It is great to have (Toronto Maple Leafs) hockey back!
I hope everyone is as excited as I am. Taking a quick look back, I’ve been writing this column at MLHS since 2011. It’s crazy how time flies.
Whether you are a new or long-time reader, one thing is clear: This is the best Leafs team on paper over that time. The squad last year was also quite strong, but no William Nylander at the start really hurt them and eventually, so did a Jake Gardiner injury. Even missing Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman to start this season, the depth is clear, as is the impact of having all of their stars together from the very start.
We know the Leafs are all-in this year. The Tyson Barrie trade exemplifies this, as the team is almost certainly going to lose (at least) one of Barrie or Jake Muzzin next summer due to cap constraints. The focus right now is on this season and the team will be evaluated throughout the season against the status of being a Cup contender, as they should be.
At forward, there are four top-line forwards and a collection of strong secondary players. That doesn’t mean the bottom lines aren’t worth debating – they matter, and they need work. The defense has three strong players, a question mark, and some young players with promise. The unit either needs to see the young players take leaps throughout the season, or the Leafs need to add one more legitimate defenseman (realistically, it’s both). They have a stud goalie, and if he ever gets hurt, it would be a catastrophe.
The power play has a collection of elite talent to sort through and place, but the pieces are all there for what should be a top-end unit. The penalty kill relies heavily on their goalie and has some speed upfront, but the units need to work on sorting out roles and responsibilities — and even to decide which defensemen will be used due to all the turnover from last year. Many of the answers here are actually internal and just need time to be worked through.
Over the years in this space, on this website and just in the general Barilkosphere, we have had to look for positives and look to the future for hope. This is not one of those years. The following question will often be asked in this space:
Is what they are doing conducive to their Cup aspirations?
That is what made Saturday somewhat disappointing. It wasn’t the loss – it was their third game in four nights with travel and their backup goalie in — it was what happened to tie the game. Mistakes happen, pucks bounce the wrong way, players trip, sometimes a quick play and a poor read is made (usually on a pinch of some sort). But this was none of those things. Kasperi Kapanen blatantly tossed his broken stick — because why? He stood in the lane to block a shot and the puck hit him? He almost certainly didn’t know it would result in a penalty shot – most didn’t know the rule – but everyone knows it’s at least a penalty.
The whole play was strange and confusing, but what made it even more bizarre was the fact that he was put almost right back out there. There is a difference between putting a player back out after a mistake to build his confidence back up, and looking past what was really a selfish and dumb play. If Kapanen can toss a broken stick at a player in the third period of a tight game resulting in a goal and not be benched, what does he have to do to get benched? What about John Tavares? Auston Matthews? Mitch Marner? You get the point.
It’s a little disappointing and confusing from a coach that generally demands accountability and has benched/healthy scratched/reprimanded players for a lot less in his tenure. Kapanen surely feels bad — he most likely heard it from a number of people and media and will likely never do that again — but the message to the group and even the fans is puzzling at best.
This promises to be a strong season, with everything working towards peaking in time for the playoffs. Ultimately, that leaves the regular season as a time to experiment, and — yes — hold players accountable for questionable decisions and actions.
- I’m very curious how the defense ice time evolves throughout the season. So far, Jake Muzzin is playing over 20 minutes per night at even strength, something no defenseman on the team did last season. Morgan Rielly is down nearly a minute at even strength from 19:27 to 18:29, but he is leading the team in power-play time on ice per game, receiving roughly 40 seconds more than Barrie. Rielly pairing got the matchup against the Tarasenko line, leaving Muzzin with the O’Reilly assignment. But Muzzin played against the Domi line, while Rielly got the Danault line. I don’t really count the Columbus game since it was on the road and the Leafs didn’t dictate the matchups. Against Ottawa, Rielly got the Tkachuk line and Muzzin got the Tierney line. It seems a bit all over the place so far — although I’m not sure you can say any of those three teams have a clear top line.
- Early on, the Leafs power play is going with the two-player drop pass. Montreal was really aggressive on it; they were right on the initial puck carrier and pressured the Leafs all the way up ice. Other than one time where Rielly faked the drop pass and went up on his own, what stuck is how rigid the breakout is – it’s not adapting at all to the forecheck. They are just trying to get their drop pass, go up the ice, hit the winger on the wall at the blue line, and the player skating up the ice shoots through the middle for a seam pass (which is rather low percentage). The power play is dynamic when it sets up, but it is having some troubles doing so. Instead of always trying to saucer the puck through, a quick pass off the boards to the corner might be safer and easier.
