A big trade for Jake Muzzin set the stage for the Toronto Maple Leafs to ice a reasonable defense. They finally had all of their forwards in the lineup (with their legs underneath them, too). Out in front of them was a good opportunity to solidify home-ice advantage in their inevitable first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins.
The month of March has not worked out the way the Leafs hoped, though.
The Leafs went 6-5-3 for 14 points in 15 games with a minus-three goal differential. The team averaged 3.7 goals against per game after giving up 2.9 per game the rest of the season. With four games left, they are now six points back of Boston — who also had their struggles this March — all but meaning they will start the playoffs in Beantown yet again.
It’s difficult to properly grade and evaluate the Leafs for the month, though, given their general lack of depth on defense due to two injuries — three if you include their best AHL defenseman in Calle Rosen — to Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner. Over the weekend, Mike Babcock lamented the loss of Gardiner in particular, noting, “We’ve missed him and it was very apparent.”
Gardiner has been a highly-debated player for years in Toronto, but they clearly need his puck moving and skating ability back in the lineup — badly. That’s a big part of why it has been difficult to gauge the team as of late.
That said, if we look back at past Stanley Cup finalists, they’ve generally had a strong month of March. Last season, Washington went 10-4-0 in March and Vegas went 9-5-2. In 2016-17, Pittsburgh went 9-4-3 and Nashville went 7-5-2. The season before, Pittsburgh went 12-4-0 and San Jose went 9-7-0. None of those teams posted a negative goal differential in March, either.
For the Leafs’ top players, they generally held up their end of the bargain: In the 14 games in March, John Tavares racked up 18 points, Mitch Marner recorded 16 points, Auston Matthews posted 13 points on 70 shots on net(!), and William Nylander produced 10 points (albeit just the one goal).
Beyond the injuries, secondary players struggled to produce – Andreas Johnsson and Nazem Kadri scored one goal each in March, while Kasperi Kapanen didn’t score at all. Patrick Marleau scored twice.
Frederik Andersen posted an .890 save percentage in March, while Garret Sparks averaged an .898. Andersen admitted this month that he has not been fully healthy this season: “I think I’ve played more games and felt better [in the past]. I think that this year I’ve been banged up a little bit at times, and obviously with the time I missed it’s been different. I don’t really want to compare too much of how I felt. Right now the focus is on trying to feel good going into the playoffs.”
The Leafs had opportunities to rest Andersen throughout the season – they have been a playoff team since day one of the season – but now that ship has sailed as he tries to rediscover his game before the Boston series.
In addition to the slippage in net, the Leafs were plagued by slow starts this past month -– they scored first in six of the 14 games despite having about as soft a schedule as you can get, playing Buffalo and Ottawa twice apiece, Florida, Edmonton, the Rangers, Flyers, and Vancouver. Only six of the games were at home, but three of those road games were in either Buffalo or Ottawa.
The Leafs have had a good season, but they are looking at quite a few question marks with four games remaining in the year while facing down a playoff format that all but guarantees they’ll play Boston and then Tampa Bay. It’s a tough ask.
– A few other notes looking at player stats in March – Morgan Rielly logged over 24 minutes per night and Jake Muzzin was over 23. They have both been horses for the Leafs. In the 14 games, they each had nine points; Rielly launched 46 shots on net and Muzzin fired 37. I still wonder if there was more of a plan to play them together and injuries made that not plausible. With a healthy group, the Leafs have a bit of an underrated defense.
– One thing the Leafs are doing to preserve Muzzin and Rielly: limiting their shorthanded time on ice. Muzzin averaged 1:08 per night there in March and Rielly was at 30 seconds. Both are below their season averages.
– Connor Brown tallied three goals and six points in March but put only 13 shots on net. His 28 points this season ties his total from last season, although he has only eight goals and just doesn’t appear to have much confidence offensively. Maybe a couple going in last week will help.
