MLHS’ Anthony Petrielli joined The Leafs Geeks podcast over the Christmas break to discuss the team’s play of late, systems adjustments, Jake Gardiner’s play this season, Leo Komarov’s slow first half, and much more.

On the adjustments the opposition has made to the Leafs since their blazing hot start:

The first thing that is really evident is that teams have adjusted to the Leafs more than anything. They did flip the puck out a lot last year — that’s not completely new to them this year. They loved creating the 50-50 foot races and thrived off of that. Their forwards were really good at creating scoring opportunities off of that. If it’s positioned right and you put a puck off the glass and it’s William Nylander versus whatever defenceman has to turn around and go get the puck, who do you favour in that?

The Bozak line, since the Phil Kessel days, that was their bread and butter play. But teams have really clogged them up. Last year, I think they were able to open up games a lot more frequently. Part of it was the unknown team that maybe didn’t get a lot of respect. Teams went down early — I think Matthews led the league in scoring the first goal of the game. Teams opened up against the Leafs to try to tie it, and that was the Leafs‘ music right there.

Teams just grind them down now. “Even if they do score first, let’s just keep it going and let’s not open it up.” The second you open it up against the Leafs, how many teams would you say can go up against the Leafs opening it up? Tampa, Pittsburgh for sure could open it up and feel okay about themselves. There are not many teams that can really open it up, and now teams are just clogging it up and going, “Let’s make this the most boring game of all time.” They’re young, they make a lot of mistakes still. You see guys on the wrong side of the puck consistently. Their defense doesn’t always make the best reads when they have to make an actual decision as opposed to putting it off the glass and what not.

One funny thing that has happened with the game quietly in the last few years is that teams have completely gotten away from defencemen using their partner and going side-to-side and up the ice. It’s all about turning it up ice immediately and getting right back into the offensive zone. I’m not sure that really plays to the Leafs’ defencemen’s strengths.

On the increase in dump-ins from the Leafs from November onward:

You can definitely ask William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to weave through traps and beat them single-handedly. Their defense can do it a little bit, too.

That chip play — that shot for a deflection play — is almost always a turnover because nobody’s feet are moving. Everyone is standing still. You can dump a puck in strategically and you make it a 60-40 play in your favour if you do it right. If you strategize a little bit, you can make a smart play, but not when guys’ feet are just standing at the far blue line tipping the puck in.

They’re trying to beat the trap. After the games, you hear Babcock mention, “There’s not a lot of space. The neutral zone was clogged up.” He’s always talking about the neutral zone. It’s kind of the thing that stumps them once in a while. They don’t really have the defense to beat that and they don’t really have the veteran forward group.

On his level of optimism at the Christmas break:

They’re good. I think they’re going to finish second in their division. Worst case would be third if they blew it or there were a bunch of injuries or something outrageous happened. If they stay the course, they look like the second-place team in the Atlantic, and that’s going to give them a pretty favourable matchup.

There was a question on Twitter, “Do we think the Leafs can go deep this year?” I’d consider a deep playoff run the final four, and I don’t think so because they’re going to have to play Tampa because of the way the bracket works. I can’t see them winning that series yet with the way they’re currently constructed. They haven’t played Tampa yet, so maybe they’ll play them and I’ll start feeling differently. Maybe it’s one of those matchups. At this point, I can’t see them beating them.

But, hey, I don’t know where Leafs fans have been for the last 10 years, but they’ve been bad. They haven’t had a goalie. They haven’t had a superstar. Playoffs were a pipedream. I am not taking for granted that they’re showing up to the rink and getting business-like victories and points. They can score like crazy. They look really good compared to the other teams in their division.

Listen to the whole hour below.