The Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the bye week on a losing note after letting a winnable game slip away on Wednesday night versus the Ottawa Senators.
Your game in ten:
1. It’s hard to feel too disappointed with where the Leafs sit in the standings as of game #45, but it’s also hard to dispute that this team is now verging on punching-below-its-weight status.
The Leafs just collected one out of four points at home against tired teams playing their in second game of a back-to-back. They’ve also gone without a regulation win in six consecutive. They carried the play pretty handily in both of their last two games, and didn’t get many breaks – not to mention they faced two starting goaltenders, with Sergei Bobrovsky getting back-to-back starts and Craig Anderson getting the early pull the night before. But it’s a little concerning nonetheless.
2. The Leafs, to be clear, dominated this game for the most part – their 74 shot attempts were the most they’ve directed at the net this season and there were no shortage of quality scoring chances in there. Maybe it was partially because the Senators were in a back-to-back – and are a defeated team in general – but the Leafs came through the neutral zone against them much better than they did earlier in the year in the Oct. 21 loss (which was the beginning of the return to Earth for the Leafs after their electric start to the season).
Toronto should’ve won the game. But whether or not the Leafs give up the late goal through the avoidable mistake by Morgan Rielly and get a point (or two), all of the below is – in my opinion – still true:
3. Matt Martin played fewer than 10 minutes combined in the last two games. In back-to-back situations for the opponent, this Leafs team is fully capable of rolling four lines and coming at tired teams in waves of speed and skill given the depth available to the coaching staff up front. But they’re actively choosing not to, for reasons that are increasingly less obvious knowing the coaches themselves have lost faith in Martin’s ability to take a regular shift of late.
Maybe Josh Leivo isn’t the ideal fourth liner in the coach’s eyes, but even then, there is a point-a-game player on the farm who can bring high-end speed, offensive abilities, play the PK, and easily manage 10 or 11 minutes in the NHL (the same player who gave the team a nice shot in the arm on the fourth line down the stretch and into the playoffs last year).
A knock-on effect here is that Connor Brown has been a bit of a non-factor on the fourth line for some time now with just three points in his last 22 games.
4. After another night with some missed opportunities on the power play (now 2 for its last 20), it’s worth pointing out: Drop the first seven days of the season, and the Leafs’ PP is clicking at just 18.8%, which is 18th in the league since Oct. 11 (42 games). Anthony mentioned Auston Matthews’ conservative PP time-on-ice on Monday, which branches into a larger point:
The best power plays in the league all load their top unit. In Pittsburgh, Kessel, Malkin, Crosby and Letang all play together, with Hornqvist in front. Thornton, Couture, Pavelski and Burns play together in San Jose. In Tampa, Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Point all play together, with Palat playing in front of the net. Not only are they more lethal together than apart, it means their best offensive weapons are playing the lion’s share of the man-advantage minutes and start most PP shifts off of the offensive zone faceoff.
5. The fact is the best power plays have their most dangerous snipers (in the Leafs case, Matthews and Nylander), net-front guy (JVR), and PP QB (Rielly) on the same unit. Given the Leafs have been in the bottom half of the league on the PP if you drop just the first three games of the season, it feels like a taking a look at what a loaded PP#1 might look like is in order here.
The Marner-led PP unit lacks versatility and has gotten somewhat predictable as far as its go-to plays and lack of big-shot presence. You look at the weapons at the Leafs’ disposal and it’s a puzzle that they have a top PP unit that somehow lacks that big-shot threat and doesn’t move the puck quickly enough, which was apparent in this game versus the Senators (who aren’t exactly a stingy team on the penalty kill).
6. Like Anthony pointed out with the overtime deployment, there is some overthinking going on with the defence, too. Travis Dermott should be in the lineup because he played well, earned it, and brings elements to the Leafs blue line that are sorely lacking outside of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Pretty simple.
7. If Roman Polak is going to be a regular, the one thing you’re expecting from him is that he’ll make it tough on opponents in front of the net and make it difficult to drive the net front for second and third opportunities. The redirect off of his skate into the net for Thomas Chabot’s 1-0 goal could’ve happened to anyone, but getting outworked for the loose puck by Gabriel Dumont on goal #3? These are the things that can’t happen if you’re Roman Polak.
8. Much like the game against Columbus, Morgan Rielly could not have played a better game up until the mistake. That looked like an overconfidence fail, where he was perhaps feeling a little too good about things and ended up getting overly-aggressive rather than playing the clock and the score properly.
We’ve seen lots of examples this year of the Leafs’ defencemen attacking the puck carrier early to keep him off balance/force an uncomfortable play, but Ron Hainsey also made a poor read there going after Matt Duchene initially on the 3v1; rather than playing the middle of the ice and forcing the Senators to make an actual play to score, it was a pretty easy play to make for a player of Duchene’s skill level and it gifted the Senators a free breakaway.
Regardless, the Leafs don’t come back in the game without Rielly, who was flying all over the ice, ripping pucks on net, walking the line, pinching in offensively, and generally putting on a dominant display throughout the game.
Rielly put six shots on goal in over 26 minutes of ice time, and his goal that puts him at 31 points in 45 games (sixth among NHL defencemen). He’s made costly mistakes the last two games, but the larger point is that the Leafs are getting stud-quality hockey more nights than not out of Morgan Rielly this season and that is a major positive through the first half of the year.
9. The process Rielly underwent certainly wasn’t always pretty. He got exposed against tough competition quite a bit last year and wasn’t overly productive due to his usage/lack of PP time and shaky confidence. Much of the fan base seemed to be reaching a, “We need to talk about Rielly” crisis point and there were plenty of questions about whether he was ever going to become a legitimate top-pairing guy. Perhaps Babcock has been vindicated for his approach last season — putting the reins on, getting him playing right, and then green-lighting him again this year. Or maybe it just speaks to how you think you’re being patient with defencemen only to learn you’ve got to wait even longer than you’d like before it truly clicks.
What part is Rielly’s natural maturation process? What part is Babcock’s coaching approach? What part is the value of a steady-as-she-goes partner in Ron Hainsey as opposed to playing with a rookie who was in over his head last year? Could Rielly have been more like this with more PP time and a better partner last year (he certainly started the 2016-17 hockey season looking fantastic for Team North America in the World Cup)? These are tough questions to answer, but it’s hard to argue with the results as far as the strides we’ve seen him take this year. Something clicked for Rielly in the Washington series last Spring and he’s played excellent hockey for the most part since.
10. The Leafs will now face a good test coming out of the bye week against a Blues team that handed them their lunch when they visited St. Louis in early November. The Leafs’ play in October and a weak Atlantic Division has them in a good spot right now, but they’ve got to get playing closer to their capabilities here soon.