Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors Check In

 After the first seven games for the Maple Leafs and the first four games for the Raptors it might be a long winter for fans. The Toronto Maple Leafs have played 7 games so far and the Toronto Raptors have played 4 games. I know it is very early in the season for both teams, but things are not looking good for either team. I think fans are understanding that the Raptors are retooling and possibly by next season they will field a more competitive team. The Maple Leafs on the other hand are in a season where they are expected to be Stanley Cup contenders and they look like they might be lucky if they can even make the playoffs. Both teams underwent some serious changes in the offseason, and I liked some of the changes made but I will expand more on that later. The Toronto Blue Jays missed the playoffs by one game, which suddenly made a lot of missed opportunities throughout the season seem like a bigger deal in hindsight. After the Jays season ended you would think the Leafs would have more perspective on how important every game is. The Leafs have won some games, but I am not convinced that this Leafs team has put the demons from last season behind them. When I reviewed the All or Nothing series it brought back the frustration and anger I had at how last season ended. I think the Leafs can turns things around and become the dominant team they are meant to be, but for that to happen they learn from last years failure and focus on this season. The Raptors are in such a different spot than the Leafs, the Raptors have a new star in the making in Scottie Barnes and a chance to change the way they play.


Throughout the season I will do these check-ins for the Leafs and Raptors, I think I do this more as a form of therapy than anything else. The Raptors won a championship a few years ago and have been competitive since so they have earned the time to retool/rebuild. I am excited for what comes next for the Raptors; I think they have some great peices and if they can add via trade, free agent signing or via the draft an elite scorer with size they will be great again. I liked the pick of Scottie Barnes, since being drafted he has endeared himself to Raptors nation with his attitude, personality and work ethic. In his first four games as a Raptor, he looks pretty good, he is a tenacious and aggressive defender who has gotten into foul trouble. Barnes on the offensive side of the ball is a work in progress, he brings a lot of energy, but he needs to work on improving his shooting and ball handling. The Raptors will be without Pascal Siakam for a few more weeks, and his presence is sorely missed as the team is struggling to get baskets. Fred VanVleet has been okay to start the season, it will be an adjustment for him as he gets use to life without Kyle Lowry. VanVleet will be expected to be a point guard and offense generator now and it appears his scoring is taking a hit, but his assists per game are higher, and his defense is great as always. The Raptors have chosen to build a team around length and position fluidity. The Raptors have a lot of players with size that can guard multiple positions, when Siakam is healthy we will get a chance to see how this lineup will matchup. I think their hope is that they will end up as one of the toughest defenses in the NBA, but that will come at the expense of their scoring. 

The team the Raptors have assembled has played hard in each game, but their lack of offensive firepower is hindering them from keeping themselves in the game. I like what VanVleet brings to the Raptors, but I think they Siakam back to help give the offense a shot in the arm. VanVleet is struggling to score outside of three pointers, when VanVleet goes into the paint I am just waiting for him to get blocked. Siakam will help the offense, Boucher looks lost and Anunoby will never be a consistent high-volume scorer. We need to give Barnes time to develop his offense, so Siakam will allow everyone to return to their normal roles as he will be the focal point of the offence. Last years rookie Malachi Flynn has barely left the bench in four games, and I don't understand why. I know there was some noise that he was not great in the preseason, but I think he has earned a bump in playing especially with Lowry now gone. I know the team wants to field a bigger more versatile lineup and Flynn's height is not idea, but he is a better option than the Toronto born rookie Dalano Banton. Despite having so much size, the Raptors still lack a true centre; the tallest player on the team is 6'9 which is four inches shorter than seven feet. Despite having a lot of players with size the team lacks someone with real size, I would rather see the team get a seven-footer that can score or play defense. I feel this is another rebuilding season, I don't see how they will matchup against teams with size and how they will score. I know this team will give effort every night, but they need another scoring machine (with size) and a tall, big body that make Joel Embiid work for points. 

If I was Nick Nurse, I would want to give more time to Flynn or trade him for something because it seems unfair for him to be spending this much time on the bench. I know the team is trying to give Goran Dragic time to increase his value, but it is coming at the expense of Flynn's development. The Raptors need more from Boucher, I wonder if his finger issue is still not fully healed and that is why he is not himself so far this season. Despite the three losses (in four games) I think this team will be good (eventually), but until they add another piece, I think they need to treat this season as a development one. The Raptors should give as much time to their young players as they can and help them develop, and in the upcoming offseason they should look to upgrade their roster with a player(s) that will allow them to compete while VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam are still in their primes. Scottie Barnes looks really good, and I think the combination of him and Anunoby on defense will give teams fits. If the Raptors can address their needs on offence while not subtracting from the defense, then I think this team can be a top four team in the Eastern conference.


