After three losses in their last four games, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ schedule doesn’t get much easier over the coming weeks, starting tonight against the defending champs, the St. Louis Blues (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
Considering the amount of forward depth the Maple Leafs organization has from top to bottom, it was surprising to see Sheldon Keefe insert Pontus Aberg onto Auston Matthews’ wing in the absence of Andreas Johnsson. A lot of us probably asked the same question — given Johnsson’s role as a worker and go-get-the-puck-back guy, wouldn’t it make more sense for Zach Hyman or Ilya Mikheyev to be in that spot? While I don’t necessarily disagree, for those who don’t know, Pontus Aberg isn’t just your average AHL call-up.
Having played for four NHL teams since the 2016-17 season, Aberg is well versed in NHL life despite only playing a total of 127 games in the league. The first thing people will bring up about him is his production during his time with the Ducks last season, where he earned an increased role with better linemates than he played with in Nashville. He was eighth on the team in 5-on-5 points/60 and generated shots at a high rate, finishing 7th on the Ducks in ixGF/60*.
*of skaters with at least 100 minutes played for the Ducks in 18-19
Both with the Ducks last year and over his career, Aberg has shown an ability to spend very little time in his own zone. Granted, when you consider both the fact that he was 21st out of 33 players in xGF last year and that his most common teammates were the likes of Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Montour, Josh Manson, Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rackell, and Adam Henrique, Aberg’s underlying numbers return to earth quite a bit. Nevertheless, Aberg has consistently outchanced the opposition while he’s on the ice. From hockeyviz.com, here’s his relative to league shot maps from his three seasons in the NHL:
All in all, placing Aberg — a skilled player who’s arguably too talented for the AHL — right onto the Leafs most consistently productive offensive line will be an interesting experiment and a chance to find out if Aberg can contribute from a position for success.
Outside of a four-game losing streak in October, there hasn’t been a point yet this season where it looked like the Blues wouldn’t finish at or above their 99 point total from last season (45-28-9). They’re 4th in the NHL this year in overall Pts% at .700, and they have the numbers to back it up. A low event team, the Blues are 30th in the NHL in xGF/60 and 29th in CF/60. Defensively, they’re fourth in CA/60 and 20th in xGA/60. Given how they’ve managed such a good record with decidedly average underlying numbers, goaltending has been a big part of their success. Between Jordan Binnington (22 starts) and Jake Allen (8 starts), the Blues have a league 7th best Sv% of .931.
This should be a good test at a time when the Leafs are facing some real adversity in their ability to generate offense.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the Blues’ ability to defend the slot:
They make it hard on you for sure — they make it as hard as anyone in the league to do that. We’ve got to, first of all, get to those spaces and prioritize them. We’ve found in our game that we’ve been on the perimeter a little too much and we haven’t been satisfied with that, so we do have to get on the inside. We’ve got to challenge for those spaces with the puck not just without the puck. That’s part of it. There’s a whole process that has to take place before you can even give yourself a chance to do that against this team, so it starts with getting our of our end cleanly and getting through the neutral zone.
Keefe on working on breaking down a team like St. Louis:
Well, the first thing is getting through the forecheck and trying to get past that. That’s the first thing — once they have the puck they’re hard to get it back from. We want to make sure our breakouts are good, our first touches of the puck are good. When it comes time to defend, we’ve got to close quickly and try to separate them from the puck as quick as we can. We saw great progress with that in Colorado, but it’s a whole other challenge here today. We’re excited about getting a chance to play them.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#46 Pontus Aberg – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #61 Nic Petan
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov, Martin Marincin, Frederik Gauthier
Injured: Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson
Matthews – Nylander – Marner
Kapanen – Petan – Spezza
St.Louis Blues Projected Lines
#17 Jaden Schwartz – #10 Brayden Schenn – #26 Nathan Walker
#12 Zach Sanford – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #57 David Perron
#49 Ivan Barbashev – #21 Tyler Bozak – #18 Robert Thomas
#28 Mackenzie Maceachern – #61 Jacob de la Rose – #36 Troy Brouwer
#55 Colton Parayko – #27 Alex Pietrangelo
#19 Jay Bouwmeester – #72 Justin Faulk
#29 Vince Dunn – #41 Robert Bortuzzo
#50 Jordan Binnington (starter)
#34 Jake Allen
Injured: Vladamir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Sammy Blais