It’s over. It’s finally over.
I’m not going to lie, it’s been quite difficult for me trying to take meaningful notes on meaningless games lately. Thankfully, Toronto’s 4-2 loss to Winnipeg on Friday is the last night of sludge hockey we’ll have to endure.
I take pride in the fact that I evaluated all 56 of the team’s 56 games this season — I missed one last season while I was on vacation and it really bothered me — but let’s try to remember that this was basically a preseason game. That doesn’t mean we should throw away all of the data points from tonight, although context is key.
For example, the stars had nothing to play for in this game, so there isn’t much value in overanalyzing their miscues. Even the coaches joked that the main objective for them was to not get hurt.
On the other hand, a few guys were still fighting for playoff roster spots. These are the Leafs we’ll be focusing most of our energy on breaking down, so without further ado, let’s dive into the final player evaluations of the season.
It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!
Game Puck: The Dynamic Duo — I’ve been a huge fan of the way Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall have played together this season. Their similar play styles make life difficult on opponents, using their speed and length to poke pucks free.
The biggest frustration with these two has been their offensive play, which was the area of their game that impressed me most tonight. Mikheyev was making high-level passes to get his teammates into open ice, which was a big part of the reason his line spent so much time on offense. He also picked up a goal by tipping Jake Muzzin’s point shot and then burying his own rebound.
Engvall was transporting the puck up the ice with speed, as always. The big difference tonight was that he wasn’t settling for low percentage shots. He got himself to the crease on multiple occasions, and even on his rush chances, Engvall waited an extra half-second to get himself a bit closer to the net before firing the shot.
He has a heavy wrister when he wants to use it; the Toronto Marlies actually ran their power play through him not too long ago. As much as the Leafs‘ brass might prefer Riley Nash defensively at the 3C role, it’s important to remember that he can’t to this offensively.
Engvall might not start the playoffs in Toronto’s top 12, but considering how strong he’s looked lately — not to mention how dominant the HEM line was this season — I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him get a few games in the first round.
Coaching Staff — Since this is game 56 of 56, now seems like a good time for a quick “year in review” for Toronto’s coaching staff. Here’s a look at how much Sheldon Keefe & Co. were able to improve things defensively for the Leafs this season.
The eye test and numbers agree: this was Toronto’s best defensive year in decades. They’ve done an excellent job at limiting quality chances and preventing opponents from hemming them in the defensive zone, thanks in large part to their 5-man DZ structure and ability to efficiently move the puck up the ice.
If we want to nit-pick, I think it’s pretty clear what the biggest problem has been lately.
Arbitrary cutoff date aside, that isn’t where you want to be ranked over the last two months in power-play performance. Toronto has too much talent up front to be getting outplayed at 5v4, which is why I think we’ll start to see things click against Montreal.
How will they accomplish that? My guess is by flipping Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner onto their off-wings, but only time will tell.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — The aspect of defense I’ve been focusing on most this season is defenders’ ability to prevent passes through the middle of the ice. The research shows that completing an east-west pass in the offensive zone leads to high-percentage offense, so logically, the best defenses are the ones that prevent these opportunities.
Muzzin is so good at getting in these passing lanes, whether it’s with a good stick or dropping down onto one knee and blocking the pass. TJ Brodie is another player who comes to mind in this department, which helps explain why both players have had excellent defensive results this season.
Offensively, Muzzin just keeps finding ways to get on the scoresheet with his shot from the point.
Fun fact: Over the last two seasons, Muzzin actually ranks first among Leafs defensemen in 5v5 goals, assists, and points per 60. Now, I’m starting to get a little worried that he’s becoming a tad too confident in his point shot — you don’t want all of your shots coming from the blueline — but it’s nice to know he’s providing value offensively to go with his stout defensive play.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — Seeing everyone use Campbell’s win-loss record as a meaningful goaltending stat has been frustrating, with tonight’s game being a perfect example as to why. He played great, made a few huge saves on power-play one-timers, and his team lost the game.
