The 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs are officially division winners — with two games to spare, no less.
It’s a good stepping stone, but the job isn’t even remotely close to finished.
Before we look ahead to the playoffs, I thought I’d take a second to look back at some bold predictions I made before the season started to see how they aged. As always, some of these exercises are simply designed to create outrageous takes, which is something I try to avoid on the whole, but what is the point of making these if we don’t look back on them?
Without further ado, here is a review of my predictions. Your criticism is welcome and fair.
1) Morgan Rielly finishes top three in points for defensemen
This one started pretty well as Rielly began the season with 16 points in his first 19 games. Since then, he has 18 points in 34 games, which puts him at tied for 14th among all defensemen in the league. By all means, it is a respectable season, but the power play going off a cliff for an extended period of time essentially sunk this prediction. Basically, I thought he was going to have a Tyson Barrie-like season for the Leafs where he eats on the power play surrounded by a collection of elite players.
2) Auston Matthews leads the league in goals
I don’t think we need to say much here. Matthews has been a monster of a goal scorer since entering the league, and it was time for him to ascend to the top. He has eight more goals than the next highest scorer despite missing games and playing through injury. Doesn’t matter. This guy just scores.
3) The Leafs go to the conference finals this year
This remains to be seen, of course, but the way they look, the way they went all-in, and the fact that they won this division with games to spare… Anything can happen, but I feel pretty good about this prediction so far.
4) Travis Dermott is traded during the season
Now, this did not happen, but it seems fairly obvious that he will be exposed in the expansion draft. Had Rasmus Sandin been healthy, it is possible this would have happened during the season, but no Sandin basically made this moot. In retrospect, I just wish I adjusted this to include the expansion draft – it makes sense to keep him until then because a team can never have enough defensemen for a playoff run.
5) This is Zach Hyman’s last season as a Leaf
We will see on this one, and I again want to state this is not my preference (I don’t think it’s anyone’s preference in this market). Now, what has happened is that he has had another really good season, and if he wants to go to the open market and simply cash out, you could argue he has priced himself out of Toronto. But in a flat cap world, in his hometown nearby his family, I think we can easily envision a scenario where the two sides come to an agreement. The thinking here was really just that Hyman is a fantastic player that will be difficult to afford while completing the rest of the roster.
– There were two 3-2 games against the Habs in the week, and both times, the Habs pulled their goalies to put six attackers out there. I noted last week the Leafs were using the Alex Kerfoot – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line in 6v5 situations (with Hyman out), and they were out there in each game again last week. They did get scored in one of those games, but it didn’t have much to do with them. Interestingly, in the 3-2 win, Joe Thornton subbed in for Kerfoot at one point, and he got beat on a race for an icing. I am not sure Kerfoot would have lost that race.
– On defense, when healthy, Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl have essentially always been the preferred defense pairing. The Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie pairing has played just under six minutes in 6v5 situations this year. Meanwhile, Muzzin – Holl have played over 20 minutes together in those situations. It’s worth noting Zach Bogosian has played nearly five minutes alongside Brodie in these situations as well.
– The Leafs went 0/9 on the power play for the week, including not scoring on a full two-minute 5v3 (there was some talk about the Leafs loading up their power-play unit late in a game they had a big lead in, but when your power play is that bad, it’s justifiable to trot them out to work on it). There was some experimenting with Rasmus Sandin quarterbacking the top unit, as well as leaving Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on while everyone else changed.
One little thing that stood out also was the Leafs overloading one side of the ice at times:
The tough thing here is that with William Nylander down low as a right-handed shot, it’s an awkward pass for Matthews to make. If anything, it would make more sense if Joe Thornton was there and Nylander was situated where Marner was because Nylander is more of a shooting threat. There was nothing to this play; it actually went back up top to Sandin, who shot it, and it was not particularly dangerous.
– The Mitch Marner goal against Montreal off the faceoff was very similar to a goal he scored earlier this season against the Ottawa Senators. Matthews-Marner try that play all the time and teams have generally been jumping that route. That’s a pretty bad pre-scout by the Canadiens (with credit to a slight adjustment by Marner to get the shot off, in fairness). There might be an opportunity for Matthews-Marner to catch a team cheating on that play and try something else (such as Matthews putting the puck forward and the inside winger going to the backdoor).
– Jack Campbell is now up to 21 games started, and he’s won 17 of those games. Among goalies with at least 20 starts, he sits seventh in save percentage. It’s still not a large sample size of games – and NHL.com has him credited with 77 career starts so far – but he’s been a .918 save percentage goalie in the NHL to this point. Since becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf, it is hard to think of many games where he has been straight-up bad.
“He has found a way to score in both of the last two games he has played for us here. That is great to see. That helps his confidence, of course. But the reality is that’s not why he hasn’t been playing here of late. It was nothing to do with production.
