Leafs Notebook is posted every Monday by noon EST
It’s only 12 games in, but we are already over 20 percent of the way through the 2020-21 season. That’s the reality of a 56-game schedule.
While it’s still early, enough of the season has gone by for us to start gathering a sense of the North division and how things might shake out.
Unsurprisingly, the Leafs are in the top group of the division (all of the writers here, myself included, picked the Leafs to finish first in the division this season). While they are benefitting from the hottest power play in the league, they are moving up in possession and 5v5 goals lately. It’s fair to expect things to balance out a bit rather than a huge drop off once the power play comes down to earth. On most nights, it appears their top talent will be too much to handle for most teams in the division.
How’s everyone else doing?
Montreal is actually leading the division (and league) in goals per game. They also have the best possession and expected goals numbers in the division. They don’t have the elite talent that the Leafs do up front, but they are deep, presenting all sorts of challenges for a Leafs team that generally runs three lines.
We’ll also need to see how Montreal looks once some key individuals return to earth. While the Leafs’ leaderboard makes sense, Jeff Petry leads the Habs in scoring with 14 points in 12 games and Tyler Toffoli is clicking at over a point per game — both seem fairly unsustainable. Is Nick Suzuki jumping from a 41-point rookie season (in 71 games) to a point-per-game player? His PDO is nearly 106 so far. They are clearly a good team and would be a tough matchup for any opponent in the playoffs, but we’ll see what happens when some of their top scorers cool off.
The Jets are in third place and have a +7 goal differential to go along with middle-of-the-pack possession numbers. They are about to introduce a real difference maker to their lineup in Pierre-Luc Dubois, and they play four of their next five games against either Ottawa or Edmonton. They arguably have the best goalie in the division as well as the deepest center group, but their defense is weak and stands out as a concern. They should get a boost from adding a player as strong as Dubois to the lineup for a team already performing fairly well in this division.
By points percentage, the Flames are next and they are the last team in the division with a positive goal differential. They are also second to the Habs in possession numbers in the division. Johnny Gaudreau is off to a strong start with seven goals in 11 games after scoring 18 in 70 last season. Jacob Markstrom is a good goalie, and they have a number of good players, including Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane, Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, and Mikael Backlund. They don’t quite have the star power of the Leafs or even the Jets, nor do they have the depth of the Habs, but they are a solid team.
It would come as little surprise if the top four teams by points percentage right now are the same ones still standing when the regular season ends.
The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are both amazing and capable of winning games on their own, but they lack depth, defense, and quality goaltending. The Senators have better possession numbers than the Oilers do. Edmonton had the best special teams in the league last season, and with both units coming back down to earth, the team has fallen back into mediocrity.
Leafs fans have seen what’s happening in Vancouver up close lately. They are three games below .500 already and have a -11 goal differential. Their top players are struggling, teammates are going at each other, and they have the worst possession numbers in the division (and third-worst in the league). Maybe their top players turn it around, but there have been no real signs of life there so far. Until that happens, there isn’t much else to really say about Vancouver at this point.
There isn’t a whole lot we can write about Ottawa, either. They are introducing youth to their team this season, and it’s more or less going as we all expected. They have the potential to be good, but it won’t be this season.
All in all, the Leafs have to be feeling pretty good about how things are shaking out so far. It’s a stark contrast to the past few years of constantly looking up at Boston and Tampa Bay.
– The Leafs’ power play continues to be red hot as there has been a lot of discussion on splitting the units. The game against Vancouver on Saturday showed some pros and cons of the strategy. One reason the Leafs seem to split up the units is the options it creates once the power play ends. When they load up the power play, they essentially have to play their third line on the next shift because 4/6 of their top six was just on the ice. Teams usually like to put on their top line after killing a penalty, and it could leave the Leafs in some pretty unfavourable positions coming off of not scoring on a power play.
Against Vancouver, the opposite occurred. Wayne Simmonds scored a great goal on the power play, Sheldon Keefe immediately put out the John Tavares line following the goal, they took quick possession of the puck, and they drew another power play. That’s the benefit of splitting the units.
