If there was ever a good time for a break, now would be it for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Losers of five of their last six, by the time the Leafs play again on Friday, it is possible that they could be looking up at the Winnipeg Jets in first place in the division.
Is this just a bump in the road or cause for real concern?
The Leafs were flying high just a few weeks ago, leading the league in points percentage with the highest-ranked power play and the second-best PDO in the league. They’ve come down to earth a bit from there — their PDO is “only” fifth best now, for example — and they’ve had a number of players cool off.
Auston Matthews is no longer clicking at a goal per game, Joe Thornton isn’t at a point per game anymore, Jason Spezza’s 50-plus point pace is slowing down by the game, and the list goes on. To some degree, a cooling-off period was inevitable.
As for the concerns, which have been noted here and on our podcast for over a month: They are a middling possession team. That is a legitimate cause for worry, although the Leafs still have the shooting talent and the relatively weak divisional competition that should help them overcome it.
Sitting 16th in the league in corsi percentage, the Leafs rank behind Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal in the category. In Fenwick, the Leafs rank 17th. For both metrics, Toronto ranks below 50%. Some of that, in fairness, has probably been impacted by score effects, but this should firmly be a top-10 possession team in the league. Instead, the Leafs are decidedly average.
As a team, Toronto controls the puck in the offensive zone well enough, but their shot generation is not fantastic: They rank 19th in corsi/60 at 5v5. They emphasize quality over quantity — potentially too much so.
Of note, the Leafs rank fifth in expected goals for per 60 minutes. They also rank fourth in goals per game. When their scorers are hot, it’s great. But when they aren’t hot and the team isn’t generating high shot volume, they are going to run into some lulls.
On special teams, the Leafs had major issues so far this month. Their power play has also regressed, which was to be expected knowing they were clicking at an absurdly-high rate to start. They are converting at 21% in March, good for 13th in the league.
The penalty kill, meanwhile, has been third-worst in the league this month at just over 61 percent (as noted last week, they have one of the worst penalty kill percentages in the league overall).
There are some real reasons for concern here, and they are the exact same ones I wrote about at the beginning of February: The Leafs do rely on their power play and hot shooting overall. They have not been controlling the shot share at the rate we should expect them to, and now a bit of a curveball has been added in with their penalty kill really struggling.
It probably didn’t help the Leafs that every team had to hear how amazing they were and how bad the rest of the division is in comparison for weeks on end, either.
Is it partially a blip on the radar here, too, though?
The team’s goaltenders have been struggling at a level that I would argue will not continue. There should be a bounce back in net.
The Leafs have also controlled 57% of expected goals during this stretch of play. They outplayed Winnipeg badly in two of the three games, and they were generally good against Vancouver as well. There were more than a few games in there where they deserved a better fate.
The team’s star players have also generally been good in this stretch — far from the problem, really — which bodes well. Adjusting and fixing the depth is a much easier challenge to deal with than the stars simply under-performing.
Toronto wasn’t going to walk over this division, even if it is on the weaker side. It’s still the NHL. This past 1-5-0 stretch should serve as a good wake-up call for the team. There are some areas they seriously need to address, and maybe this refocuses the group.
The Leafs are also due for some better luck moving forward. A healthy break to get themselves ready for the stretch run presents the perfect opportunity to reset.
– Unless an injury occurred, Mikko Lehtonen simply was not getting into the Leafs lineup. They like the Travis Dermott – Zach Bogosian pairing — and for good reason, as they’ve been generally solid. Lehtonen didn’t look out of place when he played, but he wasn’t doing enough to get him in over anyone in the top six.
He was a power-play option on the second unit when he dressed, but now that appears to be TJ Brodie’s spot. It would not surprise if we found out Kyle Dubas was doing him a favour since he wasn’t going to play much as a Leaf, but losing depth on the backend does hurt — particularly as the power play cools off and the third pairing has struggled a bit of late.
There’s little competition in place on the blue line right now with Rasmus Sandin out. They have paved the way to get Sandin into games when he is healthy, though.
