We are officially two weeks away from the trade deadline.
Almost two weeks ago, General Manager Kyle Dubas held his midseason press conference and pretty much declared himself open for business. Ideally, the Leafs would have already brought in a player by now so that he could go through the quarantine process and begin integrating into the lineup. That hasn’t happened, but they did get a bit of a break with the news of the federal government’s decision to allow NHL players traded from American teams to Canadian teams to only quarantine for seven days instead of 14. From the Leafs‘ perspective, that has to make them feel better about acquiring a player (or two) so close to the deadline.
Since Dubas’ press conference, the Leafs have integrated Alex Galchenyuk into the lineup, and while it’s early days in the evaluation process, he is giving them some quality minutes and some hope that he can be relied upon.
Should that be the case, the Leafs really only have to thing figure out before they make a move for a forward: Where is Zach Hyman going to play?
Against Edmonton on Saturday, he was on the checking line with Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall. This is noteworthy for a few reasons: 1) The hole it left on the top line – Joe Thornton played there in his place; 2) The impact it has on the second line.
With Hyman on the checking line, the third line was deployed against the Connor McDavid line regularly (the Auston Matthews line also played quite a bit against McDavid). After the checking line was scored on a few times, Mikheyev and Engvall were effectively benched. Mikheyev played under 10 minutes in a game for the first time this season, while Engvall played just 10:26.
When the Leafs are trying to give their third line a tough matchup while ensuring the top line with Matthews and Mitch Marner still plays a ton, that’s how the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander ends up playing less than 16 minutes even though each played a shift in overtime and also scored in the game.
That’s also how Joe Thornton ends up playing over two and a half minutes more than Tavares even though he has one assist in his last 10 games. Despite all the talk of Tavares’ struggles, he has 28 points in 34 games – Thornton should never play that much more than him in a game (not to mention, he received nearly double the power-play time of Nylander and Tavares).
Eventually, Sheldon Keefe moved up Hyman to the top line. While that line didn’t score, they generated a number of chances and looked dangerous, as they usually do.
If Hyman is on the top line, the Leafs need, at minimum, a good third-line forward who they can rely on and is capable of moving up the lineup when needed. If Hyman is going to stay on that third line to form the checking unit the Leafs seem to desire, they need someone for the top-line left-wing spot. It can’t be Thornton playing nearly 18 minutes total and over three minutes on the power play each night.
Right now, it’s sort of unclear if the Leafs are using Hyman on the third line out of necessity or desire. If you’re Sheldon Keefe, you run the risk of having a fairly-ineffective bottom-six without Hyman there if Jason Spezza isn’t scoring.
The good news is that the Leafs should have options available in the trade market. If they were to add a top-nine forward — let’s just say Nick Foligno, for argument’s sake — then they could feel really comfortable moving Hyman up to the top line and slotting in Foligno on a third line that serves as a checking/energy unit.
If the Leafs add a top-six forward — let’s say a Taylor Hall or Kyle Palmieri — they could feel great about keeping Hyman on the third line and slotting in one of those two on the top line. You can even move Hyman up for high-leverage situations within that lineup and run two really, really strong lines. It makes you deeper, but it will cost you more, too.
Either way, the Leafs are buyers. It’s just a matter of what they are willing to give up and what the plan is with their forward lines at this point.
– One thing the Oilers did against the Leafs in their recent game more than the others, which the broadcast noted a number of times: collapse heavily in the defensive zone. They really made an effort to take away chances in the house. The Oilers were leaving the points wide open and daring them to shoot. Only Jake Muzzin (2) and Justin Holl (1) took them up on that. No other Leafs defender registered a shot on goal.
– The Leafs’ tying goal on the night came off a Jake Muzzin one-timer attempt from the point. It deflected wide and then Alex Galchenyuk got to it first behind the net before throwing it in front and getting a fortunate bounce, ending in a goal. Good things happen when you get the puck to the net.
– I’m not sure how Alex Galchenyuk will pan out just yet, but give the Leafs credit for how they approached his situation as an organization. They took a highly-touted and skilled player that was underachieving and sent him to the minors to start. There were no proclamations or even really any expectations put on him — it was off to the minors to work on his game. He showed well in the AHL, so they rewarded him with a callup and gave him a prime opportunity alongside skilled players to show what he can do. That’s a nice way of handling a reclamation project.
