Rasmus Sandin is headed to the Marlies, three of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward lines continue to impress, and the wait continues for consistent defense and goaltending.
Happy (belated) Thanksgiving!
Early Takeaways Through Six Games
The Leafs are 3-2-1 through six games even though they’ve left points on the table and have not received strong goaltending. They collapsed against Montreal, didn’t show up against Tampa Bay, and deserved better against St.Louis. Wins against Ottawa, Columbus, and Detroit aren’t cause for a parade, but it’s nice to have a winning record during a stretch of .874 goaltending.
As of Monday morning, the Leafs sit second in 5v5 shot-attempt differential (CF%) and tenth in 5v5 expected goal differential (xGF%). This team boasts plenty of scoring talent and a top ten goalie, so their ability to consistently out-chance their opponents at five-on-five remains their biggest question mark. Getting Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott back will certainly help in this area, but they’ll want to fix their shot quality problem in a hurry. I don’t want to see low-danger point shots when there is no traffic in front.
In terms of expected goals, Toronto’s worst line has been the Kapanen – Tavares – Marner trio — by a wide margin. Fortunately, there’s no reason to doubt that Tavares will turn things around at five-on-five and we saw last year that Tavares and Marner complement one another exceptionally well. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, my main focus up-front is on the third and fourth lines, as I’m convinced that Toronto’s top-six will be successful.
Speaking of the bottom six, I continue to be impressed by Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Kerfoot moves the puck well and holds his own in puck battles, but the main part of his game has impressed me is his defensive positioning. He’s not cheating offensively and he’s done well to consistently cover for pinching defensemen. It’s too early to definitively say that he’s a competent defensive center, but it is so far, so good for a player who spent most of his time on the wing last season.
Mikheyev’s size, speed, and quick hands allow him to be effective away from the puck; his ability to generate takeaways and win puck battles will allow him to stay in the lineup even when he’s not scoring at a 68-point pace. Both Mikheyev and Trevor Moore are clear NHL players who would play in the top nine on almost any team, but Hyman’s return will likely push Moore down into the role of an elite fourth-line forward. Given their work ethic, it’s tough not to love these players.
Kasperi Kapanen, meanwhile, was not effective with Matthews in last year’s playoffs and he hasn’t been effective with John Tavares this season, either. There are legitimate question marks surrounding his ability to effectively complement high-end scorers, but no one has ever questioned whether or not he could be a successful third-line contributor. It’s easy to forget just how good Kapanen is right now; I recommend watching a few of his highlight videos if you want to feel more optimistic about this team. He’s going to generate plenty of breakaways against third-pairing defenders and he’ll be far more of a factor in the transition game on that line.
I have no idea what to think of the fourth line. Frederik Gauthier‘s been a pleasant surprise thus far, and while I think I prefer Jason Spezza and Nic Petan as his wingers, there’s no denying that Dmytro Timashov and Nick Shore were outstanding on Saturday night against the Red Wings. There is no reason to expect any line changes up-front on Tuesday night, and I’m completely fine with keeping the competition going at this point. Given that he’s not playing on either special teams unit, I’d be worried if I was Petan.
Finding a Shutdown Pairing
The Leafs are in desperate need of a shutdown pairing on the blue line. Morgan Rielly is off to an atrocious start defensively and it’s tough to feel comfortable matching Cody Ceci up against top lines. Meanwhile, Tyson Barrie looks like a fourth forward out there and isn’t trusted enough defensively to kill penalties. Something eventually has to give with these pairings, or the Bergeron and Kucherov lines are going to be thanking the Leafs this spring.
Jake Muzzin is the team’s most dependable defender — by a wide margin — and I expect him to receive the toughest matchups come playoff time, but there is no clear option in terms of who he will play with. My first choice would be Morgan Rielly, as I thought the Muzzin-Rielly pairing looked great last season and I trust Rielly more than Barrie in a shutdown role; their skill sets complement each other well. The Leafs could ensure that both players play big minutes while allowing Dermott to play in a top-four role on the left-side.
Mike Babcock did not seem to love the Muzzin-Rielly pairing as much as I did, so seeing this pairing again would be a small miracle. My next choice would be Muzzin-Dermott, as I’m a huge fan of Dermott’s game and I think he’s ready for a bigger opportunity. Dermott is a clear standout in terms of defending the blue line, and while there are still questions about his play in his own end, I have the exact same questions about the alternative options here.
I won’t be shocked if Babcock ends up rolling a Muzzin-Ceci shutdown pairing out there, similar to the Muzzin-Zaitsev pairing from last year’s playoffs. He clearly trusts both players on the penalty kill and matching up against dominant top lines is sure going to feel like you’re on the penalty kill at times. Babcock could essentially say, “You’ll beat us for these minutes, but we’ll be loaded up with puck movers and out-play you for the remaining minutes”. From my experience, that strategy works better when one of your best forwards doesn’t get suspended.
