It’s sure nice to have Leafs hockey back, and it’s even better when they get off to a 4-2 start to the season.
I can’t say that it’s been a perfect beginning to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but improving defensively was long overdue and there is time to figure things out in the offensive end.
The power play is converting at a 44% rate and they’re a top-10 team at limiting shot attempts against at 5-on-5, so there are certainly some positives to build on here. To dive in a little bit deeper, this article will take a position-by-position look at this team through six games.
Before we continue, our thoughts go out to the family and friends of Leafs legend George Armstrong, who has passed away at the age of 90.
Toronto’s Improved Defense
The Leafs finally have a solid top four on the blue line. The lone bright spot on Toronto’s blue line last season, the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing has been just as steady through six games, while Morgan Rielly finally has a good partner: T.J. Brodie looks like a player who can help his team in all three zones.
After watching Cody Ceci and Nikita Zaitsev play inside the team’s top four in recent seasons, the overall makeup looks significantly better through six games.
Rielly is an offensive defenseman who does not grade out particularly well defensively, at least by the numbers. He’s still a great player, but he was clearly a terrible fit with Tyson Barrie. It didn’t make sense to play either player on the shutdown pair, pairing them together always led to a mess in the defensive zone, and playing them on different pairings wasn’t a perfect solution, either. In the end, the team struggled defensively whenever the Muzzin-Holl pair left the ice.
In stark contrast, Brodie makes far more sense with Rielly. A strong stick-on-stick defender, he can kill penalties and match up against top forwards. The win over Ottawa showed off the strengths of his game: He broke up multiple odd-man rushes and added a nice stretch pass that led to Joe Thornton’s first goal as a Leaf.
Brodie rarely shoots the puck, which is actually a nice change of pace compared to Barrie, as opting for a pass usually puts the puck in the hands of one of Toronto’s highly-skilled forwards and extends offensive possessions. The Leafs could use him on either side of the shutdown pairing if they wanted to, but he’s off to a great start as Rielly’s partner.
Making $2 million a year for the next three seasons, Justin Holl looks like a complete steal early on. He’s fast enough to match up against high-end skaters, big and strong enough to match up against top power forwards, and competent enough as a puck-mover to avoid spending shift after shift in the defensive end. Muzzin is the main driver of that pairing, but there’s no reason to move Holl away from him at the moment.
The third-pair looks perfectly fine so far as well. We’ve known that Travis Dermott can be a good third-pairing defenseman for a while now. Outside of a rough first game, Zach Bogosian has been a steady defensive presence and better than expected as a puck mover thus far. Kyle Dubas sure seems to like him, as he almost signed him last February and ended up locking him up early in free agency. I expect the recent Cup winner to be a regular unless he plays himself out of a lineup spot, which he certainly hasn’t done yet.
Mikko Lehtonen has averaged just 7:38 through two games, and as I said all offseason, the hype train was a little bit out of control here. I’ve liked him — he looks like a pretty good puck mover — but he’s in a tough spot at the moment. Travis Dermott and Zach Bogosian are not exempt from waivers, and given the Leafs cap situation, it’s tough to fit him in the lineup every night. Going with 11 forwards and seven defensemen has its advantages — you can play Lehtonen more if you’re trailing — but it’s probably not going to be something Sheldon Keefe rolls out there game after game.
At this point, Lehtonen is forced to wait for his opportunity. A stretch of bad games for Dermott or Bogosian or an injury or two could give him more of a chance. I expect the Leafs to play seven defensemen every now and then to get him some playing time, but he’s going to have to be pretty impressive in order to move Dermott to the right-side, or out of the lineup altogether.
As the president of the Rasmus Sandin fan club — he’ll be ready to step in and contribute when needed — the depth on the blue line is a genuine cause for optimism. If someone starts to struggle, they have other options to turn to, but I don’t have many complaints so far.
Many people seem to think that this is the same old Leafs, but they’ve been a perfectly competent defensive team that’s struggled to create high-danger chances at 5-on-5. Which leads us to…
The Problems Up Front
The Leafs have five top-six forwards and opted to start the season with their fifth-best forward on their third line. Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander are all great players, but the Leafs simply don’t have a dominant line of three all-stars like Colorado does. They have two-thirds of a great first line and two-thirds of a great second line.
Returning Hyman to the top-six will certainly help to create more 5-on-5 offense from one of those top two lines, but their scoring depth looks quite weak right now, especially with both Joe Thornton and Nick Robertson out. The power play isn’t going to convert at a 44% rate forever. They’ll need to figure things out at 5-on-5 eventually.
I can’t say that I’m overly concerned about the “big four”. They all carry a long track record of strong five-on-five play, and there’s no real reason to be worried about any of them at the moment. Hyman continues to look like Hyman, while Alexander Kerfoot continues to look like a perfectly fine third-line center.
Behind their top-six forwards, Toronto’s forward depth really falls off. I’m rooting for Wayne Simmonds — it’s nice to have someone of his character who can fight — but he’s graded out terribly by the numbers in recent seasons and he’s not off to a great start in Toronto. On top of Simmonds being pointless through six games, the Leafs are getting badly outplayed when he’s on the ice. I like his ability to get to the front of the net, but he’s a weak playmaker and puck carrier who isn’t anything special defensively. He’ll receive an extended opportunity to prove what he can do, but at this point, I wouldn’t be completely shocked if he’s a healthy scratch at points come playoff time.
