The Toronto Maple Leafs have built a six-point cushion over the Jets and Oilers at the top of the division as the NHL trade deadline inches closer.
They have the best goal differential in the division, the best goals against per game, and they’re tied with the Oilers for the best goals for per game in the division. While they aren’t in the clear by any stretch of the imagination, the Leafs have to be feeling pretty good about where they sit overall.
With that, we are jumping right into an extended notes edition of Leafs Notebook. As always, if you have questions/ideas for the podcast this week, feel free to write them in the comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– There has been so much talk about John Tavares in this market, but a few things are worth pointing out. In the past few weeks, he has been much more shifty — beating defenders more than a few times with little toe drags, stick handles in tight, and using his body to protect the puck and get to dangerous scoring areas. In his last nine games, he has “just” six points, but he’s put 29 shots on goal. In five of those games, he has had four-plus shots on net.
If he wasn’t getting chances or creating, that’s one thing, but he has been. Sooner than later, the production will even up a bit. He is currently on track to put up the lowest shooting percentage of his career at 10.3 percent. His career average is 13.2. His ice time is also down overall (and I would argue that’s not entirely on him; against Calgary, he had a goal and an assist for example, and he played under 16-and-a-half minutes). He has not been a regular on the top power-play unit. The 30 points in 38 games is not production you expect considering his cap hit — and his PDO is actually a bit high — but for the purposes of the rest of this season, I think there are some signs that he is trending in the right direction.
– In the first game against Winnipeg, Travis Dermott played a season-low 7:58 (excluding the game he was hurt against Vancouver in his first shift). He responded in the next game with a goal while tying a season-high in shots on net with three – something he accomplished a few nights earlier as well against Edmonton.
Dermott played just over 14 minutes in that game and again in the next game against Calgary. He had some shifty moments along the offensive zone blue line against Calgary as well; on one particular play, he froze Milan Lucic with a fake shot attempt and then carried the puck down the wall before dishing to a forward who was able to peel open because Dermott’s move shifted the defenders.
– We don’t think of Zach Bogosian as a puck carrier – he only has four points on the season – but he is very active on the offensive blue line and loves to jump in for give-and-go plays. He hit 200 points in his NHL career this past week and perhaps some of that activeness is rubbing off on his partner. This season, Dermott and Bogosian have played nearly 300 minutes together and are controlling nearly 53 percent of the shot attempts.
The pairing has been on for eight goals for and nine against at 5v5 (though their expected goals for percentage is actually around 56 percent and their PDO is .985, so perhaps they’ve been unlucky). There’s no crazy advantage gained with this pairing, but they generally break even and don’t get outplayed. Can’t ask for much more from your third pairing.
– Along with Bogosian, TJ Brodie has also not scored this season among Leafs defensemen. In recent weeks, the Leafs have had a few defenders score key goals — Morgan Rielly opened the scoring against Calgary, Justin Holl scored a recent overtime winner, plus the aforementioned Travis Dermott goal. On the whole, the Leafs defense has scored a total of just 10 goals this season. Four defensemen in the league have more goals than the entire Leafs defense, two of whom are in their division (Darnell Nurse and Jeff Petry). They are tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest number of goals in the division among defense cores.
The Leafs don’t have a defenseman in the top 35 across the league in shots on goal (Morgan Rielly is 37th, Jake Muzzin is 41st). Rielly is such a good skater that he will naturally join the rush and activate offensively — just as he did when scoring against Calgary and jumping up on the Galchenyuk goal — but stylistically, the Leafs generally have their defensemen hang back and simply play defense. The forwards go to work and in the offensive zone trying to create chances in tight and in the slot as opposed to throwing pucks on net. Ultimately, they are sixth in the league in goals per game, so it isn’t exactly holding them back.
– Nice to see Alex Galchenyuk rewarded with a goal. He has played well alongside John Tavares and William Nylander — the line has outscored opponents by two so far, controlled nearly 55 percent of shot attempts, and has owned over 68 percent of expected goals. He has been a willing forechecker, which was not always something he would do throughout his career, but it is essential if he’s going to play on this line.
Galchenyuk is also a skilled enough threat that opponents have to respect him, which in turn frees up space for Tavares and Nylander – that attention is something a previous linemate such as Jimmy Vesey would not command from the opposition. Even Wayne Simmonds, who can forecheck and is great in front of the net, isn’t going to shift defenders in open ice because he isn’t particularly threatening.
