The Toronto Maple Leafs have had mixed results over the past few days, picking up three out of four points but losing two keys players to injury.
We’ll get to the current edition of the team a little later, though.
Firstly, I hope the holidays have been kind to everyone so far. As the decade comes to a close, it feels almost obligatory to put together an all-decade Toronto Maple Leafs roster.
It hasn’t been a banner ten years for the organization. For those of you that stuck with on this site through the terrible times: Thank you. For those that have joined us as the team has returned to prominence: Make yourself at home.
I’ll write out the full roster shortly, but some quick things that I prioritized in putting it together: Longevity and productivity were by far the most important factors for me. I also looked at statistics from the 2009-10 season onward. You generally should play on the team for an extended period of time if you’re going to be recognized as an all-decade player. I also put some thought into players who had big moments for the team. There were very few, but we might as well cherish the legitimately great Leafs moments over the decade.
Below, I have some further notes and explanations for my choices. Without further ado, here is my all-decade Toronto Maple Leafs lineup:
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul – Nazem Kadri – Mitch Marner
Nikolai Kulemin – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Leo Komarov – Mikhail Grabovski – Connor Brown
Morgan Rielly – Jake Gardiner
Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf
Ron Hainsey – Cody Franson
Here are my explanations for you to consider before you tell me how wrong I am.
Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak were first and second on the team in points this decade. James van Riemsdyk was fourth (Nazem Kadri was third, so he got the 2C slot). The JVR – Bozak – Kessel line was also one of the most entertaining and high-powered lines in the league for a good season and a half. The team played pure firewagon hockey and they probably set the tone in that regard, but they were also super fun to watch.
Below is one of my favourite goals of the decade. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had Bozak played in that fateful Game 7.
Joffrey Lupul was sixth on the team in goals this decade. It seems silly to think about now, but many fans wanted him to be captain at one time. It’s a shame he couldn’t remain healthy, but he could play and he made things happen on the ice. Any number of his goals could make this list, but everyone probably remembers this one:
Mitch Marner needs no introduction or explanation — he’s sixth in team points over the decade, and for my money, generally speaking, he has been their best player over the past few seasons. Elliotte Friedman recently called him the heartbeat of the team; I’d be hard-pressed to argue with that.
For the third line, Auston Matthews is another inclusion that should need no explanation. His four-goal performance was one of the moments of the decade. If you didn’t feel hope for the first time in years as a Leafs fan on that night, you’re a lost cause.
William Nylander is 10th in the organization for points in the decade. Prior to Matthews and Marner, he was really the first young player that represented renewed hope in the organization.
Only four forwards played more than Nikolai Kulemin in the decade — he was an everything player for the team (one of my personal favourites). The MacArthur – Grabovski – Kulemin line was extremely fun. He gets points for this, too:
Right behind Kulemin in ice time for the decade is Leo Komarov. Prime Uncle Leo was a treat to watch. He was only a mid-30s points scorer, but he hit everything that moved, drew penalties, killed penalties, drove opponents crazy, and he was just a difference-maker who did a bit of everything here.
Mikhail Grabovski should get in for his Boston game alone. Grabo had a number of great moments in Toronto — one that I recall fondly is his overtime winner in Montreal. I still wonder what would have happened had the Leafs not bought him out.
Connor Brown is included base on this goal alone. I shouldn’t have to tell anyone here what this meant:
On defense, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are tops in total ice time and points among Leafs defensemen. It’s very cut and dry. They also have the longevity card — they suffered through the lean years and stuck around for the good years. Gardiner was a lightning rod here, but he deserves this recognition.
While Dion Phaneuf was captain, he was behind Rielly and Gardiner in ice time and points, and I just couldn’t look past it. This hit almost moved him to the top pairing alone, though:
For a good chunk of Phaneuf’s Toronto time here, his partner was Carl Gunnarsson. I loved Gunnarsson – he just a dependable defensemen who was steady and knew how to move the puck. I was extremely happy for him when he won the Cup in St. Louis (along with Bozak). Gunnarsson was one of the only dependable top-four defensemen this organization had over the decade — sad but true.
