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LeBrun: What rival NHL execs are saying about the Maple Leafs’ powder keg simmering

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TORONTO — The problem, of course, is that you can’t assess the start of the Maple Leafs’ 2022-23 season in a vacuum.

Fair or not, the team’s 4-4-2 record isn’t just about the first 10 games of the season.

This is a powder keg that has always been there because, for this organization as it is currently constructed, this is the season of life and death.

It’s about general manager Kyle Dubas not being offered a contract extension last summer, which came after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs, which came after other first-round fumbles. in previous years. No one is panicking about the regular start of the Lightning. For obvious reasons. When the Leafs decided not to extend Dubas, they put everyone in the organization on notice, including the players. And they can’t help but feel it, whether they admit it or not.

And it’s about Auston Matthews, who will probably have to decide at the end of this season if he intends to extend with the Leafs. His current contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2023-24 season. I still think he’ll want to re-sign with the Leafs. But the point is, that’s another big franchise decision looming, and wouldn’t that decision be easier to make if the team finally does something in the playoffs?

The stakes are high this season for so many people, and from the offseason through camp, people from other organizations told me they could feel that tension in the Toronto front office. And I mean, it’s understandable. People’s jobs are at stake.

What I didn’t see coming, and maybe should have said the stakes, was this level of drama so early in this season. I figured this team would pretty much make it through the regular season, finish first or second in the Atlantic, and then we’d be ready for playoff drama, regardless of the bottom line.

But since training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe has been hinting at his level of concern through his actions, whether it’s dropping an F-bomb during a drill at camp or directing a series of postgame comments at his players. from opening night in Montreal.

Some of his comments earlier this season have certainly been noted around the league.

I asked Keefe during his daily media availability on the morning of an Oct. 20 game against the Stars if he intended to approach the season this way or if they were spontaneous reactions.

He responded, “Well, it’s a bit of both. It’s a combination of the fact that we had talked before the season started about the importance of being really consistent and making our game, whenever we can, look like ourselves. Since Game 1, that was not the case. Even though a lot of good things happen in the preseason and you have a lot of confidence, you go out and it doesn’t seem that way.

“For a team that has been together as long as ours, I know we have new players and things like that, but obviously our team identity and the core of our team remains the same. So there is an expectation that you start at a really high level. And you don’t. So that was disappointing.”

Specifically, at the time, he was referring to the Habs and Coyotes losses.

“We’ve been talking about not leaving those points on the table and it just so happens that (with) the schedule, we have two opponents there that were the kind of teams that we struggled with last season,” Keefe continued. “And the expectation (is) that we’ve improved there, and we haven’t. So I think (the sharp criticism from the players is) more a symptom of that than anything else.

“I don’t know if he had a game plan for how he was going to approach the beginning here, other than to say there’s a high expectation that our group continues to grow and have a good start to the season (and), particularly in those types of games, we would be better And we haven’t been.

First of all, I appreciate the honesty in that answer.

And since then, there have been losses to San Jose and Anaheim, which would presumably again be the kind of teams Keefe was referring to.

What I gather from Keefe’s nervous behavior with his players so early in the season is that he’s trying to get the base as correct as possible by playoff time instead of waiting until then to raise the decibel level.

what i receive Don’t fill up at the last minute for your final exam. Get the job done ahead of time.

But in the process, he obviously risks alienating his best players, as our intrepid Leafs writer Jonas Siegel wondered after the Ducks’ loss and Mitch Marner’s bench heard around the world.

All of which, of course, has the Toronto media and fans wondering just how hot Keefe’s seat is.

One thing to consider: Not that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is counting your pennies, but remember that the MLSE is still paying Mike Babcock this season through June 30 for one last year at $5.8 million. Keefe earns just under $2 million in salary for each season and the next. If he fires Keefe, he’s paying two guys just over $7.8 million this season not to coach. Drink. It’s MLSE, so maybe that’s a drop in the ocean, but then add any salary that comes attached to a new manager, especially if it’s a brand new manager. MLSE would be in double digits overall this year between the new coach and the two former coaches.

For example, Barry Trotz doesn’t come to Toronto for less than $5 million a year, in my opinion anyway. Speaking with Trotz in September, it was clear that while he eventually wanted to return to an NHL bench, he wasn’t ready yet. He needs more time to attend to things in his personal life. My understanding is that Trotz wouldn’t be ready to consider an NHL return until December at the earliest.

In any case, I don’t think a coaching change is the first thing the Leafs should look at if things don’t improve.

Instead, I agree with our Leafs columnist James Mirtle that the first thing I’d look at, as difficult as it is so far from the March 3 trade deadline, is making a trade to help the roster.

I get that it’s tough in a flat-cap world this early in the season, but look at those two deals from Vancouver last week. Nothing big, but they are adjustments that could help the team.

Personally? I think it is too early for this level of panic in the Toronto market. I think this team will get going.

I reached out to several executives at the rival front office to see if they agreed, and asked for their honest opinion on the Leafs. Some politely declined to comment because it’s too early, but others responded (via text and on condition of anonymity, of course):

No. 1 Team Executive: “Playing .500 10 games and two points out of a playoff spot… let’s not panic here!! They obviously need to figure it out, but it’s too early to panic.”

No. 2 Team Executive: “I’d be a little nervous if it was them. … They haven’t looked very good so far. I still think it’s very likely that they’ll make the playoffs, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed, and the bar for them is higher than that.”

Executive of the No. 3 team: “72 games left, a lot of track. That group will get going.”

Team No. 4 Executive: “It’s too early to panic. The games that I’ve seen, it really was how inconsistent they were during the game. They looked great and then horrible. I thought before the season goalkeeping was a concern, but (Ilya) Samsonov has been solid. Offensively, they have a team in the top five in the league, maybe even in the top three. Defensively they need to defend as a five-man unit and take pride in it. Also, losing to all these weak teams shows me that they don’t have a killer instinct. They go into games thinking it’s going to be easy. So that’s up to the trainers to prepare them. With all of that, I think they’ll be fine.”

The reality of the situation is that the kind of big trades some Leafs fans are clamoring for don’t normally happen during the season. Those who want to fire Dubas, for example, and want a new GM, to me that’s an offseason project when you have access to a larger field of candidates.

And deeper roster changes are easier to pull off in June than midseason. There are just more teams willing to talk about things when there is more flexibility.

That’s not to say there won’t be changes if the season goes off the rails. Most likely they are.

But I still think the most likely scenario is that the Leafs get back on track and we wait until spring for that real final test for the organization, one way or another.

(Top photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

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