The Toronto Maple Leafs will look to kick off 2020 the same way they ended 2019 by extending their winning streak against the 22-15-3 Jets tonight in Winnipeg (8 p.m. ET, TSN4).
The Leafs have now won 9-of-11 games since early December, improving their record to 13-4-1 under Sheldon Keefe — tied for the most points in the NHL since Keefe’s takeover. Now at the season’s halfway point, they’ve quickly vaulted themselves into the second seed in the Atlantic Division and have closed the gap to nine points back of the first-place Boston Bruins. The speed of the turnaround even surpasses that of last year’s Cup champion St. Louis Blues, who improved out of the gate after hiring Craig Berube, but it took until late January for their famous 11-game winning streak that began their run to the playoffs. Needless to say, the vibes are good in Leafs Nation to start the new year.
Winnipeg’s results, meanwhile, have made them a bit of a talking point among the analytics community, so much so that it prompted a response out of head coach Paul Maurice:
We probably will never get to be an analytics darling this year… for us to win games, we’re going to need our goalie to be really good and for us to compete real hard. I’ll take that all day long because we can’t measure compete. The things we set out to be good at this year — how hard we contest the puck, what our gap is on the puck carrier, how many pucks we force to be dumped — we’re pretty good in those departments. The things we think we can be good at, we are.”
You can’t fault Maurice for identifying the strengths of the roster he’s been given and trying to adapt a gameplan that revolves around those strengths, but the numbers are hard to ignore. The concern stems from the discrepancy between their chances created and actual goals scored — they are still a league-worst 43.3% in xG share, yet they’re eighth in the league in GF% at 53.6% — that’s roughly a 10.3% gap. For context, the next closest team is the New York Rangers, who are second-last in xG at 43.3% and 20th in GF% at 50.3%, roughly a 7.6% gap.
Connor Hellebuyck is certainly the main factor, at least defensively, in keeping that goal share so high for Winnipeg. By standard goalie metrics, Hellebuyck’s 2019-20 season thus far looks only marginally better than his last campaign. However, looking deeper, he’s actually outperformed it based on what his team has allowed defensively this year. His dFSv% (delta Fenwick save percentage) this season is .55 vs. -.22 last season. That sounds small, but it has resulted in Hellebuyck ranking third-best among starters in allowing 7.6 fewer goals than expected; last year, he allowed just over six more goals than expected. The goaltending matchup will be a high end one tonight — Frederik Andersen (20-8-4, .915 Sv%, -2.04 GSAx) vs. Hellebuyck (18-11-3, .922 Sv%, 7.6 GSAx).
A secondary factor in that discrepancy is the numbers of the Jets’ wins in the last month or so where they’ve outscored the opponent by 3+ goals (six since Nov. 27). Their record in their last 15 games is only 7-6-2 yet their GF% is 7th at 55% as a result of those big wins.
For those craving a little “sandpaper” in the Leafs‘ lineup, some good news today: Mason Marchment makes his NHL debut for the Leafs tonight. The 24-year-old has a somewhat Trevor Moore-esque timeline to his story. He, too, went undrafted and initially wasn’t expected to play a huge offensive role at the AHL level. He hasn’t broken through offensively to the level Moore did, but he worked his way into an all-situations role with the Marlies when healthy. A player who plays on the edge (and sometimes crosses it), the snarl to Marchment’s game has many Leafs fans intrigued and wondering — should this experiment could pan out — if Marchment could help add a bit of nastiness to the fourth-line identity of a club that doesn’t have much of that element throughout its lineup, thereby filling a need without having to look outside the organization.
Marchment will replace Dmytro Timashov in the lineup tonight, while Adam Brooks stays in for his return to his hometown. Many will recall the chemistry Marchment and Brooks enjoyed together in the AHL during the team’s Calder Cup run — with Trevor Moore on the right side of the line — when they gave the team amazing depth minutes and production against the opposition’s secondary lines.
One added benefit many anticipated about Keefe that has seemingly proved true so far is his familiarity with so many of the past and current Marlies; many coaches could throw some combination of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Tavares together in top six and get good results, but Keefe’s familiarity with the depth pieces on the roster seems to provide a real leg-up for him in terms of knowing the player’s history and the history of his linemates. That is also why we’re seeing Martin Marincin tried out — successfully, so far — as a patchwork solution next to Justin Holl together; they played tough minutes as a pairing for the Marlies during their Calder run.
Game Day Quotes
Mason Marchment on the disappointment of his injury at the beginning of the year and his road to getting called up:
Obviously, I was pretty disappointed after that but honestly, this is a dream come true, so I couldn’t be happier.
On how he’ll handle the nerves in his first NHL game:
Just keep it simple and play my game, play hard, chip pucks in, go get em’. Just play my role and hopefully, I can help.
I’ve skated with a lot of the Leaf guys in the summer. Especially with Sheldon up here, I feel like I can come in and be pretty comfortable, but obviously, it’s a different game up here, so we’ll see what happens.
Marchment on how he found out he was playing tonight:
Sheldon told me there was a good chance I was going to play yesterday on the ice so, you know, I was really excited to call my family. I think my old man actually played his first NHL game here, too, so that’s a great experience and it’s a cool moment, I’m glad to share with my family and all these guys.
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to call up Marchment:
Being with the Marlies, there would be a lot of guys that would have the chance to play and compete for jobs. I think this year in training camp there were a number of guys. Injuries are an unfortunate but inevitable thing. What it does do is give us an opportunity to get a look at different people and see what they might be able to provide.
Keefe on Marchement’s commitment to development and his injury recovery:
He’s come very far. It’s not just his skating. It may be in terms of speed but also his balance, his agility, all those types of things — there’s been a lot of work that he’s done. There’s also been a lot of work from the staff — player development, in particular. He’s a guy where it started with sort of an unconventional approach. He didn’t play much hockey in his first year at pro. It was more time spent in the gym and with the development coaches. That was the foundation that was built for him. He just took off from there.
The biggest thing, as I talked a bit about yesterday, is just how resilient he’s been with the injuries. It’s difficult for a lot of players to handle those injuries and to respond the way he has with his attitude. His approach to his work in recovering from that most recent shoulder surgery was impressive to me.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#20 Mason Marchment – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #77 Adam Brooks
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#52 Martin Marincin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Teemu Kivihalme, Dmytro Timashov
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin
Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines
#81 Kyle Connor – #55 Mark Scheifele – #29 Patrick Laine
#27 Nikolaj Ehlers – #26 Blake Wheeler – #28 Jack Roslovic
#57 Gabriel Bourque – #17 Adam Lowry – #85 Mathieu Perreault
#58 Jansen Harkins – #21 Nick Shore – #82 Mason Appleton
#44 Josh Morrissey – #3 Tucker Poolman
#5 Luca Sbisa – #4 Neal Pionk
#2 Anthony Bitetto – #88 Nathan Beaulieu
#37 Connor Hellebuyck (starter)
#30 Lauren Brossoit
Injured: Mark Letestu, Bryan Little, Dmytri Kulikov, Andrew Copp