We’re officially back!
How great did it feel to hear a packed Scotiabank Arena again? Sure, it was just Game 1 of the regular season for a team that no one will be taking too seriously until the playoffs, but man, I can’t tell you how much it means to have that buzz back in our lives.
I’m usually the hyper-rational fan trying my best to analyze everything with numbers and video, but sometimes the emotional aspect of the game can hit you hard. For whatever reason, that was the case for me tonight, and I really hope some of our readers can relate.
Putting my “analyst” cap back on, the Leafs controlled the run of play in their season opener en route to a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens. This featured a strong showing from William Nylander, Toronto’s third line, and a no-show from the fourth line.
To help break things down further, let’s evaluate each player individually like we always do. It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!
Pierre Engvall (LW, #47) — Before we break down his goal, I’d like to point out the fact that he was finishing checks in this game and even got into it with Brendan Gallagher after this whistle. That scrum came the shift after Gallagher bumped Jack Campbell in his crease; a scrum that resulted in Josh Anderson picking up the extra minor penalty with under two minutes remaining in the game, essentially icing the game for Toronto.
The reason I bring this up is that Engvall rarely uses his size advantage like this and I loved seeing more of that side of him. He also used his length to poke pucks free in the defensive zone and create 2-on-1s the other way, as always, but it was his “productive toughness” tonight that’s really going to impress Sheldon Keefe & Co.
We also need to talk about Engvall’s shot. The Marlies actually used to make him the trigger-man on PP1 because he can do this.
Am I saying he should be the go-to guy on Toronto’s second unit PP? No, but he clearly has a heavy wrist shot. If he could start taking more of those from good shot locations at 5v5, imagine how many goals he could score. His tendency to drift towards the boards and fire low percentage floaters isn’t lost on me, but neither is his ability to beat an NHL goaltender clean from distance.
He’s one of the toolsy-est players I’ve ever had to evaluate, and frankly, I’m still not quite sure what to make of him. I just love it when all those tools come together, even if those nights aren’t as consistent as everyone in his life would like them to be.
William Nylander (RW, #88) — It’s amazing what happens when you give talented players more than 16 minutes a night. Here’s a quick recap of Nylander’s game tonight: his line generated 12 shots from the slot and gave up two at 5v5, he generated six of those himself and scored the game-winning goal with a deceptive release off the rush.
Jason Spezza would be proud.
Jake Allen bit on the first pump-fake, giving Nylander room to tuck it perfectly over his left shoulder.
It was nice to see Keefe give Nylander a few extra shifts alongside Tavares-Marner in offensive situations, not to mention some PK2 usage. We’ve seen other skilled players throughout the NHL thrive on a secondary PK unit, since you’re really just setting up in a neutral zone trap and trying to capitalize on any turnovers.
We’ll see if this trend of 18-plus minutes a night continues for Nylander — because he absolutely deserves it.
Ondrej Kase (RW, #25) — He generated 10 shots from the slot tonight. Let me repeat that: ten shots off of his stick from a dangerous area the defense is trying to take away.
Kase has a knack for stick-handling his way through tight spots in the offensive zone, which is a big part of the reason he’s able to get to those areas and generate those looks. He was also making passes out of those spots before relocating himself in front.
He’s talented enough to play in Toronto’s top six, but the third line might need him this season as an offensive driver, assuming he can stay healthy.
John Tavares (C #91) — Toronto’s captain was also patrolling the slot tonight, redirecting pucks from in tight and getting himself a few rebound opportunities on the doorstep. The pucks didn’t go in for Tavares on Wednesday night, but good things happen when you’re getting chances near the blue paint.
The Sandin-Dermott Pair — There were a few moments this pairing scared me in their own end, which was mitigated by the fact that the Leafs spent most of their time with the puck when these two were on the ice.
That has a lot to do with Rasmus Sandin‘s crisp passing and ability to get himself open after making a pass. He also did a tremendous job of walking the line in the offensive zone, getting the puck to the middle of the ice before ringing one off the bar with a well-placed wrist shot from the point.
