With the NHL season about halfway done and 2018 now upon us, it’s time for some New Year’s Resolutions, Toronto Maple Leafs edition.

Before we do: Happy New Year and holidays to you all. I hope everyone was able to spend time with family and friends, and potentially even relax a little (can all three of those things really happen?).

Resolution #1: Rest for Frederik Andersen

To date, Andersen is second in the league in minutes played and first in shots against. The only time he hasn’t played so far this season is in the second half of back-to-back sets. Given the Leafs only play 13 of those this season, he is on pace to play a career-high 69 games at his current rate.

Last season, only one goalie played more than that (Cam Talbot); the season before, no goalies did. The season before that, three did (Braden Holtby, Tuuka Rask, and Cory Schneider).

The Leafs gave some lip service over the summer about resting Andersen and getting about 20 games of backup goaltending, but it has not happened, nor does it look close to happening so far. The playoffs are an every-other-night grind – it would be nice to have a rested Andersen ready to go for it as they likely will play a beatable Boston Bruins team in what should make for a good, hard-fought series.

Resolution #2: Reducing Shots Against

The Leafs are giving up the third most shots against per game this season, with only Florida and Anaheim giving up more. As has been discussed ad nauseam in this space, they have trouble breaking out cleanly and teams are able to tilt the ice in their own zone.

It is not as simple as trying to keep the shots down; they need to be tighter in their breakouts, change up their strategy from going off the glass all the time, and have their forwards circle lower in the zone instead of shooting up ice to create shotgun offense or tips pucks in at the far blue line.

It is just as telling that Toronto is 21st in shots for per game – far too low for a team of their talent level. Part of that is they just aren’t cycling teams well in the offensive zone and holding onto the puck long enough. That would also help reduce their shots against count.

Resolution #3: Defensive Help

Toronto sits in a three-way tie with New Jersey and Carolina at 18th for goals against per game. And this is with having one of the better starters in the league in Frederik Andersen.

Improving defensively can come a few different ways – one is internally, if they believe a Travis Dermott is ready (or I’d even suggest the possibility that Justin Holl might be an improvement on Martin Marincin).

They could obviously make a trade for a defenseman, but it looks like a seller’s market on D.

They could even think a little outside the box and try to bring in some defensive help at forward. Leo Komarov has struggled in his role and Tyler Bozak has been his usual self on defense — only without the offense — so an upgrade there would make a big difference overall, I’d bet.

There have been a lot of negatives focused on lately, but this is a good team and that is easy to lose sight of sometimes. They are fourth in goals per game, fifth in power play percentage, 10th in penalty kill percentage, and have a legit superstar with great scoring depth.

While they do have games in hand on the other teams in their division, they are up nine points on the next highest team in the division and the hardest sections of their schedule are pretty much over. They are more or less jockeying for position with the Bruins for home ice, barring an unforeseen disaster (knock on wood).

At this point for Toronto, the questions really surround touching the team up and cleaning up what they can, and when are they going to make a move for a big-time defenseman. That’s not a bad place to be as we enter 2018.


Notes

– I thought the Leafs road record might be poor after a tough stretch last month, but I was surprised to see they are one of five teams in the East to have a winning record on the road. Again, it’s worth noting: They have played the most road games in the league to date. They are set up down the stretch to make a run at home ice advantage and the second seed in the division (don’t think Tampa Bay is losing the division at this point).

– Against the Rangers, the Leafs had another successful 5v3 penalty kill. Again, they had Leo Komarov man the top, and he basically just took away what the Rangers wanted (the one-timer up top). It discombobulated them. The exact same thing happened against the Oilers a few weeks ago as well. It’s a good strategy. If they are going to beat you, make them do it with their second or third option.

– Also from that Rangers game – the shift leading to the Nylander goal was the best shift of the season. One thing to note in the shift is just how active Morgan Rielly is throughout the entire sequence; he actually goes below the faceoff dot on each side of the zone at separate points as he darts in and out of areas to help create space and provide passing outlets. Rielly has already matched his scoring total from last season and is currently tied for seventh in scoring among defensemen (on pace for 59 points). Every defenseman ahead of him in scoring plays more than Rielly per night save for Shayne Gostisbehere.

– I think people forget that Ron Hainsey was initially an offensive defenseman. In a three year span, he produced 105 points in 239 games, including a 39-point season. The Leafs obviously didn’t sign him for offense, but he’s on pace for 33 points and that’s a nice addition to the penalty killing he has provided along with being a steady partner for Rielly.

– That said, trying to toe drag Nathan MacKinnon in overtime is probably not the best idea for Hainsey. A big difference between Zaitsev playing and not is that Hainsey most likely would not have played in overtime at all if he was in.

– Great nugget by Alec here on the Leafs leading the league in interference penalties. I wanted to look into that more to see if I could find anything, and Andreas Borgman actually leads the league in interference penalties. Second on the team (but not the league) is Roman Polak. At forward, Bozak and JVR are tied at the top and Marleau is second. The two defensemen make sense in that they are physical and always look to play the body, while Bozak and JVR receive a lot of offensive zone starts and look to make pick plays to create space (as does Marleau). Overall, the Leafs have the 17th most minors in the league so far this season.

