In the span of about five days, the Toronto Maple Leafs played arguably their two worst games of the season with their best game sandwiched in between.
You can argue about how bad the Pittsburgh loss really was, I guess, but coming off a poor showing against Buffalo, no Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins, and down 5-0 roughly halfway through — it was pretty damn bad.
To their credit, though, the team came out after the game acknowledged their issues and they responded with a resounding win. It was easily their most complete game of the season from top to bottom — they were tenacious getting the puck back, Frederik Andersen played well, and they won by four goals.
In the first period, there was a play where Auston Matthews made a second effort to win a battle below the goal line in the offensive zone to sustain possession. Nothing really came out of the sequence, but it just sort of set the tone for the night from one of the team’s leaders. In the previous game, the Leafs went to an early power play and Matthews tried to deke out a Penguins forechecker in front of his net, leading to a turnover and a scoring opportunity. It set the tone for that game, too.
It was a two-game snapshot as to how bad or good the team could be, and if that wasn’t enough, they tripled down on the wild swings in play by laying a goose egg against the Carolina Hurricanes at home. We all know about the emergency goalie storyline at this point, but they were also outshot 47-26 and weren’t really able to generate much in the way of sustained, consistent pressure. The Hurricanes, who lead the league in dump-ins (which is interesting in and of itself considering their analytics department and the work that has been done there) consistently pressured the Leafs defense, waited for those middle-of-the-ice passes on the breakout, and made the Leafs pay.
You might expect this kind of up-and-down play in October or November, but it’s February and the Leafs are in the thick of a playoff race. On any given night, you still aren’t really sure which team you are going to get. With this kind of range of play on the table, it makes every game a little terrifying to tune into.
Despite all of that, it’s not a lost season — yet.
The much-criticized division system is actually working to the Leafs benefit this season. If playoffs were decided by the top eight in each conference, the Leafs would currently be in ninth. Instead, they hold a two-point lead on Florida (although Florida has a game in hand) for the final playoff spot in their division. If nothing else, with games against Florida remaining, they control their own destiny. There is something to be said for that.
That is the biggest positive you can take away here. The team is hoping that Morgan Rielly can return in late March, and if Frederik Andersen can round into form, these are all good things that can likely take them through to a playoff spot. The Leafs rank ahead of Florida in a number of underlying statistics such as shot share and expected goals percentage at 5v5. They have a better overall goal differential. Their power play is one of the best in the league. The Leafs have a bad penalty kill (which has the fourth-worst percentage in the month of February so far, by the way), but the Panthers penalty kill is basically as bad (23rd vs. 26th for the season). Shockingly, the Panthers even give up more goals against per game than the Leafs on average.
Heck, as much of a rollercoaster as the last ten games have been for the Leafs, the Panthers even have a worse record than them recently, too.
Ultimately, it’s hard to believe that this team is going anywhere this year in the playoffs. Perhaps they get healthy right before the end of the season and something clicks. It’s definitely possible, and we have seen what they can be at their best — which is very, very good.
But once in a while I can step up to the tee and crack a drive roughly 270 yards down the middle of the fairway. I can’t do it all the time, though, which is why I’m not good at golf. The Leafs, though, still look like a better team than Florida — and Buffalo, too (who is six points back with a game in hand). It doesn’t mean a ton, and it’s not exactly where anyone thought they would be, but this is what the 2019-20 season is coming down to.
- Kasperi Kapanen, seemingly much maligned this season, was a positive this week (first Pittsburgh game aside, as there were zero positives that night). He was engaged in the rematch with some after-the-whistle scrumming, a nice goal (on a different move no less!), and a fight. Against Carolina in the first period, Kyle Clifford mixed it up after the whistle and Kapanen came in there to help him out, and he finished Nino Niederreiter with a hard hit that drew a retaliation penalty. He recorded three points over the two games as well as six shots on net. If we look at their top nine, Kapanen and Zach Hyman are really the only two players that engage physically on a consistent basis — and really, Kapanen throws the harder hits. It’s interesting to note he’s shooting 11 percent for the second season in a row.
