Let the load management begin!

After locking up a playoff spot, the Leafs have started to rest some of their key players. Healthy scratches included Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Nick Foligno, and Jack Campbell. Despite those changes to the lineup, Toronto still managed to run over Vancouver at 5v5, eventually winning the game 4-1.

This last stretch of the season can be a tough one to watch sometimes, but the strong play from some of Toronto’s younger players actually got me more excited tonight than your typical Thursday night Leafs game. Maybe it’s because I’m an obsessed hockey nerd who loves evaluating the new shiny toy, but I think that describes a lot of us.

In our attempt to break down some of those shiny new toys, let’s go through each player individually. It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!

5 Stars

Game Puck: Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — This was an excellent opportunity for Sandin to showcase what he could accomplish on the top pair with TJ Brodie. He dominated play at 5v5 thanks in large part to his composure with the puck.

He’s unfazed by oncoming forecheckers, calmly stick-handling his way around poke checks before threading a pass up the ice. Sandin was also opportunistic offensively, jumping up to aid the attack when the opportunity presented itself.

By the end of the night, Sandin’s pairing outscored their opponents by two goals, outshot them by 13, and out-chanced them by 11 at even strength. It’s only one game, but that’s one heck of an audition for a role a lot of us could see him filling next season.

To wrap things up on him defensively, his tight gap in transition forced a lot of dump-ins, which allowed the Leafs to go back on loose pucks and quickly move play up the ice. When Sandin was forced to defend in his own end, there were a few 50-50 battles where he came out on the losing end, but he didn’t get burned positionally in front of the net.

Auston Matthews (C, #34) — He was buzzing tonight offensively, generating chances at an absurd rate right from the get go. Somehow Matthews only finished the game with one goal, which sounds crazy, but keep in mind he fired 12 pucks at the net, nine of them from the slot.

Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — The best passers in pro sports are able to complete passes everyone knows you want to make. Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin, and in this game, Mitch Marner to Auston Matthews on a 2-on-1.

Here’s the footage from Jeff O’Neill’s video breakdown of the play on TSN.

That’s just beautiful hockey.

As dominant as Matthews was tonight, he doesn’t generate all those chances without some of Marner’s nice dimes to him in the offensive zone. All right, that 1v1 spin-o-rama was all #34, but we should acknowledge the fact that #16 was getting the puck on his tape in some good shooting spots.

Marner also generated some of his own offense, finishing second to Matthews in both shots and scoring chances.

Timothy Liljegren (RD, #37) — That’s about as impressive as it gets in the neutral zone.

I counted three or four times where Liljegren decked an opposing forward before they could get to the red line, killing the rush and securing possession for his team. Now, his puck-moving wasn’t as dynamic as we’ve seen at the AHL level, although he did rip a few stretch passes, which is something he loves to do.

The bigger takeaway for me was just how physical Liljegren was at closing the gap in the neutral zone and separating Vancouver forwards from the puck. You’ll hear some polarizing opinions on Liljegren’s skating, but if I’m just evaluating this one game, he was damn-near perfect in transition defense.

4 Stars

Brooks-Spezza — This has been a successful fourth-line combination. Tonight, they played with Pierre Engvall instead of Joe Thornton and still managed to dominate possession at 5v5. They were living in the offensive zone, using their passing ability to space the ice.

I can’t get over how well Adam Brooks has looked lately. He does such a good job of playing high in the offensive zone, staying above his man while providing an outlet for his linemates. With the way he and Jason Spezza zip the puck around, opposing defenses can’t stop their quick puck movement.

Oh yeah, Spezza moved ahead of Rocket Richard on the all-time points list with his assist on the Engvall goal.

TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — This might be the most composed I’ve ever seen two Leafs defensemen with the puck. By now, most of us know how smooth Brodie’s game is, but it stood out to me just how poised the Sandin-Brodie combination looked with the puck compared to the reckless abandon we see when Rielly is forcing plays north.

It says a lot that Sandin was able to seamlessly step onto Toronto’s top pair and not miss a beat. That probably doesn’t happen without Brodie settling things down for him defensively. They played so well that I’m hoping we get to see this experiment again — it looks like the top pair of the future.

Pierre Engvall (LW, #47) — I’m happy for Engvall. If anyone needed a goal from distance, it was him. Now, Braden Holtby probably should’ve had that one, but we can still give Engvall credit for finishing the night with three shot attempts and three scoring chances.

That said, I doubt tonight’s game does much to change Sheldon Keefe’s opinion of him heading into the playoffs.

Coaching Staff — It’s never made sense to me why NHL teams don’t rest their players the same way we’ve seen other major sports leagues “load manage” their best players. Kudos to Keefe & Co. for listening to the sports science department, who you have to imagine have been screaming “rest your players!” for years now.

If we’re evaluating lineup decisions, I don’t think it was a coincidence Sandin was in Rielly’s spot tonight. It was cool to see Toronto experiment with that tonight and even cooler to see it work so well.

3 Stars

Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — Speaking of lineup decisions, the fact that Dermott was still on the de facto third pair suggests to me that he isn’t in their long-term plans. Getting back to tonight’s game, he and Liljegren did a phenomenal job of gapping up in the neutral zone, although it was mostly Timoth killing plays at center ice.

The good news for Dermott is that he looked great on the penalty kill, clearing the zone twice with quick backhanders down the ice, and blocking a pass through the middle of the ice. I doubt he plays over a healthy Zach Bogosian in the playoffs, but at least he’s proving he can handle PK2 duties in the meantime.

