Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jon Blacker

I have to start by stating the obvious: Boy, is it nice to have fans in the stands again.

In the season opener, the Leafs killed off a 5v3 at a critical juncture in the game, and the response from the crowd made it just a little bit more enjoyable as a spectator.

Three games into the new season while missing their best player, I don’t think anyone would argue that the Leafs have played anywhere near their best hockey. But they are 2-1-0, and they had chances to tie it up late in the game in their loss in Ottawa.

We know this team is good on paper — and in the regular season —  and picking up points while not playing its best hockey is always a good indicator for placing well in the standings.

It is difficult to judge a team overall when it is missing its superstar, but the Leafs’ new acquisitions have generally shown well. Most of us knew that Ondrej Kase is a capable NHLer, and it’s just a matter of whether or not he can stay healthy. So far, he’s healthy and he looks good.

Michael Bunting has shown well as a secondary scorer who adds some energy and can do a bit of everything. David Kampf has come as advertised as a no-frills checking center (which they needed), and the bet on the existing defense group — they didn’t sign a veteran and ran with a trio of Travis Dermott / Rasmus Sandin / Timothy Liljegren instead — looks wise so far.

Petr Mrazek was also playing really well before the injury. Only Nick Ritchie has gotten off to a slow start. It’s three games in, but the early returns are promising.

It also goes to show that while the new players have generally played well, the Leafs’ play as a team hasn’t been at the level you’d expect just yet. It’s always going to come down to the stars. More than most franchises, this Leafs team is designed to be driven by them.

William Nylander has been their best player through three games and Morgan Rielly has – somewhat quietly – also been quite good. John Tavares and Mitch Marner have not exactly come out of the gate on fire.

A few ice time totals stand out. In the first game of the season, it was pointed out that Marner played under 20 minutes. That did not last long — he played over 24 in the next night and over 20 in the third game. Marner has played two more minutes per game at even strength than Nylander.

Speaking of Nylander, he is averaging nearly 19.5 minutes per game so far. Last year in the playoffs, Keefe noted that they like Nylander around the 16-minute mark as the optimal ice time figure for him. That has been short-lived as his game has continued to emerge.

Similarly, Jason Spezza is averaging more minutes through three games this season (12:39) than he did over the past two seasons as a Leaf. That can partly be explained by his power-play one time while Matthews is out, so we’ll see what range his minutes settle into.

Interestingly, Jake Muzzin has averaged just over 19 and a half minutes per game so far, which would be his lowest since the 2013-14 season. He has struggled through three games, but he has traditionally been a little slow to start. Liljegren looked good alongside Muzzin, and it is noteworthy that he played a regular shift on the penalty kill in his one and only game this season, giving him more time on the penalty kill through one game than Dermott has played through three.

We’re only three games into the season — we should take everything with a grain of salt — but we are already seeing discussion points start to emerge.

If nothing else, I can’t wait to see the Leafs play a team from south of the border.

Notes


Jason Spezza of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

–  It sort of goes without saying at this point, but the first 10 minutes of the season was a disappointing and lacklustre start. Sheldon Keefe started the first shift of the season with the John Tavares line and again started them for the second period, but he hasn’t started them at the beginning of games since. In the third period against the Habs, it was the David Kampf line that started, and in the home and away against Ottawa, they started both of those games as well.

In the playoffs last year, Keefe was moving Wayne Simmonds up to start games for the first shift, and it worked at points. Just like pretty well every other team, they are trying to establish a forecheck and sustain some offensive-zone pressure to start the game. In the first game against Ottawa, the third line didn’t get in on the forecheck before Ottawa cleared it, and Morgan Rielly iced it while under light pressure at best. In the second game against Ottawa, they did a better job of sustaining a forecheck.

–  The absence of Auston Matthews is obviously felt in all facets of the game because he’s a superstar center, but the absence of Ilya Mikheyev is also notable. He is one of the fastest players on the team, and the Leafs are not as fast as some may think. Their current top line (Ritchie – Tavares – Marner) has average speed at best as a unit. The second line has some speed with Kerfoot and Nylander, and so does the third line with Engvall and Kase. The fourth line is simply slow.

Mikheyev gives them another player who plays at a high pace and is a good forechecker. If he was healthy, he’d likely start those shifts to open periods as well.

–  This past week was a microcosm of the highs and lows of Pierre Engvall‘s game. He had the opening goal of the season and was buzzing pretty well all game with his speed and length and shot. At the end of the game, he was rewarded with a shift in the final minute of a one-goal game… and he iced the puck for no reason.

Keefe was right to call it out; it’s simply a play you should never make in the NHL. In the next game, Engvall committed the giveaway for the goal against. In the third game, he essentially took shifts and didn’t do much one way or the other. You can see why he frustrates Keefe, but at the same time, he’s still one of their 12 best forwards.

