With losses in five of their last six games while averaging nearly four goals against, the Maple Leafs have hit their biggest speed bump of the season. After an opportunity to reset this past week, Toronto now enters a back-to-back against Darryl Sutter’s Calgary Flames this weekend (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
With the April 12th trade deadline fast approaching, the Maple Leafs are getting back to full strength: Wayne Simmonds will return from injury, and Jack Campbell will occupy the backup’s seat tonight with the expectation that he will start in tomorrow’s rematch. In addition to the returning bodies, Alex Galchenyuk will make his Leafs debut this evening.
We’re not privy to all of the necessary details in order to fully understand Galchenyuk’s fall from grace after he registered 255 points in 418 games (108 goals, 147 assists) with the Habs. Rumors of off-ice issues aside, Glachenyuk has always had flaws in his skating mechanics, and that appears to have been exacerbated by knee issues since his 30-goal days as a Hab.
While Galchenyuk has never been slow, per se, his skating posture, particularly when changing directions with the puck, can leave him back on his heels, where he is vulnerable to takeaways and winding up second-best in physical battles. Galchenyuk compensated with above-average puck skills and shooting abilities early in his career, but it’s noteworthy that the knee injury in 2016-17 coincided with a marked drop-off in on-ice results — 2016-17 was the first season of his career where he went from a positive impact on shots offensively to a negative one.
From 2012-16, per evolving-hockey’s GAR model, Galchenyuk added 28.5 goals above replacement at even-strength offensively, 5.7 below replacement defensively, and 4.9 above replacement on the power play — that works out to a GAR of 32. Those are the numbers of a high-end offensive forward, but in recent years, Galchenyuk has failed to even produce like anything approaching a break-even player: Since 2016 (including the entire 2016-17 season), he’s at a mere 1.9 goals above replacement on offense, 17.5 below on defense, and 7.2 above on the power play for a total of -9 GAR.
As Galchenyuk looks to hit the reset button on his NHL career, his first opportunity in the Leafs‘ lineup tonight is a big one: He’ll start with John Tavares and William Nylander. Despite the Leafs returning to the 1A/1B power play strategy that was successful earlier in the season, Galchenyuk only subbed in during practice, so it remains to be seen whether he will receive a look there.
Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds’ return has him back at the net-front role on the first power-play unit. He’ll also return to the bottom line with Jason Spezza, this time with Pierre Engvall providing some pace to the trio.
Elsewhere in the lineup, the Leafs will return Zach Hyman to a third line that, if you can remember that far back, started the season together as Keefe’s initial preference: Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman. It’s clear at this point Keefe would like to find alternative complementary fits alongside Tavares – Nylander and Matthews-Marner while using Zach Hyman as a driver of a third line that can handle tougher matchups. The third line should see some defensive-zone shifts tonight against the Lindholm and Monahan lines.
While they’re playing more of a typical Darryl Sutter style of game now — and were getting good early results until the recent 7-3 loss to Edmonton — the newly-appointed Flames head coach hasn’t moved away from any of the regular pairs at forward or defense that Calgary deployed most of this season. Andrew Mangiapane completes the third line with Mikael Backlund and Milan Lucic, while Brett Ritchie and Dillon Dube occupy the spots beside their ‘big four’ forwards. The defense pairings for Calgary will remain the same as they were in the last game against Toronto.
Both of the team’s regular starters, Frederik Andersen and Jacob Markstrom, will occupy the nets tonight, and neither is sporting particularly strong numbers of late. Markstrom has started all of the last six games for Calgary, going 3-2-1 with a .887 Sv%. Over the same time frame, Andersen is 1-3 in his starts with a .872 Sv%.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on whether he is concerned about his team’s North Division lead shrinking:
The standings are what they are. I think they’re a symptom of the fact that we haven’t gotten results here as of late. You don’t need any more of a wake-up call than that.
Keefe on why now was the right time to get Alex Galchenyuk into the lineup:
We just felt that having four days off here between games and a couple of practice days was a good chance for him to be around our team a little bit more. He’s played very well with the Marlies. Perhaps more importantly, he has handled himself really well.
He’s got lots of confidence and is really feeling good about his game, so the timing is right for all those reasons. I think he’s had a couple of really good days here with us. I know he’s excited to play today.
We do have a role to play in [ensuring it goes well]. I think we recognized that there’s more to this player here in terms of what he has to offer but also what he needed — that’s why we took the patient approach with him. We gave him the opportunity to go down with the Marlies, really find his game, and not just rush him in.
The first thing is getting him a chance to play with good players.. those guys looked really good in practice yesterday.
Keefe on experimenting with the lines:
I’m not sure there’s ever a situation where it’s ideal to experiment and move things around. Obviously, our place in the standings has changed dramatically here in the last few weeks, but I still believe that you’ve got to find ways to give people opportunities. You’ve got to try different things to find the right mix. The challenge, of course, is to do so while not hurting your chance to win that particular game.
We need to get a win here tonight and we want to play well so, while I’m willing to try things, I’ve got to make sure that we’re optimizing the group and our chances of winning. At the same time — I’ve said it a lot in my time as a coach — I believe strongly that you have to try different things because the season is unpredictable, injuries are unpredictable, certain opponents are unpredictable, and you need to be able to adapt.
The more you’ve been able to be flexible and try to create comfort in different players playing together, that can help to the confidence of the group when you do have to adapt to an injury.
Keefe on what he’s looking for from the third forward on the top two lines:
You’re looking for different things there. At times, you are looking for that third player to be a little bit different than the other two in terms of what they provide because there are different jobs that need to be done on the ice.
Sometimes you need a forechecker — someone that’s going to create a loose puck and be around the net to create space for others to move around the offensive zone. [Other times] you need someone who tracks really well and is going to be a reliable defender. There’s lots of different things that go into it.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of you having players, such as Galchenyuk in this case, that you’re just trying to provide a great opportunity for. It allows you to move things around and try different things without creating too much change and discomfort.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #11 Zach Hyman
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren, Nic Petan, Alexander Barabanov
Calgary Flames Projected Lines
#19 Matthew Tkachuk – #28 Elias Lindholm – #29 Dillon Dube
#13 Johnny Gaudreau– #23 Sean Monahan– #18 Brett Ritchie
#17 Milan Lucic – #11 Mikael Backlund – #88 Andrew Mangiapane
#93 Sam Bennett – #10 Derek Ryan – #27 Josh Leivo
#5 Mark Giordano – #4 Rasmus Andersson
#55 Noah Hanifin – #8 Chris Tanev
#6 Jusso Valimaki – #58 Oliver Kylington
#25 Jakob Markstrom (starter)
#33 David Rittich