We have to start with the obvious topic this week.
The Leafs’ goaltending situation, hotly debated this season in Toronto, really boiled over this week after a tough start from Frederik Andersen was followed by a shutout from Jack Campbell the next night. We’ve heard a lot of the phrase “goalie controversy,” but it’s only really a controversy if you don’t know who to start. Right now, the answer seems pretty clear for the Leafs.
Jack Campbell is the first goalie with a sub 2.00 GAA in his first 10 starts with the #Leafs since Terry Sawchuk in 1964.
Here are his stats compared with Frederik Andersen since joining the team in Feb. 2020 pic.twitter.com/qjVjUFU5wT
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 21, 2021
There is no question that Jack Campbell has been really good as a Leaf or that Frederik Andersen has struggled of late. The concerns are twofold: Campbell has been a little injury prone and hasn’t proven he can handle a starter’s workload, while Andersen has struggled in general. All the Leafs can really do is ride the hot hand and hope one of the two proves capable of running with the reins at this point.
Right now, Campbell is the one who should be getting the turn, but things can change quickly.
Personally, I’ve been uncomfortable with the level of slander Andersen has received. He has, generally speaking, been a really good goalie in Toronto — arguably their best player for more than one of his five seasons here. The degree to which fans are turning on him right now is yet another reminder that you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain in this market.
We don’t know the extent of Andersen’s injury right now, either. He is far more proven than Jack Campbell, and I don’t think for a second that Andersen is incapable of getting healthy and turning his season around. Kyle Dubas expressed a similar sentiment in his mid-season presser.
After a strong start to his season, Frederik Andersen has been in a slump since coming back from injury earlier this month. After his #MapleLeafs 4-3 loss at the hands of the Flames earlier tonight, he's now sporting some disappointing numbers by comparison to his pre-injury ones pic.twitter.com/lJzEyNpkng
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) March 20, 2021
His numbers weren’t great before the injury, either, but those numbers don’t reflect the whole story. Through 14 games this season, the Maple Leafs were improved defensively but still fairly average across the board. Courtesy of The Hockey Writers:
|Scoring Chances Against||1,538 (19th)||276 (24th)|
|Scoring Chance Goals Against||137 (28th)||18 (14th)|
|High Danger Scoring Chances Against||637 (26th)||121 (25th)|
|High Danger Goals Against||93 (29th)||13 (17th)|
For now, the decision in net seems pretty clear, but there is so much hockey left and so much can change in that time. All the Leafs can do right now is take it one game at a time.
– I mentioned recently that the Leafs were extra aggressive in the neutral zone on the penalty kill lately, sending two players deep to pressure in what looked like a 2-2 formation.
This past week, after some practice, it was a much tighter 1-3 formation, with the first forechecker aggressively pressuring the drop pass power-play breakout that basically every team deploys while the other three penalty killers lined up three players across the blue line to prevent clean entries. Calgary did score one power-play goal over the two games, but it was off of a faceoff in the offensive zone.
– Conversely, the Leafs’ power play has been struggling a bit to gain the zone on the power play consistently. With the power-play units constantly changing (are they putting out their five best players together? Are they splitting up the units?) from power play to power play, there seems to be some uncertainty as to who is the puck carrier and entry man.
The opposition — which in this case was just Calgary — is also really jamming the blue line to force the Leafs to dump the puck in, and the Leafs are still attempting to zig and zag their way through it. In a perfect scenario, the Leafs gain the zone through the middle of the ice and pass it to a player on the open wall who then curls and sets it up.
A consideration for countering this is a soft chip into the corner where the Leafs have already generated the speed to beat flat-footed defenders on the puck retrieval. It’s also worth noting that Matthews hit the post on the power play, so if that went in, many of us would probably feel different about their overall power play right now.
– Pretty much every power play lives on its ability to consistently gain the zone and set up. Once the top talent on basically any team sets it up and gets down to work, they will create good looks. Constantly mixing and matching the units in-game probably doesn’t help them create consistent power-play breakouts — for example, Mitch Marner has been carrying the puck a lot when their top five players are all on together, but to my eye, William Nylander is better at breaking in on the power play with him.
– Last season, Morgan Rielly was credited with 15 slap shots. This season, he has already been credited with 10. He’s third on the team in power-play shots on goal, but he’s tied for sixth on the team in power-play goals with one.
The opposition is daring Rielly to shoot right now, and he is essentially taking the bait. Mitch Marner can get into the same lulls — he has zero (zero!) power-play goals so far. It should come as no surprise that Matthews leads the team with eight. Tavares is second with five followed by Nylander, Simmonds, and Hyman with three each — two of those guys produce their power-play offense by going to the net.