On the other side of it, the game ended and Alex Kerfoot played 5:03 on the power play while John Tavares clocked in at 2:16 and William Nylander at 1:51. You’ll get away with that kind of thing against opponents like Vancouver, but probably not against good teams in the playoffs.
– The Jason Spezza hat trick goal rightfully received a ton of attention, but the power-play goal was really impressive. He has lost multiple steps in his stride from his prime, but he can still shoot the puck. Spezza can carry a secondary power-play unit on his own as he’s still really good at gaining the zone and setting it up, his shot is a legitimate threat, and he has the vision to get teammates involved.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 5, 2021
Among players who have taken at least 50 faceoffs this year, Spezza ranks fifth in faceoff win percentage. The hat trick has inflated his overall line on the season, but eight points in 11 games, one of the best faceoff men in the league, good on power play, and averaging over a minute of shorthanded time on ice per game — he’s carving himself out a nice role on the team.
– There was a lot of talk going into the season regarding Auston Matthews playing on the penalty kill, but so far, he’s averaging only 21 seconds there a night, which is seventh among Leafs forwards. Hasn’t really materialized into anything at this point, and I’m not really sure why it would. Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman are penalty-killing locks at all times, while Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot are also regulars. Spezza is around for faceoffs, while the Leafs use Jimmy Vesey there quite regularly as well.
– There is only so much you can say when the Leafs play Vancouver and Vancouver plays as they have. One really positive thing to come out of the games was seeing the Leafs’ rush offense produce. They’ve been running off their power play a bit and started opening up a bit against Calgary — after Simmonds scored a nice goal off a shot for a rebound on the rush and Travis Boyd scored a mini breakaway goal, they built off that against Vancouver. Matthews scored off of the rush in both games, Spezza scored twice off of the rush, and Hyman and Tavares did as well. Against Edmonton, the Leafs really tried to minimize opening it up (arguably to their detriment), so it’s nice to see them do so against Vancouver and cash in.
– Kudos to whoever spotted the offside on what would have been a JT Miller goal to make it 3-1 before the second intermission. The overall rule is a whole debate in and of itself, but for the Leafs’ purposes on that night, it more or less ended the game. I think everyone felt Vancouver couldn’t catch a break after that. I didn’t think Vancouver was going to come back regardless, but the game was never interesting from that point on.
– Could be wrong, but I wonder if Wayne Simmonds running Quinn Hughes late in the game (before fighting Jordie Benn) was somewhat in response to the hit on Travis Dermott earlier in the game. It wasn’t the same player who did it of course, but he definitely went out of his way to throw a bit of a reckless hit on a good Canucks player when the game was out of reach following a Leafs player being knocked out of the game.
“I think every player is having their moments. We have had a lot more chatter on our bench from everybody. Simmonds and Bogosian have added a lot in that regard, and Jumbo when he was in the lineup. I have seen progression for everybody all the way through. Having multiple people that have that level of personality brings it out in others.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the atmosphere on the bench
I’ve been thinking about what it’s like in the arena quite a bit. I’m sure it’s quiet and a little bit disconcerting. I’m sure the players naturally get into it once the game actually gets going, too. But over the course of the season, naturally, there are lulls, off nights, or even just ebbs and flows in games, and I think it’s really important to have an active bench in those big, empty arenas. It’s a small thing that the veterans bring, but it’s a big thing.
“He’s getting himself in scoring areas. He’s working below the puck in our D zone especially coming out of our zone mostly with the puck in the middle of the ice and when you give him that much space and time, he’s going to make something happen.”
– Mitch Marner on Auston Matthews
Good defense leads to good offense. An interesting and important thing that he points out here: The ability to move the puck through the middle of the ice (between the faceoff dots). It opens everything up offensively and gives a player a ton of options. If a player constantly has to move the puck through a clogged neutral zone or skate it up the wall, good defensemen can easily angle you off. Turnovers and quick transitions create odd-man rush opportunities with time and space. That’s where the Leafs want to be.
“It’s obviously a little frustrating. It was a very long time ago since I played a game, but we’re hanging in there and having fun in practice.”
