Leafs Notebook is posted every Monday by noon EST
When Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs locked up John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner to big-dollar contracts, they knew it would force them to continually go bargain hunting in order to fill out the roster.
After losing to Boston in 2019, President Brendan Shanahan noted that when it comes to cap issues, “It is just something that we should just accept and embrace. Just about every team that has a consistent ability to challenge for a Stanley Cup will have cap issues.”
That same year, General Manager Kyle Dubas mentioned that when it comes to cap constraints, “It is a discussion that we have here ongoing daily. In our prognosticating, we know that next season will be our toughest year, and then the salary cap has grown every year, so with that and different things that will occur and happen, we’ll start to gain some breathing room.”
Now, nobody could have predicted what was coming in 2020, but the general point was always going to be true: The bottom of the roster will need to come cheaply, and the Leafs will have to find hidden value knowing the team won’t get to where they want to go without quality depth. Additionally, any notable contract on the books that is not worth its weight in value could make things very difficult – Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau, Cody Ceci, Tyson Barrie.
With the needs on defense and not much room to add salary, the Leafs shifted from having a number of mid-level forwards under contract (Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen) to trading both away to create cap room and improve the defense with the signing of TJ Brodie. The trade-off made sense. Championship teams almost always need to have a strong defense, but the Leafs still needed to fill their bottom forward group with some legitimate NHL talent to round out their roster.
To date, this strategy is paying off quite handsomely as the Leafs have found a ton of value on league-minimum or close-to-league-minimum contracts.
Joe Thornton has a point per game through nine games. He’s playing on the top line regularly – and showing well there so far – and he’s a contributor on the power play, able to play a support or primary role on either unit.
Wayne Simmonds scored five goals in 12 games before getting injured while providing some jam that’s not really present elsewhere in the lineup. While he is still not particularly effective at 5v5, he was every bit of the elite net-front presence he has always been throughout his career.
Zach Bogosian is comfortably playing the fifth-most among Leafs defensemen per night and he is a regular on the second penalty-killing unit. He has been solid if unspectacular, but that third pairing has been relatively steady as opposed to a liability for once, and that’s rather important.
Now up to 11 points in 18 games, Jason Spezza is contributing as a faceoff specialist (including on the penalty kill) and as a power-play contributor. Travis Boyd has chipped in six points in his 11 games as a depth scorer. Only Jimmy Vesey hasn’t been particularly impactful.
Ultimately, it will come down to the Leafs’ best players performing at their best in the biggest games, but hand it to Leafs management for finding some cheap, useful, productive options to surround them with in order to get the best out of this roster so far. It’s likely a strategy they’ll need to deploy for years to come.
– The Canadiens again ran a hard line match against the Leafs with all of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Toffoli, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher playing over 11 minutes each against Auston Matthews at 5v5. Basically, whenever Matthews was on the ice, he got a full five-man unit dedicated to him. John Tavares played nearly 12 minutes against the pair of Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry and roughly eight minutes or so against the trio of Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson, and Jonathan Drouin. Having played Montreal four times now, it seems pretty clear that these are the matchups Claude Julien would like to deploy against the Leafs.
– I spoke about the need to stick out the leg when driving the net to protect the puck on an Auston Matthews example earlier this season. William Nylander did it pretty well perfectly against the Canadiens. He had a step on the defender, stuck out his knee, dropped his shoulder, and got a good shot off. Later in that same game, Jason Spezza stuck his foot out to protect the puck from a stick check on a 2v1, leading to a tap-in for Alex Kerfoot.
– I have always kept an eye on the line the coach starts a period with. Usually, it’s some sort of nod to who he is looking to set the tone with or reward. It can also be something players care about. After the 6-5 debacle and the John Tavares/William Nylander criticism, I thought it was interesting that Sheldon Keefe started them in every period of the next game.
To some degree, I can understand sticking with them while everyone seemingly criticizes that pair. You can only do that for so long, but he’s trying to build them up amid the adversity. Of course, in the next game, they split them up to get them some shifts with Matthews and Marner.
– The only real blemish I’ve seen from Auston Matthews this season was going for a stick lift against Matthew Peca instead of establishing proper body positioning. When the stick lift didn’t work, he got beat out of the corner, leading to a Connor Brown goal. It made it 5-2 at the time, and while the Leafs did take care of business this time, Ottawa actually hit the post the next shift and could have made it 5-3, at which point things would have gotten really interesting.
It’s going to be difficult for habits like this not to sink in given the Leafs’ competition this season. As the 5-1 blown lead showed, their toughest opponent this season is really themselves.
– Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are going to connect on this play: They have a little give and go where Matthews is in the corner, he passes to Marner at the hashmark and then loops behind the net looking for a backdoor pass. It seems to be a favourite of theirs right now — they try it quite a bit.
– Good on Jake Muzzin for taking the run at Josh Anderson. In every game so far this season, Anderson has been running around looking to put Leafs players through the boards. Muzzin and Anderson have had multiple run-ins already throughout the series. With a chance to take a run at Anderson with a lead in hand, Muzzin went for it.
I didn’t realize until this weekend that Muzzin also has 12 points in 19 games. What a nice player he is overall.
– The Mikheyev – Engvall – Hyman generated an excellent shift pinning the Habs deep that drew a power play towards the end of the first period against Montreal. That started the sequence that led to a 5v3 and the Leafs scoring on both of those power plays to take a 2-0 lead.
The line went out there right after the Leafs made it 2-0 and generated another dominant shift against the Habs. They are a limited line offensively, but the Leafs don’t need them to score very much. If they can get good checking and zone time minutes from L3 to tilt the ice and allow the top guys to go to work, it is a huge win.
