Now seems like a good idea to take the temperature of the Atlantic Division. There has been so much craziness around the Toronto Maple Leafs organization since the summer, and some perspective is always a good thing.
Currently, the Toronto Maple Leafs are third in their division in points, but sixth in points percentage. The Boston Bruins are running away with the division (and the league), while the Florida Panthers have gotten off to a strong start with little fanfare. Both have more points than the Leafs. The Sabres have one less point in one less game, the Canadiens have two fewer points in one less game, and Tampa Bay has three fewer points in four fewer games.
First, we can start with the Bruins. They have the highest goal differential in the league, are on a seven-game winning streak, and are 8-0-2 in their last 10. Boston has the most efficient power play and the seventh most efficient penalty kill. They also have the second-highest PDO in the league right now (Colorado is first) and a power play that is clicking over 31% – no team in the league has had a full season power play over 29% in the last decade. On average, they have been outshot (31.1 vs. 32) and their corsi is a dead even 50% (at 5v5). The Bruins are a very good team with the best line in the league, but at some point, they should also cool down (and I wonder, with a whisper, if they are peaking too early).
Next up is the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have gotten off to a strong start, scoring the fifth-highest goals per game but also giving up the fourth most goals per game. A separating factor for them is that both of their special team units are in the top 10 (power play is seventh, penalty kill is sixth). They also rank 11th in team corsi, and seventh in team fenwick (at 5v5). Funnily enough, they have the fourth-lowest team PDO largely because Sergei Bobrovsky is sporting a poor .884 save percentage. Any sort of uptick in play from him and the Panthers could go on a serious run. They brought in a great coach in the summer and have arguably the best two-way centerman in the league. It looks like they have room to grow still considering the current state of their goaltending.
Right below the Leafs is a team fans just saw twice: the Buffalo Sabres. They are probably feeling good having picked up three-of-four points against the Leafs, and they were probably deserving of all four if it wasn’t for Frederik Andersen. The Sabres have been fairly average at five-on-five, ranking 14th in team corsi and 15th in team fenwick while having the 9th highest PDO. They are only +6 at 5v5, which is an issue because their penalty kill is 29th and their power play is 19th. Jack Eichel is having an incredible season, but he has 15 more points than the next highest scorer on the team. Coupled with bad special teams, they are a bit of a pretender until proven otherwise. Their goaltending has been around average, too.
Meanwhile, after a strong start, the Canadiens are crashing hard. They are 2-5-3 in their last 10 and haven’t won in their last eight. That said, they are second in 5v5 team corsi and fourth in team fenwick. The question with them going into the season was whether they have enough scoring and top-end talent; despite controlling play, they are +4 at 5v5. Their power play is 18th and their penalty kill is a ghastly 30th. They have a collection of above-average players mixed with some really good players, but no one elite. Carey Price has a poor .898 save percentage. Third overall pick from the 2018 draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, has five points in 20 games. It’s a hard team to bet on at this point (side note: imagine they fired Claude Julien and hired Mike Babcock as some fans are calling for? Delete Twitter).
Finally, there is Tampa Bay, who is lurking in the weeds with four fewer games played. Everyone sort of figured they’d run away with the division, but they have gotten off to a slow start. They are one game over .500 at home and on the road. They are giving up the third-most shots per game. Their penalty kill is 21st, but their power play is third and unsurprisingly, they are third in goals per game. The team is 17th in team corsi and 19th in fenwick and, shockingly, their PDO is the fifth highest in the league. They have four elite players that are rolling (Kucherov, Hedman, Stamkos and Point), but Vasilevsky has been poor with a .906 save percentage. At some point, you’d like to think the reigning Vezina winner turns it around. It’s difficult to bet against Tampa’s talent, but there are also concerning signs here.
If I listed all that out and didn’t tell you who the team was, you’d probably expect them to miss the playoffs. Technically, they have the ninth highest points percentage in the East (Leafs are 12th, for the record). I’d still largely bet on Tampa to pull it together. Of note, they seem to have focused on reducing high-danger chances against and are sixth-best in the league at defending the most critical area of the ice — always a great thing. If they could blend that together with their potent offence…
So, that’s the real competition. There’s no point in talking about the other teams, as they aren’t of consequence. Boston and Florida are legitimate competition. Tampa is hanging around and tough to bet against. Buffalo and Montreal seem like paper tigers at the moment.
