Toronto Maple Leafs, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev
Photo: Canadian Press

First in the division. First in points percentage. First in power-play percentage. Second in goals per game. Life is good for the Toronto Maple Leafs right now.

As injuries have presented opportunities for players to elevate within the lineup, a number of players have shown well – Travis Dermott in the top four; Alexander Barabanov back in the lineup; Michael Hutchinson picking up wins; even John Tavares reuniting with Mitch Marner and looking like he found an extra step all of a sudden. It was encouraging to see different players get more involved and chip in. That’s a good sign for the depth within the organization.

The favourite to win the North division entering the season, the Leafs have lived up to the hype so far.

This felt like a good time to write an extended notes version of Leafs Notebook.


John Tavares returns to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup
Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

– The Leafs have played the Oilers five times now and have alternated the matchup pairing against Connor McDavid in that time. Entering the fifth game of the season series on Saturday, the Muzzin – Holl pairing and the Rielly – Brodie pairing had matched up against him twice apiece. In game five, it was the Rielly – Brodie pairing getting the top-matchup nod again.

It was also the fourth time in five matchups that John Tavares went head-to-head against McDavid. Amid criticism of his game, Keefe went out of his way to note what Tavares has done on the defensive side of the puck. He knows he’s asking a lot of Tavares in tough matchups at times, which can take away from his ability to produce offense. In tight games, Tavares has regularly been a closing player in the final minute as well.

– Among players that have taken at least 100 faceoffs this season, John Tavares has the seventh-best faceoff percentage in the league, winning nearly 60 percent of his faceoffs. That certainly earns trust in his ability to close out games in key situations. It should be noted that Jason Spezza has won nearly 58 percent of his faceoffs, while Auston Matthews is winning over 53 percent. The only regular faceoff man that is really struggling is Alex Kerfoot at 40.8 percent. Pierre Engvall is a bit better at 46.4 percent, so we’ll see who takes the faceoffs should Kerfoot move back onto that line alongside Engvall in the future.

– We spoke on the podcast last week a bit about Morgan Rielly picking and choosing his spots a bit better depending on the matchup. In the 4-0 win on Saturday, there was a good example where Rielly joined the rush to give the Leafs a fourth attacker, leaving no high player to cover since Rielly was the last one to join the rush.

Rielly received a pass as a trailer and fired it high and wide. That is about the worst shot you can take — both because it’s not a shot on the net and because it will rim around the boards back the other way. McDavid picked up the puck and went down the ice against TJ Brodie, who was just about beat before he made a nice stick check at the end to knock the puck into the corner. The Oilers continued to pressure and could have scored twice on the ensuing possession. It’s a small thing and the game happens so fast, but Rielly has to be aware of who he is playing against and the ramifications of a play/shot like that.

– Another thing Keefe has stressed at times — basically since he took over as head coach — is staying composed during the game. The 2-1 win against Calgary was likely a good example. They couldn’t score on David Rittich – for a second straight game – but they didn’t get too frustrated and stuck with the game plan instead of cheating to create offense.

When Calgary scored late to take the lead, the team didn’t fold or show frustration; they just plugged away and were finally rewarded. Adding more veteran experience helps, but their core is also maturing. That is helping them ride through the season without as many ups and downs, it seems.

– A storyline coming into the season was Mitch Marner’s shot and his need to keep teams honest with it. Funny enough, his per-game shot output is actually down from the past two seasons when he was putting up 2.81 and 2.61 shots per game. He’s at 2.59 this season — it’s basically negligible — but he’s shooting 17.5 percent so far this season after being an 11 percent shooter over the first four seasons of his career.

Marner’s PDO is also nearly at 111 after only eclipsing 100 once in his first four seasons (his last 82-game season, it was just over 103). I am guessing his production will come back down to earth at some point.

– I was a little surprised to see that Zach Hyman led all Leafs forwards in time on ice against the Oilers. Mitch Marner was second, but it was even more surprising to see the players in third and fourth: Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall. They earned it, though, with their constant cycling and pressure generated against the Oilers.

That was about as perfect a game as you could get: Perfect on the power play, no penalties, a shutout, and four goals. It is interesting to note who played a large part in it looking at the TOI.

