Over the past couple of seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been an elite offensive team.
For the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons combined, only the Tampa Bay Lightning scored more goals than the Leafs. In fact, Toronto and Tampa Bay are the only two teams to have scored over 550 goals in that time.
As this season’s Leafs have found their groove, it has largely been on the back of their offense. Since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench, the team is averaging 4.1 goals per game (the next highest in that time period is Colorado at 3.81). For reference, last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished the season at 3.89 goals per game. The next highest goals per game for a team over the past decade beyond that was Tampa again the year before at 3.54 goals per game.
Note: This isn’t a question of whether it’s sustainable. It’s not to the level they are currently scoring at. I’m just demonstrating the level of offense underpinning the current hot streak.
Naturally, all of this offense has led to some debate: Will it work in the playoffs?
On the one hand, the Leafs have ridden their offensive-minded team to three straight first-round exits. Even Tampa Bay was swept last season after their high-scoring regular season. But they also went to the Conference Finals the year before that, when they led the league in scoring that regular season, too. Of course, on the flip side, people will be quick to point to the Washington Capitals, who only won once they changed their style of play (and also acquired a number of really good defensemen, I might add).
Looking just beyond that, though, we can see a Pittsburgh Penguins team that won back-to-back Cups after finishing third and first in goals per game, respectively, during the regular season (and yes, we are all aware they had Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin).
Regardless, you can win the Cup on the back of a high-scoring offense.
When it comes to the Leafs, especially in this market, they will face this question until they prove otherwise. Another first-round exit and the calls will only get louder.
Part of what (I think) happened near the end of Mike Babcock’s tenure is that he was trying to change the way the team played with an eye towards the playoffs — to be more of a grind-it-out possession team — and they were not receptive to that. That includes management, whose transactions were counteractive to the style of play the coach was trying to implement.
Management has been pretty clear that is not the direction they want to go. They prioritize speed and skill and want to play what they describe as a tenacious defense that is aggressive about retrieving pucks in order to go right back on offense. At this point, the direction is very clear — and there isn’t an absence of recent evidence suggesting a team can win in the playoffs on the back of a high-scoring offense.
- A few new faceoff plays have been implemented by Sheldon Keefe – one paid off against the Winnipeg Jets with a goal. It wasn’t anything special — just a player lining up in the high slot ready to shoot in case of a faceoff win. A lot of teams use it. They also have a play now where they try to win it to the defenseman closest to the wall and the winger comes up to the top of the offensive zone for a pass outlet. If he gets the pass, the defenseman looks to shoot down the wall for a give and go and drives to the net. In the case of the Jets game, it paid off with a Pierre Engvall goal.
- On the defensive side, one main difference I’ve noticed off of faceoffs: When the Leafs win the faceoff and either go d-to-d behind the net or the defenseman skates it around himself, the far-side winger doesn’t release the zone to skate to the blue line. He swings low for a pass at the hashmark by the boards for a tighter breakout option. When the winger went to the blue line, it usually meant the puck was getting out, but the Leafs might not have control. Now, the winger has to come low and usually needs to make a play to ensure it gets out. But if they succeed, they have clean possession.
- In 21 games NHL games for Pierre Engvall, he has six goals – that’s a 23-goal pace. The most goals he has on record in a single season is 21 while in the Swedish league for the 2016-17 season. Engvall is also shooting at 19.4%. He’s had a strong start and has been a nice player, but the offense is really secondary to what he brings. His best value to the Leafs has really been as a versatile penalty killer that they can move around different forward lines and positions.
- Subtle play by Travis Dermott before his goal against the Jets to take a hack at Josh Morrissey’s stick after dropping the puck to William Nylander, which not only gave Nylander extra space to cut in (which is important because he was on his strong side so moving in is a bit more difficult) but also opened up space for Dermott to get inside the defender to drive the net.
- Tyler Bozak used to do that a lot after dropping pucks.
- Even though the scoring chances were roughly even, the Jets still threw 48 shots on net last Thursday and I wonder if that had as much to do with Hutchinson getting the start as anything. That’s still a heavy workload and a lot of action for a goaltender. With two games in three days coming up, a rested Andersen through the weekend starting both those games is much more feasible. The Leafs are making a concerted effort to get him rest, as they should.
“I think it is really good. I think it is really healthy for the team in a lot of ways. Like I said, it was a different type of game. Offense is harder to come by, as we expected it would coming into the game. I just like that our guys didn’t get frustrated coming out of that first period with not a lot going on. We stayed with it. We gave up some chances and got saves, which was good, but when we got our chances, we made good on them.”