We have officially passed American Thanksgiving and are now into December. The division is taking shape and it’s clear the Leafs have their work cut out from them. Florida has entered the conversation as a legitimate team and the division is no longer a three horse race.
There’s a lot of work to do here.
- I wrote a little bit already about being at The Reporters live show with guest Brendan Shanahan in relation to the Marner-Babcock story, but I have a few other thoughts. The main thrust of the session was Shanahan telling stories of his playing days and experiences. He talked about moments in seasons where they won games and it gave them confidence by letting them know that they could compete with certain teams, or wins where after they occurred, the team felt the series was over (and they took care of business). I’ve heard him speak at a few functions over the years, referencing team-swinging moments, and at least for this season, without question, this Leafs team is definitely searching for that. A signature game, a galvanizing moment — something. I thought the win against the Bruins could have been one of those moments, but it was an aberration instead of the start of a run. The organization has seemingly been impressed with their effort against St. Louis that resulted in a regulation loss. Whatever the case, the organization seems to be searching a bit for those moments and, to some degree, their identity. It’s something they have referenced a number of times.
- I noted Tyson Barrie’s low ice time last week and he promptly played over 22 minutes in back-to-back games, although one of them was a blowout and the other they were playing catchup for the whole third period. In a tighter second game against Buffalo, he was back under 20 minutes. The team is still trying to figure out where he fits among the rest of the group, especially with how he plays defensively. In one notable play, Jeff Skinner chipped it around him then outmuscled him off the puck, and he got bailed out by Andersen making the save of the night. Shortly after, Skinner came down on his side, got a shot on net for a rebound, Barrie kicked it out for a rebound, and then he got trapped behind his net. Skinner came back out and got the puck again for another scoring chance. His production is bouncing back up — which is great — but the team is still largely grappling with how to use him at 5v5 in tight games.
- Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin together: 59.29CF%, 60% goals for percentage, 37.70% offensive zone start percentage in 102 minutes at 5v5. Probably time to kick up that pairing’s ice time more and see just how far they can be pushed – Holl didn’t even play 18 minutes Saturday against Buffalo.
- Kind of curious to see how this ends, but last season, the Leafs had seven 20+ goal scorers, and they are on pace to have four this season (Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Kapanen). And last season’s total was without Nylander hitting 20.
- Don’t know if it means anything, but I thought it was interesting: When the Matthews line started the game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Nylander took the opening faceoff and Matthews went to the left-wing. I’m not sure if they had a set play coming as Nylander lost the draw. Matthews actually has the highest win percentage on the team at 58.3%.
- A lot of teams will talk about being on the right side of the puck and not cheating for offence; while the goal was saveable, Tavares in particular shot through hoping for a puck on this Skinner goal, the puck never got out, the Leafs got caught, and the Sabres capitalized on a quick transition.
It’s 2-0 at that point – you have to take care of business in your own end first and foremost. On the positive side, Tavares has six points in his last three games (four goals) and looks like he has his offensive confidence back since returning from injury. This is without Mitch Marner, too (people seemed to be wondering how he’d play without him, which was surprising).
“With Auston, I played him a lot early in the game. That might’ve hurt us when we were down playing from behind in the second half. We couldn’t use our bench like we’d like to — like we have in some other games.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews playing nearly 25 minutes
Thought this was interesting for a few reasons — in particular, Matthews really did not have a good game. When you are a new coach, I suppose you try a player of his calibre out in heavy minutes, but when he struggles and directly gives up a critical goal (on a fairly awful play, if we are being honest), you can only do this so many times before you upset people. Admitting that he arguably didn’t handle such heavy minutes well was also interesting and something to monitor – Babcock somewhat said the same thing.
Frankly, when you watch Matthews’ game, he doesn’t give you the impression of a workhorse or a consistent shift-to-shift presence. Also, Keefe admitted he didn’t think that anyone played too well; there was a bit of an interesting message in there — if nobody is playing well, I guess he’ll just play his best players out of the group.
“You think in 10 years you’ve gone through everything, and then hockey throws something new at you.”
– Michael Hutchinson, who remains winless
I mean, there isn’t much left to say here. Hutchinson is 0-5-1, has a .876 save percentage, and hasn’t had a game where he’s allowed fewer than four goals. Most games, I’ve sat there and thought to myself that most of the goals were not his fault. Even the game against Buffalo, only one was actually bad, but at some point, you have to actually make some saves. That’s just the reality of the position and he hasn’t done it.