– I am not sure if there is anything to this since Zach Hyman has also been hurt, but in the past few road games, he has been playing on the third line whereas in his past few home games, he has been in the top six. On the road, you don’t have control over the matchups, so I wonder if the aim is to spread out their forwards and not get caught in less-than-ideal matchups.

At home, that is not a worry for Keefe. He can dictate who goes against who, so he could be moving him around depending on the situation. This was also how the Leafs attempted to start the season before they needed to shake things up in the top six by elevating Hyman.

TJ Brodie is only playing to a 22-point pace (with no goals) — his lowest points-per-game output since his rookie season — but it doesn’t really matter. He has been a steadying force and minute eater who is second among defensemen on the team in even-strength time on ice per game and third in shorthanded time on ice per game, in addition to serving as the second-unit power-play quarterback when Mikko Lehtonen isn’t playing.

While he does look steady and has very rarely been a liability, the funny thing is Brodie is actually trending for his worse shot share numbers of his career while playing the highest offensive-zone starts of his career. At some point, I wonder if they look at that and decide to shake up the defense pairings should they have a tough run.

– With Muzzin out, Travis Dermott played a season-high 22:14 in the 2-1 win against Calgary. He generally acquitted himself well. Over the past two seasons, he has shown that he can be counted on to move up into the top four in the event of an injury. His ice time was back down once Muzzin returned (he played just over 15 minutes, which is actually high for him this season, relatively speaking), and he hasn’t played over 18 minutes in any other game this season. Zach Bogosian has only played over 18 minutes once this season as well. If the Leafs don’t want to shake up the defense pairings, they could potentially look at changing up the ice-time allocation.

– That all said, it should be noted the Leafs are currently in the top 10 in goals against (sixth) and shots against (seventh) per game.

– Good for Michael Hutchinson, who played as well as you can reasonably ask a third goalie in the system to play in the circumstances. He held down the fort, and after a shaky first game against the Senators, really didn’t look all too bad the rest of the way. As far as a third goalie goes, you can’t ask for much more. I thought it was a nice little redemption of sorts given what went down last season.

– We have been talking about the leg kick to protect the puck in the last few weeks. This was just perfect, so I had to point it out:


Toronto Maple Leafs’ John Tavares and William Nylander
Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

“Why is he misunderstood? Willy has to own some of that. He has got find more consistency in his game. He and I have talked a lot about those kinds of things. He has got to be engaged and good without the puck. Part of it is perhaps being misunderstood. Part of it is that he still has to grow as a player.”

– Head Coach Sheldon Keefe on William Nylander

I find it disappointing that it’s so hard to have a reasonable conversation about these kinds of lightning-rod players. Up until his past two games, Nylander was playing at roughly a 20-goal and just-under-60-point pace, and it’s fair to want more from him considering the price tag and skill level he possesses. He’s also had some tendencies that are worth pointing out regarding how he checks. It doesn’t mean that he’s a bad player or that the team should trade him or give up on him. It’s just the truth.

Sheldon Keefe clearly sees it and wants more, too, as evidenced by his quote. I like that he took the opportunity after a good win to note it instead of choosing to pile on at a low point for the player.

“Sometimes Willy gets misunderstood. But he plays his butt off, he’s one of the first guys on the ice working on skills. The guys in the room have his back.”

– Zach Hyman on William Nylander

Zach Hyman wasn’t the only player to note something like this after his two-goal game against Calgary. William Nylander said after the game that he doesn’t read what the media writes – something Justin Bourne noted on our podcast last week as well – but I guarantee other players on the team do and that they were well aware of what was said. Nice to see them have their teammate’s back.

“Get the puck to Matts. It’s the new, ‘Get the ball to the Italians!’”

– Mitch Marner referencing the movie Kicking and Screaming in relation to getting Matthews the puck

Just thought this was hilarious, so I had to share. If you haven’t seen the movie (ever or in quite some time), it’s worth rewatching.

Tweets of the Week

Jake Muzzin of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

Sometimes you have to sit back and reflect on how wild the journey has been. A lot of readers here have been coming here for years, if not over a decade at this point. There has rarely been much to cheer about or take seriously. There is now, though.

