Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope you all had a great holiday and maybe even got to catch up on some rest and relaxation.

The Toronto Maple Leafs start 2019 roughly halfway through the season, sitting second in the league in points, points percentage, and regulation wins behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

As of this writing, the Lightning have a game in hand on the Leafs and are 10 points up on them in the standings. They have been the best team in the league so far, led by an explosive offense that is first in the league in goals for per game as well as power play percentage.

For as good as the Leafs have been, that leaves them staring down the barrel of the same situation as last season: A first-round series against Boston (this time with home ice), a matchup against Tampa in round two, followed (probably) by Washington or Pittsburgh in the third round.

Note: I don’t think the division is out of hand just yet as Tampa Bay just had a nearly perfect month with one extra time loss — they are going to regress at some point and the ridiculous power play is bound to slow down. They are 16th in goals against per game. They are not a perfect team. The Leafs have also not played their best with a healthy lineup yet. But 10 points is a lot.

Whether the opponent is Boston, possibly Buffalo, eventually Tampa or whoever else, the question at this point is who would the Leafs match up against their top line?

The Leafs went into the season stating that Nazem Kadri would keep his usual shutdown center role, but for a good chunk of the season, the Leafs have actually gone with more of a head-to-head scenario using the Tavares line against top competition.

In fact, according to Natural Stat Trick, the two forwards Tavares has played against the most so far this season are Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The next is Columbus’ top line, followed by other top players such as Taylor Hall and Sidney Crosby. For Kadri, it’s forwards such as Josh Anderson, Boone Jenner, David Krejci, and Joakim Nordstrom.

The Auston Matthews line is barely even a consideration at this point – he was getting tough matchups last year, but Babcock has shifted them to more of a soft zone start role.

That said, a lot can change. Babcock noted he has been testing matchups and just last week pointed out that, “We’ve never really, at any time this year, had a full lineup. We lost Hyms. Once we get back and get everyone on deck, I think we will have a better read of where we are going to be at.”

The tough thing is figuring out the ice time. Kadri has done well in that role in the past, but if he plays against top lines, that effectively reduces the Matthews line to the team’s third. The other complicating matter is that Kadri is clearly one of their six best forwards but also clearly their 3C.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the Leafs want to do yet or what they are thinking other than deploying the Tavares line in the head-to-head role (and on that note, who will the left winger be at the end of the day?). What absolutely can’t happen is the team getting crushed by one line in the playoffs again.

Last April, David Pastrnak racked up 13 points in their seven-game series, and in one of the games where he did not record a point, he put 10 shots on net. They had basically no answer (though, surprisingly, Tomas Plekanec was able to keep them off the score sheet while getting dominated possession-wise for a few games).

Playoffs are about matchups and either the Leafs are going to have to create a shutdown line they can trust or feel great about their head-to-head matchup (Pastrnak has outscored Tavares 4-1 so far at 5v5, largely without Patrice Bergeron there).

This is a good team that has most of the pieces it needs, but they need to figure out how to arrange and deploy them still.


Notes

– It’s worth noting that Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev have been trending up as a pairing. They have 48.83 CF% together after a rolling ten-game average of being over 50+ recently. On the season, have been on for 19 goals for and 18 against. They’ve largely been unnoticeable the last few weeks -– in a good way if you’re defensemen. Zaitsev is still on pace for six points and has under a shot per game on net playing over 20 minutes per night, but it’s a start.

– Playing on the second power play unit and with Nikita Zaitsev at 5v5, Jake Gardiner still has 23 points in 39 games – meaning, he has a legitimate chance of hitting 50 points still. That is very impressive, all things considered.

– Conversely, Travis Dermott has struggled recently — such as getting beat in the neutral zone against Detroit that led to a partial breakaway goal — and has seen his ice time reduced. He only played 15:12 in that game. The night before against the Rangers, he struggled as well and only played 14:11. Against the Blue Jackets, he played 16:45. All three games he was on for goals against that he had a role in. Against the Islanders, he played over 21 minutes, largely due to the team being down so much, so early. This is his first full season in the NHL and it’s not uncommon to see young players struggle at this time of the year. The team has had a good chunk of time off here due to the holidays and the scheduling. Let’s see how he rebounds in January.

– I mentioned the Leafs goaltending troubles throughout the organization over the past few months and we knew a trade was only a matter of time – so Michael Hutchinson for a 5th round pick it is. This is a trend of big goalies for the Leafs:

Frederik Andersen – 6’4, 230 pounds
Garret Sparks – 6‘3, 201 pounds
Michael Hutchinson – 6’3, 202 pounds
Kasimir Kaskisuo – 6’3, 194 pounds

It’s pretty clear that the Leafs have a type. Curtis McElhinney is also 6’2 and over 200 pounds. We all remember they had one small goalie before in Jhonas Enroth (5’10), and Babcock quickly got rid of him.

