Let’s start with the most important stuff right off the top – I’d like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays spent with family, friends, and good food (and wine!).

As for the Toronto Maple Leafs — who are winners of six of their last seven and are finally reasonably healthy — let’s look at what they might be asking for from Santa as the second half of the season approaches.

Productive backup goaltending

No real secrets here. Frederik Andersen leads the league in total minutes played and is third in the league in shots against. He has played in 29 of 37 games. While the Leafs have made headway in the standings of late, they need Andersen to play a lot to make the playoffs. That said, they also need a rested Andersen to go anywhere in the playoffs. For three consecutive years, the Leafs have made the playoffs and Andersen has managed mixed results (although he did post a .922 save percentage in seven games last Spring).

This has consistently led to questions about fatigue and whether he was overplayed come playoff time. You generally play every other day in the postseason, and should the Leafs ever advance beyond the first round, the amount of hockey really adds up. Who knows, they might even need a game or two out of a backup in the playoffs (we’ve seen a number of teams call on theirs over the years).

A top-four defenseman

It’s unfortunate that this is still a need given they made a big trade for a defenseman in the summer and Justin Holl has emerged this season, but here we are.

The Rielly – Barrie pairing is fun when you’re playing Detroit and New York, but it’s hard to see them holding up in a playoff series against Boston, Washington, or Tampa Bay. The Muzzin – Holl pairing has been solid so far and there is little reason to think that won’t continue, so if they can find a defense partner for Morgan Rielly and push Barrie down next to Travis Dermott on what would essentially be an offensive-zone-faceoff-only pairing that’s dedicated to offense, it is the best they can do.

With some forwards starting to emerge amid injuries (Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, possibly Dmytro Timashov), does that make an Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen expendable to help address this need?   

Stability

It has been a whirlwind start to the season in Toronto. It didn’t help that Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott were rehabbing from offseason surgeries followed by injuries to John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore have also missed time, and now Andreas Johnsson is out. The roster has never been settled, and while no team is ever truly healthy, they didn’t even a chance to slot their players in as they really envisioned it at any point. It has been a constant game of musical chairs.

Then, of course, Mike Babcock was fired. That, too, was a whirlwind — from the firing itself to the stories that emerged after. It would be beneficial for everyone involved to just enjoy a drama-free run here for a bit, allow the team to get healthy, settle in (which they seem to be now), and play without distraction. This is still a very, very good hockey team when healthy and they are starting to look like it again.

If you wanted to add a stocking stuffer, I’d throw in a depth forward, too. When the Leafs are fully healthy, Engvall and Moore are bumped to the fourth line and then there is a collection of players vying for that other spot (Frederik Gauthier, Jason Spezza, and Timashov). I think a true defensive forward who they could use up the lineup at certain key times in games would be a nice fit there (similar to what the Penguins did with Matt Cullen or Chicago with John Madden at one point).


Notes

– In all three games this past week, the Toronto Maple Leafs started the John Tavares line on shift one along with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl on defense. Sheldon Keefe has pretty much been doing this for weeks and it looks like this will be the Leafs’ go-to line to start the night and set the tone. It’s important to have consistency in that spot and a trustworthy unit that can get the team into the game. When Tavares was out — as well as Marner — the Leafs tried a few different combinations, including the Matthews line, and there were a number of occasions that they were dominated by the opposition on the first shift of the night. Now, with a relatively healthy team and a trustworthy defense pairing, the coaching staff looks like it generally knows who they are starting the game with. That said, you can’t give up a first-shift breakaway against the Detroit Red Wings.

– Checking ice time around the league, I was a little surprised to see that Morgan Rielly is 10th in total time on ice played (for players), so far this season. The next highest Leaf is Cody Ceci, who ranks 41st in the league. I don’t think many would argue at this point that Rielly is even the best (or most important, perhaps) defenseman on the team; it’s really the two defensemen getting the most responsibility each night. It would also be hard to argue that Ceci is within their top four most important defensemen.

