Against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, John Tavares scored a beautiful goal.

On a bad line change by the Oilers, Nikita Zaitsev made a long stretch pass from nearly his own goal line all the way up to the far blue line, where Zach Hyman made a nifty pass in tight and Tavares took care of the rest.

In many ways, it was the type of goal the Leafs look to score. Wide open hockey, a stretch pass, rush offense, and it resulted in a great goal. It’s also the type of goal you would rarely expect to score against top teams, or in the playoffs.

Against the top four teams in the East season (Lightning, Bruins, Capitals and Islanders), the Leafs are 4 – 8 – 0 so far this season. In those 12 games, they have been outscored 46 to 30 and at least four, arguably five, of the games were basically over before the third period even started.

Here’s how some of their more prominent players, according to time on ice, have produced in those 12 games:

PlayerGames playedShots on goalAssistsGoalsPoints

Some of the Leafs players have clearly been snake bitten in these games – Tavares, in particular, has just two goals on 45 shots on net. Nylander has not been in form for much of the season and he has yet to score against the top teams in the conference. As a whole, nobody leaps off the page as a player who is doing very well in these matchups in terms of production.

There’s likely an argument to be made that part of the reason for this is the way the Leafs play – a stretch hockey game focused on rush offense, and not enough cycling and in-zone offense, which is how we see top teams play and how playoff hockey is played.

At the trade deadline, there were rumblings of the Leafs being in on players such as Wayne Simmonds or perhaps another big defenseman, but that kind of move probably doesn’t make sense based on what we have seen so far. They are a talented team that usually feasts on weaker opponents but struggles against the top teams in the East. Making matters worse, they are all but guaranteed to play Boston and then Tampa Bay should they advance. That’s the most difficult first two rounds any team in the league could have.

The Leafs are in the midst of another strong season, but if they are going to get to where they want to go, they will need to be better against the top teams in the East.


– One narrative that seems to consistently come up is that yes the Leafs are on the smaller side but they play a skill game, same as the Tampa Bay Lightning. In watching Tampa, though, one thing that has always stood out is how much they engage physically. In the first five minutes of the game in Toronto, this is what I saw:  In the first two shifts, Alex Killorn ran Nikita Zaitsev and Ondrej Palat ran William Nylander. Shortly after, JT Miller lined up Connor Brown and Cedric Paquette got a pretty solid hit in on Tyler Ennis.

I’ve pointed this out before, but one thing John Cooper noted about the playoffs earlier this season is that everyone has to be physical and that was in part, he felt, why they beat Boston. The toughness angle will be debated for months, especially if they lose in the first round again, but watching Tampa, the example is more that you have to engage physically, no matter who you are. Currently, many Leafs don’t.

Jake Muzzin has been really struggling while paired with Zaitsev. Together, they have a 44.48 CF% and a 36.36 goals for percentage. He’s used to playing with puck movers (Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez), and that is not Zaitsev’s game. That means Muzzin has to take on more puck-moving duties and there seems to be an adjustment period taking place to the Leafs system.

One shift against Tampa, the Leafs won a defensive zone faceoff, Muzzin came around the net looking for a short, clean pass outlet (Kings hockey), and all the forwards had blown the zone already (Leafs hockey). Muzzin tried to flip the puck out, didn’t get all of it (probably because he’s not used to that type of game), it was a giveaway, and he later took a penalty on that shift.

– Was actually watching Ryan McDonagh and how good he looked against the Leafs, and thought back to last season. After Tampa traded for him he had 3 points in 14 regular season games, and another 5 assists in 17 playoff games. He played primarily with Dan Girardi with a 49.34CF% and a goals for percentage of 25% (though in fairness his numbers away from Girardi were much better). In the playoffs he played primarily with Anton Stralman and had a 47.08CF% in a shutdown role (the forward he played most with was Brayden Point and together they were at 43.5%). All in all, it wasn’t exactly a banner year for the big name pickup. This season he’s going to make a push to put up over 40 points for the third time in his career (he’s at 36 right now), playing primarily with Eric Cernak and putting up a 51.15CF% and 61.29CF% together. Could see something similar happening next season with a potential Muzzin – Dermott pairing.

