Another strong showing from Toronto’s top forwards.
Despite some less than stellar puck-moving from their defensemen, the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to control the majority of scoring chances on Wednesday night, defeating the Winnipeg Jets by a final score of 3-1.
The reunited top line of Hyman-Matthews-Marner got off to a hot start tonight, getting two pucks behind Connor Hellebuyck in the game’s first 10 minutes. From there, the Leafs were able to settle things down and prevent the Jets’ forwards from generating quality chances, particularly in the third period.
You know the bit by now. I like using individual player grades to help guide my thoughts on these Leafs games, so let’s start with the most impactful.
Game Puck: Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — On nights like these, it’s really fun to evaluate Marner’s play. His creativity with the puck on his stick when he’s skating through dangerous areas is unparalleled on this team.
Who even thinks to make this pass?
He made Logan Stanley look like…Logan Stanley on this play.
All kidding aside, it takes a special talent to break down the opposing team’s structure. Marner pulls off backdoor passes like these with regularity, which is why he picks up so many primary assists.
What impresses me more about his play this season is how responsible he’s become defensively while still providing that elite offense. Dom Luszczyszyn put out his latest NHL Awards ballot today, ranking Marner second in Selke consideration based on his elite defensive numbers.
The Leafs don’t give up many chances when he’s on the ice, thanks in large part to his positioning and active stick to pick off passes. For example, there were multiple times tonight when Marner got himself to the right spot and broke up a pass through the middle of the slot.
If you’re looking to dive into more video on this topic, I’d recommend checking out this article from Scott Wheeler.
Zach Hyman (LW, #11) — It can get repetitive saying the same things about Hyman game after game, but it’s because of his remarkable consistency without the puck. I’m not sure if he’s the best F1 forechecker in the league, but he’s definitely the most impactful player in puck pursuit on Toronto.
There were several times he disrupted opponents’ passes on the breakout, resulting in his line spending more time with the puck in the offensive zone. There’s a reason the line with Hyman always has positive 5v5 metrics; he tilts the ice with his play.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Was he the third-best player on his line tonight? It sounds crazy to say. Then again, when Marner is having one of his magical nights and Hyman is wreaking havoc on the forecheck, sometimes you just have to get out of the way and make yourself available as a shooting option.
Matthews accomplished that tonight, which is why he picked up a primary assist off the post and this garbage goal.
They don’t ask how, they ask how many. That last one puts him on pace for 40 goals in 53 games this season.
I say he does it.
Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — Public Service Announcement: Alex Kerfoot shot the puck.
And it went in!
We’ve all been giving the poor guy a rough time this year, so it was nice to see him have a strong performance tonight. The PK2 duo of him and Ilya Mikheyev has been effective this season. They’ve generated so many chances shorthanded, although the Soupman hasn’t been able to convert on any of those.
Maybe Kerfoot should be looking to shoot more, which was clearly his mentality in this game. I’m so used to seeing zeroes on the scoresheet next to his name in the Individual Shots and Chances column. He fired four pucks towards the net tonight, which makes him less predictable offensively. Sure, some of those are muffins from distance, but I’d rather the defense respect the threat of him shooting than automatically assuming he’s going to pass it, which has been the book on him for years.
Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — Montreal fans must be shaking their heads watching this version of Galchenyuk. He’s been a legitimate presence on the forecheck for Toronto, putting in multiple strides after he crosses the blue line and finding a way to get his stick onto loose pucks.
We all know he’s a skilled player in transition. What we’re not used to seeing is Galchenyuk block a shot in the defensive zone and work hard to get it back. The fact that he’s looked good without the puck in these first few games is an excellent sign, especially considering what he can do with it.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — Aside from a screened point shot on the power play, “Soupy” was perfect in this game. He made a few big stops on one-timers from Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor. There were a few mad scrambles in front that Campbell had to deal with, but he managed to locate the puck and freeze it for a whistle.
He’s now 7-0-0 as a starter this season for Toronto. Wins are obviously a terrible stat for measuring goaltending performance, so how about .919? That’s his save percentage in 71 starts as an NHL goalie. Not too shabby.
Tavares-Nylander — We all know the Leafs are looking to add a player to this line. Justin Bourne wrote about it today, arriving at the same conclusion that I’m sure you have. They don’t need another talented linemate to make them good; they need another talented linemate because they’re so good.
For anyone worried about John Tavares‘ ability to make plays off the rush, I think it’s safe to say he’s finding his groove again.
His stick-handling was on point tonight. There were a few instances where he deked his way into high danger areas of the ice.
William Nylander wasn’t as dynamic at 5v5 as we’re used to seeing, although I loved his composure on the power play. The Leafs put all their stars on PP1 tonight, with Nylander running things from the left half-wall and Marner dropping down below the goal line (technically the “net front,” but he never really stands there).
They didn’t score, but I loved some of the give-and-go sequences Nylander and Marner were able to pull off. Sometimes the two would even switch places, which seemed to really throw off opposing penalty killers.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — After breaking free for a 2-on-1 early in the game, Spezza drew a hooking penalty. On the power play, his simple approach to gaining the zone worked well; skate north as fast as you can and then make a pass after stepping over the blueline.
When the Leafs got set up in formation, he was able to thread a cross-seam pass to Galchenyuk, who wasn’t able to corral for the one-timer. Spezza also made an impact on the penalty kill, which isn’t common for him outside of faceoff wins.
