The Maple Leafs dropped their fourth game in the last five with a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks on Monday night. Toronto’s recent struggles have seen them drop to third in their division with Boston and Detroit not far behind.
Your game in ten:
1. Don’t let the flatteringly close score fool you – this was a dominant performance by the Sharks. They outshot the Leafs 39 to 18 and their 51.35 CF% on the night was misleadingly dampened by a mostly irrelevant third-period surge by Toronto. The Maple Leafs have struggled on the dreaded “Death Valley” road swing through California for years now and this was certainly an ignominious start to this year’s iteration. The Leafs will now look to snap out of it against a Ducks team that will be without Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Ryan Kesler (even with the latter three injuries, they have won four of their last five while scoring 19 goals in those wins).
2. A great hockey moment with the return of Patrick Marleau to San Jose. He received a heartwarming and enthusiastic reception by his many fans in attendance. Marleau is truly the epitome of a Good Pro™. It’s impossible to quantify the effect that a role model of his magnitude can have on Toronto’s young talent, but you hope moments like this resonate; it was a manifestation of the reverence Marleau has earned around the hockey world through his dedication to remaining at the top of his game for so long. Last night, the veteran’s effort and energy stood out amongst the herd of twenty-somethings that were supposed to be playing hard for him and his homecoming. Marleau finished the night with a 68 CF%, second to only Leo Komarov on the team.
3. One of the few positives to take from this game was the play of Fredrik Andersen. He kept his team in it, especially as the ice was tilted in his direction for the first two periods to the tune of roughly 44% possession. Andersen will happy to see the back of October for the second consecutive year; last year, he was a .922 save percentage the rest of the way. The hope is this is the start of a similar turnaround. That’s no doubt one significant piece of the puzzle (we’ll get to the others below) as the Leafs look to get their goals against numbers under control; they’ve given up three or more goals in nine of 12 outings this season. Andersen was economical in his movements while tracking the puck much better than he has in recent outings.
4. There were quite a few eyebrows raised at Babcock’s decision to return to his starting night lines. On one hand, you can understand his patience with the combinations that served him well last year (when they were a top-five offense). On the other hand, poor Josh Leivo, and the “definition of insanity” cliche is starting to apply with the Bozak line. Never known for their defensive prowess, their saving grace has always been an ability to outscore their glaring deficiency — or at least cancel it out — but that’s not happening this season. A sequence near the end of the first period encapsulated their year thus far: a thrilling rush into San Jose’s end yielded two great chances in tight, yet the Sharks quickly pushed back the other way and hemmed Bozak and co. in their own end for a significant amount of possession time along with some scoring chances against.
5. Babcock is well aware of this line’s struggles, having noted so publicly in the last week. Their continued issues on Monday night culminated with Bozak getting benched for the majority of the third period. Marleau rotated to center and Toronto rolled three lines in their attempted comeback. One would think that the outcome of a game like this would warrant a roster shakeup to inject energy and provide a jolt to certain faltering veterans, and it looks like it has based on today’s practice lines:
Leafs practice lines
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 31, 2017
In the summer, Alec ran the numbers on Marleau’s time at center-ice in recent seasons:
In October of 2015, Logan Couture broke his leg and missed nearly two months. During that time, Marleau was at center for the majority of the 23 games Couture was out. Here were his numbers while filling in down the middle: In over 20 minutes a night, he scored eight goals and 16 points, and posted a 51% Corsi For as well as a 52% share of the high-danger scoring chances. However, he was a minus-eight in those games, with just a 41% Goals For Percentage.
The other obvious option here is moving William Nylander to center instead of Marleau, but it’s understandable that Babcock is hesitant to break up the one duo that’s really going for him consistently at the moment.
As for the defence pairs: It looks like Rielly and Hainsey will see top matchups consistently here as Babcock moves away from Gardiner – Zaitsev — which has struggled breaking pucks out cleanly in the last five or so games — and reunites Gardiner with a familiar partner in Connor Carrick.
Leafs practice D
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 31, 2017
6. Indeed, on an otherwise dreary night that had many Leafs fans regretting lost sleep, Auston Matthews and William Nylander continued to shine as a beacon of hope. They were dangerous all night long, with Toronto’s first goal displaying Nylander’s elite ability to enter the zone with possession and hang onto the puck for as long as he pleases. These controlled entries were one of the most marked improvements in his game over the course of last season, along with his ability to dish it in transition, and breakouts like this make you think he could be the solution at center if things don’t turn around soon with the Bozak situation.
On the goal, the puck found its way to Matthews in tight, who did what he does best by getting it to his stick and into the net in short order, with Zach Hyman playing his role — draped all over a defenceman in front creating space.
7. It was refreshing to see a fourth line of Leivo-Moore-Kapanen last game. With Moore’s tenacity and pace and Leivo’s size on the boards, this could be a fourth line that would not hurt you defensively while having real upside offensively. But with Matt Martin and JVR returning to the lineup we saw a reversion to opening night’s Martin-Moore-Brown trio. It didn’t go well. Actually, it went horribly, as Moore and Martin literally finished with 0 Corsi For. They were hemmed in on a couple occasions that ended with Martin and Moore taking penalties, one of which resulted in a powerplay goal against. Nikita Soshnikov, who is looking back to his old self with the Marlies, would also look great on this fourth line, but it remains to be seen whether Babcock will budge on Martin’s claim to a spot in this lineup. It doesn’t look like the rotation many fans are hoping for is going to happen anytime soon.
8. Roman Polak’s status as a Good Pro™ is certainly not in question. He gives it his all every shift and has performed admirably considering his return from injury and a lack of a proper training camp. However, while he has good straight-line speed, his agility on skates has never been his strong suit, and the injury hasn’t helped. Polak threw the puck away on numerous occasions in this game, including a beautiful pass to Joe Pavelski as the Leafs pushed for a comeback in the third period. With his health and conditioning in consideration, Babcock and company will need to rotate Polak out for Carrick on this road trip and bring Polak along slowly.
9. While Nazem Kadri‘s late deflection goal has now been credited properly to Andreas Borgman, Kadri had another solid night at both ends of the ice, finishing with a 66% share of the shot attempts in his 12:46 of even-strength ice time (confusingly, he finished the game with less TOI than Tyler Bozak). During the broadcast, Greg Millen remarked that Nazem Kadri has had a “steady” start to the season. That’s a point per game, 40+ goal pace with a 54% faceoff percentage worth of steadiness.
10. The Leafs weakness thus far continues to be their breakout and neutral zone mishaps. Defensive zone and neutral zone giveaways and the large gaps in their breakouts are both a continuing cause for concern; teams aren’t making it easy on the Leafs now and the “fantasy camp” stuff of the first six or seven games that Babcock warned his team about has indeed come to an end.
The good news is that this team has shown the ability to tidy up their systems play and move as a five-man unit up the ice as the year wore on last season. It’s still early yet and this team is even more talented than last year, but it’s about time they start trending in the right direction here.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts