Throughout his duration as Toronto Maple Leafs GM after being hired on May 31, Brad Treliving has established himself as an affable type who would rather veer toward positivity than pessimism.
But on Monday, in a surprise media availability, Treliving delivered his first genuinely critical remarks about this Leafs team. By highlighting their irregular play, Treliving expects a change on the ice and he may be nearing closer to making one off the ice as well.
“To me, we’ve been hit and miss,” Treliving said.
With just five regulation-time wins through 19 games, this Leafs team does not look as effective as recent iterations. They currently sit in the final wild card position in the Eastern Conference.
“There’s been some inconsistency in our game, which is a little concerning. It’s an area that we’d like to clean up and improve upon. You want to try to put that same game on the ice period after period, game after game,” Treliving said.
Speaking of concern, Treliving’s appearance came after a sullen-sounding Mitch Marner highlighted his own shortcomings as of late.
“I’m not really trusting my abilities out there. That’s something that needs to change,” Marner said.
Monday Morning Leafs Report: Can the front office fix its mistakes?
It also followed a terse Sheldon Keefe availability.
“There’s positive things happening with our group. You just maybe have to look deeper to find them sometimes,” Keefe said. “Your job is to report on what’s happening with the results. My job is to police the process and dig in deeper and make decisions.”
And so this suggests Treliving spoke, at least in part, to put out some of the growing fires around this team.
The blaze closest to being classified as raging? The play, and the future, of some of Treliving’s high-profile offseason signings.
“Obviously we did some things over the course of the summer. Some have gone well. Some are a work in progress. Some haven’t gone as well,” Treliving said.
He’s right: Tyler Bertuzzi has moved on from some early season stumbles and found his game as a scoring winger, with five points in his last five games. Max Domi is trending in the right direction as a playmaking third-line centre with linemates he has chemistry with.
But the drop off after those two players is jarring: John Klingberg is currently on LTIR with a hip injury and it’s fair to wonder if he’s already played his final game as a Leaf. And Ryan Reaves has essentially negatively impacted the Leafs when he’s on the ice.
“(Reaves) will be the first to tell you he’s had a tough start,” Treliving said. “He can play better. He’s had some bad luck. I know a lot gets reported about plus-minus. He’s chewed on some minuses that in my opinion aren’t related to him. Sometimes you go through stretches like that.”
Treliving went on to insinuate Reaves’ luck would change. You could read that as no immediate change in Reaves’ position on the roster incoming.
It would have been easy for Treliving to isolate Reaves’ less-than-desirable play. But instead, Treliving went back to his overarching theme of the day.
“We need more from a lot of guys here right now,” Treliving said.
On Klingberg, Treliving understands the optics surrounding the defenceman’s nagging injury, with questions about the health of the defenceman when he was signed. That was one of the fires he tried to extinguish.
“This wasn’t something that we knew the player was injured and we signed him anyhow. We knew the history of the player, but we didn’t anticipate there was going to be an issue,” Treliving said.
Klingberg’s injury was exacerbated in an Oct. 19 loss on the road against the Florida Panthers, Treliving said, meaning the Leafs might have only gotten three games out of a fully healthy Klingberg. Injuries happen, but it’s still worth wondering how close Klingberg’s hip issue was to its breaking point when he was signed.
Meetings with doctors will continue this week to determine whether Klingberg will need surgery, Treliving said. The team should have clarity on Klingberg’s future by the end of the week. And so if Treliving is going to do as he has done in the past and get aggressive in the trade market, expect things to really heat up next week.
Treliving has long been the type to frequently kick tires around the league on players – think the short-lived interest the Leafs had in free agent Patrick Kane – but he did re-state his intentions to upgrade his blue line. These were legitimately some of the most direct comments from Treliving.
And it’s an area he should be addressing. Despite assertions from Treliving and Keefe that the team’s defending is improving, their five-on-five goals against per 60 minutes remains 12th-highest in the NHL at 2.84.
Treliving has defencemen originally pegged to be Toronto Marlies logging regular top-six minutes. William Lagesson has done a fine enough job showing physicality and clean puck movement on the back end. But he doesn’t always impact a game the way you’d expect from any defenceman on a team that wants to be contending for a Stanley Cup.
And Mark Giordano has legitimately been one of the Leafs better defenceman but the hope coming into the season was that, at 40, he’d be taking some nights off from time to time. He hasn’t been able to do so with the injuries to the blue line.
So is the Leafs defence as assembled sustainable?
Not according to Treliving.
“What you try to do as a team is slot people in the right circumstances, so they’re handling the right minutes. And when you have injuries it pushes people,” Treliving said. “(Defence) was an area that we wanted to see if we could strengthen regardless. Now, when you have injuries, it tests your depth. You have people probably playing higher, more minutes than you want and they’re hanging in there. But it’s certainly an area we’d like to help ourselves.”
It’s worth noting: Treliving hinted that before any potential move, internal improvement is just as much of a priority as exploring the trade market.
“The idea that you’re always just going to trade yourself out of issues isn’t realistic,” Treliving said.
Treliving added that his goaltending duo of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll, like the rest of his team, “could be more consistent.” The Leafs’ .904 five-on-five save percentage is sixth-worst in the Eastern Conference.
But by lumping his goaltending in with his team’s oft-porous defending, it doesn’t sound like Treliving is exploring a drastic change between the pipes.
“Goaltending can clean up a lot of messes for you, but you can also you can clean up a lot of messes and make the goaltending look a little bit better,” Treliving said.
Finally, one of the more positive talking points of the day?
The team’s MVP at the quarter mark of the season, William Nylander, who leads the team with 27 points through 19 games and is looking like a legitimate NHL star but also in the last year of his contract with the Leafs.
“Willie’s had a tremendous start to the year, but I don’t think this is just a hot start. I think he’s a really good player,” Treliving said.
It’s become fruitless to expect either side of the negotiations to reveal much at this point. And that’s partly because behind the scenes, the needle hasn’t moved all that much in negotiations.
“Nothing’s changed,” Treliving said bluntly.
Of note, Treliving continues to publicly pump Nylander’s tires and insinuate he could have a future in Toronto. As the season continues, Treliving could have chosen to pour cold water on Nylander’s future and create tension to possibly sway negotiations.
But he didn’t, just as he hasn’t all season. Treliving’s position, at least publicly, is that he wants to keep Nylander in Toronto. At the very least, that’s a step toward keeping negotiations open.
All in all, not everything has gone as hoped for Treliving through his first season in Toronto. But, as is his custom, he’s still remaining optimistic about what could come next.
“Our hope at the end of the day,” Treliving said, “is that we’re going to get Willy signed.”
(Photo of Brad Treliving: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)