Ten and a half months after the suspension of the 2019-20 regular season and four and a half months removed from a forgettable bubble playoff experience, Maple Leafs have retooled over the offseason and are ready to embark on a new season that, if all goes to plan for the NHL, should produce no shortage of intense rivalries in the Canadian division. The race for best in the North starts tonight against Montreal (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Last season’s pre-Covid Canadiens team was all but out of the playoff race as they played their last few games in early March — they were 10 back of a playoff spot with 11 games to go, with three teams between them and the final wildcard spot. The most fortunate team to be afforded a chance to qualify for the playoffs, Montreal was exactly .500 (31-31-9), winners of five of their last 18 and pacing in the low-80s in total points.
To their credit, the Habs made the most of it with an impressive run to the second round. Some combination of that surprising bubble performance, their underlying 5v5 numbers, and their offseason changes has many pundits convinced of Montreal’s ability to finish somewhere between first and third in the North Division. That remains to be seen, but credit where it is due, the Habs are a pretty well-rounded, well-coached group with respectable depth and a track record of controlling the critical areas of the ice at 5v5.
In each of the last two regular seasons, Montreal has earned in excess of 54% of xGoals in most of the publicly-available hockey stat databases. Per evolving-hockey’s rankings, their 2018-19 season ranked ninth among all individual seasons those two years, while their 19-20 season ranked fifth. In overall shot share, those seasons ranked 6th and 4th, respectively.
The core of the problems for the Habs has stemmed from two things: inconsistent goaltending and, most of all, lack of offensive gamebreakers / difficulty scoring enough goals. Marc Bergevin attempted to address those needs in the offseason to some degree with the addition of Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, although he moved out Max Domi in the Anderson deal. Hamstrung by a lack of a reliable #2 in recent years, Bergevin addressed the need in net in a serious way, upgrading their goalie depth with 30-year-old Jake Allen, a historically inconsistent goaltender who is coming off a career year statistically.
The Habs’ power play, in particular, was a bigger problem than their five-on-five offense last season (26th in xGoals/60 and 25th in Goals/60). At least initially, their primary unit will remain similar to last season, with both Jeff Petry and Shea Weber on the top group. Weber occupies the left-flank in his one-timer spot, while Petry is the puck mover at the top. The player occupying the right side playmaking spot could go one of two ways, as the Habs have tried both lefty Jonathan Drouin and righty Nick Suzuki there, although it appears the youngster will get the look to start. Regardless of where those two slot-in, Toffoli appears to be the bumper option in the middle of the ice.
#Habs power play unit 1:
Weber – Toffoli – Suzuki
Unit 1 practised an alternate configuration with Suzuki and Drouin swapping R half wall and goalline positions, which creates a one-timer option for Drouin, who has a strong but underused shot.
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) January 9, 2021
The Maple Leafs power play seems to be taking an altered approach to start the season: Matthews and Marner will anchor the first unit, while Tavares and Nylander remain together on the “second” unit. Sheldon Keefe’s history suggests he’ll want Matthews on the ice for maximal 5v4 time, so whether this is a return to the two-equal-units strategy that was initially successful but later panned under Mike Babcock is a storyline to keep an eye on. There is the benefit of having either the Matthews or Tavares line fresh enough for the shift/matchup directly after a power play, but all of the most successful man-advantage units in the league load up a unit and don’t split time evenly.
Whichever way the approach evolves during the season, Toronto’s power play will aim to be more consistently dangerous than last year. They finished strong in terms of power-play percentage thanks to a torrid hot streak (immediately after Sheldon Keefe first took over), but the rate at which they produced chances was actually below league average (17th in xG/60, 22nd in CF/60). With two power-play assets added on top of the existing five-man group from last season (Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds), new assistant Manny Malhotra has all the weapons a coach could ask for — elite playmakers in Marner and Thornton, lethal shot takers in Matthews, Nylander, and Tavares, a credible net front presence in Simmonds, and capable PPQBs in Rielly and potentially Brodie and Lehtonen.
If the games are as sloppy as some are predicting after a short camp and no preseason — the bubble experience didn’t play out that way exactly, although that was playoff hockey — these special teams units could be an even bigger factor than usual in the early going.
