Approaching the halfway point of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs own a rather mediocre 14-13-4 record with a minus-three goal differential. Naturally, people are beginning to wonder if they will even make the playoffs.
Let’s take a deeper look.
In the Eastern Conference, the lowest point totals to qualify for the playoffs the last five years are as follows:
- Columbus with 98
- New Jersey and Columbus with 97
- Toronto and Boston with 95
- Detroit with 93
- Pittsburgh with 98
On average, roughly 96 points has been the cut off. Currently, the Leafs are on pace for 85 points (they have 32 points in 31 games). The Panthers are on pace for 97 points, Tampa Bay is on pace for 94 points, the Sabres and Canadiens are on pace for 87. Tampa isn’t getting the attention they normally would because they haven’t had a lights-out start and they’ve played fewer games, but they are still humming along and more than anyone else, it would be easy to see them finding another level at some point.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that the Metropolitan has been the better division so far. Pittsburgh is on pace for 104 points and is not even top three in their division. Carolina is only one point behind them. The Penguins have a +22 goal differential and Carolina is at +15. It seems that, for the Leafs, the road through the playoffs will be finishing top three in the Atlantic.
Eight of their ten remaining games through the rest of December are against teams that did not make the playoffs. They start January with a run of six-of-eight games at home. After this four-game road trip, they have two more left of note: a Western conference run through San Jose, LA, and Anaheim, and a four-game trip — which seems like it will be critical right now — at the end of March that includes stops in Tampa Bay, Carolina, Ottawa, and Washington.
Lost in all the drama so far is that the Leafs have had a difficult schedule. If you look at Hockey Reference, they rank the Leafs as having the third most difficult strength of schedule in the East so far. At Power Rankings Guru, the Leafs are rated to have the fifth most difficult schedule so far in the league. They also note the Leafs have the third easiest remaining schedule.
At this point, it’s fair to wonder if the Leafs will, in fact, make the playoffs. They are clearly off the pace and have a notable gap they will have to make up. A legitimate run is going to be necessary to turn the tide of the season. But it’s also clear the Leafs are primed with a talented enough roster and a clear path in the remaining schedule to do exactly that.
- The 17:31 Cody Ceci played against the Colorado Avalanche was a season-low. For the season, he’s second on the team in time on ice per game, third in even-strength time on ice per game, and leads the team in shorthanded time on ice per game by nearly 25 seconds a night. The reality is that in all of those categories, nobody can look and honestly think he should be at the top of any of them. When he moved down to the third pairing against Colorado, he actually looked relatively okay; that’s actually where he should slot.
Earlier in the season, Dubas went to great lengths to defend Ceci, but they have to realize he’s a third pairing defender at some point here. He was back to over 20 minutes against the Blues, but it’s tough to glean insight from that considering the huge early lead and the fact that he played five minutes shorthanded. In general, it looks like his even-strength time on ice is going to start trending down, but he is still going to be their primary penalty killer among defensemen (for now).
- At the beginning of the Blues game, Frederik Andersen made a huge save on Justin Faulk a little over a minute into the first period. Not even a minute later, he makes another one. He then stood tall against Colton Parayko barreling in on him. Zach Hyman scored right after (and the Leafs had a chance of their own before that, too) and while the Blues did tie the game before Toronto pulled away, the tone of that game could have been very different. Even in a game where the score suggests the Leafs handily took care of business, it’s hard to really overstate the importance of Andersen to this team and how key he is to them winning on a nightly basis.
- It somewhat seems forgotten at this point, but Morgan Rielly was missing practice regularly under Mike Babcock due to an unknown injury and it’s tough not to wonder how that is impacting his play. He has always struggled defensively — and playing alongside Ceci (or Barrie for that matter) isn’t doing him too many favours — but Rielly getting beat off the rush has been highlighted a number of times year. I can’t recall him being that weak and lacking confidence in transition before. He had a career year last year that he was always unlikely to repeat, but he’s also on pace for nearly 20 points fewer. Some of that is due to power-play struggles, as he is on pace for roughly the same amount of shots on goal. The bigger concern the Leafs are facing: Who can they trust defensively?
