Call me crazy, but I’m having fun with some of these games.
I know how hard it’s going to be to convince the average Leafs fan to care about the regular season this year — let alone a preseason game — but we’re learning some important things about the team right now. The new-look power play appears to be clicking; Nick Ritchie parked in front of the net for Mitch Marner seems to work; Ilya Mikheyev still can’t finish on odd-man opportunities.
Well, I guess some things haven’t changed.
The good news is that the aspects of Toronto’s play that we’re all analyzing closely are trending in the right direction. The top six and PP1 formation they ran tonight (minus Auston Matthews) will probably be used on opening night — and they look mighty effective. Even the guys expected to play for the Marlies have made a solid impression throughout this preseason.
I’m in a good mood tonight and you should be, too. There are a lot of positives to take out of Tuesday night’s 6-2 win over Montreal, so let’s dive into things.
It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!
Nick Ritchie (LW, #20) — Good things happen when you go to the net. I’m sure you’ve all seen the Marner saucer pass backdoor to Ritchie by now, so I won’t bother breaking down the tape. It was such a textbook example of why this pairing should work at 5v5. Marner has always been great at setting up his teammates near the blue paint, which is exactly where Ritchie wants to post up.
The NHL’s crackdown on cross-checking, if it’s treated seriously, should help the 6’2, 230-pound power forward get even more open ice down low. With his finishing touch and the quality of passers he’ll be playing with this season, will any of us be surprised if he notches a career-high of 20-plus goals this season?
I know Auston Matthews won’t be.
Auston Matthews on Nick Ritchie: "He’s a really big boy, but he can make plays — forehand, backhand with guys on him. He’s such a big body, it’s hard to take the puck away from him, and he has good vision. He’s an easy guy to play with, and you know he's going to be at the net."
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) October 5, 2021
We’ll see if he can hang on the first line throughout the season, but for now, I’ve been very impressed with how well Ritchie can get himself open in the high-danger areas of the ice. The puck is on his stick and then off his stick right away, which is how he scored his second goal of the evening. He also did a great job of digging pucks out of the corner for his skilled linemates.
Spencer Carbery — This is the new man in charge of Toronto’s power play for the 2021-22 and I’d say he’s off to a heck of a start. Getting Marner to buy into his new role as the bumper seems to be working so far. It’s given the Leafs much quicker puck-movement on PP1, while also allowing some more free-flowing movement from the forwards to find open ice.
We’ll elaborate more on that topic in Marner’s section below, but the take-home point here is that the Leafs power play looks dangerous again, which hasn’t been the case for a calendar year.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m not sure how many that makes a GIF worth, but here goes nothing.
On the first chance, Marner rotates up high to get himself open for the backdoor slap-pass to John Tavares, which probably should have gone in. On the second one, he makes a one-touch pass down low to Tavares, who quickly gets the puck to William Nylander in a prime shooting position.
I loved how quickly Marner was zipping the puck around from the middle of the ice. It reminded me of Tiki Taka Barcelona in their prime, getting your best playmaker in the middle of the defense and giving him multiple options to distribute. A genius passer like Marner should be able to make the right read under pressure before the penalty killers can react, especially as he gets more comfortable from the Brayden Point spot.
At 5v5, Marner did an excellent job of wheeling around the defense in the offensive zone to create passing lanes through the middle of the ice. He’s so good at Mat Barzal-ing a set defense in these situations that it makes me wonder if he really needs an Auston Matthews to put up 90 points.
Why not spread the talent throughout your lineup and have a Marner line with a couple of shot threats and a Matthews line that we already know defenses can’t stop? Just a thought.
John Tavares (C #91) — As always, Tavares did a great job of evading checks along the boards before completing the next pass at 5v5. It was his playmaking on the power play that really stood out to me tonight, though.
I love him on the goal line of PP1. His hands are fantastic in tight, whether it’s for a JVR-esque flick of the wrists off the bar or simply deflecting point shots. What separates Tavares from your typical net-front option is that he can make high-level passes while also being a scoring threat.
That makes it really tough to know what he’s going to do when he gets the puck down low.
I’d wager good money that he and Nylander are going to connect on a lot of these this season.
When Tavares is walking out in front, he’s also looking for an open man in the slot. With the motion Toronto is looking to create on the power play, don’t be surprised to see the defenseman jump into that open space.