– Kasperi Kapanen has hit a bit of a wall, with only two assists in ten March games. I know some of the players have mentioned this on the team, but he has a great shot and struggles to hit the net at times. This season, he has missed the net on 31% of his shot attempts. That said, the worst culprit is Nazem Kadri, who is missing the net on nearly 36% of his shot attempts. If he doesn’t score again this season, this would be his lowest goals output in a full season in his career. Kadri’s 9.1 shooting percentage is 2.5 points lower than his career average and only the second time he has shot under 10% — the first time being the dreadful tank season in which he shot 6.5%.
– Couldn’t help but see the Nick Schmaltz contract and wonder how that will impact the Leafs if at all. He has 105 career points in 179 games, good for a .59 points per game, and he’s 23 years old. Andreas Johnsson is at .56 points per game, although he’s older and has played fewer than half the games of Schmaltz. Kasperi Kapanen is at .41 points per game, although he’s slightly younger and scores goals at a higher clip so far. We won’t even compare Mitch Marner’s numbers. Schmaltz is a nice player, but $5.85 million is a lot of money per year for what he’s done.
“This week is an important one for us … this is the time of year you really need to dial it in and ramp up individually your play and as a team really make sure we’re all on the same page.”
– Auston Matthews on the final week of the season
We just talked about their month of March. Every remaining game is big as far as I’m concerned: Playing for Tavares on the Island, two desperate teams in Carolina and Montreal, and the regular season champs in Tampa Bay. It is even possible that Jake Gardiner gets back into the lineup, too. I think we’ll learn a lot about this team this week.
“I just have to make more saves. We come roaring back to tie the game, it would’ve been a huge save to make on the third one and obviously the first two weren’t great either.”
– Garret Sparks on his game in Ottawa
I don’t have much to add to his quote, but I will say this – I don’t think the team has much confidence in Garret Sparks, particularly the coaching staff. It’s just a tough spot to be in. He’s signed for next season and I’m curious to see if they will just ride it out to start next season or look around in net.
“It’s not much fun. I mean, it’s nice to play for something … moving toward the playoffs it’s important to be playing some pretty good hockey and these games are preparation for us.”
– Nazem Kadri on playing when the Leafs are likely stuck in the standings
I completely get where he’s coming from. It can be tough to get up for games when you know who you’re playing in the playoffs and just want it to start already. The Bruins have also not been great lately. This goes for both teams, though – you can’t just flip a switch and expect to be good in the playoffs. You have to feel good about your game and give yourself a chance by playing well to close out the season. It should be noted, though – the Leafs did come out strong against Ottawa. They just couldn’t bury.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think changing up the power play units is a good idea and they should run with it for the rest of the season. The power play got stale at times and the Leafs have more than enough talent to spread it out, creating two really good units as opposed to one very good unit and one pretty mediocre unit.
2. I think the Calle Rosen callup is exciting and will hopefully be a welcome boost to the team. He has speed to burn. As long as Gardiner is out, I’d give him a run of looks. They are going to expect him to be in the NHL next season and this is an excellent cup of coffee for him while playing a collection of hungry, desperate playoff teams down the stretch. It’s a tough ask, but this is how you learn what players are all about.
3. At this point, I think Garret Sparks will get the Carolina game on the back-to-back and that will be it for him. You have to get Andersen feeling good about his game, and with the way he has been managed throughout the year, it’s too late to really do anything else at this point. He’s going to have to work his way out of it and the team is going to have to tighten up in front of him (which will hopefully happen as key defensemen return from injury).
4. I think I like Tyler Ennis, but in playoff hockey and against stronger teams, I like what Trevor Moore brings on that fourth line more in terms of forechecking, energy, and overall physicality. Of course, I’d consider scratching Connor Brown, but we all know that is not happening.
5. In big moments, including to start and end periods potentially, I think the Leafs really have to consider putting power lines together. Very, very briefly, players like Matthews, Tavares, Nylander or Marner have been put together as a line after penalty kills, and it often leads to dominant shifts. Sometimes they just need to swing games or set a tone. They have the depth to do this and follow it up with the Kadri line before resetting the units.