We have to start with the obvious here: Boy, is it ever nice to have hockey back.
You can tell there was no preseason and the conditioning is definitely off, but it’s great to see the game on television again.
With that out of the way, let’s start talking about the season before us. It is shortened and as unpredictable as ever. Among the many questions: How will the lurking threat of Covid affect lineups and the schedule as the season evolves?
Without warmup games and with a condensed season, organizations everywhere are faced with an additional question this year: How much time and patience do they really have to make decisions?
I feel confident in suggesting that, in a normal season, it wouldn’t have taken until the third game for the Leafs to give a player like Nick Robertson a look, and Mikko Lehtonen probably wouldn’t be sitting in the press box through three games (even with the cap considerations). The scrutiny on line combinations would not be as heavy, even in the Toronto market.
Time is not a luxury this season, and teams can’t wait nearly as long to see how things look, how they will play out, or simply wait for players to round into form. Already, there are questions as to who the Leafs’ starting goaltender should be.
So, what is an appropriate timeline to start making difficult decisions?
In a normal, 82-game season, the importance of your record by American Thanksgiving has been discussed at length. By that time, teams have played roughly 22 games each, which is just under 30% of the season. In a 56-game season, that’s around 15 or 16 games. The Leafs are already three games in, so that number is fast approaching.
But what can you really take from three games, two of them being against an expected bottom feeder (and I know people were debating that after their first game, but I still think Ottawa is a bad but annoying team)? So far, at 5v5, the Leafs are third in corsi, fifth-best in fenwick, 19th in goals-for percentage, 16th in expected goals, 25th in save percentage, and 22nd in PDO. They’ve probably been a bit unlucky, but the numbers are also a bit inflated due to playing a weak opponent twice.
It’s too early to take anything from those numbers, obviously. The same thing applies to lineup decisions. For instance, is this two power-play unit approach here to stay?
In the first game against Ottawa, with Leafs down 4-2, they headed to the power play seconds after a commercial break. Tavares was on the bench next to Nylander watching the other unit. The Leafs didn’t score and Ottawa stretched the lead to 5-2 before the Leafs went to another power play. They decided to load up the unit and scored with relative ease, but it was too little too late.
In the next game, with the score at 2-1 in the third period, the Leafs started a power play with Tavares and Nylander watching. Auston Matthews scored to make it 3-1, which stood up as the game-winner.
It’s probably too early to make a determination on this approach, but they don’t have a ton of time to evaluate it, either. Sooner than later, they’ll have to make a more concrete decision on an experiment like this.
The same applies to ideas such as Joe Thornton on the top line. I know the numbers look good, but if we’re honest, almost anyone can play with Matthews and Marner and have strong numbers through three games, with two coming against Ottawa.
What about the third line? Alex Kerfoot has been solid at center, but they are also insulating him with their third and fourth-best wingers, and the defenseman he played the most against in the last few games was Erik Gudbranson.
A few telltale signs have been visible as games have progressed, too. Zach Hyman moved up to the top line, Ilya Mikheyev moved up to the second, and even Wayne Simmonds moved up to the third. It was almost as if to say: Yes, we are trying certain things, but when the game is in crunch time, we know what our true line combinations will be.
Eventually, are the Leafs just going to roll these lines? Are they really starting the playoffs with Zach Hyman – clearly at least their third-best winger – on the third line? Similarly, is Hyman really not going to be on the ice in the final minute of a game with the Leafs protecting a one-goal lead? That happened against Ottawa on Saturday, and Mitch Marner coughed it up multiple times. A better team likely makes him pay for the one in front of his net with 10 seconds left.
Is Jake Muzzin going to continue averaging the fourth-most ice time on defense while William Nylander plays only 30 seconds – about one shift – more than Joe Thornton?
It’s early, and things need to play out a little more here to properly evaluate the decisions. That said, after this week, the Leafs will be seven games into their season with over 12 percent of the 56-game schedule complete. Experimenting will always be a part of it, but there is experimenting, and then there is good players sitting in high-leverage situations during a season that is a sprint, not a marathon.
