Following a low-scoring loss to the Canucks in a tired situation on Thursday, the Maple Leafs will be keen to wrap up their Western Canada road trip with their fourth win of the week in the rematch in Vancouver (7 p.m. EST, CBC).
With a 7.1% chance at a playoff spot (per hockeyviz.com) 26 games into the 56-game schedule, the Canucks organization held a mid-season address regarding the state of the franchise yesterday in which General Manager Jim Benning reiterated his commitment to his current core, coaching staff, and some of his support players.
A win over Maple Leafs on Thursday wasn’t a bad precursor to Benning’s address, but the concerns within the market aren’t going to be assuaged by a press conference in which the GM — now in his seventh year on the job — appeared to offer more excuses than solutions for the team’s 10-15-2 start while seeking to buy himself more time with a “still two or three years away from contention” timeline.
Among the highlights:
“Our best young players are 21, 22, 23, years old. Teams in this division, they’re physically mature, their star players are older players.”
“We had the week training camp, no exhibition games, and then we started the games. I think part of our problems early on were we played 16 games in 25 nights, and in those 25 nights, we had two practices in 19 days.”
“Realistically, if you’re asking me when will the day be that we can compete with the best teams in the league, I think that [Sedin contract] timeline is fair. This is year two, and by our fourth or fifth year, I hope we’ll be there with the elite teams in the league.”
Benning also reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to signing 28-year-old Tanner Pearson, who has five goals and nine points in 27 games this season, to an extension before the deadline. Vancouver fans could be forgiven for being concerned after the team held on to Tyler Toffoli with the idea of signing him only to let him walk for nothing in return last October.
The mood is much cheerier in Toronto. In the last few weeks, the Leafs have settled into a level of statistical success that even eclipses their strong start of the season. Since the middle of February (their last 10 games), Toronto’s score and venue adjusted stats are as follows:
- 2.4 xG/60 (9th)
- 1.9 xGA/60 (7th)
From a surface level, these numbers are very encouraging. Even over a 10-game sample, it’s hard to envision any recent Leafs roster that would be capable of outputting top-10 results in shot danger both offensively and defensively. Their goal results in all-situations over that span are even better:
- 3.5 GF/60 (3rd)
- 2.1 GA/60 (4th)
Above all, the Leafs have shown a level of consistency as of late that has fueled increased optimism in their chances outside of the North Division, not to mention rumours that Kyle Dubas and his front office are looking to add another impact forward at the deadline. Considering Toronto isn’t even halfway through this short season and they’re already moving towards contender status among media and pundits, the challenge will be to avoid any self-satisfaction creeping into their game and mindset as the team looks to build towards playoffs (not peak early).
Lineup changes for either team will be a mystery tonight, as neither held a pre-game press availability. Nic Petan replaced Travis Boyd on the bottom line last game, forcing Jason Spezza to center. Petan ended up with two minutes less in five-on-five ice time than Jimmy Vesey, and four less than Spezza, so there’s good reason to believe he’ll be a healthy scratch again tonight so Keefe’s more trusted option in Boyd can return.
Frederik Andersen will very likely start for Toronto after Michael Hutchinson started the second of the back-to-back on Thursday. In 17 games in 2021, Andersen is 17-3-2 with a .909 Sv% and a GSAx of -1.9.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #47 Pierre Engvall – #11 Zach Hyman
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #72 Travis Boyd – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Injured: Wayne Simmonds, Jack Campbell
Extras: Kenny Agostino, Scott Sabourin, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov, Timothy Liljegren, Mikko Lehtonen
Vancouver Canucks Projected Lines
#70 Tanner Pearson – #53 Bo Horvat – #18 Jake Virtanen
#36 Nils Hoglander – #9 JT Miller – #6 Brock Boeser
#56 Marc Michaelis – #20 Brandon Sutter – #96 Adam Gaudette
#26 Antoine Roussel – #83 Jay Beagle – #79 Jayce Hawryluk
#23 Alexander Edler – #88 Nate Schmidt
#43 Quinn Hughes – #27 Travis Hamonic
#4 Jordie Benn – #57 Tyler Myers
#35 Thatcher Demko (starter)
#49 Braden Holtby
Injured: Micheal Ferland, Justin Bailey, Tyler Motte, Elias Pettersson