You’d think a game with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews would’ve been more fun.
The final score was 3-1 Edmonton, but even that overstates the amount of offense we got to see. Neither team was able to create much of anything off the rush, resulting in a pretty boring game for a neutral third party.
Luckily, this isn’t an article for neutral fans. So let’s put our Leafs blinders on together and try to take some meaning out of this game by diving into the individual player grades.
Game Puck: Ilya Mikheyev (LW, #65) — He was flying up and down the ice in this game. I love watching Mikheyev realize he can beat his man down the wing, drop his shoulder, and zoom past the defender. You see it a lot when the Leafs are on the penalty kill.
If we’re going to nit-pick, I’d still like to see Mikheyev work to create some better shots from the middle of the ice. After that sequence, he had another PK shift where he did try to cut back inside, which was nice to see. It’s never a great sign when your third line checking winger was your most impactful player, but that’s not Mikheyev’s fault. He looked great.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — The Leafs really struggled to slice through Edmonton’s neutral zone trap in this game. Rielly was one of the only players who was able to create chances off the rush for Toronto by jumping up in the play and beating his man down the ice.
He also did a great job skating down the left wall in the offensive zone and threading passes through the slot to an open teammate on the other side of the ice, usually Auston Matthews. When the pass wasn’t there, I liked how Rielly wheeled around the net with speed, which is how he drew a penalty on McDavid. Now, it is worth noting Rielly got beat by McDavid for an odd-man rush with 3 minutes left in the game — leading to a Zach Kassian shot off the crossbar — but you have to take some risks when you’re trailing late in the third period.
Coaching Staff — Bear with me here.
As a fan of entertaining hockey, it hurt my eyes to watch that game. As an analyst, though, I don’t mind seeing the Leafs more or less shut down the most unstoppable player on the planet.
Yes, the Leafs need to find a better way to create chances off the cycle instead of circling the wagon again and again on the perimeter. And yes, the forward lines could use some fine-tuning. Overall, though, are we really going to complain when a team that everyone’s been begging to play defense actually does it?
Wait who am I kidding? This is Toronto, of course we’re going to complain.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — I’ve really been enjoying his play this season. Holl has a knack for activating into the play at the right time and making good decisions with the puck. He’s also been quite effective on the penalty kill, getting in the shooting lanes and beating opposing forwards to loose pucks.
I was scared he was going to get beat at the end of the second period, but he found a way to at least stay near McDavid and make life difficult.
That’s not textbook defense, but when it comes to defending #97, you tend to throw out the book and hold on for dear life.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — As Kevin Bieksa put it, Jake Muzzin just makes simple plays to help his team win. We didn’t see anything flashy from him, but he played his position, kept things to the outside, and got the puck going in the right direction.
He only had to face McDavid once off the rush, and I thought he handled it pretty well.
This was a common theme for McDavid. He had some opportunities, but couldn’t get around Toronto’s last defender in 1-on-1 situations.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — As an NHL defenseman playing the majority of his minutes against McDavid, your biggest goal is to not get burned off the rush. We just broke down a few clips of Holl and Muzzin accomplishing this task, so let’s check in on Brodie.
A similar play occurred when Edmonton had the power play. McDavid was able to beat Brodie on the initial stick swipe, but not the second.
William Nylander (LW, #88) — He seemed to wake up in the second period, making a few brilliant passes on the power play. The first was a one-touch pass to John Tavares in the slot; the second was a saucer pass out front to Matthews; the third was another saucer pass, this time over a body, leading to Matthews’ best chance of the game. Nylander was only able to weave through Edmonton’s defense once off the rush, but that’s more than the majority of his teammates can say.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — What really stood out to me was Marner’s defense in this game. Shocker, I know. It was obvious to anyone watching that he didn’t have the best offensive game of his life, but Marner did a great job of preventing odd-man rushes by being the second Leaf back when his team turned the puck over.
He did have one magical moment with the puck.
