We asked for more offense. Well, we got it.
After Toronto allowed three odd-man rushes to Edmonton in the first four minutes, it was clear this game wasn’t going to be as boring as the last time these two teams met. Things did start to tighten up a bit after that, but there was noticeably more space available for both teams to create offense off of the rush.
Thanks to some strong goaltending and offensive pushback, the Leafs were able to prevail in the end, defeating the Oilers by a final score of 4-2, although the last goal was a Mitch Marner empty netter with 0.4 seconds left on the clock.
Let’s be honest, no one reads these for the introductory paragraphs. It’s time to grade some Toronto Maple Leafs!
Game Puck: Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — This was Andersen’s best start of the season by far. He kept his team in the game with a stellar first period, making crucial stops on odd-man rushes and cross-ice passes. When we go back and look at the two goals, one was a last-second deflection by Connor McDavid, while the other was a brutal turnover to Leon Draisaitl right in front of the crease. It’s hard to blame the goalie for either of those.
Ilya Mikheyev (LW, #65) — If he keeps playing like this, it’s going to be hard to justify not playing him in the top six. The Soupman has looked explosive off the rush this season, blowing by defenders in transition. Here’s a great example of Mikheyev using his speed to create a dangerous chance off the rush.
The pass obviously didn’t connect, but that net drive is a high-percentage play when you’re able to beat your man backdoor. It’s something I’d like to see the Leafs do more of in transition: dish the puck out wide after gaining the zone, then barrel your way to the high-danger area.
Pierre Engvall (C, #47) — He’s clearly one of Toronto’s best 12 forwards. One factor is his contract; Engvall earns $175,000 more than an NHL team can “bury” under the current CBA, meaning he’s quite a bit more expensive than the league-minimum depth options. We’re talking about a team who waived Jason Spezza so they could save $6,000 per day – that cap space matters to Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham & company.
If Engvall improves the team’s chances of winning, though, they need to play him. Tonight, he showed off his ability to transport the puck up the ice, which is an attribute they’re sorely missing from their depth forwards at the moment. He also had a couple nice moments in the offensive zone, but it’s his transition play in the neutral zone that really impresses me.
The combination of Mikheyev and Engvall worked really well in this game. If they get to play with a more skilled linemate than Wayne Simmonds, I could see it being an effective middle-six line.
Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — Most fans aren’t going to obsessively watch players in neutral zone defence, but it’s a major component of driving results. Kerfoot was excellent in this department on Friday night, getting his stick in the passing lanes and intercepting stretch passes through the middle of the ice. He didn’t get a chance to use his speed for much offensively, but his role this season is to provide value defensively as a checking 3C this season. I’d say mission accomplished in this game.
The Muzzin-Holl Pairing — When was the last time Toronto had two pairings that you genuinely trusted? Every so often, I’ll hear people complain about Jake Muzzin or Justin Holl, but I see a pairing you can put out there for 20-plus minutes a night and not think twice about it.
Holl was more noticeable in this game, which makes sense considering he tends to be the one activating into the play while Muzzin sits back. Both players did a great job boxing out Edmonton forwards in front, keeping things to the outside, and stepping up in the neutral zone when they had a chance.
That’s how you defend the blue line in transition. Holl doesn’t give McDavid any space to operate, which leads to a turnover and odd-man rush the other way. We see these types of plays a lot from Holl, and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.
William Nylander (RW, #88) — This was such an up and down game for Nylander, so let’s start with the good. He showed off his puck-carrying prowess, skating from end-to-end to create a few chances off the rush. When Nylander wanted a loose puck, he was able to go get it with a strong stick on the forecheck.
He also did this.
How many open nets is Jimmy Vesey going to be staring at thanks to #88 this season?
Nylander would’ve ended up in the 4 or 5-star club if not for a few ghastly moments vs. Draisaitl.
