It turns out the Leafs might need Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Nick Foligno.
With a few of their key players out of the lineup, the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t able to get the job done against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, losing the game by a final score of 5-2.
Jack Campbell was pulled early for the first time this season, allowing three goals on his first six shots against. David Rittich played admirably in his place, allowing only one goal on 17 shots (plus an empty netter), but it wasn’t enough to slow down the Jets’ rush offense in this game.
To help break down what went wrong, who to blame, and which players actually played well tonight, we’ll go through each player individually – like we always do. Buckle up folks, it’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!
Game Puck: John Tavares (C, #91) — He’s been looking like John Tavares again lately. To start the season, we weren’t seeing him beat his man 1-on-1, make quick plays in transition, or convert on his chances from the slot.
He’s been doing all of those things over the past couple of weeks. It certainly helps when you get some shooting percentage regression in your favour. Much like Taylor Hall, Tavares has been snakebitten this year. More than that, though, it’s the high-skill plays he’s making with the puck that give me confidence he can continue playing at this elite rate.
Here’s a quick look at his goal since I’m sure readers will want to see it.
That’s a heck of a pass by Jason Spezza, but once again, Tavares finds the soft spots in the defense and gets himself open for the high-danger scoring chance. Now that these chances are actually going in, we’re starting to see Toronto’s captain produce at the rate we’ve grown accustomed to seeing throughout his career. He also added an assist on Alex Galchenyuk’s goal, bringing Tavares closer to the point-per-game pace we expect to see from him.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — As we just mentioned, Spezza made a brilliant backdoor pass to get Tavares his 14th goal of the season. On the broadcast, Mike Johnson did a great job breaking down how Spezza did a quick shoulder-check so he could see his open teammate, along with the insane curve on the 37-year-old’s stick that made the scoop pass possible.
Spezza wasn’t as dynamic on the power play tonight, failing to gain the zone with the same efficiency we’ve seen in the past. That said, this is yet another game where he’s created a goal with a high-skill play. I love to bring up the fact that Spezza leads the Leafs in 5v5 Points per 60 this season, but he’s recently been surpassed by Matthews and Mitch Marner.
I guess Spezza will have to settle for third on this team in 5v5 scoring. What a disappointment.
Nick Robertson (LW, #89) — This is more of what I want to see from Nick Robertson. He was making smart passes in all three zones, absolutely firing the puck onto his teammates’ tape.
nick robertson might be the most aggressive passer i've ever seen.
kid puts a lot of mustard on it. not everyone is prepared.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) April 16, 2021
If you’re on the ice with Robertson, have your stick on the ice and be ready. The 20-year-old forward also got a chance to be the primary puck carrier on PP2, where he was somewhat successful, using his shifty little puck-skills to make a move at the line before gaining the zone.
He also picked up a secondary assist on the Tavares goal, but even if that puck doesn’t go in, this was still quite a strong game for Robertson. He didn’t get pushed around in board battles and he completed a high percentage of his passes to move play up the ice.
Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — I know all of us had already traded Kerfoot off of Toronto’s roster in our minds a long time ago, but he’s been sneaky good for them defensively. Despite his smaller stature, he has a knack for getting his stick in the right spot and poking pucks free.
It’s part of what makes him such a good penalty killer. Kerfoot helped force a bunch of turnovers tonight, at 5v5 and on the PK, while chipping in offensively with a few nice passes. His best moment of the night came on a give-and-go sequence with Tavares off the rush, where Kerfoot was able to pass his captain into open ice for a Grade-A scoring chance.
David Rittich (G, #33) — It isn’t easy to come in cold and stop 94.1 percent of the shots that come your way. I know we’re all going to focus on the broken play that Ehlers scored in the third period — we’re Leafs fans, we’re just wired that way — but this was an excellent performance from Rittich.
He had to face some high-quality shots in this game, making big saves on Mark Scheifele and Andrew Copp on breakaways. Part of me wondered if a third-round pick was too much to give up for a goaltender who wasn’t going to see much of the net down the stretch, but Rittich appears to already be paying dividends.
It’s always nice to have an extra body who can stop the puck.
Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — This game was more representative of the Alex Galchenyuk we’ve seen in years past. Let’s quickly go through the pros:
- Completing high-skill plays in transition
- Ripping a few hard one-timers on the PP (one of them hit the post!)
- Converting on his Grade-A chance from in tight
And now, it’s time for the cons:
- He was late to cover for pinching defensemen on multiple occasions
- In particular, he was the player most responsible for the following goal:
With Jake Muzzin pinching down the wall, you need your third forward (F3) to be covering up high. Galchenyuk was late here, which is why the play resulted in a 2-on-1 instead of a 2-on-2.
This won’t come as a shock, but 2-on-1s are bad.
This is a chart from Domenic Galamini Jr. of Stathletes. It’s one I think back to every time I see a forward blow their F3 assignment. When you let the other team get behind you off the rush, you’re not doing yourself any favours. Odd-man rushes are bad.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — Boy, did he ever shoot the puck tonight? The good news is that he tied Zach Hyman for the team lead in shot attempts with nine. The bad news is that more of them were from distance, resulting in an easy save for an NHL goaltender.
I’m torn here, because it’s obviously a good sign when a player like Simmonds is generating shots. He was moving his feet better than we’ve seen recently, getting himself into half-decent shooting positions. The other side of me loses my mind when I see a player take a 2-percent shot into a goalie’s crest — are we sure there isn’t a better play you could’ve worked for there?
With Simmonds, I think we all need to accept that he isn’t going to be converting on the majority of his passes, so machine-gunning pucks towards the net might be the ideal strategy for him.
Frankly, I thought he played pretty well by his recent standards. It’s obvious that the 41-year-old veteran could use a rest at this point in the season, but if we’re objectively evaluating his play, he was still completing passes that had a high degree of difficulty. He was also winning pucks back in the offensive zone by throwing his weight around and getting his stick on the loose puck to keep the cycle going.
Even on the power play, I liked the way he worked his way out of the corner with Robertson along the half-wall. I’ve never liked the idea of Thornton in the bumper role, but along the perimeter of a second-unit power play, his passing still has a lot of value.
The Puck-Hounds — We’re going to group Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman together tonight. Both players put on their hard-hats along the boards and went to work, using their strength to get body position and win pucks back. Offensively, they weren’t able to create too much, although Mikheyev did have a few nice moments with the puck in transition.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — Sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that Morgan Rielly is Toronto’s best puck-mover. Going through some of Corey Sznajder’s manually tracked data this season, he leads the team in successful breakouts with possession despite maintaining a low turnover rate. It puts him in the same tier of puck-movers like Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, and Roman Josi.
This was something I kept thinking tonight when I watched Rielly go back on loose pucks. He’s obviously a flawed player, which we’ve outlined countless times in these report cards, but his ability to get play going up the ice with consistency (from DZ to OZ) is an extremely valuable one for NHL defensemen. In his 24.5 minutes tonight, this is what Rielly accomplished best, although there were a few iffy moments when defending the rush.
The Dermott-Bogosian Pair — Their numbers were excellent at 5v5, although it’s difficult for me to recall too many plays they made that made a significant impact on the game. Sometimes that’s hockey; it’s the little things that can make a big difference. For example, Travis Dermott moving the puck up the ice with confidence, including a couple of nice plays after crossing the blueline.
Or what about Zach Bogosian getting down to block a one-timer off of an east-west pass? Sometimes I think we tend to overrate the importance of shot blocking, but when you’re preventing a Grade-A scoring chance, that has big-time value. Bogosian was also strong on the penalty kill, except for the one he wasn’t able to participate in thanks to a cross-checking penalty, where Ehlers scored six seconds into the power play.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — His D pairing was on the ice for multiple goals against tonight, but if you go back and watch the tape, I’m not sure if you can blame either on Holl. Toronto’s forwards weren’t covering for either pinch that resulted in a 2-on-1; Galchenyuk on the Muzzin pinch and Marner on the Holl pinch. Both plays directly resulted in a goal for Winnipeg.
It’s easy to blame a defenseman when you see an odd-man rush; the camera usually pans to the guy who pinched. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in hockey. If the five skaters on the ice were playing with better structure, particularly the third forward, we wouldn’t even be talking about these chances — because they wouldn’t have happened.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — As “smooth” as he’s been this year, I didn’t love tonight’s game from Brodie. He was solid defensively, as always, but he struggled to complete passes at important moments. For example, he walked into the slot at one point and failed to see an open teammate nearby for a one-timer, instead forcing a puck through traffic that effectively ended the possession for Toronto.
I remain a Brodie truther on the defensive side of the puck, but there’s a reason he’s been pulled off of Toronto second PP unit. In the offensive zone with the puck on his stick, he actually hasn’t been able to accomplish too much this season, which is weird considering he’s had a few 40+ point seasons in the past. Maybe it’s simply a byproduct of playing with Rielly; Brodie needs to focus his energy on being the last man back defensively.
