How quickly things can change.
A week ago, it was the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs had just lost to a 42-year-old emergency backup goalie, Florida was right on their tail, and their overall play was troubling at best.
To make matters worse, the Leafs had a tough week ahead — or so it seemed — with visits to Tampa Bay and Florida followed by a home game against Vancouver — all teams with realistic playoff aspirations this year. Florida, in particular, has had their number recently, too.
How did the Leafs respond? With three regulation wins, of course.
It wasn’t always pretty, but that’s what made the victories sweeter. There was adversity — in particular, the Jake Muzzin injury against Tampa Bay. There were depth contributions (a Martin Marincin game-winner?). Their star players played like stars. They gutted out some of their wins.
It’s tough to not overplay the David Ayers situation as a potential turning point for the Leafs. There was a certain level of desperation and purpose to their game this week that was missing previously. Against Tampa Bay, they came out flying and Zach Hyman went on a partial breakaway on the first shift. Against Florida, the Leafs didn’t have nearly the same type of start, but they didn’t lose their game and cheat for offense after falling behind so early (which has happened throughout the season). They created a number of chances early and were ready to go against the Canucks.
To make matters even better, some good fortune came their way. Florida is 3-6-1 in their last 10 and they look terrible. Buffalo maybe had a slight glimmer of hope last week, but not after their current three-game losing streak. In Tampa, Steven Stamkos is out indefinitely. Things sure can change quickly in this league.
It’s far too early to call what happened with David Ayers against Carolina a season-saving/turning moment, but the Leafs may have experienced a true reality check and they’ve made headway in the standings since.
With 16 games remaining, here are some questions to ponder for the rest of the way:
- Who will settle in as the team’s 3C? Presumably, Ilya Mikheyev will return at some point and that will likely bump Denis Malgin out of the starting 12. At left wing, the Leafs currently have Zach Hyman – Alex Kerfoot – Kyle Clifford – Pierre Engvall. The obvious answer is Mikheyev replacing Kerfoot, Kerfoot returning to 3C, and Spezza moving down to the fourth line. However, Jason Spezza has been productive, so will they want him out of the top nine? How will Mikheyev fare after returning from a gruesome injury?
- When will Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly return, and what does the defense look like when they do? It would make sense for Muzzin to slide back in alongside Justin Holl on the top shutdown pairing, but if Travis Dermott keeps excelling, do they consider moving him to the right side to play alongside Rielly? Does that mean a sheltered third pairing of Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie? Or do they go back to playing Barrie with Rielly?
- On that note, does Cody Ceci walk back into a roster spot with this team? You can argue he’s their seventh-best defenseman (some might even say eighth). It’s one thing if he comes back before Muzzin and/or Rielly, but with everyone healthy, is he guaranteed a spot?
- Similarly, what happens to the special teams once everyone returns? Does Morgan Rielly return to the top power-play unit at any point? Who shakes out as the penalty killers on defense – Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Morgan Rielly, and Travis Dermott?
- Is the Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line the full-time matchup line the rest of the way? The Leafs are all but set up to play Tampa Bay in the first round, which means a line consisting of at least Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Are the Leafs going to go head to head with the Matthews line? Last year, it was the Tavares line. The year before, it was Kadri’s unit. Is it Matthews’ turn? What will happen to his offense in the playoffs if that’s the matchup of choice?
It’s funny how much can change in a week. The questions were so different just seven days ago.
– Kudos to Shelden Keefe for showing trust and faith in Frederik Andersen through his recent turmoil. I can’t fairly state that he has been lights out or is stealing games, but he was very good in the third period against Tampa Bay while protecting the lead, he was solid against Florida after the wrap-around miss, and he was solid against Vancouver. I was wondering where his games played total might end up considering his injury and missed time. With 16 games left, he’s played 50. He played 60 last year and 66 in each of the previous two seasons. It seems like at least 60 is a reasonable bet for him yet again, and it will likely be around the 62-game mark if he stays healthy.
– Vancouver’s first goal is the type of thing you have to expect with so many players being shuffled in, out, and around the lineup. There was a miscommunication between Frederik Andersen, Tyson Barrie, and Rasmus Sandin as to who was fetching the puck. By the time Sandin eventually went for it, it was too late.
– It was noteworthy that Keefe elected to put out Frederik Gauthier and Pierre Engvall together to help the Leafs protect the lead against Tampa Bay. Last week, Gauthier chipped in two points in three games and played over 10 minutes each night. Depth contributions, as was especially highlighted in the series against the Bruins last Spring, can often be the difference at this time of year. Engvall didn’t put up any points, but he has carved out a role as a trusted checker. Those two paired with Matthews is a very big line that can win battles and get in the way of shooting/passing lanes.
– The fourth line had other contributions, too. As noted, Frederik Gauthier scored against the Canucks. Against Tampa, the line had a number of energy shifts in the offensive zone, one leading to a Jake Muzzin goal.
– Last year, I was fortunate enough to go to the Leafs game in Montreal when John Tavares scored the overtime winner.
I was right behind the net for that goal (roughly 12 rows up). When he pulled it backhanded, it looked like he cornered himself and there was no room to score, yet he ripped the backhand high and hard over the shoulder.
I thought of that goal as Tavares scored on another ridiculous backhand against Tampa Bay. It’s hard to describe how hard that shot is to pull off and how difficult it is for a goalie to stop. There is no sense of where it’s going or how hard the shot is going to be. It is essentially a guessing game where the goalie’s only chance is to make himself big. Tavares also got the shot off a split second quicker than you’d expect the player to in that situation. That’s a lethal shot in his bag of tricks.
