With five games remaining in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are on a five-game winning streak and sit nine points clear of the second-place Edmonton Oilers at the top of the North Division (the Oilers do have two games in hand).
Life is good in Leafs Nation.
The team is now ramping up for the playoffs, so we will do the same in this space with an extended notes edition of the Leafs Notebook.
– Last Wednesday, it was nice to see the Leafs come out with a purpose and build an early lead against a clearly diminished and tired Habs team. This is a criticism we’ve had of them in the past: going through the motions against an inferior opponent and needing a big third period to save them from a situation they should never have been in.
What they did against the Habs – and have done against a number of teams throughout this season – is what good teams do: They suck the life out of the game early, build a lead, and coast through the end of the game.
– With injuries and bodies shuffling in and out on defense, Travis Dermott has seen his time on ice trend up in the past few games, playing 16:52, 17:19, and 15:58 in the last three, well above his season average of 13:01 on the season. Rasmus Sandin had to leave the last game for a spell due to injury, but in the previous two games, he played 21:39 and 18 minutes.
It’s only a few games, but it definitely already feels like Sandin has passed Dermott in the depth chart. Dermott has generally been stapled to the third pairing, while Sandin is getting matchups against the likes of Bo Horvat and Tyler Toffoli of late.
– The Leafs are also reducing the workload of their stars. For the first time this season, Mitch Marner played less than 20 minutes two games in a row. In fact, he actually played under 19 minutes in each of the two games against Vancouver, including a season-low 17:37. Auston Matthews has played under 20 minutes in three straight games now, including a season-low 15:52 in the last game against Vancouver.
– The score was 4-1 — take it with a massive grain of salt — but the Leafs once again turned to Alex Kerfoot – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner with the other team’s net empty. Zach Hyman is out injured, and the game was likely out of reach no matter what they did, but this is a line they have put on multiple times in these scenarios. It would be a practice opportunity for this line to play in a 6v5 scenario.
– Speaking of Alex Kerfoot, there is a bit of a battle for the fourth forward spot on the penalty kill occurring right now. Based on their play and time on ice there all season, one would assume Marner, Hyman, and Ilya Mikheyev are all going to play big roles on the penalty kill. That leaves Kerfoot and Nick Foligno battling out for the final (regular) spot.
In the game against Montreal, Foligno played more than Kerfoot on the penalty kill. In the game against Vancouver, Kerfoot played slightly more. When Hyman returns, he is used to playing alongside Marner, while Foligno has no familiarity with Mikheyev and Kerfoot does. Since acquiring Foligno, the Leafs are 9/10 on the penalty kill – the one goal they gave up came in the game Foligno did not play.
– I mentioned on the podcast last week that I did not think the Leafs offered much of a response to the Alex Edler hit that knocked Zach Hyman out of the lineup, including the lacklustre power-play effort that followed. It was not surprising that there was a response the next time Edler was in the lineup against them, but it did become a surprisingly big story that Wayne Simmonds fought a much less experienced fighter.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but Edler absolutely tried to line up Hyman for a big hit – he almost certainly had no intent to knee him specifically, but he intended to step up on that play and land a big hit of some kind. That part was no accident. And now the Leafs are missing one of their better players for weeks, so it’s understandable why they might not take kindly to it.
– The goal by Vancouver off of a faceoff received a ton of attention, with the camera immediately panning to John Tavares because he lost said faceoff. It appeared to be much ado about nothing. It was a shot from the boards that went far side and in – that’s not a good NHL goal.
It was interesting to see Sheldon Keefe talking to Tavares on the bench afterward. Most centers are told to tie up their opponent if they lose the draw, which is actually exactly what Tavares did. Vancouver had their wingers criss-cross after the faceoff, so Pearson (who scored) lined up on the inside hashmark and immediately cut across. The Leafs defenders did not hand off responsibilities properly at all, which is why Pearson had so much time and space.
– The Mitch Marner pass to William Nylander for a tap-in on the power play is something we have not seen a ton of the past few months. Teams have been daring Marner to shoot and blocking passing lanes. What was evident on that play is that if you get the opposing PK to load up on the Auston Matthews side — as they almost always will — and then work it to Marner for a quick decision, that is when Marner is most dangerous, as opposed to running the power play through him and hoping the seams open up for him to thread passes through.
The Leafs have definitely been mixing in different plays to help jumpstart their power play. It is starting to come together.
“I appreciate that he bailed out Nick Foligno for forcing a puck into the middle of the ice. That could have been a real bad turnover for us, and [Matthews] picked it off, turned it into a goal. To be honest, I still can’t say that I’ve seen it as I was not very impressed with the play before that. But I’m happy it worked out for us.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews’ highlight-reel goal vs. Montreal
The pass was risky, but I was surprised Keefe took a question about the highlight-reel goal as an opportunity to criticize Nick Foligno. I watched the goal back a few times; the Habs had three defenders in a line, while the Leafs had a defender that was way back on the play (likely around center ice) and two additional trailers.
Should Foligno be attempting to throw a saucer pass across the zone through multiple defenders? No, but was this really going to turn into a dangerous scoring chance/odd-man rush for the Habs? Probably not.
“Last year, we were very up and down and weren’t good enough away from the puck to have the type of success that we wanted to have. And I think [Keefe] really challenged me, as the captain and a key member of the group, to really set the right example from that aspect. It’s always challenging [when you don’t score], but you really just try to not focus on the results, even though sometimes you’d like to see it pay off more often or sooner. It’s just continuing to stick with that.”
– John Tavares on being defensively responsible, something Sheldon Keefe has challenged him to do
Early on this season, I noted how John Tavares was closing out games for the Leafs and being leaned on defensively in tough matchups/drawing players away from Matthews. He took quite a few lumps in the media for a bit (“why is his production down!”), but he quietly went about his business and his production has now evened out (up to 46 points in 51 games in what is apparently a “down” year).
