The Toronto Maple Leafs picked up their seventh win in their last eight games after a convincing victory over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
A few key takeaways, plus some thoughts on the team’s approach to the trade deadline:
Auston Matthews: We Are Not Worthy
The Leafs‘ 2-0 goal, similar to his jaw-dropping OT winner against Chicago early in the season, was another stunning example of Auston Matthews’ incredibly unique, deceptive and powerful release.
It’s safe to say you don’t want to give him that look once, let alone twice.
Look at this from Chris DiDomenico’s perspective trying to defend it, and Craig Andersen’s perspective trying to save it.
You never want Chris DiDomenico defending Auston Matthews one on one in space if you’re the Senators, but DiDomenico was in an okay position here to either get stick on puck or block the shot. By lunging forward and shifting his weight onto his front foot/outside leg, Matthews is able to drag the puck two-three feet further inside his body, from the faceoff circle to the outside of the hashmarks. That changes the release point and shooting angle entirely to the point where DiDomenico is taken out of the equation – he thought Matthews was going to rip it through his legs and played it like a goalie — while Andersen has lost all ability to square up to the shot.
That was fantastic play by Nylander to draw two Senators in and lay the puck off to Matthews in space, as well, in addition to Zach Hyman’s disruption in the neutral zone to kick off the sequence. It was an exemplary case of all of the elements on this line working together in unison.
This was perhaps my favourite Leafs goal of the season, eclipsing the Chicago OT winner because it was at 5v5 and resulted from a great shift inside the offensive zone.
Poor Craig Anderson
Another note about that Matthews release: In the look he had just before and missed on, he released the puck on his inside leg (vs. outside on the goal).
He came back seconds later and shot from nearly an identical spot off of a different leg, giving Anderson an entirely different look.
Anderson famously said about Matthews’ four-goal game that he wanted someone to “get him out of the net” as it was happening, and he probably thought some of the same thoughts after that one.
Matthews has now put seven goals past Anderson in eight games since breaking the league.
Mitch Marner goes off, line gelling with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau
Mitch Marner’s five-point game was his tenth multi-point game of the season: he’s now had a five-point game, a four-point game, two three-point games, and six two-point games this season. Meaning, he’s racked up 27 points over those 10 games. The confidence has been up and down this year, but when he’s going, he’s going.
The fit next to Nazem Kadri, as we’ve discussed a lot in this space, has been a really nice match as far as two creative players who are great in small areas and think the game the same way. Patrick Marleau brings the heavy shot the other two don’t have, doesn’t need the puck on his stick much, and is a smart vet who knows how to find the soft spots.
Kadri and Marner are linking up really well right now and the line is gelling offensively: In the eight games since they were paired up, each has 10 points (Kadri: 4g,6a; Marner: 6g,4a). Marleau hasn’t been as productive with two goals and four points in those eight games, but he’s shooting three times per game since the switch.
Marner taking on harder matchups against first and second lines with a left-shot center and a great veteran role model on the opposite wing is better for his development away from the puck than his previous situation, as well.
On the 3-0 goal, when the Leafs turned a defensive zone faceoff win into a goal at the other end, Marner did his job off of the draw running interference so Morgan Rielly had time to execute the hard wrap. He then ripped up ice and finished the play after taking a pass from Marleau at the other end.
Guy Boucher mixed up his lines a lot, but Kadri and Marner carried 85% of the shot attempts in the nine minutes of 5v5 ice time up against Mark Stone. It will be interesting to see how this line performs against the Stamkos line on Monday. The Kadri line kept them quiet last time — before the switch with Komarov down to L4 and Marner up — but didn’t generate much offensively. It should be a good test.
On the Buy, Sell or Hold Debate
The idea that the Leafs should sell at the deadline has some sound reasoning to it as a legitimate — if unconventional — plan of attack: The goal isn’t to just get in and hope everything breaks your way, it’s to set the team up for a legitimate Cup-contending window that’s five-to-ten years in length.
Ultimately, I don’t expect it to happen, and without knowing what kind of trade returns might be out there on JVR and Tyler Bozak, I likely wouldn’t do it if I was Lou Lamoriello, either.
The Leafs are currently 33-19-5 and tied for sixth in the NHL (eighth in points percentage). Their playoff cushion is inflated by their weak division (weak as far as teams 4-8), but it’s important to remember they haven’t exactly torn up said weak division – they are currently 7-5-1 against the Atlantic.
A big part of that is that they haven’t played the Panthers, Sabres, Red Wings or Canadiens all that much. They’ve got 11 games remaining against those four teams, including four against Buffalo and three against Florida (two against Montreal and Detroit). If they can make hay in those 11 games against the bottom end of the Atlantic Division – keeping in mind all four teams should also sell off some pieces at the deadline – and win their final matchup against Boston, chasing down home-ice advantage isn’t totally out of the question yet.
The Leafs are a very deep team up front and are currently healthy. Frederik Andersen has been a top-five goalie this year and doesn’t look likely to slow down. There are also no guarantees in the modern-day NHL — the Leafs are tied for sixth in the NHL and are currently eight points ahead of the 17th-place team. A few key long-term injuries, a down year from Andersen (which happens to even really good goalies now and then), and suddenly you’re back in the mushy-middle pack of teams for whom either missing the post-season dance or punching your playoff ticket is going to come right down to the wire.
It’s true the St. Louis Blues sold in a playoff position last season with the Kevin Shattenkirk deal and ended up getting the best of both worlds – a good trade return to boost the future (a first, a couple of conditional picks, other spare parts), a third-seed divisional playoff spot, and a first-round win over Minnesota. But they were 18th in the NHL at the deadline, one point clear in the final wildcard spot. They were a veteran team with Cup aspirations entering the season and had drafted in the first round twice in their previous four drafts.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are tied for sixth in the NHL, with a 20-point cushion and a pretty favourable schedule in the final 35 games. Their core is largely 23 and under, their AHL affiliate is a juggernaut, and they’ve made 33 picks in their last four drafts, including a first overall, a fourth overall, an eighth overall and a 17th overall. They’ve currently got a full complement of picks entering the 2018 draft, including their own first and two seconds.
I’m not advocating for aggressively buying and trading away first-round picks at the deadline. But the Leafs are very likely going to hold steady — more or less, save for perhaps a veteran add at C or D to bolster depth — and see what they can do here. That’s perfectly logical for a team in their position.