The Toronto Maple Leafs enter their bye week sitting on the outside of a playoff spot.
The good news is that they are only a point behind Columbus and Philadelphia for the final wildcard spot and only two points back of Carolina for the first wildcard spot, with all teams even on games played (49).
The tougher news comes in the division. Boston is up 11 points and has played one more game than Toronto. Tampa is ahead by five points and has a game in hand, while Florida is tied with Toronto in points but has two games in hand.
When Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach, a number of factors helped them to go on a run. It’s very clear at this point that the players quit on Mike Babcock; there was a natural boost from the alleviation of that tension. The team also got fully healthy. John Tavares returned, and Mitch Marner rounded into form. After one of the toughest schedules to start the year, the level of difficulty lightened up — the Leafs played just 13 games in December, with only five or six of their opponents likely to make the playoffs this year.
In February, that is going to change.
Starting on February 11, the Leafs play Arizona and Dallas at home, followed by a trip to Ottawa (where the Leafs haven’t been great recently, for whatever reason) and a visit to Buffalo the next night (and we know all about the Leafs in Buffalo). They then play a back-to-back against Pittsburgh, host Carolina, and travel to Tampa and Florida before playing at home against Vancouver to end the month. That’s followed by a west coast road trip.
In the middle of all of that is the NHL trade deadline on February 24. That stretch of hockey could make or break the season between the possible acquisitions and a really difficult run of games where they play a number of playoff-calibre teams as well as a few away games that have traditionally been tough road matchups for the Leafs.
With the Leafs coming off a 1-2-1 week featuring two blowout losses, this break is coming at a great time to reset. There are a few things for the coaching staff to figure out.
Florida and Chicago did some similar things in terms of game-planning the Leafs. It wasn’t all on the goalie. Both teams sent in one forecheck aggressively and had a second layer of two forwards reading the play for giveaways.
Against a banged-up Leafs defense, it worked. The Leafs turned the puck over a lot. When they weren’t turning it over, both teams trapped up a bit in the neutral zone, daring the Leafs to dump the puck in and go get it back. This isn’t the first time that teams have started deploying this tactic with Spring around the corner.
Conversely, both games featured the opposition slicing through the neutral zone easily leading to goals. Jonathan Toews went untouched from the faceoff circle in his own zone all the way down the ice before setting up a goal. Before Mike Matheson’s goal against the Leafs, Aaron Ekblad sliced right through the neutral zone against the Leafs for a clean zone entry. It should go without saying, but teams can’t be going through the Leafs’ neutral zone like a knife through butter.
Now that teams have enough tape with which to scout the Leafs under Keefe, they are also making adjustments. Chicago, in particular, was ready for the Leafs regrouping through the neutral zone. They had a number of turnovers because their forwards backchecked knowing that the Leafs would circle back, with their sticks ready to cause turnovers, instead of simply peeling for line changes during those times when the Leafs regroup.
With so much change on the defense and their forwards moving around so often, the Leafs have also been burned on a number of pinches. There have been a number of goals off of ill-timed pinches (Barrie against the Devils) or forwards not covering properly (Kerfoot and Tavares against Florida; Marner against the Blackhawks).
They have time to fix a few of these things, and Jake Muzzin’s imminent return should be helpful. Heading into February, this is going to be make-or-break time for the players — and the GM — as the Leafs are right in the thick of a playoff race.
- On a positive note, there’s this: With a relatively healthy and under contract team to start the season, the expectations on the Leafs were extremely high. Even when they would win games, they somewhat left you wanting more, particularly when they were squeaking by clearly inferior opponents. Over the past month, though, this team has had a number of “business-like” wins, playing teams below them in the standings and winning with relative ease. A good example was the recent game against the Devils, where the Leafs scored early and sucked all the life out of the game. They coasted a little too hard in the third period, but it was nice to see them come out and end a game early instead of coming out lethargic and making the game more interesting than it should be — which is what they were doing at the start of the season.