I mentioned this at the start of the season, and it holds true now: Ultimately, rightly or wrongly, Tavares is going to be judged on what he does in the playoffs.
“I mean, he’s always like that in the locker room. But to see him out there on the ice get animated, get into it with guys — he’s playing pretty physical out there as well. I think that when you see a guy like that going and doing those little things, it kinda spurs the group on to push a little extra as well.”
-Alex Kerfoot on Joe Thornton
Before April 1, Joe Thornton was credited with five hits in 24 games. Since April 1, he has 24 recorded hits in 15 games. There is no denying that he has been much more engaged physically.
We have talked a lot about sitting Thornton and resting him from time to time in this space — and the Leafs have been loath to go down this path — but he is on a five-game point streak and is giving them little choice at the moment.
Usually, teams have center-wing “pairs” that make up their lines, but the Leafs might have a pair on the fourth line consisting of two wingers in Thornton and Spezza.
Tweets of the Week
Bit of food for thought regarding the Nylander/Tavares/Galchenyuk line. pic.twitter.com/irVp0y4w2h
— draglikepull (@draglikepull) May 2, 2021
I mentioned that Alex Galchenyuk was struggling last week. In saying that, that might have been a sneaky big goal for him against Vancouver. He needs to produce while Hyman is out. Once Hyman returns, if the rest of the team is relatively healthy, his fit on the roster is somewhat unclear.
Galchenyuk has now played 21 games as a Leaf and nearly 600 games in the league. He kind of is what he is at this point. He can play alongside talented players in spurts and provide a shot in the arm, but he still hasn’t shown he is a long-term, sustainable solution (as a top-six scorer).
It's amazing how Jason Spezza can spend 11 years with Ottawa but will ultimately go down as a #Leafs legend.
— Ahmed (@TheLeafsKid) April 29, 2021
Years ago, I remember watching Mats Sundin in a Canucks jersey when the Leafs were horrible. It sucks as a fan. At that same time, back then, Jason Spezza was crushing the Leafs regularly. In 65 career games against Toronto, he has 58 points — the only two teams he has recorded more points against in his career are the Habs and Sabres.
It’s kind of amazing how things come full circle. He was drafted second overall by the Senators, centered one of the best lines in the league there for a number of seasons (as one of the best centers in the league), plus he helped led them to the Stanley Cup Finals. Short of a memorable playoff run that ends in lifting a trophy, I still think he’ll always be a Sen, and that’s fine. This is a hell of a final act in his career, though.
Best goal scorer in the world. Ovechkin can hand over the crown at the NHL Awards.
— Bryan Hayes (@HayesTSN) May 1, 2021
Alex Ovechkin is still very, very good, but it does seem as though a passing of the torch is occurring. Auston Matthews has been a stud goal scorer since entering the league, so this isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere (nor is it due to playing in a bad division), but he just continues to add to his game.
One little wrinkle Matthews has added is using wraparounds to sweep the puck to the far post on goalies. More generally, he is using the net to create space and coming out from behind it to shoot the puck in various ways, such as in this goal against Montreal earlier this season:
If you go back and watch his entire 40-goal season as a rookie, Matthews didn’t score a single goal like that.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would pump the brakes on the Adam Brooks hype. He does have four goals and five points in eight games, but he is shooting over 57% and his PDO is over 113. As a depth player, he regularly receives the weakest matchups — of late, those matchups have included playing against the depth lines of the Habs, Canucks, and Jets. It’s not exactly a case of Brooks producing at a sustainable rate against reasonable players (against the Canucks, Brooks played most against Travis Boyd, Zack MacEwen, Jimmy Vesey, and Matthew Highmore).
For Brooks’ future, this is a promising stretch – in particular, his skating appears to have improved – but reading between the lines, it’s a bit premature to say he has already claimed a playoff lineup spot.
2. I do think the early success of Adam Brooks and the previous success of Pierre Engvall is a good reminder that players need to be put into the roles they’re suited for next to linemates that will complement their games (we noted this when Nick Robertson was briefly playing alongside grinders with the Leafs earlier in the season).
I don’t think Engvall would do very well with Spezza and Thornton despite his size and skating because he isn’t particularly strong with the puck on his stick nor is he much of a playmaker. When they put him in a checking role with Mikheyev and basically tell him to forecheck, backcheck and cycle, Engvall plays well. Players need to be set up for success.
3. I think that was a solid debut for Ben Hutton, who ended up playing over 22 minutes, including nearly a minute and a half on the penalty kill. I’d like to get him into a few more games if possible so that he can properly acclimate himself to the team and be ready to go should he be needed at playoff time. He came as advertised and is a nice depth player for the Leafs to have at their disposal knowing injuries occur regularly in a playoff run.
4. Usually, I am in favour of teams burning through a player’s entry-level contract as soon as possible knowing it helps a team pay a player before he truly enters his prime (imagine waiting a year to pay Matthews)? That said, Nick Robertson is one game away from playing his seventh game (In this truncated season, seven games burns a year off of your ELC). If I’m the Leafs, who will have perennial cap challenges, I think I’d rather keep the entry-level contract on the books for as long as possible.
If Robertson does well and deserves a big raise in due time, that’s great for him, and the Leafs can make a decision from there. In the meantime, keep the cheap production in your back pocket.
5. I think, at minimum, the Leafs should try to send Frederik Andersen down to the AHL for a conditioning stint. There is a scenario that exists where they might be able to manipulate the fact that their season has been extended beyond the set time and that there are no explicit rules for this type of situation. They could potentially have a card to play there. Regardless of where and how, Andersen needs to be ready (even as a backup to Campbell), and he needs to play in a game or two in order to be.