- It’s hard to remember the good things this week after the Carolina game, but against Pittsburgh, Jake Muzzin played a strong game in response to calling out the team, picking up three points, playing physical, and leading the team in ice time at just over 23 minutes. You have to give credit where it’s due. He’s been one of the Leafs’ most dependable players this season.
- He technically has five points in his last seven games, but Alexander Kerfoot hasn’t played over 15 minutes in any of those games and has been pushed a bit down the roster at the same time. He has some occasional shorthanded time (a little over 16 minutes on the season), but he is essentially a third-line, second-unit power-play guy at this point.
- When Miikka Salomaki cracked the league, I remember his speed and tenacity leaping off the screen a bit. He hasn’t been able to stick in the league full-time and his numbers aren’t particularly inspiring in the AHL (15 points in 41 games), but the Leafs clearly have a prototype for the type of depth player they target – speedy, small, skilled, and cheap. Add Salomaki to a list that includes Tyler Ennis, Nic Petan, Denis Malgin, and Pontus Aberg. These seem like small, non-descript moves, but when the team discusses depth, this is how they are filling it. They are primarily one-dimensional offense options that aren’t going to bring much in the way of penalty killing, defensive acumen, grinding, etc.
- Patrick Marleau held the Leafs hostage a little bit, but there was a natural reaction to see the Bruins’ David Backes salary dump in which they received a useful player back and then think back to the deal the Leafs made. There were extra variables that are definitely noteworthy, but there still hasn’t been a salary dump of that magnitude where a first-round pick is exchanged and the team making the trade receives essentially zero value back whatsoever (the Leafs also traded a seventh and got back Carolina’s sixth).
“I’m taking a lot of myself for this shit; I’ve got to be better. Too many turnovers, not enough zone time, just so many bad, bad things happened. I mean, that toe-pick, I don’t think I’ve done that in 20 years of playing hockey. Everything just seemed to go wrong”
– Mitch Marner after the loss to Carolina
To anyone watching, it was pretty clear Mitch Marner was having a bad game, and while I’m sure he’ll be fine long-term, he hasn’t had a good run of play here for a few weeks now. There have been a lot of turnovers and unnecessary plays with the puck where he’s trying to deke in on his own. He has four points in his last eight games (one goal). He knows he’s not playing well, too, as noted in the quote above.
Yet he played over 20 minutes against Carolina – only Auston Matthews played more. If they aren’t playing well, sit them. How is accountability established when he is literally admitting he’s playing poorly and is trotted out there anyway as if it doesn’t even matter? You can’t be afraid to bench your stars when they deserve it.
“We need to find more solutions to our depth. The injuries and things that we’ve had, we’re finding some challenges I think on our third and fourth lines and on our defence. We’ve got to deal with adversity better.”
– Sheldon Keefe on team depth
Keefe is right here. However, when he first started coaching the team, he came out and happily admitted he’d play their top players eight, nine minutes in the first period to get them going and hopefully gain a lead. Everyone loved it. It’s not real, though. There is a reason literally no team that does this on a regular basis. You have to build up those depth lines and find value in them. They were kind of neglected at the beginning of his tenure. Now they suddenly matter.
Every top team has talent, but every top team is also deep and receives contributions of some variety from their third and fourth lines. Part of that is on management to build an organization with depth. Part of it is on the coaching staff to cultivate it.
“The difference, quite frankly, is Toronto’s in a playoff push and we were always in first place.”
– Bruce Boudreau on comparing the young Leafs to the young Capitals
I understand the basis of the comparison and there are some similarities, but the Capitals that were losing early in the playoffs obliterated the regular season and often lost to elite Pittsburgh teams. The Leafs are not tearing through the league like the Capitals did, although they are often losing to an elite Boston team. In general, Toronto just doesn’t come across as the well-oiled machine as those Washington teams did back in the day.
