Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Ian Tulloch joined the Leafs Hour on Sportsnet 590 on Friday afternoon to discuss the team’s 5v5 play, Mitch Marner’s defensive game, the team’s forward depth, and much more.
On Mitch Marner’s all-situations — on defense, PK, PP — contributions:
I think we understate how far he has come defensively in the last couple of seasons. Coaches really trust him down the stretch late in games. I think he might be the team’s best penalty killer at this point — maybe other than Ilya Mikheyev, who seems to be good for an odd-man rush once or twice a game on the penalty kill.
Marner has the ability to break a game open on a penalty kill, he is good at taking away the passing lanes, he has a good stick. At five on five offensively, he hasn’t been as dynamic as you’d maybe want to see, but I’d argue he’s probably been the most defensively responsible forward who has played alongside Morgan Rielly when he is jumping up and he is in behind the net sometimes. He is getting back to make sure there are two players back so there are no odd-man rushes.
On the power play, he has been one of the best passers in the league. I think he leads the league in power-play assists per 60 minutes. You trust him there.
He is a special player offensively and a special passer. You want to see a little more from him at five on five, but with his impact on the penalty kill and his impact defensively, the fact that you can trust him late in the game with the lead — that is something you wouldn’t have said about him in his first year or two in the league. He is now one of the most trusted players defensively on the team.
We don’t talk about that aspect of his game enough. I think it has come a really long way.
On the team’s defensive performance through nine games:
This team has sucked defensively in the Auston Matthews era, and for the first time, you feel somewhat competent in your own end. You trust Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl on the PK. You trust the team’s ability to shut down with a lead in the last minute of a game. You never really trusted that in the past.
… And Frederik Andersen has looked good the last couple of games. If Andersen can get back to the level we’re used to him playing, maybe this is all of a sudden a better team than many were thinking. The three or four years prior to last, he is a top 10 goaltender by every metric. He is starting to look a lot more confident. Those are signs of optimism.
On the team’s forward depth:
When you move Ilya Mikheyev to the top six, there is a clear top six/bottom six divide. I am not sure how much I trust Wayne Simmonds on the third line at even strength. I like him on the power play. At even strength, it has been a bit of a different issue.
The fourth line got you a few goals lately, but if you look at the shots and scoring chances, they are getting filled in at even strength. That is something that is a bit concerning long term.
We have heard the Leafs are interested in adding a forward. If the Leafs do make that deadline acquisition or a trade beforehand, you’re looking at adding a forward instead of a defenseman. You aren’t going to be moving significant assets to add a fourth-line center — I hope they don’t do that again like they did under Lamoriello back in the day — but I don’t love the idea of playing Jimmy Vesey in the top six. It’s not where you should be playing if it’s game 1 in the playoffs.
Especially if you compare the Leafs to a team like Tampa Bay, I’d like to see the Leafs add a solid middle-six contributor who can fill in on the second or third line. That is something they really need to solidify this roster.