The Toronto Maple Leafs are approaching the 10-game mark in this shortened season sporting a 7-2-0 record and sitting on top of the North Division. Tonight, they’ll play their fourth game against Edmonton in just 11 days before a hard-earned four-day break (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
In the midst of a four-game winning streak, the Maple Leafs have shown a notable shift in their underlying five-on-five metrics compared to last season. Most of you will be aware by now of Toronto’s trend so far this season: They’ve started the year as a more low-event club. Here are their overall shot-based numbers from last season to this season, respectively:
- CF/60: 60 to 56
- xGF/60: 2.6 to 2.3
- CA/60: 55 to 48
- xGA/60: 2.45 to 2.4
Stats are score & venue adjusted and rounded up. Sourced from evolving-hockey.com
There are encouraging signs from the Leafs in terms of how they’ve handled individual matchups and not allowed elite players to dominate their minutes against them, but they’re still looking to find their stride offensively in the process. Sheldon Keefe has clearly put an emphasis on neutral and defensive zone structure and on keeping shots to the outside, and the results are encouraging so far. However, a team with their calibre of offensive talent should, in the long-run, be capable of producing above-average offensively at five-on-five while still improving in their own end relative to last season. So far, they seem to be feeling out how to strike that balance, and it’s a lot easier to be patient about the process when the team is sitting at 7-2-0.
Toronto has not had more than a day off since the season started — that fact can’t be ignored when it comes to evaluating their recent performance. Still, this team’s four-game win streak includes three-straight one-goal victories in which, at times, they’ve relied on their power play and good goaltending. Their first win against Calgary was the only game out of the last five where the Leafs, adjusting for score and venue, finished the game with more than a 50% share of expected goals. Their last three games against the Oilers have been poor in that respect — they produced 3.6 xGoals to the Oilers’ 5.5 in those games at five-on-five.
Again, on the bright side, Toronto’s power play is a dual-unit threat right now. A share of the credit is owed to the support players on each unit, namely Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds (the latter of which has two power-play goals in his last three) for the early success of Manny Malhotra and the Leafs ‘1A/1B’ strategy. Despite a healthy amount of skepticism from myself and others, both units are confidently executing, and it makes the Leafs a significantly more difficult team to game plan. Toronto has two man-advantage goals in each of their last two games against Edmonton.
The carousel will continue on the edges of Toronto’s roster tonight, as Mikko Lehtonen returns once again in Travis Dermott’s place. Travis Boyd, who has points in his first two games with the Maple Leafs, will come out for Pierre Engvall. Alex Barabanov and Jason Spezza appear to be staying in the lineup on the bottom line.
Frederik Andersen (5-2-0, .896, -0.66 GSAx) is the projected Leafs starter and Mikko Koskinen (3-6-0, .895, -3.8 GSAx) is the projected starter for the Oilers, although neither has been confirmed.
Game Day Quotes
Mikko Lehtonen on his first game playing real minutes and the adjustment to the NHL game:
I think it was good. I think I played good and felt good on the ice. I just can’t wait to play more — it went well.
You have to move the puck quicker and don’t [keep the puck as much]. I try to make good passes right away and play a little bit [of a] quicker game. Those things have been the adjustments for me.
Lehtonen on Zach Bogosian and Jason Spezza:
He’s a good [defenseman]. He helps me out talking a lot on the ice and making simple plays. He helps me out a lot I like playing with him.
[Spezza] has helped me a lot. He’s an older guy and knows how the business is running here and a lot of things about North America. He’s been really good for me and helped me every day.
Sheldon Keefe on his team’s hot start:
Obviously, it’s very important. It’s nice to get off to that start — the alternative obviously is not very attractive, so we feel good about it, definitely. But, as I’ve said before, it’s still so early here that, you know, you get on a bit of a slide and all of a sudden things even out. Because all the points are in the division, if you go on a slide, the people you’re playing are obviously getting points, so you need to stay committed and focused.
Keefe on Alexander Barabanov’s play and his limited opportunity:
We think [he] has a chance to kill penalties, but it’s tough to get him the reps and get him out there with the calibre of players that we’re going up against. Because the games are so tight, it’s really hard to get him the proper opportunity that way, so he’s got to be patient and he’s got to work through it. We have to provide him opportunities to grow — I’ve seen a lot of good things from him in limited action. I’m aware he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play a lot and get comfortable that way but there’s probably some other players in our organization that look at it and wouldn’t mind his opportunity despite the limited minutes.
Keefe on Frederik Andersen’s recent performance:
I really feel like he’s settled into the season really well here. [That’s] the other thing with no exhibition games: It’s tough on the goaltenders to find that rhythm and get comfortable again in the net in a game setting. I think he’s settled in — he looks like he’s in a nice groove and has looked real confident in the net. We’ve done a real good job protecting him at 5-on-5 and reducing the number of odd-man chances and egregious chances against. When we’ve had breakdowns, he’s been there.
Keefe on how tough it is for fringe players this season:
As I’ve talked about a number of times here, the players, like [Barabanov] and Mikko [Lehtonen] for that matter — whether it’s [Travis] Boyd or [Joey] Anderson — these players that have come in and we don’t know them as well in our environment. No exhibition games, short training camp — it’s a very small window to make an impression. And then you get into games and, the way the games have gone, [they’ve all] been really close. It takes time to earn the trust of the coach. It takes time to adjust to the league. The league is not very forgiving.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#94 Alexander Barabanov – #47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#46 Mikko Lehtonen – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Adam Brooks, Joey Anderson, Travis Boyd, Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott
Injured: Nick Robertson, Joe Thornton, Jack Campbell
Edmonton Oilers Projected Lines
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – #97 Connor McDavid – #13 Jesse Puljujarvi
#21 Dominik Kahun – #29 Leon Draisaitl – #56 Kailer Yamamoto
#18 James Neal – #8 Kyle Turris – #44 Zach Kassian
#15 Josh Archibald – #16 Jujhar Khaira – #52 Patrick Russell
#25 Darnell Nurse – #74 Ethan Bear
#4 Kris Russell– #22 Tyson Barrie
#82 Caleb Jones – #6 Adam Larsson
#19 Mikko Koskinen (starter)
#50 Stuart Skinner
Extras: Ryan McLeod, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Alan Quine, Slater Koekkoek, William Lagesson, Evan Bouchard
Injured: Oscar Klefbom, Mike Smith