Rasmus Sandin’s Demotion
The Leafs are a better team when Rasmus Sandin is in the lineup. His transition game consistently tilts the ice in his team’s favour and he gives his teammates the ability to operate with more time and space. He wins his fair share of puck battles, and despite his age, I trust him defensively more than many of Toronto’s other options.
He was not playing significant minutes, though, and it was tough to blame Mike Babcock for that. He couldn’t play Sandin above Rielly and Muzzin at 5-on-5, couldn’t play him ahead of Rielly and Barrie on the power play, and didn’t want to play a teenager on the penalty kill. I thought he played well thus far, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he should play 20+ minutes per night in the AHL rather than 11 minutes per night in the NHL.
I hope he’s in the playoff lineup and I’d like to see him up in early March to prepare for this. I would have been fine with giving him a shot on the second penalty kill unit in order to get him more minutes, but I’m not going to criticize Mike Babcock for playing Rielly over him. I think that sending Sandin down was the correct decision, at least for now. If he has a huge year in the AHL and still does not make the playoff lineup, I’ll be far less content with this.
Early Thoughts on the Toronto Marlies
The 3-0 Toronto Marlies are about to benefit majorly from the return of Kalle Kossila — roughly a point per game center two years ago — along with Rasmus Sandin. Considering Kenny Agostino and Mason Marchment are also injured at the moment, this team sure looks like it will dominate once they are back to full strength. This is one of the deepest rosters in the league and it could even add Nic Petan or Dmytro Timashov eventually as well.
Timothy Liljegren is off to a strong start in the AHL and is looking far more confident with the puck on his stick. Part of that may be due to the fact that the Marlies have had an easy schedule, but he’s been playing in all situations and hasn’t played a bad game yet. He’s about to lose his top-unit power-play role to Sandin, but playing with him at 5-on-5 should provide Liljegren with extra time and space to make plays.
Jordan Schmaltz is also off to a strong start. He has a chance to earn NHL minutes one day if he proves himself on the penalty kill. While I love their 1-2-3 punch of Sandin, Schmaltz, and Liljegren, I’m not a huge fan of Ben Harpur or Kristians Rubins and it’s too early to get a good read on Teemu Kivihlame or Jesper Lindgren. They’ll probably get Kevin Gravel back when Travis Dermott returns, which should restore their depth on the back-end in a hurry.
Their forward lineup looked a little bit weak this past weekend, but that will change in the near future. Pontus Aberg, who I did not like in the preseason, is off to a great start with the Marlies. Tyler Gaudet looks like a strong two-way center with some transition ability, while Matt Read looks like a player who has played in 400+ NHL games.
Egor Korshkov has been a little bit lucky from a scoring standpoint, but he’s continued to impress in terms of his ability to win the puck back. You could say the same for Pierre Engvall; I’m interested to see if he stays at center when Kossila returns. Both Korshkov and Engvall are over 6’3″, were born in 1996, and will be looking to prove themselves offensively this year. They will be directly competing for a fourth-line NHL role one day, if they aren’t already.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Bracco got off to a great start with a three-point game, but he never looked dominant against Manitoba this weekend. It’s been a bit of a slow start for both Bracco and Adam Brooks and I’m not in love with the Archibald – Brooks – Bracco line yet. Bracco will always be a lethal power play playmaker, but he needs his linemates to win him the puck back at five-on-five. It feels like this line is lacking something.
- Tyson Barrie and William Nylander will continue to lead the second power play unit, but it remains up in the air in terms of who will join them. I haven’t loved Alex Kerfoot there so far, but he’s an underrated passer who doesn’t take many bad shots, so I would continue to give him opportunities there. Jason Spezza should be on this unit whenever he’s in the lineup, but it’s not yet clear how often that will be. Personally, I like Moore as the net-front presence. I’m surprised that Nic Petan hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity on the power play this year, which doesn’t bode well for his chances. Dmytro Timashov, who was on a terrific power play unit with the Marlies last season, could also warrant a look if he continues to play like he did on Saturday night. This is all a long way of saying that Kapanen better step up his game.
- Let’s give a quick shoutout to Joseph Woll, who earned his first career shutout in his first AHL game. Kasimir Kaskisuo has also been great, as his .944 save percentage indicates. They should have more support around them in the near future, but so far so good for the Marlies’ goalies.
- The criticism that I constantly see on Twitter of Mike Babcock is getting a little bit ridiculous. This is his fifth season in Toronto now, and naturally, there have been plenty of decisions that I have disagreed with during this time. I have all day for detailed and rational suggestions on what the coaching staff could improve on. However, please don’t expect anyone to take you seriously if you complain about Matthews’ ice time in a period where they were shorthanded five times, or if you say that Babcock “ruins” every new player’s creativity. We can all find a legitimate criticism of the coaching staff at some point over the last four-plus years without having to rely on fan fiction.
- The power plays of the Bruins and Lightning remain terrifying. Both teams have better one-timer options than the Leafs, and I would collapse quite low against them. I don’t expect Marner to magically get Stamkos’ shot, but I would like to see them set up Tavares in tight more often. Low danger point shots on the power play remain my biggest pet peeve.