Let’s set the scene back to the start of the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs season for a second.
Coaching and player animosity aside, it is undeniable that Morgan Rielly was more productive than Tyson Barrie over the past two years.
Rielly, of course, was also coming off a season where he was third in total points by defensemen and led all defensemen in goals.
It was unsurprising, then, that Rielly started the season on the top power-play unit. The entire team struggled under Mike Babcock, with special teams operating poorly. Rielly, though, started the season with 17 points in his first 21 games. On the other hand, Barrie had five assists through his first 21.
A report then came out that teams have been inquiring about Barrie’s availability, as Elliotte Friedman reported:
“He has not asked for a trade. However, I think there is an understanding that it so far hasn’t worked, that it is a very important year for him because he is a free agent. I think we all recognize how he would feel about that.”
Shortly after, Babcock was fired, Barrie was moved onto PP1, and Rielly was relegated after a productive start to the season following a season of elite production. And now it’s Rielly who is struggling — he hasn’t scored a goal in 34 games and he recorded 10 points in the 25 games after that report. In those same 25 games, Barrie has 19 points and has been a staple on the top power-play unit.
That said, they both have seven total power-play points. In fact, Rielly still has a higher points-per-60 on the power play than Barrie this season (3.82 vs. 3.3). I know the Leafs‘ power play has been better over the past month and change, but if you are chalking it up to anything Barrie is adding, I don’t really know what to tell you.
It’s even more curious for a couple of reasons. First off, Matthews clearly has a better one-timer than Marner. It’s not really up for debate. As a lefty, it’s much easier for Rielly to feed Matthews one-timer passes compared to Barrie. Now, Barrie can help create space and mitigate that by scoring on one-timer passes back from Matthews, but Barrie’s shot has not been inspiring this season. It is almost strange to think that he scored 14 goals in back-to-back seasons and has hit double digits in goals in five of the past six years.
If Barrie is not making teams pay with a one-timer of his own, it’s simply better to have a left-hander feeding Matthews those passes. Rielly was the one that did so against the Jets this past week at the end of the game on Matthews’ late tying goal. That’s not the same play from a right-handed shot.
It’s also worth noting that Rielly is better on power-play breakouts than Barrie due to his skating ability.
The second part is really more of a question: What’s the end goal here?
Barrie is an unrestricted free agent of the season; what is the point of padding his stats right now unless you are trying to trade him before the deadline (and all indications are that they are going to keep him for the stretch run)? A productive Barrie just increases his re-signing price tag. Even if the team wants to retain him, they are pricing themselves out of that market for — at best — a negligible difference over Rielly on the power play.
On the flip side of things, Rielly is under contract for two more seasons beyond this one. By not putting him on the power play and giving him the most optimal opportunity to put up points, they are reducing his trade value should they want to go down that path as an organization. Imagine shopping a defenseman who is 26 coming off a 72-point season and then, say, a 60-plus point season? Now Rielly is tracking to score under 50, and that’s only trending down at this point. Maybe the Leafs don’t want to trade him at all — and that’s fair — but if they ever wanted to explore that option, they are only making it more difficult on themselves.
Next season, the only defensemen under contract are Rielly, Justin Holl, and Martin Marincin. They have Travis Dermott as an RFA and Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin in the system. Are they going to hand the top power-play unit back to Rielly and ask him to quarterback it after they’ve helped Barrie get paid? These are professional players and everyone will get over it, but it seems a little strange overall from a team that is trying to salvage a move that has not worked out in its favour.
- With the blowout loss to Florida, the Leafs record against division opponents is now 7-6-1 and they have only played the Panthers and Lightning once each (they lost both). There are three games left each against Florida and Tampa and one more against Boston (in Boston). In the battle for playoff positioning, those are huge games not only points-wise, but just in general for the team to show up.
- The high-scoring hockey has been fun, but the Leafs are still giving up the seventh-most goals per game and tied for sixth in giving up the most shots per game. Since the coaching change, they have given up the 16th-most goals per game and 14th-most shots per game. That is a steady improvement, despite giving up 18 goals in the last three games. It isn’t an excuse, but it does need reminding that the team misses Jake Muzzin. He and Holl were forming a very steady matchup pairing. Without him, players are being cast into roles they’re not suited for.
- The player who leads the Leafs in penalties drawn so far this season: John Tavares. League-wide, he’s tied for 50th in the league in drawing penalties. Surprisingly, second on the team is Jake Muzzin. Tied for eighth in the league? Old friend Nazem Kadri.
- I know a lot has been made of William Nylander’s production this season, but I didn’t realize his career-high in goals for a season is 22. He’s at 19 already, although it is worth noting that his 14.8 shooting percentage is nearly four percent higher than his previous career-high. The good news is that this has gone to his confidence and he’s shooting slightly more than last season – he had 130 shots on goal in 54 games last season and is at 128 through 46 so far this season.
- It’s interesting that in a tough game for John Tavares against the Oilers – which the coach acknowledged as much — he still played over 20 minutes. The only shift I recall him being legitimately sat that night: In 4v4, they put out Matthews and Marner the first shift, and Kerfoot and Nylander the second. At one point in the second, he attempted a no-look drop pass through his legs in the neutral zone that resulted in a turnover. We haven’t seen that kind of thing from the usually steady and straightforward Tavares. In the next game against the Jets, he played over 25 minutes night and cost them a goal directly on his second giveaway of a power-play shift that resulted in a breakaway. He then had an errant pass turn into a 3v1 for another goal that game. Just a tough week of hockey for Tavares.
“I don’t overthink it other than to say I want to have our best people really involved and engaged in the game, especially early. I’m comfortable if I get to around seven or eight minutes for those types of games in the first period. I’m generally okay with that.”
– Sheldon Keefe on getting his top players involved early and often
There has been a lot of talk about whether the Leafs style will translate to the playoffs, but I think this type of usage won’t work when you’re playing every other night in the playoff grind. For now, it’s great knowing the Leafs need to rack up points, but at some point, they will need to balance things out a bit better and also put together a fourth line they can really trust. Getting some players back from injury should help with that.
“It was a pretty significant amount of pain. But I did my MRIs and everything like that and there was no damage to the real important things. So it was just a matter of pain management. We took some action over the Christmas holidays and I’m feeling much better after some minor stuff that we did and I think it’s just having confidence – and the pain is way lower than it was, and I’m able to just go out and play more.”
– Morgan Rielly on playing through an undisclosed lower-body injury through most of the season
When defending off the rush, you can see Morgan Rielly trying to angle attackers while skating forward instead of turning backward all the time. He’s uncomfortable at times transitioning from forwards to backward and is clearly affected by it.
“Following what happened tonight with Rob in front of our players and staff, I consulted with Laurence Gilman, Greg Moore, and the leadership group of the Marlies. I was informed by the leadership group that the entire team was in a state of shock and not comfortable proceeding with tonight’s game We fully support our players and staff in this matter.”
– Kyle Dubas in a statement following a medical emergency involving Rob Davison. It was later revealed that he experienced a prolonged grand mal seizure.
We all hope Rob has a full recovery. That is the only thing that matters here. The organization’s decision to forfeit the game was an absolute no-brainer. It is disappointing of the AHL to uphold the forfeit that was caused by a rare, extenuating circumstance.
“He’s got a long way to go as far as his work ethic goes and that’s something him and I talk about often. But he’s made marginal improvements over the years. I don’t think he was challenged at all in junior.”
– Rich Clune on Jeremy Bracco
That pretty well sums it up on Jeremy Bracco, why a whole collection of players are receiving call-ups instead of him, and why he is on the trade block. The “marginal improvements” line in particular really stands out.
Tweets of the Week
– $700K is league minimum
– he doesn't hit the cap if he is sent down and he always passes waivers
– a team needs at least 3 depth defenders who can be called up if injuries.
– he is better than most replacement players on the PK
– he is ok as a 3rd pair option https://t.co/QgFzVPuCXo
— Bill Comeau 📊 (@Billius27) January 10, 2020
This pretty well sums it up. He doesn’t count against the cap if they don’t want him to, and while the role they put him in is sometimes over his head, he’s a reasonable enough penalty killer and 6D, on occasion.
Number of games it took Auston Matthews to score 30 goals …
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 9, 2020
What happens next season?
Patrick Marleau joins an exclusive list tonight, becoming the 5th player in NHL history to skate in 1️⃣,7️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ games.
Congrats, Patty! 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/SlV17jAIsK
— NHL (@NHL) January 12, 2020
Pretty cool. Congrats, Patrick. I’d like to think he provided some value to the Leafs young players as an example of how to be a pro and how to prepare on a day-to-day basis.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think it makes little sense to have a guy who is an AHL regular when your team is healthy step onto your top shutdown pairing and play against the best player in the world. It probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference if it was Morgan Rielly or Travis Dermott there, but considering they are actually in the top six when the team is healthy, they should get looks in those roles for, if nothing else, the experience. Since the Oilers game, the Leafs have moved Dermott up to play with Holl.
2. I think the Edmonton game demonstrated a bit of a real question mark for the Leafs: Who is on their top matchup line? Connor McDavid crushed them, and while Toronto certainly isn’t his first victim, the John Tavares line was handily outplayed in that matchup. The Leafs’ two best two-way wingers were on a completely different line centered by Auston Matthews. Does that make sense against real top lines? Sure, you will get away with Nylander playing with Tavares in that role against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers of the world, but what about against Tampa Bay or Boston’s top lines, who the Leafs are likely to see in the playoffs? In a prime shutdown role, Hyman – Tavares – Marner together is still the way to go.
3. I think a by-product of the Hyman – Tavares – Marner line reuniting is William Nylander and Auston Matthews playing together again. That is logical. When they play together, they haven’t been trusted and/or shown well enough defensively in tough matchups. One interesting thing that was happening a bit earlier this season was the use of the Kerfoot line with Kapanen on his wing in a bit more of a tough matchup role. Any progress by that kind of line naturally frees up the Matthews line for easier matchups. The team is still getting healthy and is figuring things out, plus they have a relatively easy schedule in January. February will be the time to toggle with these matchups.
4. Once he regains his form, I think it makes sense to reunite the Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander line. They were playing some great hockey together prior to the injury and it allows you to put the team’s best matchup line back together. I’d also be interested in reuniting Hyman – Matthews – Nylander and experimenting with Andreas Johnsson alongside John Tavares.
5. I think – and this is a note for the whole league – this idea that every team needs to have an all-star game representative is the dumbest thing ever. It cheapens the product. This happens every year and it is bordering on embarrassing for the league. Who cares if top teams are stacked and have three to five representatives there? They should — they deserve it! As a fan base, we have plenty of experience watching the Leafs be bad. When Leo Komarov represented them at the All-Star game (remember that!?), I had zero interest in watching just because a Leaf happened to be there. Bring all the top players to the game and figure out a way to make it more interesting.