‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the rink
Not a creature was stirring, not even a Nylander contract stink
With the holiday season upon us, that means family, friends and, of course, presents! 37 games into their season and with the Christmas break now in effect, let’s take a look at what might be on the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ wish list this year.
Stocking Stuffer: A Toronto Marlie to stick on the left wing
After Tyler Ennis broke his ankle, Trevor Moore was the first in line to receive the call-up. There are two other legitimate left-wing candidates on the Toronto Marlies in Mason Marchment and Carl Grundstrom. With a full lineup, Connor Brown appears like he’ll be on the fourth line more often than not, while Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier have been both solid and offer some sort of platoon at the 4C spot.
Ennis is obviously out for a while, and the current line is not built to offer much defensively or play a checking role against good teams, which is what they’d be tasked with in those matchups more than anything else.
The team could use some help on the penalty kill up front and some help on the forecheck, and all three of those players potentially offer that. The best part of this would be that the Leafs don’t have to trade anything to do it.
Andreas Johnsson has played really well of late, all but claiming the final top-nine forward spot on the team. The other eight are essentially non-negotiable at this time. The fourth line has been much more volatile with Josh Leivo now gone, the 4C rotating, and the aforementioned Ennis now out for an extended period of time. It would be nice to settle in on a fourth line once and for all, and not trade another second round pick for a 4C for the third season in a row.
Family gift: Reasonable contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner
As noted, the Leafs don’t need much other than continuing to play well, getting healthy, and settling on their final forward lines eventually. But we all know what’s coming, and while we won’t go into the full numbers here today, it’s crucial that the Leafs lock in both players to deals that allows them to contend for years to come.
The Leafs eventually signed William Nylander, but we are seeing what happens when you miss the first three months of hockey – it takes a long time to acclimatize yourself to the league. This will be a story until they are signed, and while neither player is likely to sign during the season, the more groundwork that can be done now to get the contracts signed quickly in the summer, the better.
Gift from Santa: A defenseman for the top four, preferably right-handed
With Ron Hainsey quickly aging and the Leafs’ middling penalty kill and possession numbers, they could use another minute-eating defenseman to take on shorthanded minutes, help them move the puck up ice, and take on some head-to-head matchups. Some potential options that won’t cost an arm and a leg include players like Radko Gudas and Nick Jensen, potentially Marc Methot or Alex Edler.
The Leafs are rather quietly in the top ten in fewest goals against allowed, but part of that is due to a Vezina-like season from Frederik Andersen. The Leafs are giving up the ninth most shots per game, are an average possession team, and have a bottom-half penalty kill. A top-four defenseman who they can trust on the penalty kill would be extremely helpful to this group.
Unfortunately, there are very few quality defensemen available and most of the strong pending free agents play on teams that want to contend this season. That’s why a player like Gudas, who is solid if unspectacular, would make sense to help round out this group.
– Great penalty killing by Connor Brown on a 5v3 against the Red Wings. He was right up on the defense to take the shot away, had a big shot block, jammed up passing lanes, and was just disruptive overall. He has received some heat for his overall play/lack of production (including in this space), but that’s the value that he brings. In the bigger picture, he appears to be settling into a pure checking and penalty killing specialist role. He’s currently on pace for seven goals and 29 points, so roughly lower third line production.
– So much talk this season about the Leafs playing heavy (or lack of it) and sustaining more offensive zone time. Against the Panthers, Matthews’ second goal was a perfect example of the team cycling, wearing an opponent down, and eventually turning that zone time into a scoring opportunity and a goal. The rush goals are nice and fun, and you’ll score a lot of regular season goals like that, but it’s hard to get rush chances in the playoffs with the way the game slows down, the checking picks up, and the penalties dry up.
This was about 20 seconds of zone time before scoring:
– The Mitch Marner rebound goal against New York looked like a bit of a broken faceoff play, but the alignment was noteworthy. The faceoff was on the right side of the ice. As the right winger, Marner would usually line up on the hashmark at the boards; instead, he lined up on the other side and Andreas Johnsson lined up on the outside. Based on what unfolded, Marner cut across to his coveted spot on his strong side half wall and Johnsson cut in towards the net, and by the looks of it, the puck should be walked across by the defenseman (in this case Nikita Zaitsev) and slid down to Marner.