Tweets of the Week
No team has won the Stanley Cup after finishing worse than 20th in GAA. Toronto currently sits 26th. Since the NHL expanded from 6 teams in 1967, only twice has a team won the Cup after finishing in the bottom third of the league in GAA, the 1991 & 1992 Penguins.
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) February 18, 2020
The Leafs can outscore a lot of their problems, but some basic level of defense and goaltending is required, and it has just not happened this season. How they attempt to fix this in the summer is going to be really interesting.
What ails the Maple Leafs? A deep dive into grit, back-checking, leadership, and why the key to salvaging the season may ultimately come down to trading William Nylander.
My piece: pic.twitter.com/W4HSH10YhY
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) February 18, 2020
I really feel for Frederik Andersen lately. He has been a horse since he got here and often bailed out the wonky team defense. He has struggled this season — nobody would deny it — but the past week and change, this has not been on him.
Pittsburgh scored four backdoor tap-ins. The fifth goal was on him, but the game was pretty well over. After the Leafs climbed back with some shots on net and scoring chances, everyone looks at it and says that the Leafs got outplayed in net, deciding the game. It isn’t the real story.
Pittsburgh came out and worked the Leafs with ease and then coasted. Some score effects set in. Against Carolina, the team gave up 47 shots on net. The Canes had a Zamboni driver in net for half the game and the Leafs mustered 10 shots on net. This is on Andersen?
People want to find the one thing they can blame — one thing that is convenient and fixable — but that ignores the deeper issues here. Andersen can definitely be better, and any sort of hot streak from him likely puts the team in the playoffs, but just like it wasn’t completely on Mike Babcock, it isn’t on Andersen, either. There are a number of problems at all levels of the team and organization right now. Shanahan has a very big summer ahead of him.
I’m not big on small sample sizes but if you lose to your own zamboni driver you might be sellers.
— Steve "Dangle" Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) February 23, 2020
I don’t know how much you can realistically sell, but how do you justify keeping Tyson Barrie at this point if you can get some good draft picks for him?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the market needs to take a bit of a deep breath here. It was an embarrassing game because of how they played Carolina (the team) — at home no less — more than it had to do with the goalie in the Canes’ net. They couldn’t get anything through or assert their will in any sort of capacity. That’s the most troubling thing here. It was the second night of a back-to-back for Carolina with travel while the Leafs were rested. The goalie storyline was just the icing on top. Chicago had a third-string emergency callup go in and beat the Jets in 2018, and yet everyone is acting as though this has never happened before in the history of the game. The Jets went to the conference final a few months later.
2. I think I’d be swapping Mitch Marner and William Nylander to see if some life can be breathed into the group (yet again, looking for a spark with this team). Obviously, they’ve had success before with Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, and they really just need a bit more balance between the two lines. I like Matthews and Marner together and I am glad they’ve put them together — now there’s enough there that you can reunite them — but I like the dynamic a bit better with Matthews – Nylander and especially with Tavares – Marner.
3. To some degree, I think I understand putting the new guy in a favourable position, but Denis Malgin isn’t good enough to be automatically walked into the top six over players like Alexander Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall. Maybe they don’t view him as a center in any capacity, but he has played it before and if they tried him at 3C, it opens up Kerfoot or Engvall for playing in the top six. He did make a nice play to screen the goalie on Muzzin’s goal against Pittsburgh, but he also has yet to register a shot on net in two games.
4. I think, yet again, it’s worth reiterating that if Timothy Liljegren is not going to play, or is barely playing at all, he should be in the AHL playing 25 to 30 minutes per night. When I’ve made this argument in this space in the past, I am surprised it has been such a lightning rod for readers. If he’s going to be with the Leafs, he should be receiving a reasonable 16-ish minutes per night like Rasmus Sandin is. Otherwise, just send him down.
5. I think I would be wary of making a huge shakeup move at this time. Trading a pending UFA is one thing, but trading anyone under contract with term at an emotional time like this during a season that has not gone as planned is how mistakes are made. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen and shouldn’t if the right deal is there to be had, but I would be very careful. They have a lot of work to do, but the vast majority of it should happen in the summer after a careful analysis and review of what happened this season.