- The Devils really are a bad team, and while Rasmus Sandin made some nice plays, the hype was predictably over the top following that game. Against a much better Calgary team, he was benched after a turnover led to a goal against. Against Chicago, he had a number of turnovers in front of his own net when trying to cut through to make plays. It’s good that he’s confident, but he’s trying things he could do in the AHL or in the World Juniors that he simply can’t do at this level. One underrated part of his game is his shot — he has a crisp, low, and hard snapper that he can get through traffic. He’s not afraid to shoot it, either.
- Not sure if the broadcast picked it up, but I was at the game against Chicago and I noticed that Sheldon Keefe used the first TV timeout as a full timeout. He had the whole team around him and he was having a discussion with them. The assistants were not speaking at all, either — it was just Keefe. Perhaps that is why they didn’t feel the need to use a timeout despite spotting Chicago an early 3-0 lead.
- It was also hard to tell on TV, but when I watched it back after, you could see how much Tyson Barrie’s pass to Mitch Marner wobbled before the William Nylander goal. It was a weak knuckler of a pass, but Marner is good enough to not even need a second to settle the puck down and complete the pass. He clamped down on it and ripped a cross-ice feed. Regardless of the quality of pass he made, Barrie picked up an assist on the play. He grabbed another secondary assist on the Alex Kerfoot goal. On the scoresheet, he had two points on the Leafs’ two goals. He was also lost in coverage on the Hawks’ opening goal and wasn’t covering his man on the sixth goal. His point totals have trended up with the coaching change, but a lot of the points have been relatively empty calories, or him benefitting from all the talent around him and picking up points by simply passing it to the half-wall on the power play.
- Another note from watching the Chicago game live that is much more difficult to pick up on TV – Andreas Johnsson was skating some really poor breakout routes. He confused his own defense by not being where they expected him to be or by skating right beside Blackhawks defenders, resulting in a turnover. There was one play where Sandin picked up the puck on a breakout, looked to the left wing, and Johnsson wasn’t there. He was skating around the blue line, so Sandin flipped the puck out for a foot race. As Sandin was doing that, Johnsson tried to go back to the left wing, where he should have been. The result was an icing.
- Zach Hyman is somewhat quietly shooting 19+ percent and is playing to a 32-goal pace. His shot volume is roughly the same and he is helped by the secondary power play time, but he also doesn’t lead the league in empty-net goals this season. He’s playing to a 57-point pace. Hyman brings a lot to the table, and neither of those totals is sustainable given the percentages, but it’s nice to see him develop offensively. A few seasons ago, he was legitimately out of place alongside the skilled players at times, but he has worked at it. He contributes by playing his style with a bit more finishing ability as well as a better understanding of how to leverage his abilities to help out his linemates. One thing he has become good at: Going from the front of the net to forechecking an opponent on the half-wall or behind the net to force a turnover — especially when the opponent thinks they have a clear zone exit ahead of them.
“They just came out really hard, came out with a purpose, and we were pretty flat. They score a goal on the first shift, so I think it just means we weren’t really ready to play.”
– Auston Matthews following the game against Chicago
Saturday night in Toronto, an Original Six matchup, on Canadian Armed Forces night, and the Leafs came out really flat. Andersen was bad, but the team as a whole had little response through the first ten minutes and didn’t exactly set the tone early, either. This has been a trend all season — the Leafs have given up the seventh-most goals against in the first period of any team this season.
“I hoped he watched the pre-scout on Andersen, and I was like, ‘Finally, someone shoots to five-hole.’ I was glad he did it.”
– David Rittich on Matthew Tkachuk’s shootout goal
Looks like there’s a bit of a book here on Frederik Andersen. Chicago shot the puck through him the next game, too.
“Reality checks come. I thought that we were an immature team down in Florida. We were an immature team here today. That is how we are approaching these things. We are not performing. We are not playing to any level of discipline or consistency.”
