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Now approaching mid-December, we are starting to get a lay of the land in the Atlantic Division.

When the NHL switched their division and playoff format last season, it created a greater emphasis on divisional rivalries. The top three teams in each division are guaranteed a playoff spot, and failure to finish in the top three means a team has to compete for a wildcard spot against the runners-up in the other division of the Conference.

In Toronto’s case, that would mean having to outpace a suddenly deep Metropolitan Division that has the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals all playing well. For perspective, all five of those teams would sit in second place if they were switched over to the Leafs’ division.

Let’s take a look at the Atlantic Division and quickly size up each team.

#1 – Montreal Canadiens

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
19-6-341+2951.61%1.03620.4% (10th)81.9% (14th)

The Habs are cruising, relatively speaking, and almost everything has come up roses for them so far. Carey Price is back and better than ever, Alex Radulov looks awesome, Shea Weber has been good, and the team has some depth. If they survive the injuries to Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais, they should comfortably make the playoffs in a divisional playoff spot.

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Player they can’t afford to lose: I’m assuming everyone watched hockey last season, yes?

#2 – Ottawa Senators

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
16-11-234-847.69%.99416.3% (20th)80.2% (23rd)

The underlying indicators — a negative goal differential, generally being outplayed — point to a lucky start and a regression candidate. They’ve also dealt with some injuries and still have Erik Karlsson, though. If the summer was any indication, the Senators might actually be in buy mode at the deadline, particularly because they stand to lose a good player in the expansion draft this summer.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Erik Karlsson, obviously.

#3 – Boston Bruins

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
16-12-2340 54.88%.98213.8% (27th)87.9% (2nd)

Boston looks reasonably good so far, but it seemed like they were going to make the playoffs down the stretch last season only to miss out in the last week. If they keep those possession numbers near the top of the league, though, the Bruins aren’t going anywhere. They also have the third-worst PDO in the NHL, and might actually have room to improve.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Tuukka Rask. The Bruins have some very good forwards and their defense is weak with/without Zdeno Chara, but they are toast if Rask gets hurt.

#4 – Tampa Bay Lightning

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
14-13-230049.54%1.00222.3% (7th)80.6% (21st)

Injuries to Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan and Jonathan Drouin have been detrimental, but it’s easy to envision Tampa persevering and putting it back together. They are too skilled, too deep, and too well coached not to.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Victor Hedman. He’s not the best defenseman in the league, but he’s close. Tampa has excellent depth everywhere else.

#5 – Florida Panthers

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
13-12-430-752.29%.98813.3% (29th)84.6% (8th)

Impacted by injuries this season — notably to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, and now Keith Yandle is banged up – the team will surely get healthy at some point and make a run for a playoff spot. They are too talented not to.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Roberto Luongo. James Reimer has really struggled this season, while Luongo has been spectacular in keeping them alive. Some might say Aleksander Barkov here, but they won the division with him playing only 66 games last season.

#6 – Detroit Red Wings

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
13-12-430-746.83%.99614.4% (25th)84.9% (5th)

The Red Wings have two regulation wins in their last 22 games. At this point, based on their summer signings, they seem to be living in denial.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Henrik Zetterberg. He might be aging, but he leads their team in scoring and overall time on ice among forwards.

#7 – Toronto Maple Leafs

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
11-11-527-550.73%.99518.3% (13th)84% (9th)

The Leafs have been pretty solid at 5v5 and have strong enough special teams to suggest they’ll be competitive. The concern is that only one team stands out as a relatively easy opponent to leapfrog in the Atlantic — the Detroit Red Wings.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Frederik Andersen. The team hasn’t been dealt a key injury blow yet, but they have some depth elsewhere on the roster — at least, there are a few players I would like to see move up and receive more opportunity should an injury occur. In net? It would be Antoine Bibeau carrying the mail right now.

#8 – Buffalo Sabres

RecordPointsGoal DifferentialCorsi ForPDOPPPK
10-11-626-1648.58%.98922.8% (4th)74.2% (29th)

I’m guessing the Sabres would have been somewhat competitive for a while if not for the Jack Eichel injury before the season, but they’ve dug themselves a significant hole here and don’t look capable of getting themselves out of it.

Player they can’t afford to lose: Jack Eichel. They are 3-2-1 with him and 7-9-5 without.


Notes

– One way Toronto likes to create offense off the rush is by shooting for the far pad (Babcock has referred to it as, “passing off the pad”). You can see the Leafs do it at least 4-5 times per game. Against Minnesota, Ben Smith scored a tap-in off of that play. It looks like a bad rebound and a bad goal overall, but any goalie will tell you it is unstoppable if executed properly. The puck has to be about six inches off the ice and hit the goalie’s pad around the toe so that it pops out to the middle of the slot instead of the corner.

– There was a stretch in November when the Leafs were routinely getting out-shot and Andersen was keeping his team in games. In the last ten or so games, however, the Leafs have been on the right side of the shot clock. Toronto now sits 15th in overall 5v5 Corsi For (they’re the last team in the league above 50%). There have been a few roster changes: Connor Brown has been moved permanently into the top nine, Nikita Soshnikov has entered the lineup full time, and some of the rookies are settling in. The team has also begun activating their defense (more on that below) and developing a cycle game using the points.