– I have seen some criticism of Dominic Moore and Matt Martin on the fourth line and was curious to look into it. They have played a little over 200 minutes together this season, have combined for 9 goals for and 9 against, and posted a 47.59 CF%. On its own, that’s fine for a fourth line and far from a problem. But part of that has been buoyed by Mitch Marner and William Nylander seeing time there. When Connor Brown has played with Moore, they have a 34.78 CF% in 72 minutes; surprisingly, in 68 minutes, Josh Leivo is at 50 CF% with Moore.

– Babcock likes to designate diggers on his line and Brown has had some success in doing that higher up the lineup playing with skilled players, but with Moore and Martin, he isn’t exactly retrieving the puck and giving it to skilled guys – nor is he a player that really carries the puck a lot or holds onto it to make plays. I think that’s why there is some struggle there. In comparison, Leivo can be a one-man show on the walls (but it hurts his ability to create offense without talent around him – he isn’t as good as Marner or Nylander as far as being capable of carrying the other two).


Quotes

“He’s already a man. Everyone has talent and skill but I love it when he goes in the corners. I’m a corner guy, I always will be. He holds onto pucks, he wins puck battles. If you’re a talented guy and can do that, you’re a special player.”

– Rick Tocchet on Auston Matthews

I think the one thing that is overlooked when people discussing Matthews and him needing a forechecker on his line is that he is fantastic along the wall. He’s not Phil Kessel, or even William Nylander. He can go get the puck on his own, and as Tocchet noted, that makes him special.

“We’ve gone from no expectation, to expectation. So the difference in what makes you happy is night and day. Last year was just kind of, like, a fun club, where everything is great, everything is positive. When it doesn’t go as good, let’s get ready for the next one. Now we’ve created expectation or ourselves, and I’m not talking about anybody else or you people, I’m talking about ourselves, so then it becomes harder. It becomes better, too. You earn the right to have expectations and you want huge expectations. But in saying that, it also becomes harder and you have to get used to it and you have to grow up as a group and learn to play right every single night and that’s kind of the process we’re in. what we’ve accomplished I think is huge. We got a fan base now that’s on side thinking we’re going in the right direction, and now we’ve got to earn the right for that support over the years to come by keeping getting better.”

– Mike Babcock, reflecting on the calendar year of 2017 for the team

I thought this was really well put. I have seen a lot of negativity surrounding the team lately; while there are issues, what team doesn’t have some? They are lining up to play a team in the playoffs that they have a decent chance of beating, and they’re in year two of having all their young stars on the roster. In the big picture, they are still trending up. That doesn’t mean the issues should be ignored, but as Babcock notes, the expectations have changed.

“There is not a single player in Toronto Maple Leafs history who has done more appearances or more charity events and work than Johnny Bower. For a generation of Maple Leafs fans, they remember him for his play on the ice. There is a whole new generation of kids and young fans that don’t really know him for the goalie but just know him for his charity and generosity and good-naturedness and warmth. You really could never – I’ve never in my time here – really come upon Johnny Bower at any moment, at any time, at any hour and see that he’s uncomfortable, frustrated, or impatient. He was never any of those things. Anytime anyone saw Johnny Bower, they came away with a great experience. He’s a great lesson for all of us.”

– Brendan Shanahan on the passing of Johnny Bower

Rest in Peace, Johnny.


Video Tidbit of the Week

 

This is a nice adjustment the Leafs have been incorporating more: Having a forward cut across the middle and hitting him with full speed to move up ice with the puck. As you can see on this play, the Leafs generate a quality scoring chance out of it. They are starting to add this more into their breakouts, so it’s something to look out for.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  With Nikita Zaitsev out, I would pair Carrick with Gardiner and use the pairings similar to how the Leafs did last year — Gardiner and Carrick get easier starts, Rielly and Hainsey (Zaitsev) take the tough minutes, and in this case, Borgman and Polak get the defensive zone starts. Marincin does some great things positioning-wise, but he struggles with the puck and that has always been a problem for him. At least Carrick has had some success with Gardiner, as well as some history there. At this point, it’s really their best option.

2.  In overtime, I think it doesn’t make any sense to not start Auston Matthews. He’s a complete player; why can’t he go head-to-head to start 3-on-3? The Leafs usually come out with Kadri and Komarov (or Brown) and it allows the opponents to dictate the play to start while the Leafs hope to not get scored on before they can get their second unit on the ice. Beyond that, I’m not sure why JVR is so deep down the pecking order. He’s their leading goal scorer.

3.  With Nazem Kadri out, the Leafs really have to explore breaking up the Tyler Bozak line. The Komarov – Marleau – Brown unit is not scaring anyone as a checking unit and the Bozak line is bad defensively. Add to that Zaitsev being hurt, and we can see why the Leafs are giving up the chances and goals that they are lately. A few times this season, Babcock has put Brown on the Bozak line to help them out defensively. I think that swap with Marner would make sense to round out the lines.

4.  It’s harder to control the matchups on the road, especially against a Vegas team that rolls its lines, but I would now be trying to go head-to-head with the Matthews lines and let the matchups roll down from there. Matthews is good enough to win that matchup, and it allows a Marleau line (potentially with Marner on it) a real chance to wins theirs, too.

5.  I think this will be a really interesting week to evaluate the Leafs – playing the top team in the conference, playing a Sharks team that handily outplayed them (outshot them 39 – 18) last time, and a bit of a revenge game against the Canucks. All the games are at home coming off a not-too-good stretch of road games. Let’s see how the Leafs respond to start 2018.