These are the type of high-level passes he can still complete at age 37. It’s why he’s been so productive despite his limited usage.
Ilya Mikheyev (LW, #65) — Playing with Pierre Engvall and Wayne Simmonds can’t be easy. No one on that line could complete a pass, resulting in this weird playstyle where the line would try to cycle in the offensive zone but couldn’t create much of anything.
The one clip I did want to pull up was another edition of the Mikheyev Shot Selection Escapades.
You probably thought I was going to show you a floater from the boards. Nope, I’m proud of Mikheyev for getting himself to middle-ice more often in the offensive zone.
This isn’t a Grade-A chance, but it’s a high-percentage play for the Simmonds deflection in front. Considering how often we’ve seen the Soupman skate himself into bad ice and launch 0.01 xG shots from terrible locations, it’s nice to see him take a step in the right direction from a shot quality standpoint.
The Dermott-Bogosian Pairing — A few of my friends messaged me after the game to let me know Travis Dermott only played 7:56 tonight. Thanks, guys — I had no idea.
I actually liked the way Dermott played in the first half. He was assertive with his play up the ice, even completing a few stretch passes. Then in the back half of the game it looked like neither he or Zach Bogosian could complete a pass.
Bogosian made a brilliant pass to Marner right before he danced around Logan Stanley. Then on his next shift he found himself with the puck on his stick in the slot and forgot to shoot. Oh well, what else do you want from your bottom pair?
Coaching Staff — Everyone’s frustrated with the powerplay, and understandably so, but I wanted to give Sheldon Keefe & Co. some credit for actually trying some logical changes to the power play. As I mentioned earlier, Toronto top-loaded PP1 in this game, putting their star forwards on the top unit.
Later in the game, when Marner and Matthews had a bit of trouble on the entries, they tried Spezza on the half-wall instead of Nylander, presumably to help the unit gain the zone – and have more of a shot threat from the left dot.
Did any of it work? No, but I’d encourage the coaching staff to keep trying new things. We don’t see enough of it in this super conservative sport.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — I thought he was Toronto’s most consistent defenseman tonight, which isn’t saying too much. All six of the D when through some ups and downs on Wednesday, although Muzzin was the most stable at defending the blue line against Winnipeg’s dynamic forwards.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — The pairing as a whole played alright, but again, I’d argue Muzzin was more responsible for that. Holl had a couple of rough passes in his own zone, although he did make a nice few plays with the puck on his stick.
My favourite was the smart turnback he made at the end of his shift later in the third period, understanding that his team had the lead and they didn’t need to force anything up the ice. I know the old-school types hate those turnbacks, but if you can maintain possession while your linemates change, you should do it every time. The other team can’t score if you have the puck.
Pierre Engvall (C, #47) — His inability to complete a pass off the rush was frustrating to watch tonight, especially considering how much speed he’s able to build up when he gets those legs churning in transition. Defensively, he was very solid once again, which is really why you want him out there. I’d just like to see him make more plays after stepping over the blue line.
Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — Does anyone in the NHL need a night off more than Joe Thornton? Carter Hart maybe? Taylor Hall? It’s a short list.
Jumbo Joe had a few decent moments against the Jets, mostly stick checks defensively along the boards. I’m a big fan of his upside as a passer in Keefe’s system, but if you look at his play over the last couple weeks, he’s dropped off considerably since the start of the season.
Brandon Pridham needs to accrue all the cap space he can muster, so maybe Thornton will have to wait until after the April 12th trade deadline before he gets a night off. I just feel bad for the 41-year-old veteran. He looks like he could use some rest.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — His limitations with the puck on his stick are becoming increasingly clear at 5v5. Simmonds still does a great job at screening goaltenders and deflecting point shots around the blue paint, particularly on the powerplay. The problem is that he’s been having a lot of trouble getting his line into the offensive zone for those opportunities, which has been a concern for him these last few years.
The Rielly-Brodie Pair — This wasn’t their night. Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie spent the majority of their shifts stuck in their own end. Most of that was self-inflicted; they were turning pucks over on the breakout, which isn’t like them. Brodie, in particular, was really struggling in this game, although he did make a few nice defensive plays to prevent backdoor passes.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
The shots were even at 5v5, but Toronto dominated in the shot quality department, controlling 63 percent of chances from the slot and 73 percent of the expected goals.
Tweets of the Night
The Leafs defending leads from the past four years. A giant improvement this season. pic.twitter.com/OKoTRm3RuR
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) April 1, 2021
Red = lots of shots from that location, Blue = not many.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Despite their reputation, Toronto has actually reduced chances against by a significant margin when they’re holding those dreaded one-goal leads in the 3rd period.
These aren’t the Leafs of years past.
Imagine telling someone a couple years ago the Leafs would be rolling out a PP unit of Spezza-Thornton-Simmonds-Galchenyuk-Brodie
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) April 1, 2021
2013 me would’ve jumped for joy! (2021 me is still quite happy with these players)
— Mahesh K (@MaheshNYCTO) March 31, 2021
Apologies for the profanity, but this genuinely made me laugh out loud.
Kyle Dubas said the following on March 16. The Leafs have now responded to their tough stretch with a 4-1-0 run.
Your move, Kyle. pic.twitter.com/sL07pboczN
— Anthony Petrielli (@APetrielli) April 1, 2021
It’s Taylor Hall SZN, folks.