Leafs Notebook – April 3

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TORONTO, ON - MARCH 20: Auston Matthews #34 tof the Toronto Maple Leafs talks to teammate Frederik Andersen #31 during warm up before facing the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre on March 20, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

There is a lot to get into before the final week of the season begins.

It’s been a crazy, fun and surprising season, and it looks like we’re only getting started. This final week of five games in seven days is an appropriate end to a whirlwind season. Given it’s a game day, let’s jump straight into the notes.


Notes

– The Leafs really deserve kudos for this run they have put together. They are not out of the woods just yet — just 18 days ago they were out of a playoff spot and the outlook was dim — but the Leafs now have a 96% chance to make the playoffs due to this 7-2-1 run they have gone on down the stretch.

Kasperi Kapanen has played 11:38, 9:42, 11:28 in his three games so far, and has four shots on goal and no points as of yet, but he has knocked on the door a few times. Against Florida, he had a really nice net drive where he just missed at the far post; on his first shift against Detroit, he shielded the puck with his back before giving Boyle a little through-the-legs pass and recollecting the puck seconds later for a 360-spin shot on goal. He has received some penalty killing time as well, and his speed is very noticeable on the forecheck. Compared to last season, Kapanen looks a lot more comfortable and isn’t forcing the play as much (it probably helps having a specific role alongside two veterans).

– It was hard to tell, but Auston Matthews put a quick shoulder dip on Rinne before scoring short side. He held the puck out and gave a quick shuffle and look to the far side, and if you watch Rinne’s feet, he reset them for a split second. Once he did, Matthews ripped it short side for what ended up being the game-winning goal. It is a little unbelievable that, in his first season, Matthews already has more goals in a single year than Phil Kessel ever did as a Leaf.

He just scores in so many different ways. The great goal scorers usually have a go-to play, whether it’s Kessel with his snapper off the rush, Ovechkin and Stamkos with their one-timers, or Tarasenko and Kane with their ridiculous releases. But Matthews seems to score in every way possible, whether it’s by going to the net, off the rush, one-timers, or plays in the high slot. The variety makes him that much more difficult to contain.

– I have no way of proving this, but I have wondered throughout the season if Babcock and the coaching staff asked Leo Komarov to tone it down a bit. After playing 67 and 62 games the last two seasons, he has not missed one game this year. During the middle ‘grind’ of the season, Komarov was not as physical as we have grown accustomed to on a nightly basis, nor was he the same pest that drives opponents crazy all the time, but he has played a major role all year. A regular on the power play, penalty kill and top shutdown line, he now has eight points in the last 15 games. That pass to Matthews against Detroit for the Leafs first goal of the game was gorgeous. The physicality in his game has really returned down the stretch here, too.

– Since March 1, James Van Riemsdyk is tied for second on the team in scoring with 11 points in 15 games (Nylander is first with 15; Matthews, Marner and Kadri all have 11 as well), and second in goals with six. He is also tied for first on the team in shots on goal in that time with 42. In 46 career playoff games, JVR has 13 goals and 22 points; that isn’t eye-popping, but his 153 shots in those game is. Against Boston, he had seven points in seven games and was a big reason why the Leafs were in that series, particularly with the work he put in front of the net against Zdeno Chara. In Boston’s next two series, they only allowed 13 goals total in nine games. Somewhat quietly, it looks like JVR is establishing a good track record of producing in big games and moments.

Brian Boyle is first on the team with 100 playoff games under his belt, Roman Polak is second with 49 (and some probably forget he went to the Cup finals last year with San Jose), and JVR is third with 46 (he also went to the Cup finals with Philly). The Leafs had an inexperienced roster the last time they made the playoffs and I thought it cost them the first game of that series; they looked nervous and uncertain. So far, the pressure of the playoff chase hasn’t seemed to bother this team, by and large.

– If there is one thing that has changed, though, it’s that they appear to be retreating more in the neutral zone and forecheck when leading late in the third. Detroit put 14 shots on goal in the third – and 42 overall on the night — while Nashville outshot the Leafs 13-2 in the third and Florida outshot them 12-6. And only one of those three teams is good. Only Columbus has been leading teams more this season than the Leafs, but if they are going to get leads and sit back on them moving forward, it won’t end well.

Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney have been unbelievable down the stretch for Toronto, giving the Leafs everything they could have asked for and more. Andersen has played 12 games since March 1, is sixth among starting goaltenders with a .935 SV%, and he has an 8-1-2 record in his last 11. The Leafs rolled the dice committing to Andersen long-term (and I wouldn’t say one good season means he’ll be good/great for the next four, given it’s such a weird position), but so far it looks like a fantastic move.

– Interesting note from Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts on why Connor Carrick delivered a massive hit to Columbus’ Josh Andersen: Apparently they had a history from their time together in the OHL four years ago. He’s only 5’10 – which is no doubt one reason why he was a fifth round pick – but he is one feisty player. Apparently has a long memory, too.

– Carrick is only averaging 16:23 per night on the season, in part because he gets very little special teams time (35 seconds on the PP and 18 seconds on the PK). After putting up four points in 16 NHL games last season and then exploding for 18 points in 15 AHL playoff games, I thought he had a chance to be a point producer, but the Leafs have brought him along slowly this season. If nothing else, he has proven he is a legitimate NHL defenseman and he is under contract for next season at a cheap $750K cap hit (he’ll be an RFA after that).