To go from the Raptors who I believe have a solid team that will only get better, the Leafs are team that I see as only getting worse. I know we still have Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares, but the defense which was a strength last season is back to being a weakness and if Morgan Reilly leaves it will only get worse. The Leafs are currently on a four-game losing skid, they have looked especially bad in the last three games. I know the Carolina Hurricanes are a good team but is not Toronto supposed to be a good team too. The excuses are starting again, to me the effort is what is lacking the most; it does not matter who they are playing the Leafs opponents seem to want the puck more. Toronto might have possession of the puck for longer, but they are doing nothing with it. The Leafs have only scored 13 goals in 7 games played, that is not enough for a team that is not executing on defense and not getting Vezina level goaltending. There is a lot of money given out to forwards on this team and they are not delivering (again), I thought they would come out and steamroll teams after their embarrassing exit from last year's playoffs. The Leafs look like the same team we saw on the ice in games 5,6 and 7 again Montreal, a team that just does not give enough effort to win a game. This is an important season for the team, and so far they look like they are not focused, and I think if this continues a change will be made. I know Kyle Dubas believes in the core of this team (he has put his job on the line for them) and I think he has to be questioning if he made the right decision. There is a lot of pressure for results, not just from the fans but the organization is expecting more from them this year. Hockey culture makes it impossible to know what is happening inside the team and the organization, but I have to believe there is growing concern from all that this team is drowning right now. 

Being a fan of the Leafs is very hard (just ask Steve Dangle), you get very little to cheer for and more often than not they let you down. I thought this season might be different, after the last few years it is now time for the team to breakthrough. I should be talking about how this is the year, but now I am seriously worried this might be a year where the Leafs don't even make the playoffs. We are not even 9% into the season so there is plenty of time for the team to turn things around, but with each mounting loss there is a worry that this core might coming to an end. If the Leafs don't make it to the second round of the playoffs (or better) I think this core might be broken up. Tavares has a no move clause; I don't see a reason to trade Matthews (yet) and I like what Nylander delivers. That leaves Mitch Marner as the only real trade chip, he had a terrible series against Montreal, and he has just one point (1 assist) in seven games played. Marner gives effort, but I think his biggest issue so far is that he doesn't look like the player that had 67 points last year. I know some of the offense will get better, but Marner is making too much money to deliver results this poor especially when he looks out of sorts on the ice. The loss to the Canadiens was not solely on Marner, but they needed more from him in that series, and they need more from him now. I don't think they should trade Marner right now, I feel bad for him because he has been the focal point of fan's anger since the playoffs ended prematurely. I do think the team needs a shakeup, but I am not sure what move to make. The defense needs help, the top two units have been playing together since last year and they look worse this year while they should have gotten better. Jake Muzzin looks like he is either battling an injury or he has had a big drop in his capabilities; Justin Holl needs Muzzin to be strong for that pairing to work. If there was a way to add a top defenseman without subtracting too much,     I would look at that move.

I know the Leafs will get better, they play in Chicago on Wednesday and Detroit at home on Saturday so those should be two wins. I would not want to be them if they lose on Saturday (especially if they lose on Wednesday too), I think the boo birds will be out in full force. After Saturday the Leafs next three games are against Tampa, Vegas and Boston so if they cannot find themselves before then I think those might be three losses. The Leafs need to be better, there is no excuse for the losses against San Jose and Pittsburgh, though Carolina is a tough matchup, but this is a team that has high expectations, so each loss needs to be addressed. I could talk about stats to put in perspective that the Leafs will score more goals and right now they have been hurt by bad luck. Stats do not really matter unless we are talking about wins and losses, it doesn't matter how good or bad a team performs if they get the win. The Leafs are being bitten by bad luck right now, but if it doesn't change then their season might be over early. The concern I have is the effort level, the Leafs are supposed to be an elite team and the last three games the Leafs have played poorly (not just bad luck). On defense the team could use a physical and mobile stay at home defender, I don't know how they get that, but the Leafs need some bite because Muzzin is no longer giving it to them. Even if the Leafs win against Chicago and Detroit, to get fans belief in the team back they will need to win at least two games against Vegas, Tampa and Boston.

