Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Ian Tulloch joined Sportsnet Today to discuss the team’s defensive improvement through six games, their goaltending, and Mitch Marner’s play thus far.
On the Leafs‘ blue line and defensive play through six games:
When was the last time the Leafs had two pairings that you genuinely trusted at even-strength? You are going to have a bad night here or there, but that Rielly-Brodie pairing has been playing really well. Brodie has impressed me defensively. My biggest concern, when I heard he was playing with Rielly, was whether it is a pairing you can trust in its own zone and if it was going to be able to take away passes through the middle of the ice or take away the front of the net. While last night it didn’t always go great against McDavid, over the course of the season, they’ve looked pretty strong.
Justin Holl looks awesome. I like the way he activates into the rush. His transition defense stands out to me. There was a play where McDavid was storming through the neutral zone and tried cutting into open ice on the right side of the ice, and Holl stayed with him, kept McDavid’s body in front of him, was able to poke the puck away, and the Leafs got an odd-man rush the other way. That is what you want to see: solid transition defense, and that is what Justin Holl gives you.
Brodie has also impressed me in that regard. All of a sudden, you have four top-four defensemen for once on the Toronto Maple Leafs. I like what I see from this Leafs blue line. What is weird for them is that their troubles have been in depth scoring. Maybe that is something they look to address at the deadline. When everyone is healthy, you have Nick Robertson hopping into the top six and you have Marner or Nylander threading him some passes into the slot. There are some ways for this team to create more offense, but the defense has always been the biggest concern, and they’ve allowed the fewest shots they have ever allowed six or seven games into the season at five on five (24.97/ game).
I am content with the Leafs defense. I would just like to see more offense, like everyone else.
On Frederik Andersen:
If you look at his career, ever since about 2014-2020, he is a bonafide top 10 goaltender. You could make the case he is a top-five goaltender. The problem is last year, he was not. He didn’t look confident, didn’t look sharp. If you look at the first period last night, there were three odd-man rushes in the first four minutes of the game. He looked good in the crease. If one of those pucks slips by him, maybe the narrative changes and his confidence gets a bit shaky; I don’t know, I am not in the room and I am not friends with Frederik Andersen. But last night, it looked a lot more like the Frederik Andersen we are used to seeing over the last couple of years than the one we saw last season.
Does it mean it is a big game that is going to change things for him, that this season is going to be better than last? I have no idea. Goaltending, from start to start, if anyone of us pretends to know how to predict it, we are lying to ourselves. But if the Leafs want to be a bona fide Cup contender, they are going to need Andersen to get a lot closer to league average than last year. Last night’s start was a big step in that direction.
On Mitch Marner’s play through six games:
I saw the headline the other night that Mitch Marner’s two points helped the Leafs soar over the Oilers. One of them was an empty netter, and the other was a really nice play on the power play where he hesitated, got Leon Draisaitl to skate by him, and put it on Tavares’ stick for a nice deflection goal on the power play. That is what you like to see. Mitch Marner, since entering the league, I believe is first among NHL forwards in assists/60 on the power play. He is obviously an elite playmaker with the man advantage.
The question with him is what is his value at even strength, and how much is able to take over the game without an Auston Matthews? If you look at the Thornton – Matthews – Marner line’s numbers, they were controlling something like 65% of the shots and scoring chances before Joe Thornton went out with that injury. The line was clicking. The passing sequences, once they gained the blue line, you’d see two or three quick passes and a shot from a good location. That is what you want to see offensively.
But you want to see Mitch Marner take over games right now. With Auston Matthews out the other night and Joe Thornton injured, you’re thinking, “Okay, this is Mitch Marner’s team. He is making $11 million. Let’s see what he can do.” At even strength, you didn’t really see it last night.
I have seen some things from him defensively where he has taken a lot of steps in the right direction. In an interview in the offseason, he was talking about how it is his goal to strive towards winning the Selke as opposed to the Art Ross because the Selke is where you really see the guys who dominate the game at five-on-five. He is getting his stick in passing lanes. He is backchecking like a maniac. If you look at when a defenseman pinches in the offensive zone — the Leafs are liable to give up an odd-man rush the other way — he is one of the first guys back in those situations. If you are watching the game tape and figuring out who the least defensively responsible guys are, don’t worry — Mitch Marner is not one of those guys.
But you do want to see him carrying the puck end-to-end and making those special plays. One of the things about Marner is that, if he doesn’t make that magical pass we expect him to make or spin around a guy and drive to the net and drive a penalty, what is he doing? He is a structure breaker. Come the playoffs, if the other team is collapsing on the slot and taking away the rush, the value of Mitch Marner is him making a special play other players can’t make. When it doesn’t happen, you are thinking, “That is not the greatest game in the world. I don’t know what I really saw there.” He can be a tricky player to evaluate, but star players who make special plays like that will have nights where they look like the best player in the league and nights where you don’t notice it as much.
We are so focused on this particular team, and we don’t see what Nikita Kucherov looks like when he has an off game. I think there is a bit of Leafs bias in that regard. I have liked what we have seen from him defensively, but I would like to see more from him offensively off the rush.