– It is noteworthy that the Leafs elected to add a goalie (rather than a draft pick or something). Obviously, Frederik Andersen’s contract is about to be up. The Marlies’ main starter so far this season has been Andrew D’Agostini, who is 27 and playing in the AHL for the first time. It is a position of need in the organization. They are trying to accumulate options to see if anything hits.
– Travis Boyd started his Leafs career red hot with four points in his first three games. Since then, he has four points in 16 games and 15 shots on net total this season. He’s shooting 20 percent. The shot volume is low overall and he’s still riding a high percentage.
Boyd’s ice time has been under seven minutes in each of the last two games. After he started the Ottawa game with a turnover leading to a good scoring chance in the slot for the Senators, he followed it up with another turnover shortly after, leading to a goal. His corsi is just over 45% despite playing a sheltered role, with nearly 60% of his starts occurring in the offensive zone (excluding neutral zone starts).
At this point in his career, Boyd is not a young player in a rut who is figuring out how to navigate the peaks and valleys of the league — he’s 27 years old.
– Last season, the Leafs were 16th in penalty differential at +2. This season, they are dead even at 0, with 101 minors taken and 101 minors drawn. They are 22nd in penalties drawn per 60 and 21st in penalties taken per 60.
Matthews, Marner, and Tavares are tied for the team lead in penalties drawn with eight each, while Nylander, Hyman, and Holl have drawn seven apiece. On the other end, Bogosian has taken 13, Hyman has taken 11 and Muzzin has taken nine.
For reference, 58 players in the league have drawn more than eight penalties. Brady Tkachuk leads all players with 22 drawn penalties. Connor McDavid is second with 20. When the power play is scorching hot — as it was earlier this season — it masks a lot of things on the margins, but opponents are clicking at almost 25% against the Leafs on their power plays. The Leafs are at just over 29%.
The Leafs PP is +24 and their PK is -20. They really aren’t crushing special teams on the whole.
– Last week, Pierre Engvall broke in against Vancouver and scored a goal on a wrist shot that cleanly beat Thatcher Demko. It didn’t count against Winnipeg, but he again beat the goalie cleanly. He was not beating goalies on wrist shots in his rookie season (a lot of breakaways or two-on-one goals, plus one against David Ayers). It’s too bad that the goal against Winnipeg didn’t count, but that’s a nice development in his game. His shot is deceptive.
“We don’t have much flexibility at all to be able to make lineup changes within our roster and how it is.”
– Sheldon Keefe on whether he would make lineup changes for the Ottawa game after losing 5-2 to the Jets
I thought this quote was extremely telling from Keefe. To me, it really said, “I’d like to change it up, potentially take a guy or two out of the lineup, but my hands are tied.”
We mentioned Travis Boyd in the notes due to his struggles — he is an obvious candidate. It is becoming clearer by the day that Joe Thornton really struggles in back-to-backs. Jason Spezza probably needs some extra rest as well by the looks of it.
And those are just the straightforward options. Right now, Keefe really lacks the ability to do anything outside of rearranging who he already has in.
“The group was hot and cold about it.”
– Mitch Marner on the experiment of flying in on game days to Ottawa rather than the night before
They did look sluggish to start, and I know people don’t love to hear this kind of thing, but players are creatures of habit. That does impact their play at times — they are human, too.
I am interested to see if they try this strategy again. Doing it on the day of daylight savings probably wasn’t the best idea, either.
“We’ve worked on our game as a line, and I think we’ve built off a couple good stretches.”
– William Nylander on his line with John Tavares
Amid all the concerns, I quietly think William Nylander and John Tavares have looked much more dangerous together of late. They obviously connected on the great tying goal against Winnipeg, but in general, they’ve been threatening.
Tweets of the Week
The most total money commited to an UFA forward last year was Toffoli at a total of 4×4.25M. Next highest was 3x5M for Dadonov. The cap is going to be flat for 4 years. Why do people think Hyman, who scores less than both aforementioned, is going to have an insane market?
