Life is good at the top of the NHL standings for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In this Sunday edition of Leafs Musings, we’ll cover Joe Thornton’s impact and long-term lineup fit, some possible lineup changes/experiments, the latest with the 4-4-0 Toronto Marlies, and check in with a quick note on potential deadline target, Mikael Granlund, in the final thoughts at the end.
Toronto’s Biggest X-Factor
The biggest X-factor on any team is always the goalie. They play the full 60 minutes and impact the game more than any player ever could. If Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell put up a .930 save percentage, we all know that the Leafs are going to win a lot of games. If Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell put up a .890 save percentage, we all know that the Leafs are in trouble. The Leafs are like every other NHL team in that respect.
Apart from the goaltenders, though, Toronto’s biggest x-factor is 41-year old Joe Thornton. The future Hall-of-Fame forward boasts 10 points in 10 games thus far, and the Leafs have dominated when he’s on the ice. It’s tough to complain about him so far, but it’s worth noting that he’s the team’s biggest mystery at this point. I have no idea just how good he really is yet (and you probably don’t, either).
Thornton has only played in 10 of Toronto’s 22 games thus far, all 10 of which were spent with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (or John Tavares for one game in Edmonton). The question becomes: How much of his great on-ice results are because of him, and how much is simply due to the fact that he’s riding shotgun with two superstars? Is he legitimately better on that line than Zach Hyman is? I’m a bit skeptical — I think very highly of Hyman — but Thornton is certainly a great passer who excels in the cycle. At this point, I have no idea how sustainable these results are.
The next question becomes: How would he look with John Tavares and William Nylander for an extended run? Toronto’s second line is not producing much offense at 5v5 thus far, and we know that Hyman could play with Matthews and Marner if needed. On the surface, it seems like both Tavares and Nylander would be perfect candidates to benefit from Thornton’s playmaking ability. Thornton is also able to play at Tavares’ pace. Could Thornton be the missing puzzle piece for that line? I have no idea, but it’s worth finding out.
The third question is: Could Thornton drive his own line? Thornton played center his entire career, with play-driving metrics that were quite strong as recently as the 2018-19 season. Is he best-suited to play on the wing at this point in his career? Or could he be a good third-line center who could help replicate what this team had when Nazem Kadri was around? If Thornton looks like the same player he was a couple of seasons ago, maybe he could drive a strong third line, where the Leafs have been looking for answers offensively this season.
At this point, I am still mulling over how good Thornton is and where he fits best. It’s clear that he can be a valuable contributor for this team, but he’s only played in 10 games and they haven’t moved him around the lineup at all. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was still a first-line winger come playoff time. It also wouldn’t completely surprise me if he was a bottom-six center.
I’ll be watching Thornton closely over the next few games. Let’s hope that the strong results with Matthews and Marner continue. If he does switch lines, or perhaps moves back to center, let’s hope that he excels at that, too. He’s been incredibly fun to watch thus far, and for me, he’s Toronto’s biggest X-factor going forward. If he’s the 2018-2019 version of himself, the Leafs are a completely different team for the better.
Possible Lineup Changes
Toronto’s lineup against the Flames on Monday night was mortifying. Injuries to Jake Muzzin, Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Frederik Andersen obviously hurt this team’s depth, but they didn’t do themselves any favours with their lineup decisions. I’d rather not see Tavares with Matthews and Marner again this season except perhaps situationally within games. Making yourself a one-line team for a whole game just doesn’t make any sense.
John Tortorella’s eyes probably lit up when he saw that the Leafs were going with a stacked first line in game five of the play-in series. Sure, it’s a great line, but the opposing team can put their best checking line out there with their best defensive pairing and treat those shifts like they’re killing a penalty. If that line doesn’t completely dominate, the Leafs probably aren’t going to win.
The stakes were much lower on Monday night, but that’s a lineup that I don’t want to see again anytime soon. Alex Kerfoot can’t be the second line center on a team with Matthews and Tavares, especially if Alexander Barabanov is going to be one of his wingers. Sheldon Keefe loves to experiment — and I tend to agree with him more than I disagree with him — but that lineup was ugly. To his credit, he abandoned the stacked first line after 40 minutes, but I think it was doomed to fail from the start.
