On paper, the Toronto Maple Leafs are perched on the Eastern Conference playoff bubble.
In reality, it may have already burst.
The Leafs have been trying to get their game back in order after coach Randy Carlyle was turfed two weeks ago, but the change behind the bench has done nothing to slow Toronto's annual descent into mediocrity. Coming off a dismal road trip that saw them go 0-for-California before dropping a fourth straight game in St. Louis, the Leafs are mired in a 1-5 slump that has them in 10th place in the East and teetering on the verge of irrelevance.
If any optimism rose with the promotion of Peter Horachek, it was quickly slapped down on the trip. The new defensive system being implemented by the interim coach has succeeded in limiting the number of shots the team is allowing, and helped goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer post a solid .920 save percentage. The penalty kill looks better as well, clicking at 85.7% over Toronto's past four games. But all that defensive diligence has drained the batteries of the offense. The Leafs were shut out three times on their roadie and managed just one goal in a loss to San Jose.
New systems are tough, especially when they're implemented at midseason, and the Leafs may yet make the adjustments that are needed to ensure it works at both ends of the ice. But the truth is they're running out of time.
With just two games remaining before the All-Star break, including tonight's home tilt against the Hurricanes, the Leafs sit seven points behind eighth-place Boston. That might not sound like much of a gap to bridge with 36 games remaining, but the math doesn't smile on Toronto. To have something close to a 50% percent chance of making the playoffs, the Leafs will need to finish the regular season on a 22-11-3 tear according to sportclubstats.com. That's a success rate of .653—not impossible, but for a team that's picked up points at a rate of .511 through its first 46 games, and has lost 12 of its past 15 (all in regulation), it's a steep hill to climb.
If the Leafs are going to make their move, they pretty much have to begin tonight. Starting with Carolina, Toronto closes out January by playing five straight against teams that have worse records than their own. These aren't just should-wins. They're must-wins.
After that, the schedule does the Leafs few favors by offering up only 12 opponents with inferior records. And while they'll get three head-to-head matchups against the Panthers, the team that's standing directly ahead of them in ninth place, they have only three potential four-point games against teams they need to catch: the Rangers (2/10), the Capitals (3/1) and the Bruins (4/4). That means they have to count on at least one of those teams falling hard off the pace all on their own. Given how well those clubs have been playing of late, that's asking a lot.
But if one does stumble, the Leafs have to put themselves in a position to take advantage. That means continued excellence from Bernier, the team's No. 1 keeper this season and going forward. And it means finding their scoring touch against the Hurricanes, Senators, Devils, Coyotes and Flyers, their next five opponents on the schedule.
If they start clicking, look for GM Dave Nonis to double-down on this season's lineup and add a piece up front ahead of the trade deadline.
And if they don't? Well, you might see Nonis finally pull the chute and begin dismantling a core that's run out of chances to prove it can contend.