It was real easy to reach for the comparison.
The opponent, the trappings, the one dissenting performance from an individual standpoint from the one player, Jason Spezza, who can avoid being sucked in by the tide of negativity, it was almost as though history was repeating itself for the Toronto Maple Leafs almost two years after the fateful night in Pittsburgh which seemed to seal the highest-profile coaching dismissal in recent NHL history.
It is exceedingly unlikely that this latest embarrassment — a 7-1 thumping to the Sidney Crosby-less, Evgeni Malkin-less, Kris Letang-less Penguins (which was technically one worse than the pounding Mike Babcock took in his second-to-last game behind the bench) — will carry with it similar consequence. No one thinks Sheldon Keefe is losing his job here. But along with proving there may be more demons per capita in Pittsburgh than any city other than Boston, Saturday's loss may be similar in that it has underscored some very real, very glaring issues at the forefront of this highly concerning start for the Maple Leafs.
Keefe has said he inherited a fractured group then. Is it broken again now?
Here are the six primary issues that have surfaced through the first six games of the season, and which contributed to Saturday's horrific result.
1. Mitch Marner
It seems until now the regular season served as a safe haven for Mitch Marner. Even in the most trying moments, and in particular after that nasty, nasty summer spent negotiating his big boy contract, Marner had the ability to suck fans back in. His immense talent, that fun-loving personality, his extraordinary partnership with Auston Matthews — these were all things that could collectively outweigh the negatives.
The problem with Marner is that his best comes and goes, and routinely exits at the worst time. It's the reason his support is cyclical. It's a big reason why the Leafs haven't won a postseason series in five tries.
One main difference from this season is that Marner isn't performing while free of the immense pressure that has suffocated the room in recent postseasons. With one point from his first six games, Marner is toiling through the worst start to a season in his career, and his current five-game pointless streak is his longest in four seasons.
Used to producing in the top percentile of NHL forwards, Marner is the lone forward still waiting to be on the ice for a Maple Leafs goal at five-on-five.
It's worth wondering how this is affecting him mentally. In some ways the poster child for the mental hurdles this team has been routinely tripped up by, Marner could be especially vulnerable in this moment. His performance seems to support that theory.
Every time he encounters one, Marner answers a slump with a scoring pop. It's likely that another is coming, but it's possible that it won't completely fix what ails him this time.
The Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl partnership had been a revelation over the last few seasons for the Leafs. Engineering a legitimate shutdown pair from a midseason acquisition and tenured farmhand was one of the major steps taken toward contendership under Kyle Dubas. It has allowed Morgan Rielly to open up his game and it has prevented Keefe from having to thrust prospects and newcomers into roles they weren't prepared for.
Toronto has depended so heavily on Muzzin and Holl. That's why it should be no surprise that things are falling apart when the two are not on their games.
It's been atrocious so far for these two. Muzzin and Holl have been on the ice for nine goals against at five-on-five, which is tops for a defensive pairing NHL-wide. There were some unfortunate bounces, but there was also some incredibly sloppy play from them both in the Pittsburgh loss. They picked four pucks out of their own net in that game alone. The task in that game, mind you, was not to shut down Crosby, Malkin, Bryan Rust or even Jeff Carter. They saw more of Dominik Simon and Sam Lafferty than anyone else. Woof.
Simply put, Muzzin and Holl have to get right.
3. Still, the goaltending depth
It was relatively peachy for Jack Campbell before the Pittsburgh outing. Campbell had given up more goals in parts of four games, and not more than one in a single regulation. Bad starts happen, and he had one in Pittsburgh. You move forward.
The problem is that Campbell is suffering from the same fate as his predecessor, Frederik Andersen, which is an obvious lack of capable support. There is an incredible amount of pressure when the success of the team hinges on whether you are fit enough and performing well enough to be in the crease. It will be that way until Petr Mrazek returns, and will remain a threat as long as Toronto continues to keep Michael Hutchinson as its third goaltender.
Hutchinson allowed only two goals in relief, but he was one of the primary reasons the Pittsburgh loss finished as ugly as it did. After a second intermission reset, he allowed a goal 20 seconds into the third period, immediately eliminating the possibility of the Leafs earning a moral victory. This was after his performance in a start Friday night versus the San Jose Sharks was the primary reason the Maple Leafs dropped the first half of their weekend back-to-back. It's reached the point of inexcusable.
It is so secondary and unimportant given the other issues, but it always seems to rear its ugly head. One of the major failures of this regime is failing to develop a netminder that can move up and down without waivers to help when needed.
Be it his starts or relief, Hutchinson hurts this team.
4. The Hyman void
Even with Zach Hyman currently boasting more goals that Matthews, Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander combined (indeed you read that right), the Maple Leafs could still be proven right in moving on from the elite utility forward. In the here and now, however, the decision is having a negative impact on the success of the team.
Three bodies were brought in to fill that void, and each are having varied degrees of success. Michael Bunting has definitely been the strongest of the three, scoring twice and helping drive some reasonable results. Ondrej Kase has had his moments, too, though his opportunity has been limited. That leaves the most expensive of the three, Nick Ritchie, who has been an absolute non factor to this point.
quick reminder to hop aboard the Bunting Bandwagon while there's still room pic.twitter.com/l0AldMV6oA
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) October 22, 2021
Ritchie is without a point and is averaging less than one shot per outing with Marner and Matthews as his most common linemates. Keefe was given an opportunity to bury him in a post-game presser but instead vouched for his player. The reward from Ritchie was another pitiful performance, which wasn't complete without a demotion.
Alex Kerfoot is another player who could eat into those Hyman minutes after David Kampf took over his third-line centre function. Aside from a two-point performance in Ottawa, he's essentially been a non-factor.
Aside from Bunting, effort seems to be lacking among the Hyman replacements. Which is, of course, something Hyman was never without.
5. The captain
The captain should consider himself lucky that, to this point, he's spent a reasonable amount of time moving in lockstep with Nylander, whose been the Leafs' best and most consistent player to this point. Nylander has driven tremendous individual results, keeping 64.5 percent expected goals while leading Leafs forwards in on-ice shot and shot attempt volume.
Tavares has been a considerable part of that, as the Leafs have had really strong results when the two have shared the ice. The thing is, Tavares' impact has fallen off the table with the time spent away from Nylander. A 78 percent expected goals with Nylander plummets to 41 percent in 50 minutes without the Leafs' leading scorer.
At $11 million and only halfway through the life of his deal, Tavares has to drive results no matter who's on his unit.
6. The power play
Oh, we thought this would be fixed with Spencer Carbery moving Marner to the bumper and promoting Nylander to the No. 1 unit? I want to reserve judgement on this one for a bit because the numbers are decent and would suggest a breakout is coming. Also the unit's best weapon, Matthews, has missed three games and large segments of training camp.
No doubt being 24th in power-play percentage has helped this team to its 2-3-1 start, though.
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