Rielly is second on the team in power-play points. His value is really using his speed to gain the zone, set up the attack, and draw in defenders to open up space for Matthews on the half-wall to shoot. He has to shoot to keep defenders honest, but he can pick and choose his spots a bit better.
– Interesting to see the Leafs turn to Jason Spezza for defensive zone faceoffs to close out a tight game. He’s not particularly strong defensively — and we hear all the time that faceoffs don’t matter — but here are the Leafs using a faceoff specialist in a high-leverage situation. They lost some of those draws and there were uncomfortable moments with Spezza in the defensive zone that followed, but when they win the draw, the puck is out cleanly and Spezza comes right off.
Spezza leads the team in defensive-zone faceoffs taken and he’s won 55.9 percent of them. Auston Matthews is second in defensive zone faceoffs on the team and has won 54.9 percent. John Tavares is third and sports the highest percentage at 56.9.
– This is probably one of their biggest concerns with Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall centering the checking line — Kerfoot is at 39.3 percent at the dot and Engvall is at 43.3 percent. Neither is good enough. In the defensive zone, both of those percentages get even worse: Kerfoot drops to 36.7 percent, while Engvall drops to 39.6 percent.
– Zach Hyman has seven goals in his last 11 games. It doesn’t really matter where he plays, every single line is better with Hyman on it. After each game, if we look at the time on ice, he is generally their third most played forward, ahead of John Tavares and William Nylander. Generally speaking, he deserves it. He is now third on the team in goals — Matthews is first with 21, Marner and Nylander are tied for second with 12, and Hyman has 11.
– One thing I learned this week: Auston Matthews leads the entire league in game-winning goals with seven.
– I already spoke about Travis Boyd’s struggles last week, but he found himself on waivers on Sunday. It is largely about accruing cap space, but he is also on the outside looking in when everyone is healthy. He was a nice fill-in and provided some scoring touch, but when he isn’t scoring, he isn’t bringing anything else to the table.
“I was just really looking to establish the ability to set up four lines that I’d be comfortable playing. I thought it was important for us tonight to play four lines somewhat equally, especially early in the game. I thought that was going to be really important for us.
I think it paid off in terms of giving us legs, so that was a big part of it.”
– Sheldon Keefe on trying to establish four lines
This has been an ongoing challenge for Keefe and the Leafs. The ice time is still a little lopsided, but they started the season by not playing their fourth line at all and are now kind of moving into playing their second, third and fourth lines in the 10-15 minute range while their top line gets a ton of ice time.
Against Calgary on Saturday, Mitch Marner played over 24 minutes, Auston Matthews played over 21, Zach Hyman played 19, and the next highest was John Tavares at 15:12. Nobody else played over 15 minutes among the forwards. Only Alex Galchenyuk played under 10 minutes (9:56). That still seems a little wonky to me. In the last 10 games, Marner has played over 23 minutes in six of them.
“You look at the Leafs … They play a complete game and their top players have made that adjustment to play a complete game. You have to try to emulate those teams to have any success”
– Darryl Sutter on the Leafs’ top players and using them as an example
It is nice to be the team used as the example for once instead of the team looking for models. The Leafs’ top players have taken a step forward this season with more commitment on the defensive side of the puck.
Part of it is the natural maturation of young players, but I also think part of what is fueling it is the lack of playoff success thus far. Eventually, they kind of realize that certain things need to happen (i.e. stop cheating for offense) if you want to win games sustainably come playoff time.
“In talking to the coaches it looks like I could have a more prominent role than I had in Toronto and you’ve got to love that opportunity. For me, it’s a matter of consistency.”
– Jimmy Vesey
Imagine starting on the second line of the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs alongside John Tavares and William Nylander – despite not even remotely deserving to or earning it – and then saying this out loud after? Just imagine.
Tweets of the Week
The 4 takeaways from Dubas' avail:
1) Hopes to make a trade ASAP because of the 14-day quarantine;
2) He would trade a top prospect;
3) He would prefer a rental player, for once, over a hockey deal;
4) Confirms that the forward position is leading their deadline discussions.
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) March 16, 2021
That 14-day quarantine period really looms large, throwing a wrench into best-laid plans, to some degree. That’s a long time for a player to wait on the sidelines before integrating into the roster.
We mentioned this last week about the Leafs looking to make a trade as soon as possible, and the urgency does not seem lost on Kyle Dubas. The Leafs need at least one forward to round out the top nine. If the plan is to use Zach Hyman on the third line, they need at least one forward to round out the top six, while a combination of Joe Thornton/Wayne Simmonds/Alex Kerfoot (apparently) rotates on the second line. They need another defenseman as well.
