Original Six NHL action on Wednesday night as the (apparently) resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs try to run their winning streak to three games under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as they make the short trip to Detroit to face the hapless Red Wings. It’s still hard to get used to referring to the Wings as ‘hapless’ as they’ve been one of the league’s elite for the past few decades. At this juncture, however, they’re a mess and are clearly the worst team in the NHL. They’re the only team in the league with fewer than 20 points on the season. Their futility has been astounding. They enter this matchup on a six game losing streak and having lost 18 of their last 22 games going 4-15-3. Even that horrible statline can’t convey just how bad the Wings have been this year. Only 6 of their 19 losses and OT losses this year have been by fewer than 2 goals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were picked as a ‘team to beat’ heading into the 2019-2020 NHL season. Loaded with offensive talent the Leafs never really found any traction in the early going and by the end of October had been unable to string together more than two wins in a row. The bottom then fell out as the Leafs lost 6 straight going 0-5-1 and that was the end of the road for head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock’s reputation has taken a big hit since his dismissal and based on that there’s every reason that Toronto wasn’t responding to his tactics. The team handed the coaching reigns over to Sheldon Keefe who had put up some astounding numbers in Junior hockey. Keefe pretty much defied the concept of a ‘learning curve’–in his first coaching job he led the CCHL Pembroke Lumber Kings to six consecutive championships which is an accomplishment no matter the sport or league. When Keefe that the call from the Leafs he was in his fifth season at the head of the AHL Toronto Marlies and had compiled a record of 200-89-31.
While Toronto obviously has the talent for a quick turnaround there might not be a team in the league more bereft of talent than the Detroit Red Wings. The best explanation for the Red Wings struggles during the past few years is that they’re paying the price for their talent laden rosters during their championship seasons. They kept kicking long term deals down the road and now they’ve got to clear the books before they can start to rebuild. That’s the only thing that is keeping head coach Jeff Blashill employed. The team signed Blashill to a two year extension in April but that was 10 days before former GM Ken Holland was ‘kicked upstairs’ and replaced by Wings legend Steve Yzerman who holds the role of Executive Vice President along with General Manager. Blashill became the Wings’ coaching heir apparent after a nice run with AHL Grand Rapids but it’s unclear where he fits into the team’s plans now. Losing games due to a lack of talent is understandable but what has made Detroit so miserable this year is that they’ve combined that with a lack of effort.
Since Keefe took over as coach Toronto has responded with two solid efforts against quality opponents, winning 3-1 at Arizona and 5-3 at Colorado. They step *WAY* down in class here against a Wings team that ranks dead last in goals scored per game and goals against per game and that is bottom five in both power play and penalty kill. They’ll be facing goaltender Jimmy Howard who has looked downright awful this year with a record of 2-10-1 with a 3.74 goals against average and a 0.890 save percentage. Toronto has a home and home series against Buffalo on deck starting Friday but this early in Keefe’s run as coach it would be surprising to see a substandard effort out of the Leafs. Even a pedestrian effort will give them an easy win over the miserable Wings.