A new season is upon us, and in typical Leafs fashion, it’s started by making everyone re-live the nightmare from the previous season.
This, of course, is due to the release of All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs, courtesy of Amazon Prime. It was an interesting series to watch with some moments worth discussing. On the whole, it would have been enjoyable to see more in-game moments (the one instance of note, with dialogue between Joe Thornton and Nikolaj Ehlers, was fantastic), as well as some more focus on the individual stars of the team.
One of the events that stood out early in the series was Sheldon Keefe’s handling of Matthews’ “safe” comment after a fairly lacklustre 3-1 loss to the Oilers. He almost seemed to take it personally, and in a rather formal fashion, he sought out Kyle Dubas to discuss it. It almost felt like a student telling a teacher what happened after they were told on.
For his part, Dubas seemed somewhat surprised by the whole thing and asked Keefe if he was asking for his advice. Keefe addressed the issue with Matthews before addressing it with the team, and no player in the meeting room had anything to say. Matthews barely seemed interested in the conversation he was having with Keefe. It seemed like a lot of aggravation for very little, and a bit of a strange process — it is completely within a coach’s purview to simply have that conversation with a player without a need to go to his GM at all (or simply mention it to Dubas after it happens so that he’s aware).
Later in the series, it was Dubas who essentially named Jack Campbell the starter in a room with Keefe. At one point, it was Dubas who Ilya Mikheyev went to talk to about his role and ice time. Of course, it was also Dubas who held a conversation with Mitch Marner prior to Game 7. Those things do happen in every organization, but a role player taking issue with his role/ice time should really be discussed with the actual coach, or at the very least the coach should be in the room.
To me, if Mikheyev does end up starting in the top six, it would be in part because he’s been vocal about his role, and more than anything it’d be a “put up or shut up” move by the coach. In other words: something he can go back to later in the year when he’s down the lineup that he can point to and say, “I give you a chance, you didn’t produce enough to keep it.”
Sheldon Keefe was right to be concerned about scoring early on, something I wrote about as well 10 games into the season. The team lived off of their power play early and the 5v5 scoring (and overall play, to be honest), was not what you would expect from them. It is hard to achieve buy-in and change behaviour when the record is great, even if the process to get there is not.
We have seen this time and again in Leafs land. The 5-1 blown lead against Ottawa, covered in the series, was a great example. Keefe walks in the room and tells the team they were playing poorly and mismanaging the puck – he specifically tells them that they have already turned the puck over more through 40 minutes than their average per game. The team responded by going out and blowing the lead. It is a good example of the coaches can only do so much. At some point, the players have to figure it out.
This is a timely transition to the veteran leadership, something they obviously prioritized to help eradicate those types of moments. I thought one of the most telling moments of the entire series was a leadership meeting Keefe calls with Jake Muzzin, Mitch Marner, Joe Thornton, Morgan Rielly, and John Tavares. Keefe is clearly concerned, and at one point, the camera/discussion pans to Thornton, who essentially shrugs off the concern and is all too happy to remind everyone that they are in first place. You’d think a veteran in the league for as long as he’s been in it – who hasn’t won a Cup – would have more awareness than that.
In the dressing room during the second intermission of Game 7, the two players the series showed as the most vocal in the room were Jason Spezza and Morgan Rielly, by far. The Leafs have clearly gotten everything and more than they possibly could have asked for from Spezza. He has become an extremely likeable and easy guy to root for in Toronto.
It’s understandable that the production crew wouldn’t have much they’d be allowed to share from the dressing room, but it would have been great to be privy to more of those conversations and moments.
One of the notable ones that did appear was Keefe’s speech in the room prior to overtime in Game 6. To set the scene, you might recall that the Leafs played rather poorly through 40 minutes and were down 2-0 in the game with 10 minutes left before shaking up the lines and scoring twice in the final eight minutes to tie the game. Keefe walked into the room, called out the top line that he broke up for being out-chanced, laid down a big speech about big moments, and then reunited all the lines that were together while the team played poorly and fell behind 2-0. The team did outplay the Habs in overtime before losing, but it was still a strange sequence of events.
A few other random thoughts:
- The most touching and also heartbreaking moment was Zach Bogosian telling his daughter he would be missing her birthday. That was gut-wrenching. Any Bogosian appearance in the series was great, and I loved his steady play all of last season. I will miss him a lot, even if I do think Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin are ready for long looks.
