Between the long break, the uncertain times we are living in, and the lack of social events in the real world, I am really excited about the return of hockey.

Let’s get right into it: The first Leafs Notebook of the 2021 season.

Notes


Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New Jersey Devils
Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

– Not sure if people want to discuss the scrimmage or not, but I don’t have much to say about it. Watching Calle Rosen (!?) try to dangle Auston Matthews in the offensive zone, leading to a Mitch Marner mini-breakaway goal, and then Marner take another breakaway at 20% speed and 5% intensity (he tried to score between his legs, and it didn’t work)… There is not much to analyze here. Nobody on the fringes of the NHL roster did much to differentiate themselves, and Sheldon Keefe admitted afterward that the game didn’t really move the needle on any decisions. It was nice that hockey was back, but it felt like a pickup game.

– In light of the Leafs splitting up the power-play units, I did some looking around at top power-play units over the past three seasons and how the ice time was allocated. What stood out — although it was already pretty obvious — is that there is generally no such thing as two evenly-split power-play units. Naturally, there is almost always a clear top unit and a secondary unit.

All the best power-play units featured at least four players playing three-plus minutes per game on the power play, and the players that were 6-10 on the team in power-play ice time were around the low two-minute mark or one minute and change of power-play time on ice per game. The one team this didn’t apply to over the past few seasons (and still managed to have an elite power play): The Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017-18. Look at how their ice time was distributed on a power play that finished second in the league:

PlayerPP TOI/GP
James van Riemsdyk2:17
Morgan Rielly2:12
Mitch Marner2:12
Tyler Bozak2:11
Auston Matthews2:09
Nazem Kadri2:05
Jake Gardiner2:04
William Nylander2:01
Patrick Marleau1:58
Josh Leivo1:53

– We all knew that Wayne Simmonds would find a role in front of the net on one of the Leafs power-play units, but I thought it was nice to see Zach Hyman get the nod on the “other” unit (that’s what we’ll call it for now). He was really good there last season, primarily because he doesn’t mind paying the price in front of the net and he is a dog on a bone retrieving pucks. It is a deserved reward for a player that works his tail off. The Leafs haven’t always put this type of player in front of the net; options like Andreas Johnsson have spent time in the role previously.

– The Leafs were 25th in shorthanded faceoff percentage last season. The players that won the second and third most faceoffs on the team last season (Frederik Gauthier and Nick Shore) are no longer on the team. The Leafs did nothing to address this in the offseason, so it makes sense that Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza are receiving penalty kill looks – someone has to take faceoffs.

– I was snooping around some statistics and didn’t realize this – among centers, according to Natural Stat Trick, John Tavares was on the ice for the sixth most goals against among centers at 5v5. Now, the players in front of him were Toews, McDavid, Filppula, Draisaitl, and Scheifele, but all of them — save for Filppula — scored more than they gave up. I don’t really care what Tavares does at 5v5 if his goals for percentage is ~45 percent. That’s a liability to the team, and it needs to improve.

Quotes


Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs GM
Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

“As I explained to the players yesterday — and Sheldon and I have talked about from the end of the season — the major thing that we feel has affected us as we have gone through the season has been not setting ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs.”

– Kyle Dubas on the team’s regular-season performance

I agree. Over the offseason, there were a lot of comparisons of this Leafs team to the old Washington Capital teams that regularly lost early in the playoffs despite really strong regular seasons, but there is really no comparison to be made. Those Capitals teams, generally speaking, dominated the regular season.

In the 10 years before their Cup victory, they won their division seven times, finished second twice, and mixed in one bad season. They won the President’s Trophy three times in that span. The Leafs have yet to win their division — in fact, they haven’t even finished inside the top two yet. Of course, they’ve had to deal with two elite opponents in their division. Not this year. They have to take a step this season and start dominating in the regular season.

“Auston has really established himself — in my mind, and for those who really watch him closely — as a dominant defensive player. With the work habits and competitiveness that he has, he is ready to take on more.”

– Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews

Matthews has taken huge strides defensively and is certainly not a liability there, but I don’t think anyone would confuse him with a prime Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews at this point, so calling him dominant seems like a stretch.

According to Natural Stat Trick, he was on the ice for the fifth most scoring chances against at 5v5, among a group of other offensively-inclined centers such as Draisaitl, McDavid, Barzal, and Scheifele. He was tied for fifth in corsi against with Dylan Larkin.

Matthews scores a lot and can dominate the puck for shifts. That’s his best defense at this point — Matthews is generally content with trading chances with opponents and betting he’ll score more, which generally works out, but it is not what a dominant defensive player does. He is going to continue to take strides here and get better as an overall player (he is still just 23), but this quote seemed a bit eyebrow-raising to me.

