After a chaotic weekend that led to the waiving of their backup goalie and Mitch Marner placed on LTIR, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a challenging week ahead of them starting with a matchup against the 12-3-1 Islanders tonight in New York (7 p.m. ET, SN).
As one of the most popularly-cited regression candidates entering the season, the Islanders’ start of 12-wins-in-16-games and 9-0-1 record in their last ten look all the more impressive. They’ve carried on in a similar vein to last season: on the back of Barry Trotz’s structure, their physical/defensive identity, and elevated PDO, with particularly strong two-deep goaltending.
Similar to last year, the Islanders look like a lower-end team in possession and scoring chance share, but, to a degree, that’s by design. They certainly sag and protect the slot in their own zone, with the idea of trading off less zone time against for fewer opportunities against closer to the net. The downside to the approach generally is that many more shots are given up from the points and the perimeter, which can grind a team down over time and take a south turn fast if goaltending starts to slip.
So far, so good again for the Islanders, though: They sit near the bottom of the league in shot attempt share but just outside the top 10 in expected goals against per 60.
One coach told me his team’s internal metrics indicate that no one spends more time in their own zone than the red-hot New York Islanders. He wondered how that was possible, so he took a look. Answer: “They let you go where they want you to go — on the outside.” You get time, but you don’t get quality.
That means battling to get on the inside of the Islanders’ defense — which plenty of size, length, and strength among their group of six — and creating enough opportunities in the high-danger areas around the net is going to be vital for the Leafs tonight. In John Tavares’ first return to Long Island, the Leafs were run out of the building by an Islanders team that is physical and tough to play against at home especially, so the Leafs are going to have ready to battle from the drop of the puck.
That also makes for a pretty timely return for Zach Hyman, who will step onto Tavares’ wing just as Mitch Marner leaves the other wing with a high-ankle injury. Mike Babcock was cautious when discussing the expectations for Hyman coming off of a long injury absence: “Can he get on the forecheck and get us the puck back like he normally does? I don’t the answer to that for sure. Can he be on that right side faceoff on the PK? I don’t know that either“.
Hyman is owed a lot of patience in his return given the extent of the injury and time missed. Even if the first few days or weeks start slowly, it’s a big positive for the Leafs to have one of their best forecheckers, net drivers, PKers, and defensive wingers back in the lineup.
Again, a lot of the Islanders’ success again this season is owed to the superb performance of their goaltending platoon, this time with Thomas Greiss joined by Semyon Varlamov in the place of the departed Robin Lehner. The two-good-goalie luxury is one three of the top teams in the East are benefiting from at the moment — Boston, New York, and Washington — and it’s one the Leafs are sorely lacking with their ongoing question mark at the backup position. As the team searches for an answer here, Kasimir Kaskisuo will back up Frederik Andersen tonight in his first-ever game on an NHL roster, with his first start scheduled for this Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the keys to getting a result in a tough building:
Start with the faceoff circle. Let’s do a good job in the faceoff circle and then control the neutral zone. When they have it, let’s slow them down. When we have it, let’s speed up. Let’s make sure we spend some time in the o-zone. They do a real good job. We’ve got to spend as little time in the d-zone as we possibly can.
If you don’t win the draw, they’re going to put the puck in — that’s what they do — and they’re going to forecheck. Thhat means minimum 10 seconds in your zone before you can even start to do what you’d like to do. Why not just win it and play in the offensive zone?
Babcock on the Hyman – Tavares – Kapanen line:
I don’t really know what to expect with Hyms. I know he is going to work as hard as he possibly can. He’s been out for a long time, so we’ll monitor that. Kapanen is a speed and forecheck player. John is at the net and is a guy who shoots it and does his damage in the zone. They have to be a cycle line to be successful, and they’re aware of that.
Barry Trotz on defending the Leafs:
They have three pretty good offensive lines. They’ve got a good power play and a lot of dynamic people. They’re a handful.
Babcock on the Islanders’ success:
I think they’re good with it and good without it and they’ve got solid goaltending. Both guys have done a real nice job for them. I like their backend and I like the way they play. They’ve done a good job to start the year.
Babcock on the return of Hyman:
No one is going to work harder, try harder, or be more prepared. It doesn’t matter if he’s hurt, healthy, sick — he’s coming to play each and every day. You can never have too many of those guys. It’s contagious.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alexander Kerfoot – #42 Trevor Moore
#61 Nic Petan – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #26 Nick Shore
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#8 Jake Muzzin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Mitch Marner
Matthews – Johnsson – Nylander
Kerfoot – Moore – Spezza
New York Islanders Projected Lines
#27 Anders Lee – #13 Matt Barzal – #7 Jordan Eberle
#19 Anthony Beauvillier – #29 Brock Nelson – #12 Josh Bailey
#28 Michael Dal Colle – #10 Derick Brassard – #47 Leo Komarov
#32 Ross Johnson – #53 Casey Cizikas – #15 Cal Clutterbuck
#3 Adam Pelech – #6 Ryan Pulock
#2 Nick Leddy – #55 Johnny Boychuk
#25 Devon Toews – #24 Scott Mayfield
#40 Semyon Varlamov (starter)
#1 Thomas Greiss
Injured: Andrew Ladd, Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnhackl