In 2015, as Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs were preparing for the entry draft, the Toronto market was obsessing over the question of whether to draft Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner.
Asked if the Maple Leafs would consider passing up on Mitch Marner in the draft because the organization already had small-ish wingers like William Nylander and Connor Brown, the Leafs GM didn’t mince words.
“Here’s the way I look at it,” Dubas said. “Right now, we aren’t good enough to be picky about smaller players. We need as many elite players as we can. If we get into playoffs and are too small, or overwhelmed, it’s easier to trade small for size than draft for size and trade for skill.”
I couldn’t help but think back to that quote as the Leafs of the present day made the hotly-debated decision to spend significant assets on a physical, veteran winger over potentially acquiring the supremely-talented and fast Taylor Hall at a bargain price.
That quote has resonated for years when it comes to the process of building this Leafs team. They continually tried to draft players with high upside and cashed in on top draft picks. In the great Nick Ritchie versus William Nylander draft debate (and subsequent drafting of Nylander), a Leafs scout told me after the draft that they liked Ritchie but felt Nylander had a higher ceiling. They were consistent in that approach towards cultivating talent.
So far, it has only taken them to the playoffs, but never beyond the first round. Part of that is the natural development curve of a young core learning the league and how to win when games tighten up in the playoffs. Part of it was due to legitimate flaws in the roster.
Shifting to the next stage of roster building started in the 2020 offseason, when the Leafs brought in a number of veterans who, while productive and able to contribute, were well past their primes. At this point, everyone knows the list – Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, the re-signing of Jason Spezza. They brought in TJ Brodie, the player they originally targeted in a return for Nazem Kadri before he blocked a trade to the Flames. His fit, it was noted right away, made much more sense than Tyson Barrie the year before — he could handle tough matchups.
The returns have been successful. The Leafs have generally been in first place throughout the season and have not had this kind of path to playoff success in front of them before. For years now, they have been a club that was in the top five or 10 in the league, but they’ve been looking up at Tampa Bay and Boston teams that have been in the top three in the league. In the last two years, one won the Cup, and one lost in seven in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Leafs aren’t looking up at anyone this season, though.
For all of those reasons and more, if there was ever a year to go all in, this is it. Kyle Dubas left pretty well nothing to chance before the trade deadline, doing his part to push his team over the top. The draft picks have been discussed at length, but at some point, he needed to push his chips in and go for it. There’s no good reason not to this season.
A first-round pick that might turn into a serviceable or above-average player in the league is of little consequence at this point. He acquired a third goalie just in case both Jack Campbell and Frederik Andersen don’t hold up. It’s entirely possible that he traded a third-round pick for three-to-five games of David Rittich before he walks in free agency, but they needed the depth with the question marks in net. He brought in Ben Hutton so that Martin Marincin is no longer the de facto seventh defenseman in the playoffs, as he has been for a few years. He added a checking center in Riley Nash, who is another forward that can help ease the matchups of their best players so that they can focus on scoring.
Of course, Dubas’ big acquisition was Nick Foligno. The word of the day for the Leafs with this add: versatility. He can supplement skilled players, grind on a checking line, play left or right wing, and play a role on either special teams unit. For a team with all of the major pieces in place, adding a Swiss army knife, of sorts, to supplement the core makes it easy for them to add Foligno into the group and in different combinations.
The Leafs are fifth in the league in goals per game and tied for second in five-on-five goals scored. They are also tied for seventh in goals against, so they aren’t exactly weak in that area, either. The Leafs valued bringing in players that they can place in roles this season and deploy in various matchups, which was an area they had been lacking in for years.
Their bottom lines basically did not play against a good-but-nowhere-near-great Columbus team. Against Boston, the Leafs had nothing even remotely resembling a checking line that could play against their top line, and David Pastrnak essentially crushed them on his own. Maybe nothing could have stopped him, but they didn’t even have different options or looks to throw his way. That’s not the case anymore.
The team is locked and loaded now with a lineup full of players they can move around in different roles. They can run and gun, they can grind, and they can line match. Their defense is deep.
At the same time, the Leafs lost out of the playoffs last year because they couldn’t score enough. They were shut out twice in a five-game series against Columbus. That is absolutely noteworthy in relation to the decision they made — if they can’t score in the playoffs and bow out early again, there’s going to be a summit in the province of Ontario to figure out what went wrong and who is to blame.
But for now, on paper, the Leafs pretty well have it all to compete against anyone provided their goaltending holds up (and that’s a reasonably-sized if).
A few weeks ago, in a rare stretch this season where the Leafs were struggling, Dubas said his team needed to show him it can work its way out of a rut, implying he would then do his part to add to the team. The players responded with a 9-0-1 run.
Dubas kept his word by adding depth and an impact player to the roster without losing anyone off the current team in the process. Now it’s on the players and coaching staff to do the rest.
– The Riley Nash trade is underrated provided he can get healthy and return to the lineup. He’s extremely detailed defensively, and the Leafs will know that as they’ve played against him in the playoffs the last two years – if you are wondering why you can’t remember him from those series, that’s kind of the point. He’s simply a strong checking forward.
They needed some depth in that department — as evidenced by Pierre Engvall getting benched and playing 6:34 against Montreal — and they don’t have any other checking center options. They like to use Jason Spezza on the penalty kill for faceoffs, but if he loses the draw, it’s really tough to watch. Nash is only a career 48% at the dot, but Engvall is at 43% and Alex Kerfoot is sub 40%. Nash is an improvement on those options who can help closeout games — an upgrade in that department over options like Kerfoot. The big question is whether he can get himself healthy and back into form.
– On top of the power play struggling to score, part of the growing concern is that the Leafs are now tied for first in most shorthanded goals allowed with five. They’ve actually given up more goals than they’ve scored recently to cap off an eye-opening plunge from what was a red hot power play to start the season. My additional thoughts are down below on how they might be able to improve it. Needless to say, you get a four-minute power play late in a tie game and other than one play that Matthews rang off the post, they weren’t particularly dangerous. Calgary built off that penalty kill and dominated the final few minutes of the game.
– Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were both on the ice for the final few minutes of regulation when the Leafs were getting hemmed in their own end. They looked gassed to start overtime, which led to a breakdown and a goal against. I was surprised he went back to them to start overtime, and their legs showed it in overtime.
– In his last six games, John Tavares has eight points, 17 shots on net, and has seen his ice time creep up as well. In those six games, he has clocked ice times of: 16:13, 18:43, 17:07, 18:10, 19:35, and 19:58. There was a lot of concern around Tavares and his play at one point — which was partly earned on his end — but he is ramping up at the right time right now.
– It’s really amazing how much Zach Hyman’s confidence has soared. Against Ottawa, with the puck on his stick off the rush, he could have tried dropping it to John Tavares right away, thereby deferring to a high-end finisher. Instead, he made a play on the defender and beat him wide before centering the puck. It was a broken goal at the end of the day — Mikheyev spun and buried it — but a few years ago, it would be a safe bet to predict that Hyman would immediately defer to Tavares. As always, it’s worth noting that Hyman was on his strong side skating down the right when he made the play.
“Versatile, can play any position and anywhere in the line-up. Can play the game any way you want to play it. Great leadership qualities. Plays extremely hard. He just checks so many boxes of the things you need to win when it matters most.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Nick Foligno
Whether it was a Kadri suspension, a Muzzin injury, Andreas Johnsson getting hurt, and so on, the Leafs have had a number of players out of the lineup in the playoffs without even advancing past the first round. You need players that can move around and fill different roles, and we can already see options down the lineup — the Mikheyevs, Engvalls, Kerfoots — can’t really be asked to move up if needed or take on multiple roles. Foligno adds a bit more of a swiss-army knife option.
“If you know me, I just want to go where I am going to help. I know that sounds cliche, but that’s how I feel. If you need me in a defensive role in a game, I will try to take that on. If you need me on the offensive side of it to help push the top six, absolutely, I feel like I can help in that regard. I have kind of been that for our team here in Columbus for a while. Whatever is needed, Torts has been able to move me around. I have enjoyed that role.”
– Nick Foligno on his role on the Leafs
Similar to the quote right above from Keefe, Nick Foligno’s ability to shift around the lineup into different roles is the most important aspect of the acquisition. The best-case scenario is that he plays in 10 games before the playoffs, so they have enough time to try him out in a few different spots and see how things shake out.
“The stuff that happened before that goal with the goals against was something unacceptable. So, I was just fired up. It’s a big goal. Our line worked hard to get that goal. We stayed around the net and we got the result.”
