No team—not the Canadiens, not the Rangers, not even the Blackhawks—is more fun to overreact to when the going gets tough than the Toronto Maple Leafs. The sheer extent to which they dominate the media conversation in the northern part of this league, plus their failure after failure in first round after first round, make them easy targets for schadenfreude-laden chuckles about the apparent curse they’re under, or snide remarks about how, once again, an overrated roster has collapsed under its own weight.
With that in mind—oh my goodness, has it been thrilling to follow the Leafs through the first seven games of this NHL season, as many folks’ projected Cup favorites have won a mere two of them, with a couple of humiliating defeats putting an exclamation mark on what is currently a four-game losing streak. (Something else I need to note is that the Leafs’ two wins, against the Habs and Sens, come versus teams with a combined total of three victories of their own.)
Toronto’s misery became impossible to ignore after Saturday’s debacle in Pittsburgh, where a depleted Penguins team ran them off the ice in an entirely deserved 7-1 loss. Evan Rodrigues, Drew O’Connor, Mike Matheson—these were some of the names that scared off what looked on paper to be maybe the most intimidating collection of stars anywhere there’s ice. And with the game tied at 1-1 early in the second period, a pair of eye roll–inducing Penguins goals served as the needle that popped the Leafs’ inflated expectations heading into this season. While Toronto can rightfully claim to be the victims of bad puck luck in a couple of their losses—Ottawa and New York to be specific—this was a night where they just looked awful.
On Monday against the still-unbeaten Hurricanes, it did not get any better. Auston Matthews started it off nicely enough, scoring the first goal of the game and his season, as well as the 200th of his career. But Toronto couldn’t hold on to that momentum. The Canes outworked and outshot them as they built a 3-1 lead in the second period, and then they added an empty netter in the third to win it 4-1. To add insult to injury, former Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen stopped 24 of 25 shots against his old team, and up to this early point in the year the Canes’ netminder has drastically outplayed his counterparts in Toronto. (Another juicy subplot in this grim Leafs beginning is Zach Hyman’s offensive explosion since leaving in free agency to join forces with Connor McDavid.)
But it was not only pucks and leads and points that the Maple Leafs had to worry about losing on Monday. They’re even losing precious cargo out of their own dang mouths. Mitch Marner, who’s at minus-4 with zero goals and one assist this year and got absolutely embarrassed on the Canes’ third goal, saw his month somehow get even worse when he got whacked in the lip area with a high stick. And not only did his smile’s mutilation make for a striking image in and of itself, it’s also insultingly symbolic of the damage already done to this beautiful team in this season’s start.
I don’t envy the rough spot the team’s personnel found itself in as they conducted another in a mini-string of public postgame regroupings. After all the hype that got built back around them again following another shocking playoff exit, these guys have very quickly resumed a position where they’ve got to use smooth rationality to try and melt the snowball of anxiety and frustration that keeps gaining mass.
“I think that noise and that panic from the outside can’t shake us—because there’s no reason it should. It’s still early, and we’re still trying to figure out our game,” Matthews said after the Canes loss. “Within the room, we realize, obviously, that we need to play better. But at the same time, it’s not like the end all, be all. Like, it’s not the end of the world right now.”
He’s right that October is too early to be worried. But on the other hand, this is the Leafs—I’ve forgotten if there’s any emotion their fans can feel other than worry. The Lightning and the Golden Knights, for example, are proven winners who don’t have to answer for their underwhelming starts just yet. But the Leafs have nothing to fall back on besides their own history of heartbreak and underachievement, and it magnifies every problem they have until, suddenly, they’re nothing but problems.
I believe in analytics, which claim the Leafs deserve to have potted vastly more than the 13 goals they’ve actually achieved this year. And I believe in historical examples like the Capitals, who repeatedly hit a playoff wall after some great regular-season performances but eventually broke through, silenced the doubters, and won a Cup. But if any team is big enough, weird enough, dumb enough, frustrating enough to defy all the wisdom and patience that a smart hockey fan is supposed to have, it’s absolutely the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ll get a chance to hit the reset button later this week against relatively easy pickings in the Blackhawks and Red Wings. At this point in the season, prediction is foolish. But at this point in their franchise history, brutal collapse is far easier to imagine than inspiring redemption.