With roughly a quarter of the season now complete and American Thanksgiving upon us (Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers, by the way!), now is as good a time as ever to size up the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference in general.
As of this writing, the Leafs are:
- First place in the East
- Have the best goal differential in the East
- Have scored the second most goals in the East
- Have allowed the second fewest goals in the East
- Have the best road record in the East (and league)
Individually, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and John Tavares are all in the top ten in points. Rielly leads all defensemen in scoring. In net, Frederik Andersen is the only goalie in the league with double-digit wins (and he’s at 12), and he’s third among goalies that have played at least five games in save percentage.
For good measure, the Leafs are also top ten in efficiency on both the power play and penalty kill. All of this while missing William Nylander the entire time and with Auston Matthews playing under half of the games.
Even with all that, though, the Leafs have played the same number of games as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, and are one and two points up on them, respectively. They also haven’t played either team yet. Even the Montreal Canadiens are only four points back of the Leafs, while the Bruins are five back with a game in hand. The rest of the division is nine-plus points behind (although Florida does have three games in hand), but let’s take a look at some underlying numbers to see how things stack up:
|CF%||PDO||Expected goals for||Fenwick|
This is a much more sobering look at the Leafs to date, with a PDO that suggests they have been a little fortunate (third in the league). Compared to their division rivals, they don’t control the puck as much, which is probably not surprising, but the gap actually grows when blocked shots are eliminated (which is what Fenwick does). In general, the Leafs are in the midst of another high-scoring season where they don’t do much cycling or controlling of play and instead rely on long bomb passes. Again, the team ranks high in icings, sitting at second in the league behind the Nashville Predators.
Expected goals for is explained further at Corsica, but it basically assigns goal expectancy to shots. Again, the Leafs are on the fortunate side. Of course, when we talk about luck and high percentages, it is worth noting this team is:
- Above average in the talent department
- Missing Nylander and Matthews
The reality is we don’t know what this Leafs team really can be until the Nylander situation is resolved one way or another and we see how the chips fall from there. Adding him and Matthews back into the lineup has a significant impact up and down the roster.
If we’re looking at the underlying numbers, though, the Tampa Bay Lightning still generally appear to be the class of the division. The Habs might actually be respectable (although they do have multiple players seemingly playing out of their skin; see Domi, Max and Petry, Jeff in particular). The Sabres are on a hot run; while much improved, they have a lot still to prove. The Bruins are good, but they lack depth up front. While we didn’t go over them here, the Panthers are sixth in Corsi-For and have been playing some good hockey, but they have issues whenever Roberto Luongo is sitting.
Going into the season, we pretty well knew the Leafs would be a playoff team. With a quarter of the season complete, that has not changed, but it looks like the overall division is better than we thought it would be.
– After Auston Matthews got hurt, I mentioned on a podcast or radio hit (forget where) that there might be some benefits to Matthews being out and the team having to grind out wins a little bit instead of just relying on blitzing teams (not that it’s Matthews fault or implying that he’s any sort of problem because he obviously isn’t). Let’s take a look at some of the splits with/without him (these were taken going into the Columbus game):
|Shots/game||Shots against/game||Goals/game||Goals against/game||PP%||PK%|
The Leafs have definitely been playing lower scoring games as we can see, but most of that can be put on Andersen’s shoulders, as he has been lights out. Since Matthews has gone down he has a .955 save percentage which is the best in the league for any goalie that has played more than once.
– In the first nine games of the season, Nazem Kadri went scoreless, but in his last 12, he has seven goals. Things always even out. Bumping him up the lineup also helps, as Kadri and Kapanen have been on for four goals together in 113 minutes together, while Kadri and Brown were on for two together in 116 minutes.
– It helps to play with Kasperi Kapanen and his speed, which creates chances out of nothing. On his one goal against San Jose, he was neck and neck with the player defending him at the start of this opportunity. In three strides, he was completely clear for a scoring chance that he buried. Kapanen and Marleau have a 50.59 CF% together and have been on for 13 goals for and 8 against.