– As a team, the Leafs have shown much better composure when trailing. They came back in the third period to beat Edmonton, and they were losing after the first period against Ottawa before winning that game, too. When trailing after the second period, the Leafs have the eighth-best win percentage in the league.
When trailing after the first period, the Leafs have the fourth-best win percentage in the league – they are pushing for .500 with a .444 win percentage when trailing after one.
You don’t want to play with fire here, but there’s something to be said for the resilience of being able to dig yourself out of a hole somewhat consistently.
– There were a few errors on this play below – Joe Thornton was the high forward and should not have pushed up after the initial forechecker (Alex Kerfoot) went down — but the aggressiveness of Travis Dermott in the neutral zone has continually arisen as an issue.
On this is play, as a last line of defense late in a tie game, he can’t step up on Zach Kassian, who is touching the boards. He has to protect the middle of the ice and understand what’s happening on the ice around him.
– Jack Campbell made a big save on Darnell Nurse there to help get them to overtime (which was right after Mike Smith robbed Matthews, no less). While he did struggle on the night and he noted as much after the game, he made two huge saves in the third period — the Nurse one above and a Connor McDavid chance in tight.
Against Ottawa, Campbell pretty well handed the Senators two easy ones, but he shut the door otherwise and made a number of good saves. You can’t be great every night, but you do need to be able to hunker down and make some big saves. So far, Campbell has.
He has the best save percentage of any goalie in the league that has played five games, which is likely to come down to earth (potentially hard) at some point. It will be interesting to see how he and the team fight through that.
“They got our number somehow this year. They seem to figure out little holes in our game and really attack those lapses. We want to play against them as much as we can. We want to play the teams where we really haven’t figured out our game against them or a certain system that they play. It’s playing against guys that push us out of our comfort zone and make us better by the time the important games come.”
– Travis Dermott on the Ottawa Senators
There are certain teams that just play you tough, regardless of the talent disparity. The larger point here concerns playing teams that have a certain system or style of play that they aren’t particularly successful against. Some of that has been the Leafs taking their foot off the pedal against an inferior opponent (i.e. the infamous come-from-behind loss to Ottawa), to be sure. And it should be noted the Leafs could have scored roughly five times before Ottawa opened the scoring on a gift from Campbell in their latest match.
But we saw similar themes between Calgary and Ottawa in terms of dumping pucks in, slowing the game, minimizing the Leafs’ chances off the rush, and keeping the scoring down. Over the recent three-game stretch against Calgary and Ottawa, the Leafs scored a total of seven goals, one of which was a 3v3 overtime goal. It’s a hurdle they will almost certainly have to overcome in the playoffs at some point.
“There are games when we’ve been dominant, and there are games when we haven’t had a lot happening.”
– William Nylander’s assessment of his and John Tavares’ play
For some reason, it was controversial to point this out earlier in the season, but William Nylander seems well aware of the inconsistency as well. That said, while we called it out here earlier in the season, I think he’s partly held back by his deployment at the moment.
Nylander is routinely getting on for the final 30-40 seconds of power play, which is not conducive to producing. Against Edmonton, he scored a goal and an assist and played under 16 minutes. That includes an overtime shift. His ice time has actually been trending up of late, but it is inconsistent at best, and it doesn’t really seem tied to how he is performing.
“He was one of the only guys who was winning faceoffs here today, which earns him more ice time. We were really struggling in the faceoff circle tonight — Auston and John, in particular. That encouraged me to give Spezz some more opportunities to take faceoffs and get his line out there in the offensive zone.”
– Sheldon Keefe on faceoffs and Jason Spezza’s abilities on the dot
I mentioned faceoffs briefly in the last notebook before this caught my eye earlier this week. Spezza has earned ice time for winning faceoffs. It’s no secret that the Leafs have invested quite a bit in analytics, and one of the analysts involved is former blogger Cam Charron, who consistently spoke out against faceoffs. Those articles are from a while ago, but I still often hear the argument that faceoffs don’t mean a whole lot. There is some degree of truth to it, but it’s worth noting this is an analytics-friendly Leafs coach making decisions based on them.