That seems to be evening out a bit now as Ceci played between 19:14 and 20:06 over the past week. Against Calgary and Vancouver in back to back games last week, he was in the 16-minute range. Meanwhile, the Leafs look to be resting Muzzin where possible – he played only 19:58 vs. the Rangers and 17:39 against the Red Wings, but when Barrie went down against the Oilers and it was a tight game, he played 27 minutes.

Zach Hyman is now tied for second on the team in shorthanded time-on-ice per game (Marner is first). I’ve seen a lot of commentary surrounding the Leafs special teams improving since the coaching change, but a large part of it is simply getting healthy and the personnel improving. Especially on the penalty kill, you can only really coach so much. Players have to know how to read what the opposition is doing in the zone, where to put their stick, how to position themselves, block shots, and so on. Hyman is strong in those areas. He had a great read on the penalty kill against the Rangers to poke the puck out for a breakaway opportunity; he knows how to pick his spots when it comes to whether or not to be aggressive while shorthanded.

– I didn’t think Hyman had that backhand goal in his bag of tricks, though. What a crafty little shot that was. It’s propped up a bit by his three-point night against the Wings, but he has 11 points in 18 games so far this season — is a 50-point pace — although he is shooting 18.6%.

– I pointed out the Leafs having a high forward in the offensive zone in a previous notebook; Ilya Mikheyev made another play there on a give-and-go with Holl leading to an Engvall goal. More than anyone, Mikheyev looks really comfortable at the top of the offensive zone.

It was also noteworthy to see him beat a goalie cleanly (against the Rangers) off the rush as his shot hasn’t generally been that dangerous from distance — if that starts developing, lookout. He has seven goals on the season, including an empty-net goal and a few rebound tap-ins.

– Good on Justin Holl for stepping in after a dangerous hit by Andreas Athanasiou. The game is over, it’s the final minute, and an opponent took a big run at a Leafs player. We’ve seen a few instances where the Leafs haven’t stepped in (including earlier in the week when Travis Dermott was boarded from behind against the Sabres), so it was nice to see it actually happen for once.

– I want to wish Josh Leivo a speedy recovery from a fractured knee cap. He was playing to a 43-point pace and was a solid top-nine forward for the Canucks. I have watched a good number of Vancouver games this season and they have consistently trusted him in big situations, particularly offensively whenever they pulled the goalie to make it a 6v5 situation. I also saw an instance where he was on for a 6v5 defensively, too. After Leafs traded him for Michael Carcone straight up with the coaching staff basically refusing to play him, he has become a legitimate NHL contributor elsewhere.


Quotes

“It’s definitely a weight off your shoulders. Winning – there’s no better feeling than it.”

– Michael Hutchinson after notching his first win of the season

The nice thing about the win is, even though it came against Detroit, Michael Hutchinson legitimately earned it. He stopped a number of breakaways and it was a genuinely good performance. It’s a shame they couldn’t close out the shutout at the end. It’s nice Hutchinson got the win, but it would be even nicer if he gains some confidence from it and goes on a bit of a run (when he plays), too.

“It is the way that it goes. Some nights, guys are going to play more than others. Obviously, Willy had an outstanding game yesterday and produced a lot for us and was a difference maker for us. Today, it was other guys. That is the way it goes. That’s part of having a team and it is part of an 82-game season. You mix it up back and forth.”

– Sheldon Keefe on benching William Nylander

Well, he’s right and William Nylander did deserve to be benched. I’m curious how this will unfold as time goes on, though. Basically, every coach I’ve ever seen behind the Leafs bench has come out and benched a few players early, and everyone goes, “this is awesome! Players are finally being held accountable and treated fairly!” When that same player gets benched a few more times, inevitably, the narrative changes to coach X hates player Y.

