Maple Leafs, Sabres face brutal December schedules

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Don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of “What’s wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs?”-type articles during the next few weeks.

Actually, if you don’t, that might be the biggest deal of all. Mike Babcock’s bunch has already shaken off some turmoil – some of it inner, as young players like Mitch Marner and William Nylander have periodically found themselves lower in the lineup – but the month of December stands as a potentially cruel, cold test.

Take a look at what lies ahead for these young Buds:

Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas

You can almost picture the hot takes that could come from a cold streak, particularly during that stretch from Dec. 12-31, when the Maple Leafs play eight of nine games on the road, with some back-to-back headaches added for spice.

“These young Maple Leafs just can’t stay focused.”

“Are the Maple Leafs distracted during the holidays?”

You can almost hear the water starting to boil for those hot takes. This is a few days old, but it still holds true for the Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, and other teams:

Really, such a schedule might just move Buffalo to throw in the towel a little sooner, possibly expediting Evander Kane‘s exit, among other things. Since we’re already here, check out Buffalo’s December, too. Things are a little dicey to begin 2018, too, so consider this December-plus:

Fri, Dec 1 vs Pittsburgh
Sat, Dec 2 @ Pittsburgh
Tue, Dec 5 @ Colorado
Fri, Dec 8 @ Chicago
Sun, Dec 10 @ St. Louis
Tue, Dec 12 vs Ottawa
Thu, Dec 14 @ Philadelphia
Fri, Dec 15 vs Carolina
Tue, Dec 19 vs Boston
Fri, Dec 22 vs Philadelphia
Sat, Dec 23 @ Carolina
Wed, Dec 27 @ NY Islanders
Fri, Dec 29 @ New Jersey
Sun, Jan 1 vs NY Rangers
Wed, Jan 4 @ Minnesota
Thu, Jan 5 @ Winnipeg
Sat, Jan 7 @ Philadelphia

Really, it’s kind of tough to call the outdoor extravaganza that is the 2018 Winter Classic a “home game,” even if it’s scheduled that way. The event (airing on NBC in all its glory) serves as the palate-cleanser for two three-game road trips for the Sabres.

It’s worth noting that the Maple Leafs and Sabres are both essentially as effective on the road vs. at home so far in 2017-18, especially if such trends fall apart thanks to harsh exposure.

Maple Leafs: at home (8-5-0); on the road (9-4-1).

Sabres: at home (3-8-1); on the road (3-7-3).

Hmm, curious, right?

Again, I’d wager that the Sabres will be in a dark place by early January, to the point that they’re justified if they – painfully – punt on another season. Ideally for Buffalo, it would be one more pulling off of the Band-Aid as they continue to try to ascend the ladder, rung by rung.

The Maple Leafs will be a more fascinating case.

Will fans and media in Toronto give this young team a little leeway if they stumble during this stretch? If they don’t stumble, will people recognize that there continues to be something special forming?

It should be interesting to find out, even if you have to wade through a few less-than-understanding takes in the process.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.