The Toronto Maple Leafs are now 18-7-2 despite suffering three straight regulation losses for the first time in the Sheldon Keefe era.
They looked a little bit tired in the first game against the Canucks — the second half of a back-to-back — and they ran into two great goalie performances on Saturday and Tuesday. They still sit in the top six in both 5-on-5 shooting percentage and 5-on-5 save percentage, but it felt like this was bound to happen eventually. Did anyone seriously think that they were going to go the whole season without running into a hot goaltender?
The Leafs are the league’s fourth-best team at 5-on-5 by goal percentage at 57.58%. They’re seventh in 5-on-5 expected goals at 53.48% with the scoring talent to capitalize on their chances at an above-average rate. They’re now slightly-below average in terms of shot-attempt differential, but with pass-first players like Joe Thornton, Mitch Marner, and Alex Kerfoot, I’m not overly surprised. They also have two capable goalies as well as one of the best power plays in the NHL.
Toronto is still the best team in the division, leaving us without too much to complain about. Still, I think there’s certainly some room for improvement here, particularly up front. I’d like to see them be a heavy favourite in their first round playoff series rather than just a favourite. I’d also like to see them be a favourite in a third-round series against a team like Tampa Bay or Boston rather than an underdog. Given we can’t call them the best team in the NHL quite yet, I’d certainly look to improve at the deadline.
Defending Frederik Andersen
Thatcher Demko played very well in his two recent games against the Leafs before Connor Hellebuyck flat out stole the game on Tuesday night. Somehow, Hellebuyck’s performance caused dozens of Leafs fans to whine about Frederik Andersen even though he played perfectly fine against the Jets.
In general, goalie analysis lags well behind player analysis right now to the point where people think citing all-situations save percentage over a small sample is ground-breaking research.
Andersen has been perfectly fine this season. To start, he’s 12-5-2, so we can drop the narrative that he’s costing them game after game. Second, he grades out quite well in terms of goals saved above average at 5-on-5. It’s 4v5, 3v5, and 3v3 situations where his numbers have cratered. Especially given we’re dealing with a pretty small sample size here, the results from those game states tend to be rather flukey.
Andersen has allowed 20 goals this season outside of 5-on-5 play. Two of those goals came at 3-on-3, with one being a nice breakaway goal from Evgeni Dadonov and one being a tip-in from Connor McDavid off of a nice pass from Leon Draisaitl. Let’s just say that I’m not exactly in a panic about his 3-on-3 play (there’s not even any 3-on-3 come playoff time).
Two of those 20 goals came while the Leafs were on the power play. One came off of the famous “pizza” from John Tavares in the game where they blew a 5-1 lead against Ottawa — Tavares had one of the worst giveaways of his career, and Nick Paul was all alone to put in the rebound after Andersen made a nice first save. The other was also off of an absolutely horrendous giveaway, as Morgan Rielly put a pass in Nylander’s feet three feet away from Andersen and Leon Draisaitl was gifted a great scoring chance. Let’s just say that I’m not exactly in a panic about his 5-on-4 play, either.
An additional two of those 20 goals came during a 3-on-5 situation. One was a great shot by Thomas Chabot, and the other was a great shot by Leon Draisaitl. You can go back and watch those goals if you’d like, but as with most 3-on-5 goals, there’s often not much the goalie can do if there is great puck movement teeing up a great shooter.
Another was on a 3-on-4 situation in a 6-2 game against Vancouver, where J.T. Miller basically scored Auston Matthews’ patented goal off a great wrist shot. Again, let’s just say that I’m not exactly concerned about his 3v4 play, either.
The real area to look into is his play at 4-on-5. Again, he’s graded out well at 5-on-5 and I have no reason to question his ability to perform at 3-on-3, 3-on-4, 3-on-5, or 5-on-4. I am confident that these situations will normalize over the long run, especially knowing absolutely none of these were overly weak goals.
At 4-on-5, Andersen has allowed 11 goals. Here is a quick team-by-team breakdown:
Montreal (2): Both came on opening night. For the first, Petry’s point shot got tipped off the post and took a funny bounce. No one on the ice knew where the puck was except Nick Suzuki, who made no mistake. The other came off a horrendous change, which left Tomas Tatar with a breakaway. Neither goal was of the “he’d like to have that one back” variety.
Winnipeg (1): This goal was scored on Tuesday night. Neal Pionk’s point shot got tipped by Copp. No one in the universe can put that goal on Andersen.