We will see what their matchup plans are, but they’ve put together a checking line, and you seemingly wouldn’t need to do that if you matched up the top line against the opponent’s top lines followed by a John Tavares-led second line against the opponent’s second line.

“To put on that Leaf uniform, being from Southwestern Ontario and growing up and watching the Leafs — watching Dougie Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats — it is a thrill for me.”

– Joe Thornton, Toronto Maple Leaf

As a fan, this is super cool to hear. I hope he still has gas left in the tank. I’d like to think that he does.

Tweets of the Week


It’s funny, but I also think this is worth monitoring.

I mean, probability wise, it is reasonable to say that at least one of those two Leafs prospects should turn into a solid defenseman (although, if I’m being honest, I thought Ville Heinola was better than Niemela).

I said this a few times over the past few seasons, but the team was genuinely unlikable at points — little character off the ice, contract disputes, too many blowout no-shows, general underachievement. It seems to have completely swung the other way now with the additions of Thornton and Simmonds, in particular.

5 Bold Predictions


Toronto Maple Leafs, Morgan Rielly and John Tavares
Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

1) Morgan Rielly finishes top three in points for defensemen

I think Rielly is primed for a monster season. He should be back on the top power-play unit after the nonsense that occurred last season, he’s only a season removed from finishing third in points by defensemen and leading all defensemen in goals scored, and I’m guessing he will have a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

2) Auston Matthews leads the league in goals

This really isn’t that bold. He was already second in the league last year (Ovechkin and Pastrnak were tied for first). Pastrnak is out to start the season, and Ovechkin is in a much more difficult division. I think Matthews will feast on the Canadian teams. He has a clear path to winning some hardware this season. The Leafs seem hellbent on playing the tar out of him, and as long as the power-play setup doesn’t cut his ice time overall (as in a minute less per game on the PP than he should be getting), this is his to lose.

3) The Leafs go to the conference finals this year

I think the stars are aligning for this team. There is a real urgency this season to make some noise compared to the last few seasons. They have brought in some great veterans. They are in a weaker division. Looking at the cap situation as well as the age of some key contributors, this team could be primed to take a step back next season. They have to make noise this season and go on a run. I think they will.

4) Travis Dermott is traded during the season

He appears to be on the outs right now. After signing a cheap one-year deal that will leave him as an RFA again next offseason, it looks like he is starting the season outside of the top six, alongside a highly-touted and also lefthanded prospect in Rasmus Sandin. They already have Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Holl all locked in for next season, too. I just don’t see a slot for him (and I do like the player). I’m guessing, at some point, Dermott will feel the urgency and frustration and want a new opportunity.

5) This is Zach Hyman’s last season as a Leaf

This is a sad one for me. I really hope I’m wrong. I think Hyman is a really good player who is going to command a pretty penny. The team has nearly $68M already committed to just seven forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie. If they can address goaltending on the cheap, that might change things, but otherwise, I think it’s going to be very difficult to fit in a $4-6M AAV for Hyman (depending on how he performs this season, of course).

5 Things I Think I’d Do


John Tavares returns to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup
Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

1)  I think I’d be inclined to give John Tavares some of the faceoffs with the penalty-killing unit. Technically, Tavares was their best faceoff man overall last season, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a look, especially knowing it’s something he’s done before. In his last season with the Islanders, he played over a minute and a half per game on the PK.

2)  I think Sheldon Keefe isn’t wrong in his evaluation of Pierre Engvall, but he has a habit of going to the media with criticism of players, and I think that can become a bad look. We haven’t even played a regular-season game yet. I’m also not even sure Engvall is a center — his speed is effective up and down the wing, and he can contribute on the PK with his speed and reach. Ultimately, I don’t think you need to go to the media on a regular basis if you have a problem with the player. It seems to be happening quite often.

3)  On the note about Engvall, I think if Alex Kerfoot is going to miss games, one of — if not both — of Joe Thornton or William Nylander is going to have to play some center in those games. The team lacks center depth overall, which is something we’ve stated repeatedly. Jason Spezza isn’t really a full-time center anymore, Engvall is seemingly in the doghouse, and those are basically the options, if not for Thornton or Nylander. There isn’t anyone on the Marlies you can feel great about, either.

4)  With three games in the first four days of the season, I think it is a great opportunity to mix a bunch of players into the lineup — give Rasmus Sandin a game, Nick Robertson a game, Jack Campbell a start in net. Early evaluations are going to be critical this season. There’s little time to waste.

5)  In normal times, I’d be going out and getting together with friends to enjoy the first games of the season, but unfortunately, it is not in the cards right now. I hope everyone continues to stay safe, enjoys the games from home, and hopefully, we can reunite to watch Leafs hockey sooner than later.