Even if the Leafs wanted to add Andersen insurance at the deadline, there isn't much of a goalie market to do it. Every team who'd trade a goalie either doesn't have one I want or the one I want is hurt. Leafs likely just have to hope Fred turns it around or Campbell steps up.
— Todd Leigh Offside (@Totally_Offside) March 20, 2021
I would agree with this. There does not seem to be much of a goalie market, so the Leafs have to roll with what they’ve got. Because of that, I would not write off Frederik Andersen completely the way some (many?) have at the moment. They will almost certainly need him at some point, whether it’s to take the net back from Jack Campbell or to spell him.
Draft position of Toronto's current top six:
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 17, 2021
High picks are not the only way to build a team — and the Leafs certainly didn’t draft all of these players — but it sure helps when you are trying to acquire top-end talent.
For years and years, there were conversations in Toronto about needing to bottom out in order to draft at the top. It finally happened, and this is the result. You need some luck (not every draft has an Auston Matthews at the top!), but looking back on it, the suffering was worth it.
I don’t really look at it as a decade of suffering to accumulate this; they lived in denial for over half of that time. It was more like 3-5 seasons of intentional selling and bottoming out (with one true tank season).
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I will start with the obvious: I think Jack Campbell should get an opportunity to run with the starting job. It could literally be one game for all we know (should he put up a bad one), but if he is rolling and it lasts 10 games — or even the rest of the season — then so be it.
Campbell has only played 10 games as a Leaf, but I can’t remember a single bad start — or even a mediocre one, really. Frederik Andersen is struggling and appears to be injured. This just makes sense. Let’s see what Campbell can do, but I’m certainly not ready to anoint him the full-on starter by any means at this point.
2. I think Pierre Engvall is a better fit than Alex Kerfoot as the third-line center. In the (admittedly limited) minutes they have played together, Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev are controlling over 53 percent of the shot share, while Kerfoot and Mikheyev are at just over 47 percent.
All three players are fast, but I like the size of Engvall alongside the size of Mikheyev, especially in a checking role. Engvall is stronger, more capable of winning more battles and getting his stick on loose pucks (because of his reach), and he is better on the cycle.
3. I think Sheldon Keefe thought the same after a few games, and that’s why he moved Alex Kerfoot off that line. What that implies is that Kerfoot is either going to eventually move back to that second-line left-wing spot alongside John Tavares and William Nylander, or the Leafs are paying him a lot of money to play 4C on a team that has little cap space.
I think that possibly makes Kerfoot the odd man out if Alex Galchenyuk pans out. More than anyone, he is the obvious candidate to be moved from the NHL roster due to his cap hit, impact, and place on the roster.
4. Speaking of Alex Galchenyuk, I think that he is continuing to earn a look and an opportunity. He has barely played so far — I don’t want to blow anything out of proportion (he played 11:19 in game one and 9:56) — but the combination of his skill and size is tantalizing. He hasn’t looked completely out of place alongside other skilled players.
In his first game, Galchenyuk embraced his forechecking role, although that did die down a little in game two (frankly, if he didn’t come out guns a blazing, that would have told us everything we need to know). We will see how he looks after several games in a row as the initial boost wears off and reality sets in.
He did make a nice pass to start the Zach Hyman goal. His skating and how he moves his hips around is really awkward, though, and it might hold him back. Without power-play time, I’m not sure he’s effective enough to justify playing up the lineup.
5. I think almost nothing has changed since I wrote that Jason Spezza should be confused about how he is treated in comparison to Joe Thornton (and to some degree, even Wayne Simmonds, although at least they play different styles).
Spezza has the third most 5v5 points on the team right now. He’s easily the best skater of the three. He also has the best shot of the three. Two of the three have been provided with opportunities to play on the first line, and Spezza isn’t one of them.
Now, I’m not saying Spezza should play on the first line (he really shouldn’t), but he can take the occasional shift up the lineup, as he started to do in the last game against Calgary. Over the past six games, he has played under 10 minutes in all of them except the last one. The team has largely been losing in those games.
Spezza is one of their most productive players. It doesn’t really make sense to me.
Submit your questions for the MLHS Podcast
I have not talked about it in this column, but you have probably seen that we have launched a podcast here at MLHS. If you have already given it a listen, thank you. We hope you have been enjoying it and will continue to tune in!
If you haven’t, hopefully you will give it a try. Last week, a reader asked if we could get you, the readers/listeners, involved. The answer is of course — without you, we don’t have a podcast or even a website. It’s just people talking into the abyss.
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