Who’s ready for some Leafs preseason hockey!?
The honest answer might be: not too many people. Heck, it’s going to be hard trying to convince myself to care about regular season hockey this year considering how poorly things have gone in the postseason for Toronto throughout the Auston Matthews era.
But alas, it’s my job to come up with meaningful takeaways after every Leafs game. That’s not exactly easy when we’re assessing a meaningless preseason game, although there are certain things we can all be looking for when we’re watching these games.
Even though most NHL veterans tend to go through the motions in the first few weeks of training camp, there are legitimate battles for roster spots high up the lineup. That’s not something we typically get to see, which is what makes the next couple of weeks somewhat exciting for me.
Before we dive into how those fringe players looked in Game 1 of the preseason, here’s a quick look at some line combinations and jersey numbers. Trust me, you weren’t the only one asking who number 58 was.
Hopefully, this snapshot from the broadcast helps you remember a bit more from the game considering how many new numbers were out there – it certainly helped me!
Enough preamble, though, let’s get onto some actual Leafs analysis.
He’s the player I was most looking forward to watching this preseason. The former 25th overall pick in 2014 has been a zone entry machine at every level he’s played, including his stint in the NHL with the Islanders. Maturity on and off the ice has held him back in the past, but when you watch him skate with the puck, it’s clear that his combination of speed and skill are NHL calibre.
Ho-Sang does have a tendency to hold onto the puck a bit too often, although his former and current teammate, John Tavares, mentioned that’s an area where he’s come a long way. The Leafs‘ captain mentioned that Ho Sang isn’t “trying to do as much as he used to.” A couple of quick one-touch passes from the bumper spot on the power play are a few good examples of this.
Now, this wasn’t a perfect game from Ho-Sang. He turned the puck over along the boards in the offensive zone, leading to a breakaway goal the other way from Tyler Toffoli. That said, I thought the pros outweighed the cons tonight, with Ho-Sang springing himself free a few separate times for breakaway opportunities.
He’s a player with some serious offensive upside, especially considering the Leafs signed him to a PTO. If he can continue to make plays at a high level with the puck while putting in more effort without the puck than we’ve ever seen from Ho-Sang, I wouldn’t be surprised if he earned himself a contract.
There is value in players who can transition the puck as well as he can, and it is an attribute Kyle Dubas & Co value at a premium.
Now that I’ve sung Ho-Sang’s praises, it’s time to address his linemate from tonight, who might as well be the polar opposite type of player. Bunting’s much more of a dump and chase style of forward, which plays to his strengths since he’s such a tough player to deal with along the boards. He was winning most of his puck battles along the wall and getting himself to the front of the net when the time called for it, which is how he scored his goal on a backdoor tip.
No one on the Leafs is going to replace the value that Zach Hyman provided; he’s a first-line calibre forward who proved last season he could actually carry his own line offensively and in transition. That said, Bunting’s playstyle is very similar to Hyman’s. He puts his head down and goes hard into puck battles, drives the net, and is a pain in the neck to play against.
He’s not the $6.5 million player that Hyman is, but at $950,000 per season for the next two years, I could see Bunting providing big-time value if he can keep winning battles in the dirty areas of the ice.
We’re going to have a section later in the article for the “Biggest Disappointments” of tonight. I thought long and hard about putting Robertson in that section but ended up deciding he made enough positive plays with the puck on his stick to earn some recognition.
He looked most comfortable operating on the right side of the ice offensively, which is his one-time side as a left-hand shot. This applies to both 5v5 and 5v4 play. Robertson made a couple of nice toe-drags to get himself into open ice, giving him the option to get a shot off from a good shooting position or the room needed to pull off a cross-ice pass.
Another interesting wrinkle was watching him on the PK, alongside William Nylander of all people. Robertson picked off a few passes in the neutral zone and created some offense off the rush at 4v5, which is an area I never thought we’d see him succeed, but maybe this is a way to get him a few more shifts when he eventually gets called up to the big club.