Of course, Zaitsev felt the pressure and moved it over to Gardiner, who put a shot on net for rebound and the Leafs scored anyway. I don’t think that’s the exact play they drew up, but it’s an interesting overall look.
– I mentioned how any team paying attention would not pressure Marner on the half-wall. Florida probably found out the hard way. This is way too easy for Marner:
– For weeks now, the Leafs have consistently used the power play breakout where two players swing low for a drop pass (usually Marner and Matthews). This has not always been the case – they’ve used one player hanging back, skating it up clean, and hitting a forward at the blue line who gains the zone or soft flips it to the corner for retrieval. That drop pass with Marner and Matthews skating full speed is almost impossible to stop if you let them have the puck – and if you don’t, Rielly just skates it in himself.
– So far this season, Kasperi Kapanen has emerged and seen a lot of time alongside Auston Matthews as a result. Thought I’d run a quick comparison to how they are faring in comparison to Matthews and Nylander last season:
|With Matthews||Time on ice||CF%||SCF%||Oz start %||GF%|
It’s pretty close, but with the Tavares line replacing the Bozak line, it has meant easier matchups and starts for Matthews, yet the results are similar. It’s nice to have the Kapanen – Matthews option and also spread the wealth, but eventually, Nylander should work his way back up to that line.
I am going to get everyone up and running, and then I’ll spend maybe ten games in a row of each guy getting their opportunity so that they are ready for any matchup come playoff time. But right now we’ve just got to get playing.
– Mike Babcock answering a question on whether he has figured out how he’ll play his matchups
Last season, the Leafs basically locked up a first-round matchup against the Bruins in February… and then proceeded to not experiment with their lineup or matchups or resting players. I think part of it has been due to circumstance this season, but regardless, it’s nice to see the Leafs experimenting more with their lines and deployment throughout the campaign. This is going to benefit them.
“They’re happy to have me back. Now they want me to start scoring goals. I think I gotta be [patient], but at the same time you want to perform and stuff. I mean, it gets to the point where you’re gonna be mad. I want to get going.”
– William Nylander on his early struggles
His legs are there, but he is not confident right now. Every game, he’s passing up shots while streaking down the wing, either passing it off or circling the net, although at least a few times he tried driving the net. A confident, in-form Nylander rips shots to the net when he has time and space. He has 14 shots on net in nine games so far; that’s not nearly enough considering his talent level.
“You come into this game and you’re mismatched all over the place… This is one of the best teams in the NHL. They did this to Jersey two nights ago. I think we need to play almost near perfect to beat these guys, and we were far from that tonight.”
– Florida Panthers’ head coach, Bob Boughner, after the Leafs handily beat his team
The scary thing is I don’t think we’ve seen this Leafs team play close to their best. But against the top teams, the matchups are not nearly as lopsided and that’s where the Leafs will have to work to clean up their defensive game. For any middling team or worse though, the Leafs are a complete nightmare to play against.
5 Things I think I’d Do
1. I think Trevor Moore had a really nice debut and I’d stick with him for a bit here – his speed is a difference maker and he provides lots of energy. In this space, we’ve talked about diversifying the team, and while many would like a big physical guy to do that, Moore’s speed made an impact in his first game and helped spark the team. Let’s see if he can do that consistently now.
2. I still can’t fully explain it but I think Frederik Gauthier should be the 4C at the end of the day. For that to happen, someone would have to take Lindholm’s PK minutes or he’d have to move to left wing. Ultimately, as much as we talk about potential additions to the fourth line, it might just end up being Lindholm – Gauthier – Brown.
3. At this point, I think it would be hard to justify playing Justin Holl over Martin Marincin. It’s also noteworthy that Marincin is a legitimately good penalty killer and the Leafs need the help there. It’s hard to judge Holl because he hadn’t played in so long and you could see his timing and legs were just way off. But Marincin, who has been a bit of a whipping boy, has generally been solid.
4. I think it was interesting to see the Leafs use Nazem Kadri on both units (he had 3:58 worth of PP time vs. Detroit and the next highest forward was Matthews at 2:11), but I don’t think that’s a long-term solution. Johnsson only had 47 seconds of power play time that game, and in general, they have only used him sporadically on the PP. He should work his way to a more regular role, or they could even consider just planting Connor Brown or Zach Hyman in front of the net more frequently (they have done this before).
5. Last but not least, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year! I hope you all get to spend quality time with loved ones. I would also like to remind everyone to please not drink and drive.