The Leafs clearly need more from John Tavares offensively at even strength. He has four primary points at 5-on-5 through 22 games, which is not going to cut it on a team built around having two first lines. Both of his 5-on-5 goals came in 7-3 wins, with one being a tap-in set up by Nylander and the other being a point shot. Sure, his shooting percentage is bound to bounce back a bit, but the Leafs need him to be far more dangerous as a facilitator as well. Perhaps the one-game stint on the first line was Keefe attempting to get him going, but if this team is going to go anywhere, they’ll need him to drive his own line eventually.
At this point, I think they have to at least consider breaking up Matthews and Marner. We know that Marner could play with Tavares and Matthews could play with Nylander. Tavares played well with Thornton and Marner on Saturday night, and if he continues to play with them, we should expect to see an uptick in goals from the captain. We’ve seen Matthews have plenty of success when playing with William Nylander and Zach Hyman in the past. This team is at its best when they have two high-end scoring lines instead of one.
With that being said, the Leafs are 16-4-2 and have time to figure things out. They can give the Tavares and Nylander line a few more games to prove what they can do, but at this point, I think they are at least in the process of considering changes.
The answer to the “is Kerfoot a center or winger?” question is simple: He can play both. Playing on the wing reduces his defensive responsibilities and allows him to show off his offensive skillset a little bit more. The question is: Do the Leafs have a replacement for him at center? The line of Mikheyev, Engvall, and Hyman might combine to have a 1% shooting percentage while playing together, but they play heavy shifts and look strong defensively. It’s fine to give Engvall a longer look there, but at this point, I think I’d move Kerfoot back to the middle eventually. It’s not about maximizing Kerfoot’s point totals; it’s about maximizing the team’s success.
The third line took a serious hit this offseason when they traded Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. At this point, we can’t expect Kerfoot to have success as the third line center if he’s paired with Jimmy Vesey and Ilya Mikheyev. Kerfoot is usually the best player on the third line when he plays there — I don’t think that line magically improves by removing its best player. My preference is Hyman in the top six over Kerfoot.
Let’s put it this way: I’d argue a line of Vesey, Kerfoot, and Engvall won’t suddenly drastically improve if Kerfoot is on the wing and Engvall is at center rather than vice-versa. When people ask “is Kerfoot better on the wing?”, I think they really mean “is Kerfoot better in the top six?”. Like most players, he’s going to have better results with Tavares and Nylander rather than Mikheyev and Vesey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that playing him there is best for the team.
Essentially, I don’t think that acquiring an average third-line center at the deadline is going to move the dial all that much. I’d rather not give up a second-round pick for the next Brian Boyle or Tomas Plekanec, and it’s difficult to acquire good centers. In looking for a potential difference maker, given the list of players who will likely be available, it’s probably going to be a winger. I’m fine with giving Engvall a chance at center for now and playing Kerfoot with Tavares and Nylander in the meantime, but I think it’s more likely than not that Kerfoot ends up back at center. Unless they want to try Thornton at center, I’m not sure that they have a suitable replacement.
It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Galchenyuk is going to get a chance eventually. Whether he could bring some much-needed offense to that third line is a question the Leafs will want to find out the answer to. I’d play him across from Engvall or Mikheyev to help him defensively, and I wonder if he would pair nicely with Kerfoot.
While I do think Jimmy Vesey is playing a little bit better as of late, he only has four points through 22 games and both of his goals were gifts from Nylander. In a season where Boyd, Petan, Engvall, and Barabanov have rotated in and out of the lineup, I’m not sure what’s keeping Vesey from joining that rotation as well. I certainly don’t know why he was ever on the first power-play unit for even a second. I like having the defensively-responsible Engvall-Kerfoot-Mikheyev line against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, but I would probably give Galchenyuk a chance on that line eventually. We’ll see how he does with the Marlies first.
On defense, I’d like to try Dermott with Brodie at some point, but it’s tough to make changes right now given how well the team is playing. They’re both strong stick-on-puck defenders who are difficult to gain the zone against. I also want to get a look at it for future reference, in case they consider moving a defenseman this offseason or in case someone goes down hurt in the playoffs. Knowing they will need to decide whether or not they protect Dermott in the expansion draft, I’d like to give him a chance with a veteran defenseman like Brodie. I’m not in a huge rush to do this, though, as Toronto’s defense looks great right now, but I would like to see it at some point.
If Matthews is back on Monday night, I’d try something like this:
You can flip Marner and Nylander if you’d like.
