The NHL All-Star weekend is officially over, there are roughly 30 games left for each team, and the NHL trade deadline is under a month away.
The start of the stretch drive has officially begun.
Despite a recent slump, the Toronto Maple Leafs still sit second in their division and have the third-best goal differential in the entire league. To this point in the season, they haven’t dealt with a ton of injuries, but Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen have both missed notable time while William Nylander sat out for the first few months of the season (and that showed in his play after returning).
Other than a recent Jake Gardiner injury (the timeline is unknown, but it doesn’t sound long term), the team enters the 12 games before the February 25 trade deadline relatively healthy. That gives them a few weeks to hopefully see their team at full strength with everyone clicking before they need to make final decisions on what to potentially acquire.
The Leafs have scored the fourth-most goals per game and given up the 11th fewest. They are in 16th in shots on goal and 23rd in shots against, meaning they give up more shots on net per game on average than they take. Their power play now sits at ninth and their penalty kill at 12th.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that they can score at will, but they are leaky defensively and depend a lot on Frederik Andersen, who has the fourth-best save percentage of any goalie with at least 15 games played.
A need on defense is clear and was clear back when training camp started. Here’s a quick look at the Leafs’ top six and their pairings to date:
Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Pair Stats
|Rielly – Hainsey||48.19||49.49||60.56||47.24||1.054|
|Gardiner – Zaitsev||48.83||53.76||51.06||45.01||1.013|
|Dermott – Ozhiganov||55.28||54.55||41.94||52.02||.972|
Obviously, the Travis Dermott – Igor Ozhiganov pair benefits from softer starts and matchups, and while their PDO is a bit low and their goals for percentage could stand to improve maybe with some more luck, they are also prone to more notable giveaways and lapses. The coaching staff has benched both on various occasions due to defensive misplays.
Morgan Rielly is having an unbelievable season, but we can see his pairing is not controlling the majority of shot attempts and is really benefitting from the talent on the team with their goals for percentage. Between Rielly – Hainsey and the second pairing, you can argue neither of them stands out more than the other to be upgraded, but the top pairing — with Rielly having the season he is — should be much better than that. To me, it stands out as a more obvious need.
There have been a few names that have begun to emerge –- Brett Pesce, Jake Muzzin to name a few — and the options will be explored in depth in the coming month (I recommend reading this piece from Kevin Papetti on Justin Faulk, by the way). For now, the next stretch of games has a pretty clear path to me. The defense obviously needs improvement at some cost, and the Leafs need to sort out the forward lines now that everyone is fully healthy and (hopefully) rolling to see what, if any, needs emerge up front.
- A little early to have any real thoughts on the Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner look. Babcock tried as best as he could to get them going with favourable matchups. Their offensive zone faceoff percentage was 71.43%; the next highest line was 42.86%. He also looked to get them out against the Washington third defense pairing as often as possible. Their Corsi as a line was 50% and they didn’t score at 5v5 (or get scored on). Both players dominate the puck so much that there’s going to be a natural adjustment curve. I hope it sticks together for a few more games to actually give them a chance to adjust to each other and watch what happens from there.
- In one Leaf game I went to earlier in the year, I was watching warm-up (as always) and one thing kind of surprised me: Matthews and Marner were the last two on the ice, going down on 2-on-0s together, making all sorts of ridiculous saucer pass and one-touch plays, one-timing it into the open net together, etc. We have never really seen them together and they’ve basically been advertised as two separate line drivers, but skilled players figure out ways to work together and those two maybe have a bit more between them than we realize.
- A quietly nice development for the Leafs: Connor Brown is showing he can move up alongside skill players and play on the left wing. His line with Nazem Kadri and William Nylander was the Leafs’ best against Washington. He also showed well earlier in the season alongside John Tavares when Zach Hyman was out. He has played 61 minutes alongside William Nylander, and two have a 56.3 CF% together. Brown has only four goals this season, is on pace for 30 points (which would actually be an improvement on the 28 he has last season), and he’s often been relegated to third- and fourth-line duty. But we’ve now seen him promoted at times with all the Leafs’ top players, including last Spring in the playoffs with Matthews, and he has done well in those instances. He won’t ever be a regular top-six forward on this team, but it’s nice to have a player that can move up and hold his own. It was Brown’s screen against Washington that in part led to Zaitsev’s goal.
- One of the more encouraging signs from William Nylander recently were his reads off the rush and how he was shifting defenders. On the Zaitsev goal, he spun off a defender on the rush, and look how much respect he commands from Washington here shortly before dropping it to Brown (who hit the post twice before Kadri scored). You can’t teach that kind of ability. He is just so dangerous that he sucks defenders in.