Tavares-Nylander — On a night when Toronto obliterated Vancouver at 5v5, these two didn’t. That isn’t to say they played poorly — John Tavares actually looked much better defensively than last night — we’ve just come to expect a lot from these two.

William Nylander had a few great sequences where he transported the puck from the DZ to OZ, but the Leafs still got outplayed when he was on the ice. I’d lean towards 2/5 Stars for him on a night like this, but he also created a goal out of nothing.

That has to be worth something, so we’ll stick 3/5 for him in this game.

Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — As Marner broke down in his intermission interview, Jumbo Joe does a great job of staying “above the puck” defensively and “below the puck” in the offensive zone. Those are valuable traits that work anywhere in the lineup. It also helps explain why the Matthews-Marner line controls possession so well when they play with Thornton.

Realistically, we all expect Hyman to take that spot when he returns, but it’s nice knowing the Leafs have some options there if they want to throw out some different looks in the playoffs.

David Rittich (G, #33) — He didn’t have to do too much tonight. The defense in front of him only allowed 16 shots on net, none of which appeared to be super dangerous. The only goal they allowed was on a rebound that bounced off Rittich’s glove.

We’ll give him a bit of credit for the other 15 saves he made, but if we’re being honest, Michael Hutchinson probably could’ve picked up the win tonight with the way Toronto was playing.

2 Stars

Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — Despite his nifty pass on the Nylander goal, I’m growing concerned with Galchenyuk’s overall game at 5v5. This was another night where the Leafs got shelled with him on the ice, despite the fact that he’s playing with great linemates.

We have a decent sample of him yielding positive results with Toronto’s top six, so I don’t want to rush to the conclusion that he’s suddenly become a bad hockey player. At the same time, it feels like we’re watching him play himself out of the playoff lineup with his last few games, which is disappointing considering how good he looked initially.

Mikheyev-Simmonds — Since I’m doing so many duos tonight, let’s stick these two together. After all, they have been playing together quite frequently lately.

Wayne Simmonds fought Alexander Edler in response to the Zach Hyman hit from a few weeks ago. Unsurprisingly, he won the scrap. Unfortunately, he didn’t play very well at even strength the rest of the way, failing to make plays up the ice.

His linemate, Ilya Mikheyev, had one of the most Ilya Mikheyev games I’ve seen. The Soupman was disruptive defensively, forcing pucks loose. The issue is that he was disruptive to his own team’s offense, with plays dying on his stick constantly. For example, he missed a wide-open Alex Kerfoot on a 2-on-1.

His penalty kill value is so significant that he probably remains a regular in the lineup, but it’s become frustrating to watch so many potential scoring chances turn into nothing. At some point that matters, even if you’re a good defensive player.

1 Star

Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — He caught Holtby napping in the last minute of the game, but apart from that, this was another game where the Kerfoot line got severely outplayed at 5v5.

He’s great at using his speed to weave through the neutral zone, but most of those rushes result in a dump-in right after crossing the blue line. I try to be objective with these evaluations, so when a player consistently gets out-chanced at even strength, you know I’m not being biased when I say, “This isn’t good enough.”

Frankly, I’m not sure why Kerfoot is considered a lock for the playoff roster. Based on his performance at 5v5 this season, he should be on the outside looking in.

The Hutton-Holl Pair — Yikes.

Poor Justin Holl has been having some rough nights lately. Ben Hutton is a #6 defenseman who can only really pull off low-risk passes to his partner. That puts Holl in a position where he needs to be “the guy” on his pairing, and he wasn’t able to live up to that tonight, turning way too many pucks over in the DZ.

Hutton did his job more or less, boxing out in front of the net, playing a decent gap in transition, and not trying to do too much with the puck. This just wasn’t a great night to be a complementary partner.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

That’s one of the more lopsided heat maps we’ve seen this season. The Leafs controlled 60 percent of the shots and over 71 percent of the expected goals at 5v5.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single-game performance. You can read more about it here.

Tweets of the Night

Sick zoneys bro.

My zone entries per 60 are pretty #elite in NHL 21, but even I’m not getting past a neutral zone brick wall. Liljegren was awesome in that department tonight.

The next time you see a Mikheyev 2-on-1, just go crack open another beer. You’re not going to miss anything important.

These are my kind of analytics.

But in all seriousness, if you want to use stats in a way to help improve your evaluation of a player, particularly on the defensive side of the puck, I’d highly recommend checking out this article.

Final Thought

With the season winding down, it’s becoming clear that there are some battles for roster spots at the bottom of Toronto’s lineup. To give us an idea of where the forwards stack up against one another, here’s my best attempt at ranking the Leafs’ depth chart up front.

  1. Matthews
  2. Marner
  3. Tavares
  4. Nylander
  5. Hyman
  6. Foligno
  7. Spezza
  8. Thornton
  9. Simmonds
  10. Mikheyev
  11. Kerfoot
  12. Riley Nash?
  13. Galchenyuk?
  14. Brooks?
  15. Engvall
  16. Robertson

I spent way too much time wrestling with this list before the game, so here was my thinking: #1 and #2 are pretty clear. You could make a good case for Hyman at #3 over Tavares and Nylander this year (higher average Game Score and WAR in 2021).

Those top nine are not coming out of the lineup in a playoff series, if healthy. You could argue based on 5v5 performance that this shouldn’t be the case, but let’s be honest with ourselves. If the Leafs haven’t healthy scratched Thornton and Simmonds yet, it’s unlikely to happen in the playoffs.

10 through 14 are interchangeable for me, which makes this so interesting. I can’t wait to see how things unfold over the next week or two!

Final Grade: A+