It’s going to look a bit different when Morgan Rielly or Rasmus Sandin hops into that spot as a left-shot, but it’s still a play that’s probably going to be available from time to time when the defense collapses to take away the cross-crease pass.
I can confidently say I’m excited to watch the Leafs power play again.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (C #85) — My biggest concern with him throughout the preseason has been his play at 5v5. I’ve loved him operating from the half-wall with the man advantage, but if Jeremy Bracco has taught us anything, it’s that you need to make yourself useful at even strength if you’re going to earn an NHL roster spot.
Well, SDA looked useful tonight. He flashed his mitts on a few separate occasions to shed oncoming checkers and get himself into open ice. Even though he doesn’t have the separation gear that most 5’10, sub-170 pound skill guys tend to have, his use of deception and quick hands were enough to create open space for himself in this game.
This is just one example, but he was making quick cuts like these all evening.
For those who are going to be tracking his development in the American Hockey League, keep an eye on his skating. If he can get just a little bit faster, it’s going to make a world of difference when it comes to his transition game. His hands are already moving at light speed. He just needs his feet to catch up.
I’d also be a bit worried about his play low in the defensive zone as an undersized center. There were multiple times in this game where he got outmuscled in tight spaces, pushed to the ground in board battles, and even got forced into taking a holding penalty in front of the net. These are areas he’ll need to improve defensively if he’s going to earn the trust of an NHL coaching staff.
William Nylander (RW, #88) and Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — I’m grouping these two together because I couldn’t get enough of Toronto’s power play in this game. Neither player was particularly dominant at 5v5, although Rielly did have some nice moments in the offensive zone. They were, however, brilliant with the man advantage.
Nylander has always been an excellent quarterback from the half-wall, but because he’s stuck on a team with two $11 million players who also prefer that role, it’s often forced him into other areas — or PP2. Personally, I prefer Nylander on the left dot because of his willingness to shoot the one-timer and ability to beat a goaltender from distance. He didn’t do it in this game, but if they keep feeding him cross-seam one-timers, the dam is going to break eventually.
We tend to give Rielly a hard time for point shots on the power play, which is why I wanted to give him credit for only taking one of them to keep the PK honest before faking his next couple and getting the forwards on the half-wall into more open ice. There’s an art to baiting penalty killers from the point, and I thought Rielly walked that line quite well in this game.
The Rubins-Liljegren Pair — I might be the only analytics nerd who loved Kristians Rubins‘ game tonight, but so be it. The 6’5, 221-pound defenseman threw his weight around on multiple occasions to separate opponents from the puck. Some of them were big-time hits, too. Insufficient puck-moving ability will likely keep him out of the NHL, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a one-game sample of playing really well in my books.
His partner, Timothy Liljegren, continues to impress me with his transition defense. Gap control is one of the things I value most in modern NHL defensemen since most goals are scored off the rush in the year 2021. Liljegren has come a long way in that regard, keeping opposing forwards within a stick-length of him as they cross the blueline while taking away the passing lane through the middle of the ice.
The fact that you can trust him as a rush defender at 5v5 is reason enough to at least make him a 7D at the NHL level, so we’ll have to see what the Leafs end up deciding to do with him.
Brennan Menell (RD, #61) — I was going through some KHL stats earlier today — because of course I was — and Menell’s name jumped off the page as one of the highest producing defensemen over the last decade under the age of 25. Now, if Nikita Zaitsev or Mikko Lehtonen have taught us anything, it’s that lighting up the KHL might not matter that much.
That said, we can see clear signs of Menell’s past experience on North American ice. He looks so comfortable walking the line on PP2, winding up for fake slapshots to bait the defense, making passes the penalty killers aren’t expecting, even jumping up into the slot for a power-play goal. He brings that same level of creativity in the offensive zone at 5v5, but he’ll need to improve his play on the other side of the puck if he wants to crack this Leafs lineup.
Hated Them & Loved Them — Let me help explain to you why Ilya Mikheyev and Nikita Gusev drove me crazy tonight.
Mikheyev was a dog in puck battles, gained the zone with speed in transition, and even scored a goal with his quick release. Then he reminded us why his expected goals and actual goals never lined up last season.
I keep telling myself he can’t possibly keep shooting zero percent on these opportunities — regression to mean! Then I wonder how much that awful wrist injury has affected his ability to settle down pucks and finish in tight.