Realistically, we’ll probably see Robertson start off the year in the AHL until he proves he can dominate that league (i.e. scoring at a point per game rate). When he does get his chance to come up, though, I’m excited to see what other wrinkles he’s added to his game.
Right from his first shift, Nylander was slicing through the Habs neutral zone trap like a hot knife through butter. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who’s watched Nylander over the years; his biggest strength is transporting the puck up the ice with possession.
What separates Nylander from other speedy puck carriers is his ability to cross the blue line and slow things down before making the right play. For example, he had one rush where he could have forced the puck into the slot, but he patiently waited along the left wall for the opposition to back off of him, opening up the passing lane to the trailer, Jake Muzzin, who scored on his first of many Grade-A scoring chances.
Speaking of the left wall, Nylander also looked excellent quarterbacking PP1 from that spot, picking up a primary assist on a Tavares deflection. As a shot threat, Nylander forces opposing penalty killers to respect him from the left dot, which isn’t something Mitch Marner can say. I’ll be excited to see how the Leafs power play is configured this season, since it appears Nylander will be occupying that spot on the left wall while Marner tries a new spot in the bumper role.
Personally, I see Marner having more value as a passer from the goal-line than he will in the middle of a 1-3-1 power play formation, but it’s nice to see the Leafs at least trying something different instead of running a listless power play with Marner on the half-wall for months on end.
How great was it to see him back in action? After suffering a traumatic injury in Game 1 of the playoffs a few months ago, I wasn’t sure how long it would be before Tavares started looking like himself in a competitive hockey game. Apparently, the answer to that question was Game 1 of the preseason – he looked great!
Let’s run through the John Tavares checklist:
- Driving a line without star linemates? Check.
- Making high-level plays in tight spaces? Check.
- Using his elite hand-eye to redirect pucks? Check.
- Answering questions in a dull tone at intermission? Check.
That last one’s a bit mean, but hey, this is the Tavares we’ve all been wanting to see for months. After starting out slow last year, I wonder if we’ll see a more consistent 82-game season from the Leafs captain. He appears to be in fine form right now.
I’ve seen a lot of people joking about Muzzin jumping up into the play to create offense, which makes me a bit mad, to be honest. Do you know who leads Toronto defensemen in 5v5 points per 60 over the last two seasons? It’s not Morgan Rielly.
It’s Jake Muzzin.
Yes, his calling card is his play without the puck. He’s great at reading the game defensively, knowing when to step up on opposing forwards in the neutral zone to kill plays early. He’s also great at those subtle little underneath passes after regaining possession to help get things moving the other way.
What a lot of us forget is that Muzzin is also an extremely underrated offensive player. He may not have the speed or stick-handling ability of Toronto’s high-end talent, but Muzzin has a knack for jumping into the play at the right time. When he finds that open ice in the offensive zone after receiving a cross-seam pass, his shot is one that is going to beat a lot of NHL goaltenders.
Muzzin is the full package, folks. I think it’s time we start appreciating just how damn good this guy is at hockey.
The addition of these two defensemen over the last couple of seasons has really changed the way Toronto should be perceived, at least on the defensive side of the puck. If you watched the Leafs at all last season, you already know how valuable Brodie is when defending the rush. He maintains a good gap, patiently waits before lunging at the opposing player, then finds the right time to get his stick in the way and disrupt the play.
You’ll see plays like these multiple times a game from Brodie, which is why you can trust him with a more offensive partner, whether it’s Rielly or Sandin. I had my doubts about Brodie’s mixed results at 5v5 without Mark Giordano in his last few seasons with the Calgary Flames, but the more I watch him play, the more I learn about how to evaluate defensemen.
The most efficient offense in hockey is generated off the rush. Therefore, the most important aspect of defense is limiting those opportunities. Brodie has done a fantastic job of that in a Leafs uniform, and tonight’s game was no exception.
I doubt that anyone expects Filip Kral or Mac Hollowell to make the Toronto Maple Leafs anytime in the near future, but that doesn’t mean we can’t praise them for playing good 5v5 hockey. Let’s break them down individually.
