With an awkward division format in place and the team still on the rise, it has been pretty easy to lose sight of the fact that the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a historic season.
Pat Quinn’s 2003-04 Leafs team set the record for most points in a season for the franchise with 103. Currently, the Leafs have 93 points with 10 games to go. It will be close, but the 2017-18 group is right there with the best regular season Leafs teams of all-time. The highest win total in a single season is 45; the Leafs currently have 43 (that does come with the obligatory overtime/shootout asterisk; also, don’t forget the Leafs set the record for overtime losses last season).
Quietly, they are also going to obliterate the lowest single-season penalty minute count – the record belongs to the 1967-68 Leafs with 634 (in a 74-game season, no less), and the current Leafs have 505.
The team is also on a 12-game home winning streak, which is already a record.
Digging into the stats, the best goal differential I found by a Leafs team was the 1992-93 team that finished with a +47 (The highest Quinn-era team was actually the 2001-02 Leafs with +42). The current team is at +39 and therefore has a chance to best that mark, too.
One can argue, then, that this is possibly the greatest regular-season Leafs team in history. They just happen to be in a division that houses three of the top six teams in the league.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Marlies aren’t just aiming for organization records — they have league records in their sight. They currently sit at 26 road wins; the league record is 28, and the team has six road games left. The best ever AHL record is 58–16–2; the 2017-18 Marlies currently sit at 44–17–2, but even being in the ballpark is pretty remarkable.
This has all happened despite some notable injuries, particularly to Auston Matthews, who has missed 19 games this year. Nikita Zaitsev has missed a few more than Matthews, while Morgan Rielly has missed a handful of games. That has an impact on both the Leafs and Marlies.
The season is not over yet and the playoff path is a tall task, but what a season this has been for the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Years ago, fans could only dream of this type of scenario, with the Leafs and Marlies both legitimate contenders for championships. While the best is yet come for the Leafs (or you’d like to think so, anyway), take some time to enjoy this down the stretch. This type of season does not happen every year. In fact, when it comes to the history of the Maple Leafs franchise, it might just be the best ever.
– Last week’s video tidbit was a highlight of Nazem Kadri shooting through on a lost power play faceoff against Pittsburgh, which helped to create a turnover and led to him scoring. A week later, he did the same thing against Montreal, shooting through on a lost draw (in the same spot, no less – the right side, making him the winger coming in from the inside hashmarks). He helped create the turnover and scored again.
– There’s a good video on YouTube of Bill Peters talking about being engaged on faceoffs and faceoffs being the first 50/50 battle of a shift. It’s noteworthy because Peters was an Assistant Coach under Babcock, so you can guess where he got that speech from. Babcock talks about faceoffs a lot. Whether you win or lose it, how you react is completely controllable. Getting the puck back on clean losses, and immediately turning them into goals, is a nice win at the margins.
– Since the start of last season, Nazem Kadri is tied for eighth in the league in power play goals with 22 (level with Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist). The leader is Alex Ovechkin with 30 and the next highest are two players with 27 each, so he’s right there. In the top 10, Wayne Simmonds and Patric Hornqvist are the only true net presences, as most players rely on their shots from the hashmarks. On the list, he’s the only true middle bumper/high tipper that I know of.
– Since last season, the Leafs have three players in the top 20 goal scorers in Auston Matthews (6th), Nazem Kadri tied for 15th) and James van Riemsdyk (also tied for 15th). There seems to be a prevailing thought that the Leafs can call players up and fill that gap left behind by JVR, but unless they have a stud waiting in their prospect pool ready to rip up the league (they don’t), you can’t simply replace that.
– Lou Lamoriello has always been fond of the saying, “If you have time, use it,” and the Leafs still clearly have time to make a decision on James van Riemsdyk. The paradox has always been that Babcock barely plays him, so despite leading the team in goals, what’s really noteworthy is that he is given sheltered, offensive zone starts and cushy power play time while playing on a scoring third line. They won’t be able to replace his scoring, but his price will undoubtedly be expensive for that role.
– Last season, Mitch Marner battled mono down the stretch and struggled. There were a lot of questions about his play when the games get tighter because of it. In his last 20 games, Marner has 25 points (Kadri is second with 20 in 20), and he has looked fantastic. He’s running one of the top power play units in the league, and the 6-on-5 against Dallas funnelled the puck to him repeatedly until they scored.
– Among goalies that have played at least 10 games this season, Curtis McElhinney leads the team in save percentage at .935 percent and his three shutouts are tied for 13th in the league. Historically, he hasn’t been a strong goalie (based on his career averages), but it has worked out here since the acquisition. He has been a big part of this team. Last year, the Leafs brought in Jhonas Enroth and struggled in back-to-backs, failing to win a game. McElhinney has helped them pick up multiple extra points, and while the Habs game was a relatively easy night, the team hasn’t missed a beat when he’s stepped in.
