Is it time to hit the panic button!?
Obviously not, but I can understand why the average Leafs fan would be upset after watching their team lose 5-3 to the Sharks. It makes matters even worse when you consider San Jose was playing on the second half of a back-to-back, whereas Toronto came into tonight’s game with three days of rest.
What’s frustrating is that the Leafs actually outshot and out-chanced the Sharks in this game. They didn’t overwhelm their opponents, but they did deserve better than the performance Michael Hutchinson gave them between the pipes. It’s funny, we can put so much effort into breaking down this sport, but at the end of the day, whichever team’s goaltender played better is usually going to win.
That’s a copout for analysis, though, even if it is true. We’ll try our best to go through tonight’s game objectively, which from the signs of Leafs Twitter, isn’t going to be too easy for most people. I’m really looking forward to the online #discourse over the next 24 hours.
We’ll get to the duds at the end, but for the first few sections, let’s focus on some positives. It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!
William Nylander (RW, #88) — He’s been Toronto’s most consistent player by far this season. By now, most of us expect him to make plays off the rush with his combination of speed and skill, so it shouldn’t be too surprising when he gains the zone with speed in transition and helps contribute to some quality scoring chances.
What we don’t always expect is for Nylander to battle for inside position, which he’s been doing a lot more lately. In fact, that’s how he drew a tripping penalty tonight: by cutting to the inside and fighting to get to the high-danger areas. He also did a great job passing the puck into those areas, finding his linemates open in the slot a few times.
His most memorable play of the game was his one-timer that led to a John Tavares goal. Nylander got everything on that puck and wired it right into Aidin Hill’s collarbone. It’s the type of shot that reminds us why Nylander is on the left flank of PP1. If he can keep getting that kind of power on his slapshot, it shouldn’t be long until the Leafs‘ power play finally breaks out… right!?
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — This was my favourite Wayne Simmonds game in a long time. It’s the fastest he’s looked to me since early last season. He was winning loose puck battles not just with his strength, but with his speed, helping him gain inside position heading into board battles.
The theme for Toronto this season is going to be second chance opportunities. It was a major talking point in the All Or Nothing series, with the Leafs really struggling to generate rebound chances at 5v5. So I’m sure Sheldon Keefe loved the shift tonight where Simmonds won the puck back multiple times after the initial shot, giving his linemates second, third, and fourth chances from in tight.
Offensive rebounds are still an area where Simmonds can impact the game, which we saw very clearly leading up to the Jason Spezza goal.
Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — There are two components of Sandin’s game I still marvel at every time I watch him, so let’s quickly touch on them.
1. The Breakout: he’s so good at going back on a loose puck and making the right decision out of the corner. It’s obvious when he dekes an oncoming forechecker out of their jockstrap, but my favourite plays are the subtle ones where he makes a quick one-touch play to an open teammate.
This is a perfect example of why Sandin-Dermott have been on the right side of the puck most of this season. When Sandin is on the ice at 5v5, the Leafs own 67 percent of the scoring chances. That’s obviously aided by sheltered usage, but there aren’t too many third pairs in the NHL controlling over 60 percent of play.
2. Walking the Line: Sandin has a knack for skating himself into open ice in the offensive zone and finding a way to get his wrist shot through traffic. As Ray Ferraro said on the broadcast, it’s an art. Sometimes you need to move a half-step to the right; fake a slap shot to open up the lane; look off a defender; the situation changes. One thing that remains constant is Sandin’s ability to get pucks through, which is a valuable trait at 5v5, 5v4, or 6v5, all of which are situations I’d like to see Sandin get a bit more ice time.
He’s looked fantastic five games into this season.
Jason Spezza (C, #19) — It’s sad that a Jason Spezza-centric PP2 was significantly more dangerous than Toronto’s $45 million PP1 in this game. Does that speak more to the top unit’s struggles or Spezza’s brilliance with the puck on the half-wall?
It’s tough to say, but either way you slice it, Spezza is still generating offense at the elite rate he was last season. To reward him for his strong play (and punish Nick Ritchie for the opposite), Keefe moved Spezza into the Top 6 temporarily with the following lines.
Sheldon Keefe rolling out
which is probably as it should be right now
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 22, 2021
They lasted one shift together and immediately generated a few chances from in tight off of a Spezza zone entry and pass. Maybe playing Spezza with a decent finisher or two isn’t such a bad idea.
Ondrej Kase (RW, #25) — After a few up and down moments to start the season, this looked more like Ondrej Kase tonight. He was using his speed to get in shooting lanes, which almost helped him earn a breakaway on the penalty kill. A few shifts later, he blocked a shot and did get the breakaway. What followed was the most Ondrej Kase moment I’ve ever seen.
Generate a quality scoring chance, score, and go down right afterward in a scary collision. Every time Kase goes awkwardly into the boards, I can’t help but wince, wondering if it’s the last game he’ll play all season. He keeps getting up, though, so hopefully he’s able to fight through all the unnecessary pain he puts his body through.
