Leafs Notebook is posted every Monday by noon EST
Every team in the league desires a hot start in a shortened season. Mission accomplished for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They are off to a 7-2-1 start and are relatively healthy through 10 games, too.
At the end of the day, you couldn’t really ask for better as they sit at the top of the all-Canadian division in points percentage (although they’re tied for second in goal differential).
There is some cause for concern, though. The question is: How real are the concerns?
The Leafs have been feasting on the power play, currently clicking at an absurd 43.3%. For reference, over the past 10 seasons, the highest power-play percentage was the Oilers’ 29.5% mark last season (this includes the 48-game shortened season).
This has been arguably the biggest element fuelling their hot start. They have 33 goals in total, with 13 of them coming with the man advantage, one overtime winner, and two empty netters. At 5v5, the Leafs have scored 17 goals and allowed 16 against. The underlying numbers are not particularly strong, either.
They rank 16th in team corsi at 50.8%, 20th in fenwick at 49.08%, their expected goals for percentage is 46.52% (23rd), and their high danger corsi percentage is 44.97 (25th). It suggests the Leafs aren’t only suffering from a lack of 5v5 production but overall shot quality control as well. They are struggling to create and sustain offense at 5v5 while giving up good chances the other way.
The Leafs are actually ninth in overall shots against per game and are outshooting the opposition on average. The issue is that they are not producing as many high-danger scoring opportunities as they are giving up, and the power play is glossing over those issues for the time being. For a team that is literally putting together a historic power-play percentage if it were to hold, the Leafs are 10th in the league in goals per game.
It somewhat mirrors what happened last season when Sheldon Keefe took over: The team started red hot under a new coach with an 18-7-3 start through the end of January (he was promoted on November 20, 2019), coinciding with a power play that was clicking at 30.8%, best in the league by over 3% in that time. From February 1 onward, their power play came back down to earth, clicking at a very reasonable 21.4% (13th in the league over that time), and their record was 9-8-2. There were injuries and other storylines — it’s not as simple as this one factor — but it was a big reason they enjoyed a hot start under a new coach. It cooled off and the team’s record did, too.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and suggest this Leafs team is about to fall off a cliff. That seems unlikely because, if nothing else, they are in a very forgiving division. The Canadiens are good and I assume the Jets will be a tough matchup with the addition of Pierre-Luc Dubois, but the rest of the division isn’t particularly scary over the course of a season.
If the Leafs are going to get to where they want to, though, these things need to improve at the end of the day. It’s early enough that it isn’t cause for panic, but they’ve played enough that it’s definitely worth mentioning.
10 games into the season, the Leafs haven’t really played particularly strong opposition (Habs once, Jets without PLD/Laine), with 60% of their games so far coming against either Ottawa or Edmonton. At some point, the power play will come back down to earth. If they don’t improve their 5v5 play by the time it happens, it might not be pretty.
– Clicking around NHL.com, there are 431 forwards that have been on the ice for at least one goal for or against at even strength. Among that group, Wayne Simmonds ranks 402 in even-strength goals for percentage at 12.5%. His corsi at even strength is 46.4%. He’s still effective on the power play in front of the net, but he’s really struggling at 5v5.
– It’s extremely early, but it’s worth monitoring: With Zach Hyman on his wing, Alex Kerfoot has a 50.77 CF%. Without him, he’s at 47.37%. In the last four games, he has been playing primarily with Jimmy Vesey and Wayne Simmonds. The forwards he has played the most against at even strength over those four games: Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, and Kyle Turris. It’s a bit all over the place with matchups to along with a downgrade in linemates on his left and right wings.
– A week ago, Auston Matthews made a point of noting that the team can’t focus too much on two players after the loss against the Oilers. I thought about that on Saturday as he started three-on-three overtime sitting on the bench alongside their other best player, Mitch Marner. We all know how the game ended.
You could make the case that if you survive the shift, you feel pretty good about the next one, but if you lose on the first shift and your two best players are sitting on the bench watching, it’s not right. It’s not like the Leafs’ two best players are super flawed defensively to the point where you can justify sheltering them (such as when the Leafs had Phil Kessel, for example). They’re two of the top 10 forwards in the league, arguably. Go head to head and see what happens. You’d feel good about Nylander and Tavares up against Edmonton’s second unit, too.
– Against the Oilers, Auston Matthews had the potential for a rush scoring chance with space in front of him in the offensive zone. He was stick checked on the play and no real threat resulted. When Matthews picked up the puck, he tried driving the net, but he put his legs together and dropped his shoulder. That made it easy for the defender to reach around him and stick check him because there is less distance to cover. You can see in this screenshot below how close Matthews’ legs were as the stick check is developing:
On these kinds of plays, it’s better to hold the puck out wide — to his left, in this case — and stick out the right knee. This way, if a defender is going to try to reach around, they can only hit the shinpad.
Here is an example from one of the greatest ever, the 5’11 Sidney Crosby, who holds off the 6’3 Sean Couturier by getting nice and wide and protecting the puck. You can see the knee sticking out is impacting Couturier’s ability to reach around him and poke the puck off of his stick. I’m sure Matthews will get better this — at 6’3, 220, he shouldn’t have defenders reaching around and poking the puck off of him.
“We’re actually very encouraged with Dermott’s game. He’s really done everything we’ve asked of him, and lots of positive things about his game. We shouldn’t be reading anything into him coming out other than the fact that we’re just trying to create opportunity for Mikko (Lehtonen) to show what he can do.”
