We haven’t had an extended notes edition of the Leafs Notebook in a while. What better time than now?
With Christmas almost here, next week I will have a wish list for the Leafs. In the meantime, onto the notes.
– First and foremost, that was a really solid road trip for the Leafs overall. Winning three out of four in a tough slate of games with players coming in and out of the lineup due to a variety of factors is something to build off of. It is somewhat noteworthy that Frederik Andersen had to play all four, but that’s where the Leafs are at with the way their season has gone so far. There is some thought that they were about three bad minutes against Calgary from being 4/4, but I thought the team was very lucky to have the lead going into the third in the first place. They still need these hard lessons or else they will never learn, but along the way, they need to pick up points, too, because the margin for error is slim.
They have seven games left this month, and only two are against teams currently in a playoff spot (Buffalo and Carolina). This is a big opportunity ahead of them to move into a comfortable spot in the standings.
– The matchups against the Oilers were particularly interesting. The broadcast remarked how Edmonton did not set the tone by starting the McDavid line, but really, they are responding to the Leafs as the road team electing to start the Tavares line (that is the line the Leafs should start every single night, by the way). They matched up with the RNH line against them, but instead of going head-to-head with McDavid against Matthews, Edmonton played that line against the Kerfoot line and Matthews played the most against Jujhar Khaira (and got outshot attempted in that matchup, too). This has been a common issue the last few playoffs – teams can play bottom lines against the Matthews line and stack up their top six to shutdown Tavares/Marner, while also benefitting from getting their second line out against the Leafs third line. Until the Matthews line gets better defensively and/or makes teams pay more offensively for doing this, teams can dictate the matchups more to their liking against Toronto.
The other thing the Oilers did here — which Boston did last year in the playoffs, too — is they squeezed shifts from their bottom lines against Matthews by playing their top pairing against them to saw-off the difference (in this case, it was Klefbom – Larsson). Despite all their offensive talent, the Leafs just haven’t seemed to be much of a matchup problem for teams, especially the good ones in the playoffs.
– Justin Holl has pretty well been a revelation and it’s almost scary to think where they’d be if he hadn’t emerged. In his first training camp with the team a few seasons ago, he was excellent and I thought he’d earned a look, but he didn’t get it. Last season, he struggled in preseason and was just never really given an opportunity to get comfortable in the league – he’d play the odd game after not playing at all, predictably struggle, and that would be that. The same thing happened with Josh Leivo (who is tracking for a 41-point season right now).
Holl’s skating and size suggested he could play in the league, but what has been most impressive, to me, is his poise with the puck. These are two fantastic examples below of him making heads up plays on the offensive zone blue line. I thought he could take a semi-regular shift in this league, but never thought he’d be able to do stuff like this:
Holl jumps into the play and gets a nice look. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/QwQQ1mV6dh
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 13, 2019
PSA: Justin Holl is good at hockey. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/yrq9FTPBJY
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 11, 2019
He’s quietly tracking for 25 points on top of his solid defensive play.
– It’s also worth pointing out that Holl is a pending unrestricted free agent. Muzzin and Barrie have been the most publicized and Cody Ceci is also on the list, but Justin Holl might start getting a lot more attention. He turns 28 in January.
– Travis Dermott‘s ice time on the road trip: 15:54, 12:33, 16:54, and 16:33 (with Tyson Barrie basically out all game). When Mike Babcock was fired, many looked at that as an opportunity for Dermott to get more ice time, but this is another coach so far (along with new assistants from last year, to boot), that is seeing a lot of the same things. Dermott gets favourable matchups and does well in them, but his style can almost be too aggressive to be trusted defensively against top players. Even in terms of offense – he had one shot on net through the four-game road trip. With all those pending UFAs on the Leafs blue line, the hope has to be that Dermott takes a step at some point this season and that they can trust him with a bigger role going into next.
– When the Leafs acquired Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, there was a lot of talk about whether Kerfoot was actually a center or a winger. In Colorado, he spent a lot of time playing the wing, but with the Leafs, he has been primarily used as the third-line center. He’s playing to a 31-point pace so far this season, which would be a career-low by 11 points, although his goal totals are right on par with his career so far (he’s been a high percentage shooter his whole career and this season is no different – 23.5, 12.9 and 13.3 so far in the NHL).
Interestingly, as the Leafs look for power-play solutions and power plays in general, that is one area Kerfoot has not really made an impact, even though he has 17 and 16 power-play points in each of his previous two seasons.
That said, when it comes to Kerfoot as a full-time center, I’m not sure it has been a resounding yes. He’s played primarily with Mikheyev and they have generally broken even together with a 52.33 corsi percentage, 51.49 fenwick percentage, 50 goals for percentage, and a 48.92 offensive zone faceoff percentage. They held up well in a tough matchup against the McDavid line, but generally speaking, that hasn’t been their role – it’s been more as a soft scoring line that doesn’t score all too much. If it shifts to be a bit more of a defensive role to free up Matthews, things change. The third line has also been impacted substantially by all the moving parts. Let’s see if this sticks now.
– The lack of Leafs power plays this season has been a hot topic – they are fourth last in the league in power plays. Their 92 total is 17 more than the last-place Islanders, for the record. If you rewatch a lot of their games, it’s not like they deserve power plays and are often not getting them. It really is that simple. They got one power play against the Oilers on a fairly obvious obstruction call, but for most of the game, there were just not many potential infractions on the team, which often seems to be the case.