– Sheldon Keefe on winning against the Islanders in a different type of game
What I liked about the game against the Islanders is that the Leafs stayed very patient with it. They weren’t rattled by the pace or what the Islanders were trying to do. We’ve seen this type of game a lot where the Leafs try to press the issue and shoot themselves in a foot — a bad pinch, not having a high guy, etc. that leads to an odd-man rush and a lead for their opponent, and then it’s downhill from there.
“There’s a lot of ways I can try to explain it, but just fun is the way that does it the most justice. The boys are just doing our thing, we’re supporting each other and then we’re given the freedom … to use our skill.”
– Travis Dermott on the team’s turnaround
What has been highlighted more than anything is how loose the team feels. They are still clearly in a honeymoon period and haven’t faced much adversity yet. Curious to see what happens when they do.
“I’ve been saying this since long ago: The Maple Leafs as an organization, the way they recruit is almost like college recruiting. Many (other) teams would say ‘Yeah, well they can afford to do it. But caring for somebody and treating people like this doesn’t cost any money. Showing support, showing you care, is about a lot more than money.”
– Player agent Dan Milstein (who represents Ilya Mikheyev) commenting on GM Kyle Dubas staying with Mikheyev after his injury
As many others have noted, this was a very nice thing to do by Kyle Dubas and speaks to who he is as a person more than anything. It’s not just a little thing; it is a big thing and it matters.
Tweets of the Week
Kasperi Kapanen isn’t any more offensively effective alongside great players, it’s the strangest thing. Everything he creates HE creates; you’re getting what he gives you no matter where you put him, so you might as well add that spice to your third line.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) January 5, 2020
We’ve said in this space a few times now that Kasperi Kapanen in the top six has not looked good, and perhaps part of that is due to him having to be shifted to the left side (though the Leafs tried shifting Nylander to the left a bit so that Kapanen could play the right in his latest stint in the top six). Bottom line is that he’s productive in his third-line role, and at this point in time, he is best suited to it.
That scoring depth came up huge to break a stalemate against the Islanders. His shot and speed come out on his strong side down the wing, whereas on the left we have often seen him go down the wing and stop up, looking for a backside pass. That one-handed cut in was new. He looked very uncomfortable on his off-wing when he first moved there, so if there is one benefit to that switch, he’s gained some comfort and versatility.
Since Keefe took over, TOR's xG share has (mostly) trended up, fueled by a spike in xG creation and some wrangling of xG against (at least down to NHL-avg levels).
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 5, 2020
Kind of stating the obvious, but the team is running extremely hot right now. I can’t actually remember a time at any point in last season where all of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and William Nylander were red hot like they are now. At some point, that will obviously course correct a bit. Another thing to keep in mind is that they have had a fairly easy schedule in December and do again in January. They should be able to create a nice cushion for themselves before heading into a much more difficult month of February.
Tonight we salute a club cornerstone, long-time equipment manager Brian Papineau.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 5, 2020
This is awesome. Congratulations to Pappy.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think what we’re seeing out of Alex Kerfoot (playing with Tavares and Nylander) is something that many people said over the summer – he’s better on the wing than at center. He can use his speed a little bit more, is freed up a bit offensively because he doesn’t have to work defensively, and it definitely helps playing with linemates that can get him the puck the way John Tavares and William Nylander can. In nearly 80 minutes together at even strength, Tavares and Kerfoot have combined for 7 goals for, 1 against, and a corsi-for of over 59%.
2. I think acquiring a defenseman is obviously the most important thing the Leafs can do, but adding a depth center would be a nice move that allows Kerfoot to more permanently play on the wing. It doesn’t have to be a big name or anything over the top, but some sort of bottom-six center is somewhere between a nice-to-have and a need-to-have move.
3. I think calling up Rasmus Sandin only makes sense at this point if Jake Muzzin is going to be out for an extended period of time still or someone else gets hurt. Otherwise, he’s not really going to get in at this point over Rielly, Muzzin or Dermott when they are healthy. If a few more games of Marincin saves burning a year on Sandin’s ELC, that actually is worth it for this team. I think Sandin likely can play in the league at a decent level at this point, but he isn’t sliding right into the top four and the Leafs aren’t exactly in a spot where they can shrug at the financial impact of that move.
4. I think Michael Hutchinson is starting to make a case that he can be the backup for the rest of the season. I’m not convinced just yet, but he’s at least making it a conversation.
5. With only two games this week, I think it’s easy to give Frederik Andersen both starts, even though it’s two games in three days. The following week, the Leafs play four in seven games. The second game — at home against the New Jersey Devils — should likely be Hutchinson’s start again.