The “full battalion” Toronto Maple Leafs will try to find their new team identity with their newly-added firepower of Auston Matthews and William Nylander as they take on the Boston Bruins tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/HNIC).

Over the time span of the last 30 days, the Boston Bruins have been decimated by injuries and currently rank 22nd out of 31 teams in the league in terms of points earned.

Their goals for ranks 26th in the league over that same time span. They rank 16th in goals against. Their power play ranks ninth overall in that 30-day period and their penalty kill ranks 26th.

Narrowing down that to the past two weeks (seven games), Boston is dead last in goals for and 19th in goals against. Their PP ranks 12th and their PK ranks 25th.

They have lost three in a row coming into the game — the second worst streak in the league in that regard (Chicago takes the top honour — they are on a six-game losing streak).

They’ve been far from the team that we saw last season and have had major injuries to Charlie McAvoy (concussion; activated from injury reserve this week), Jake DeBrusk (undisclosed), Kevan Miller (neck), Zdeno Chara (knee), Patrice Bergeron (clavicle), Urho Vaakanainen (concussion). All have been out injured for various lengths of time throughout the season. Certainly, losing their two top pairing defencemen and their #1 centerman has big ramifications for a top-heavy team like the Bruins. They’re just not as deep as some of the other contenders around them.

For as much as the Maple Leafs have exorcised some of their demons against the Bruins, they are Toronto’s biggest rival right now and both teams don’t need to get up for these games. The Game 7 loss to Boston will be in the backs of the Maple Leafs‘ players/coaching staff/front office minds all season.

Toronto’s biggest hurdle over the next month or so is going to be coming together as a four-line team with some consistency to their game at 5v5.

For all the theatrical goal scoring — which never gets old — if you were to only have watched the highlights, you’d think that Auston Matthews is dominating all over the ice, but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story.

Matthews still isn’t right after coming back from his injury and it’s going to take him some time. He looked gassed in the Minnesota game; in the Buffalo game, he looked gassed and also not involved defensively. He’s constantly turning his back on the direction of play with one hand on the stick or stick off the ice for long portions of his shift, his legs are locked, he’s late to pucks, he’s not stopping on pucks, and he’s not digging in on second and third efforts. That pose is becoming more and more common for him lately. He isn’t dominating the puck like you’ve come to expect from him and it looks like it will take some more time before he’s back to his old self. All that said, it’s scary to think he’s got another level or two to find in his game.

We’ve been saying that the Matthews injury might have been a blessing in disguise for the betterment of the team for a while now; pre-Matthews return from injury, they were looking really determined, hard on pucks, and were a huge pain to play against. That hasn’t happened for four games now and it’s partly because Matthews isn’t pulling on the rope the way the rest of the team was when he was out. Babcock has his hands full coaching this team. There are a lot of star egos to placate. Some nights he will be tuned out and they’ll win games they shouldn’t. That will catch up to them in the end and Babcock will be tasked with trying to get them to play heavy hockey for the playoffs:

“We should play them 20 times going into the playoffs”

– Mike Babcock after the Minnesota Wild game

Keeping the team detailed throughout the year is going to be quite the task for the head coach. They can win on pure skill more nights and never mind about checking; there are sure to be some battles between his stars and Babcock throughout the year. His Olympic experience will come in handy this season and beyond with how to manage egos and ice time — but also with how to get everyone on the same page and his stars checking constantly.

The Maple Leafs can cruise through this season and roll over most of the league, but they’re going to be licking their wounds after a round-one exit wondering where it all went wrong if they can’t play a more determined brand of hockey.

A quick visual below. If the team is higher vertically on the chart, it means it is suppressing shots. The further right on the chart the team is, it means they’re generating shots. When a team does both, it ends up in the “good” quadrant. When a team only generates shots for and don’t defend shots against well, it ends up in the lower right quadrant. The coaching staff isn’t as concerned with shot attempts for/against and are more concerned with quality scoring chances for/against, but the template for winning teams is usually outplaying the other team at both ends. That usually shows up in shots attempts for/against, although it’s lost some of its predictive potency as the league trends towards lots of stretch hockey and more rush chances.

And the Maple Leafs are leading the charge in that newer style of play.

William Nylander’s first game back versus Detroit was about how you’d expect it. There was some sublime puck handling and passing (he made the first pass to start off the Kapanen goal) and looked like himself — at points — but the game looked fast for him and he doesn’t have his hands or timing back yet, to say nothing of his lungs or game conditioning. For as much as everyone has been preaching “it’s going to take time” with Nylander, there didn’t seem to be any of that mindset during or after the game with fans and with the broadcast crew picking apart shifts of a player that hasn’t played a competitive game — let alone taken part in a team practice — in seven months. Training camp isn’t just for fun. It actually works and that’s why teams do it. Preseason is very effective at tuning players up for the season. That’s why they do it.

And we know that preseason is, largely, not very good hockey and early season regular hockey is just a continuation of that. That’s because players get tired easily, make mistakes, don’t play with any structure, and aren’t exactly committed to the defensive side of the game. I think you get the point.

Nylander hasn’t had any of that. The league is getting faster and better all the while that he’s been out. Expecting him to be up and going in a game or two is just plain stupid and lacks the sophistication one would expect from a self-appointed “sophisticated hockey market”.

It takes players training camp + 7-9 preseason games + 10 regular season games to start to get into the rhythm and the same leeway needs to be afforded to this player. Two to three weeks is a fast but more reasonable timeline to see the return of Nylander of old and even then, he will be playing catch up for most of the year.

