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In The Midst Of This Lost Season, Can The Maple Leafs Turn It Around?

Josh Anderson celebrates his goal
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

We're already one game into the NHL season, and so far the Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to notch a single win. With just 81 more games left in the regular season, the team from Canada's largest city sits an embarrassing seventh in their division, and fourth from the bottom in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 0-1-0. What the hell is wrong with the Leafs?

Well on Wednesday night, they blew it on the road against last NHL season's big pushover, the Montreal Canadiens, when a perfectly normal hockey contest gave way to the forces of entropy in the final two-and-a-half minutes. The Leafs started well enough, getting the game's first goal from last year's breakout old-man rookie, Michael Bunting, and seeing another good sign when the under-the-radar Denis Malgin scored in his first game since returning from two years in Switzerland. But young Habs pillar Cole Caufield kept it even with two goals of his own, and so the score stood tied heading into the final stretch. (The Leafs' best chance at a lead was denied when Jake Allen stopped an Alexander Kerfoot penalty shot.)

Then the roller coaster hit the top of the hill. Sean Monahan—a very low-risk Montreal acquisition who seemed decimated, mentally and physically, by injuries in Calgary—delivered what looked to be a storybook opening-night achievement when he converted on a rebound to give the home team a 3-2 lead. But while his name was still being announced over the PA, a sudden turnover and a two-on-one allowed William Nylander to finish a John Tavares pass and tie the game. Overtime? No way. With less than 20 seconds on the clock, it was Josh Anderson—a Montreal playoff hero not all that long ago—who found the puck on his stick before he fired the winner past Matt Murray.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe had harsh words for his team after this momentous loss. "I don’t expect that," he said in the postgame. "For everything our team has been through together, that’s unacceptable. We got to be way more responsible. It was just careless. Just careless. I expect more. Our group should expect more. Not good enough. We deserve to lose."

This failing mess of a Leafs team is really going to need to pick it up at some point in the next five months. The team goal differential is in the red. They're trailing even the woeful Sabres (0-0-0) in the division. Top star Auston Matthews, after scoring a delirious 60 goals last year, is on pace for zero this season. TSN 1050 has had to hire scores of crisis counselors to staff their phone lines. The Toronto Argonauts, who sit atop their division with a 9-6 record in the CFL, are looking more and more like the kings of this city. At least they can win a close game against Montreal!

I'm joking about my intense concern after one game, of course, but I really do not envy the pressure-packed season these Leafs are in for. On paper they look fantastic—The Athletic's preseason model pegged them for more expected points than any other team in the league. But it would take a heaping dose of defiant, counterintuitive bravery for an actual human to pick them as Stanley Cup champions, because the horror-movie vibes of this franchise remain immutable. The Leafs, who last hoisted the trophy in 1967, have gone more seasons without a title than any other NHL franchise, and while the post-lockout, pre-Matthews generation could take solace from heartbreak just because the team was never good enough to get anyone's hopes up, since the top pick of the 2016 draft arrived in Toronto the roster has become increasingly talented, and the sting of their final results has only sharpened.

In 2017, only their second time making the playoffs since before the '04 lockout, the Leafs fell in six games to the Capitals, in a series where all but one game went to overtime. In 2018, they rallied back from a 3-1 hole in the first round against the Bruins but lost Game 7. The Bruins beat them another time in seven the next year. In the 2020 bubble the Leafs lost a do-or-die game to Columbus. 2021 saw the Canadiens pull off a major seven-game upset on their way to an unlikely Final appearance. And 2022, improbably, again forced the Leafs to go to seven games in the first round, and again they came up short.

This year, despite uncertainty after a change at goalie, the Leafs' lineup should deserve high expectations. GM Kyle Dubas has slowly but surely built the defense from a former liability into a solid group without a single apparent weak link, and the top two lines of the forward gang upset opposing goalies like an icy snowball on a -10 degree day. (Celsius, obviously. I'm not that sadistic.) If these Leafs had simply appeared out of thin air, without any of their history weighing them down, you'd have to punch at least five guys named Terry just to find a spot on their bandwagon.

Instead, even their own coach already seems a little edgy, and the players are stuck in a pretty unwinnable spot, at least until spring. They could run the table the entire rest of their year—81-1-0—and all that would do is make fans even more convinced of impending early playoff doom. It feels like the Leafs have been given 82 games for the sole purpose of preparing themselves for seven more in April. Nothing they do right now really matters, as long as they don't fall out of the playoff picture entirely. But, um … I wouldn't put that past the Leafs either.

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