After the Toronto Maple Leafs emphatically declared that they are going for it this season at the trade deadline (rightfully so), the attention turned back to the actual hockey, and the team responded with an 0-3-2 run.
It was a tough stretch to swallow following the hype of the deadline, but the Leafs did steady the ship with a two-game sweep against the Winnipeg Jets that all but won them the North Division (they have the biggest lead of any first-place team right now).
What was particularly interesting about the slump was some of the criticism that came out during that time, particularly towards the General Manager. Kyle Dubas is a natural target seeing as he oversees the construction of the team and takes a large share of the responsibility for the team’s acquisitions. In this case, though, it was a little confounding.
He acquired an impact forward, a depth defenseman, and goalie insurance, along with a potential depth forward for the playoffs. If you consider Alex Galchenyuk a part of the overall haul, that’s another depth forward/secondary scorer as well.
That was essentially the team’s full list of needs, so really, this is on the players and the coaching staff the rest of the way.
The Leafs‘ power play has been awful for over a month and now ranks 10th overall. If the argument is that Dubas needed to acquire a power-play player to help them even though they already have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, I’m not sure we’re asking the right question there. Really, this is on coaching and player execution.
Their penalty kill is ranked 26th this season, and while at times it has been valid to pin it on goaltending — their expected goals against per 60 is slightly better than Vegas’, who is first in the league in penalty-kill percentage this season — they also really struggle at taking away the opposition’s primary power-play options, often allowing attackers to walk in for free shots, particularly off of the half wall. Again, special teams, in particular, come down to coaching and player execution.
At forward, by my count, the Leafs are at least 14 forward deep — 15 if you include Adam Brooks, 16 if you include Riley Nash. They have stars, they have role players, and they have veterans. On paper, it’s a group that should really be able to win any which way.
On defense, they are at least eight deep — nine if you include Martin Marincin, and 10 if you include Timothy Liljegren. They have four legitimate top-four defensemen and two young blueliners who can likely play more in the right situation.
Really, it’s up to the players and the coaching staff to make this work. They have as easy a division as a team can get in the league in this day and age. Whoever gets to the final four from the Canadian division might be in for a rude awakening, but until then, it’s all on the table for this group, and the GM essentially exhausted every avenue he could with the core — and the limited flexibility their contracts bring — in place.
You need a lot of things to go right in the playoffs to win — including some luck — but the main core of this team is currently 0/4 in the playoffs. At some point, it is simply on them to prove they can actually make some noise in the postseason. That time is now.
– The first two games for Nick Foligno included two assists, three shots on goal, 16:12 in TOI the first game, and 17:02 TOI in the next. He also logged 1:27 and 3:22 shorthanded with no power-play time. He has generally come as advertised, but you could also see signs that he’s overthinking things a little bit.
With a one-goal lead at the end of the first game, before he picked up the empty-net assist, he was hesitating about whether to go to the point or cover Kyle Connor — and his lethal one-timer — on the half-wall (as the winger there, it is absolutely Connor that he should be covering). After Connor was stopped on the one-timer and a faceoff followed, you could see Foligno signaling to the bench, asking where exactly he should be going.
It’s part of the learning curve, but you can see he’s thinking a bit too much instead of simply playing. In his first game, he was also cheating to the middle defensively in the Leafs‘ end as if he was the centerman on the line. Some of this naturally takes time to sort out on a new team — and he will figure it out.
– One interesting thing Foligno does on the penalty kill that I’ve never really seen before: He switches which hand is holding the stick in order to increase his reach. His right hand is the natural hand to have at the top of his stick as a left-handed shooter, but he switches the stick to his left hand (traditionally your bottom hand) so that he can hold his stick out further:
– Alex Galchenyuk played just 11:45 in the last game against the Jets — his lowest time on ice since March 27 — as he has struggled of late. He was late on a backcheck in that game leading to the Jets’ opening goal, and he took a holding penalty later on in that period.
In his last five games, he has been a minus-two three times and a minus-one in the other two games. He scored in the first game of that stretch, but he is pointless in his last four, putting him at eight points in 26 games even though he has spent a large chunk of time alongside either Matthews or Tavares. He cashed in early on his opportunity and has been a nice story, but he’s not sustaining it at this point.
– In the game that Zach Bogosian got hurt, Morgan Rielly picked up the penalty-killing time, but since then, it has been Travis Dermott. Dermott played 34 seconds there the next game (the Leafs only had two penalties) and 1:36 there the following game — both of those PK TOI totals were fourth among the defense behind Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin, and TJ Brodie.
It appears the plan will be for Dermott to assume that (secondary) role while Muzzin and Holl eat up the top penalty-killing minutes and Sandin takes Muzzin’s power-play time to balance out the minutes a bit.
– Perhaps it was just a blip in ice time — he was back up over 23 minutes on the night the following game — but Morgan Rielly’s 20:17 of ice time in the first game against the Jets tied his second-lowest time on ice for the season. Whether carrying the puck or joining the rush, he hasn’t been particularly dynamic or pushing the puck much offensively. He has three points in his last 10 games with 14 shots on net in that time.
“He holds himself to such a high standard. But we tell him we win as a team and we lose as a team.”
– Auston Matthews on Jack Campbell being hard on himself
“I’ve learned being a little too hard on myself isn’t necessarily the best thing… You do go through highs and lows. You’ve just got to manage it. That’s something I’ve learned, too, along the way.”
– Jack Campbell on being too hard on himself
We spoke about this last week, so it’s only natural to follow up here – Jack Campbell is really working at this. It appears the team recognizes how things can snowball, too, and they are making an effort to help support him. The talent is not in question here.