This will come as no shock to my regular readers, but I was also a fan of Travis Dermott‘s game tonight. The biggest thing that stood out to me was how active he was in the offensive zone. In years past, it felt like there was an invisible forcefield preventing him from skating in below the dots.
Tonight? He was jumping up into the play when needed, activating below the goal-line a few separate times to help the Leafs sustain pressure in the offensive zone. Heck, he even got himself a Grade-A chance from the crease at one point. Pinching can be a risky proposition as a defenseman, but if the other four teammates are reading and reacting to the play properly, it’s actually the right move in Keefe’s system to maximize puck possession.
It goes to show why Toronto had the puck roughly 70 percent of the time when Sandin-Dermott shared the ice.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — He was the one who got Nylander into open ice for the game-winning goal, which is a nice microcosm of Rielly’s game. He always leads the Leafs in controlled breakouts and clean entries among defensemen. I don’t have the numbers to confirm that tonight, but I’d wager he was right up there.
His game is so reliant on speed, which he still has at age 28. He was blowing by his man in transition, activating into the play to help give Toronto numbers off the rush. I also loved the way he roamed around the offensive zone as a fourth forward, giving the opposing defense headaches trying to track him down.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — He was forced to make a couple of big saves early to prevent a multi-goal Habs advantage, with the big joke being “it would’ve been 2-0 by now if Freddie was in net” — I had a few separate people send me that text. What stood out to me about Campbell’s play tonight was his rebound control, especially on the penalty kill. There were a few shots that caught him up in the shoulder and still stuck to him like velcro, allowing his tired penalty killers to reset and get the line change if needed.
It still drives me nuts when I see people overrate Campbell’s Win-Loss record as an evaluative measure of goaltending performance — it’s a terrible stat for goalies — but tonight’s win was certainly earned.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — He didn’t take over the game offensively, but this was still a solid night for Marner. He had a few chances to score off the rush, particularly on a backhand in tight that just missed. With respect to his play on PP1, I would’ve liked to see a bit more movement to get open, although this was a nice little scoring chance for him in the middle.
He wasn’t able to elevate the puck after picking it up on his back foot, but these are the types of quick shots you tend to get in the bumper role. With Marner, it’s not so much the power on his wrist shot he needs to improve as it is the quickness of his release when he’s shooting from different angles, like in this clip for example. A bit more power obviously wouldn’t hurt, though.
Michael Bunting (LW, #58) — I have a feeling Leafs fans are going to love this guy. As you saw tonight, he has no problems driving towards the blue paint and wreaking havoc in front. He made friends with three separate Habs on the same play, all of whom were trying to fist bump him after the whistle — at least that’s how I saw it.
For his troubles, Bunting was the recipient of a few borderline hits later in the game, which comes with the territory, I guess. He also earned his team a power play by fighting for inside positioning in front and drawing an interference penalty on Alex Romanov.
Sometimes the refs are going to call those, sometimes they won’t, but that doesn’t mean you stop going to the dirty areas. Bunting knows this all too well.
David Kampf (C, #64) — His line dominated at even strength, although I’d personally attribute that more to Kase and Engvall’s stellar play tonight. This isn’t to take anything away from Kampf’s defensive game, which was predictably strong. The issue is when Kampf got the puck in offensive situations, he struggled to make plays, with the exception of one great pass out front to Kase.
Now, the penalty kill is where he really shines. I’m sure Keefe is going to love having a real center he can trust to win faceoffs on PK1 and actually stay out there to kill the remainder of it. Spezza is still a FOGO option (Face-Off Get-Off) for right-side draws, but Kampf is so good at pressuring puck carriers and retreating back to the slot when needed that I’m wondering if he ends up being the faceoff specialist for both left and right-side draws on the PK.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — His pairing had a rough time tonight, but for once, that was more on Jake Muzzin in my opinion. Holl played a tight gap in transition defense all game, forcing opposing forwards to the outside for low percentage shots. He also made a sprawling save on the 5v3 penalty kill, which the capacity crowd let him know how much they appreciated it.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — This was an off-night for Brodie. Offensively, a lot of plays were dying on his stick. Defensively, his gap didn’t look as tight as usual when defending the rush.