– Kind of quietly, Dmytro Timashov is playing to a 26 point pace, stapled to the hip of Frederik Gauthier (148 5v5 minutes together) in limited time on ice per game. His next most common linemate is Nick Shore (109 minutes). The next highest forward he has played alongside is Pierre Engvall at a little over 31 minutes. For him to have that level on point pace in that scenario is quite impressive – he’s almost at Kerfoot’s pace in that role. Before his recent run of healthy scratches he was rather ineffective but coming back into the lineup he was charged up. His best game of the season was against Boston where he scored and hit everything that moved that night, but he never really built from that. Will he have to be scratched once every so often to get him going again or will he continue to build off of a nice game against Edmonton where he created a goal?
“We just didn’t have a lot of guys that had great days today. We had one line that was outstanding. After that, I think it was pretty hard to find a guy that had a good day today.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the loss against Calgary
Nobody really wants to say it because of the criticism they’ll face for doing so, but if we are all being honest, there are a lot of (star) players that regularly take nights off on this team. The Leafs have a young team, and everyone just got paid. In terms of legitimately established veterans, they have very few. At some point, these players are going to mature and be more consistent, but right now we are seeing an awful lot of them take nights off – and it doesn’t seem to matter who the coach is.
“Opening night was definitely a little different, but I came here to try to win. And if you want to have a good locker room, when things don’t go your way, you have to keep your head above water. You have to keep everybody else positive. If you ask my wife how I felt about it, she gets the truth [chuckles]. If you ask my teammates, you try to make it seem as little as possible. That’s the reality of the situation, and that’s why I’m obligated to do that — because I want to be in a positive dressing room.”
– Jason Spezza on trying to be a positive influence in the room
One veteran the Leafs do have is Jason Spezza, and while I can’t speak to whatever influence he is having directly on players in the room, that’s a refreshing take for him to have. There are a number of examples so far this season of how the team can quickly get down on themselves and be discouraged; if things aren’t going their way, they don’t always dig in deeper.
Tweets of the Week
Thru 33 games, the Ottawa Senators only have 1 fewer win than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
— Dan O'Toole (@tsnotoole) December 14, 2019
It hasn’t been the start anyone has expected, but I still think a healthy Leafs team with their remaining schedule is primed to go on a nice run.
Morgan Rielly looks noticeably faster in this game.
Wonder if that injury we all suspect he's been nursing this season is finally starting to get better.
— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) December 15, 2019
The upcoming winter break is a good time to get some rest and heal as Morgan Rielly hasn’t looked like himself for a while. I also think he has been impacted by his partners and that Ron Hainsey was quietly a better alongside him than Ceci or Barrie. It’s not insignificant. It’s difficult to judge the Leafs PP since they’ve had so few, but Rielly is better than Barrie on power play breakouts due to his skating, so unless Barrie starts actually scoring or creating (other than passing it to the half-wall, which anyone can do), Rielly might still be the best option for that unit.
Ilya Mikheyev is excellent. It’s a major boon for the Leafs that even when he doesn’t put up offence (has more to give when he gets more comfortable I’d wager) he’s still effective. Great speed and stick and is committed to playing the way coaches have asked.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) December 13, 2019
What a useful player Ilya Mikheyev has become. He spoke about gaining confidence from breaking his scoring slump, so I’m curious if he goes on a run here. Either way, his penalty killing, checking, skating, and puck composure seem to have an impact on most nights. He’s become a dependable player in not even half a season. He’s another player the Leafs will have to sort out as he’s a pending RFA. He also turns 26 next October.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think sending Rasmus Sandin to the World Juniors was the right thing to do. It’s a different kind of pressure and spotlight and it is an opportunity for him to play in games where he should be expected to not only excel but dominate. A different learning environment is a good thing. I am excited to see what he does with this opportunity.
- If Tyson Barrie is out, and it doesn’t sound like his injury is too serious, I think it would be nice to see Timothy Liljegren get a look. By all accounts, he’s having a solid season in the AHL, he has played every situation, and the Leafs need to see what he can do at some point to gauge where he’s at for next season (or potentially earlier) — especially as a right-handed shot.
- I think if Barrie isn’t out, the Leafs are completely kidding themselves with this Morgan Rielly – Tyson Barrie pairing. They are slightly above water in most shot metric percentages, but that is inflated — before they were paired up fulltime, they had favourable starts/matchups together, usually while the Leafs were losing. Even still, they have a 65.12 offensive zone faceoff percentage together and a 36.84 goals for percentage together at 5v5 — which might be generous. Their expected goals for percentage is 36.12. Again, this is including the early season boost of these numbers where they’d get the odd shift together when the Leafs were losing. These two give up a ton together. They basically have to pair Rielly – Ceci and Dermott – Barrie.
- I think overplaying players is going to catch up to the Leafs. I know everyone clamoured for this (although I generally didn’t in this space, if you are wondering), but the end of the Calgary game was a great example – the players were visibly gassed. In the final 10 minutes, they had nothing left to even attempt making a push. Marner was seven seconds away from playing 25 minutes, Tavares played over 23, and Matthews over 21. In particular, Tavares is not exactly a natural skater, and I don’t think playing huge minutes gets the best out of him, while Matthews has never really been a player that dominates shift-to-shift; he’s an elite and opportunistic finisher.
- I think we have all seen enough to indicate that Kasperi Kapanen isn’t a top-six left winger. Move up Ilya Mikheyev while Andreas Johnsson is hurt, drop Kapanen down so he can play his proper side, and let’s all move on here. I know that the third line had a solid game against the Oilers, but it’s much more important to optimize the Matthews line as best as possible. Engvall – Kerfoot – Kapanen is an interesting line on paper, too, anyway. I wouldn’t exactly expect them to struggle together.