Earlier in the game, Nylander got beat by Draisaitl for a 2-on-1 rush because he wasn’t moving his feet on the backcheck. Every player has flaws in their game they need to clean up, but with Nylander, they’re so glaringly obvious that I can understand why Leafs fans get frustrated with him at times.
Zach Hyman (LW, #11) — He won the race to beat out an icing call four separate times in this game. That relentless motor on the forecheck is part of what makes Hyman such an effective complementary player. He also got to show off his wheels in the third period.
I don’t remember rookie Zach Hyman making these plays off the rush. He’s come a long way.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — There was a shift in the first period where he won a puck battle along the wall, made the next pass, then got himself to the front of the net while his four teammates cycled the puck around and created a few chances. That’s more of what we want to see from Simmonds
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — He wasn’t able to make plays up the ice as often as you’d like, but defensively, I’m really liking what I see from Brodie. He’s done a great job of taking away passes through the middle of the slot. Brodie also has a knack for knowing when it’s the right time to commit to getting down to block a high-quality shot or when it’s time to slide to take away the backdoor pass. He got knocked over by Ryan-Nugent Hopkins on the forecheck prior to the McDavid goal, which isn’t something you love to see, but I’ve been liking his steady game so far this season.
Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — He’s looked much smoother out there this season. After battling back from a shoulder injury last year and never really looking like the same Travis Dermott we remembered from his first couple seasons, I’m hoping this is the year he’s able to take that next step. So far so good for him; he’s looked much more composed with the puck lately.
Coaching Staff — Do we blame the coach when a team comes out of the gate and allows three odd-man rushes in four minutes? Do we give Sheldon Keefe & company credit for righting the ship afterward? I’m never really sure how to hand out these grades, but I liked the fact that PP1 was top-loaded and the 5-on-5 lines were more or less optimized. Now we just need to find a way to get Mikheyev some more ice time.
Zach Bogosian (RD, #22) — The 1-on-1 between McDavid and Bogosian went about as well as you’d think.
This is why you shelter #6 defensemen.
The rest of Bogosian’s game actually wasn’t too bad. He delivered a few nice hits in the neutral zone, tied up opposing forwards who were looking for a backdoor pass, and even got himself into some decent shooting positions off the rush. His impact on Toronto’s breakout went about as well as you’d think considering his limited puck-skills and passing ability.
Jimmy Vesey (LW, #26) — Aside from scoring another “freebie” as Ray Ferraro put it, I didn’t have many notes on Vesey. He was able to use his long frame to get his stick on a few passes in the defensive zone, most notably in the 6-on-5 situation late in the game.
John Tavares (C, #91) and Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — They each picked up a goal (Marner’s an empty netter), but overall, they got outplayed by the McDavid line in this game to the tune of 28% possession in the matchup. It’s always a tough task going up against the most dangerous offensive player in the world. That said, you’d hope that your two best (healthy) players could avoid getting hemmed in by #97 at even strength.
The two did connect on this power-play deflection, which ended up being the game-winning goal.
That’s some great hand-eye by Tavares, who’s one of the best in the business in that department.
The 4th Line — Aside from a lucky Adam Brooks goal off his skate on the power play, there wasn’t much to see here. Alex Barabanov cleared the bar of me actually remembering a few plays he made in this game, but again, nothing super dangerous offensively or notable defensively. Jason Spezza made a few nice passes at even strength, whereas Brooks seemed to be fighting the puck for most of the night.
I don’t want to be too mean to a guy who scored his first NHL goal, so let’s at least watch it.
Sometimes hockey is such a weird sport.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — Burn the tape. Rielly struggled to get the puck going in the right direction on Friday night, spending most of his time in the defensive zone. He had a couple nice sequences offensively, but that was undone by everything he was giving up the other way.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
When you consider the amount of pre-shot movement and odd-man rushes Edmonton was able to generate in this game, the heat map undersells their shot quality in this game. They outplayed Toronto at 5-on-5, but Frederik Andersen outplayed Mikko Koskinen.