I have not been impressed with Jimmy Vesey, either. Given a chance to play in the top-six to start the season, he’s been invisible most nights. While he has two goals in six games, Nylander did most of the work on both occasions and he’s not been able to forecheck and win battles like Hyman. Vesey looks decent on the penalty kill — and they even used him to close out the win at the end of the game versus Edmonton — so maybe he’ll fit in on a checking line with Kerfoot, but he hasn’t exactly looked like a player who can complement Toronto’s top four forwards effectively.
Ilya Mikheyev has one point through six games, a secondary assist on a weak goal. His point production last season was probably a bit of a fluke, but he does bring a strong two-way game to the table. He’s big, fast, and responsible, so he’s well-suited to kill penalties and contribute in a checking line role. However, he needs to reduce the number of low-danger shots he’s generating. They could try using him in the top-six again as a Hyman-lite, but at this point, I don’t see him as a huge difference-maker.
I still don’t know what to make of the currently-injured Joe Thornton in the team’s top six. It’s such a drastic difference compared to having Hyman there. They are completely opposite players, and Matthews and Marner have to take on a bigger role on the forecheck with him there (which has its pros and cons). However, the line graded out fairly well by the numbers. I’m confident Thornton can help the team in some capacity, but his exact fit when he returns is a bit of an unknown.
Jason Spezza is off to a bit of a rough start. My preference is Spezza on the wing. The Leafs need more offense out of him, as they aren’t getting much from the rest of their bottom-six. I’m a big fan of Pierre Engvall’s game, as he’s a strong defensive forward who can also help his team in transition. The Engvall-Spezza duo looked good together in the Columbus series, and while it’s tough to get Engvall in the lineup every night given the team’s cap situation, it’s worth noting that there’s no cap in the playoffs. I think he’s one of this team’s 12 best forwards whose ability to play both center or wing is an asset if the Leafs decide to dress seven defensemen.
Alexander Barabanov has looked like a competent depth forward during his limited minutes who I’ve liked on the forecheck. I don’t think he’s as strong defensively as Engvall, or as strong offensively as Jason Spezza or Travis Boyd, but he looks like a fine NHL player. The Leafs could use a bit more transition skill with whoever is playing across from Simmonds, but Barabanov is at least competent. If he’s not the team’s 13th forward at the deadline, the Leafs might look to trade him to get him an opportunity, just like they did with Josh Leivo. However, at this point, it might make more sense to take a look at someone like Travis Boyd to mix a little bit more offensive skill into the lineup.
Robertson and Thornton could provide a bit more scoring depth to this team once they return, and maybe Adam Brooks or Boyd can surprise, but this team still needs to add a quality forward who can complement their top six at some point. Fortunately, it’s easier to find one at the deadline than a top-four right-shooting defenseman.
After six consecutive strong seasons, Frederik Andersen finally had a bit of a down year last year. Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci may have played a part in that, but there’s no doubt that Andersen wasn’t quite himself. The Leafs chose to bet on him this offseason by maintaining the status quo in net. So far, he’s lived up to his end of the bargain.
There is nothing worse than when someone “scouts the stat line” for goalies over a short sample. Andersen was getting pretty unlucky in the first two games. Of the nine goals against in the first two games, two were perfectly placed shots that went off the post and in. One was a breakaway goal due to his team’s horrendous line change. One was a bullet on a 5-on-3, one was a tip through a screen, and several goals were simply due to the puck bouncing right to the opposing player’s stick.
The anti-goalie argument is always “sometimes you just need your goalie to make a tough save,” which is true, but we need a large sample to evaluate something like high-danger save percentage.
The scorers get paid to score, too. Sometimes a bounce or two doesn’t go your way, and sometimes a player like Auston Matthews or Alexander Ovechkin places their shot perfectly. Just because a goalie allows four goals doesn’t always mean that they had a bad game. I would have liked him to stop Josh Anderson’s second goal in the Montreal game, but all in all, I think he’s playing quite well thus far despite the mediocre save percentage.
In baseball, sometimes a good hitter goes 0-for-10 even though they’re hitting the ball well, as sometimes their line-drives happen to be hit right at a fielder. You can scream “they hit .000 this series!”, or you can watch the games and judge their at-bats for yourself. The same logic applies to NHL goalies.
As for the highly likable Jack Campbell, he was solid in his first start. After watching Garret Sparks struggle in 2018-19 and Michael Hutchinson in 2019-20, it’s a clear upgrade at the backup position. Given how desperate the Leafs were for a goalie last February, I’m surprised they were able to acquire him without overpaying. His Leafs career is off to a great start. Things can change quickly at this position, but at this point, there is every reason to expect the Andersen-Campbell duo to be intact come playoff time.
The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t firing on all cylinders so far, but they’re 4-2 and their defense looks much improved. They need to start generating far more offense at 5-on-5, but putting Zach Hyman in the top-six should help there, and they should be able to add another forward by the deadline if necessary.
Vancouver looks terrible thus far, and unless they can turn things around in a hurry, it looks like there will be five teams competing for four spots. Montreal looks terrific, Calgary hasn’t lost in regulation yet, Winnipeg got better with the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, and Edmonton still has Connor McDavid.
The Leafs can’t afford to mess around. You never know when the injuries or illnesses could add up, so they better take every opportunity to bank points when they can. Let’s hope that Matthews returns to the lineup in a hurry and that this team goes on an extended winning streak that we all know they’re capable of.