–  Rasmus Sandin has been very effective with the puck on the offensive blue line so far, and he has been rewarded with two points and seven shots on goal through three games. Previously, we have discussed the little snapper he has from the point – the most valuable part about is that he can get it through traffic with some heat on it. We’ve also started to see that he can rip bullet seam passes, including one to Kampf on the far side and another try to Bunting that could have been a goal.

On that Bunting cross-ice pass, Sandin had a clear path to the net. When he gets more reps and confidence in the league, it will be interesting to see if he still continues to pass on those type of plays rather than shoot it himself.

–  I am not sure what else you can really say about Jason Spezza. Against Columbus in the playoffs, he mixed in a fight to try to swing the emotion. Against the Habs, he scored the big goal to make it a 2-1 game in Game 6 before TJ Brodie tied it. Two examples of some big-time impact play at key times.

In Ottawa, he was fantastic, and there was a play in the third period where he put his head down and backchecked to break up an odd-man rush. There are players over a decade younger than him who aren’t doing this stuff.

–  I was surprised to see Spezza pulled off the power play when the Leafs got the 5v3 against Ottawa (he was replaced by Nick Ritchie, who was used as a net-front option). With all that extra space, his slap shot makes him arguably the most dangerous option they have.

–  I was also surprised to see the Leafs go to a power play down 3-0 against Ottawa and not record a shot on net. They did end up making it a game, but when we talk about their power play and the struggles they’ve had down the stretch of the last two seasons, those are the kind of moments where you’d like to see them dig in and make something happen to swing the momentum of the game.

–  That was a solid debut for Timothy Liljegren in 14:52 of ice time. He’s a subtle player and doesn’t do anything flashy, but he just makes solid plays.

There was one play in the second where the Senators were buzzing in the Leafs’ zone and Liljegren got the puck on a d-to-d pass below the goal line but didn’t have anyone open for a breakout pass. It was the second period, so flipping the puck out does little because you can’t go for a line change there. It was a small play, but all Liljegren did was squeeze against the wall with the puck to take contact from a forechecker, push through it, and break the puck out cleanly. It’s a little play, but he’s trying to break out with possession, and if it doesn’t work, he made it a relatively low-risk turnover given the circumstances.

Later in the game, he had one particularly rough shift where he was outmuscled for the puck in the defensive zone and a puck went off of his skate for a 2v1, but that’s part of the learning process for young defensemen. He needs game reps to work through that stuff. To the coaching staff’s credit, they actually gave him more shifts after that one.

–   The best early sign of the season is by far the play of Jack Campbell. He has been fantastic through three, and for that matter, so was Petr Mrazek before getting hurt. Last season was a bit of a reminder of what happens when you have poor goaltending for an extended period of time, so don’t take very good goaltending for granted when you get it. Needless to say, with the firepower on the team, if their goalies are going to sustain strong play, the Leafs will always be a problem for opponents.

I also liked that Campbell pushed back on Brendan Gallagher after taking a little contact in the season opener. It was nice to see a little bit of added fire and aggression, and he shouldn’t accept getting brushed by like that. Good for him for standing up for himself.

Quotes


Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens, preseason, Alex Kerfoot
Photo: Canadian Press

“Kerf hasn’t played to the level he had when the season ended in the playoffs. I thought he and Willy, together on a line when John went down, were tremendous for us. They had great chemistry.

Specific to Alex, he played with lots of confidence. He wanted the puck. He was looking to make plays. He was flying through the neutral zone. We haven’t seen that here quite yet. It is just about him finding his groove, finding his confidence, and getting back to doing that. We want him to clear his head and get back to being the player we know he can be.”

– Sheldon Keefe on Alex Kerfoot’s slow start (before game 3 of the season)

I am starting to think that more than a few people were fooled by a good playoff showing from Alex Kerfoot. He genuinely struggled for pretty well the entire season other than when he was riding shotgun with John Tavares and William Nylander. He stepped in during the playoffs and did a good job, and suddenly all else was forgotten and the team went out of its way to protect him in the expansion draft.

This is how he has regularly played for the team, and although he did score and grab an assist in the third game, he did little else. Even on that goal, it was really Nylander doing the heavy lifting, and on the assist, Bunting bailed him out and gifted him a point. Matthews and Mikheyev are out, so he’s the de-facto second-line center and he’s still seventh among forwards in time on ice per game.

“It’s early in the year, so let’s not make something too big of a deal. But you want to find your identity as a team and we have had two slow starts, two games in a row. It’s going to be something we will talk about.”