– It has been getting a lot of attention lately that the Leafs are close to the basement in their division. Their standing doesn’t seem to square with the feeling that team is fun to watch and hasn’t suffered through any major losing slumps. One thing to keep in mind is that the Western Conference currently has the five worst teams in terms of points percentage. Conversely, the top five teams in points percentage all reside in the East. The good news for the Leafs is they are in a pretty mediocre division – Ottawa is in second, Boston is in third – so there’s still plenty of time. But it’s something to keep in mind moving forward. We are used to considering the West the superior Conference, but it looks like the East has the tougher schedule this season.

– Toronto is 0-5-1 in the second game of a back-to-back so far. The team will play 18 back-to-backs by the end of the regular season, tied for second in the league. If the Leafs ae serious about making the playoffs, this is the sort of thing that is going to decide it. On the bright side, Toronto will be bottom-three in miles travelled this season.


Quotes

Our vision’s not going to change, but the day-to-day blueprint has to change every day. Things happen to your team, things happen around the league, you have to be ready. So there really is no one way we’ve outlined we’re going to do this thing. If we have an opportunity to make ourselves better and it fits into what our vision is (we’ll do it). Our vision isn’t going to change. Our vision is to build a team that can sustain success over a long period of time. So does that mean we’re not going to make any trades? No, it doesn’t mean that. Does that mean we’re going to get a little taste of success and sacrifice years and years of our future to get something for today? No.

– Brendan Shanahan, discussing the Leafs plans for the rest of the season

If anything, I wonder if the Leafs will consider selling off a veteran or two this season if they remain near the bottom of the division at the trade deadline.

Peter is a big, solid centereman with good NHL experience. We look forward to having him join our team.

– Coyotes GM John Chayka on acquiring Peter Holland for next to nothing

I always felt that Holland could have handled the 4C role reasonably well. It will be interesting to see how he does in Arizona if he’s given an extended chance to prove himself.

Auston, in our program, he’s a god. We have 170 kids in our program and I think every family has bought a ticket for when Toronto comes to town
– Auston Matthews’ minor hockey Head Coach, Ron Filion, on Matthews’ impact on Arizona minor hockey

If you have some time, I recommend reading this NHL.com feature on the impact of Matthews’ success on the growth of the game in Arizona. It is pretty cool to see the effect the Leafs star is having in his hometown (as well as a few other places we aren’t even aware of yet). A competitive Leafs team is (going to be) good for the league. A competitive Leafs team led by a star from a non-traditional hockey market is good for the game.

“He was 6’3 the whole game. He was calm.”

– The first thing Mike Babcock brought up in assessing Antoine Bibeau’s first NHL game.

Just a reminder: Babcock does not like small goalies.


Video Tidbit of the Week

 

One thing Toronto does in the offensive zone that garners little attention: They activate their defense on the wall almost automatically. The Leafs rely on their defense to be involved and active in the offensive zone to keep plays alive and extend offensive zone time.

Here is a shift against Colorado where the Leafs work the puck to the point, get a good shot off, and the play goes to the wall. Gardiner is skating for the puck, and so is Hyman. It’s about a 50/50 race to the puck, but Gardiner is the one who keeps going — it is his job. When the puck goes back up Gardiner’s wall, he steps up again to hold the line, creating more offensive opportunities. Later, when puck goes up Connor Carrick’s side, what does he do? Pinches in again.

Holding the line, and stepping up or pinching in, is all about having the forward support in place in case the puck still clears. The Leafs coaching staff must emphasize this to their players because they do it all the time.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1) I think I’d put Marner in the middle of the ice on the powerplay as the “rover.” He’s playing the half-wall on his strong side currently, and teams are sagging off of him and daring him to shoot (which he isn’t). Marner has great vision and he’s crafty, which suits the rover role perfectly. His shot just isn’t dangerous enough yet to earn respect.

2) It has flown under the radar, but I think the coaching staff should be commended for giving Rielly consistent powerplay time recently. It is the right move. He leads the defense in overall points and should lead the defense in powerplay points shortly (he’s tied with Gardiner and Zaitsev at three each currently). Rielly also has far more shots on goal than the other two defensemen with 59 compared to 45 from Gardiner and 37 from Zaitsev. I’m not convinced that Rielly has the best shot of the three (it might be the worst, to be honest), but he will shoot and teams have to respect that. It forces the penalty kill unit to push up on him, which helps open up the half-wall.

3) I think, at certain times — like when trailing versus Colorado and Minnesota — I’d mix in the odd shift with Matthews and Marner together. They are the two most dynamic offensive threats on the team and they hardly share the ice. In games where the team is down or in need of a spark, I bet there is some value to be had in combining arguably the team’s best offensive center and the team’s best offensive winger. Also – considering they are both, presumably, going to be around for a very long time — there’s some additional value in acclimating them to one other.

4) When Josh Leivo suits up to play, I think it makes sense to scratch Ben Smith and slide William Nylander back to center. The team would start with a fourth line of Martin-Nylander-Leivo, with Nylander bumped up for the powerplay as well as the odd shift with Matthews or Kadri. That would leave the rest of the Leafs lines as Babcock likes them – Komarov-Kadri-Soshnikov, JVR-Bozak-Marner, and Hyman-Matthews-Brown.

5) With four games in the next seven days (none of them are back-to-backs), I think I’d  consider starting Frederik Andersen in all of them. He’s been really good lately, they are all home games, and he will get a day off in between each game. It would be a great test.

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