To help show you what I mean, NHL defensemen usually want to keep the opposing forward within one stick-length of them by the time the forward reaches your blueline with the puck.
This is just one example featuring Cole Caufield, but there were a few moments like these tonight. We know Brodie is an elite rush defender; he just wasn’t tonight.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — He turned the puck over and fell down on a 4v3 rush, leading directly to a 2v1 goal against the other way. Could Holl have prevented the pass through the middle of the ice on that play? Maybe, but he was also put in a pretty tough spot.
Muzzin also allowed a cross-crease pass on the 5v3 penalty kill, which should’ve been a tap-in for Christian Dvorak. Fortunately for Muzzin, the newly-acquired Canadien fanned on the shot, but that’s still a bad process despite the lucky result.
Nick Ritchie (LW, #20) — In and around the blue paint, Ritchie is one of Toronto’s most valuable players. Outside of it, he’s got his limitations.
While his goalie screen played its role on the 1-0 goal, he didn’t make much of an impact on this game, failing to make much of a difference on the forecheck because of his slow foot speed. Ritchie also struggled to make plays fast enough off the rush to take advantage of the defense, often slowly recycling possession to an open defenseman, giving the opposition time to collapse multiple players down towards the slot.
Alex Kerfoot (C #15) — I can already feel myself going into Cody Ceci or Matt Martin Mode here. I don’t want to unnecessarily criticize a player because of their contract. Instead, my goal is to objectively evaluate the player’s performance when he’s on the ice.
So tell me, what do you see here?
I see Kerfoot blowing an F3 assignment, again. If he’s not providing defensive value at 5v5 and he isn’t producing much offensively, I’m left wondering what he does for this team aside from the odd penalty kill here and there.
The Fourth Line — A one-game sample isn’t enough to fully evaluate a line, but this definitely wasn’t the greatest showing for Michael Amadio and company. They got filled in at even strength, barely touching the puck for the most part. Wayne Simmonds was bobbling pucks off the rush, while Jason Spezza tried to make skilled plays up the ice, ultimately failing at 5v5.
It’s worth noting Spezza looked good quarterbacking the power play, so it might be time to consider getting him some more talented linemates at even strength.
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 54 percent of the shot attempts, but 59 percent of the scoring chances and expected goals. This tells us that they did a better job of creating offence from closer to the net, which you can see from the heat map above.
Big shoutout to JFreshHockey (aka Jack Fraser) for helping me fix a bug with these on game night. He does fantastic work if you’re not already following him on Twitter.
Tweets of the Night
ANNOUNCER: AAAAAND NOW…YOUR TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS!
FANS: [smoking a cigarette and staring into the middle distance like an alienated French cafe rat in the 60s] woo
— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) October 13, 2021
Hey, at least they woke up after a slow start!
this gretzky – barkley shootout during first intermission is already the best thing an nhl broadcast has ever done and it’s TNT’s first day on the job
— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) October 14, 2021
As an obsessed fan of this sport, it’s awesome to see the American broadcast make things more entertaining for viewers.
Here’s our first from tonight’s game vs #GoldenKnights along with an explainer of what you’re looking at!
Let us know what you think!https://t.co/xDYYJlzvyI
— Alison (@AlisonL) October 13, 2021
This has nothing to do with tonight’s Leafs game. It’s just an incredible article by one of my role models in this industry. Alison Lukan does a phenomenal job of explaining how to use information to understand the game of hockey. If you’re looking to learn more about this sport, I highly encourage checking out her work.
— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) October 14, 2021
Wow, we really stuck the landing with the Leafs theme here, eh? One of my best friends tried forcing me to go with him to BMO Field tonight to watch Alphonso Davies, but I blew him off so I could rewatch clips of Kerfoot blowing defensive coverages instead.
I think my friend wins this round.