It’s not just the turkeys that look nervous as American Thanksgiving approaches.
Later this week marks the quarter anniversary of the National Hockey League season as struggling teams take stock, forego the “it’s early” talk and make tough decisions about changes before Christmas gets too close.
Layoffs behind the bench, trades, call-ups and a look at free agents who have been waiting to play on their own (hello Patrick Kane) could be on the table.
Things are looking a lot less disruptive for the Maple Leafs than was expected in early November. After an eventful week that began with back-to-back home wins and a trip to Sweden that yielded two more, they have four days off before U.S. holiday games in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
It has become a fall Toronto tradition to put Sheldon Keefe on the hot seat because of a slow start, usually stemming from first-round playoff losses. He has learned to deal with such rumors of his demise in stride, considering the team’s recent winning streak results in him having the best regular-season winning percentage of any coach in the top 100 in league history (now at .620). .
But unlike previous falls from the box, this might be as good as it gets for Keefe. Its best players are at their best, led by the Core Four forwards who have scored 38 of all 62 team goals. The rest, especially the newcomers Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and the injured defender John Klingberg, fell short of summer expectations.
Bertuzzi has finally found a home on the left wing of the second line with William Nylander and John Tavares, although he was relatively quiet with one shot on goal and a few misses in 16:15 of a 4-3 OT win over Minnesota on Sunday Time.
Domi, who scored 20 goals last season, has yet to light the lamp here, but the extra space in the middle of the third line has made him look much more fluid in recent games than just on the left. The upside from both men will likely ensure the front three lines stay together once the Leafs overcome jet lag and return to practice in midweek.
However, Klingberg may need an injury break due to unspecified lower body pain that affected his skating and sidelined him for both games in Sweden.
The Leafs are looking at defensemen, but what team isn’t, and they still have an “X” factor in Conor Timmins. Timmins was leading the NHL in scoring in the preseason when he suffered a knee injury. Timmins was in Sweden, although it was decided that the extra week of rehab was better than returning him for a game there.
William Lagesson and Simon Benoit replaced Klingberg as well as Timmins and the long-term absentee Timothy Liljegren without any complications. But six left-footed shots on game night still pose a risk if the Leafs have to pass under pressure.
Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how Keefe utilizes fourth-line right winger Ryan Reaves. Although no one expected the aging enforcer to cause a brawl every game, he was too physically restrained for some critics’ tastes. He’s not the fastest or most skilled forward – which, again, is hardly a revelation – but after a minus-2-a a week ago on Friday against Calgary, the Leafs called up Bobby McMann on a newly constructed energy line with David Kampf and Noah Gregor. Whatever gross things were attempted by the Leafs sparked a much-needed reaction from the entire team.
Nick Robertson and McMann have turned their recalls into something positive and the biggest problem with the Marlies farm team now is rewarding other forwards who have stayed hot, such as winger Alex Steeves.
This fan base, being its Nervous Nelly self, still needs a lot of convincing that Keefe and the Leafs are on the right track. The inconsistent goaltending was highlighted, with Ilya Samsonov getting some love back with two wins after frequent balls, while freshman Joseph Woll had his turn to give up a couple of goals that the talking heads like to describe as “one he would like.” back”.
Many will wonder whether the Sweden trip has asked too much of them, although getting through the upcoming weekend trip without incident would be good preparation for the next three home games and the subsequent four-day break, and perhaps secure a break-up.