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Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you all had a great holiday filled with friends, family, and good times.

We know the Toronto Maple Leafs have.

Currently on a 9-4-4 run in their last 17 games, this is the type of stretch that catapults a team right into the thick of the playoff race. The recent streak puts Toronto on a 93-point pace, which is the same number of points that the Detroit Red Wings accumulated last season in order to clinch the final playoff spot in the East (they were tied with Boston and won the tiebreaker).

There are some really big positives working in the Leafs favour at the moment. The first is that they are 14th in the NHL and eighth in the East in points percentage, ahead of teams they are chasing in the standings such as Boston and Tampa Bay.

Toronto has the second highest goal differential (+5) in their division behind the Canadiens, which is a good indicator of future success. They are also eighth in shot differential in the East — another good indicator of future success.

Sports Club Stats has their playoff probability at 64% right now.

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Now, this doesn’t mean that the Leafs are a certainty for a playoff spot right now. Far from it.

Since a shaky October, Frederik Andersen is second in the league in save percentage. He is also tracking to start around 68 games this season, with a previous career high of 54 in a single NHL season. How will he handle that workload down the stretch, and can he keep playing at basically a Vezina level? If he doesn’t, how is that going to impact the Leafs’ ability to win games?

While there is no doubt that Auston Matthews is elite, how will he handle the second half of the season when rookies traditionally hit walls? The same applies for Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown, and Zach Hyman. Matthews, in particular, is on pace for 46 goals – a goals total only two players accomplished last season (Jamie Benn and Patrick Kane). Toronto went 7-6-0 during Matthews’ goalless drought.

According to ESPN’s Relative Power Index, which ranks teams according to their results accounting for strength of schedule, Toronto is 19th in the NHL and 12th in the East. Of note, they haven’t played Columbus or the Rangers yet this season, and have faced Washington and Philadelphia once each, though they beat both. They are 0-2-1 against the Habs and Sens combined, and even their current win streak has largely come against weak opponents – Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

Toronto still has nine sets of back-to-backs to navigate through having won only two games in the second of a back-to-back in seven attempts so far this season. As a reminder, they have the second most back-to-backs in the league this season with 18.

Last week, we discussed some players the Leafs could potentially move if they decide to double down on youth this season. What complicates that even further: After the February 28th trade deadline, the Leafs will play 12 games in the last three weeks of the season, which is the most in the league.

That means Toronto will likely have games in hand on all their competition throughout the rest of the season, not to mention if they are in a playoff race to the bitter end. That will make for a lot of intense hockey jammed into a very short period of time (12 games in 21 days!).

Technically, the Leafs haven’t even hit the halfway point of the season. There’s plenty of hockey left to play here. Even better, there have been so many positives to start this season. The team has put themselves in a position to be competitive for the year, but a more challenging remaining schedule and a furious finish to the season leave a lot left to be decided.


Notes

– Early in the season, the Leafs were using Matt Martin on the penalty kill regularly (I think, in part, to justify his contract as more than a fourth liner). His ice time and role on the penalty kill has declined drastically and steadily throughout the first half:

MonthShorthanded Time on Ice Per Game
October1:27
November0:46
December0:11

In Martin’s place on the PK are Nikita Soshnikov, who averaged 1:22 per game there in December, and Frederik Gauthier (1:41 per game). Connor Brown is also playing 30 more seconds a night on the PK since the first month of the season, while Zach Hyman is roughly doing the same.

– This was also an interesting note from Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press: The Red Wings offered Matt Martin the same deal the Leafs signed him to (4 years, $10M total). I had it in my head that the Leafs made him the biggest offer on the market, but it turns out that was not the case.

– It seems like a long time ago that Connor Brown started the season on the fourth line with Martin and Peter Holland. Now he is bouncing around between either the Kadri line in a shutdown role or the Matthews line. His ice time has risen almost four minutes per night since the first month (12:44 per game in October, 16:35 per game in December). He’s now up to 16 points in 36 games, which isn’t going to wow anyone considering the Leafs’ top rookies, but it’s a tidy start to his career. Interestingly, he has 51.8CF% in 173 minutes with Nazem Kadri compared to a 49.8CF% with Auston Matthews in 151 minutes. Part of that is due to Matthews receiving more responsibility as the season goes on, but either way it looks like Brown will be a big factor in top line head-to-head matchups for years to come.

– While William Nylander is not sliding under the radar, he’s not exactly getting the attention he deserves, either. He’s on pace for 58 points and has been alternating between the Kadri and Matthews lines throughout the season in tough head-to-head matchup roles. This is an exceptional rookie class, but if it was a regular year he’d be in the mix for the Calder – Nathan MacKinnon won with a 63-point campaign, the year before that Jonathan Huberdeau won in the shortened season after posting a 53-point pace, Gabriel Landeskog won the season before with 52 points, and Jeff Skinner won the season before that with 63.

– Some adjustments from Mike Babcock in the final minutes of the Red Wings game: Nikita Soshnikov was added to the Kadri line in place of William Nylander to close the game in the final few minutes. That was followed up by the entire Matthews line in the final minute, which is a spot we’ve seen Ben Smith, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri relied upon, particularly in the faceoff circle (Matthews won 41% of his faceoffs on the night; Bozak won 65%).

Part of that is simply development and putting young players on in big situations to see how they respond. In this case, Zach Hyman, in particular, stood out because he had opportunities to clear the puck out and didn’t get it done. I thought when Babcock called the timeout he might put out a more veteran unit, or at the very least Leo Komarov, who is faceoff insurance and their best defensive winger. At this point, the Leafs are legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, so it will be interesting to see how Babcock plays it moving forward.

