MLHS’ own Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Tonight with Roger Lajoie to discuss the challenges the Toronto Maple Leafs face without Auston Matthews in the lineup, what we’ve learned about the Leafs as a team through a dozen games, and the ongoing William Nylander contractual impasse.
Anthony on the team’s depth without Auston Matthews:
They’re still missing William Nylander, too. In the summer, when they had lost JVR and Bozak, it was easy to say, “Tavares has now slid in.” But last year they might’ve been better equipped to handle Matthews missing because they had a little bit more scoring depth.
JVR was a huge part of their power play last year, obviously, on that top unit, which Matthews didn’t even play on. Now they need to figure out who is going to fill Matthews’ shoes on the power play, and who is going to play center.
What was their center group last year without Matthews? They still had Kadri and Bozak and they moved Marleau and Nylander there at times. Now they have Par Lindholm, which is probably a downgrade.
On possible line combinations that could work without Auston Matthews:
We’ve seen it over the years so far with Babcock that he doesn’t want to rock the boat drastically just because one player is missing. I think he is just trying to fill gaps. To be honest, even moving Kadri with Marner and Marleau and how it rejigged all the lines in doing that is drastic for Babcock. He hasn’t done that traditionally as Leafs coach. If one guy has gone down, he’s bumped up one guy to fill the spot and kept everything the same as best as possible, but I think it’s a little more pressing and he understands the lack of depth on the team.
What their big issue is right now is to figure out if they can get anything out of the third line. They know the Kadri line is fine. We know Tavares can carry a line by himself. I don’t think anyone would doubt those two things. Tavares is still playing with Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen — two respectable players that can take a shift.
But that third line, they’re getting nothing out of it. And he knew it against Calgary. He started trying to bump up that Gauthier line, which has been decent for a fourth line, but it’s not a third line, either. Gauthier is definitely not going to produce to any sort of level.
He’s got to figure out what he’s going to do with that third line, and that’s a really hard question. Although their center depth is great when they’re healthy, we are seeing it right now: If someone gets hurt — and it doesn’t help that Nylander hasn’t signed either — your bottom two centers are Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier. That’s a problem.
On why the team has had some slow starts at home:
They definitely get a little complacent at times just waiting for power plays. Even that game against Calgary, their first shot on net in the third period was with six minutes left in the period. To be losing and take that long to get a shot on net is stunning. We are not talking goals or scoring chances, just a shot on goal.
But they’re so explosive. It can happen that fast. They scored the one goal and the crowd got loud and they had a chance immediately the next shift to tie the game. They know how good they are. They are very aware of how good they are — which is good most of the time, but can also be bad sometimes. You already hear Babcock talk about cracking the whip and he has already slipped in a few comments about the will before the skill and making sure guys are putting in honest efforts.
That is kind of the catch-22 when you’re as talented of a team as the Toronto Maple Leafs.
On whether the Leafs have the makeup to win in the playoffs:
First and foremost, their defense is just not a good unit. One through six, they still struggle. Hainsey is playing with their best defenseman. If you line up the other best teams across the league, Ron Hainsey is not playing on the top pairing on any of them.
And then you have the second pairing with Gardiner and Zaitsev, and they’ve really struggled. It would be hard to argue it. Combined, they control something like 44% of the shot share. It’s a low number and Gardiner and Zaitsev are their leaders in even-strength ice time on defense.
Up front, it’s just not a very diverse group. They are skilled throughout the lineup, but when teams start clogging the neutral zone on them and really force them to dump it in, they struggle to find a guy who can actually dump a puck in and go get it back.
If we go back to that Jets game, it was Mitch Marner of all people. They scored two goals because Mitch Marner created turnovers below the goal line and centered pucks out front. Gardiner scored one and Kadri scored the other. They are going to need more of that.
Especially when you get to the playoffs, it’s not going to be trading 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s and breakaways. That’s perfect for Leafs hockey as it is currently constructed, but they are going to need to diversify the group at some point. How they are going to do that is anyone’s guess.
On whether the Matthews injury shifts the balance of the Nylander negotiations:
It shouldn’t, unless Kyle Dubas is going to cave. That would be really telling about him as a GM if he is going to cave on this little four-week injury, or however long it is. Let’s say six weeks. Let’s say eight weeks. This is still a playoff team. Regardless of Matthews or Nylander, they should be able to reasonably hang in there for the next month and change. And then Matthews is still going to come back. It would be a very shortsighted move to suddenly bow down to Nylander’s needs.
The whole sticking point for the Leafs with this negotiation is that they can’t blow this one because they still have two more big ones to go. They have to keep that in mind throughout this entire process, which I think they have so far. They need to pay Matthews and need to pay Marner, and I think we can all agree that that takes priority over Nylander at this point. As good as Nylander is — I don’t want to take anything away from him — I think they’re ready to allocate those dollars to Matthews and Marner and they can’t blow this negotiation and in turn go to those guys and expect them to take paycuts.
If anything, there might be a question about this being the second year in a row that Matthews has been hurt — three out of four if you date it back to his draft year. There is probably a question there in terms of his ability to stay healthy, but that’s a whole other debate.
I don’t think they should be caving at all to Nylander’s demands because of this injury.
On the challenge against the Dallas Stars on Thursday:
It’s a hard one for them. If you go back to the first time they played them this year, that is a high flying team. With Matthews, I thought they were pretty well prepared to have a trading-scoring-chances kind of game. Without Matthews, I would definitely favour Dallas in that type of game.
The Leafs are going to have to lock it down a little bit. They are at home and can control the matchups and all of that, but they’re going to have to actually slow the game down a little bit, which in the long run might not be a bad thing for them — to learn how to grind it out a little bit. Tighter scores, and maybe not rely on a power play explosion of sorts.
Dallas is a tough test. They’re skilled. They’ve been a little bit weird — I thought they were going to be a playoff team last year and were pretty much heading that way until the last 15-20 games and then totally just 18-wheeler’d off the cliff. But they have some good pieces in place. It’s going to be a tough game for the Leafs, but it will be good for them to see that kind of high-offence team and compare and contrast how they played them only a few weeks ago with a healthy Auston Matthews.
You can listen to the full segment here.