Rounding out the third pairing was difficult. I ended up selecting two defensemen that each played on the top pairing at points. Only Rielly, Gardiner and Phaneuf outscored Cody Franson among defensemen in the decade. I appreciated what Ron Hainsey brought as a veteran, and I don’t think his partnering with Rielly was insignificant in his development into an offensive powerhouse. Nikita Zaitsev played over 1,000 more minutes, but I gave the nod to Hainsey there. This interview helped his cause, too:
"We're going to play our heart out for this city."
Ron Hainsey has a special message for the City of Toronto after today's tragic event. pic.twitter.com/CvglPly4Zy
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 23, 2018
In net, Frederik Andersen is the best goalie this organization has had since Ed Belfour — full stop. James Reimer was spectacular in helping the Leafs break their near-decade-long playoff drought. There isn’t anyone else that comes close to those two.
That’s my all-decade team. Onto the current one.
– Last season, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner played 114 minutes of even-strength time together and were outscored by three. Their expected goals percentage was 44.71% and their corsi together was 52.65%. This season, they have played 120 minutes together at even strength and have outscored the opposition by 10. Their expected goals percentage is 72.73% and their corsi is over 57%. The biggest difference seems to be the circumstances in which they are playing together — and I don’t mean who they are playing against or where they are starting. Last season, they were seemingly put together at random and if they didn’t play well together after a game or so, they were broken up. Sometimes they would only be united for a period at a time. That’s a lot of pressure and expectation to light it up instantly.
What we are seeing now is an extended look, and they are starting to dominate. Against the Rangers, in particular, they had a number of dominant shifts cycling it in the offensive zone and creating sustained pressure. Against Carolina, Matthews, of course, had the ridiculous 360 pass and he had another like that in New Jersey on a breakout. How can you expect those plays to magically happen if they are together for the first time in a random period and are ice cold to each other as linemates? The chemistry is forming and it is paying dividends.
– Great play by Tyson Barrie on the Leafs’ third goal of the night against the Rangers to pull the puck and get a good shot off. He has that little toe drag while walking the line down pat, it seems. In his last eight games, he has eight points and 23 shots on net. The offensive production and confidence is coming back. On the flip side, on back to back nights, he played a 2v1 rush by moving his stick out of the way of the passing lane, leaving a relatively easy pass that led to goals. Your one job as a defenseman on a 2v1 is to block the pass. That’s it. That’s all you can do. For it to happen once in a while – it happens, and everyone gets fooled. But on back-to-back nights?
– I know the Leafs are experimenting with ways of resting Frederik Andersen — specifically, giving him practices off — and we shall see how he responds to it over the stretch. His game against the Rangers was one of his worst in a while, but it was also his first game back from the holidays, so it was an abnormal circumstance overall.
– I looked at this twice just to be sure, but the two power-play goals Zach Hyman has scored this season are the first two of his career. Against the Devils, he had a classic rebound power-play goal that you love to see. As strictly a net-front guy, he can play in that role and it serves a nice reward for a player who does so many good things all over the ice.
– Morgan Rielly is now goalless in 27 games and he’s starting to appear frustrated a little bit. He scored 20 last year shooting 9%. So far, he is shooting 2.8% this season. Only once in his career has he shot under 3% — his rookie season. It doesn’t help that he’s off the top power-play unit, either. He had 10 shots on goal against the Rangers, but with under five minutes left, he was found with a pass on the backside of the play in the offensive zone and neglected to rip a puck on net, electing to pass instead. It did look like he would have a chance at a goal if he shot it immediately. In overtime, on a similar play, he did shoot it, it didn’t go in, and the Rangers scored shortly after. It just seems like one of those runs for Rielly right now.
“There is not a lot to like about our game today, obviously. But it is December 27th here and we got two points on the road, so we will take it and get on the plane, recognizing that we have to get a lot better tomorrow.”
– Sheldon Keefe, after the Devils game
The Leafs were so far behind when Sheldon Keefe took over that their current run is borderline season-saving. That can’t be understated. However, while watching them play, I often can’t help but think it’s not going to set them up for success long-term if they keep playing like this.