– As I understand it, the Leafs were right up against the salary cap with essentially no room to call up players making more money than Nick Robertson, which meant no Mikko Lehtonen, Pierre Engvall, or even Alexander Barabanov. They protected Aaron Dell as long as they could, but they simply couldn’t afford to keep a third goalie around at the expense of the actual playing roster. Putting Jason Spezza on waivers as well creates added flexibility. At some point, the Leafs need to give some of these guys a look to see what they have.
– That sentiment remains true for Alexander Barabanov as well. He did look like a deer in the headlights, and at 26, that is not what you would hope or expect, even from a player making his NHL debut. But he played 5:27 in one game and 4:19 in the other. What’s he really going to show? While Ilya Mikheyev has turned out to be a really good player, he also received a real opportunity to show what he could do in his first few games last season – he played 15:16 and 17:02 in his first two nights. Perhaps Barabanov is out of his element either way, but you can’t make that determination in that ice time.
– Considering the Leafs’ opponents to start, it’s hard to really look at the matchups and get a feel for Sheldon Keefe’s approach. I couldn’t tell you which line of Ottawa’s is their top line. I’m not sure they can, either. The Habs predictably played Phillip Danault against Auston Matthews as he is their checking line (overall, that’s a good two-way line). I’m much more interested to see who the Leafs match up against Mark Scheifele, Connor McDavid, Sean Monahan, and Elias Pettersson.
– Credit where it’s due, nice penalty kill from Jimmy Vesey with Zach Hyman in the penalty box late against Ottawa. They were nursing a 3-2 lead at the time. He blocked a shot from Thomas Chabot with good positioning and took good angles in the neutral zone to prevent entries. He reads the game well and is able to get his stick in passing lanes and create turnovers.
– Maybe it means nothing — I’m not particularly sure — but I looked it up: Last season, no team averaged 30 hits per game. Through the Leafs’ first three games, their opponents have all exceeded that mark. Nick Robertson is already hurt because of it, Auston Matthews has been run a few times — particularly by Austin Watson — while John Tavares took a pretty good licking from Brady Tkachuk. I’m not sure how sustainable it is taking that kind of contact (or it happening every night), but it’s pretty clear once again that opponents are trying to push the Leafs around. It was nice to see Matthews confront Tkachuk and also race into a scrum against Braydon Coburn. Tavares has also been active in scrums, particularly against Montreal.
– It’s fine if the Leafs are going to pinch more aggressively on the wall – which they have been – but the forwards have to know the basics of playing defense. On the second Josh Anderson goal, John Tavares was in a good position and then randomly lunged at Anderson, putting himself out of position. A very basic teaching moment here is that Tavares just needed to skate directly to the post closest to him on Andersen’s net. That would have cut off Josh Anderson and forced an outside shot. He is in a good position here, and Anderson has nothing. All he has to do here is maintain his gap. Plus, he has a back checker coming:
He lunges for no reason at all:
He gets burned because he challenged a guy that is basically touching the boards, instead of forcing him to shoot from distance:
“We know we can score. We know we have a lot of skilled players who can not only play well defensively but are developing that side of their game so we can become a team that is more difficult to score against. That is an important part of our growth.”
– Brendan Shanahan on the next steps for the team this season
We haven’t seen this yet. The most concerning number for me through three games is that the team has 11 goals for and 11 goals against for an even goal differential. That’s after playing the Ottawa Senators twice.
“You are trying to set up the perfect shot and perfect play toward the net, but there is a great number of goals that are just randomness — put the puck to space, try to out-number the opposition on loose pucks. Really, all of their goals came off of loose-puck situations like that.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the loss to the Senators
This is true, and it’s something I’d love to see more of: Throw pucks on net, crash the net, and see what happens. The Leafs lack enough of this.
