Leafs Chats is a roundtable discussion between Alec Brownscombe, Anthony Petrielli and Declan Kerin that will feature throughout the season at Maple Leafs Hot Stove.

Anthony Petrielli: So we’ve hit All-Star weekend and the Leafs… Still look good?! Are the playoffs actually happening?

Declan Kerin: They sure look like a playoff team. Offensively, they can run with any team in the league and look like contenders on some nights, but I can’t go all-in. They still give up a lot of shots against — some of the highest in the league — and if Andersen gets injured or starts to slip — and he’s never come close to his workload this year, or had numbers this high — they’re not a playoff team. I am still somewhat skeptical about the system they play: Playing stretch pass hockey hasn’t worked for maybe a decade or more, and that’s what they’re playing now. You could say Pittsburgh were successful with a similar system, but the Leafs are giving up 35-40SOG+ against good teams regularly. I’d love to see the Leafs back in the playoffs, but there are few things that I need to see play out in order to be fully convinced (Andersen sustaining his level of play, and to see if he is physically able to play 70 games). Can this style of play work down the stretch when teams buckle things down tightly? 

AP: From strictly a Leafs point of view, that all makes sense… But their division is surprisingly terrible this year. Tampa looks done, as does Florida. I had both those teams in the playoffs to start the year. Ottawa is competitive in the standings but isn’t scaring anyone. At some point, Boston is probably going to start scoring and their results will reflect how much they’ve controlled play this year. The Habs seem like a lock at this point — maybe the only one in the division that is. So I hear what you’re saying, but their division leaves plenty of room for error.

Alec Brownscombe: To Declan’s point, only one goalie in the league has faced more shots or made more saves than Andersen (Cam Talbot) at the All-Star break. On a shots-faced-per-game basis, there is only one goalie in the league that has started more than 20 games this season and faced more shots per night than Andersen – Mike Smith of the bottom-feeding Arizona Coyotes (Andersen faces 32.1 per game, Smith 32.9). For all the talk about the rookie phenoms, and rightfully so, Andersen is the lynchpin in terms of this year’s playoff odds, given what the team gives up in terms of shots, shot attempts and scoring chances — that’s due to the team’s relative weakness on the backend and the wide-open style of play on many nights (one feeds into the other given some of the breakout patterns we’re seeing).

I’m less concerned about the “rookie wall” than I am about that, I’d say. But I think they’ve put themselves in a good position and Andersen doesn’t look likely to fall apart anytime soon barring injury. I think the Leafs have done enough in this latest great stretch of hockey – given that the division is breaking nicely thanks to Tampa and Florida’s unpredictable down years — for me to say they’re going to make it.

AP: I wouldn’t say I’m ‘concerned’ about the rookie wall, but I do wonder about it. Marner is playing with two vets in a bit of a sheltered role, so he seems the least likely to take a nosedive. Nylander has bounced around a bit, primarily playing on a checking line essentially; how is that going to play out down the stretch here? Matthews is amazing, but he’s also playing with two rookies and we’re seeing other team’s play their best defensive players against him now. The Flyers put Couturier out against Matthews and he did a really good job shutting him down. I’m expecting stuff like that the rest of the way. Beyond that, you have to wonder about the defense holding up down the stretch.

DK: As we’ve seen, the Leafs aren’t deep enough on defence to withstand injuries to their top four. They’ve beaten some weak teams, but aren’t able to run with the better teams in the league with only two top-four D. What if one of Zaitsev or Gardiner get injured between now and the end of the season? Or Rielly, again? Could we see similar results that we’ve seen with Rielly out? With perfect team health and a goalie playing better he ever has in his career – and more than he ever has in his career with ~10-15 more games and extremely high volumes of shots against in those 15 — they can do it… it’s asking a lot to go right, though.

AP: So if the season ended today, would you give Andersen the team MVP? Unbelievable seasons from Marner, Matthews, Kadri, even Gardiner so far. Andersen has to be the guy though — he’s been a rock. It always seems a little cliche to go with the goalie because there’s only one guy. For the majority of teams giving their starter 60-70% of their starts, the goalie is the most important player just by virtue of the position. But Andersen has been really good so far. We haven’t seen this type of goaltending since Reimer carried the 2013 lockout season Leafs to the playoffs.

AB: Don’t make me choose. I think he’s the most important player this season as far as making the playoffs goes because he does have to cover up for a multitude of sins. But Matthews scoring like he has (23 goals, fifth in league scoring), particularly early in games and in tight games — he’s scored the opening goal ten times and the game-winning goal five times — has had such a big impact (consider that teams who score first get at least a point out of it something around 75% of the time. It feels like he has scored very few unimportant goals while leading big or while trailing by a lot). I think Kadri deserves a nod here too because of the importance of the role he played/plays as far as giving Matthews and the rookies a gentler introduction to the league (not that Matthews needed kid gloves for very long) helped them to hit the ground running. On top of that, the guy may well hit 30 this year.

DK: Absolutely Andersen as team MVP for me (with nods to the holy trinity of rookies). They’ve all been great, but after the first five games of the year where he was pretty rocky, he’s been lights out. I think we haven’t seen goaltending this good since Belfour in 2004. Reimer was excellent in the lockout-shortened season, but it’s the consistency and calmness that he’s doing it with that is impressing me — and with the added bonus of Andersen being able to handle the puck. Everything adds up in such a tight league; those passes on a slow change that he can make up the weak side help keep the other team honest. We heard Jeff Blashill game planning against it behind the scenes before the Centennial Classic.