Goalies can’t impact what their team does in front of them. The only thing they can do is stop the pucks that come their way, which Campbell has done an excellent job of this season, whether you use an advanced metric like Goals Saved Above Expected (ranking 10th in the NHL this season according per EvolvingHockey) or something as simple as Save Percentage (ranking eighth among goalies with at least 20 starts).
It’s Campbell’s net right now because he’s been making saves at an elite level in 2021, not because of his win-loss record.
Alex Kerfoot (LW, #15) — You could tell Toronto’s third line had something to play for tonight. All three players were buzzing. We broke down Mikheyev and Engvall’s 200-foot impact, so let’s dive into Kerfoot’s.
When he winds up with speed, Kerfoot is actually one of Toronto’s better players at attacking a neutral zone trap. There were a few times a teammate passed him into some open ice and he was able to slice through the defense and generate a high-quality chance. One of them even hit the post.
It’s fun to watch Kerfoot wheel and deal off the rush, but defensively, I still get worried when I see stronger players overpower him on the cycle. This was most obvious when Blake Wheeler shrugged him off and then passed the puck to Kyle Connor for a one-time goal.
It’s not Kerfoot’s fault he’s small, but he’ll need to be a bit more feisty in those instances if he’s going to win 50-50 puck battles in the playoffs.
Jason Spezza (C, #19) — Watching him in the offensive zone with the puck on his stick, sometimes it looks like Vintage Jason Spezza. He’s composed under pressure, makes the right passes to open teammates, and isn’t afraid to launch a slapshot from the top of the circle, almost beating Connor Hellebuyck clean at one point.
It was nice to see him get rewarded with some ice time alongside Matthews later in the game, which is something I’ve wanted to see more of this season. Spezza literally ranks first on the Leafs in 5v5 points per 60, finishing the season ahead of both Matthews and Mitch Marner.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — His pairing got lit up tonight, but I’m sure most Leafs fans who watched the game won’t be blaming Brodie for too much of that. He was making his usual steady plays in the defensive zone, taking away middle ice and starting the breakout with simple passes.
Unfortunately, he was a bit late on his patented 2-on-1 slide, resulting in a goal against. We’ve seen him successfully time that play on countless occasions this season, so it’s hard to get too mad at him for whiffing on one of them.
The Hutton-Dermott Pair — This was a much better showing for Ben Hutton, who impressed me with his play away from the puck. I liked his gap control in transition, the way he defended the cycle, and how he used his size to keep things to the outside. His breakout passing was a bit of an issue again, failing to complete anything more difficult than a basic D-to-D pass.
This is where Travis Dermott helped out, using his shiftiness to shed the first forechecker and get play moving in the right direction. A few of Dermott’s passes were off — not to mention him fanning on his only quality chance of the night — but he made up for it with strong transition defense.
As always, Dermott played a tight gap against the rush. There were a couple of times where it looked like he might get beat to the outside, but he was able to recover with his foot speed, which is a great reminder that you can gap up if you have the skating ability to make up for it.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — I really liked his give-and-go with Mikheyev in the offensive zone, activating down the right wall for a quality chance that also resulted in a rebound opportunity for Engvall. Defensively, I didn’t like Holl’s gap as much as a Dermott or Brodie, although Holl has a knack for pivoting and recovering quick enough to get his stick on the puck carrier before they can get the shot off.
“Don’t get hurt” — We could probably put most of the Leafs’ roster in this section. Instead, let’s reserve it for the players we all know are crucial for their playoff success.
Auston Matthews was forced to play with subpar linemates for the first time since the infamous Hyman-Matthews-Brown rookie year — or does anyone remember Marleau-Matthews-Ennis? It went about as well as you’d expect tonight, with Matthews struggling to generate offense despite his strong play on the defensive side of the puck.