- I still can’t believe Tyson Barrie and William Nylander are on the second power-play unit and it’s completely justifiable to do so. What a luxury that is to have. Barrie has four points in four games so far and fits well with the Leafs style of transition and offense, as was expected. It is the defensive play that will be the question.
- Against the Habs, Andreas Johnsson took a pretty good run at Ben Chiarot, ticking Chiarot off. I don’t know if the cameras picked up on it as I was at the game, but the two were going back and forth quite a bit from that play moving forward (which was in the second). Against Columbus, he drove Josh Anderson nuts one shift by charging to the net and then standing there after. He is small and not too heavy (under 200 pounds; Anderson tossed him around quite well in front of the net), but he is feisty and he is going to frustrate a lot of opponents this year. He is one of those players that does not quit on plays and goes to all the dirty areas.
- Didn’t-miss-training-camp William Nylander is here and looks as expected – he has four points in four games, 13 shots on net, is back to doing laps around the offensive zone setting up plays (as he did against Columbus for the Cody Ceci goal), and he is even getting in on the forecheck. He did not get an assist on the first Auston Matthews goal against the Habs, but he set it up by getting in on the forecheck and creating a turnover. He is never going to throw a hit on the forecheck, but he has a great stick lift move that often surprises defenders, and he knows how to leverage his strength by getting his stick in the right spot. That forechecking was lost last season after missing the first few months. It’s nice to see it back.
- So many things happened in the Habs game that it was easy to forget: The initial swing occurred — after the Leafs made it 4-1 and looked to be cruising — during the ensuing faceoff that the Leafs actually won. Rielly made a pass that hits the ref’s skate. The Habs pounced on the puck and quickly transitioned for a goal. Really tough break.
- After power plays and goals, the Leafs have wanted to come back with a strong third or fourth line shift; however, with third liners receiving power play time, the team wants to come back with the fourth line, and Babcock clearly doesn’t trust them. After Nylander just scored before that aforementioned Habs goal, Babcock left him right on to go out with Matthews (who was also on just before that on the power play). That is not his style, and while it might not seem like a big deal, the team needs to be able to get productive shifts from their fourth line and be able to trust them (after special teams, to change momentum, etc.). It is still very much a work in progress.
“Mike and I are 100 per cent on the same page. Mike had his rationale and reasoning. I know it’s disappointing for Jason, and I totally understand. I get why it’s a discussion.”
– Kyle Dubas on the Jason Spezza healthy scratch
The backlash and overreactions to Jason Spezza sitting out the opener was surprising, although maybe I shouldn’t be surprised given how long I’ve followed the team online.
Imagine being genuinely upset that Spezza – who was healthy scratched multiple times last year, has clearly lost multiple steps, and is not known for his defense but is playing in a defensive role – was sat? I understand the sentiment behind him playing in possibly his last ever home opener and for his hometown team, but the idea that the Leafs owe him any favours whatsoever is completely misguided. Contenders were not knocking on his door. Really, the Leafs are giving him a shot to be part of something special, not the other way around.
I imagine Babcock wanted a defensive 4c, was given Jason Spezza instead and acted accordingly. Not sure I buy him and Dubas being 100 percent on the same page.
“When John came last year, the chemistry in the room changed. No one works harder and when you see that, you feel like you have to raise your commitment, too. There are some things he can do with the puck that are amazing — working as hard as him doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to do that stuff. But no one wants to be seen as giving anything less on or off the ice when you’re next to him.”
– Morgan Rielly on John Tavares
I reported last year that we should expect John Tavares to receive the captaincy — I believe that was always the plan. He is a consummate professional and a good example for a young team. Beyond that, though, the captaincy in Toronto is largely about dealing with the media, and Tavares is great for this.
His answers are bland and will bore you to death. He is not going to make headlines for anything controversial. Rielly would have also been a fine choice. I think Matthews needs to work on his media handling; for example, in the summer he commented on his lack of ice time last season quite openly noting that he’d love to see himself on the ice a bit more. That just isn’t something a captain of the Leafs should address publicly — for obvious reasons.
“I put him out there killing a penalty in OT. I didn’t even know for sure if he could understand what I was telling him, but he did it anyway and looked good doing it. That’s good. He’s getting better every day.”
