After another early exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, the pitchforks were out and criticism of the team was the loudest we’ve heard it in the Shanahan-Dubas era.
Among the player group, a central target in the fan and media criticism was John Tavares. In some ways, it comes with the territory as the captain in the Toronto market, not to mention the $11 million annual salary. Despite scoring 47 goals in his first season with the team before following it up with 60 points in 63 games the next year, his play and contract were called into question.
It’s early, but Tavares is working to put many of those concerns to bed.
He’s tied for second on the team in points with seven in seven games, tied for first in goals with four (all of which have come on the power play), and sits second in shots on goal. When Auston Matthews was out injured for the game versus Edmonton last Friday, Tavares stepped up with the game-winning goal.
The team has also been using him to close out games defensively. It was Tavares on with Marner and Kerfoot to close the game against the Jets (I didn’t realize it watching live, but Tavares actually skated by Neal Pionk and had some words for him after Pionk’s run at Marner on the empty-net goal). It was Tavares taking the critical final draw against Edmonton leading to a clear; he then stepped up on Connor McDavid at center ice and forced a turnover, leading to another Marner empty-net goal.
Against Calgary, Tavares was again on in the final minute, taking multiple big faceoffs, challenging opponents with the puck on the half-wall, and closing out a game successfully for the third time in a week.
Alongside Nylander, the Leafs captain has started over 61% of the time in the offensive zone, which would be the highest of his Leaf career (although not his NHL career). At times, it has appeared the coaching staff is preserving Tavares more than anything. He’s averaging just under 18 and a half minutes per night, which would be his lowest time-on-ice figure since his rookie season.
Against the Jets, both Matthews and Kerfoot played more against Scheifele at 5v5, with Tavares drawing a Jets checking line centered by Adam Lowry and playing primarily against Josh Morrissey. In the first game against the Oilers, though, Tavares played more against Leon Draisaitl than Kerfoot did at 5v5.
On the next night, with Matthews out injured, he went head to head against McDavid. Against Calgary, Tavares went head-to-head against Mikael Backlund for most of the night.
As Sheldon Keefe shifts around the matchups and the opposition game plans against the Leafs, Tavares is drawing top defensive players away from Matthews.
Ultimately, we know Tavares will be judged by what he does or doesn’t do in the playoffs. In the meantime, though, Tavares remains as productive ever, helping the team close out games offensively and defensively.
– Against the Jets, Justin Holl surprisingly shot up the ice and came out of nowhere to beat out an icing call with about a minute left as the team was protecting a one-goal lead. It wasn’t a huge standout play — the team did end up icing it ~15 seconds later — but his effort still helped to kill time as the Leafs were protecting a lead. Holl is third among defensemen in time on ice per game and leads the team in shorthanded time on ice per game. Alongside Jake Muzzin, they have a 62.43CF% together this season. They’ve received almost as many defensive-zone faceoff starts as they have offensive-zone faceoff starts. He’s even chipped in four assists so far, too. Holl continues to be a revelation for this team.
– Kudos to Jason Spezza for drawing a penalty by moving his feet through a check after losing a faceoff against Calgary, which ended a Flames power play. Spezza leads the team with 23 faceoffs taken while shorthanded so far (he’s won 15 of them). The second highest shorthanded faceoff count on the team belongs to Zach Hyman with seven. The Leafs have really carved out roles this year with a checking third line and Spezza as a faceoff specialist. You could argue Wayne Simmonds is a power-play net-front specialist, too.
– I figured it was only a matter of time until the top players were reunited on one power-play unit, but against Calgary, there was a bit of a wrinkle – William Nylander wasn’t on it. With Wayne Simmonds in front of the net, the odd man out was Nylander, who was pushed to the second unit. I thought it was interesting. When Keefe took over as coach, moving Nylander up was one of the first things he did. There was lots of talk of building confidence, making sure he felt included in the core, and so on. This was only one game and Nylander does have seven points in seven games — it’s not as if he isn’t producing — but let’s see where this goes.
– Great pinch by Travis Dermott to keep the puck deep against Edmonton, leading to Jimmy Vesey’s goal. If Dermott plays it conservatively, he backs up and there’s no goal. Without hesitation, he pinched in and won the race, creating the time and space for the play that followed. Vesey, who was racing back to cover for Dermott as he pinched and was rewarded for his effort with a mostly empty net to shoot into.
– With three lefties ahead of him, Travis Dermott is firmly planted on the third pairing with an average time on ice of 11:22 per night so far this season. His lowest average time on ice for a season before this one was 16 minutes per game in his rookie season. He also has the highest offensive zone start percentage of his career. The Leafs are really sheltering and limiting him. He has only played 163 games in the league due to injury, but he also turns 25 in December.
– After the Oilers and Leafs played a snoozer of a game, there was lots of talk about the Leafs improving defensively yet receiving criticism for playing that type of game. Dave Tippett even mentioned it after the game. I think the bone of contention for the Leafs is really the offense’s execution level as the Oilers really trapped things up and the Leafs did not adapt well at all. They generated little traffic in front, missed odd-man rushes (including going offside on a 3v2 rush that started in their own zone), and only put 26 shots on net in a game where they largely trailed (and the goal was off of an odd-angle shot from the goal line). They have to adapt to these types of games because it is one way the opposition will try to combat them.
“We gotta play to win, not to contain two guys.”
– Auston Matthews after a loss to the Edmonton Oilers
Auston Matthews, rightfully, should feel like he is one of the best players in the world and other teams should worry about him more than he worries about them.