Calgary (1): After the Flames won a battle in the corner, the puck came out to Gaudreau, who picked the corner. Nice goal.
Edmonton (3): The first one came off a rebound. After McDavid found Nugent-Hopkins in the slot, Andersen made a nice toe-save on him. The rebound bounced right to Draisaitl, who made no mistake.
The second one was also scored by Draistail. McDavid threw the puck into the slot, where there was a bit of a mad scramble. It was tough to tell where the puck was until it was in the back of the net. Andersen didn’t even move.
The third one was a highlight of the night goal by Connor McDavid, who pulled off a nice move on an end-to-end rush. Good luck to any goalie who thinks they’re stopping that.
Vancouver (4): Two came on Saturday night. The first was the classic NHL 21 goal, where J.T. Miller beat the defender out-wide and put a gorgeous cross-ice pass on the stick of Brock Boeser for a tap-in. The second was a point shot that was tipped right in front.
Another was in the final minutes of a 5-0 game. Quinn Hughes’ point shot was tipped right in front, giving Andersen no chance. The fourth goal was basically just a Pettersson special. Quinn Hughes sent a cross-ice pass to Pettersson, who picked a corner as Pettersson does.
The Verdict on Andersen
Andersen was a remarkably consistent goaltender throughout the first six years of his career. He was closer to a league average goaltender last season, which was a down year by his standards. This year, he’s posted fairly strong numbers at 5-on-5, but he has run into some pretty bad luck in other scenarios. He’s been playing fine while short-handed — and I actually don’t mind the Leafs‘ penalty kill overall — but they’re getting rather unlucky to date. Sometimes the bounces just don’t go your way.
The worst goals he’s allowed have probably been at 5-on-5, but his numbers are quite good in this situation. The tips and bounces just simply aren’t going his way right now. Sometimes all-situations save percentage does not paint an accurate picture over a small sample. If your go-to goalie analysis is simply to look up a player’s hockeydb page and scream about his save percentage, you’re probably going to have some questionable analysis from time to time.
Do people think T.J. Brodie is having a bad year because he’s sitting under 50% in terms of corsi? I hope not. I look at the statistics as much as anyone, but sometimes you need to dig a little bit deeper. In short: Watch the games, nerds.
Yes, it’d be great if he saved the Tatar breakaway goal, or had a highlight reel save on Pettersson or Gaudreau, but there really haven’t been too many bad goals this season. He’s just getting unlucky.
It’s okay to complain about his season last year, although he was due for a down year eventually. It’s okay to complain about his playoff performances, but if that’s what you’re mad about, it wouldn’t even matter if he had a .930 save percentage this year. If that’s your concern about him, then all that matters to you is what he does in the playoffs. The strawman arguments when it comes to goalies are getting tiresome, such as “sometimes you just need your goalie to make a big save”. Let’s just say that, “If the losing teams goalie somehow let in fewer goals, the result might be different,” isn’t exactly a ground-breaking analysis.
If you want to complain about his 2019-20 season, then complain about his 2019-2020 season. Don’t cite a “last 70 games” stats from a perfectly cherry-picked sample. Similarly, if you want to complain about his playoff performances, complain about his playoff performances. If we’re talking about this season so far, I think he’s playing fairly well.
I also don’t think the Leafs are about to trade for a goalie mid-season. Andersen is first among NHL goalies in Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement metric since he arrived in Toronto.
The main reason he isn’t stealing many games for Toronto this season is that they don’t give their goalie many opportunities to steal games. This is a good team that usually outplays its opponent.
If you looked at Tuesday’s game and thought “it’s Frederik Andersen that’s the problem,” I am not sure what you were watching. The reigning Vezina trophy winner played one of his best games of the season. It’s that simple.
Toronto’s Forward Lines
The Maple Leafs’ defense is pretty much locked in at this point with all three pairings playing quite well. This continues to be the best defense Leafs fans have seen in years. Unless there’s an injury, Mikko Lehtonen is probably not going to get a lot of playing time, while Timothy Liljegren will probably head back to the Marlies in the near future. It’s tough to complain about this group as a whole.
Toronto’s second line was the team’s biggest area of concern for the majority of the season, but William Nylander is on a tear as of late. After scoring five goals in four games heading into the Vancouver series, he did go pointless against the Canucks, but he was the team’s best player in these games.