– Mike Babcock on Ilya Mikheyev after the game against the Habs
Playing Mikheyev on the penalty kill in overtime is a huge vote of confidence from Babcock, third game of the season or not. At 6’3, he is not only big, but he has a long reach and seems to have a knack for getting in passing lanes and knocking pucks away defensively. If he becomes a serviceable forward that can chip in offensively and defensively, what a huge addition this would be.
Tweets of the Week
Shore missed a “stay in the lineup free” card by not jumping Petry after the Marner hit. Not saying he should have, just saying Babcock would’ve liked to see it, ashore *defijitely* would’ve scored points for it.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) October 6, 2019
Spelling aside (I hope you’re reading Justin!), I agree. If you are a fourth liner scratching and clawing to get in the lineup every night and a superstar on your team is boarded while you were on the ice on a dangerous looking play, say whatever you want, you win a lot of hearts and minds by jumping him. That’s just the truth.
Yep that’s a baaaad one.
Game 3, 2016: Blow 4-0 lead to Winnipeg, lose in OT.
Game 2, 2017: Blow 5-1 lead to NYR, win 8-5.
Game 3, 2018: Gongshow vs. Chicago, 7-6 OT win but holy crap.
Game 3, 2019: Blow 4-1 lead to Montreal from something I’ve never seen before, 6-5 SO loss.
— Steve "Dangle" Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) October 6, 2019
Interesting twist: The Leafs have generated five power plays in three straight games to start the year. That happened just seven times total in 82 games last year (31st in PP opps with 211).
— Alec Brownscombe (@MapleLeafsHS) October 6, 2019
This is a good point. Losing Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown up front (among a few others) and replacing them with Trevor Moore full-time, Alexander Kerfoot, and Ilya Mikheyev really gives the Leafs some additional speed. that will help draw a few extra power plays. A full season of William Nylander and an improved Auston Matthews plus Mitch Marner helps, too.
OK but who should be the *26th* captain in Toronto Maple Leafs history? There are many factors to consider, and several candidates to evaluate. My column:
— Down Goes Brown (@DownGoesBrown) October 2, 2019
Also, who is the next pending RFA to discuss?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think this will be a debate for a while, but I would always start my starter in game one of a back to back. Get the points while your team is in a better situation to do so (i.e. rested), first and foremost. The Leafs are a playoff team. they also have no reason to try and get cute with the standings. I also don’t mind giving Michael Hutchinson tough games to see how he does.
- I think I’d eventually like to see Andreas Johnsson with John Tavares and Mitch Marner for a look. He’s speedy and a bit crafty offensively, which goes well with Tavares’ ability to do the heavy work down low and Marner’s creativity. He has been fine on the Matthews line, but going back to last season, I still think he and Nylander miss all the work Hyman does, and Johnsson just isn’t as big or as strong as Hyman.
- I think playing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on their off-wings on the power play is looking exactly like we all thought it would. They are much more dynamic and it’s easier for them to shoot and get pucks to the net. Strangely enough, I felt as though Marner was actually shooting too much, but when I checked the stats, Matthews actually has two more shots than Marner this season. Anyway, the point is to keep them on their off-wings because it’s far more dynamic and practical for when the game tightens up in the playoffs.
- I think Kasperi Kapanen is just not a good fit for the left wing in general. His game is beating defenders wide with his speed, but carrying the puck on your backhand when you are that fast is a bit awkward and we haven’t seen him really blow by any defenders so far this season. It’s also just generally easier to play on your strong side for the little things like breaking out, handling cross-ice passes, etc. Those are all things Kapanen uses his speed for — again hindering him and making him slow down more. It would be nice to see the Leafs mix in both of Moore and Mikheyev in place of Kapanen on the left wing at times in the top six.
- Going into the preseason, I think it was actually quite reasonable to believe that Rasmus Sandin would make the team, as we noted here. His competition was weak and he can handle a puck, which always looks good in preseason. He had a good debut, struggled against Columbus, was below average against Montreal, and was solid against St. Louis. That is life with a rookie defenseman, but the biggest thing is ice time. If he’s going to play 13 minutes or so a night as Babcock stated the goal is (he’s averaging under 12 so far), I think he’s better served going down to the Marlies at some point. He only played 57 games in the AHL, including playoffs, and there is room to grow, especially with his shot. It’s fine to keep him and see how he progresses while Travis Dermott is injured, but if he returns and none of the top four get hurt, I think you have enough good players there to not worry about needing Sandin (clearly the best of their depth options) and you can focus on developing him a bit further. Of course, this can change — there’s plenty of time before Dermott returns.