The Toronto Maple Leafs are 8-2-1 through 11 games, largely thanks to their red-hot power play.
Before we dive in any deeper, let’s quickly acknowledge that it’s great to have 17 points through 11 games. No team wants to think about the possibility of missing the playoffs. Banking points early is crucial in a shortened season, where there is less time to make up ground. When it comes to making the playoffs or winning the division, they don’t ask how you got your points. They just ask how many.
Of course, everyone on the planet knows that the Leafs can’t count on their power play to convert at a 40% rate all season. Their five-on-five play isn’t firing on all cylinders, and if one of their “big four” forwards misses time, they don’t have great depth in terms of top-six talent.
We saw the Tampa Bay Lightning move on without skipping a beat when Steven Stamkos got hurt in last year’s playoffs, and they still look strong with Nikita Kucherov out. While the Leafs have plenty of NHL-calibre forwards, it still looks like they have five top-six forwards rather than six. They haven’t been as dominant as their record suggests, but they have been good defensively and there are several positives to build on.
Let’s take a look at what’s working and what’s not working thus far.
The Leafs defense continues to look great: Jake Muzzin continues to be Jake Muzzin, there’s no buyer’s remorse going on with T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl is off to an outstanding start, and Zach Bogosian has been better than expected as a puck mover. Travis Dermott, despite being a healthy scratch at times, continues to look like the strong third-pairing defenseman that he’s always been.
The team’s more offensive defensemen, Morgan Rielly and Mikko Lehtonen, haven’t really stood out offensively at 5-on-5, but it’s tough to complain about Toronto’s defense group overall.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner continue to be good at hockey. William Nylander is off to a great start as well, even though his line has been quite mediocre at times. Wayne Simmonds is filling his role nicely, while Zach Hyman hasn’t had a bad game since he was in minor novice. After a bit of a weak start, the fourth-line rotation is starting to work out well, as Nic Petan was great in his first game, Travis Boyd has four points in three games, and Jason Spezza even scored a hat-trick at the age of 37. I’ve mostly liked what I’ve seen from Pierre Engvall as well.
While there’s been some bright spots at even strength, the story of the season is easily the power play. Balancing the two units is working beautifully thus far, and Manny Malhotra deserves plenty of credit for this team’s success. On the “second unit,” John Tavares has been lights-out on face-offs while racking up points in bunches. Nylander and Spezza are both solid shooting threats from the outside, while Nylander is a major asset in terms of entries. Hyman is more than capable of creating havoc around the net, and while T.J. Brodie isn’t a human highlight reel back there, at least he doesn’t take many low-danger point shots.
Matthews and Marner are the obvious focal points of the first unit, and I wrote an article in the offseason explaining why I like Marner on his non-one timer side. Currently, the Leafs have Marner and Matthews flipping sides quite regularly and their opponents have no idea what to prepare for. Matthews is clearly an outstanding goal scorer, but the power play got far too predictable at times last year, as the Leafs didn’t always have a great “Plan B” when their opponents took away Matthews’ one-timer.
If nothing else, the Leafs now have two good power-play units instead of one. If Nick Robertson gets back in the lineup, his shot will be a major weapon as well. Having Alex Kerfoot on the top unit is not completely ideal, but it’s nice to see him get involved. Wayne Simmonds is a strong net-front option. It’s tough to root against Simmonds when you hear stuff like this:
Mitch Marner on Simmonds in front of the net on the #Leafs PP:
“Simmer’s probably told me about five times, ‘don’t be afraid to shoot it at my chest.’ And he’s not lying, either.”
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 29, 2021
What’s Not Working
The absence of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, both moved out this past offseason, has been notable. Those trades still look good — it allowed them to go out and get Brodie — but their forward group is unsurprisingly not quite as strong as a result. After we saw a noticeable difference following the loss of Nazem Kadri in 2019, their 5-on-5 scoring has taken an additional step backwards again this season. The team needs more offense out of the Tavares and Kerfoot lines.
Tavares scored his first five-on-five goal of the season on Thursday night, courtesy of a great pass from William Nylander. While Wayne Simmonds had a good first game up there, he’s not exactly a can’t-miss top-six forward at this stage of his career. In an ideal world, Simmonds is probably adding secondary scoring in the team’s bottom-six rather than being their best option for a complementary top-six role.
Jimmy Vesey continues to look rather invisible on a nightly basis, but it’s a little bit less noticeable now that he’s moved down to the Kerfoot line; he does not look overly dangerous offensively. I think he’s comfortably behind both Mikheyev and Engvall in terms of creating pressure on the forecheck and winning battles. He needs to play with more urgency, as there’s plenty of players in this organization who are ready to take his job.
Other than taking too many penalties, Kerfoot plays well on most nights. He’s a perfectly-fine third line center, with a strong transition game. However, he only has one primary point at 5-on-5 thus far, and it was off a weak wrist shot from a distance. While he’s not going to ever be Nazem Kadri out there, the Leafs need more offense out of him if they are going to make a deep playoff run.
Mikheyev, meanwhile, can’t buy a goal right now, but I like his speed and size combination and he helps this team even when he’s not scoring. Creating his fair share of chances, he’ll finally catch a break at some point. However, I do believe that his offensive production last year was a bit of a fluke and his defensive game is more of his calling card. I would consider giving Nick Robertson a chance with Kerfoot and Mikheyev once he’s healthy, or perhaps go back to the Engvall-Kerfoot-Mikheyev line that was successful last season. What they’re doing right now isn’t working.