– A nice find by Elias Sports on just how dominant the Leafs were at creating offense in December: They averaged just under 38 shots on goal per game. Only two teams in the last ten years have averaged 38 shots on goal for one full calendar month – the 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings (in October, December and March), and the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks (in October). Both teams went to the Stanley Cup Final in those respective seasons, and the Wings were, of course, coached by Mike Babcock at that time. Toronto hasn’t averaged that many shots on goal over a full month since February of 1976.


Quotes

“[My dad] was less concerned about my shot or my skating or how many goals I had. But he would talk to me about things like, you know, if I showed a lack of discipline he’d talk about fair play and he’d talk about sportsmanship.”

–  Brendan Shanahan, in this excellent Sportsnet feature.

I picked this quote because it made me think of the Leafs from just a few years ago. Just two seasons, we were able to chart out over 25 controversies involving this team. Currently, things are not always perfect, but this team conducts themselves professionally day-in and day-out. It starts with the leadership at the top – Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, right through to the roster.

“Brown’s been terrific when he plays with [Matthews]. Nylander has had some real good time there. I don’t like Marner there as much just because I think Marner can drive a line by himself… You want the puck all the time. Some guys are pure passers. They need more shooters with them. But Auston likes to shoot the puck, as you can see. He likes people that can get it to him. If you have one guy at the net that draws a defenceman, there is more space for him. I’ve never met a good player yet – I learned this a lot from [Datsyuk] and [Zetterberg], to be honest with you – that [doesn’t] want players who get them the puck back. They want the puck. They don’t want three guys that want the puck. They want guys that get them the puck and then get open.”

– Mike Babcock on line combinations

I thought that was a particularly interesting nugget on Marner and not pairing him with Matthews. I agree that Marner can drive a line by himself – he is doing so right now – but I would still like to see arguably the Leafs two top forwards play together and find out what they can do. In Detroit, Babcock paired Datsyuk and Zetterberg together regularly.

“These are the guys that paved the way for us. There’s a lot of history in this franchise, and a lot of it is due to the guys here in the locker-room. It’s special to be around them, to hear some of their stories and get a sense of how big of an honour it is to wear that Leaf on your chest.”

– Auston Matthews, on meeting Leafs alumni

It was a great idea for the Leafs to pair up with alumni members – Matthews sat beside Wendel, Marner beside Gilmour, Rielly beside Salming, Andersen beside Cujo, and so on. The Cup drought in Toronto, the history… you’re playing for something a little bigger here. What a reminder.


Video Tidbit of the Week

I generally try to pick obscure plays for the video tidbit of the week, but I don’t think this goal got enough attention in terms of how and why it developed.

Matthews collects the puck in the neutral zone at the end of a shift in a 2-on-2 situation with the Detroit defenders playing a tight gap. The Wings make a bad change in overtime and that opens up the possibility for a 3v2, but Matthews still has to navigate tired legs and DeKeyser holding the blue line. What makes the goal is Matthews’ stickhandling at the blue line to create some space for the drop pass. Otherwise, Matthews would have to dump the puck in and go for a line change, which would give Detroit half an open rink to set up an attack with.

The other really smart play here comes from Jake Gardiner. If he tries to rip that puck on net and it either goes wide or is kicked out with a save, Detroit is turning up ice with fresh legs against tired legs. Instead, he plays the puck into traffic along the ice, the Leafs get a bounce, and an elite player makes a heads-up play on the backhand to end it.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1) I think this has been the hardest week to think of 5 things to do since I added this segment to Leafs Notebook. The team is rolling and playing well. There are always opportunities for improvement, but with a young team like this, you often have to just put players in place and let them develop while taking the good with the bad. Playing the Matthews line at the end of the Detroit game and giving up the lead is a great example. It’s part of their development process. Matthews, Hyman and Brown will learn from that.

2) I think if Toronto is serious about winning this year — or at least wants to give their young players a real opportunity to make the playoffs without sacrificing the future — a true backup goalie is in order. Andersen is going to blow away his previous games played career high as it stands. Although Antoine Bibeau showed well against Tampa Bay, he doesn’t have a strong AHL track record. A possibility might be Buffalo’s Anders Nilsson, who has had a great year, is a big goalie and is a free agent this summer. He’s also only 26.

3) On that note — and this is why it’s important to get a good backup — I think I’d start Andersen Saturday at home against Montreal and give Bibeau the road game on Friday night in New Jersey. The Habs have been a top end team this year, Toronto hasn’t beaten them since Babcock has been named the coach, and I wouldn’t throw Bibeau in net on Saturday night for this matchup.

4) I think the Nylander and Brown swap has been effective so far and should remain in place. On the Kadri line, Nylander provides some skill and speed to open the ice up for Kadri and Komarov to get to the dirty areas and space out defences. There have been quite a few times in the last couple of games where Nylander has taken the puck in the defensive zone and skated it out clean. Brown provides another digger who can retrieve the puck for Matthews and he also has some skill and defensive abilities. Having the two switch back and forth between the lines is a nice shake up for Babcock to have in his back pocket when he needs to mix things up.

5) Similarly, I think Nikita Soshnikov should be used as a rover to change lines and mix it up. The last five games he has played 12:09, 9:52, 7:02, 11:15, and 10:16. He isn’t playing a lot and his linemates are limited offensively, which helps explain his four points in 27 games this season. He’s better than that, and he’s only 23. He shouldn’t be completely buried offensively, but there are nine top nine forward sports and the Leafs have nine other good forwards. It’s understandable, but when other forwards struggle, Soshnikov should be bumped up accordingly.

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