– Rasmus Sandin on not playing yet this season
He actually hasn’t played a game since March 10, 2020. We’re coming up on a full calendar year at this point. I said on last week’s podcast that one game out of every 10 (or whatever) won’t do much for him, either, which is true. Really, they need to figure out a proper solution here because they are burning major development time for arguably their best prospect in the organization to spend his days practicing with the depth players.
Tweets of the Week
Jason Spezza is the third oldest player in the league this year. To put his longevity in perspective, he was a runner-up for the 1999 OHL Rookie of the Year…which was won by his current coach, Sheldon Keefe. pic.twitter.com/53WlCI6d5w
— mitch marney (@marnylandersen) February 5, 2021
This is just wild to think about.
Spezza worked on face-offs with Zach Hyman, Alex Kerfoot & Manny Malhotra after practice yesterday
Jason at 63.5% this season pic.twitter.com/iXBJKH4G0o
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 6, 2021
Zach Hyman is actually only winning 30.4% of his faceoffs so far this season, which would be a career-low for him. That said, I can’t think of two guys you’d rather learn from.
Seven goals in his last six games.
166 goals in his 292 NHL games.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 5, 2021
There is always some debate about this, but I’ve always liked the idea of being elite at a few things versus trying to be a bit of everything. He owns one of the best shots in the league, and he just keeps working at it. His slapshot/one-timer has come a long way since he entered the league.
I would advise fans to track points percentage rather than overall points in the standings. In case some teams don't play 56 games.
Points percentage leaders:
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) February 4, 2021
It’s actually getting hard to see the league putting on a full 56-game season. Maybe it’s different in Canada, but I’d be surprised if every team in the league gets through 56 games. We should always look at points percentage anyway, but now more than ever.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Mikko Lehtonen looked good against Vancouver and he has the potential to be a contributor on the team. That said, with a Travis Dermott injury, I think you pretty well have to get Rasmus Sandin in there for a look. In a normal season, this wouldn’t even be a discussion as he’d be in the AHL developing away, but this isn’t a normal season. There is a bit of an opening to get him in potentially more than one game. You have to take these opportunities when they come.
2. I think the left winger position on the John Tavares – William Nylander line is completely up for grabs. We’ve seen a number of guys get looks there, but nobody has truly seized the opportunity: Jimmy Vesey, Ilya Mikheyev, and the latest is Wayne Simmonds, who is now hurt. I’m not sure they have a true answer internally, but they can keep rotating in options to see if someone sticks. It would make some sense to give Joe Thornton a look there once he returns. He would have two really good finishers to distribute to, and he and Tavares could really work together below the top of the circles and behind the net — in theory, anyway.
3. As the Leafs rotate forwards in and out, I think Jimmy Vesey should probably be part of that group. Through 12 games, he has two goals and three points (and both goals were basically gifts), along with 16 shots on net. He has been a nice surprise as a penalty killer, but the Leafs have a ton of depth guys who can do that. I don’t think that is enough to keep him in the lineup every night as an unquestioned member of the top 12. If you’re going to have an open competition for depth spots, you should be honest about who is actually in that bubble group.
4. In case this was ever in question — I guess it somewhat was, as he started the season on the third line — I think Zach Hyman should just stay on the top line the rest of the season. At worst, he can drop to the second line with John Tavares. I get wanting to spread out the depth, but he’s just too good and the options really are that much worse to the point where they can’t justify it.
5. I think I would start Michael Hutchinson against Vancouver. Looking ahead, I’d want Andersen in net for Saturday against Montreal, Monday against Ottawa, and Wednesday against Ottawa before resting him for the Thursday game against Ottawa the night after. It does two things: 1) Preserves Andersen for the better games/teams; 2) Allows us to get a look at Hutchinson to see what he looks like this season. I know he struggled last season with Toronto, but he did have a reasonable .910 save percentage with Colorado in the playoffs after he left. Nobody is expecting him to be great, but it would be nice to see if he can be serviceable and spell Andersen as needed while Jack Campbell is out.