We need Pierre to be really competitive, physical on the puck, win puck battles, be strong defensively, and do the little things to help our team win. Any production that comes from that would be great. I just think he has so much more to give to our team outside of any offensive production. Until he finds that level, he is going to find himself continuing to search to see when his next opportunity might come.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Pierre Engvall
Of all the interviews I’ve heard from Keefe – and it’s a really good chunk of them since he has been hired – I feel reasonably confident in saying that there is not a single player he has been harder on publicly than Pierre Engvall. That said, he’s right.
It is nice that he has scored some goals lately, but honestly, both goals were weak at best and he’s simply not on the team to score. He has to check, and grind, and cycle, and defend like crazy. He’s shown that he is capable of it, but he has been inconsistent in his career so far with this. Keefe has been hard on him in hopes he can push him to a higher level of consistency.
“Today I was trying to push it a little bit with [more] intensity. It got better and better as the game went on, just playing hard on every puck, and I think just trusting that I can have energy to play a full game and trusting everything I’ve done as far.”
– Frederik Andersen after making 34 saves in a 5-4 Marlies loss
I know people like to quickly look at the numbers and write him off, but goaltending is truly a sport in and of itself, and I don’t think the save percentage matters one bit. It’s almost like pitchers trying things out in spring training. He’s trying to get comfortable physically and mentally in net. He’s not trying to prove he’s still a good goaltender at this stage.
As long as he’s physically and mentally trending in the right direction, that’s all that matters. It’s good that Frederik Andersen was able to get into some game action, and it’s something that really serves the whole organization well, even if he just comes back to the NHL club to be the backup.
“In my head, I think when we went back into the bubble, it was definitely a lot more physical, and I think it worked to my advantage. I’m not there searching for big hits. It’s just here and there, when I have an opportunity to finish a check or be physical on the puck, I’m doing that.”
– Auston Matthews on increasing his physicality
Auston Matthews loved to go for the pick-pocket stick lift when he entered the league, and while there is still a time and place for it, you have to use your body to separate the opponent from the puck, especially in the playoffs.
As Matthews notes above, he’s not trying to run guys through the wall, but he’s using his body much more to create space for himself and retrieve the puck. He is averaging over a hit per game this season – by far the highest of his career. For reference, last season, he averaged .57 hits per game. This is a good evolution in his game.
Tweets of the Week
2019-20: 67 points in 59 games
2020-21: 67 points in 54 games
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) May 9, 2021
Mitch Marner’s points per game production so far in his career, by season:
I am not sure if he can trend much higher, but his career arc has been steadily ascending through five seasons now.
Auston Matthews loves playing in Toronto so much he physically can’t stop himself from smiling when he talks about it pic.twitter.com/LI3LW8ovUl
— laura (@Iaur4) May 3, 2021
This is pretty cool, although I’m sure most players would say this about where they are playing to some degree. That said, he has yet to experience what this city is like during a lengthy playoff run. It is truly something special.
The #leafs have clinched first place in the North Division.
Incredibly, the last two seasons that happened were 1999-2000 and 1962-63.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 9, 2021
I am still wrapping my head around how wild this is. They will ultimately be judged by their playoff performance, but you can still enjoy this for a week or so as a fan.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think this was a really important stretch of games that just transpired for Alex Galchenyuk. He had a four-game point streak before going pointless Saturday against the Canadiens. He has been up and down production-wise and still can’t be counted on defensively (which is why his minutes will always be limited), but on the whole, the Galchenyuk – Tavares – Nylander line has scored more than they have given up (+4). If they can keep that up, it allows them to put Zach Hyman on L3 to start games, which might be the most ideal scenario to give the Leafs three really strong lines.
2. I think for all the flack he gets – most of which is deserved – I still think Pierre Engvall is the best option for the 3C spot. The Leafs want the third line to be a checking line — that is very clear — and compared to the other options, Engvall’s speed and size helps him get there better than anyone else. If Riley Nash can successfully return, it might be a different story, but until then, Engvall is still probably the best option when he’s playing well. If it’s going to take some tough love to help get him there, so be it.
3. As Rasmus Sandin, Ben Hutton and Travis Dermott all make their case to play on the third pairing come playoff time, I think it’s tough to ignore that if everyone else is healthy on defense, only Sandin would play on a special teams unit (the power play). If everyone else is exclusively a 5v5 defenseman, it will be tough to beat out Sandin. I’d ride with him first.
4. I think it should also be noted that Ben Hutton has been impressive relative to his role and is a nice fit on this team. He is somewhat similar to Zach Bogosian in the sense that he is a solid third pairing guy, and if you don’t ask him to do anything else, he will be a solid third pairing defender. If you ask him to do much more, it could get dicey in a hurry. To have four defensemen battling for two jobs, almost all of whom seem capable of moving up the lineup and giving you a good game or two, is a sign of impressive depth.
5. I think you should celebrate the division title by buying the new Kings of the North T-shirts available now. They’re beautiful.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) May 10, 2021