“I felt alright. I liked how I was moving in the crease. I felt comfortable. A few of the goals were see-through pucks & tricklers through the body … As we get more games in, I know I’ll be coming up with those saves.”
– Frederik Andersen after allowing four goals on 32 shots versus Montreal
I am not entirely convinced he will, but it would be great to see him hang onto those tricklers and be stronger in his net when players like Josh Anderson drive at him.
Tweets of the Week
Here’s my Leafs hot taek: Hyman-Matthews is the most important combo for the Leafs up front. Matthews can play with both Nylander and Marner fine because they’re both great, but Hyman and Matthews both sustain cycles just so exceptionally well together.
— Rhys Jessop (@Thats_Offside) January 14, 2021
It doesn’t feel like they are completely taking these games seriously until they create the line combinations that we all know are their best. We’ll see how long this goes on for.
Even Strength Sv% since Jan.1 2020
(15+ Games played) pic.twitter.com/zxcbXdJKrf
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) January 16, 2021
I am really struggling to figure out if he is permanently broken as a goalie on the wrong side of 30, or if he is in a funk that has spanned over multiple extenuating circumstances including brutal play in front of him, an injury, COVID, and no preseason. Time is running out, though.
Leafs Twitter having a meltdown nature is healing
— Sara Civ (@SaraCivian) January 16, 2021
The Leafs really haven’t played all that well to start this season. They are 2-1-0. Could be much worse.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’m starting to wonder if it benefits William Nylander and Mitch Marner if the Leafs swap their spots in the lineup.
Over the past three seasons, the numbers with Matthews and Marner vs. Nylander are close. Matthews has a better corsi with Nylander (56 vs 54) and high-danger scoring chance percentage (57 vs. 56), but the margins are razor-thin.
Nylander and Matthews actually posted a 49% on-ice goals percentage together, while Marner and Matthews are at 56%, and their expected goals is six percentage points higher, too — albeit on a higher PDO overall. But Matthews’ forechecking has evolved since then, and he wants the puck all the time — as does Marner.
If Matthews is going to set someone up to shoot, I’d rather Nylander do the shooting over Marner. Interestingly, with Tavares, the numbers pretty much do the same thing as Tavares-Nylander is at 49% of goals for percentage while Marner-Tavares is comfortably ahead of that mark at over 55%. Their expected goals are higher, their possession is roughly the same, and Marner again has a higher PDO with Tavares.
It depends on the roles for each line, but Nylander is a better shooter than Marner. Depending on the matchup I’d probably just swap them a bit more. It will help Marner have the puck on his stick more, too, which I think would help his confidence.
2. If you look at Travis Dermott’s ice time — he has played 12:34, 12:59, and 8:57 — then I think you might as well just put in Mikko Lehtonen at this point and see what he can do.
3. Similarly, I think the benefit would be getting TJ Brodie off a power-play unit, as he really doesn’t inspire me much there. I’d be happy to see Lehtonen QB a unit. Beyond that, even Jake Muzzin would interest me considering he has a bomb of a shot (it is a legitimate weapon). The season before the Leafs traded for him, Muzzin scored 14 points on the power play — something Brodie has never done — including four power plays (for the third time in his career in a season), something else Brodie has never done. They actually both have 65 power-play points to their names over their career, but Muzzin has the higher totals in single seasons and has the better shot, which is something they lack from the top of the point.
4. I think Pierre Engvall is in the dog house as evidenced by Keefe’s comments after the blue and white game, but I’d be inclined to get him in there. If nothing else, he is big and can skate. He can take a shift. He can kill penalties adequately. The bottom six, once again, is a weak point. Engvall won’t fix a ton, but you can trust him more than you can trust some of the options down there. If he gets some time on the wing, where his speed can be unleashed, he can make some impact plays.
5. I think it would be a little too early for me to start a goalie controversy by starting Jack Campbell in the next game. The Leafs play four games this week, and they can easily split them, 2-2 depending on performance. I’d still be looking to get Andersen going at this point knowing how good he has been before.