“It’s usually an accumulation of things. You don’t overact to one incident or one different thing. For me, it’s usually the end of a long line of events that have occurred with a lot of communication and discussion. It’s not something I resort to all that often.”
– Sheldon Keefe on benching William Nylander
The tea leaves have been easy to read for pretty well the entire season. For weeks, we’ve been noting William Nylander’s ice time. He’s averaging roughly 16 minutes a night playing for a coach that actively wants to load up his top players with ice time. The most he has played in a game this season is 18:01 (kind of strangely, he hit that exact mark twice). Earlier in the week against the Senators in a 2-1 game, Nylander’s last shift of the night came after a rather weak backcheck resulted in a scoring chance for Ottawa. Nobody has ever really doubted the talent, but he needs to up his engagement level if wants to get more ice time.
“If you are the Maple Leafs, don’t you see this as a year where you go for it? Look at the way you are going. Look at the way Matthews is going. Look at the way some of the star players are going. Just go for it.
The way the Leafs are playing and the way it is setting up, you are going for it this year. This is a year where you say, “I’ve got all of these poker chips in front of me. I am pushing them in. I am going for it.”
– Elliotte Friedman on the Leafs’ approach this season
Without question, the Leafs have to go all-in this season. They are a really good team in a really weak division with a clear path to the final four.
Auston Matthews is playing at whatever the next level above “lights out” is. He’s on another planet. Mitch Marner is arguably on that planet with him. The team has a number of key contributors that are on the older side. Frederik Andersen and Zach Hyman are pending unrestricted free agents. This is absolutely a year to go for it.
When Tampa Bay was having a record-setting season a few years ago, they decided not to make moves — they didn’t want to mess with the team — before getting swept by Columbus. The following season, the Lightning traded a number of future assets and won the Cup. This is that year for the Leafs.
“I want to score, but I’ve been trying to do little things that help the team win & put the momentum on our side … just playing that full 200-foot game and competing night in & night out, that’s really all I’ve been looking at, looking for myself to do.”
– Auston Matthews on improving his all-around game
See the tweet below for more details.
Tweets of the Week
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) February 21, 2021
It was obvious from puck drop that Auston Matthews was a man on a mission this season. He has been fantastic. This is a Hart-worthy season, and if he keeps it up, his place among the best in the game today is going to be a real debate between him and Connor McDavid (and that’s really saying something).
Since Mats Sundin left, we’ve seen that first-line center role filled by Matt Stajan, Dominic Moore, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, and Nazem Kadri. There are some nice enough players in that group, to be sure, but this is the real deal now. Enjoy it.
Freddy Andersen's played more than any goalie this season & 5-on-5 he's faced the most shots, leads the league in high danger shots/saves + he's 4th/26 in SV% among those who've started 9 or more games.
Narratives are fun, but right now he should be getting nothing but respect.
— JD Bunkis (@JDBunkis) February 21, 2021
It’s amazing to think back on some of the heat Frederik Andersen was taking early on this season. On Saturday night, Andersen was the only reason the Leafs were tied with the Habs through one period. He looks really good right now.
Obviously, the question for Andersen will be whether he can do it in the playoffs. We’ve seen this in the regular season before.
#Habs Julien: “We shot ourselves in the foot. I don’t think we should say it’s acceptable after a week off,” referring to numerous mental errors and flawed decision-making.
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) February 21, 2021
I find it interesting sometimes to see what the opposite coach thinks after a game. From the Leafs’ end, they didn’t play too well to start, but once the game settled in, they scored a few power-play goals. While the Habs did promptly tie it, the Leafs weren’t particularly rattled — they went about their business and built the lead back up.
It didn’t really feel in question after the Leafs went up 3-2. From the Habs’ end, I suppose they outplayed them in the first and at 5v5 generally speaking – the Leafs went 3 for 4 on the power play, and it’s not the first game they’ve been burned by the Leafs on the man advantage. Not saying this is true or that I agree with it, but the Habs must feel like if they keep the game at 5v5, they can beat the Leafs.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Alex Kerfoot looks good on the wing because that’s where he can best use his speed. Without the defensive responsibility of playing center, Kerfoot can fly up and down the ice and get in on the forecheck a little easier. Ultimately, I think that’s his best position, but in order to play it, he needs to score consistently. Otherwise, $3.5 million for a third-line left winger is too much. In any event, I expect they will use Kerfoot as a swiss army knife and move him around quite often.
2. When you have two players making roughly $17 million to play together on the second line and you’re trying to figure out who you should trade for to supplement them, I think you’re really not asking the right question. Matthews and Marner are tearing it up right now, but a lot of that is power-play driven. They can afford to split the two up and see if reuniting the old pairings nets a better overall situation. If nothing else, at some point, they should experiment with this look.
3. To that end, if I was looking for a forward, I think I’d still be more interested in a third-line center than anything else. They can keep Alex Kerfoot on the wing, they can push Pierre Engvall down to center the fourth line, and hopefully, they wouldn’t need to push Zach Hyman down the lineup to create better depth.
4. I think I get not playing Michael Hutchinson. He looked extremely shaky. But you have some wiggle room in this division, and Andersen looked great coming back from a little rest. There has to be a balance. There’s really no need for Andersen to start 10 games in a row.
5. I think it was good to sit Zach Bogosian in order to play Mikko Lehtonen and Travis Dermott, but for me, the pair didn’t do much to challenge Bogosian for that spot. Bogosian played probably his worst game as a Leaf in the 6-5 overtime loss to Ottawa, but he was back to being his solid self when he returned, while Lehtonen and Dermott had their struggles. As noted earlier, there’s something to be said for having a steady third pairing, and Bogosian has been the stabilizer there this season.