– Sheldon Keefe after a second blowout loss in a week
Earlier this season, I mentioned the Leafs lack of maturity and consistency, and it was met with some disdain in the comments, but the reality is that a lot of people see this. On a night-to-night basis, you aren’t really sure what you are getting from this team. The core is still largely young and needs time and experience, but for this season anyway, the team is starting to run short on time.
Tweets of the Week
William Nylander scores his 20th goal of the season.
16 have come from this net-front area, which is 2nd most by any player in the NHL. pic.twitter.com/QmOYH6wxjY
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) January 15, 2020
William Nylander is having a good season and is playing to a 37-goal, 72-point pace. His contract takes a lot of heat, and so does his play at times, but that production is well in line with his contract.
Not even sure Kapanen gets it done.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 17, 2020
This tweet was in response to what it might take to get Alexandar Georgiev out of New York. That is not a price worth discussing for the Leafs. Kasperi Kapanen has his warts, but he’s a legit top-nine forward that can play on special teams and is already reasonably productive. The Rangers have three goalies and teams always try to sell this as a non-issue, but eventually, it becomes one. It doesn’t sound like the Rangers have a ton of teams calling them for Georgiev. Often these rumours come up and they are almost always way off in terms of what it ultimately costs to acquire a player of consequence.
The NHL has named Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Bruins and Maple Leafs on May 13, 2013 as Game of the Decade: https://t.co/qPCFwxASnk
— NHL.com (@NHLdotcom) January 19, 2020
Being a fan of this team… man.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. Ultimately, I think the top-six mix will have to be shaken up down the stretch. It really just boils down to the Leafs having their two best defensive wingers on the same line and John Tavares centering two lesser wingers defensively while still taking on the top center matchup. It doesn’t make much sense. I know I’ve noted it before, but it’s worth reinforcing that their matchup game suffers. They don’t have the luxury of good defensive pairings to get away with these shortcomings.
2. I think running 11-7 is worth a look and I would try it again at some point. The Leafs were down 3-0 through 11 minutes as Andersen let in three goals on six shots. You can’t take anything away from that game at that point. Keefe tried jumbling the lines, they were trying to keep every defenseman at least somewhat involved, and Chicago essentially trapped through the neutral zone, daring them to dump the puck in and retrieve it through forechecking (note: The Leafs barely tried). Maybe 11-7 is truly a bad idea — though Jon Cooper has used it to some success in the NHL — but that one game was not a definitive answer or indication.
3. I think Adam Brooks has shown next to nothing even though he has reasonable production with three assists in seven games. What is really telling is he has two shots on net in seven games. He hasn’t flashed much, and if he’s not bringing offense, where is his value to this team? Dmytro Timashov has at least genuinely impacted a few games with his speed and forechecking, causing turnovers, scoring a few notable goals, and standing out at times.
4. I think Timothy Liljegren looked like a player that, at minimum, can play in the NHL. I’m not sure what his ceiling is yet, or even his floor, but the game didn’t look like too much for him and his skating and puck handling allow him to be a contributor. At one point, he tried rushing the puck against Chicago in the second period through the neutral zone and he got squeezed out due to the angle he took. He should learn how to play those angles over time in the NHL and use his speed and skill to make some plays. A more extended run of play would be nice to get to the point where it’s truly comfortable counting on him to play in the top six full-time next season. However, it’s hard to see how the Leafs can do that unless they trade away a right-handed defenseman (which seems unlikely).
5. I think it’s easy to see why the Leafs have reportedly held discussions with Jake Muzzin about a new contract. Considering Rasmus Sandin and likely Timothy Liljegren will be on the team next season on cheap contracts, I’d think long about overpaying Muzzin a bit on a shorter-term deal — if he’s willing to do it, of course. With Justin Holl making $2 million and Sandin and Liljegren both making under $1 million, that’s half your defense totaling under $4 million. Even Morgan Rielly is only making $5 million. There’s some room to play with there.