“Guys have just started working harder again and got up for games and been a little more excited to play than they have been in the past. Sometimes when a change happens that can happen and guys have responded well to the change.”
– Cody Ceci on the uptick in play post coach firing
I don’t want to continue talking about Babcock much after this — plus, we’ve already noted it — but it does seem abundantly clear that the team quit on the coach. One thing I will note, though, especially with so much talk about systems happening: I think the bigger issue was personal between the coach and players.
We already know this team can run and gun on offence and make the playoffs, but the question is whether that will set them up for success in postseason. They are trying to open it back up a little more, but they need to find a balance. While I’m sure they didn’t like, I don’t think the coach was really wrong in wanting the team to learn how to win different types of game styles (re: low event). Some of the issues of years past are likely to come up again and we will see how they address it.
Tweets of the Week
RASMUS SANDIN DROPS THE MITS pic.twitter.com/jilPymSXpm
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) December 1, 2019
I didn’t think Sandin had this in him. While he probably lost the fight, he didn’t simply hold on tight and call it a day. He has 10 points in 12 games since being sent down; before that, he racked up 10 points in 13 playoff games. His production is definitely there to suggest he can play up a level and we saw flashes of it already earlier this season. It seems like it’s only a matter of time at this point.
Freddy Andersen has a career .918 sv%. Dating back to 2015/16, he has gone .919, .918, .918, .917, .919. That is absurd consistency.
— Todd™ (@Totally_Offside) November 30, 2019
I think Andersen has been taken for granted slightly. He has been a consistently strong goalie. It’s hard to think back to the time before Freddy where goaltending was an annual question mark and was put together on a hope and a prayer. He has been everything they could have hoped for and more.
Live look at Toronto's DZ coverage. pic.twitter.com/sCNPtCJ88U
— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) December 1, 2019
The Leafs’ team defence is still bad, to be clear.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think Ilya Mikheyev is making the question, “Who are the top six wingers on the Leafs once healthy” an interesting discussion. Obviously, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are two of the wingers, but after that? Mikheyev is on pace to be the most productive, Johnsson has fit in on the top line (which has, generally speaking, performed very well), and Hyman brings a lot defensively and on the forecheck, although he lacks in production compared to the other two. Whoever “loses” out would play on the third line with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, giving the Leafs some notable depth. Mikheyev still needs to show more because Hyman and Johnsson have been in the roles successfully for longer, but he’s making it a real conversation. Nice “problem” to have.
- I think starting Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly together at the beginning of games is a good idea and should continue. We used to talk about things like this over the years – starting and ending periods by loading up units, having a loaded up line ready to go after a successful penalty kill, etc. – so it’s nice to see this kind of thing starting to seep into their personnel management. If nothing else, do more of this with Matthews – Tavares – Nylander at times, which the Leafs have mixed in a bit over the last few weeks. It’s a way of getting guys going and tilting the ice.
- I think the penalty kill is flashing some good signs and that Andreas Johnsson is a welcome addition. When Trevor Moore and Mitch Marner return, they will have a full complement of personnel to choose from at forward. That group, including Marner — Hyman, Moore and Johnsson — has the potential to be a solid unit up front, but they still look like they need an actual quality, penalty killing defenseman. Rielly has never been strong in his own zone. We have highlighted Ceci overcommitting and getting burned more than a few times (in game reviews and in this space). Muzzin and Holl have been solid, if unspectacular.
- I think the Leafs have to be in the market for a backup goalie. That seems obvious, but it was only a few weeks ago that there were reports the team was, in fact, not looking to acquire a goalie. I know they are negotiating from a position of weakness, but the reality is that this is not only costing them whenever they do have backups play, it’s also going to overwork Frederik Andersen — again. They need to fix this.
- I think any talk about what to do with Frederik Andersen when it comes to extending him is premature at this point. He’s turning 31 next year and goalies are weird (it wasn’t that long ago that Cory Schneider was one of the best goalies in the world– the 2015-2016 season, to be exact). That said, it is not too early to look at the Leafs’ other goalie options and be a little concerned. Joseph Woll and Ian Scott have some promise but haven’t done anything yet at the pro level. The rest doesn’t inspire any confidence whatsoever at this point in time (in terms of being a full-time starter) There has to be more of a contingency plan in place here, and maybe that is simply a case of acquiring a backup goalie with promise or hoping they can sign a respectable goalie at value as a plug-in starter. Maybe it’s looking to get additional potential long-term solutions in the pipeline.