- We know Auston Matthews knows how to score goals. He’s currently on pace for 48 goals and if he stays healthy, the betting money is that he hits 50. His release is so deceptive — that was on display against St. Louis with how he pulled the puck in, changed the angle, and beat Binnington five-hole. But his second goal showed, yet again, what makes him so dynamic. His hand-eye coordination is ridiculous and his creativity to score in tight spaces is off the charts. On his second goal, I originally thought that he just batted a bouncing puck and it went in, but he was actually able to open up his blade and elevate the puck to get it over the goalie. There was no space if he just hit the puck cleanly. To make that decision and action on such a broken play that happened so quickly is ridiculous.
- Some long-term readers here will know that when it comes to football, I’m a huge Seattle Seahawks fan. I noticed the Leafs have been listening to music during practices and making use of a DJ, which is right out of the Pete Carroll playbook (he is the Head Coach of the Seahawks, for those that don’t follow the NFL). When Caroll was hired by the Hawks as a successful college football coach, there were a lot of people saying that professional players would never go for gimmicks like cranking music during practice as college players did. The Seahawks have been one of the most successful franchises in the league since Carroll took over and while that is due to a number of reasons, his style of coaching is definitely part of it.
Ultimately, I have no take on music at practice — if the Leafs win people will say it’s awesome; if they don’t, people will say it’s terrible and childish. One thing I’m looking out for in relation to the Seahawks and what the Leafs might learn from them: They really, truly believe in grit — that you can teach it and that players can learn how to be resilient and fight adversity. I don’t think anyone would argue at this point that the Leafs need more resilience as a team.
- This still seems like a somewhat fragile and immature group — Sheldon Keefe taking a timeout at 5-2 to make sure they finished the game strong was one indication. The way they ended the game against the Flyers was another.
“It’s a good question. It’s one I’ve been asking. We’ve got to figure that out. The natural thing for me is to say we’ve got to get the puck to more dangerous areas, and we’ve got to attack the middle of the ice a lot more. We do have to skate a little bit harder and be a little more competitive to fight through situations and things like that to perhaps cause infractions.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the Leafs being the worst team in the league at drawing penalties for the third straight season.
I think this is a fair comment from Keefe and I tend to agree. If they don’t get involved and go to the greasy areas, they aren’t going to draw penalties. One consistent theme of this team is that they haven’t liked to mix it up physically over the years — they stick check a lot. Until they get more physically involved, it’s tough to see them drawing more penalties.
“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we play for the logo on the jersey. Got to be more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”
– Frederik Andersen on teammates being apologetic about the end of the Flyers game.
I thought this was the nicest possible way of Freddy saying what we all know: He isn’t the problem, and nobody is ever sitting around wondering whether he will show up. Now, as for the rest of the team…
“It was nice getting that ovation, for sure. I came close to shedding a tear there. That was special for me. I’m just forever thankful for the fans for embracing me and treating me so well here in Toronto, and I just tried to give them everything I had.”
– Nazem Kadri on his return to Toronto.
You can’t convince me that Kadri should have been suspended four games for the hit on Jake DeBrusk. He didn’t miss a game, the refs didn’t enforce the game properly at all (causing it to get out of control), and we’ve seen much worse not get penalized at all. Warren Foegele broke TJ Oshie’s collarbone last playoffs and didn’t get suspended at all. The attention the Leafs receive really works to their detriment in a lot of cases.
Tweets of the Week
Brouwer’s so garbage. Slashes Dermott, Dermott says something, Brouwer CAN’T WAIT to fight Dermott because Dermott’s actually good and the Leafs are defending a lead.