I said this in one of my previous articles, but I actually think Nylander has been quite good all year. Even when that line was struggling, he was the lone bright spot there. Now that John Tavares is creating more offensively and Alex Kerfoot has replaced Jimmy Vesey on that line, Nylander finally has some help around him. Nylander has zero secondary assists at 5-on-5 this year. When that line has scored, it’s almost always been because of him.
Everyone knows by this point that Zach Hyman is a good player and that the Mikheyev-Engvall-Hyman line has been quite effective. As the best player on that line, Hyman is certainly deserving of a ton of credit for their success. However, unlike most Leafs fans, I’m not 100% sold on keeping that line together over the long term.
After all these years, we all understand what Hyman brings to the table. He’s going to work his ass off, get in on the forecheck, and win a ton of puck battles. His linemates are going to have the puck more in the offensive zone as a result. The question becomes: is Hyman more valuable driving a third line, or is he more valuable creating extra chances for Toronto’s stars? At this point, I’m not sure.
Generating extra scoring chances for Matthews, Marner, Tavares, or Nylander is more important than generating extra scoring chances for Engvall and Mikheyev. Those extra scoring chances are worth more for elite scorers — they convert on those chances at a better rate than the third-line players. If Toronto’s current top-six can continue to be successful, playing Hyman on the third line is a nice luxury for a coach to have.
However, the success of those top two lines is absolutely crucial to this team’s success overall. If one of Thornton or Kerfoot doesn’t look like they’re the right fit for the job, I’d move Hyman back to the top-six in a hurry. I’m willing to give this current lineup a longer look, but I’m not willing to commit to it forever. Putting Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander in a position to succeed will always be the top priority.
Alexander Kerfoot recorded an assist on Saturday night after tipping a breakout pass to John Tavares at the red line. Prior to this, Kerfoot had gone six straight games without recording a point or a shot on goal. I’ve said this plenty of times now, but I think he’s strong enough defensively to play either center or wing. However, he’s a pretty limited player offensively, as he has no shot to speak of and he can only score if he’s a foot away from the goalie.
Kerfoot is a solid transition player and a fine playmaker, but I do see him as a bit of a weak link in that top six. The Tavares line is playing well as of late — I also think that they want to give Engvall a longer look at center — but I’m not convinced that Kerfoot is the perfect fit for that second line.
Options on the Marlies
Alex Galchenyuk is off to a pretty strong start with the Marlies with four points in four games. His points haven’t been the flukey variety, either, as his goal was really well taken and two of his assists came off of nice passes. His skill certainly jumps out at the AHL level and he’s definitely helped the Marlies power play, but I’m not quite seeing a player who’s going to be a major difference maker at the NHL level.
I was completely wrong on what the plan was for Galchenyuk. I was not expecting him to make his AHL debut at the age of 27. I was also not expecting the Leafs to use their development staff’s time to help improve his skating given that he’s a free agent at the end of the year. I thought they were going to throw him into the NHL lineup and say, “Give us your absolute best effort defensively if you want to stay in the lineup.” I think he’s a fine skater in a straight line, but ever since Jack Han pointed out his skating concerns, I cannot stop seeing his upright posture down-low in the offensive zone.
Unless he really makes significant improvements, I certainly do not want to give him top-six minutes. I also don’t think he’s a great fit on a checking line with Engvall or Mikheyev. He could certainly challenge Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Barabanov, and Nic Petan for a fourth-line spot even without improving his skating, but this is more of a long-term project than I was originally expecting.
Galchenyuk will get his chance eventually. If he can improve his skating enough, maybe the Leafs can catch lightning in a bottle here. He could help provide some secondary scoring lower down in the lineup in addition to complementing the power play as well. They could also consider re-signing him for around the league minimum next season.
Beyond Galchenyuk, Joey Anderson is the most exciting player to watch on most nights, especially since Nick Robertson has missed the past two games due to injury. The 22-year-old winger does legitimately look one step quicker this year, something he has noted as well:
Leafs prospect Joey Anderson on the improvements he’s made with the development staff since arriving: “The work I’ve done with (Barb Underhill), working on my skating has made a huge impact on me. It’s been a night and day difference, compared to when I got here.”