I’d stack the top power-play unit and let that Kerfoot line take some minutes against McDavid or Draisaitl. Vesey should probably be on the outside looking in at this point. I love the Engvall-Mikheyev duo — they are both tall, fast, and it seems like their wingspans combine to cover the full width of the ice. Opposing forwards don’t have much room to operate when they’re out there.
A Marlies Update
The Toronto Marlies are 4-4 after their season-opening road trip, but they probably deserve a better record. I don’t think their roster is quite as strong as it’s been in previous seasons, but it seems like the NHL taxi squad is hurting AHL rosters for just about every team. It’s nice to see prospects like Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren play in a winning atmosphere. Hopefully, the team can play well and win their division.
Liljegren has been their best player thus far — by a fairly wide margin. He’s always been a strong transition defender, but his offensive game has grown by leaps and bounds since his rookie season and he’s playing with a ton of confidence right now. He’s taking more chances and effectively rushing the puck up the ice. The Marlies look like a completely different team when he’s out there.
The better Liljegren is offensively, the less pressure there’s going to be on his defensive game at the next level. He actually reminds me a little bit of a shorter (and more offensive) version of Justin Holl, as he can keep up with just about anyone in the neutral zone and continues to get stronger and stronger.
My only minor complaint: On Wednesday night, he was bad on the power play, where he took far too many non-threatening point shots. However, I think that was more of a one-off situation and the Leafs should be very encouraged by his start thus far overall. Moved to the taxi squad yesterday, the 21-year-old prospect has probably been called up because they want to give him a chance to play.
Perhaps good timing for his season debut would be Thursday’s game against the Canucks, which would allow Zach Bogosian some rest during the second half of a back-to-back. If a right-shooting defenseman gets hurt, it makes sense to me to have Liljegren play rather than move Dermott or Mikko Lehtonen to the right side.
Not playing all that well as of late, Nick Robertson only has the one goal through eight games thus far. He does have six assists, although a few of those were quite flukey. He’s averaging close to three shots per game and his shooting percentage is bound to improve, but I don’t think he’s barging down the door for an NHL job at the moment. He’s playing in their top-six and on both special teams, so he’s getting plenty of minutes to help with his development. He is one of their better offensive forwards — and he’s certainly been quite impressive for a teenager — but I don’t think there is a huge rush to call him up right now.
Joey Anderson has definitely been one of the team’s best forwards. He’s legitimately good in the middle of the 1-3-1 powerplay set-up. Like Robertson, he plays on both special teams units and brings a great work ethic to the table. He certainly looks like someone who could make the Leafs next year, although I think he’ll be a bottom-six forward.
The other big standout to me is defenseman Mac Hollowell. While he’s pointless through eight games, he’s a good puck mover who verges on an elite skater. He hasn’t looked out of place in a top-four role and he’s still only 22. At 5’9″, he has a lot to prove to make the NHL level, but I’ve been happy with his performances thus far.
- As a team, the Leafs look so much better defensively this season. It’s a much improved blue line: T.J. Brodie is an excellent stick-on-stick defender, while the Muzzin-Holl pairing has picked up where they left off last season. Tyson Barrie has 18 points in 23 games with the Oilers, but I don’t miss him for a second. The Leafs are fifth (best) in goals against per minute at 5-on-5 this year after finishing 27th in the category last season. They couldn’t get a win from their backup goalie prior to the Jack Campbell trade. With Andersen injured, Michael Hutchinson came close to picking up a shutout on Wednesday night and Campbell kept a clean sheet on Saturday night.
- The Canadian division is relatively weak, but let’s not get carried away here. A 16-4-2 record is impressive in any division. It’s not like the Leafs can demand to face Tampa Bay or Boston. The Central has the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, a Predators team that has taken a major step backward, and a Stars team that has injury problems. The West has all three California teams plus the Arizona Coyotes. The Leafs are in a division with plenty of offensive firepower. They are legitimately better defensively.
- The Leafs got Jack Campbell (and Kyle Clifford) for Trevor Moore and two third-round picks. I like Moore, but the Leafs have had no problem finding good depth forwards and Campbell’s $1.65 million cap hit is a bargain. His teammates clearly love playing in front of him, and he’s only allowed four goals in three starts this season. That trade is looking like a complete steal.
- The Predators are currently playing Mikael Granlund at center. I’ve been watching him closely — his versatility could be a great fit for the Leafs, as they could use him in the middle on the third line to upgrade on Kerfoot, or use his playmaking ability next to John Tavares. I’d be trying to acquire an even bigger name first, but Granlund is near the top of my wish list right now.