Mike Babcock PregameMike Babcock on toughness in hockey, using the power play as retaliation

(Paul Hendrick) I was just talking to Mo (Morgan Rielly) about this team once having a McLaren, an Orr and a Rosehill — toughness was defined by those guys. Can your club be just as tough in a league that is still north-south — and you mentioned the power play yesterday — but overall the league has it changed in terms of its toughness?

I think we’re all talking about this — is (that) Kronwall hit on Matty (Auston Matthews) the other day.

No, just overall the ability to play teams that gap up tight and play it physical.

OK, so create space for ourselves, I guess. You know, the bottom line to me is the league is a really tight league. The really good players can create space and the rest of us feel like there’s no room. There’s a number of ways to create room. One is to be physically strong on the puck. You end up in a battle with two guys and then you get it past that guy and you’ve created space for yourself or somebody else; the other way is to be physical on the forecheck. Cut off arms on big guys, get on the right side and own the puck and then you got you got them on the wrong side. In the old days, what you used to do is you could skate around in warm up, you could growl at each other and it actually made a difference because there was someone out there that could whack you. It doesn’t work like that now. If someone hits you hard, you’re not expected to take a penalty. You’re just expected to keep playing. So it’s different. The other thing is when you’re coaching the team, you look at your assets and try to create the best image you can of yourself with the group you have — I don’t mean of myself, of your team, the assets you have. Do you play fast? Do you play heavy? Do you play physical? What do you do? Look at your group and coach the group to the best of skill set the group has.

What kind of strides have you seen the team make in the last calendar year?

Holy mackerel! We’re playing Boston tonight. You know, I’d say, I think that would be a fair question to ask in three weeks. We haven’t had our team together all year and so I would think I would know more about our team. I think any time we’ve changed our roster we have been quite as good right away for a bit. We’re trying to find the best image of our self for sixty minutes that we can turn into a blueprint and do it over and over again. I think we got to get everyone on deck first and then I think we can find that. But obviously, we got a group that believes that we’re pretty good. To be really good and to be a champion you got to do it everyday and you’ve got to do it with detail, you’ve got to do it hard. You’ve got to have people step. So we have a long way to go. I think this is game 30 so the season goes by quick but ask me in three weeks.

It’s been a wild week for Nylander: signing, playing, fender bender. How have you seen him mentally handle over the past week?

I wasn’t there for the fender bender. Sounds like he did some good driving so Kappy didn’t get hit looking after…

This is one of my best stories of Tomas Holmstrom and Nick Lidstrom. They show up late for the game and Thommie comes running into my office and says: “We had a big accident, we had a big accident! But don’t worry, we I knew we were going to get hit, I dove in front of Nick he didn’t get touched!”

What did you ask me? I got lost. I don’t know.

Just mentally, have you seen him ….

The biggest thing, obviously, was to get a practice in. I thought it was a real positive. In saying that, just getting back, getting playing and being part of the team I think is important. The amount of jokes and the amount of abuse you take and then just getting in — it’s going to take him time. You see it with Matty, you see it with him. It takes time when you haven’t been here every day and it’s going to take him time, but he’s an important part of our team and we have to get him up and running.

Mike, what was going on with the power play? Or was that more their penalty killing than your power play?

I’ve got to ask myself how I want this… (laughs). We weren’t any good. Let’s give them total credit. We didn’t execute on it. But I think if you look at our first forty minutes of the game it was kinda the same way, so I don’t think the powerplay was any different than our 5 on 5. We’re a good enough team that we were able to crank it up for twenty minutes and get ourselves a point. I don’t think that’s how we want to play.

Was there something specific about your powerplay that is not working?

Well, we had no speed on the breakout. We didn’t execute. We didn’t make the right play. We didn’t move it fast enough in the ozone. We weren’t in the right spots. Not specific. We just weren’t in sync. It didn’t happen and now we’ve got to get back at it.

Does Auston have to change any part of his game so he doesn’t get injured?

It was two guys bumping into each other. It wasn’t even … it probably wasn’t even a penalty. But those things happen, but the other thing is, when you’re coming back from injury, you’re not in sync the same way and you end up getting blown up a few times. He’s fine.

At any time in this four-game stretch where Freddie has faced 40+ shots are you worried about his wear and tear? You know, quality scoring chances haven’t been there… (inaudible)

[Pretending to speak privately with a new PR guy] So, Colin this is when Steve’s (Keogh, director of PR) not sick, he steps in about a minute ago and we end this. Might as well get a tightening. Everyone else does.

I’m not one bit worried about Freddie. Freddie just had some days off and you know, I think he’s in a good spot. What we do… there’s a lot of things you can evaluate. You can evaluate the shot attempts, you can evaluate the shots on goal. I think what really matters is the scoring chances and how much wear and tear is on the goalie. I’d like Freddie to get no shots tonight. Probably not going to happen.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines


#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#18 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#63 Tyler Ennis – #26 Par Lindholm – #28 Connor Brown


#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov


#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks

Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Frederik Gauthier

Boston Bruins Projected Lines


#63 Brad Marchand – #47 David Krejci – #88 David Pastrnak
#43 Danton Heinen – #26 Colby Cave – #42 David Backes
#46 Gemel Smith – #52 Sean Kuraly – #14 Chris Wagner
#17 Ryan Donato – #23 Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson – #20 Joakim Nordstrom


#47 Torey Krug – #25 Brandon Carlo
#27 John Moore – #73 Charlie McAvoy
#48 Matt Grzelcyk – #44 Steve Kampfer


#40 Tuukka Rask
#41 Jaroslav Halak

Injured: Patrice Bergeron, Urho Vaakanainen, Zdeno Chara, Jake Debrusk, Kevin Miller