— Steve "Dangle" Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) December 8, 2019
Also, kudos to Dermott for stepping up. At the end of the first period, he got run at the buzzer after the Leafs opened up the game — that was also ridiculous.
Leafs been searching for that “signature game,” something to point to and say “that’s what it looks like when we play how we’re trying to play.” May not last all game, and was legit chances against, but: that period is what it’s supposed to look like when they play “their game.”
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) December 8, 2019
I still don’t think that was their “signature” win, but it was a good game. A signature win to me is a 60-minute, back-and-forth, tightly-contested game where you show a lot of resolve and battle through adversity throughout the game before coming out of it on the winning end.
The Blues had a number of chances to pull away early and Andersen was fantastic. Meanwhile, Binnington struggled and was chased early. There were lots of positives for the Leafs and it was particularly nice to see them stand up a bit more against an opponent’s attempts to push them around, but I’m not sure that was their signature game.
I said last night on the @TSN1050Radio #Leafs post-game show that, after Keefe said on Monday it would be "selfish of us" to start Andersen on back-to-back nights at this point, doing so would be akin to pushing the panic button.
A small panic button. But….still.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 4, 2019
I understand why Andersen asked to go back in net, and I understand why the Leafs decided to put him back in the net. It’s also December, and this is where the urgency level is (and has to be) at with this team. The lowest point total earned by backups for a playoff team last year was 21. The Leafs currently have one point earned by a backup goalie this year and hitting 10 seems like it would be a triumph at this point. This is a real issue.
The Leafs traded away their first this year, they traded a good, cost-controlled asset in part for a pending unrestricted free agent, and they’ve paid all of their top players. I know they will get taken to the cleaners in a deal, but to some degree, they have to bite and pay the piper.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- In the debate between which two of Andreas Johnsson, Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman should be in the top six, I think I was surprised the initial edge did not go to Hyman. He was pushed to the third line as the team got healthy, but he made his way back up to the top six soon after. Over the past few seasons, he has been part of two of the best lines in the league (with Tavares and Marner and Matthews and Nylander). While he has quite clearly been the third-best player each time, he did bring something to those lines – namely, Sportlogiq data has shown (and the eye test agrees) that he is an elite forechecker. He’s also strong defensively. If nothing else, he should really have the inside track on Mikheyev and Johnsson, and those two should be alternated depending on how they are playing, the opponent, etc.
- Generally speaking, now that the Leafs are relatively healthy, I think the Hyman – Tavares – Marner line should go back to being the team’s top matchup line. The Matthews – Nylander duo with whoever is on their left has been extremely productive and their bottom two lines offer some speed and the ability to chip in offense, but the Tavares line is the most well-rounded and able to handle that responsibility on a nightly basis. Where it gets interesting: The Leafs probably need to play the Matthews line against the opponent’s other top-six line (to get them enough ice time) even though a potential Johnsson – Kerfoot – Kapanen line is probably better defensively. It will be a bit of a balancing act.
- I think Pierre Engvall is the 4C until further notice at this point. This should be pretty obvious to everyone. If nothing else over Gauthier (and I think there are a few things beyond this), he has shown to be competent on the penalty kill. For some reason, Gauthier has always shown to be a liability there.
- When Trevor Moore returns, which is expected this week, I think the question is whether he replaces Nic Petan or Pontus Aberg. I think it’s a minuscule difference between the two and I’ll reserve judgement until I see a bit more from Aberg, who I liked in his previous NHL stints. I will say I thought it was weird he got a promotion right to the top line. I actually thought Engvall should have received a look there.
- I think I’d stop making the comparison to the St. Louis Blues and here’s why: They had an actual roster need that was filled partway through the season last year, which was a big part of their ascension. The Blues goaltending was horrible and a big reason why they were doing so poorly. Jordan Binnington gave them something they desperately needed and were not getting previously. It wasn’t just the coach; there was a real change to the team. If the Leafs have a saviour arrive on defense, then I’d have more time for the comparison.