It seems unfair that Darnell Nurse gets two minutes for a near decapitation while Marner got the same punishment for a literal slap on the wrist, but those are the breaks sometimes.
Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — He only played nine minutes, but I thought this was one of Dermott’s better games at even strength. His breakouts were crisp and he did a good job gapping up on opposing forwards in the neutral zone.
Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — It’s hard to blame Andersen for either goal when you re-watch them. The first one was straight from the blooper real — a Jimmy Vesey pass off of Muzzin’s skate and in the back of the net. The second was a bounce off a crowd in front on the power play, landing right on Leon Draisaitl’s stick for an open net.
I actually thought this was Andersen’s best start of the season. His team obviously didn’t get the win, but you need goal support for that.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Early on, it was pretty noticeable just how low Matthews was swinging back in the defensive zone. That’s what you need to do when you’re playing McDavid – stay above and tight to him.
Matthews did a good job of that while generating some offense of his own.
Let’s be honest, though, that shouldn’t have gone in. Matthews was able to create some chances in this game, but there were also a few times he pulled up off the rush instead of letting a curl-and-drag wrister go from a good spot. I’d like to see him be a bit more assertive in those situations.
Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — If you were upset with the result in this game, I have some more bad news for you.
Sheldon Keefe on Joe Thornton: "It looks like he's definitely going to miss some time."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 21, 2021
That’s definitely going to force the Leafs to shake things up. I’d expect we see Hyman and Mikheyev move up to the top six now, which makes me cringe thinking about who that leaves for the bottom six.
The Leafs’ forward depth isn’t what it used to be.
Alexander Kerfoot (C, #15) — Aside from a few good backchecks and the odd burst of speed up the ice leading to nothing, this was pretty quiet game for Kerfoot. You don’t mind that from your third-line center, especially when you’re playing him in a checking role, but it feels like Kerfoot has more to give in transition.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — He made a great stick-check to prevent a McDavid one-timer in the slot. Simmonds also hit the post on an attempted saucer pass to Marner on the power play. At even strength, his struggles with transitioning the puck up the ice are quite noticeable, but it’s also worth noting he had a couple of strong backchecks.
Zach Hyman (RW, #11) — After an underwhelming two periods on the checking line, Hyman got moved up to the Matthews-Marner line and his play improved dramatically. It obviously helps when your team has the puck more, but I’m talking about skilled plays off the rush and smart passes in the offensive zone. We saw a lot more of that from Hyman in the third period, and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of him now that Thornton appears to be out for a while.
Jimmy Vesey (RW, #26) — I don’t want to blame Vesey too much for that weird goal. Bounces happen in this bizarre sport. What concerns me much more is his poor play with the puck on his stick in transition. He’s either a half-second late or early on plays where Tavares and Nylander are expecting to get the puck back, which has become super frustrating to watch.
Mikko Lehtonen (LD, #46) — Sheldon Keefe was trying to get him some extra shifts early on, but nothing really materialized for Lehtonen offensively.
Zach Bogosian (RD, #22) — Freudian slip?
Considering the number of times Bogosian was fumbling the puck in this game, maybe I can’t blame Sportsnet for getting him confused with Ben Harpur.
Jason Spezza (C, #19) — He hasn’t looked very dangerous at even strength this season. It’s nice to see him win the majority of his draws and let some clappers go on PP2, but where’s the Jason Spezza from last season who was threading cross-ice passes at 5-on-5? I know that player’s in there somewhere.
Maybe he just needs a bounce or two to go his way.
That hurts to watch.
John Tavares (C, #91) — I’m so used to checking the numbers after the game and seeing Tavares’ name at the top of the scoring chance column. He’s consistently been one of the best at getting to those high-danger areas in the offensive zone, but I don’t know what else to say. This was an off-night for Tavares.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Based on their shot locations, the Leafs were expected to score 0.68 goals at even strength. That’s just not going to get it done.