Coaching Staff — I loved Sheldon Keefe’s timeout when Toronto drew another penalty to go on a 5-on-3 for 1:11. Too often we see NHL head coaches end the game with a bullet in their chamber. When you have a chance to maximize your team’s chances of scoring a goal, why not use it?
Now, we do have to bring up the power play. I hate talking about it just as much as you hate reading about it, but they’re still having trouble gaining the zone at 5v4 and setting up in formation. It’s obviously going to help when they get Matthews and Nylander back into the lineup, but I do wonder if diversifying their tactics is something they need to seriously reconsider.
If Toronto’s power-play coach, Manny Malhotra, can’t get things clicking soon, you’ve got to think his job security is in serious jeopardy. My two cents: put your best five players on the ice and create some faster puck movement in the offensive zone.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — Yeesh.
Marner is having a career year defensively, but this was a rough night for him on that side of the puck. I’d argue he was single-handedly responsible for two goals against. The Nik Ehlers goal is an obvious one.
That’s a bad look.
Earlier in the game, Marner had a Galchenyuk moment as the third forward (F3) failing to cover for his pinching defenseman. The end result: another breakaway goal.
Marner actually made a few great plays in this game, both with the puck and without it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make up for the two goals he played a major part in allowing.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — Much like Marner, you could shift a lot of the blame to Muzzin for a few of those. Was it the right time to pinch on the Kyle Connor goal? Should he have been able to recover on the Mark Scheifele breakaway?
Even if you come up with a good defense for Muzzin on those plays, he started the second period with another blooper, tumbling to the ice as Scheifele skated the other way for another breakaway.
This just wasn’t Muzzin’s night.
The Unnoticeables — Is that a word? Well, we’re making it one. Adam Brooks played 8.4 minutes of hockey tonight and made exactly zero memorable plays with the puck. In a similar vein, Pierre Engvall was very quiet defensively.
Pierre Engvall tip toeing into the corner like it's 3am and he doesn't want to wake up the rest of the house.
— Michael Amato (@amato_mike) April 16, 2021
When you combine this with bad turnovers in the neutral zone and poor shot selection (a 50-footer into a shin pad on a 3-on-2), I’m starting to get the sense that Engvall won’t be lasting long in the Leafs lineup if he keeps playing like this.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — There’s no way around this: he didn’t play very well. Every NHL goaltender has a night or two every season where they get pulled early, even Vezina candidates. Knowing how hard Jack Campbell is on himself after losses, I’d like to see him forgive himself for an off-night and put it in the rearview mirror.
Burn the tape, Soupy. Tonight didn’t happen.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
After adjusting for score effects, which kicked in big-time for the third period, Toronto controlled 51 percent of the shots and only 48 percent of the scoring chances at 5v5. It was closer than the score made it look, but the Leafs’ power play and goaltending cost them tonight.
Tweets of the Night
This has to be the world record for players in a crease pic.twitter.com/EDcudrqoI6
— Jed (@Jedidiah412) April 16, 2021
When everyone on the ice plays like Zach Hyman.
Leafs last 20 games, some tough numbers from depth forwards:
Engvall 4 points
Simmonds 3 points
Thornton 1 point
Combine that with the PP struggles (under 5 percent!) and Leafs have been very average offensively in this stretch.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 16, 2021
Two of these players will be coming out of the lineup when William Nylander and Nick Foligno join the squad next week. As of right now, my best guess is Engvall and Thornton.
Taylor Hall has had more breakaways than any player in the NHL in the last 2 seasons. Hasn't scored on any of them. If he gets one tonight, I say he scores. High glove. pic.twitter.com/AYFunCmbsU
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) April 13, 2021
He got one tonight. He scored.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I haven’t been writing these Leafs Report Cards at The Athletic this season. The pandemic hit the sports media industry pretty hard, especially freelance writers like myself. A lot of us were let go by the major publications.
It isn’t something I love talking about because I honestly don’t know what to say at times. My biggest focus this season has been to keep getting better at these post-game evaluations.
The reason I bring this all up is because my buddy Omar will officially be taking over the Leafs Report Cards at The Athletic moving forward and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a genuinely awesome human being — and a terrible NHL 21 player. What he lacks in zone entries, he makes up for with A+ GIF content on Twitter.
I’m really looking forward to comparing my grades to his for the remainder of the season. Let’s see what you’ve got, Omar!