That said, the nonchalant play of Nylander when he tried taking a puck off his skate — leading to a breakaway for the Red Wings — would drive any coach crazy.

“We had the [ping pong] table but it wasn’t really used a lot. So now it’s in the locker room every practice day. Right there [in the middle of the room]. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere, I think. You’re not really walking on eggshells as much.”

– Justin Holl on the culture around the team right now

Obviously, none of us were in the dressing room, but so many players on the team have spoken out with comments that suggest to varying degrees that the room was essentially toxic by the end of Babcock’s tenure.


Tweets of the Week

Interesting thread here. As noted in the replies, technically Matthew Tkachuk was suspended against the Leafs in 2017. The general point stands, though, and it’s pretty clear all the attention the Leafs receive in the media has a negative effect on them in this department.

The Kyle Okposo hit was similar to the one that got Zach Hyman suspended against Boston. He’s a repeat offender, but Nazem Kadri got suspended for four playoff games on a play that had a degree of danger that happens nearly every week in the league (Alexander Kerfoot was not that far from tearing significant ligaments in his knee on Saturday, for instance). I don’t really know the solution to this and this isn’t just a Leafs problem. The league has to be more consistent and accountable, though.

It has been interesting watching Jake Gardiner from afar this year. He was a lightning rod for debate in Toronto, extremely overvalued by some, and extremely undervalued by others. As is often the case, the truth lied somewhere in the middle of all the noise. In Carolina so far, he’s clearly a third-pairing defender and he’s on pace for under 20 points (which would be a career-low) after signing a 4×4 deal in the summer.

First and foremost, I hope Anthony Mantha is okay. An injury always gets people fired up one way or the other (especially on Twitter). At the end of the day, though, when you throw a clean hit and are approached aggressively, all bets are off and you should prioritize protecting yourself.

There was a somewhat similar incident with Muzzin recently against the Blues where he crushed Jaden Schwartz (on a much better hit, in my opinion) and Brayden Schenn engaged him, but nothing of consequence happened because Muzzin didn’t want to fight. I’m just not sure what you can expect to happen when a player skates towards another and punches him in the face.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think everything has to be taken in perspective when it is a game against the Red Wings, but we’ve been calling for a Zach HymanAuston Matthews reunion for quite some time in this space and that was a little preview as to why. As long as the Tavares line is going head to head against top lines (which will always be the case, basically), it makes sense to have Hyman on that line. He’s their best defensive winger. But his forechecking and grunt work does give Matthews a spark. I still think it would be interesting to see Andreas Johnsson paired with Tavares and Marner when he returns. Mikheyev’s play is giving the Leafs options on the left side as well.

2.  I think it works out well for the Leafs that they have a back-to-back right after the Christmas break, playing New Jersey followed by the Rangers. That gives the Leafs a chance to get Michael Hutchinson right back into the net to see if he can continue to build off of his win and get himself rolling. Beyond back-to-back situations, they have to actively look for opportunities to put Hutchinson in favourable matchups to rest Frederik Andersen.

3.  I think the faster we get over this idea of trying Kasperi Kapanen in the top six, the better. He’s a really nice player due to his speed, forechecking, and his shot. When he’s engaged physically, he’s very noticeable. But he is best suited for the Leafs third line at this point in time. I’d much sooner try any of Mikheyev, Engvall or Moore in the top six.

4.  I think Frederik Gauthier just won’t go away — and good for him. He deserves kudos for that. Prior to the past weekend, he had played in the single digits (minutes wise) in six of his last seven, but he was over 10 against New York and Detroit. Keefe noted after the Detroit game that he thought he was going. I’m still unsure if he’s a full-time solution on the fourth line, but to his credit, he has managed to stay in the lineup and make some contributions. He deserves to be in right now.

5.  I think the Next Gen Game is a great idea as a creative attempt to introduce new/younger fans to the game and the Leafs. There are three more this season, and it’s a worthy initiative. All for anything that attempts to grow the game.