— J (@Account4hockey) March 11, 2021
I’ve been thinking a lot about what a contract would look like for Zach Hyman since we touched on it during a podcast episode. Ian threw out the Josh Anderson contract as a comparable, but upon a deeper review, this makes a lot more sense to me: Tyler Toffoli is actually a fairly good comparable.
The two are the same age — they actually played together in minor hockey in the GTHL — they can both score and PK, and Toffoli is actually more proven as a scorer, plus he has a Stanley Cup to his name. Most people would be pretty happy with Hyman at that kind of term and number.
Freddie Andersen now has an .899 save percentage on the season. It takes an incredible level of mental gymnastics to convince yourself that he has been good enough.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) March 14, 2021
Since that tweet, his save percentage actually improved to .900, but the general point remains the same: it is below-average goaltending. We spoke about goaltending earlier, so I’ll only add: He does need to be better, but the percentage of blame he is receiving is disproportionate to the reality of the situation. It’s not as simple as, “Frederik Andersen just needs to be better,” but it would obviously go a long way.
— Nick Alberga (@thegoldenmuzzy) March 12, 2021
I had to share this. Auston Matthews can score in so many ways, and he has such a good shot that we basically never talk about his backhand. He has a nice move that he can pull out of his bag of tricks here. With his shot, almost any goalie is going to freeze when he opens up and shows a snapshot initially.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. Now that the power play is cooling off — as well as the team as a whole — it is time to load up the top power-play unit and end the charade. That means Joe Thornton is not on it. The top five players are crystal clear. You can build a second unit around Thornton and Jason Spezza with Zach Hyman screening the goalie. That is not a wasted unit by any means. Stop trotting out these split units and only uniting them in certain situations.
2. I will beat this drum all season, but I think the Leafs have to do a better job of balancing the ice time at forward. In three of the last four games, Mitch Marner has played over 24 minutes. Meanwhile, William Nylander played what Sheldon Keefe called his best game of the season and saw just over 16 minutes of ice.
It’s true that one of them plays more on special teams, but the gap is still massive. This isn’t like saying Alex Kerfoot played his best game of the season. This is another star. They need to do a better job of evening out these minutes so that Matthews and Marner aren’t being driven into the ground while John Tavares and Nylander are essentially under-deployed.
This is going to hurt them in the long run because going through the playoffs like this is generally not sustainable. I would understand this if they didn’t have the horses, but more than most teams, the Leafs actually do.
3. I think the Leafs are a bit thinner on the blue line than given credit for. I would be looking to add, at minimum, a depth option. They are one injury away from Rasmus Sandin stepping in and two from either Timothy Liljegren/Martin Marincin. Their third pairing has been a bit rocky of late, and even the generally rock-solid Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing has been exposed at times as of late. Proven options are good to have at your disposal. I would be looking to add to this group.
4. I think the third line without Zach Hyman is just not good enough come playoff time. With Hyman, the line had a play driver and leader with two good support players, all of whom were playing a similar style. With Alex Kerfoot instead, it’s really a line of three support players with nobody there that can really drive a line. And that’s how they look and play as a unit.
If Zach Hyman is generally going to stick on L1 moving forward, the Leafs will have to play with their options and responsibilities here. Maybe Wayne Simmonds moves up to this line and they are a bit more of an offensive unit when he returns. Maybe Kyle Dubas acquires someone. Maybe they split up all the forwards on this line, keeping Kerfoot at center and Pierre Engvall at center, too, with Travis Boyd currently struggling.
5. I ultimately don’t think there is too much cause for concern at this point other than maybe Auston Matthews’ wrist and the goaltending. This team should be fine. This was bound to happen at some point, and it’s good it is happening now.
The slump has sobered up some of the takes on this team and provided a clearer picture of the team’s needs as we approach the deadline. Failing an impact forward for the top six, Dubas would be fine to bring in a good depth option or even two as well as a defenseman (as noted). They don’t need to do anything drastic, though — just supplement the core that’s already in place a little bit better.