– I haven’t written about it too much, but it’s pretty unbelievable what Morgan Rielly is doing out there. His next goal will be a new career high and he’s well over a point per game over a quarter of the way through the season. He benefits from playing with stars, but what good player doesn’t? He set up the game winner against Columbus with a beautiful heads-up play and a slight adjustment to get the puck through to Hyman for a deflection in the net. Against Anaheim, he had a sequence where he gained the zone and toe dragged the defenseman for a shot on net – he creates his own chances and his speed is a weapon. When Rielly entered the league, he couldn’t shoot at all; while it’s still not a bomb, it’s a legitimate threat and he can rip pucks through traffic with a quick wrister that usually gets to the net.
“This league’s always been about guys holding each other accountable for guys when they cross the line. There’s no doubt there was a line crossed last year. It got addressed and that was the end of it.”
– Pete DeBoer on sending out Barclay Goodrow to go after Nazem Kadri shift one
Besides being surprised that DeBoer actually admitted this, the whole thing was just surprising to me. Thornton picked the original fight! Anyway, if there’s one guy on the team that actually gets better if he’s getting run, it’s definitely Nazem Kadri. If anything, you’re better off leaving him alone and not getting him engaged in a game – he’s absolutely had games where he has not been involved physically and consequently offered very little. But he was loving it and was all over the ice against the Sharks.
“It’s pretty special. I don’t think it comes around too often. For me and Auston, we just try and take as much in as we can. He’s got a lot of experience. His family is awesome. It’s a lot of fun being around him.”
– Mitch Marner on his relationship with Patrick Marleau
We’ll never truly be able to quantify it — and yes, he’s overpaid — but I do think there is some real veteran and leadership value in having Patrick Marleau around. He’s five games away from 1,600 career regular season games, he has over 1,100 points, and he hasn’t missed a game in over nine seasons. He’s won Olympic gold, been to a Cup final… the list goes on and on. Players respect and admire him clearly, and there’s value in having leaders that set an example and show young guys how to do it right every day. In the preseason, he is taking cold baths in between to period at 39 years old to keep his routine consistent! That resonates with teammates and rubs off on players.
“It’s a lose-lose situation. If it goes beyond Dec. 1, depending what William Nylander can earn from another franchise, which will probably be in the KHL, I expect it’ll be less than what he’d achieve in the NHL. To me, that’s a loss. And it’s also a loss for the Maple Leafs.”
– NHL agent Anton Thun on the Nylander situation
Your obligatory William Nylander content for each week. I can’t say it any better than this.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think we know that Garret Sparks will get back in the net again this week because the Leafs play Friday and Saturday, but there has to be more of an effort made to get him in the net. He had some lucky moments against Anaheim and I didn’t like the goal he gave up (it went through him), but he looked more comfortable in net. They need to be comfortable with him, and in order for that to happen, he needs to play a bit more frequently. Plus, they need to rest Andersen. A third straight playoff where he looks out of gas for half the series is unacceptable.
2. If Auston Matthews returns this week, I think it makes some sense to at least try to ease him (although it could only last for two periods). That would mean starting him on the third line with Connor Brown, and possibly Par Lindholm on the left wing to possibly take some faceoffs. It might also be interesting to keep Johnsson on the left wing there and bump Lindholm to 4C (sitting Gauthier in the process).
3. I think once Matthews settles in, the options are basically: 1) He takes Kadri’s spot between Marleau and Kapanen, and Kadri drops down to 3C while Lindholm drops down to 4C and Gauthier sits; 2) Lindholm goes back to left wing with Kadri and Brown, while Johnsson/Ennis go back to alternating in and out of games on that fourth line. I’d probably sit Gauthier because Ennis and Leivo have been creating offensively recently.
4. On that notes, I think I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make much sense to me in terms of their styles of play, but the Ennis – Gauthier – Leivo line is working. They scored a couple of goals recently, but more importantly, they are proving they’re not liabilities and are actually working the puck in the offensive zone (although they are below water in shot attempts). They actually haven’t been on for a goal against yet. Ultimately, I think they’ll have to improve this fourth line, but it’s working right now. I would be happy to be proven wrong throughout the season here.
5. I’ll reiterate what I mentioned last week – I think I’d have William Nylander sit for the year rather than trade him for pennies on the dollar. It’s bad business and not the precedent you want to be setting. The odds that they can trade Nylander and get back appropriate value appear slim. We’re into the final stretch here and it’s almost surreal that it has actually gotten this far, but they can’t cave now.