Onto the regular season, folks!
In Toronto’s last preseason game of 2021, they did us all a favour and iced a lineup consisting of 20 NHL regulars (minus Auston Matthews). Not that the results of these games matter too much, but the Leafs continued to dominate the run of play at 5v5 en route to a 4-1 victory over Ottawa.
My goal with these post-game articles is to critically evaluate players’ performance on the ice, which is going to be much more difficult in the 2021-22 season considering how last year’s playoff series ended — and the four preceding that. Nonetheless, I still firmly believe there are conclusions to be drawn from these exhibition games, even if some of the veterans aren’t exactly giving a Game-7-of-the-playoffs level of effort.
Then again, that might be a good thing if you’re a Leafs fan.
Now that we’ve got the easy zingers out of the way, it’s time to move onto the actual #analysis. Let’s break down some hockey players!
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — I’ve given Rielly a hard time over the years for some of the flaws in his defensive game, which has made me wonder how much I’m underselling the elite value he provides on offense. When he’s roaming around the offensive zone, there aren’t too many players in the league better at finding an open patch of ice and threading passes to the slot.
Here’s a perfect example of what makes Rielly — and by extension the Leafs — so difficult to defend in the offensive zone.
He goes from covering the right point to essentially playing left wing because he saw the open space available there. He’ll make plays like these with regularity, sometimes activating down the left wall, other times down the right wall. It makes life unpredictable for the defense.
Rielly also scored a power-play goal with a wrister from the blue line thanks to a weird bounce, but I care way more about the high-value passes he was making at 5-on-5. There were multiple times he snuck down the wall into an open spot, received a pass, and then dished a cross-seam pass to an open teammate for a Grade-A scoring chance.
He didn’t pick up an assist on any of those plays. In fact, the only assist he picked up was on another flukey goal — TJ Brodie pinballing a slapshot off of John Tavares’ pants. Sometimes you don’t get rewarded for your A+ plays. Sometimes you’ll pick up a point for a B- play.
That’s hockey for you.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — His creativity is what separates him from other NHL players. That trait was on full display tonight. Whether it was a back-heel soccer pass to Tavares off the rush or springing William Nylander on a breakaway with a slapshot off the glass, Marner was making lots of high-end plays tonight.
My favourite was the following pass off the rush.
He’s so good at slowing the game down after gaining the zone. One of my favourite ways of describing Marner’s game is something Jeff Marek said about him back when he was with the London Knights. “Some people make the right play. Marner makes the better play.”
Now, I’d like to see him move a bit more on the power play to get himself more open in the middle of the ice. In his previous game, Marner was rolling up high so he could receive a pass and skate downhill towards the net, which is where he’s at his best. He also did a better job of supporting the puck-carriers on the wall by giving them a quick one-touch option.
I didn’t see as much of that tonight, which is an area to keep an eye on moving forward. He’ll need to adapt to this new bumper role if Toronto’s power play is going to reach its potential this season.
John Tavares (C #91) — Speaking of creativity, how many guys in the league make the pass that John Tavares made to Pierre Engvall tonight? Marner got him the puck in tight, but rather than letting a quick shot go like everyone expected — including the goaltender — Tavares took the extra half-second to tuck the puck back to a wide-open Engvall for the easy goal.
That wasn’t Tavares’ only magical play offensively. He made a couple of brilliant passes to Marner off the rush, one of which came after toe-dragging a defender, the other off of a one-touch pass. Tavares also hit the post at one point and connected on a cross-crease pass right afterward.
This doesn’t look like the player who got off to a slow start last season. I’d wager he looks much closer to the point-per-game player we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in 2021-22, especially if he gets some more shifts alongside Marner.
Jason Spezza (C #19) — I like saying this because it’s a fact: Jason Spezza led the Leafs in Points per 60 last season. For that reason, it shouldn’t surprise you when he makes high-level plays in the offensive zone. Slap passes backdoor, stick-handling through defenders, seam passes through the middle of the defense – this is all par for the course for Spezza.
I’m not sure what he has to do at this point to earn more than the 11 minutes of ice time he averaged last season. He continues to gain the zone with ease, especially when he gets a chance to pick up some speed. Here’s hoping the Leafs reward him for the value he provides on the ice — and off of it for those of you who watched All Or Nothing.
