After grabbing a point against the run of play in Tampa Bay, the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a point in a game they should’ve won in the second half of the back-to-back against the Florida Panthers.
Some scattered thoughts:
– The Leafs were the better team for much of the night, so there wasn’t a ton to complain about as far as the performance, but the pregame audible Mike Babcock called on the lineup changes didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. You need four lines going in a back-to-back situation against a rested, desperate Panthers team. Even without Auston Matthews, the Leafs are clearly the deeper team and that should be an advantage going into these situations. Dominic Moore often doesn’t seem to do anything wrong – he was an 82% CF and scored a goal in six minutes of total ice time – but he has clearly not earned Babcock’s trust. The team is for sure deeper with William Nylander at center and Tomas Plekanec down centering line four. Instead, the Leafs shortened their bench because Babcock inserted Moore at fourth-line center despite not trusting him a lick. They played well and should’ve won in regulation, but it’s a strange decision. Moore on the wing in Josh Leivo’s place would’ve made some sense if fresh legs were the goal there, but even then, if Babcock is not going to play Moore…
Babcock on Nylander's incredible back-check & steal from Dadonov that led to Hyman goal:
"He turned the puck over. Probably felt guilty, felt like he should catch the guy & then he made a heck of a play to set up Hyms for the goal."
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 28, 2018
– In one sense it speaks to the standards Babcock has for a player he believes can develop into an elite two-way forward in his prime. But I thought William Nylander’s game at center against Tampa Bay showed quite a bit of promise, even if he got caught out there for two goals against (one was a play behind the net where he was in the right support position but fanned on a play he makes 19 times out of 20; the other was a tough play after Roman Polak put a short pass into his feet). The organization has done a good job of bringing players along slowly and not rushing through them into situations that they’re unable to handle. That’s not the case here, though. Nylander can definitely handle it. He often gravitates towards center duties anyway, and the second and third efforts without the puck like the one preceding his brilliant set up on Zach Hyman’s goal tonight have been more and more commonplace in Nylander’s game as the season has wore on.
– Against Tampa Bay, Zach Hyman (who’s played well) seemed like an odd fit on the Nylander and Kapanen line given it’s three right-handed players and Nylander and Kapanen can’t play off on their own as much as Nylander and Matthews can together. With Matthews out, I like the idea of Patrick Marleau next to Nylander and Kapanen, with Hyman up next to Kadri and Marner. The Kadri and Marner pair works and there is an understandable desire to want to keep the full trio together, but it’s not Marleau that is driving that line (don’t take my word for it – look at the individual offensive numbers since that line was formed). Marleau might be better suited playing with a right-shot center like Nylander and could help mentor and cover for his center duties at times. It also provides a left-shot faceoff man for left-side draws.
– I’d certainly want Kasperi Kapanen’s legs out there for more than 7:57 at even strength in a back-to-back situation — he looked incredible against Tampa Bay. Babcock largely got what he wanted matchup-wise with Nazem Kadri going head-to-head against Aleksander Barkov (whose goal came on the power play) for 13 even-strength minutes. The Vincent Trochek matchup fell largely to Tyler Bozak and his line, and as a result, Bozak and JVR played about a minute and a half more than Nylander at 5v5 despite not looking as good. While that matchup ended in a saw-off goals-wise and the Bozak line was fine overall, I’m pretty confident Nylander would’ve been able to handle that assignment — and again, I’d have insulated him a little bit by placing Marleau on his wing opposite Kapanen as the tweak before the game, if anything.
– He’s been out there for a couple of goals against and a couple of penalties, but Tomas Plekanec looks like he’s settling in, all things considered. It’s obvious he’s a veteran who knows how to play the game and is an easy center to play with – he’s in the right spots with and without the puck, is strong on the puck for a guy his size, steers the play well, and so on. Once Auston Matthews is back, he’ll help free up the Matthews and Kadri lines for more offensive zone starts, although I’d caution against over-doing it as he’s definitely lost a step at his age.
– Plekanec’s started all but one faceoff so far in the neutral and defensive zones (he’s had the lowest offensive zone start percentage on the team since arriving two games ago). It’d be gravy if Plekanec could strike chemistry offensively and produce a little bit down the stretch – it’s nice he has the long of history playing with high-skill players and can still do it in a pinch – but the knock-on effect of him giving the team safe minutes in defensive situations alone should give the rest of the lineup a bit of a lift.
– The biggest concern with this team heading down the stretch is the fact that Ron Hainsey is seemingly the only truly reliable defenseman on the right side of the ice right now. Nikita Zaitsev’s making some poor reads and decisions, is getting out-muscled in a number of his one-on-one battles, continues to remain over-reliant on the glass-and-out play, and generally looks shaky since returning from injury. He looks like a guy who is playing at less than 100% and is forcing things/fighting it out there. The Polak and Carrick battle/rotation, meanwhile, isn’t exactly producing a clear winner. There is no obvious solution here, unfortunately. Even if the team wanted to use Justin Holl as one of the remaining post-deadline call-ups and see how he fares again in a lengthier look, he’s out for a while with an injury. The only option here is to get Zaitsev playing better and hope he rounds into form. The optimistic take is that he did manage to shake off an injury and find another level in the post-season next to Jake Gardiner last Spring.
– Overall, the nitpicking aside, the Leafs are rolling along really nicely ahead of their mini-break leading up to the outdoor game on Saturday. Even if things don’t go their way in a game early, like tonight as well as last night, it’s been a long time since they’ve been out of a game or have been put away successfully by anybody. You could argue the Boston game at the start of February — when they entered the third down 3-1 and didn’t manufacture much of a push in the third — but after that, we would have to go all the way back to the game in Vegas on New Year’s Eve. The solutions on the blue line are going to have to wait for the offseason, but this team is very fun and deep up front, with sublime goaltending. It’s been a long time since there’s been this kind of genuine anticipation for Spring hockey in Toronto.