– Against the Sabres, Zach Hyman had a really nice strong side rush cutting to the net and almost scoring. His nicest goal of the year came against the Rangers on his strong side. On Saturday night, he set up Andreas Johnsson’s first NHL goal while coming down the right side. He’s not skilled enough to create on his off-wing, and his shot isn’t good enough to scare anyone, but on the right side, he has some power moves where he can hold the puck out wide and drive the net.
– Nice touch by Babcock to put Tomas Plekanec on for the opening faceoff against his old team. If you watched the Road to the Winter Classic last season, they filmed Babcock talking to the team in Auston Matthews’ return to Arizona and he mentions to the team that it is important to show up for a teammate in a situation like that. It’s a little thing, but it’s also a big thing. Players remember stuff like that.
“I’m sure it’s not going to be 100% … I’m sure it will still linger on throughout the year, but I think that’s fine. Everybody’s pretty much playing through something. That’s just the way it goes.”
– Auston Matthews on his injury
I’m guessing, if the Leafs were actually in the thick of a playoff race right now, Matthews would be playing. Either way, how he’s able to play through the pain and endure teams targeting him will be a major storyline the rest of the way.
“The biggest thing is we took away the back-door option. They tried it a few times with that guy going off my far pad & we intercepted a few passes and took away the shot.”
– Curtis McElhinney discussing the Dallas 4v3 in overtime
I thought this was a nice bit of insight into playing a 4v3 penalty kill. Not only are they trying to defend the cross-ice play, they are aware and focusing on the off-the-pad rebound play that more and more teams are starting to do (Leafs included). Any goalie will tell you that a good shot-for-rebound is all but hopeless for a goalie to stop.
“Get the golf clubs out, Andrew Peters. You have company!”
– Joe Bowen after Patrick Marleau scored into the empty net to ice the game against the Sabres
All Leafs fans should know the history here.
“Some guys call this the 32nd NHL team because of how much resources this team has. From what I’m told that all changed four years ago when the new management came in.”
– Colin Greening on the Marlies reputation as an organization
What a recruitment tool this is.
Video Tidbit of the Week
I’ve been talking about this a lot recently, but the Leafs have really changed up their power play breakout. We have seen this pretty frequently where one player wheels up ice and there is nobody really behind him for a drop pass. They use the wingers on the wall to help break into the zone, o or just skate it in themselves (which is an example I almost used from earlier in this game).
When Babcock first arrived, the Leafs used the drop pass religiously. They wouldn’t even mix it up — just drop pass, after drop pass, after drop pass. It bothered fans, but it worked and the Leafs had the second-ranked power play in the league last season.
Currently on a hot streak, the Leafs PP is up to fourth in the NHL this year. They’ve changed it up, but it keeps on working.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. When Nikita Zaitsev returns, I think I’d put Zaitsev with Dermott and keep Gardiner and Polak together to start. Although Gardiner – Polak are controlling around three percent less of the shot attempts together, it will help ease Zaitsev back in and it might give the Leafs a little more balance between their second and third pairings. Last season, Gardiner – Polak controlled 50 percent of shot totals together in nearly 200 minutes, and the season before it was 49 percent in a little over 175 minutes; generally speaking, they have been fine together. Polak does the dirty work in the corners and Gardiner does all the puck carrying. They know the deal.
2. I think the forward lines should go back to what they were once everyone is healthy. Reunite the Matthews line, keep the Kadri line together, and leave Brown with Bozak and JVR. That would mean Komarov plays with Plekanec and Kapanen. But it is nice to know they have a multitude of options should trouble arise.
3. I think it is clear that Babcock is planning to run those lines, too, and it is the right call. He’s kept the Kadri and Bozak lines together, while Plekanec – Kapanen as well as Nylander – Hyman remain together. As pointed out above in the notes, this is a good look at Hyman on the right wing (strong side), where he looks better and more comfortable. Something to keep in mind moving forward.
4. I think this Frederik Andersen injury is going to be a sneaky thing. This time off is going to do him well for the playoffs. I’d give him all the time he needs to get back (although it sounds like it might be happening tomorrow).
5. I think the organization is doing a good job of using their minor-league resources. Recently, they just signed Mason Marchment to a two-year entry level contract and also signed Scott Pooley to an ATO (which is what they did with Marchment in the first place). This is a great strategy, signing players to non-ELCs so they don’t count against the 50 standard player contract limit while auditioning/developing players. The Marlies use NHL facilities to train in and are in an NHL city. It’s an easy sell.