John Tavares had a few nice deflections on the power play. At one point he swapped roles with Matthews, giving the opposing PK a bit of a head-scratch moment. Creating that type of confusion with motion at 5v4 is what I’m hoping we see more of against Montreal next week.
Nick Foligno was strong along the boards on the cycle, although he seemed to have a bit of trouble skating himself into open ice alongside Tavares-Nylander. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on heading into the playoffs. Is he a better fit on the first or second line? What about a super-charged checking line?
William Nylander (RW, #88) — With respect to the “spacing” in the offensive zone, Nylander spent a lot of time wheeling around the zone with the puck, but he wasn’t able to make that game-breaking pass to an open teammate. Defensively, he had a few good backchecks at 5v5, but he also got beat for a shorthanded 2-on-1 against, which is something Toronto’s power play has been giving up far too often lately.
Matthews’ Linemates — Poor Adam Brooks wasn’t up to the task tonight, failing to connect on most of his dangerous passes offensively. I did enjoy Alex Galchenyuk‘s play with the puck, most notably a few of his dekes in the neutral zone after scooping up loose pucks. Unfortunately, his line got outshout again at 5v5, which has become a troubling trend for him over the past month.
Finally, Joe Thornton got a stretch of play alongside Matthews and Spezza later in the game, although nothing noteworthy materialized. Thornton did try to space the ice on PP2 by rimming pucks around the boards, but again, nothing dangerous came of it.
Wayne Simmonds (LW, #24) — I understand why the Leafs want a player like Simmonds in the lineup for the playoffs. It’s hard to quantify the value of a player who provides energy to his teammates and that element of toughness the Leafs have been sorely missing for so long.
The counterargument I want to bring up is that there have been a lot of plays that look like this when the puck ends up on his stick.
It’s one thing to play with energy, but if you can’t be trusted at 5v5 to make a play with the puck, I have to ask myself if you’re one of Toronto’s best 12 forwards.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — Let’s clear something up. This is uncharacteristic of Morgan Rielly.
He’s been Toronto’s best puck-mover for the last few seasons, using the middle of the ice to start the breakout similar to how the Soviets did back in the day.
It’s a high-risk play for most defensemen, but you trust your best puck-movers to make the right read under pressure.
Unfortunately, the following play is characteristic of Rielly over the last few seasons.
When you pinch without F3 support, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Kyle Connor scored another goal where we could nit-pick Rielly’s defensive positioning, but the clip above is the bigger concern for me. We know that he generates a lot offensively, but he’s also historically given most of it back at 5v5 by allowing 2-on-1s the other way.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
The Leafs controlled 62 percent of the shots and expected goals at 5v5 in this extremely meaningful hockey game.
Tweets of the Night
I saw this earlier in the day and just had to share it here, specifically the Pierre Dorion quote.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 14, 2021
DJ Smith playing a bad NHL defenseman lots of minutes? Who could have seen this coming?
They’re right. Willie’s career playoff production has been less than spectacular. He, specifically, needs to be better.
(Playoff 5v5 P/60 since 16/17) pic.twitter.com/OEPGyLaWfx
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) May 15, 2021
Does he lead his team in 5v5 playoff points per 60 “the right way” though?
Shohei just flicked it over the Monster 😯 pic.twitter.com/xbnUimjTaV
— MLB (@MLB) May 15, 2021
Wrong sport, but it’s not like anyone cared about the Jets-Leafs game tonight. That’s another one for Shohei Ohtani, who now ranks second in the MLB in home runs. He’s also a pitcher.
Going to say this before playoffs start:
This is the best Leafs team in 2 decades. There is no need to litigate minutia of lines/pairings. Enjoy this and don’t find ways to nitpick. If they are bounced in Rd1, by all means. Unless that happens, just enjoy the run. Please!
— Rachel Doerrie (@racheldoerrie) May 14, 2021
As a good friend of Rachel’s, I can’t wait to dive into the minutia of line-matching and roster decisions throughout the playoffs. It’s going to drive her nuts.
Buckle up, folks, this should be fun!