Some of these guys look pretty good!

Only three games into the preseason, it’s already tough not to get excited about a few of these Maple Leafs depth signings up front. Michael Bunting finished the game with a hat trick, Joshua Ho-Sang was flying all game, and David Kampf and Ondrej Kase are providing noticeable value in very different ways.

I have to keep reminding myself not to get carried away with small samples, especially in the preseason, but it’s difficult when hockey has been out of our lives for so many months and all of a sudden we’re right back in it. When I’m evaluating these games, I try not to focus too much on the veterans, which makes tonight’s squad much easier to assess considering most of Toronto’s players are fringe guys fighting for roster spots.

It was also nice to get some more free-flowing play at 5-on-5. With the point of emphasis on cross-checking this year — which is absolutely necessary — we’ve seen a lot of preseason games around the league with penalties being handed out every few minutes. In contrast, tonight’s game featured over eight minutes without a single whistle.

It made for some exciting hockey, so let’s dive into it!

The Man of the Hour

If you haven’t hopped aboard the Michael Bunting bandwagon, now is as good a time as any. He finished the game with three goals, all of which came from right in front of the net.

Now, after shooting an absurd 26% last season, I doubt he’s going to come anywhere near that figure in 2021-22. That said, if there’s one area you want to go on the ice to boost your shooting percentage, it’s the front of the net, and Bunting’s made a habit of finding good ice and winning battles to earn himself body position in the rink’s most valuable real estate.

Another factor to consider is that deflections and rebounds are the highest percentage shots in hockey. With the way Bunting plays, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was able to pot 20 goals with Toronto’s top-tier talent feeding him the puck in the slot.

The other thing that stood out to me was how much faster he looked tonight. He’s got some deceptive speed for a “greasy rat,” which Kurtis Gabriel jokingly called him during the intermission interview. This helps Bunting be the first man in on loose puck races and start the cycle along the boards.

Again, he’s never going to fully replace Zach Hyman, but he clearly provides some elements that are sorely lacking in Toronto’s lineup.

Depth Scoring

The issue for Toronto in the playoffs the past few seasons hasn’t been their defense — it’s the fact that they haven’t been able to put the puck in the net. Two forwards who should be able to help them in that regard are Joshua Ho-Sang and Ondrej Kase. Let’s start with the former.

Ho-Sang was the fastest player on the ice tonight. He has the ability to pick a puck up in the defensive zone and lug it the length of the ice. More importantly, he can make a play after crossing the offensive blueline, using his puck skills to open up space for himself off the rush and get the puck to the middle of the ice.

Here’s a great example of what I’m describing.

This is a basic 3-on-3 rush, but Ho-Sang makes a sharp cut to the inside and sheds his man, creating the shooting lane for a solid scoring chance from the slot.

Now, sometimes he does have a tendency to get tunnel vision and “over-carry” the puck. I watch a lot of basketball, and the players I get most frustrated with play what’s known as “Hero Ball” trying to do too much instead of just making the next pass to get their teammates involved.

He has a little Russell Westbrook in him.

I love a good reload from a talent puck carrier, but look at the end result here. Instead of head-manning the puck to one of his teammates in transition, Ho-Sang gets a bit too fancy and it ultimately results in a dump-in recovered cleanly by Ottawa, who can now easily start their breakout.

This is just one example, and I’m certainly nit-picking a forward who played a very strong game, but these are the habits he’ll need to work on if he wants to get the most out of his skillset.

Let’s switch gears and talk about Kase now.

I’ve heard so many people bring up the fact that he’s a bonafide “NHL player,” which is honestly an insult to him. Throughout his career, he’s been a legitimate top-six producer. The issue is that he’s missed 140 games in the last three years due to injury.

When he’s on the ice, he’s a difference maker. The trick is keeping him on the ice. For a guy with his injury history, he is not afraid of puck battles, which should probably make you a tad afraid as a Leafs fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love skilled players who also go hard into the corners, but staying healthy throughout the course of a six-month season is going to be a marathon for Kase, not a sprint.

I’d like to see him choose his spots a bit more wisely when he drops his shoulder and decides to engage physically. The reason is because he can make plays like these with regularity.

He has a knack for making tape-to-tape passes after coming out of a scrum with the puck. This clip is also a nice reminder that Ho-Sang completed a few brilliant cross-seam passes in this game, earning himself a primary assist on that goal above.

Two of the three players in that passing play are under contract for Toronto this season, and I’m of the opinion Ho-Sang should be added to that list sooner rather than later.

Preseason Standouts

I didn’t come into this year expecting to have hot takes about Filip Kral, but he’s blown me away in his last couple of games. He looks extremely comfortable jumping up into the rush in transition to help the Leafs gain the zone with possession, especially along the left wall.

What’s great is that Kral is also adept at making plays on his wrong side when the situation calls for it.

Does he make the Toronto Maple Leafs this year? Probably not, but he’s definitely moved himself up the organization depth chart over the past week with his stellar puck-moving.

Another player I hadn’t thought too much about coming into 2021-22 is Kirill Semyonov. He’s also made a few crafty plays in transition, showing some flashes of skill when making one-touch plays to get his teammates into open ice. This is particularly noticeable in his own end, when he picks the puck up along the wall in the defensive zone and makes a quick deke and/or pass to keep play moving up the ice.

The Leafs also gave him a look on the PK a few times, as they did with Kase in this game. I’m not sure if that’s where I’d put either player in an ideal scenario, but they both seemed to handle it well.