“He sets a tone for us in a lot of ways and a lot of different areas. So, yeah, [playing two periods on a broken foot] speaks highly about who he is and his character.”
– John Tavares on losing Jake Muzzin to a broken foot
If we’re honest, this is also an opportunity for the Leafs to see what life is like without Muzzin, who is a pending free agent.
“You just had a three-day break. you’re at home, you’re eating a lot of food, you’re gaining a couple of pounds.”
– Mitch Marner on coming back from the break
I actually thought their legs were there, generally speaking. Now their discipline (and by this, I mean positioning, not taking penalties) and team defense on the other hand…
Tweets of the Week
Ilya Mikheyev had an artery and tendons severed in his right wrist by the skate cut in New Jersey last night. Scary, scary situation.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) December 28, 2019
The most important thing here is Mikheyev having a speedy recovery. This is such an unfortunate injury and it really hurts the Leafs. Mikheyev looked like he was moving into the top six full-time, which really helped their depth and settled the lines down (no more Kapanen in the top six!). The team is not exactly flush with left wing options and Andreas Johnsson is already hurt. Mikheyev was also an integral part of the rapidly-improving penalty killing. They won’t be able to easily replace him.
[walking into a store] i am prepared to offer you 17 cents for your finest goods https://t.co/7HEZBqzSek
— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) December 29, 2019
I mean, yeah — I’m not sure what the Leafs can realistically expect to fetch for players like this. If they turn water into wine, all the power to them.
This is the last HNIC of the decade.
In the first HNIC of the decade, the Leafs dressed this lineup, and lost 3-1 to the Calgary Flames. Jonas Gustavsson stopped 32 of 34 in the loss. pic.twitter.com/qPl0W0AfWt
— Simply Having A John Tavaristmas Time 🎄 (@ThatsCappy) December 29, 2019
Man, what a pretty rough decade of hockey for the Leafs. I don’t think it was quite 80s-level bad, but it was bad. Much like that 80s pain, though, it should lead to some great things. Technically, it has already started – the Leafs set a franchise record in points in 2017-18.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. With Ilya Mikheyev out, I think the player I’d most like to see get an opportunity with the NHL club is Mason Marchment. The reason is simple: I just think he offers something different to the team. He’s big, physical, and he has a bit of a mean streak. Ideally, this team adds a wrinkle to their forward group and if Marchment pans out, they are pretty well set up front unless they want to add a versatile, veteran fourth-line center who can actually kill penalties and play defense. I thought Marchment was all but ready last season and then he got hurt. Similarly, I thought Egor Korshkov was knocking on the door this season, but he’s currently hurt.
2. I think it makes zero sense to negotiate a new contract with Ilya Mikheyev while he is hurt, which the team can technically start to do on January 1. He was playing really well at the time of injury and his stock could not be higher. It is a cruel business, but any return from injury will likely result in a decline in play, and this is a difficult injury to return from. The Leafs aren’t exactly in a position to be throwing around money, either. He’s a nice player and it sounds harsh, but that’s how it goes. He’s also a restricted free agent, not a UFA. What’s the rush?
3. I think this is a big opportunity for Travis Dermott to show something and an important time in his career. He has been a mixed bag, to put it nicely, so far this season, and if he is going to challenge for the top four this year, this is his chance to do it. Other than when the team is losing and his ice time rises as the team makes an offensive push, he hasn’t been trusted with notable minutes. Their top four isn’t exactly strong or difficult to work your way into, either. A lot of people are high on Dermott and the team has an opportunity to completely redo their defense this upcoming summer should they choose to do so. If Dermott wants to be penciled into a big role there, this is a time to make a claim.
4. I think shopping Jeremy Bracco makes sense. The Leafs are loaded on the right, and I don’t see any value in having him on the fourth line. I think soft, scoring fourth lines make sense when you lack scoring at the top end of the roster, but what we are seeing with the Leafs is that they load up their top lines with ice time and just need their fourth line to create some energy and take a responsible shift every so often — to maybe change the flow of the game. Bracco isn’t going to do that. If he has any value whatsoever, cash it in.
5. I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and also remind everyone to please not drink and drive. Have fun and stay safe out there.