It’s not just the turkeys who start looking nervously when American Thanksgiving rolls around.
Later this week marks the quarter mark in the National Hockey League season when underwhelming teams take stock, dispense with talk of ‘it’s still early’ and make hard choices on changes before it gets too close to Christmas.
Firings behind the bench, trades, call-ups and a look at free agents who’ve been biding their time skating solo (hello Patrick Kane) could be on the table.
For the Maple Leafs it looks a lot less disruptive than the start of November portended. After an eventful week that began with back-to-back home wins and a voyage to Sweden that yielded two more, they have four days off before U.S. holiday matches in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
It has become an autumn Toronto tradition to put Sheldon Keefe on the hot seat for sluggish starts, usually a carry-over from first-round playoff losses. He’s learned to take such rumours of his demise in stride, given the team’s most recent streak adds to him owning the best regular season winning percentage of any coach in the top 100 of league history (now at .620).
But unlike past stumbles out of the box, this could be about as good as it gets for Keefe. His best players are at peak production, led by Core Four forwards who’ve accounted for 38 of all 62 team goals. The rest, most notably newcomers Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and injured defenceman John Klingberg have lagged from summer expectations.
Bertuzzi has finally found a home on second line left wing with William Nylander and John Tavares, though in Sunday’s 4-3 win over Minnesota he was relatively quiet with one shot on goal and a couple of misses in 16:15 of ice time.
A 20-goal man last year, Domi has yet to light the lamp here, but looks a lot more fluid with extra room at third line centre the past few games than restricted to the left side. The up-tick with both men will likely keep the top three lines together once the Leafs shake the jet lag and return to practice mid-week.
Klingberg, however, might require time on injured reserve for unspecified lower body pain that has hampered his skating and sidelined him from both games in Sweden.
The Leafs are looking around at defencemen, but which team isn’t, and they still have an ‘X’ factor in Connor Timmins. Leading the NHL in preseason scoring when he aggravated a knee injury, Timmins was in Sweden though it was decided the extra week’s rehab time was better than re-activating him over there for one game.
William Lagesson and Simon Benoit have substituted for both Klingberg, Timmins and the longer term absence of Timothy Liljegren, with little complications. But six left-handed shots on game night still carries a risk when the Leafs have to pass under pressure.
It will be interesting to see how Keefe employs fourth line right winger Ryan Reaves looking ahead. While no one expected the aging enforcer to initiate a brawl every game, he’s been too low key physically for the liking of some critics, He’s not the fastest or most skilled forward, – again, hardly a revelation – but after being minus-2 a week ago Friday against Calgary, the Leafs called up Bobby McMann on a newly constructed energy line with David Kampf and Noah Gregor. What rough stuff was tried on the Leafs sparked a sorely needed team-wide response.
Nick Robertson and McMann turned their recalls into positives and the biggest depth issue with the Marlies farm team now is rewarding other forwards who’ve stayed hot, such as winger Alex Steeves.
This fan base being its Nervous Nelly selves will still require lots of convincing that Keefe and the Leafs are on the right track. Inconsistent goaltending has been prominent, with Ilya Samsonov earning a little love back with two wins after frequent hooks, while it has been rookie Joseph Woll’s turn to give up a couple of goals the talking heads like to call “one he’d like to have back”.
Everyone will wonder if the Swedish trip took too much out of them, though getting past this weekend trip without incident, maybe gaining a split, would nicely set up the next three at home and the four-day break to follow.