— Joshua Kloke (@joshuakloke) March 5, 2021
Anderson is an easy player to root for. He brings a great work ethic to the table, contributes on both special teams units, and he’s quite effective in the middle of the 1-3-1 powerplay set-up. While he only has five points in 12 games, he’s been better than the box score suggests. Given that he carries a $750k cap hit for the next two seasons, he could be interesting trade bait for teams at the deadline, or a possible bottom-six option for the Leafs next season. He still reminds me a little bit of Connor Brown.
I’m not sure why the Leafs called up Timothy Liljegren to the taxi squad if they weren’t going to play him. It’s a shortened season, and I’d be trying to get him into as many games as possible. They’ve naturally missed him as the Marlies‘ best player prior to the callup.
They’ve also missed Nick Robertson as of late, but I don’t have much of an update on him. The Leafs aren’t exactly handing out lineup spots right now, so he’s going to have to take another step forward if he wants to take someone’s job.
The Leafs could certainly use another high-end forward. Sure, they don’t “need” a forward to make the playoffs — or to be considered the favourite in their first-round series — but they need one if they want to be considered the best team in hockey. Given their division, it makes plenty of sense to make a serious push at the deadline this year. By all accounts, the Leafs are looking at acquiring a forward, and I do expect them to land someone.
It feels a little bit like the Maple Leafs are an NBA team right now, as NBA trades are often of the “dollar in, dollar out” variety. If the Leafs acquire someone with a significant cap hit, Alex Kerfoot is almost definitely going to be the odd-man out. Even acquiring Eric Staal or Mikael Granlund with 50% retention would require some creativity. The Leafs may need to run a 20-man roster to pull it off.
I already wrote about Filip Forsberg here and Taylor Hall here. The two are pretty similar players, but I’ve learned that one is a lot more controversial than the other! There are a surprising amount of grown adults who still believe in curses and a surprising amount who think he was the problem on the horrendous rosters that he’s played on. Hall and the Coyotes won an actual playoff series against Nashville last year. Perhaps, fellow Leafs fans, Taylor Hall isn’t cursed after all. Perhaps we are the ones who are cursed!
There’s plenty of good players with 1.5 seasons of control left such as Forsberg, Johnny Gaudreau, and Tomas Hertl. However, these are all pretty big long-shots and the rental options seem far more likely. I’d prefer Hall, Palmieri, Granlund, and Staal in that order.
If the Leafs do trade Kerfoot for a winger, I wonder if they look to make a smaller addition at center. The team was reportedly interested in signing Vladislav Namestnikov this offseason, but he ended up signing with Detroit for two years at a $2M cap hit. Would the Wings retain 50% in exchange for picks or prospects? Detroit would get a return for a player they just signed out of the UFA pool, and his contract will expire before they’re competitive. Calle Jarnkrok has the exact same contract as Namestnikov, but I prefer Namestnikov as a player.
- The Morgan Rielly criticism is getting a little bit out of control. He led all defensemen in Evolving Hockey‘s goals above replacement in the 2018-19 season (not just the Leafs, the entire NHL!), even though he did not grade out very well defensively. He dealt with injuries last season and never really looked right. Plus, he was a horrendous fit with Tyson Barrie.
Rielly remains one of the better offensive defensemen in the NHL and he’s great at jumping into the rush. Sure, there’s certainly an argument to be made that the Leafs should trade him for a haul this offseason, but at this point, some Leafs fans seem to be treating him like he’s Tyson Barrie.
Rielly is their best play-driving defenseman at 5-on-5 this year per Evolving Hockey‘s RAPM, as his offensive impact is through the roof. He got off to a tough start — and I certainly value Toronto’s other top-four defenseman — but he brings something to the table that the other five defensemen don’t. Let’s remember that he’s a pretty good player on a very friendly contract.
- Frederik Gauthier got into his first two games with Arizona this week. It was awfully weird to see him in another jersey. Dmytro Timashov has played in just one game with the Islanders this year, while Nick Shore is playing over in Europe this year. The “Babcock scratched Spezza on opening night” story has been beaten to death by now, but those were the three players on Toronto’s fourth line at the start of last year. It’s not a great sign when the players you go with can’t make it on other teams.
- Pierre Engvall is a NHL player. He’s limited offensively, but he’s a fine puck carrier and two-way forward. I tweeted that he was a pretty solid NHL player about a month ago, resulting in a lot of angry people in my mentions that day. The emergence of the H-E-M line has changed a lot of minds.
That’s all for this week. Let’s hope the Leafs break out of their losing streak in a hurry.