In the first game against the Jets, he did not look particularly comfortable to start the game, but he battled and in the third period he made a huge breakaway save on Pierre-Luc Dubois to preserve the lead at 4-3.
In the next game, he stopped Mathieu Perreault on a mini-breakaway to keep the score at 3-1 about halfway through the game. Good on him.
“I just think it is a really good sign for our team that things are different. It is a different time of year. We are really gearing up here as a group. There has been a switch that has flipped a little bit here for Joe in the last few weeks. He is bringing more fire, competitively, on the ice, in the dressing room, and on the bench.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the intensity of Joe Thornton against Winnipeg
I can’t imagine the games before the Winnipeg series sat well with anyone — the 0-3-2 record included some particularly frustrating losses, losing Bogosian to injury, losing Hyman to injury (and basically zero response after he was injured), the power play remaining in shambles, and suddenly, goaltending was in question, too.
The veterans aren’t really able to bring it every night at this point in their careers, but they do have a sense of occasion and urgency. It really came through from all of Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds against Winnipeg (and I should note that John Tavares stayed hot and is playing great hockey right now in general). Their intensity was up, Simmonds went after Dubois after he whacked the goalie, Thornton was all over Ehlers, and all three scored against Winnipeg.
“I feel stronger overall. I have a little bit more pop overall in my legs during the whole game. I don’t feel that I get tired as quick as I did before. Down in the corners, I think I can battle and handle guys a lot better than I could last year.”
– Rasmus Sandin on how he’s feeling this season compared to last
The Blake Wheeler hit rightfully received a ton of attention — Rasmus Sandin flattened the Jets captain. In the game before, it didn’t get nearly the same amount of attention because he just missed, but he took a healthy run at Mason Appleton as he was entering the zone. If he connected, it would have been quite the hit.
Sandin’s confidence looks way up, and he is not at all afraid to initiate physically even though he’s only listed at 5’11. Sandin just turned 21 in March — he has plenty of time — but he’s starting to hit that age where defensemen break into the league, and he’s looking good in the process. There will be growing pains, but you have to admire that he’s trying to push the play, either by making plays with the puck or by taking the body.
One other thing: He has a nice little move where he goes to retrieve the puck on a dump-in and fakes out forecheckers by dipping his shoulder and swinging his stick one way before turning the other way with the puck.
Tweets of the Week
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 22, 2021
Pretty, pretty cool. Sandin mentioned that Nick Foligno gave the team a little pregame speech before his first game as well. I wrote about his actual game above in the notes, but I think he simply needs to settle in and get past all the “I’m a Leaf” sentimental feelings.
#Leafs final regular season game is May 14 … three weeks from today. Depending on when playoffs start & the progress Bogosian makes in rehab, could he be back by the mid- to end of the first round? https://t.co/bVvrYSIorF
— Mike Zeisberger (@Zeisberger) April 23, 2021
This is why the Leafs acquired depth on defense, but the injury is still a bummer. Zach Bogosian was a really steady player for the Leafs this season — he simply gave them good shifts where you didn’t have to worry very much. He was never going to score much, but he helped to solidify the bottom portion of the roster, and it makes the top players’ lives easier when they don’t have to go out and actively make up for the bottom of the roster.
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) April 20, 2021
Congrats to Patrick Marleau on becoming the all-time games played leader in the league. No matter how you slice it, it really is an incredible accomplishment. I wanted to share the video below as well. It’s just so pure and an incredible reminder of how great this game is.
Marleau got emotional when talking about his love for the game 😢 pic.twitter.com/6jZGQY7vgw
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) April 20, 2021
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think a good chunk of the next five or so games should be about rest and experimentation. The rest part is obvious – they have some breathing room at the top of the division, and players need to be healthy and at their best for the playoffs. The experimentation speaks to working guys into the lineup (Foligno, Sandin, etc.), as well as trying out some different line combinations.
2. I think the Leafs can both do that and also look at their remaining schedule, with four coming against Montreal, as an opportunity to treat it as a little playoff series. Montreal is fighting for a playoff spot right now — they will have some desperation to them — and the Leafs have a legitimate chance to either send them packing by the time the season ends or simply establish some dominance prior to playing them in the playoffs. I hope they approach it properly.
3. I still think the thing I’d like to see tried a little bit is William Nylander at center. The simple fact of the matter is that if either of the Leafs’ top two centers go down injured, the options are basically Alex Kerfoot (who has been the guy they’ve moved up when it’s happened so far) or… Nick Foligno? Last year, in Game 5, Sheldon Keefe had no problem moving Nylander to center for a do-or-die game. Why not just give him some reps now when the games don’t have nearly the same pressure?
4. I think the Leafs’ power play will be fine, and I’d just leave the top guys together on it because they showed some signs of life. It’s going to click soon. We talked about it strategically last week, and the main points remain true – they need a counter for teams loading up on Matthews, and part of that should really include a down-low play with either a one-touch to the player in the bumper role or a backdoor play to the backside forward. They have started incorporating that more in the past few games. That’s a great sign.
5. I think it makes sense to give David Rittich the start in the second half of the back-to-back on Thursday (Leafs play the Canucks after playing Montreal the night before). Beyond that, I’m not sure if there are any games where you’d actively choose to start Rittich. Ideally, the Leafs find a way to get Frederik Andersen a start or two before the season ends. By all indications, he should be back by playoffs, and if they need to switch it up, your options would be an ice-cold Andersen or Rittich. You don’t feel great about either of those.