- Nick Foligno was also a similarly awesome guy, and it’s just a shame he couldn’t stay healthy. He could barely walk his back was so messed up, and he was emotional about it. He would have been a great fit here. In general, it’s just a shame we didn’t get to see the fully healthy team have a run together to see what they could have done. This is a Conference Finals-level top nine:
Foligno – Matthews – Marner
Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander
Mikheyev – Engvall – Hyman
- The Paul MacLean quote about demons is already symbolic at this point (they’ve got demons in their heads, they got em’ in their fuckin beds, they got ‘em in their cars), and you can clearly see that this sort of stench is entrenched across the organization. It just sort of makes you wonder what happens if they ever get over the hump. With the monkey off their back, do they relax a bit and go on a heater? Lack of talent is not the problem.
- On a related note, the ability to score playoff goals is clearly a concern — greasy goals, battles, rebounds, more action in front of the net. The pretty ones are hard to get in the postseason. Keefe brings this up a number of times, and you’d have to think they believed Foligno would help in this department.
– Surprise player of preseason for me so far has been Filip Kral. A fifth-round pick in 2018, Kral racked up 40 points in 40 games in the Czech U18 league as a 16 year old before heading to the WHL and leading all rookie defensemen in scoring with 35 points in 54 games. He has been poised with the puck, and he has not been afraid to play tight through the neutral zone or join the attack. It’s a shame he was left off the rookie tournament roster after suffering a rib injury, but when he’s played in preseason, he’s done a good job of putting himself on the map as someone to watch moving forward. In his first game, he played almost 19 minutes, and in the second, he led all defensemen on the team with 22:43.
– It took Ondrej Kase a period and change to start finding his timing – playing, really, in his first full game of real hockey since January 14 (he appeared in two other games but didn’t even hit seven minutes of ice time in either due to health issues) — but he has been all over the puck and making plays since then. He finished third among forwards in ice time that first game and led all forwards on the team in time on ice against Ottawa, including playing 3:26 on the penalty kill. They appear to want to use him as a Swiss army knife of sorts — secondary power play time, on the penalty kill, on a checking line, and presumably at some point, he will get some looks with the skilled forwards. The caveat with him will always be health, but if he can string together a season, his value and importance is pretty obvious.
– By process of elimination, if Ondrej Kase takes the spot on the left side wall on the secondary power play unit, we already know Jason Spezza will be on the right side and one of Rasmus Sandin/Morgan Rielly will be up top. In front of the net, it appears as though Nick Ritchie will get the first kick at the can, but Wayne Simmonds will surely receive looks there, too.
Really, that just leaves the bumper role, where Bunting and Josh Ho-Sang have both gotten looks. Michael Bunting is coming off the hat trick, while Ho-Sang recorded three assists and played nearly half a minute more on the power play in that game. Bunting is going to get a real look and spot on this team pretty well no matter what, but it is Ho Sang that will have to win a spot in that type of role to really make an impact. Otherwise, the top nine is relatively set player-wise, and all that is left is 6-8 minutes of 5v5 on the fourth line. It’s hard to make an impact in that type of role unless you are Jason Spezza.
– On a similar note, I am not sure there’s a spot for Nick Robertson there, either, and if he can’t crack the top nine to play real minutes and he isn’t on the second power-play unit, the decision seems quite obvious. He has been fine enough in preseason, but there has been nothing so far to suggest he’s stealing someone’s job on the NHL club to start the regular season.
– Quietly, Mike Amadio was second among forwards in time on ice against the Sens and has picked up a couple of points in two preseason games, including a really clever pass from behind the net. He likely is what he is at this point, but he does have 173 NHL games under his belt and 40 points – he can play in the league and represents a steady if unspectacular option for them to call up should injuries occur.
– There have been a few flashes from Nikita Gusev, but for a 29 year old playing for his NHL career, you’d expect a bit more drive to make an impact and solidify your spot on the team, or at least open the eyes of another organization. Think back to a guy like Mason Raymond, who basically walked in and gave them no choice. I don’t think Gusev is doing anything of the sort.
– I liked the little snapper from Rasmus Sandin that Bunting tipped for a goal against Ottawa. We have talked about this before, but he does some serious damage with that shot — which isn’t the hardest, but he gets it off quickly through traffic. The Leafs have a number of players who are actually quite good at parking themselves in front and causing problems (Ritchie, Simmonds, Tavares, potentially Bunting). Sandin will cause a lot of problems simply ripping those little snappers through traffic this season.
– I need to see him against lineups closer resembling NHL lineups — and also players that are really gearing up for the start of the season versus going through the motions — but Kirill Semyonov has not looked out of place so far. He could be the type of fourth liner that has enough skill to play with Spezza and not look completely out of place while also playing on the penalty kill (where they’ve been using him a bit in preseason) and providing a bit of a grinder element.