– Sheldon Keefe on healthy scratching Travis Dermott to play Mikko Lehtonen
This is fair. I genuinely believe there is no hidden message here. What is actually noteworthy: Even when Travis Dermott is in the lineup, he isn’t playing very much. Dermott is firmly sixth among Leafs defensemen in even-strength time on ice per game, and he does not play on the penalty kill or power play. It’s worth noting that he’s still only 24 and is yet to surpass the 200-game mark. His cap hit is under a million, so it’s hard to complain, but in terms of Dermott’s future, it’s hard to be optimistic at this time when the Leafs don’t really trust him with much.
“(Tuesday) was the best that line has looked (but) we’re still unsure who the right guys are (there).”
– Sheldon Keefe discussing replacing Pierre Engvall and Joey Anderson with Jason Spezza and Alexander Barabanov in the next game
Some regular readers of this column might know that I’m also an avid Seahawks fan, so I’ve been particularly interested in the reports about Sheldon Keefe studying Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. In Carroll’s first season as coach with the Seahawks, they made an unheard-of 284 roster moves, churning players in and out to see who fit their team and who would be allowed to stay in the program they were building. Now, this is not that extreme, but we see the same sort of idea at play here. The Leafs basically collected a bunch of depth players and are working through it, providing opportunities and collecting data before a true pecking order is eventually established.
“A year makes a lot of difference. I like being in this position a lot better than the position I was in last year. And it doesn’t mean that I feel comfortable in my position or anything like that. I don’t think anybody in this league feels comfortable with where they’re at. For me, it’s just a continuous process trying to improve.”
– Justin Holl on this season compared to last season
Justin Holl had a great season last year, although I thought his playoff performances were rather ordinary. His minutes were up, but he was pointless in five games, and after Jake Muzzin went down hurt, Holl was outshot at 5v5 playing primarily with Travis Dermott the rest of the way. He wasn’t bad by any means, but I didn’t think he made a notable impact.
This season, Holl’s production is up early (five points through 10 games), and he’s been a bit more active — such as jumping up in the rush and taking a perfect shot for rebound leading to a Wayne Simmonds goal, and beating out an icing while killing a 6v5 to keep the clock running against Winnipeg. It also helps that he’s playing with Muzzin again. Holl is an excellent skater, which we see in flashes. Especially as he becomes more and more comfortable in the league, the more he uses his speed, the better.
Tweets of the Week
Frederik Andersen just robbed a point in the standings. Oh my god.
— Steve “Dangle” Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) January 31, 2021
It seems almost comical to think about some of the “takes” that were coming out about Frederik Andersen when he came out of the gate slowly. He has a lot to prove still, and the Leafs need to have a playoff series (or a few) where he isn’t the second-best goalie, but he looks great right now and he has stolen a few points for the team. They were outshot every game last week and often out-chanced, particularly at 5v5, but they went three-for-four with an overtime loss.
Not a fan of the retro jersey with the blue on blue numbers on the back. Reminds me of Harold Ballard obeying league rules to put name plates on the jerseys. So program sales wouldn’t dip he put white on white and blue on blue pic.twitter.com/7NYHQdWcPi
— Joe Bowen (@BonsieTweets) January 31, 2021
If that’s the only game they wear those jerseys – and I know it won’t be – I would not be upset. Moving away from blue and white should only be permitted when the team wears the green St. Patrick’s jersey. That’s it.
John Carlson pretty much with “no 🖤” vibes when asked if he is a fan of keeping the divisional schedule moving forward.
“No. Absolutely not. I would never vote for something like this … I like it how it was.”
— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) January 26, 2021
While the essence of the tweet is technically not Leafs related, this is something that applies league-wide. This is a bad division, and the Leafs are often playing down to their opponents (which is a natural thing that most teams do). I like the back-to-backs because they create mini-series and interesting storylines, but some variety would be great. It would be awesome to see the Leafs play some measuring-stick games against the Colorados and Las Vegas’ of the league.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) January 29, 2021
I got a good laugh out of this. It’s the little things.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Ilya Mikheyev is a really important checker on this team, but we also have to keep in mind that he has two assists in 10 games so far this season and his ability to finish has been lacking so far. He looked really good last season as a two-way forward who could score, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t had it so far this season. If or when he rediscovers his scoring touch, he can move up to the top six, but until then, he really shouldn’t be there.
2. I think Joey Anderson and Travis Boyd both looked quite noticeable — in a good way — and I wouldn’t mind seeing them get a bit more of a run versus being on the outside looking in more often than not. Anderson is an energetic checker who brings a style of play that the Leafs generally lack, and Boyd looked solid. Get them in more than once or twice every 10 games.
3. On the other side of it, I think Alexander Barabanov has essentially done nothing to deserve continued ice time. I get that he’s a rookie and he’s new to the league, but he’s also 26 (turns 27 this year), and I can’t think of one notable thing he has done so far this season. I actually did a double-take when I saw that he has played in six of 10 games so far. Give the other guys a look; if they struggle, give Barabanov another try, but at this point, every game that he plays over the other options isn’t really deserved.
4. In the Edmonton game on Saturday, Sheldon Keefe saw the team struggling after one period and put a power line out early in the second period (he started Hyman – Matthews – Marner, then kept Matthews on, replacing the other two with Tavares and Nylander). I think it needs to happen a little more often, particularly if the Leafs are going to continue to struggle at 5v5. Their lines really aren’t doing much in the flow of the game, so if Keefe has to manufacture it a bit more by loading up, so be it.
5. I think Frederik Andersen has put concerns to bed for now. The Leafs only play one back-to-back in February (the 17th and 18th against Ottawa), but I’d be inclined to give Michael Hutchinson more than one start unless he is completely dreadful in his first opportunity. The bottom line is that the Leafs need to rest Andersen and ensure he is ready for a long playoff run. I don’t think they do that by playing him all month save for one game.