Let’s start with the really important stuff: I hope everyone is staying safe and taking social distancing seriously.
We all have a responsibility to not only ourselves and our family but the community at large to self-isolate so that we can get through this together.
In the meantime, I was unsure about the reception a Leafs article would get at this time, but after putting it out to Twitter, it sounded like it would be a welcome distraction.
There are far greater things to worry about than whether we see a conclusion to this season, but I still hope we get one. Even if we do at this point, it’ll have some form of an asterisk because of this break. It’ll take the level of hockey weeks to ramp back up. Since the season did not play out as regularly scheduled, here are some questions I’ve been pondering (this is part one of several):
Who finishes third, Toronto or Florida?
This is the most obvious question, of course.
This race was a lot tighter than some were giving it credit for. The Leafs were ahead by three points on the Panthers, but the Panthers had a game in hand. The Leafs were 5-4-1 in their last 10, while the Panthers were 4-4-2. They weren’t far off of neck and neck.
Digging a little deeper, the Leafs have a better overall goal differential, but the Panthers actually had a better goal differential at 5v5 (+4 vs. +1). The Leafs had a slightly better power play (6th vs. 10th) and the Panthers own a slightly better penalty kill (21st vs. 20th). When it comes to shot metrics, the Leafs rate above the Panthers and the same goes for goaltending (believe it or not). On the balance, the Leafs rate slightly ahead, but the gap isn’t huge statistically at the team level.
Interestingly, while the Panthers don’t have a 40+ goal scorer like the Leafs, they have more 20+ goal scorers and more players with 30+ points. But the Leafs score slightly more on average (3.39 goals per game vs. 3.3) and were giving up slightly less (3.17 goals against per game vs. 3.25).
What about the remaining schedules? The Leafs and Panthers did have one game left against each other, which was scheduled to take place in Toronto. Of the Leafs 12 games remaining overall, only four were against teams that were out of the playoffs. The Panthers had six (including Ottawa twice). They both had seven home games remaining. The schedule difference isn’t too big, but the slight advantage goes to the Panthers. Whoever won that head-to-head game would have been feeling pretty good about themselves, but the reality is that either team was a good or bad week away from really making a claim.
With a slight lead above the Panthers, a head-to-head game at home (where Toronto was 18-9-7), and a team getting healthy with the return of Morgan Rielly, I’m inclined to believe that the Leafs hold on for that final playoff spot.
As a bit of an aside, the shootout might have been a notable issue down the stretch. It’s a crapshoot and not really indicative of anything, but the Leafs were 1-5 there this season and the Panthers were 3-4. It’s a small difference, but it’s entirely possible that the gap would have ended up as a noteworthy factor in the final result.
Was Travis Dermott becoming something? What does a healthy Leafs defense look like?
It has been an up and down year for Travis Dermott, and perhaps that is to be expected when you spend all summer recovering and rehabbing before missing the beginning of the regular season.
Zach Hyman was in a similar boat, but he has demonstrated an almost unmatched work effort. That’s not to say Dermott doesn’t work hard, but if you’re pitting almost anyone’s work habits up against Hyman at this point, you’re going to be disappointed.
Instead, Dermott followed a much more traditional recovery. He was slow to return, placed on the bottom pairing, and he received little special teams time. It was nearly a month into his return before he played 20 minutes in a game — and that came against the Red Wings. It’s not an ideal situation for a defenseman who had under 150 games to his name at that time, who is still finding his footing in the league, and who is only 23. Defensemen generally take much longer to develop, too (a cautionary note when it comes to Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, by the way!).
Of course, the team itself was also going through turmoil. They pretty clearly tuned out their head coach, who eventually got fired. When the new coach took over, on defense, there was almost a forced mandate to get Tyson Barrie going while a shutdown pair was established with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
Eventually, with all the injuries, Dermott was forced into top-pairing shutdown duty. Prior to the suspension of the season, he had played over 20 minutes in seven straight games, including over 25 minutes against Tampa Bay in the last game. That mark led the entire game in ice time. A large part of that was the near seven minutes of shorthanded time he played (Holl, Sandin and Morgan Rielly each had penalties on the night).
Alongside Holl, their shot share was below 49% (and Holl was much better alongside Muzzin). In fact, most players Dermott has played with this season have a better shot share away from him than with him (at 5v5). But Dermott wasn’t just flashing moments; he was putting together a consistent string of strong games at a critical time in the season. He’s feisty in his own zone, and even though he’s small, he’s strong with a low center of gravity when battling in the corners. His puck skills and puck movement are assets.
Originally, he was projected as a two-way defenseman with offensive upside, but we haven’t seen that offensive side of the game grow too much (he has 11 points in 56 games this season). Sandin is already ahead of him to quarterback the power play. If he isn’t getting any power-play time whatsoever – and it doesn’t look like any significant power play time is in his future with Rielly and Sandin in the fold – his offensive production is limited at best. That said, he was starting to show he can play top-four minutes with some level of decency.
Looking ahead, Dermott is a pending restricted free agent. For a Leafs team tight against the cap, they can surely get him at a solid number and give him a real look in the top four next season — possibly alongside Morgan Rielly in a bit more of a secondary role. With a locked in top shutdown pairing and a promising young defender expected to be on the third pairing (at least one, anyway), we might possibly already know at least five of the Leafs six defensemen for next season.
My bet is that Dermott will experience some more growing pains but is going to continue to progress. He needs more time in the top four, where he’ll generally do well. If they can add one veteran fourth/fifth “tweener” defenseman that they can in fact reasonably trust, the Toronto Maple Leafs might have the makings of an underrated defense.
Coming up in Part Two
- What to make of the transition under Sheldon Keefe?
- How much faith can be placed in Frederik Andersen moving forward?
- Can the Leafs figure out their bottom six?