- Elliotte Friedman noted in his latest 31 Thoughts that Marner and his agent are waiting to see how the Matthews contract shakes out. This is a key note to keep in mind for these negotiations and how to frame these conversations. The early word — and obviously we don’t know what number Matthews will come in at just yet — is that Marner is only willing to take slightly less than Matthews (I’ve heard a number on how much less, and it’s pretty tight). If Matthews won’t go the full eight with the Leafs, as Friedman reported, Dubas should absolutely go all-in on getting Marner signed to eight (this is just my opinion… I don’t have a feel yet for how long the Marner contract might be).
- I mentioned when they signed Nylander that we’d have to wait and see just how tough these deals will be to get done, and while I understand the confusion, I didn’t mean to imply there might be a holdout or another protracted summer-Fall negotiation. I actually don’t think that will happen at all. Where the difficult part comes is in negotiating the value. Matthews is often placed in the $11-12M stratosphere in these conversations, and while his goal scoring certainly is of that calibre, the rest of his game – particularly his health and overall two-way game vs. top players – does not put him in that range. That’s a hard number to arrive at and it already sounds like term has been sacrificed to keep the number lower.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s kind of a weight off the shoulders for myself personally to score a goal and head into the break a bit more relaxed. You’re not thinking about when the next game is so I can try to score or whatever.”
– Auston Matthews on breaking his goal-scoring drought before the break
I don’t think this was insignificant for Matthews, Kadri, or Nylander. Hopefully all three come back from a good rest now because it would be nice to see this team firing on all cylinders prior to the trade deadline to give a better indication of what the real needs are.
I think they’ve earned the right for us to explore ways that we can continue to make the team better. We are trying to do that and if there are things that are fair that we feel fit for us in the short and long term, we’ll continue to explore all of that… I think we do have some space now and we can improve the group. Like I said, we’ll continue to look to explore all of those avenues to do that. You are right — we may not have the same cap space at the deadline in the future, but I think that is where we will be expecting our development model and our program here with some internal development with our guys [to help out].”
– Kyle Dubas on adding at the trade deadline
I think it would behoove Dubas to add to this team in some form or fashion at the trade deadline. They are a legit Cup contender that has some clear needs. I know their Cup path is extremely difficult (roughly looks like Boston – Tampa – Pittsburgh to get out of the East), but they have earned the opportunity to have a spark added to the group. They shouldn’t sell the farm because they aren’t there yet, but a third straight first-round exit would truly be disappointing.
“Well, if we were winning and it was going good enough to have the continuity, I’d keep the continuity. But if you’re not… and we’re pretty consistent here. We do much more than lots of other people. But the bottom line is we’re not finding a way to get it done, so we’re willing to change it. I am not too worried about that. They all looked pretty excited today to me.”
– Mike Babcock on constantly changing the lines
Sometimes Babcock’s post games – particularly after the loss to Arizona – leave me wondering where the sense of urgency is, but I think if we dig beyond the comments, his actions are pretty clear that he senses all is not right and he’s trying to figure out the solutions. For our purposes, it’s nice to see all the different combinations to collect data on.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- Before I consider changing the personnel around on the power play, I think I’d first start running it more through Matthews and see how that goes. The goal he scored against Washington is, frankly, something we haven’t seen enough of lately — he collects a pass from Rielly up top and is barreling down the ice with some speed and momentum behind his shot. When it runs through Marner, we see him often standing still and while he can score on occasion like that (against Detroit, for example), that’s not when he is at his best. We’ve talked about Marner needing to shoot more to keep PK units honest. Opponents will have to straight up sell out on Matthews because his shot is that good.
- I think I want to expand a bit on what I said on the FAN over the weekend about Nazem Kadri being one of the Leafs six best forwards. At the end of the day, when it’s the playoffs and the bench is shortened, he should probably be on either Matthews’ or Tavares’ wing for key stretches, if not all game long. When Kadri was younger, Nikolai Kulemin often played center for him in the defensive zone; the more I watch Matthews in the defensive zone, the more I think he might need Kadri covering for him there once the playoffs and top matchups arrive.
- I think that would mean, as noted above, looking for a 3C as a real possibility for this team this season. Of course, a defenseman should still be the top priority.
- I think, speaking of defense, I would not be so quick to sit Martin Marincin again once Jake Gardiner returns. He looked really solid against Washington, particularly in breaking up a 2v1, and he even completed a few nice outlet passes. We also know he’s a good penalty killer. I know the team likes Ozhiganov, but I’d take a look at Dermott – Marincin. He’s earned a look.
- I think I’d be looking to keep Trevor Moore in lineup full time. Whether Frederik Gauthier or Par Lindholm comes out (and I’d guess Gauthier since Lindholm has a role on the PK), I’d try both and go from there. Moore brings speed and forechecking and he just changes the pace of games at times. They need that. Is he going to spark the group with a massive hit? No, but he does seem to spark the group with his energy.