AP: One thing that has surprised me about Andersen is his ability to play the puck. He’s no Carey Price or Marty Brodeur, but he’s been good at picking and choosing his spots to go out and play the puck and helping the team move it up ice. He even picked up an assist on the Nikita Soshnikov goal against Detroit. If your goalie can’t play the puck at all, teams game plan for it and you can actually rim the puck around on dump-ins quite effectively. Andersen stops that kind of play and makes good decisions. It definitely helps their defense, which needs all the help it can get.

DK: There’s been a fair bit of ink spilled (digitally) over the Leafs need for another top-four defenceman. A knowledgeable hockey market like Toronto has done the math and it’s basically the one glaring weakness left on the team. Now, I don’t want to have this come across as a Gardiner bashing session — it isn’t and I’m a big fan of him; he’s got special traits — but even if the Leafs were to get another right-shot D to play with either he or Rielly, is the mix right? It’s unusual that he’s getting the Dion Phaneuf treatment right now. Lots of 2nd and 3rd lines, defaults as the go-to guy on the PP — regardless of his effectiveness — and virtually next to no penalty kill time (Gardiner ranks 186th out of 215 in shorthanded time on ice among D who have played 15 games or more). It really does leave the coaching no other choice but to dress Hunwick and Polak as the bottom pair when the second pairing can’t take any PK time (Carrick’s barely played at 4v5 either). Going around the league and looking, the second pairing D is taking significant PK time everywhere else. I think he can play on the PK and do well, but is it that Babcock doesn’t trust him? It’s very unusual. Would they move him for a like-aged righty that could play on the second pairing, put up points and also put up significant PK time? You’d like to see the Leafs upgrade the bottom pairing, but they don’t have much in the way of options internally at the moment because the bottom pair is tasked with taking on heavy PK mins. Maybe I’m looking into this far too much… 

AP: I’d like to think it’s just coincidence that Gardiner has the same usage as Phaneuf last year. Gardiner is younger, on a way better contract, and is in his prime instead of regressing. It is eyebrow-raising though. I do think a big reason everyone is saying Gardiner is having a great year is because of all the points he’s racking up playing on the top PP unit. I’ve brought up Gardiner on the PK before and basically get “he doesn’t win battles, can’t clear the net, isn’t big, blahblahblah.” As far as I’m concerned he can prevent teams from setting up on the PP and can beat forechecks, which are the two of the biggest things you can do to become an effective penalty killer. He’s never been given a long look there, and I think you have to at least give it a real go at some point. In an ideal world — right now, anyway — the third pairing is Marincin-Carrick, you have Rielly-Zaitsev, and you find Gardiner a legitimate partner. I will say I like Carrick and think he’s been a good player overall — so it’s not a knock on him — I just think he’s deceiving people a bit because Gardiner has done a really nice job doing the heavy lifting on that pairing.

AB: I listen to every Babcock presser. Every time Gardiner comes up, Babcock always mentions that he doesn’t spend much time in his own end (a great thing) and that the Carrick and Gardiner pairing is at its best when it’s playing at the other team’s blueline. He mentioned a few weeks ago that the Gardiner – Carrick pairing gets more offensive zone starts than the other pairings for that reason. Just last week, he talked about Gardiner having “another level” to find as far as his “defensive detail.” Gardiner himself mentioned the other day that Babcock wants him to be more physical when it comes to boxing opponents out around the net. I think all of that plays into the thinking about the PK, and Babcock also likes leaning hard on Marincin, Polak and Hunwick there, with Zaitsev and Rielly in the mix, too. I think it’s just about Babcock leaving Gardiner to do what he does best — and Babcock fully appreciates the value of what he does — and if he improves in the areas Babcock wants him to dig in on, he could start throwing him a little more PK time in the future. The penalty kill is certainly running along smoothly without him.

DK: Do you think that they will make any adds this trade deadline or will they hold firm and see how the team plays? Elliotte Friedman suggested the Leafs were looking for a 4C:

“3. Sounds like Toronto is looking for a depth centre. With Ben Smith still out, they could use some extra insurance beyond Frederik Gauthier.”

Does that mean another Ben Smith type of player, or would they look to solidify that position further by adding a Brian Boyle type player where he’s more of a 4/3C and can play wing plus a bit of PP time, if needed? Obviously, he’d come at a pretty high price.

It appears that Shattenkirk won’t be staying in St. Louis and he certainly fits the bill for the Leafs. Would the cost be out of reach for the Leafs? It would appear JVR would be the return – or part of the return — for him. Do they have enough depth to lose JVR and not see a significant drop off offensively?

AB: I love the sounds of it, but I don’t think the Leafs are in a position to give up the assets required to acquire Boyle – a rental like that isn’t going to put the Leafs over the top and a contending team will probably overpay. The JVR trade is a 100% offseason move if it happens, while they probably aren’t going to move either Hunwick and Polak (UFAs this summer) off the team and out of the room if the team is still in the mix just for low picks. What if the Polak and Spaling deal could be recreated, though? That was crazy good value Lamoriello extracted there, getting two extra second round picks for Mark Hunter.

AP: Let’s see where they are in a few weeks. Their schedule is pretty easy leading up to the deadline — Stars, Islanders and Blues twice, and the Bruins, Sabres and Sens once, along with a few difficult games. We also need to see if they can stay healthy, because if they are they can’t justify adding much more than a 4C or a depth defenseman on a cheap deal. If they do well, the thought of getting to the second round and profits is going to start creeping in people’s heads (I’d pick them to beat Ottawa in a playoff series). A JVR trade makes more sense in the summer at this point, I think. I’d probably just keep this group together and see how it goes — they don’t have much to lose, to be honest, since there were no expectations on this team to start the year and they are still very young. If they really want to add a veteran, I’d just pay attention to the waiver wire or add someone for a pick no higher than a 4th.