– That was an interesting line put out Babcock following a penalty kill against the Lightning: Johnsson – Tavares – Matthews. They had a scoring chance, too. Also thought it was noteworthy he went with Johnsson over Nylander.

– With 13 games left in the season, the Leafs have 179 minor penalties, the lowest in the league by a wide margin. Chicago is second last at 194. In the last 10 years, no team has taken fewer than 200 minor penalties. The lowest was the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes at 206.


“I think some of the things that really helped for me is the emergency response stuff for when you can take a deep breath. And I’ve worked a little bit with breathing techniques as well, to either calm yourself down or get ready and get amped up a little bit. So that’s another thing that I found that I benefited from. It might not be the same for everyone but it’s different, small re-focusing practices that you can help to just reset and really realize what you’ve got to do.”

– Frederik Andersen discussing participating in a visit to Navy SEAL training during Hell Week to learn how candidates survive one of the U.S. military’s toughest tests

Part of the training included trying to stay awake for all but about four hours of a grueling five-and-half day stretch that includes 20 hours a day of physical training and roughly 200 miles of running. Previously, we’ve talked about all the head movement and puck tracking techniques Andersen has used to improve. He is a meticulous student of the game continually exploring avenues to improve his game. Turning 30 this October, Andersen is having an outstanding season that you can argue should result in a Vezina nomination.

“No real progress in that sense, we’re not expecting any of them here anytime soon”

– Sheldon Keefe updating the status of Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman

Unfortunate on so many levels — for the Marlies in their playoff lead up, for the Leafs who need the help on defense, and for the players themselves for missing out on what would have been a great call-up opportunity.

“We were no good. They were better than us from start to finish; won more battles, more races, and just had more jump. We looked like a lethargic group right from the get go. We didn’t have any energy right through our whole group. Didn’t skate well. Didn’t execute well. Weren’t good.”

– Mike Babcock summing up the 6-2 loss against Tampa

Can’t add much more to that. It was just disappointing, and there was little pushback or even frustration shown. They just went through the motions, got run over, and pretty much mailed it in for the third period.

“Tonight, we really wanted to show them that’s why we’re the best team in the league.”
– Cedric Paquette following the beatdown Tampa put on the Leafs

The Leafs were missing some players, sure, but the game was largely non-competitive. Mission accomplished on their end.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think the game against Tampa highlighted why it’s actually important to get William Nylander back with Matthews full-time – it’s going to take some time. They have been elite together for two seasons and they will need that combination clicking again. Kasperi Kapanen is a nice player, but he’s not the talent that Nylander is. The other thing that stood out to me was the adjustment of going back to the wing after playing center for an extended period of time. You’re more restricted to half the ice and it showed for Nylander. He has to get going. Matthews does, too.

2. I think the defense is a no-win situation and I understand why the pairings are what they are. There are basically no other options, although I think at this point I’d be playing Justin Holl over Igor Ozhiganov. That pairing is too slow for me, and I still think Holl has some upside, and even some bite to his game from what I’ve seen (particularly the game against the Islanders he showed some pushback).

3.  I think we’re seeing why the team appreciates Jake Gardiner so much – you need puck movers and mobility in this league. When they have played good teams in his absence, they struggle to break out. Ironically, the thing we hear often as a problem with Gardiner (ability to stop the cycle) seems to be happening more without him since he’s not there to move the puck and get it out. That said, I still don’t see how they can afford him, and that means Rosen needs to step up next season (along with Dermott).

4.  I think it’s pretty clear Frederik Gauthier is the fourth line center of the team this season. It’s not perfect, but it’s their best option (almost every player has a better shot attempt differential away from Gauthier, even though Gauthier and L4 take primarily neutral zone faceoffs and is reasonably sheltered). The good news is Gauthier gets in on the forecheck, is generally in good position defensively, and his lines score more than they give up.

5.  I think if Boston starts pulling away from the Leafs in the standings, you start resting Frederik Andersen heavily down the stretch. Play it out until that point but be prepared to rest him. It would be nice to sit Hainsey as well.