The Toronto Maple Leafs returned from the All-Star break with a dud of a performance in Detroit on Friday night.
Your game in ten:
1. The highlight of the night came before the game started:
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 2, 2019
It pretty much went downhill from there. Late tying goal plus 3-on-3 aside, this was not a good hockey game (no doubt it had a lot to do with the break for both teams).
2. It’s hard to know how much to read into the first game after a break of this size, with a huge delay in the start time due to the pre-game ceremony to boot, but the somewhat concerning part is it’s not like it was a one-off lately as far as watching this team be outworked by lesser opposition. The Leafs have put in some good efforts against some good teams during this recent stretch despite mixed results, to be clear, but they need to learn that if they take even 5% off and the other team gives 5% more to get up for a better opponent, with how tightly-contested and skilled the league is now, you’re now in a real battle to get a result regardless of where the opposition is in the standings.
The Leafs should be burying some of these teams early, yet they aren’t coming out with anywhere near enough urgency — while the very first shift was a positive enough start, they really faded after that and were out-possessed 65/35 in the opening 20 minutes.
3. Be it the Arizona loss, the Florida loss, the Colorado loss or tonight’s loss (or the season series against Detroit in general), the Leafs have been playing down to teams of late. The Babcock post-games lately are detached from reality for me — his team had just put five shots on goal in the first, eight in the second, and seven in the third period in this game, and he thought the team, “worked.” The point the Leafs earned tonight was down to Frederik Andersen’s excellent performance in net — full stop.
4. Some of it was the sloppiness coming off an extended break from forwards and defense alike, some of it was the defense adjusting to the new pairings (and new team in Muzzin’s case and side of the ice in Rielly’s case), but it wasn’t pretty coming out of the Leafs’ end as far as the sharpness of the tape-to-tape execution on the breakouts for much of the night. This was a sloppily played game and wasn’t much to go on, though.
As for the debutant Jake Muzzin, he needs to be afforded some leeway for a few weeks as he gets settled into a much different style of team than the one he has played his entire NHL career with. Here is what he said after the game:
I think it’s a faster team and when we send guys, they’re going and they’re not slowing down. They’re going, so I’ll have to trust that — that they’re going to get the puck.
That could not be any more different than what he’s used to in LA, where the breakout patterns are much shorter and more deliberate/methodical. An interesting wait-and-see that will tell us a lot about the extent of the systemic issues and the role of the forwards is whether or not Muzzin starts to fit in as far as throwing pucks away on low-percentage stretch passes. We know he’s a good puck mover who should help the Leafs break out cleanly more often.
5. Mike Babcock talked earlier this week as well as in the past with Team Canada about the benefits of having his most skilled offensive defenseman on his forehand when the puck comes up high in the offensive zone, or when he’s got space to get on the end of a pass taking off down the weak side through the neutral zone, and it was easy to find a couple examples pretty quickly in this game. At the o-zone blue line, Rielly’s been so effective this season at getting pucks on net into dangerous spots for tips/rebounds. Without time and space, he’s got to dump it back down the wall on his backhand or throw the puck away more often.
6. There is obviously more to be concerned about with team’s consistency to their efforts right now and the state of the power play than there is with Muzzin and Rielly, who were fine overall and need to be afforded time to figure this out. It was also a bit of a free-flowing situation throughout the game, with Muzzin spending some sequences of the game on the right. With the game tied late, Ron Hainsey moved back into his old spot on Rielly’s right, as Babcock kept Muzzin’s minutes down below 20 in his debut (18 and change).
My initial thinking when the Leafs acquired Muzzin pointed to putting Muzzin on the right, and it centred around wanting to make sure the Leafs didn’t disrupt the momentum of a Norris-calibre season by their best defenseman. There’s logic in getting Muzzin comfortable on his proper side, too, so we’ll see how this plays out. It’s going to take time for them to settle in and figure out each other’s tendencies regardless of who plays where.
7. There’s a strange trend I’ve been noticing with Zach Hyman failing to clear pucks on the PK, by either getting caught from behind in possession or just not being sure with his clearance and it leading directly to goals against. That’s three times this season from memory. He’s got to clean that up.
Interesting note on that same play leading to the goal: It should’ve been blown dead for a hand pass.
When Hyman hits Kapanen in the back, the puck is gloved down by Dylan Larkin and first touched by Andreas Athanasiou before Larkin takes back possession. By definition, it’s a hand pass. You could see Jake Muzzin yelling on the bench immediately clamouring for the call.
8. No excuses tonight about a lack of opportunities to get into a flow for the Leafs power play. All we saw in terms of new ideas from in this game (0-for-5) was Mitch Marner moving it down low to John Tavares more often for the touch play/redirect into the slot/across the crease. Otherwise, the obvious problem with predictability continues to persist when it runs heavily through Marner, while Morgan Rielly is continuing to pass up acres of available space to step into shots from the top.
The Leafs battled zone-entry issues quite a bit in this game as well — crossing the blue line, they were throwing some really casual saucer passes to the wall that were off the mark and were just sloppy in general — and some of that was just likely down to a lack of sharpness coming off of the break. But we’ve all seen the numbers since the start of December — this power play desperately needs new ideas.
Running it more through Matthews might be part of the solution; I’d also like to see them work the puck more down low more often between Tavares and Matthews playing catch below the goal line to draw out the PKers and give it a different look; Detroit did that well tonight and orient their power play around it (their goal was scored off of a play from below the goal line and they generated another couple of grade-As). Also, if it takes plopping Muzzin on that top unit to get somebody to actually shoot in the space afforded by the collapsing PK units, so be it.
9. It was a decent enough effort from his line — it was really the only forward line going at any time for the Leafs, and they scored twice — but the effort from Auston Matthews on the game winner in overtime left a lot to be desired. You can’t just wave your stick at the puck carrier, legs locked, and lose inside positioning like that.
On a pretty forgettable night overall, Patrick Marleau setting up one goal and deflecting in another is a good omen following the break. The stretch of production (or lack thereof) he had prior to the break — two points in 13 games — obviously can’t happen with the opportunities he’s being afforded in terms of lineys and minutes, but he deserves some benefit of the doubt for a number of reasons. His revered veteran status is one, but also, he’s shown he knows how to ramp it up down the stretch and into the playoffs as recently as last season.
Marleau finished the 2017-18 year with 10 goals and 21 points in 26 games and then potted four more goals in the playoff series vs. Boston, including two in Game 7.
10. I don’t know what the solution is specifically as far as the line combinations at this point — as for line four, PK considerations aside, you can’t tell me Trevor Moore couldn’t give this team more than Par Lindholm is at the moment — but I do know there is more than enough talent among this forward group for this team to be playing and gelling much better than it is. On too many nights of late, there are not enough lines going and there are no clear roles or identities that are easy to ascertain since Nylander and Matthews came back. It’s on Babcock to figure this out with what’s there in front of him.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts