Nine games into their season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are sporting a good-but-not-great record of 5-3-1.
With so many changes to the lineup and a relatively tough schedule, it’s understandable. To keep things in perspective, they haven’t exactly pulled a Dallas Stars to start the new campaign.
If you look at the year 2019 as a whole, though, it has been decidedly average. The Leafs are 25-20-7 since the turn of the calendar with a plus-seven goal differential. On raw points, it’s good for 15th in the league. Their power play is 13th and their penalty kill is 22nd. Now, most of this is from the second half of last season and the team has a bunch of new faces this year, but all of the top players are more or less the same.
All of those top players are also getting paid now, too. The reality is that expectations are high, the team has lost in the first round three years in a row, and at some point, a step forward has to take place.
There are some good early indications so far at least. The Leafs are fourth in 5v5 corsi percentage and eighth in fenwick. They are third in the league in goals per game and seventh in power-play percentage. They are still as high powered offensively as ever. Frederik Andersen has a .902 save percentage — that won’t last, and in all but last season, we’ve seen him struggle early in October and get much better as time progresses.
That said, the team is still in the top half of goals against per game (13th) and shots against per game (11th). The penalty kill is under 80 percent and ranks 16th so far. According to natural stat trick, they have only generated three more high danger scoring chances than they have given up – it’s still largely a team content to trade chances with the confidence that they will come out on top against most opponents thanks to their skill.
Now facing some adversity with John Tavares out for a few weeks as well as Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott still on the shelf, this is not only a good test for the team but an opportunity for some players to step up and take on more responsibility.
- We’ve talked about getting positive contributions from the fourth line; it’s such a little thing, but before the Morgan Rielly goal against Boston (in regulation), the fourth line got the puck in deep, tilted the ice, and created some zone time. When the puck came out, the Leafs maintained possession, got it back in deep, and then went to work again — this time with their top players on the ice. That resulted in a goal. It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing.
- Don’t think he’s going to be laying anyone out with a big hit, but Dmytro Timashov made a point on Saturday of hitting anyone he possibly could. It’s a refreshing change of pace for the team. You can’t have a team of only stick checkers; you need some players who can disrupt opponents physically and create turnovers in different ways. A few shifts later in the period (which started as a defensive zone faceoff), he buried a beautiful goal after another fantastic forecheck. As a small, skilled player throughout his career, kudos should go out to Timashov for buying into his role on the team. Rather quietly, he has four points in six games on that line, too.
- You would think Jake Muzzin and whoever his partner is would be getting the tough matchups, but in back-to-back games against top teams, it was the Morgan Rielly pairing playing against the Ovechkin line and the Bergeron line (one home, one away). Both lines scored on the Rielly pairing. The Leafs are likely experimenting, so it will be interesting to see for how long and how the Muzzin pairing performs when it’s their turn.
- Quietly, Morgan Rielly is tied for the team lead in points still (with Mitch Marner). Part of that is getting to play on the first unit power play (where he has four points) in comparison to Tyson Barrie, who has four assists through nine games (one power-play point). Rielly seems more confident in taking his one-timer and looks to be making an effort to shoot more when teams sag off of him. According to NHL.com, he has three slap shots on goal already — last year, he had all of 19. Barrie already has six – Ron Hainsey led the Leafs last year with 31 (Jake Gardiner and Rielly were tied for second with 19). It’s a bit of a different look in terms of shooting from the point this season.
- I did a double take looking at this – Tyson Barrie leads the team in even-strength time on ice per game. I did not expect to see that. The Leafs have sheltered him a little bit, but they do rely on his puck-moving ability to advance the puck. He and Muzzin have a near 58CF% together but have been outscored so far.
- I’m almost positive that Jake Muzzin sold that hand grab from Ryan Hartman against Minnesota. He was barely touched and knew a breakaway was going the other way. Refs call the trip, the Leafs promptly score on the power play, and that game was all but over at that point. Could have been 2-2 and it quickly became 3-1.
- We have to take a second to note that the Marlies are off to a 6-0-0 start, which is a franchise-best. Egor Korshkov has six points, and that’s a really good sign – I thought he had a strong preseason.
- A few things I didn’t expect to see from Ilya Mikheyev – he’s fourth on the team in total shots on net and he’s leading all forwards in shorthanded time on ice per game (one second ahead of Mitch Marner). He has shown speed and a knack around the net, but the play I thought was most impressive was against the Capitals in the first period, where he came down the wall on his off-wing, stopped, and found a trailing Jake Muzzin buzzing through the middle of the ice for a scoring chance. That is a crafty, experienced move for a player in his first month in the league.
“Every time I was at a game, Jim was at the game. I saw him so much that I thought maybe he’s following me or maybe I’m following him. He was always there. My experience is that other clubs don’t do this, don’t get this involved. They watch. They don’t get to know the person… Jim is the hardest working person in the business, the hardest working person I see everywhere.
– Dan Milstein, Ilya Mikheyev’s agent, on the Leafs recruiting of his client
This is the Leafs flexing their financial muscle to gain advantages. Mikheyev has been a player so far. With injuries to Hyman, now Tavares, and possibly Johnsson, he’s not just a luxury add at this point. He’s becoming an important player for this team and Jim Paliafito deserves a lot of credit and recognition.
“We’d like to play really good players against real good players because they have to worry about playing defense. But also the workload on them defensively… We did it on purpose last year to John Tavares. We wanted to improve his defensive game. That was a great matchup with Hyman. They started in the d-zone and were always in the o-zone. But that hasn’t been something that we’ve tried to do. We were waiting to get a fourth line. We’d been looking for a fourth line. Over four years, we’ve done a lot of trading trying to get that to work. Now Goat seems to have come of age and Shoresy seems to be able to do it.”
– Mike Babcock on matchups and the fourth line
Ultimately, top teams play their best players against the other teams’ best players. You can’t hide your best players; it just doesn’t work if you’re going to get everyone enough ice time. At the same time, we discussed this throughout the summer – a fourth line that can take defensive zone faceoffs and free up your top players for an extra favourable shift or two per game really adds up. It is early, but so far the Leafs are getting this out of their fourth line. That is a very positive development.
“It didn’t change much … in fact, in one sense, it makes it a little bit easier to get your match-up pair (Chara-McAvoy) out there on D against them …”
– Bruce Cassidy on whether pairing Marner and Matthews together changed things for Boston
I mean, he’s not wrong. The reality is that the Leafs’ depth has to step up and make teams pay in this setup. In particular, you’d like to see Nylander produce in this scenario.
Tweets of the Week
Moore and Johnsson eating some soup on the bench after Ilya Mikheyev scores 😂 pic.twitter.com/OxbDcsq8Wd
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 17, 2019
This has to make you smile. Also, how fast is Mikheyev? He burned through for the breakaway goal against Washington and did it again against Boston (he didn’t score that time). We were told he was a good skater, but I didn’t think he’d be that fast.
Most overtime goals by defensemen, @MapleLeafs franchise history:
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) October 20, 2019
I… did not expect the list to look like this.
#Leafs currently have $380k in cap space from LTIR relief, too little to recall any player. Tavares would also have to be injured 10 games & 24 days for LTIR placement.
With 20 players on the roster, the club is also ineligible for a $0 cap hit Emergency Roster Exemption recall
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) October 17, 2019
The Leafs are extremely tight up against the cap and don’t have many options. The good news is that reinforcements are coming (Tavares, Hyman, Dermott), but when they do return, the Leafs will likely need to make four cuts in order to accommodate the cap hits. We already heard Nic Petan is available, so he is likely one. Kevin Gravel hasn’t played, so he is likely another. Then things get trickier after that – Spezza isn’t in the starting 12 and Shore might not be once everyone is healthy, although he seems to be carving himself out a role. Marincin would seem next on defense, but do the Leafs want to carry only six defensemen? Tough decisions ahead.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- Generally speaking, I think I agree with the logic of playing your starting goalie in the first game of a back-to-back, going all-in on getting the first win, and trying your luck with your backup in game two. I’m fairly certain that this is not solely a Mike Babcock decision, either – I am sure the Leafs have data that supports this decision (get the points while you’re rested). But at times, an adjustment can and does make sense. Minnesota is terrible. Washington is not. Coming up this week, Columbus is average-ish, while Boston is probably the Leafs’ biggest rival. At that point, it would also be Frederik Andersen’s second game in three nights. May as well switch them and also see if Michael Hutchinson can actually stand in there and succeed in a game where has been put in a favourable spot.
- I think any reader of this column over the years would expect me to say this – keep Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together for now. You will almost certainly need them together in the playoffs at some point and this is the time to build chemistry and work through the kinks together.
- I think I would strongly consider moving Mitch Marner to the bump role in the middle of the power play setup and putting Nylander on the half-wall. Reason being that Marner is much more crafty in tight than Nylander, and I think he offers a more dynamic presence in the middle of the ice. Nylander also has a better shot. Teams have sagged off Marner on the half-wall and he seems to continue attempting this wrist shot of his where he’s half skating backward as he releases the puck. There’s no one-timer to keep teams honest, and his shot takes a while to get off.
- I think I’d like to see Kevin Gravel get into one of the two back-to-back games just to see how he acquits himself.
- If I had to make the cuts today to fit the soon to be returning players under the cap, I think I would waive: Nic Petan, Jason Spezza, Kevin Gravel, and Martin Marincin. I think the Leafs have a few players on defense they can call up if necessary, so I wouldn’t be too concerned about potentially losing Marincin. Nick Shore is starting to get into a bit of a specialist role as a right-handed faceoff taker and he fits in the Leafs’ preferred fourth-line role. It seems early to be doing this, but a trade should also be considered to clear some cap room — and if you do that, the only logical choice is Cody Ceci.