– I haven’t spoken about it too much in this space, but at some point, I had to acknowledge the absurdity of what Morgan Rielly is doing. Even if he goes pointless in the next two games, which brings the Leafs to the official halfway point in their season, he will be over a point per game in the first half of the season. He leads all defensemen in scoring and has bested his goal-scoring career high by four already.

Now, some of the production is a by-product of playing on the top power-play unit with elite players. Some of it is his improved shot –- it was essentially a non-threat when he entered the league and now he can beat goalies clean 1v1. Some of it has just gone to his legs and confidence, but he has also learned how to join the rush off the puck and move into space in order to be more offensive. In junior, defensemen can take the puck all the way down the ice and score. You can’t do that in the NHL, and there was an adjustment. His goal against Detroit where he joined the rush and finished a beautiful Tavares play is a great example. He scores the goal by identifying the space to go to and using his speed to get there.

Auston Matthews and Andreas Johnsson have played nearly 70 minutes together — an extremely small sample size — but have a 60.87 CF% together. Similar to Hyman, Matthews has benefitted from his relentless forechecking.


Quotes

“What I tried to impress on the players today is that we had a pretty good 2018 and won lots of games. In saying all of that, we now are in a spot that we expect more and would like to get more. We’ve got to improve on how we play if we’re going to get more.”
– Mike Babcock briefly mentioning the year that was

It was a good year and there are a lot of positives to take into 2019. The team should be feeling optimistic and in general should like their chances. That said, I wonder what the feeling will be a year from now if they lose in the first round again. As Babcock said himself there, they expect more and they need to improve. This is a good team, but I can’t help but think Boston would not be terribly upset if they got them in the first round again (the Leafs shouldn’t be either, for the record).

“I want to get better. I don’t think I’m happy with [my game] at all. I’m working to get better every game and I feel like I’m coming [along] good. I feel like [my conditioning is] getting there. Felt better the last game. There are a few games where I’m getting the breathing back and stuff.”
– William Nylander on his struggles so far this season

We all know the stats at this point – two points and no goals in 11 games so far this season for William Nylander. He’s a good player and he will eventually sort it out, but we’re seeing the impact of missing training camp and months of the regular season. It takes a while to get into game shape and it’s even more difficult when you come in the middle of the season with the added pressure of a big contract that comes with heightened expectations.

“You could tell before the game guys were dialed in, guys were ready to go, we knew what was at stake, knew it was a big game against one of the top teams in the League. If we play like that, this team can be pretty special. Guys are just battling to win; everyone just wants to win here right now, so it’s a great atmosphere.”
– Mathew Barzal discussing the Islanders 4-0 win against the Leafs

The Islanders clearly came in with a chip on their shoulder and they played well, shutting out one of the highest scoring teams in the league. A dirty little secret about “return” games against a former team is that it’s really on the teammates to carry the player who the game means the most to. Tavares might have actually been the best player for the Leafs that night. He definitely showed up. After him, there were a ton of no-shows, and that was disappointing. The Leafs have many star forwards and pretty well all of them did nothing against the Islanders that night.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.   I think what we’ve seen this season out of Auston Matthews is that he benefits from Zach Hyman on his wing because he does all the dirty work for him. Matthews has great point totals and goals this year, but he’s just above water at 5v5 with a 50.4CF%, which is -.7 relative to his teammates (this would be his first season in the negatives relative to his teammates). Of note, he’s shooting nearly 25%. All of his relatively average possession statistics are despite a huge bump up in offensive zone faceoffs compared to last season (roughly 7%). Recently, he’s had games where he’s barely noticeable, and Babcock has noticed this, too, as he didn’t play even 17 minutes in either of the last two games. As an elite player, most of this is on him and obviously not on Hyman to do his dirty work, but when he returns from his injury, Hyman would help Matthews.

2.  In the third period against the Islanders, Babcock reunited Kadri – Matthews – Nylander for a shift and it was their best shift of the game. I know I’ve said this before, but I think I’d be finding ways to get them together for a shift or two each period, not just when the game is already over. If anything, especially when they are in the heat of a battle, that line can swing games and you can follow up with the Tavares line and then any line you want after that.

3.  If Frederik Andersen is out for the next week and change, I think I’d plan to give Garret Sparks every start and see how it goes (unless he’s obviously awful or falters in a way that can’t be ignored). It’s nice that they acquired some depth, but they chose Sparks for this reason after training camp, so let’s see what he does. The Leafs next back-to-back is January 17, so they have some time here.

4.  I think it’s very confusing to me that Trevor Moore can get called up from the Marlies and get on the second power play unit, but Kasperi Kapanen, who has been very good in the NHL this season, is not on the power play at all. Kapanen is fifth on the team in scoring and 12th on the team in total power play ice time.

5.  I think it’s going to be hard to take either Frederik Gauthier or Trevor Moore out when everyone is healthy… But these are good problems to have and the Leafs can create lots of internal competition.