Jack Campbell’s Stick — The joke here is that he came up with a few great poke checks that were timed perfectly. The one that stands out is when Campbell poked the puck off of Logan Shaw’s stick on a breakaway, although the following one was my personal favourite.
On the penalty kill, reading the play is the most important part for the goaltender. Campbell realizes Tyler Ennis isn’t a threat to score after getting the puck down low and makes the wise decision to get his stick out and take away the passing lane.
I’d say he’s earned himself a Red Lobster dinner tonight.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — Fun fact: this was Wayne Simmonds’ first primary assist as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
If I was confident he could make these passes with regularity, I’d be thrilled right now. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how repeatable these kinds of plays are for Simmonds. Remember when Cody Ceci made that amazing pass off the rush early in the season that got everyone’s hopes up? I fear this could be a similar situation.
On a more positive note, let’s give the Wayne Train credit for what he did accomplish tonight. That was a heck of a pass he made above, but the real reason his teammates will be thrilled with him is that he stood up for Justin Holl by fighting Scott Sabourin, who ragdolled the Leafs’ right-handed defenseman earlier in the game.
Regardless of your stance on fighting, it’s clear how much that meant to the Leafs’ bench afterward, which is something I’m trying more and more to take into account with my analysis.
Nick Ritchie (LW, #20) — That clip above is exactly the type of goal you can expect Nick Ritchie to score for Toronto this season. Driving hard to the net, puck on his stick, puck immediately off his stick, and hopefully into the back of the net.
Ritchie plays a very simple game, which weirdly might make him easier to play with, since you know where you can expect him to be. There are some downsides to his game, however. You can count on him to take at least one dumb penalty per week — tonight’s quota was a trip and an interference penalty in the offensive zone.
He also has a tendency to overskate the play when he’s covering for a pinching defenseman as the third forward back (F3).
He’s very good at one thing, but he’s far from the perfect hockey player.
Ondrej Kase (RW, #25) — Full disclosure, I gasped when he went head-first into the boards. With his concussion history, it just feels like there’s a long-term injury waiting to happen.
When it comes to his performance tonight, Kase made a few solid plays in the offensive zone, including a great backdoor pass to Alex Kerfoot and a forehand-backhand deke that beat the goaltender but just missed wide. It was actually his play without the puck that impressed me the most tonight, playing responsible hockey as the F3 at even strength, not to mention some strong penalty killing by preventing zone entries at the blue line.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — He made a few nice passes up ice to help get Toronto’s forwards behind Ottawa’s neutral zone trap. More importantly, though, Muzzin was stout as usual when defending the rush. He did get beat once by Ennis, but for the most part, Muzzin closed the gap on opposing forwards in a hurry, forcing them to make rushed decisions by applying pressure at the right time and using his body to separate opponents from the puck.
Michael Bunting (LW, #77) — After Ilya Mikheyev left the game with an injury, Michael Bunting was given the prime opportunity of playing alongside the Tavares-Nylander duo. He didn’t disappoint, getting himself open for a few one-timer opportunities.
Prior to joining that line, I was a bit disappointed in Bunting’s play. He struggled to move the puck up the ice, dumping it in and losing possession most of the time. When he got the chance to play with some players who could do more of the puck transporting for him, it seemed to open up his game, allowing Bunting to focus on getting open and firing the puck whenever he got it.
William Nylander (RW, #88) — Offensively, I really liked Nylander’s creativity off the rush, particularly on the backhand saucer pass to Bunting for a one-timer. Defensively, I was frustrated with Nylander’s lack of engagement, getting beat backdoor on the penalty kill, not to mention getting walked by Connor Brown.
When he wants to be, Nylander can be a 200-foot monster, which we saw in the most recent playoffs. I’d love to see that player with more consistency.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — We could probably do the inverse of the Nylander section here. Defensively, Brodie made some excellent plays with his stick, breaking up passes through the middle of the ice and stick-lifting opposing puck carriers at the opportune moment — aside from his slashing penalty.
Offensively, he was missing pretty basic passes at certain points. I know he picked up an assist on a flukey goal, but this was a pretty underwhelming game from him as a puck-mover.