Rather quietly, Jake Muzzin is tied for the 17th most points at even strength among defensemen since the start of the 2019-20 season. Of all the defensemen ahead of him, only Cale Makar has played fewer games.

Muzzin actually has seven more even-strength points than Morgan Rielly over that time (in four more games, granted). Muzzin does it all. I know fans recognize that he is good, but it’s possible he’s actually slightly underrated in this market still.

The Leafs depth has been very productive so far. Only Travis Boyd and Jimmy Vesey played under 10 minutes against Edmonton (they both played under nine, actually), but the Leafs have been trying to trend in the direction of a four-line attack. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out when their top 12 forwards are all healthy (should that, hopefully, ever happen).

5 Things I Think I’d Do

Toronto Maple Leafs' Ilya Mikheyev
Nov 19, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev (65) celebrates after assisting on a goal scored by center Jason Spezza (19) during the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

1.  When we discussed pairing up Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev as part of a checking line a little while ago, I think we are now seeing why. It should continue. They can’t really score, but it doesn’t particularly matter. For years in this column, we have talked about finding this exact type of line – one you can trust defensively that can take some checking responsibilities away from the top lines and actually tilt the ice with their forechecking, cycling, size, and speed.

They aren’t going to physically pound on their opponents, but they will effectively grind them down. With the three other lines on this team capable of scoring, they don’t have to score much (although if Zach Hyman is there, they will score at a higher clip). It’s a nice combo the Leafs can turn to. Keefe is starting to put them out at key game moments to settle the game down — after a goal, to close periods, etc. They have something here.

2.  That said, I think I’m not entirely sure as to whether Pierre Engvall is best suited to play wing or center. His speed is effective in either position, but it’s easier to fly up and down the wing compared to playing between the puck and net at center while also understanding proper positioning in the defensive zone (which he’s clearly still learning).

The good news is the Leafs have time to figure it out. I can also imagine that Alex Kerfoot will move down the lineup to center this line when Auston Matthews returns. Overall, I’d keep him at center for as long as possible and continue to evaluate.

3.  I think Alexander Barabanov has started to play his way into the lineup competition based on the last three games. Even though he’s pointless over those games, he’s had a boatload of chances, including nine shots on goal in that time. Against Edmonton, he played a career-high 13:31 and his speed has been noticeable, although his finishing isn’t really there.

In his first few games in the league, Barabanov looked about as comfortable as a fish out of water, but he’s managed to settle in a bit and show signs of what he can do. The question for Barabanov: Can he be effective in a bottom-six role playing away from the Leafs stars? When everyone is healthy, he’s not going to be playing in the top six.

At this point, he’s at least earned a continued look. That’s a positive development after it appeared that the experiment might be all but over.

4.  As the debate rages on around whether Mitch Marner should play with Auston Matthews or John Tavares (and by extension, who William Nylander plays with as a result), one thing should really be kept in mind here: neither answer is an absolute.

It’s not like it is written in permanent marker. There needs to be some flexibility and adaptation to the situation. Right now, Tavares seems to be fighting it a bit, but he paired up with Marner and looked to have a bit of a spark to his game. You can debate whether an $11 million player should need that kind of boost, but I think it’s kind of irrelevant at that point – they are trying to maximize the team as a whole, not one or two players.

Matthews and Nylander have been great together and looked more than fine connecting for an overtime winner last week. We’ve been in the opposite of this situation before where one of Matthews/Nylander or Tavares/Nylander were not connecting. Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot, to some degree. Try it out. If it doesn’t work? So be it.

5.  I think Jack Campbell has played his way into stealing starts from Frederik Andersen. I’m not saying this is a full-on goalie competition – I still think Andersen is the undisputed starter at this point in time – but if the split was 70/30 before (30% of starts equates to 25 games in an 82-game season), I think that split has morphed to the point where Campbell should start the odd game where Andersen would’ve expected to start.

Until he proves otherwise, Campbell has simply been very dependable as a Leaf. It’s only a nine-game sample, but he has a .926 save percentage as a Leaf and a .918 save percentage in 67 career games. A little extra rest for Andersen, and someone truly pushing him for starts, is a good thing.