Tweets of the Week
Leafs look like they did – and I know this is cringeworthy to hear – against Columbus in the summer. Good, shots, carry play and possession… little from the inside, though. Not finding their way in, almost getting too committed to O, then suddenly rushes head back the other way
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) March 26, 2021
I still think this is the goal for teams playing against the Leafs: Push them outside. It’s okay if they have the puck. Just limit the high-quality chances, and don’t get burned by the power play. I don’t think Winnipeg or Edmonton are capable of sustaining that play defensively over the course of a playoff series, but Montreal might be, and that could prove tough for the Leafs.
Another night, another win for Jack Campbell 🍁
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 28, 2021
Still has some work to do to catch the Cat, but that’s quite an impressive feat.
In their 30 minutes on-ice together, the Maple Leafs' new Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander line has generated 83% of expected goals, 90% of high-danger chances, and one comeback win over the Oilers.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) March 28, 2021
Not ready to conclude much here just yet – it has been four games, he came out with a spark, one game was against Ottawa, and in the other, the line was reunited for the third period while down two goals (you would naturally expect them to produce in that situation). But the early returns are definitely promising, and he’s earning himself a longer look/leash.
It was particularly interesting that he started on the fourth line and was still able to work himself up to the top six in the last game.
Forwards PP TOI 20/21
1 Draisaitl 161:35
2 RNH 160:15
3 McD 159:28
39 Marner 105:56
48 Matthews 101:33
89 Tavares 81:37
108 Nylander 73:11
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) March 27, 2021
Sheldon Keefe was asked about the power play – now 0 for its last 16 – after the Edmonton game and indicated that he likes the process given the chances they’re generating. I’m just not sure how you can like a process where you are taking star players and playing them on the power play like they are good-but-not-great options.
The Toronto Maple Leafs – with their big four at forward – don’t have a single forward in the top 40 (40!) of average power-play time on ice per game. Auston Matthews is the highest at 44th among forwards. That is asinine, to put it nicely.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think the true power-play solution is simply loading up the top unit. If it’s playoff time and John Tavares and William Nylander are picking up the 35-second scraps at the end of each power play, it is beyond questionable. This is a case of overthinking it at this point. Play your best players together in the situations that are most likely to generate goals.
2. I think it’s pretty clear that if the Leafs don’t want to load up the top line with one of John Tavares or William Nylander — and if Zach Hyman is going to play on the third line — they don’t have a real solution internally to play alongside Matthews and Marner. They’ve tried a few players now, and it’s fine in spurts, but at the end of the day, Hyman almost always ends up back on the top line, as he should.
I get that they want to play Hyman on the third line — which makes sense and is fine, generally speaking — but they likely need to acquire someone to play on the top line in that case. Cycling through veterans past their best-before date is not a real solution. They can’t bank on elevating Hyman when trailing to work out all the time.
3. I think the second-line left-wing spot is Alex Galchenyuk’s to lose right now, for obvious reasons. He’s been fairly productive and creative so far. Unlike the first line, I also think it’s far more palatable to rotate in options here (a collection of veterans, plus Galchenyuk and even Kerfoot), depending on the situation and who is going. If the Leafs have a good first line in place and a solid third line in place (as they would with Hyman there), they buy themselves some room for rotating options on the second line.
4. Stylistically, as we see opponents pack the paint against the Leafs, I think I’d like to see them take a few more point shots. Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are tied for the lead in shots among defensemen on the team with 62 each, which is tied for the 38th highest shot output among defensemen across the league. It should not be the first choice when creating offense, to be clear, but if opponents are going to collapse on the slot, it’s not a bad thing to send bodies there and encourage the defensemen to get it through traffic.
5. I think, if the price is as low on Taylor Hall as rumoured (possibly not even a first-round pick involved in a deal), the Leafs have to get in on those negotiations. We have debated the merits of Hall on the podcast for weeks, but if a relatively young former Hart winner is available for pennies on the dollar, Kyle Dubas has to make the call.