the field, and the Blue Bombers finished with a six-pack of giveaways.
For a team that prides itself on ball security, that didn’t sit well with O’Shea.
The Blue Bombers know full well they’ll need to do a better job on the ball security front.
“Absolutely. It’s a good lesson. There’s a couple things to take away from that,” said O’Shea. “One is just move on and focus on the next play. Just understand the situation and move on. And two, that we have to play cleaner, or it’s not always going to look like that. They trust each other as a team and they have each other’s backs, and that’s very important. That gets tested, don’t get me wrong. That gets tested in a game like this. But if I looked back at how they passed this test compared to other teams I’ve been associated with would fare on that test, it was amazing. And not just the outcome. I’m talking about how they figured it out and stuck together and got going.
“I don’t feel lucky, if that’s what you’re asking. I mean, we’ve got a good defence. And we know Sask took the ball away and our defence held them in check. So it’s not good fortune. That’s hard work and preparation, guys going out there with the right mindset saying, ‘I love this opportunity,’ not ‘Woe is me, oh my gosh, we turned the ball over.’ They step on the field and go, ‘This is awesome. Let’s go. Make our teammates proud.’”
Instead of lamenting an upset loss that would have haunted them throughout the off-season, the Blue Bombers overcame the adversity presented to them and will now have the opportunity to extend their reign as champions.
Great teams find a way even when they might not be clicking on all cylinders and the only thing that matters right now to the Blue Bombers is that they found a way to extend their season.
There are no style points at this time of year, just a recognition they’ll need to be sharper next Sunday.
“I can’t really explain it. It’s not like us. It’s unexplainable and it’s inexcusable,” said Harris. “We’ve got to be better. All parties need to be better and everyone on offence needs to be better.
“The ball is the Cup. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t win games and you can’t win the Grey Cup. So, we need to have the ball in our hands, to secure it and hold onto that and keep it for long drives.”
The Grey Cup is a rematch of the 2019 event, although this time the Tiger-Cats will be on their home field — which should only add to the intrigue.
“It means everything because it’s the only goal we set out to do,” said Blue Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill. “This is such a special group of guys that put in such a huge amount of work, collectively, for each other. No egos. No Me’s and no I’s. It’s all we’s and for each other. Our locker room is something special. It’s something that I love and value so much and I know all the guys do, too.
“Because it’s such a good feeling that we lay it out there on the line for each other and we believe in each other, and we know we’re going to get it done and we’re going to leave it all out on the field. Defending the Cup is right where we want to be, and our hard work has got us to this point.”
As Harris was departing the field waving a massive blue flag with a W on it and handed out a few high-fives with fans in the crowd, you got the sense he would like to be part of another celebration.
If that’s going to happen, you can expect Harris to find himself in the middle of the action once again.
When asked if the Tiger-Cats might have a score to settle dating back to the result in 2019, Harris ended his press gathering with two words that served as the equivalent of a mic drop.
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