– Mitch Marner on showing some emotion after he scored a goal against the Senators following a goal against
The Leafs have been much better at responding to adversity and mounting comebacks. The momentum swings and lulls they use to experience as a young team have really gone away this season. When trailing after the first period, they are third in winning percentage at .455. Last season, they were 27th with a .136 winning percentage.
Tweets of the Week
Thinking about the Foligno acquisition reminded me of this Alex Anthopoulos quote regarding the 2015 Blue Jays. pic.twitter.com/YXl0ghSR8c
— I Hate My Favourite Teams (@CarcelMousineau) April 12, 2021
I know this is technically a quote, but I wanted to properly attribute where I saw it. I thought a lot about this, too, when the Leafs made the move. It’s a really tough balance between improving skill and working on a fit within your room. Foligno isn’t exactly a dud in the offensive department – the puck won’t die on his stick in the offensive zone – so all things considered, I think they did a fairly good job of managing their needs.
Only Ovechkin, Crosby, Stamkos and Kovalchuk have hit the 30-goal mark by Game 41 in the cap era.
And now Auston Matthews.
It's only happened seven times in the past two decades.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 10, 2021
It really helps to put into perspective just how good Auston Matthews has been this season. What an incredible season he’s putting together. Wish we could have seen the true 82-game output.
Campbell is one of the best humans I’ve covered. He once helped a fan propose on the ice after a Texas Stars game. He also gave his NHL draft day hat to a kid, his own lucky charm, to a kid that was upset about his dad being deployed. https://t.co/qk5V6aCFGm
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) April 8, 2021
Those are some cool stories and moments worth sharing. We’ll need to see what happens now that the winning streak is over and he gets into more of the routine of a regular starter, but Jack Campbell is definitely someone you want to cheer for.
Just to be clear, the Leafs could not have made the Nash trade without Andersen on LTIR. That means they cannot activate Fred from LTIR, without removing $1.35m from the roster (or waiting for playoffs). Losing accrued space makes it even tougher, but that's a long explanation pic.twitter.com/59UH4B1L8q
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) April 9, 2021
Still not sure we see Frederik Andersen again in the regular season, but I also have a feeling that they are still going to need him at some point in the playoffs.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. When I watch the Leafs’ power play now, I think this is what stands out: I don’t really know how they are trying to score. And I don’t mean that as a positive, as in, “They have so many options at their disposal.” I’m genuinely not sure what they are trying to do.
They hold onto the puck too long, and they are running it through Mitch Marner, who has zero power-play goals this season. As incredible as he is overall, teams simply don’t respect him, so any time he tries to set up Auston Matthews, Matthews is swarmed and unable to wind up with speed to shoot the way he wants to.
In saying that, I think either you run the power play through Matthews on the half-wall instead of Marner (because he definitely will be respected by opponents), or you have Marner and Matthews flip sides. You have Rielly up top as a lefty feeding a lefty for a one-timer, which works. Otherwise, I’m just not really sure what the plan is even when they do set it up (which is also becoming more and more difficult for them to do consistently).
2. If you’re going to play a kid like Nick Robertson, I think you aren’t doing him or really the team any favours if he’s playing with Pierre Engvall or Scott Sabourin. He’s quite obviously an offensive player, and these aren’t really linemates he’s going to make plays with.
3. I think I like the Alex Galchenyuk experiment on line one and would keep it going a little longer. The bottom line is that if it works, the lineup versatility and depth it creates is just massive for the team. On the next two lines, they can mix and match a combination of Tavares, Nylander, Hyman, Foligno, and Mikheyev. That’s pretty good.
4. I think it actually made the most sense to sit Jason Spezza against Calgary. Keefe mentioned that he was a little banged up, but between him, Simmonds, and Thornton, the one veteran that can clearly make the biggest impact is Spezza. The harsh reality here is that he’s the main vet they need to preserve. Once William Nylander and Nick Foligno are in the lineup, it’s pretty clear all three should be rotating in and out of the lineup.
5. I think the approach to the rest of the season should really be centered around experimenting with different line combinations and resting players where appropriate — try Nylander with Matthews and Marner, split Matthews and Marner at some point, keep moving Hyman around, add Foligno to that mix, and so on. Store some different combinations in your back pocket for playoff time.