– The Leafs’ power play went 0/4 against the Canucks, although they had a number of chances, including a Matthews goalpost. I thought it was interesting to see how deep the Canucks first forward went into the Leafs zone to hang around for the drop pass. The asset the Leafs miss the most from Morgan Rielly on the power play: His ability to make judgement calls on when to skate or drop the puck off. Tyson Barrie rarely — if ever — skates it himself (teams don’t respect it), while Rasmus Sandin has been hesitant at making the read and knowing what do to consistently, although he flashes some great decisions. The Leafs try to focus on skating through the middle of the ice, gaining the blue line, and hitting a winger on the wall to set it up. The opposition looks ready for it now.
I still think the best power-play breakouts I’ve seen from the Leafs were when JVR would get the pass outside the blue line along the boards on his strong side and make a read to saucer pass the puck through, skate in himself, or skate in and drop it to the defenseman.
– It was nice to see Auston Matthews score a goal against Florida after he dumped the puck and got it back. We have pointed out for years how teams set out to clog the Leafs up. Sometimes, you do actually have to shoot the puck in and go retrieve it. That’s a potentially nice wrinkle to their offense and something that will matter even more come playoff time when the neutral zone is completely locked down.
“I find the lows here are very low and the highs can be very high. So, for us, it’s key is to stay levelheaded.”
– Auston Matthews on playing in Toronto
It is crucial in this market to say steady and consistent through the highs and lows. I do think that makes good veteran players especially important, particularly when you have a young team like this one. In this regard, Jason Spezza seems to have been a strong addition to the group. As a former superstar, it appears he really has the ear and respect of the room.
“Kappy is playing on a different level right now. He’s making a big difference for us.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the play of Kasperi Kapanen lately
Kasperi Kapanen also noted that he was fed up after the Pittsburgh and Buffalo games. It has been nice to see him playing with this fire. In many ways, he has been a sparkplug for the group over the past week, providing real jam and emotion at times when the team has needed it. When Kapanen hits on the forecheck, he hits hard, as I noted last week when he got Nino Niederreiter to take a retaliation penalty.
Kapanen is stuck behind Nylander and Marner, and he didn’t look that great on the left side, but to me what he’s doing on the third line right now is more than enough. He scored a big goal against Florida on the second power-play unit, too.
“Our group that we have here has to go through this. We have to develop the ability to weather the storm when it comes and to thrive going through it. That’s the only way we’re going to be at our best.”
– Kyle Dubas assessing his team at the trade deadline
I could buy this if they lost in the second round of the playoffs or something, but adversity through struggling to make the playoffs just doesn’t really meet the sniff test after three straight first-round playoff exits.
Tweets of the Week
The returns the Leafs have got for recently departed players:
JVR – Nothing
Tyler Bozak – Nothing
Leo Komarov. – Nothing
Jake Gardiner – Nothing
Tyson Barrie – Nothing
This is not how you build a team that can contend long term.
— Phantom Stretch Pass (@Lonny_Bohonos) February 25, 2020
You can say what you want, but at the end of the day, letting players walk for free continually only to lose in the first round of the playoffs is not good asset management. In most of these cases, they would have suffered the exact same fate regardless except they would have had some future assets to show for it.
Cap hit of the Leafs entire blueline tonight was $6.63-million.
18 defencemen make more than that leaguewide.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 1, 2020
It’s pretty impressive that the Leafs have been able to put together this winning streak with this defense group. This is the point in the season where the how or why doesn’t matter. The Leafs are collecting points. Kudos to them.
Martin Marincin’s first of the season but with Titanic music pic.twitter.com/TOw7pyoRD3
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) March 1, 2020
This made me laugh, but I also have a bit of a theory on Martin Marincin. I would bet he’s a very good practice player. He’s big. He has flashed decent hands (if you watch him with the Marlies, he’ll occasionally toe-drag at the offensive blue line, and Keefe referenced on Saturday that he expects the odd nice goal from him). Plus, he can skate. In NHL games, though, we often see a nervous player. Against Florida, he fully whiffed on a one-timer, and at one point, he couldn’t pick up a puck off the boards. He’s able to do both, but it largely seems mental with him.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. Most readers will know this by now, but I have been a fan of the 11-7 concept with this group. It is even more relevant with the injuries on the blue line. It was unfortunate that Timothy Liljegren basically did not play, but overloading the top players with minutes when there are days off between games is not a terrible strategy — especially when the roster sort of mixes and matches. I don’t think I’d try it on a back-to-back, but when you have the time, it is worth a few more looks.
2. I think I actually quite liked Kyle Clifford getting the odd shift up the lineup as an experienced grinder in tight games. He was in front of the net on the William Nylander game-winner against Florida and he took a number of shifts alongside him in the game in general. He just adds a different look to the group — which is something we’ve talked about for years here — and at times, it can be very impactful.
3. I think I’d give Jack Campbell the game against his former team, the LA Kings, and Frederik Andersen the game against his former team the night after in Anaheim. It will mean something to both of them.
4. When people inevitably suggest packaging off Travis Dermott in the summer, I think what he’s starting to put together lately should be remembered. Eventually, the team will get healthy and he’ll get bumped down, and I’m not sure what that will do to his overall play. But he looks good in a full-time top-four role right now. We can’t forget these flashes. Again, he’s young and he hasn’t even technically played two full seasons worth of games. He also missed training camp this year. Young defensemen take a long time to develop.
5. Looking at the schedule, I think the Leafs have a real opportunity to put a near-insurmountable gap between themselves and the Panthers this week. They play three Western Conference bottom dwellers, while the Panthers play Boston and Montreal followed by St. Louis and Dallas next week. The Leafs are five points up right now and they’ve played the same number of games. You can see how a big lead could open up here over the next week and a half. That would be beneficial for the Leafs as far as resting players, taking their time bringing injured bodies back, and experimenting with the lineup.