I’m curious to see what will happen once Thornton returns to the lineup. If he goes back to playing with Matthews and Marner, I assume that would leave Hyman with Tavares and Nylander. I’m still not 100% convinced that playing Thornton on the top line is the right call, but I am 100% convinced that a Hyman-Tavares-Nylander line would be successful. As a result, I’m not overly concerned about Tavares just yet. I will point out that he’s been legitimately great on the powerplay.
On defense, Toronto’s three best players have been Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie. You can order these three players as you’d like, but I think it’s quite clear that they’ve been the top three. Morgan Rielly is not off to a great start (despite his point total), and unlike past years, we can’t blame this on him having a bad partner.
Rielly does not have a primary point at 5-on-5 this year, and it’s never a great sign when your partner has an amazing highlight reel of defending odd-man rushes. After a down year last year — while I’m a big fan of him personally — it’s obvious that the Leafs need more out of him. A free agent after the 2021-22 season, if Rielly doesn’t start playing better, it will be tough to justify giving him a big contract given their tight cap situation.
Around the NHL
As someone who has been watching a fair amount of hockey around the league, I’m always looking for good and underrated players. Since it’s a bit of a weak draft this year – and the Ontario Hockey League hasn’t started yet — I’ll probably be watching more NHL hockey than ever. While it’s nearly impossible to know which players will be moved in the next calendar year, having a strong knowledge of various players around the league is never a bad thing.
- One team that I watched a lot this week was the Anaheim Ducks. Their power play is poorly-coached, but they have a good collection of young and underrated forwards. Troy Terry stood out in a big way despite the fact that he was pointless in his first nine games. He’s a good puck carrier with plenty of skill who, if you pair him with two good play-drivers, can help to create his fair share of offense. A point-per game player at the AHL, Terry could himself as a solid middle-six NHL winger this year.
- Sam Steel, who reminds me a bit of Alex Kerfoot, also looks better than his point totals indicate. Maxime Comtois is a pretty good carrier for a power forward and he wins plenty of battles. I’ve always been a big fan of Danton Heinen’s well-rounded game. Rickard Rakell could be a solid addition to a contender’s top-six, even though he’s more offensively-tilted.
- Overall, I think the Ducks are in desperate need of star talent up-front. They’ll need more than just Trevor Zegras to be a true contender. I wouldn’t mind taking a chance on Terry if he becomes available. Hampus Lindholm remains one of the most underrated players in the game even though I’ve hated him on the power play.
- The other team I watched a lot of this week was the St. Louis Blues, who still look like one of the best teams in hockey, although they’re weaker defensively after losing Alex Pietrangelo. A very underrated puck-mover: Vince Dunn. While I’m not 100% sold on his ability to match up against top competition, I think he might be able to put up 60+ points on the right team. He’s a bit of an awkward fit with Torey Krug. It’s nice to have plenty of good puck movers, but it’s hard not to notice the loss of Pietrangelo. I still don’t like that Krug signing for St. Louis.
- The Blues are such a fun team to watch. Ryan O’Reilly is such a great play-driver, and I’ve always been a big fan of Jaden Schwartz and David Perron. Robert Thomas is a strong two-way center who could be a star if he takes a step forward offensively, but the biggest bright-spot for this team has been Jordan Kyrou, who currently leads them in scoring. One of the best skaters in the NHL, Kyrou is a better playmaker than a Kasperi Kapanen. He looks like a solid top-six forward already, which is a great sign for the Blues.
- My last thought from around the NHL for the week pertains to the Florida Panthers: I’m still the president of the MacKenzie Weegar fan club. The Weegar-Ekblad pairing might be the most underrated pairing in the game right now. I would have loved to see Weegar in a Leafs uniform (they were rumoured to have interest this past offseason).
- Meanwhile, former Leafs draft pick Carter Verhaeghe has six goals and three assists in nine games. Aleksander Barkov, a great play-driver, is currently playing with Verhaeghe (who they signed for $1 million per year this offseason) and Anthony Duclair (who they signed for $1.7 million).
- If you put skilled wingers with someone like O’Reilly or Barkov, the points will usually come. Barkov’s former linemate, Evgeny Dadonov, is struggling to score in Ottawa this season, and I think he’s learning that the NHL is a lot tougher when you’re not playing with a dominant two-way center.
- It is an important reminder for everyone that context matters. You can’t just scout the stat line to accurately evaluate NHL players. If you build a team of great play-drivers, the points will usually come.
The Canadian division sure looks quite weak thus far. Ottawa has been worse than expected even though I wasn’t expecting all that much in the first place. Vancouver looks terrible — their scoring depth is awfully weak, and they don’t have a true #1 goalie in net. Edmonton looks awfully weak defensively, while the Flames seem to be feeling the loss of T.J. Brodie.
Montreal continues to look outstanding, although they don’t have the same scoring talent as Toronto, Edmonton, or Winnipeg. I’m really interested to see the Jets with Pierre-Luc Dubois in the lineup, but I’m still not completely sold on them defensively. All in all, the Habs, Jets, and Leafs look to be the top three teams in the division, with the Oilers and Flames closely competing for fourth.
If you’re the Leafs front office, I think you need to take a long and hard look at this division and consider making a significant move at the deadline. The first round of the draft figures to be quite weak. You also acquired players like Filip Hallander and Joey Anderson this offseason, who could interest other teams. If they can add one more top-six forward who can push everyone else down the depth chart one spot, this team looks to be strong enough defensively to win a few rounds.