The Sandin-Dermott Pair — There were some ups and downs for Rasmus Sandin in this one. He had some smooth moments with the puck on the breakout. He also had a pretty unforgivable turnover out of his own end. In the offensive end, he looked comfortable getting into open ice when activating in the play, not dissimilar to Rielly. On the defensive side of the puck, he did allow the pass you’re not supposed to allow on a 2-on-1.
Then there’s Travis Dermott, who everyone I know will make fun of me for complimenting, but here goes nothing. I liked the way he boxed out opposing forwards on puck retrievals, running that “legal interference” NHL referees will let you away with to disrupt forecheckers. He also made a couple of great stretch passes up the ice that led to odd-man rushes.
David Kampf (C, #64) — The Leafs want Kampf to develop more on the offensive side of his game, and I would certainly hope so considering he scored one goal in 56 games last year. Frankly, I still haven’t seen much evidence that Kampf can think the game fast enough with the puck to make plays offensively.
Along the boards, he’s great at winning battles and regaining possesion, but when he gets himself into the middle of the ice, it looks like he doesn’t know what to do with the puck. I’m hoping he’ll develop more confidence in that department — he was attempting some creative passes after all. Unfortunately, none of them hit their intended target.
Pierre Engvall (LW, #47) — If we attribute most of his goal to the brilliant pass Tavares gave him, I’m not sure what else to give Engvall credit for tonight. He did blow by the defense for a breakaway as time expired in the second period, but he also demonstrated so many of the bad habits that make him the most frustrating Leafs forwards on this roster for me (and Sheldon Keefe).
Here are just a few things that caught my eye tonight:
- Unwillingness to fight to get inside position in puck battles
- Unnecessarily chasing play behind the net
- Shooting a “fadeaway” turnaround shot from the boards
- This is the equivalent of shouting “KOBEEEE” with a hand in your face
You can’t teach speed and you can’t teach 6’5. Can you teach good decisions? Engvall really makes me wonder whether that’s possible.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — This wasn’t his night. We already mentioned the Sabourin beating, but even Holl’s puck-moving wasn’t the greatest in this game. He also got caught up in the play as a 2-on-1 goal was scored the other way, but as we’ll break down in the following section, I’d argue there was a player more responsible for blowing the coverage.
Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — If I’m evaluating Kerfoot based on a large sample, he had the worst 5v5 play-driving metrics on the Leafs last season. If I’m simply assessing this game, he cost his team a goal against by failing to cover for a defenseman high up in the play.
It’s just one play, but it isn’t the first time Kerfoot has blown an F3 coverage and certainly won’t be the last. When you’re paying a forward $3.5 million and they’re not exactly PP1 or PP2 material, you’d expect them to stay above their man on plays like these.
Ilya Mikheyev (LW, #65) — The poor guy left the game with a hand injury, which looks like it’s going to take him out long-term. First, there was that nasty wrist laceration that seemed to deprive him of whatever finishing touch he showed in his rookie season, now this?
Talk about your bad breaks.
If this injury lands him on LTIR based on the timeline for recovery, the Leafs will be able to carry Adam Brooks on the active roster without exposing him to waivers and could keep Timothy Liljegren up with the big club as well as a #7 defenseman.
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 70 percent of the shots and 74 percent of the expected goals at 5v5. After six preseason games, they rank first in the NHL in shot differential and second in expected goal differential at even strength.
Take out of that what you will.
Tweets of the Night
One thing that was clear from them watching the Amazon series on leafs, how much the Leafs, both players and management appreciate Simmonds. The fight with Sabourin, while risky and needless, would absolutely resonate around the room.
— Mike Johnson (@mike_p_johnson) October 10, 2021
Part of me wants to agree and join the Wayne Train party in unison. The other part of me remembers how frustrated I was when Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock overrated Matt Martin and continued to play him ahead of forwards who were clearly superior hockey players.
If I’m going to be objective in my analysis, I need to stay consistent here. I don’t think Simmonds is one of Toronto’s 12 best forwards and I’m really worried they’re going to overvalue the intangibles he brings to the table.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 10, 2021
But damn it, how can you not love the guy?