“We talked about just how efforts like back in the ’60s in particular…are the reason why Leafs Nation is as strong as it is. That’s why generations of families grow up as fans. We have a role to play to continue building upon that”
– Sheldon Keefe on the message to the team following the passing of George Armstrong
A nice message to send to the team, and something that pretty well any fan of the team can attest to. Good Leafs teams, fan-favourite Leafs players — they get passed down from generation to generation.
“I think it felt a lot better though we got the two points. It’s nice to get it out of the way, so I’m happy — well, not too happy with our performance; we got a few things we got to fix.”
– Wayne Simmonds after scoring his first goal as a Toronto Maple Leaf
One issue I’ve had with the team for nearly a decade now: They would win games and the team would simply be happy that they won. We really haven’t heard a ton of the above quote, even when Mike Babcock was the coach. He would pick out some positive things, and long-time readers here know that I’d question if he really believes what he’s saying. It’s just nice to see more urgency when it comes to their actual play and knowing that it won’t suffice in the big picture.
Tweets of the Week
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) January 23, 2021
Jeff O’Neill rightfully called this out during the first intermission. To set the scene here, the Leafs were coming off a fairly underwhelming loss, their best player was missing, and Sheldon Keefe started William Nylander on the first shift of the game. He was blown by in the neutral zone, leading to a great scoring chance. It’s disappointing to see that at this point. This is his fifth full season, and he’s played over 300 games in the league. You can’t be fly-by stick checking elite players. If you haven’t figured that out yet, when will you? There was no attempt or even thought to put his body on Draisaitl. That’s simply how you have to play defense against top players.
Nylander did end up setting up a nice goal, but at some point, he has to develop more urgency on the other side of center ice, too.
Concern for Leafs in giving up that goal, is that's their "shut-down" group w/ Kerfoot at center. Couple misreads on his part throw things outta whack.
1)Puck's high, 3 WPG Fs low, he should grab one. Ws on opposing D.
2)Puck goes back high, this time he realizes he gotta… pic.twitter.com/WDw33MNhFQ
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) January 19, 2021
Part of this checking line the Leafs are trying to create has been insulating Alexander Kerfoot with their third and fourth-best wingers (which has probably hurt the top six and their 5v5 scoring as a whole). Zach Hyman was moved up to the top six before this shift, the team scored, and then they put on the Kerfoot line without Hyman on it right after. Kerfoot lost a battle in the slot and the Jets got the goal right back.
If Kerfoot is going to grow into this role, he’ll have to be more assertive — both in his physical battles on the ice and in terms of defensive-zone communication and understanding assignments.
Welcome back, Brods! pic.twitter.com/9fWiaqX0Rf
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) January 24, 2021
Kind of strange to put out a tribute video without fans, but ultimately, it’s a nice gesture. TJ Brodie has been as advertised so far – he is smooth, sees the ice well, can handle big minutes, and he has the odd head-scratching moment or game. All in all, with the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing picking up where they left off, he’s rounded out a fairly strong top-four defense unit.
Opening night a few years ago. George was a very humble and understated man, but I often think about the quiet satisfaction and expression of pride on his face that night. https://t.co/uFu0RsnoVU pic.twitter.com/ewITBjhST2
— Brendan Shanahan (@brendanshanahan) January 24, 2021
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I understand what the Leafs were trying to do by spreading out their forwards. They are aware of what we pointed out prior to the season: They lack depth. That said, I think it’s very clear Zach Hyman should be in the top six full-time. He elevates the play of his teammates, and he’s simply too good to be toggling back and forth. You should play good players with other good players on your team. It brings out the best in them. On top of that, I could maybe understand it if the Leafs had other players that were at least semi-suitable alternatives, but Jimmy Vesey and 41-year-old Joe Thornton are not it.
2. I think Pierre Engvall has shown through two games that he should be getting an extended look on this team. If his competition is Alexander Barabanov, it’s not really a contest at this point. Engvall can kill penalties, is big, can be a checking forward, and he’s fast. He played under eight minutes against Calgary, but the last shift came with under three minutes left and he did well to handle the puck through the neutral zone, get in on the forecheck, and keep the play out of danger (i.e. the Leafs end). He’s an effective checker for this team.
3. With the Leafs’ attempts to make that third line a checking line, I think they have a good thing developing with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot. Both can fly, they have good instincts defensively, and they aren’t particularly strong finishers. On the note of Hyman needing to be in the top six and Pierre Engvall a regular, there were a few shifts where Engvall played with Kerfoot and Mikheyev, and they looked good — there is a lot of speed there, and all three players can handle the role of center in the defensive zone. They might have something here.
4. For all the flack he is getting from a segment of the fanbase, I think I quite like Zach Bogosian and appreciate what he brings to the table. He knows his role in the league and plays within his means. His decision making with the puck is simple in a good way. He has also shown he can skate pucks out, as he did against Edmonton when he beat a Tyler Ennis forecheck and lugged it to center himself. Bogosian adds some physicality in front of the net, and it’s nice to see him push opponents off the team’s goalie instead of standing around and watching it happen. The Leafs have a good top four, and Bogosian is their sixth defenseman. I don’t think you can ask for much more from this role.
5. I think Frederik Andersen did well to quiet doubters this past week. While Jack Campbell has been good too, Andersen is still clearly the starter. They would do well to treat him as such for the majority of the season because he has been a top 10 goalie in the regular season for the better part of his time as a Leaf, and they should be trying to cultivate that. Part of it will be trusting Campbell to take a few extra starts to keep Andersen rested (which he has been previously loath to do), but the fact is that the Leafs will have to make that decision for him, whether he likes it or not.