Last but not least in this section is David Kampf. After scoring one goal in 56 games last year, he’s potted two in his first two preseason games with Toronto. I can already see the headlines: How the Leafs rebuilt David Kampf.

Let me start by saying I didn’t really care about either goal. One was a misplay by the goaltender, while tonight’s was a lucky bounce onto his tape where he beat the goaltender five-hole before Mads Soogard could figure out where the puck was.

The reason to actually be excited about Kampf is because he gives the Leafs a legitimate shutdown option as a defensive specialist. I don’t love the idea of him logging 3C minutes because of his limited offensive upside, but if you watch him closely in the defensive zone, I can understand why Sheldon Keefe trusts him so much as a PK and faceoff specialist.

I also wouldn’t overlook the fact he was given an “A” in this game. Kyle Dubas gave him two years of term and a salary that far outmatches what the typical player with his production earns. The Leafs value this player, and the more I watch the details in his game when he plays without the puck — which is essentially all the time — I can start to see why they like him so much, at least defensively.

Underwhelming at Even Strength

Jeremy Bracco is a fantastic reminder that it doesn’t matter if you can light it up on the power play at lower levels; you need to be able to make an impact at 5-on-5. I’d make that criticism about SDA the other night, who looked threatening at 5v4 but not very dangerous at 5v5.

I’d make that same criticism about Nick Robertson and Nikita Gusev tonight.

Robertson was excellent on special teams, ripping a few hard one-timers on the power play and creating chances the other way on the penalty kill. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to bring that same value at even strength. I did like his acceleration when he decided to really go for a loose puck, but he wasn’t able to transition the puck up the ice consistently or create many scoring chances at 5-on-5.

With Gusev, I wanted to paraphrase something Ray Ferraro said on the broadcast that I thought was brilliant: there are very few players good enough to play on the outside, which is why you need to be able to learn how to play on the inside.

Gusev wants to play on the outside, much like a Mitch Marner or Mat Barzal, and he’s really good at it when he gets a lot of open space (i.e. on the power play). The issue is that the space just isn’t there for him at 5v5 and he isn’t a top 20 player in the world. That leaves him in a weird situation; he plays like a guy who thinks he’s a superstar offensively, but doesn’t quite have the ability to pull off enough high-skill plays to be worth the detriment of always being on the perimeter.

Gusev doesn’t strike me as the type of player who’s willing to play on the inside, and I think it’s going to cost him a roster spot.

Some Other Quick Thoughts

This is the cop-out section where I list off a few of the other players I really wanted to mention.

Peter Mrazek looked outstanding. He wasn’t scrambling in his crease, kept himself square to the puck and essentially let it hit him. I love the way he reads shots that are going high-glove and doesn’t drop down into the butterfly — the puck just lands in his glove without him needing to move it. Mrazek also looked confident playing the puck on dump-ins, to the extent that I’d argue he’s better than Jack Campbell at Brodeur-ing an oncoming forecheck.

Speaking of beating the forecheck, Rasmus Sandin‘s passing ability was something else tonight. He’s not the fastest skater, but he’s deceptive in which way he’s going with the puck, looking off opposing forwards before going the other way with his pass. Sometimes it’s a little head-fake, other times he’ll hold the puck for that extra half-second before snapping a pass up ice.

I wanted to compare and contrast his play to Timothy Liljegren‘s considering how impressed I was with the Muzzin-Liljegren pair previously, but this wasn’t Liljegren’s best game. It was far from his worst, and he certainly made a few nice plays out of his zone, but I much preferred his 200-foot play in transition alongside Jake Muzzin.

Then again, everyone looks good playing next to Muzzin, just ask Nikita Zaitsev.

I’m not in the mood for an overdose on negativity, so let’s quickly address the fact that Michael AmadioKurtis Gabriel, and Carl Dahlstrom are not NHL players. I’d like to see the Leafs trim some of the fat off of these rosters so we can get a closer look at the “real” battles, but hey, you need to ice a Squad A and Squad B. Not everyone is going to be an NHL player.

Finally, I wanted to point out that the puck kept dying on Wayne Simmonds‘ stick at 5-on-5. He can provide some value as a net-front presence, especially with the man advantage, but his lines are going to have one heck of a time getting up the ice and into the offensive zone if he can’t complete the next pass.

Heat Map

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

I find it so meaningless to do this for preseason games, but alas, Toronto controlled 58 percent of the shots in this game, although the scoring chances were split 50-50 at even strength. That indicates the shot quality was more in Ottawa’s favour, although I’d be curious what that would look like if we took east-west passes into account.

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

Who says there aren’t any personalities in hockey?

This was the biggest news in the hockey world today, and for good reason. I’m sure most of us have seen the video floating around the last couple days. If not, google is your friend.

The Ukranian league’s response? A three-game suspension for the offender and a fine totalling less than $2000 USD. I’m sick and tired of the sport I love treating people of colour like this. If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s our collective response as a hockey community today.

This was absolute garbage and we need to continue pushing back against decisions like these if we want to see actionable change in this sport.

If you were feeling like me this morning, seething in anger wondering what you can possibly do to help make a difference, I recommend taking the get uncomfortable pledge. It’s a campaign started by the Black Girl Hockey Club in which we promise to hold ourselves accountable and disrupt racism.

There’s no place for it in our sport.

Final Grade: B for Be Better