I think by the end of November we will have a better idea of who the Toronto Maple Leafs are, because right now they look like a team that will not be going to the playoffs. One of the arguments that is being made is that their offense cannot really be that miserable, my counter point would be how do we know. I know Marner will score a goal eventually, but what if their shooting percentages stay low, we are all making the assumption that it is just bad luck. There could be another reason why this team cannot score goals and that is teams have figured out how to disrupt them, if you watch both the Columbus and Montreal series you will notice both teams figured out how to keep the Leafs from scoring. I will not pretend I am smart to understand defensive schemes, but what if teams have figured out how to scheme against the Leafs. Until the Leafs go on a run and score a lot of goals, I will be worried that we might see another early exit from the playoffs. One thing that bothers me about the Leafs is that they do not crash the net enough and they don't have a body in front of the goalie. If there is a body in front of the net there is a chance for a tip, a rebound or the goalie's visions will be impaired. In the All or Nothing series Sheldon Keefe mentioned that Toronto wasn't getting the ugly goals, I think he was proven correct. If a team becomes too reliant on shooting, then those uglier goals (net front ones) are something that will be hard to come by in the playoffs when the shots are harder to execute. Over the next month we will see how the team plays and we will get a better sense of just how worried/excited we should be.


When it comes to the Raptor and the Leafs, I am not sure what to tell fans, there is not a lot be excited for right now. The Raptors are retooling so this season will be another playoff missing season, and even if they sneak in, I don't believe they can compete against the top tier teams in the East yet. The Leafs are in a true all or nothing season, if they cannot escape the first round of the playoffs, I think one of the core four will be traded. Both teams will be fun to watch, but there will also be a lot of frustration and disappointment too. I will do this article periodically throughout the season and I expect to be writing a more positive recap than this one. The Leafs are probably playing their most important season in twenty years, fans are frustrated, and they are getting tired of being told to be patient. The Leafs are the premiere franchise in the NHL and yet they have not won the Stanley Cup in over 50 years and the team has not won a playoff series in 17 years. When ticket prices are so high and the results are so poor fans will be mad, I myself have not been to a Leafs game since they were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens. One of my biggest worries about the Leafs is that if things keep going poorly, we will lose Auston Matthews, when his contract is up, I wonder if he will stay. I think he is a top three player in the NHL right now and I hope he retires a Leaf; but in reality, if this team doesn't win something soon, he will take his talents elsewhere. 

The Raptors won a few years ago so fans can go to these games and just enjoy the game, the Raptors might need another season before they're competitive again, but they are still fun to watch. The Raptors have a great young player in Scottie Barnes, and I hope they will add another one in the offseason. The core of the Raptors is now VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes; I think that is a great core where all of them are solid defensively and offensively. The Raptors need some more offensive firepower to compete against elite teams, but until that arrives, they will be in more games than they are not. I am not a fan of the team going long and rangy, I think if those players cannot contribute offensively then they will need to move on. The Raptors will deliver on more muted expectations, and until they are ready to be competitive fans will be patient. It is funny how winning a championship gives fans a lot more patience, I hope the Raptors can continue to get better and we will see them in the playoffs again. 

The Leafs have been a disappointment so far this season and the Raptors have been exactly what I expected so far. I am excited to watch Raptors games and be able to see the growth the young players will make as the season goes on. I am currently much less excited to watch Leafs games, I am watching just waiting for the inevitable collapse leading to another loss. It is still weird to me that the Raptors are now considered the successful Toronto sports team, while the Leafs are considered a perennial disappointment. The Raptors have the happier franchise and fans, while Leafs are a model of dysfunction. The Raptor are fun to watch while the Leafs are more likely to make me scream at the TV in a bad way. I like the players on the Raptors and the Leafs, and I want nothing but success for them, but the Leafs players make it really hard when you feel the effort level is not up to NHL standards. Losses to the Penguins and Sharks should not happen, the Leafs should not be outworked all game long. The Raptors have shown heart and determination in their losses, I can see they are hustling and trying; the Leafs show frustration and resignation. 

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my next article; hopefully, I will have some positive results to talk about.

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