The biggest focus of the Leafs‘ offseason concerned the defense core, with the addition of TJ Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and Mikko Lehtonen (the latter won’t play tonight). T.J Brodie’s chemistry alongside Morgan Rielly will be the critical factor in how much more effective their defense group will be as a whole, but the Leafs will hope Bogosian can play a central role on the penalty kill while making life harder on the opposition around the Leafs net front (long overdue, to be sure). Throughout this season series vs. Montreal, we may see some good battles play out at the net front with the additions of Simmonds, Thornton, Bogosian, Anderson, Joel Edmunson, and (in future games) Corey Perry to the rivalry.
In net, both Frederik Andersen and Carey Price will have shorter leashes than they’ve had in the past given their 2019-20 seasons and the additions in behind them — Andersen, especially, given the stark drop-off in his numbers last season. Price, after a down year statistically in the regular season, was in peak form during the Habs’ unexpected run in the bubble. It’s safe to say these two teams will only go as far as their two starters can take them.
Behind the bench, I don’t expect Keefe to concern himself all that much with matchups in the early going (with the Canadiens and Senators x2 on the docket) so much as he will with establishing the four lines he stuck to all throughout training camp. Ice time distribution is a storyline to keep an eye on, though, with greybeard Joe Thornton suiting up on Matthews’ wing in his homecoming Toronto debut.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the importance of the Leafs‘ taxi-squad players (Robertson, Boyd, Brooks, Sandin, Lehtonen):
It’s really important. Obviously, this is the first optional skate for us here this morning, so I just wanted to get out there and get a feel for the guys that are out there and have some conversations with them. With our reserve players, what we’ve determined is we’re not going to be going with the taxi squad designation anymore; we’re going with the ‘stay ready squad’. I think that speaks to the mindset that we need these guys to have in terms of how they have to stay ready and continue to work. It’s also a reminder to us as a coaching staff that we need to keep them ready. Shoutout to Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets for that.
Keefe on what he’s looking forward to this season:
First of all, I was excited just to start a training camp, even though it was a short one. It was a chance to share my vision for the team and how we’re going to build throughout the season. Today is a good opportunity for us to show the things that we’ve worked on and the mindset we have as a team. The message to the guys this morning was just to build on our structure and our systems as they go, but the identity and the habits should be apparent right from the start here and I’m excited for that to unfold.
Keefe on what they wanted from Andersen’s preparation for this season:
[We wanted] him to have a good offseason, first of all. A lot of the work has been through Steve Briere, our goalie coach. Fred right away sent a pretty loud message, I think ,to everybody in our organization about how he’s preparing. The fact that he came into Toronto early than he ever has — he got in around two months of work in our facility and with our staff to get himself prepared for this season.
Keefe on Leafs vs. Habs matchup:
I think it’ll do a lot. I just know our mindset coming in is that this will be a tough game. Every game last season — I only coached against Montreal one time — wasn’t an easy game. Montreal played the entire league really hard last season and with the additions they’ve made, their expectations will be on a higher level. When you’re playing them as often as we are this season, you’re going to see a high-level play in every game. We’ll see that tonight, I’m sure.
Morgan Rielly on his power-play unit:
I know what I have to do and I think that those guys kind of have their own plan. The more reps that we get the more comfortable we’ll be. Over time, that’s going to build and we’re going to become more comfortable. For me, I want to do my part and get them the puck and fire shots when I can. Joe [Thornton] and Wayne [Simmonds] are going to talk about what they need to do, if it’s changing spots with the middle guy and the net front. Auston and Mitch are going to do whatever they can to get the puck moving.
Rielly on the circumstances this season:
I think it’s just interesting. Playing the teams in Canada nine or ten times, having a crammed game schedule, not a whole lot of practice, the protocols that are put in place — the whole thing is just a little interesting. Over time, we’ll get comfortable with it, but right now, it’s a little bit foreign.
We’re curious to see how road trips are going to look like and flights and all of that. We’re prepared for anything, it’s just a matter of keeping a good attitude and controling our play on the ice because that’s all that really matters.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #11 Zach Hyman
#94 Alexander Barabanov – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #76 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Thornton – Matthews
Tavares – Kerfoot – Nylander
Extras: Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Boyd, Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks, Aaron Dell
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #24 Philip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#92 Jonathan Drouin – #14 Nick Suzuki – #17 Josh Anderson
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #40 Joel Armia
#41 Paul Byron – #71 Jake Evans – #62 Artturi Lehkonen
#8 Ben Chiarot – #6 Shea Weber
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#77 Brett Kulak – #27 Alexander Romanov
#31 Carey Price (starter)
#34 Jake Allen