Kral did an excellent job of activating into the play along the left wall in transition, giving his teammates an extra option off the rush. He reminded me a little of a left-handed Justin Holl, jumping into the play as the fourth forward to help advance the puck up the ice with possession.
That’s an area where Hollowell has always thrived as well, but it was the 5’9 and 170lb defenseman’s ability to win puck battles in the corner that really impressed me. At that size, you’d expect him to get pushed around, but Hollowell was actually the one initiating contact tonight. There were a few separate moments where he knocked his man down. If he can keep doing that while making smooth plays with the puck, maybe there could be an NHL future for him.
I wanted to joke that him still being on the team was the biggest disappointment, but let’s stick to tonight’s game. He wasn’t able to accomplish much off the rush with his speed, which is supposed to be his calling card. In fact, I barely noticed him much at all. His most memorable moment of the game was his stick helicoptering through the air.
It’s only one game, and a preseason contest at that, but you’d like to see more from a guy who’s making $3.5 million, which is something I have a feeling we’re going to be saying a lot this season.
This was a rough game for Toronto’s top defensive prospect. He let his man get behind him multiple times for breakaway opportunities. As much as I love Sandin’s ability to read the game and make brilliant passes under pressure, his skating is an area that still needs significant improvement. He doesn’t have the separation gear that most high-end NHL puck-movers do, which forces him to beat opponents with his brain instead of his legs.
There’s nothing wrong with that; the puck moves faster than your skates, in that elite passing is far more valuable than top-end speed. With that being said, if Sandin is going to reach his potential as a puck-moving defenseman, he’ll need to become a more powerful skater.
That reminds me…
His puck skills and passing ability are so much fun to watch, but I really thought he would’ve put on more muscle in his lower body by now and become a stronger north-south skater than we saw in his draft year. It was exciting when the Leafs drafted him in the third round back in 2018, but that was under the assumption that Barb Underhill could help him make serious improvements in his skating.
I haven’t seen that yet, which is quite troubling at age 21. The fact that he’s still 170 pounds suggests that this is the weight he’ll probably be playing at moving forward, which is going to cost him a lot of lost puck battles. I always like the idea of betting on skill, but if you’re undersized with below-average speed, it’s really tough to carve out a niche at the NHL level.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Not that we should take too much out of a preseason heat map, but the Leafs did control 57 percent of the shots and 52 percent of the scoring chances at 5v5. That was helped mightily by a strong second period, where Toronto dominated puck possession with the long change.
Tweets of the Night
In his draft year Josh Ho-Sang had top 3 skill and a great personality to go with it. Really hope this shot at the show works out for him.
— Jeff Marek (@JeffMarek) September 25, 2021
I’ve heard a lot of different stories surrounding Ho-Sang over the years, but this has tended to be my opinion on the player. Hockey culture tends to punish guys for having personalities, which is why I’m hoping Ho-Sang can thrive in a setting that tends to let players “be themselves” a bit more.
TOR is playing with an extremely wide and active weak-side D. This is what it looks like when 78 turns it over and 38 is already up-ice: pic.twitter.com/e3XlfwYz0g
— Jack Han (@JhanHky) September 26, 2021
This is a really good point by Jack Han. It’s something I also noticed throughout the course of the game. Toronto’s defense looks even more active than last season, jumping up in transition to try and create odd-man rushes.
The one downside to that is when you turn the puck over, those odd-man rushes come right back at you the other way.
This will be something to watch closely with Toronto this season, especially if they keep aggressively sending their defensemen high up into the play off the rush.
It appears that the Leafs did indeed trade for Jared McCann so that they could lose him in the expansion draft and keep Alexander Kerfoot 👀 pic.twitter.com/aEN3jLVPVY
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) September 25, 2021
I have so much respect for these two men, and yet, I couldn’t disagree more with the way they value Alex Kerfoot. I really hope I’m wrong on this one – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.