Quotes

“Huge. Just a big man who does things right every day. Really competes hard, a physical presence for us. Polie brings it every single day and I think makes our D way better. Him and [Hunwick] are elite penalty killers. That’s an important part of the game.”

– Mike Babcock, on Roman Polak

He receives a lot of criticism from fans, but Polak has actually been very solid down the stretch for the Leafs. The penalty kill has been good, he is closing out games for the team, he is physical in the defensive zone stopping cycles, and he has even been pushing up ice lately. Very curious to see if the Leafs keep one or both of Polak/Hunwick this summer.

“I think historically – I wouldn’t say it’s a hard and fast rule – but historically the GM, Lou, if I remember correctly, doesn’t do a lot of mid-season deals. It’s a little unusual. But I think everything in good time and Hyman and Brown are extremely well-regarded by this management group. And what’s not to like about the way Connor Brown has played lately. What’s he got, 19 goals now, and he’s been filling the net since January 1. Hyman has preferred status with Mike Babcock through a lot of things that he does – his forechecking, his penalty killing and what have you.

“I heard (Dave Poulin) talking about what length of term do you give these guys. The question is do you do a three or a four-year deal, or do you try to go even lower and just go with the bridge deal. You’re leaving yourself a little exposed, especially with Hyman, who’s an older rookie too, as you get closer to that age 27 and unrestricted free agency. But sometimes those bridge deals – a two-year deal – tend to give you a little more financial flexibility.”

– Bob McKenzie, on pending RFA negotiations between the Leafs, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman.

I would consider a long-term deal at a lower cap hit for Brown and a bridge deal for Hyman to see how he produces the next two years, whether it’s alongside Matthews or someone else. If Brown is signed to a bridge deal, I think there is a real chance he prices himself out of Toronto in a few years when it’s Matthews, Marner and Nylander’s time to get paid.

“JVR – I think it’s going to be interesting. The Maple Leafs, because of the salary cap and the way it goes with your entry-level contracts, at some point the Maple Leafs are going to have to sit down and say, ‘Are we going for it the next two years.’ And I think the answer has to be yes because you know you’re never going to have these guys making this salary again.

“So my question is do you keep van Riemsdyk because you like his goal scoring and say, ‘Okay, we’ll take the chance of losing him for nothing, but we’ll take the salary it opens up when he leaves. Or do we trade him for something and say we can’t lose him for nothing, or we could flip him for something else we need.’

“It’s going to be a big decision for them.”

– Elliotte Friedman, on the JVR situation

I wrote about trading JVR early in the year and I still think that’s the best move for the team long-term. The Okposo/Ladd/Eriksson deals last summer suggest he’ll get $6M+ long-term on the open market. The Leafs can’t justify or afford that. The longer they wait to move him, the less they’ll get.


Video Tidbit of the Week

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This is a nothing play in the big picture, but I wanted to highlight it because it happens all the time with the Leafs: a subtle pick on a defender. The Leafs do it all the time and anyone in the league will tell it is a staple of a Mike Babcock-coached team. They run just enough interference to help their teammates, but not enough to take a penalty.

Also in this past week, Kadri ran some interference on JVR’s PP goal against Nashville. The play allowed Zaitsev an extra second to control the puck, walk the line, and get a shot through from the middle of the ice. Against the Red Wings, Rielly drove the net and ran enough interference to allow Nylander a clean walk to the middle of the ice for an easy goal (by his standards).


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1. I think I would give Andersen the Buffalo game and McElhinney the Washington game in the upcoming back-to-back. The Leafs have done it this way all season and should stick with it. Get the two points against a weak Buffalo team. The Tampa game is unquestionably the biggest game of the season and it gives Andersen a little more rest for that game too. If they win that in regulation, it’s basically over; they’re in.

And I wouldn’t consider giving Andersen both games with the crazy remaining schedule (followed, hopefully, by the playoffs).

2. I think I like what I have seen from Kasperi Kapanen so far and I would be comfortable with leaving a roster spot open for him to fight for in camp next season. His speed is elite, and I think the Leafs will be in a position where they can see what he can do in the first half. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, they could trade for a veteran scoring winger for the stretch run.

3. All that said, I do think Nikita Soshnikov should take his spot back in the lineup once he is healthy. If Josh Leivo is healthy first, he should get back into the lineup as well. Soshnikov, in particular, is one of the Leafs’ best penalty killing forwards and he also has a physical side of his game that is perfect for that line and for playoff hockey. He also has pest potential; I think there’s a decent chance he drives the other team crazy in the playoffs.

4. I think it’s a good idea for Babcock to continue to use the Matthews-Boyle-Hyman line when leading late in games. I would like to see Nylander get some time there for experience in the future (and once and awhile he is, like the Boston empty netter), but they are past the time for experimenting at this stage of the season. Matthews is going to learn from playing Boyle in those situations, and having two centers available for defensive zone situations is important. In certain situations, I think they will have to consider putting out Bozak instead of either Boyle or Hyman for the draw.

5. There was some debate in the middle of the year as to whether Nylander and Matthews should play together (when Brown went on that line and had some success), but I think it’s pretty clear the debate is now over. They are playing off of each other very well; for two players who like to carry the puck a lot, they manage to distribute it pretty evenly. They’ve posted a 53.7CF% together, which is the highest corsi Matthews has averaged with any of the forwards he has played over 30 minutes with this season. I wouldn’t call them a dynamic duo just yet, but the threat of Nylander on the wing has really opened the ice up for Matthews and teams are struggling to contain them.