– It was a two-goal lead — not exactly down to the wire — but Sheldon Keefe put out a unit of Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – Ilya Mikheyev to close the game against Calgary. He has used all three in close-out situations during the season, but I can’t recall ever seeing them all on together to close. Despite all the criticism he has been receiving this season, Tavares, in particular, has been used consistently to close out games when the Leafs are protecting the lead, and he has done a good job in that role.
– Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman are consistent closers as well – they are the only two Leafs with empty-net goals this season. Marner has two — one of 23 players in the league with two — while there is a five-way tie for the lead in empty-net goals with three.
– A miscellaneous stat I found kind of interesting: Auston Matthews is tied for the lead league in goals to open the scoring in a game with six (David Pastrnak and Ondrej Palat are the others). The Leafs are tied for the second-most goals in the league in the first period. It used to be a huge story when they were seemingly down to start every game – including the start of last season under Mike Babcock, which feels like it was forever ago – but it’s not much of an issue anymore.
– Lots of talk occurs when the Leafs’ skilled players don’t use their bodies to help them retrieve pucks (settling for stick lift attempts instead), so it’s worth pointing out Auston Matthews bodying Matthew Tkachuk leading to a turnover that he cashed in for a goal moments later. There’s a time and place to pickpocket players, but in the playoffs especially, you usually have to get your body in the way in some capacity to get the puck back.
“My mindset for the game tonight was to just go and have as much fun as possible. I’m not to the point of winking at our guys on the ice yet, but it’s infectious.”
– Michael Hutchinson on Jack Campbell’s fun approach and attitude rubbing off on him
First of all, this was a hilarious line. Second of all, attitude is absolutely infectious, and to see a teammate approach the game a certain way and have that rub off on you as something to replicate is pretty cool.
“I do think they have considered the idea of a depth defenseman, but it probably comes down to what they have to do in goal or if they can move someone else to clear some room. They won’t have the ability to do all of this stuff if the goalie is involved. I do think the top-six forward is the ultimate #1.”
– Elliotte Friedman discussing the Leafs’ deadline plans
The goaltending question is quite the little wrinkle the Leafs now have to consider. Michael Hutchinson has played in eight games and has a .919 save percentage this season – that is more than fine for a regular backup. He is their third goalie. And yet here we are. Jack Campbell always seems a little hurt or banged up and in need of some time off. He has been fantastic, but they can’t truly trust his ability to stay healthy if they are being honest.
Frederik Andersen has been hurt, and it seemingly impacted his play prior to being put on IR. Acquiring a fourth goalie is potentially a real conversation at this point. Only the Leafs have the full medical reports to pore over and make a decision on, and the goalies thus far have not been an issue on the whole. If they trust Campbell and Andersen to get back to full health and stay healthy, a depth defenseman is still something they need (they really don’t have a seventh defenseman at this time), but if they are unsure of what’s happening in net, they probably do need to bring in another goalie.
“What I would say is that some teams are looking for draft picks, some teams are looking for prospects, and other teams are looking for roster players. We will remain as flexible as we can on all fronts to improve our team here and work with the teams that are looking to move out players and are in a different stage of their franchise evolution than we are.
I would say it is all on the table for us at this point.”
– Kyle Dubas on moving assets at the trade deadline
The nice thing is that they have given themselves options. They have some money they can move off of the NHL roster (Kerfoot), a number of prospects, and they have all of their draft picks of value other than their third this season due to the Campbell trade.
Tweets of the Week
That's three straight wins for the Leafs. They're 6-0-1 in their last seven games.
They've done that with ZERO powerplay goals.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) April 5, 2021
In this market, we nitpick things like the power play — or whatever is struggling — to some degree, but at the end of the day, they are winning while their power play is doing literally nothing. That’s a good sign. Their power play will sort it out at some point, but in the meantime, it’s nice to see them win in other ways because early on in the season they were riding their power play hard – which we continually pointed out – but not at all right now.