“Getting the other team after me or to get in their head, I feel like that’s when I’m playing my best. When they’re chasing after me and not worried about the game, that helps us out. So, I don’t mind playing that role,”
– Michael Bunting discussing his game
This is an element the Leafs haven’t really had since Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, and it’s a nice piece to add if it all works out. An under-discussed note on Michael Bunting is that since 2013, he has played 70 games in a season just once (in 2015-16 when he played 63 in the AHL and seven in the ECHL). I am really curious to see how he holds up over the course of this season.
“If we’re gonna get beat, we’re going to get beat through aggressiveness and not through passiveness.”
– Alex Kerfoot on the “new” penalty kill under the recently hired Dean Chenoweth
Penalty kills can look a little sloppy early on when they try to be aggressive while figuring out timing, who goes where, does what, etc. But you should always be trying to build an aggressive penalty kill, and with players like Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot on it – speed burners – there is some real potential here to have a great unit. Something to monitor.
“It is disgusting. Quite frankly, I am getting sick of talking about stuff like this. It continues to happen. I haven’t made a comment. I have just been kind of watching behind the scenes to see what is happening.
They gave the guy three games, plus he can buy back 10, or something like that. That is, quite frankly, embarrassing. The IIHF, the UHL — whoever is the governing body there has to do something about that. That kid needs to be banned.
That is the problem. Things like this are happening. It is not just that it just happens. We have seen it a million times already. The punishments definitely don’t match the crime.”
– Wayne Simmonds’ response to the racist incident in the Ukrainian hockey league
Well said, Wayne. There’s nothing more I can possibly add here other than to reiterate it is embarrassing and needs to change.
Tweets of the Week
Auston Matthews taking part in contact drills … another step in his recovery from wrist surgery
It appears he’ll stay out for his first full practice of camp pic.twitter.com/29fqqYHQoi
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 3, 2021
It is always nice to see small area games being played. It’s also nice to see Auston Matthews back.
Bunting adds a second 👀#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/SEKiUxhwuY
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 30, 2021
Michael Bunting is in the bumper role above tipping a puck in on the power play. I think there’s a real opportunity for him to claim this spot on the second unit. He has enough skill to make plays like this, and he is willing to go to the net, win battles, and create second-chance opportunities.
Boston eliminating Toronto from the postseason and it's not even hockey season yet
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) October 3, 2021
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1) If Ondrej Kase is healthy, I think he should not be on a line with David Kampf. Look, I like Kampf and I liked the signing at the time. Any even semi-regular reader here will know that I love checking centers, and I think they are extremely useful to have in your forward group. He’s big, he wins faceoffs, he can penalty kill, and he can erase good offensive players from the game. Absolutely, sign me up. But he can’t handle the puck or make plays, whereas Kase can.
You don’t pair up Kase with Kampf to make up for his lack of puck skills. You pair up Kase with other players who can also make plays with the puck and let them create together. To me, It’s a waste to pair those two.
2) Conversely, I think I’d quite happily unite a Pierre Engvall – David Kampf – Ilya Mikheyev line. That line stands 6’5 – 6’2 – 6’3, it has speed, good checkers, and it can just cycle teams down. You can trust them in high-leverage defensive situations, and that’s the type of identity checking line that a lot of teams have success with. They likely won’t score much and Engvall will have some moments leading to healthy scratches, but all in all, this is a good checking line. You can get away with one line that creates absolutely zero offense when you have a Matthews line, a Tavares line, and a Spezza line (potentially with Kerfoot centering him, too). That said, we know the coaching staff has been reluctant to play Engvall.
3) I think I get why the Leafs would simply reunite their top-four defensemen pairings from last season – they were genuinely really good! – but I think it’s a missed opportunity to not pair some of the kids with their veterans, split up the pairings, and try to bring along the young kids for the first quarter of the season. You have 82 games this season — it’s not a 56-game sprint again.
I do think there’s real value in pairing up young players who barely know the league with veterans who can help guide them along. Travis Dermott had his steadiest season by far last year playing alongside Zach Bogosian. In high-leverage situations (end of periods, final 10 minutes of games, etc.), they can always reunite the old pairings. It’s a lot to ask young kids to simply pair together and play well on a team under a microscope with high expectations.
4) I think — and really hope — that the Leafs don’t plan on just pairing up Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner and John Tavares – William Nylander all season and calling it a day. Mike Babcock made the exact same mistake (just the other way around, obviously), and being neither 100% all-in direction is the way to run it — split them up, mix and match, drop someone to L3. It is crazy to just pair them and rotate the pieces on the left side.
5) I am excited at the prospect of watching 82 games, being able to see some live games, a few games with friends and cold beverages, and hopefully, a playoff that truly feels like one. Here’s to another season. I know I won’t be taking this for granted, even if this team does drive us all nuts.