– Jason Spezza on the team’s slow starts

I think there definitely has to be some urgency to start games better and a clear outline of what starting games better even looks like for the Leafs. The starts against the Habs and the Senators (in Ottawa) were both slow, and while Sheldon Keefe went to great lengths to exclaim they were different, one was bad and one was simply “not that bad.”

Even in the third game of the season, at home against Ottawa, they had the perceived better start because they scored early, but before the goal, Ottawa generated the first real scoring chance of the game, and Chris Tierney probably should have scored on the semi-open net in front of him. So far, it’s a legitimate issue that deserves attention.

“I’m pretty much speechless. It was a pretty cool experience to look up and see all those Maple Leaf jerseys in the crowd and cheering. And they’re cheering for me. For a kid coming up from Scarborough, it’s a dream come true.”

– Michael Bunting on his first goal as a Leaf

It’s hard not to love Michael Bunting already. He draws penalties like we haven’t seen since Nazem Kadri, goes to all the greasy areas, has some skill, and runs his mouth out there. That is one way to be absolutely loved in this market.

What a little stop-go move he made to get around a Senators defender and take the puck in one-on-one against the goalie against Ottawa on Saturday. He has some deception in his play. It’s only three games, but the organization has to be excited by what they’ve seen so far.

Tweets of the Week


David Kampf, Maple Leafs
Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

David Kampf has been solid, if unspectacular, as was to be expected from him. While the forwards he has played against are good, we need to see what happens against the Bergeron line, the Point line, the Barkov line, etc. before really passing judgement.

I thought the same thing while watching – we’ve just seen this movie with this core too many times over the years where they play poorly and still salvage the game. They will never learn as long as they get away with it.

I know Josh Ho-Sang grabbed the headlines because he scored twice, but in preseason, I thought Kirill Semyonov could instantly play in the league. If he keeps it up, it won’t be long until he receives a callup. While the points are nice, it’s really just gravy from Semyonov. What stood out was his penalty killing, forechecking, and his ability to play wing or center. He is one to watch as a player who could come in handy in the future.

5 Things I Think I’d Do


Travis Dermott
Travis Dermott Photo: Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com

1.  I think I’d still stick with Nick Ritchie playing opposite Mitch Marner (and presumably Auston Matthews soon), for now. He is getting a lot of attention for not doing much, which is somewhat fair, but at the same time, he’s riding shotgun with two high-end players making roughly 22 million dollars combined. Going to the net and finishing should be good enough in that type of situation, but it seems like the real issues are ignored and Ritchie is getting scapegoated a little bit.

Tavares and Marner were buzzing a lot more in game three and frankly deserved a better fate, but at the end of the day, if those two were producing like they can, Ritchie would hardly be a point of discussion right now.

2.  When Justin Holl is ready, I think I’d be up for giving a defense corps like this a look: Rielly – Brodie / Muzzin – Liljegren / Sandin – Holl. As mentioned above, all Travis Dermott is really giving the team is 5v5 shifts. While he has been solid in those shifts, it’s not enough to solidify a roster spot, and he’s always going to be the first man out.

I like the idea of pairing young kids with veterans, and it would also be nice to have a second lefty-righty pairing to help support the young defensemen.

Failing that, they have to find a role beyond 5v5 for Dermott. He’s flashed ability on the penalty kill before, so they could give him more run there. He can’t just be a defenseman that exclusively plays 5v5 hockey if he wants to play notable minutes. If the Leafs aren’t going to give him anything more than 5v5 ice time for some reason, it kind of sums up how they feel about him as a player.

3.  I think the drop-pass breakout on the power play is fine in a vacuum, but where it runs into issues is they have no counter move when teams over-commit to it. The Leafs seemingly have few alternatives when an opponent has their first forechecker play the drop pass, so the Leaf player usually just awkwardly waits and drops it back anyway.

On one breakout in Ottawa, the Senators very obviously over-committed to it, and the Leafs still made the drop pass and promptly went offside. I think I would simply empower Morgan Rielly to make a decision and either skate it himself if the opposition cheats or drop it if there is time/space. He can gain the zone on his own with speed if they let him.

4.  I think it’s worth a 10-15 game look, and it’s worth noting that Matthews hasn’t even played yet, but Mitch Marner in the bumper spot looks about as awkward as many thought it would. He isn’t a shooter, and that is a spot for shooters. I’m sure he’ll have the odd play from there that’s amazing, but it’s just because he’s so talented, not because it’s a good role for him. There is still the option of using him as a real playmaker along the goal line on the near post. That still makes the most sense to me.

5.  With a three games-in-four nights weekend coming up and Michael Hutchinson as the backup, I’d simply ask Jack Campbell which two of the three games he wants to start and go from there.