Maple Leafs power play is 0 for its last 28.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) April 5, 2021
Now, all of that said about their success in spite of their power play, it is a notable issue. Gord Miller noted on the broadcast against Calgary that it was the first time since 1998 that the Leafs’ power play hadn’t scored in 10 straight games – the Leafs have had some beyond dreadful teams in the over 20 years since then! – but it is this team with multiple superstars to be the next one to accomplish such a feat. There is some obvious bad luck at play as they’ve missed multiple empty nets/hit multiple posts, but there are some issues here, too.
TSN showed a stats breakdown from Sportslogiq from the last 10 games that ranked the Leafs 1st in generating slot chances but 12th in slot shots on net. There are some obvious problems with getting pucks through in dangerous areas. They are also 31st in rebound recovery, so they’re losing battles in the key area of the ice and not extending their power play in the offensive zone. That means teams are winning the puck battles there and generally clearing it instead.
The power play is seemingly having to break out and enter the zone two, three, four times per power play. That’s too much.
They have also become a bit predictable without really having a bread and butter play. With Matthews on the strong side, they are trying to set up him coming down the lane with speed and momentum for his shot. Teams are selling out on blocking that. Marner simply isn’t a shooting threat. Rielly isn’t really, either. For reference, Matthews has 39 shots on goal on the power play – Marner and Rielly each have 16, and Marner has zero power-play goals this season.
Those are the three players with the puck on their sticks the most. Marner, in particular, used to thrive on a shot-pass redirect through the bumper player (particularly when it was Kadri there), but with Joe Thornton there, it is nearly pointless. In March, the Leafs’ power play clicked at 10.8 percent. Plus, the penalty kill was at 72.7 percent. Special teams are a legitimate concern.
The Leafs are currently 3rd in 5v5 xGF% despite spending the most time with the lead in the NHL.
5v5 xGF% when tied (663:09):
-3rd in NHL
When leading (767:52):
-7th in NHL
When trailing (379:10):
-4th in NHL
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) April 4, 2021
Conversely, the Leafs have been very solid at 5v5. They are still a middle-of-the-pack team possession-wise, but when it comes to creating dangerous offense/preventing dangerous offensive opportunities against, they have been very stingy.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. Again, I think I will reiterate to simply keep the top unit together with your five most skilled players, and trust that they will figure it out. They are too good. They have done it before. I’m not worried about the power play if they set it and work with it. I am worried if they continue to play musical chairs hoping it magically clicks. Let them get comfortable and go to work.
2. I think the early returns on the newly-formed Ilya Mikheyev – Pierre Engvall – Wayne Simmonds line suggest clearly that they aren’t skilled enough to really be a scoring threat. They aren’t strong enough defensively with Simmonds on the line to be a checking line, either. All of that is to say: When I look at the roster and think about their needs up front, that line would be the first thing that catches my eye. Mikheyev – Engvall has turned into a pretty good combo with their size and speed — something we speculated might mesh early on this season — but they either need a better scorer to make them a threat offensively or a better checker to make them a true checking line. Simmonds isn’t really the answer. I’m not sure anyone else in the bottom six is, either.
3. I think adding a checking forward that can round out that line — keeping Zach Hyman on the top unit in the process — and also serve as a primary penalty killer might actually be a bigger need than a top-six forward at this point. The penalty kill is concerning. The third line is concerning. The rest of the forward group looks pretty good to me.
4. If the Leafs were to add a forward without subtracting from the NHL roster, I think the two forwards that would be left battling for the final spot would be Wayne Simmonds or Joe Thornton. As long as Galchenyuk is going to play like this, he simply isn’t coming out. Even if you get a “true” top-six forward, he can play on the fourth line with Jason Spezza and be a real threat. Spezza, of course, is not coming out anytime soon with him producing like he is. Alex Kerfoot wouldn’t come out, either, considering his penalty killing, speed, and general production (he does have six goals and 16 points — it isn’t leaping off the page, but it’s not nothing). Nobody else is even remotely in the, “Would he come out of the lineup?” conversation at the moment.
5. This is something that comes up every year, but when John Tavares broke his stick in the defensive zone against the Jets and opted to stay in the zone for a while playing without a stick, I think it should always be said: If you break your stick, skate to the bench. If the team can’t play 5v4 for like 5-10 seconds (in this case, the bench was right beside the zone because it wasn’t in the second period), you have bigger questions to answer. Either get a new stick or sub on a player who has a stick — especially if you’re a forward.