With Gusev, I loved the way he was running PP2 from the left dot. He looked poised with the puck, baited defenders before making the right pass, and picked up a primary assist by finding Nick Ritchie open in the middle of the ice. At 5v5, I hated his refusal to join a puck battle and lacklustre effort on defense. You could live with it if he was making dynamic plays at even strength, but he wasn’t even doing that.
In response to tonight’s game, the Leafs cut him, which is consistent with my evaluation of him this preseason.
Brett Seney (C, #64) and Michael Amadio (RW, #18) — They were on the fourth line with SDA tonight and actually dominated the run of play at 5v5. I’d argue more of that came from their uber-skilled linemate, but we need to give Amadio some credit for winning loose puck battles along the boards.
It’s also worth pointing out Brett Seney did this, which precisely zero of us expected.
Not a bad sendoff before going back down to the Marlies. Well done, Mr. Seney!
Kirill Semyonov (C, #94) — This wasn’t his best night, even though I’ve really enjoyed his play throughout the preseason. He did make a few nice plays defensively — namely, a turnover forced on the penalty kill leading to that Seney breakaway goal above.
Semyonov just didn’t make as many high-skill plays with this puck in this game as we’ve grown used to seeing. He also got knocked down hard a few times in the corners, which isn’t something you love to see. It should be noted he was playing the second game of a back-to-back in which he received significant ice time.
The Expendables — I know the reader doesn’t care as much about the players who merely played “alright,” so let’s go into bullet-point mode here:
- Adam Brooks (C, #77) — Hasn’t looked dangerous to me with the puck lately, with his only chance coming on the PK, only to get stick-lifted by Alex Romanov at the last moment.
- Mac Hollowell (RD, #56) — Looked like a RHD playing on the left side tonight. Not his best game.
- Kurtis Gabriel (RW, #29) — Obviously, he’s not an NHL skater, but he got into a big fight late in a 6-2 hockey game after Montreal had thrown a borderline hit, which is what you’d expect the next “Rich Clune in training” to do.
Veterans in Preseason
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — Can I just type “veteran preseason game” and move on? This wasn’t Brodie’s most noticeable night, but I also have absolutely no concerns with him heading into the season.
Petr Mrazek (G, #34) — A light workload tonight with 20 saves on 22 shots, although he could have been sharper between the pipes. The first goal he allowed was a pinball bounce off a body in front and then Mac Hollowell’s skate and in, so it’s hard to blame him too much there. On the second goal, though, there’s a good argument he could have taken away a bit more space even with the good screen in front.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Fun fact: Toronto outshot Montreal 24-7 in the first period and then generated another eight consecutive shots to start the first six minutes of the second period. It was a dominant performance, albeit in an exhibition game.
Tweets of the Night
Nick Ritchie might be the next Michael Bunting
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 5, 2021
Watch your back, Wendel Clark.
Forward Josh Ho-Sang has been released from his PTO and has signed an AHL contract with the Marlies. https://t.co/I3JcY4cNjI
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) October 6, 2021
This was announced halfway through the game. It makes the most sense since it allows the Leafs to avoid putting Josh Ho-Sang through waivers. If/when they want to call him up, they can simply sign him to an NHL contract.
Personally, I’d like to see the Leafs slide Nylander to LW and find room for Ho-Sang somewhere on the RW depth chart. If he continues to generate chances off the rush at the rate we saw in the preseason, he’s an NHL talent for my money.
The following players have been assigned to the Toronto Marlies (AHL):
F Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
D Mac Hollowell
G Erik Källgren
D Kristiāns Rubīns
Nikita Gusev has been released from his PTO.
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) October 6, 2021
These were announced after the game, and I’m sure they come as no surprise. I am not sure how Carl Dahlstrom has somehow avoided the roster purge tonight, but the AHL guys will all eventually be sent down (probably tomorrow), so who cares about the timing of each transaction at the end of the day, right?
Morgan Rielly is happy with progress of the #Leafs power play, noting with a grin that "Mitch has created his own position, which is nice. He's making it work, just taking the available ice; that's what we talked about doing."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 6, 2021
In sports, everyone is so concerned with doing things the way everyone else has done it. I’m glad to see the Leafs are getting creative with their talent and trying to find new ways to get a pass-first playmaker into some different spots on the ice to leverage his strengths.
It looked fantastic tonight.