Michael Bunting (LW, #58) — Speaking of putting your body through unnecessary pain, Bunting went to the areas of the ice you’d expect him to tonight and got punished for it. I feel bad for these guys who must finish each game with bruises all over from the cross-checks they take in front, even with the league cracking down on those.
One criticism I did want to mention was Bunting’s affinity for taking outside shots in this game. That’s not who he is as a player; he isn’t going to beat too many NHL goaltenders clean from distance. As much as I value the spacing he’s trying to provide his linemates by teeing up for one-timers outside the slot, I’d much rather just see him barrel his way to the net and do what he does best.
John Tavares (C, #91) — This one was a tough stats vs. eye test assessment for me. On the one hand, Tavares generated a team-high nine shot attempts from the slot on Friday night. That doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does your line absolutely dominating play at 5v5.
On the other hand, I’d give Nylander the majority of the credit for Toronto’s second line running rampant at even strength. Tavares made some great plays in tight with the puck, but he also made a few costly turnovers in 1v1 situations. Hockey is a game of mistakes — you’re not going to create any offense without taking a few risks — but I thought Tavares’ puck-management could’ve been much better this evening.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — I have a similar Jekyll-Hyde perspective tonight on Morgan Rielly. I loved how he used his speed to activate into the rush at the right times, drawing a penalty on one of those occasions by blowing by his man. I also admired his patience with the puck as he wheeled around the offensive zone waiting for a passing lane to open up towards the slot.
Then I hated the way he defended San Jose’s fourth goal, giving up back-to-back passes to the slot from behind the goal line. Those are extremely high-percentage chances. It’s moments like these that can help remind us why Rielly has given up so much defensively throughout his career.
The Third Line — I ranked Kase a tad higher than his linemates because I thought he deserved it based on his play (and goal), but this was a strong night for Alex Kerfoot, too. He didn’t generate anything super dangerous, but he always seemed to be around the puck, which matters.
Meanwhile, David Kampf really is what he is as a player. Defensively, he’s excellent at pressuring puck carriers with his length, seemingly getting his stick on everything when he forechecks. Offensively, he leaves a lot to be desired. I know Keefe thinks there’s more to unlock when it comes to that side of Kampf’s game, but I remain skeptical.
Here’s another example of him failing to read the game fast enough to make the right play with the puck.
Ferraro gave him credit for swooping into open ice as the trailer, but I want to give him the opposite of credit for failing to pick out Kerfoot there for the backdoor opportunity. Most NHL forwards deliver a little saucer pass there and it’s 1-0, but I doubt we’re going to see Kampf make those correct decisions with consistency off the rush.
I still love what he provides in the defensive zone as a penalty kill and faceoff specialist, but remain concerned about how many minutes the Leafs plan on giving a center who can’t produce offensively.
Pierre Engvall (LW, #47) — While we’re talking about bad decisions, Engvall dumped the puck in the corner on a 4v3 a few minutes into the game and I immediately thought to myself “oh no, it’s going to be that kind of Engvall night” — it wasn’t! He bounced back and made a few great plays in the offensive zone, particularly alongside Spezza and Simmonds.
I like that Engvall feels confident enough to tee up for one-timers off the cycle in the offensive zone at 5v5. Unlike Bunting, that actually is a pretty good shot for Engvall, who has an absolute bomb when he gets a hold of one.
The Muzzin-Holl Pair — It’s concerning that this was probably the pairing’s best game of the season to date. They didn’t play poorly. They didn’t really stand out, either. Justin Holl made a couple of key blocks on quality scoring chances, while Jake Muzzin was stepping up in the neutral zone to kill plays early.
I’d like to see both defenders move the puck out of their own end with more efficiency, but tonight was definitely a step in the right direction for the two.
Travis Dermott (RD, #23) — Although Toronto’s third pair had positive results at 5v5 tonight, I’d attribute more of that to his partner, Sandin. This isn’t to say Dermott had a bad game. He did a great job using his body to “box out” oncoming forecheckers on puck retrievals, which allowed his linemates to come in and scoop the pucks out for an easy breakout.
Dermott also did a much better job tonight of getting shots through from the point, which is another thing to keep an eye on moving forward. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see because it’s a player everyone knows I want to succeed, but he appears to be looking more like the offensive player we saw in his rookie season. Playing with Sandin obviously doesn’t hurt.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — His linemates were a tire fire tonight, but we’ve still come to expect more from Toronto’s franchise player. He turned the puck over in his own end with a spinning blind pass up the boards, which ended up in the back of the net moments later. Matthews did have a few dangerous moments offensively, although it was nothing compared to the player we know he can be when he’s on his A-game.
TJ Brodie (LD, #78) — This is the fifth installment of the “I haven’t loved TJ Brodie” chronicles. His passes on the breakout weren’t as bad as his last couple of games, but he’s been driving me crazy with his play in the offensive zone. He has the luxury of playing alongside some elite talent offensively, watching guys like Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly zip the puck around.
Then it ends up on Brodie’s stick and the play dies. Sometimes it’s a shot into a shin pad, sometimes Brodie skates the puck into a bad spot and turns it over, and sometimes he simply fails to keep it in. I love the defensive value Brodie provided last season — and surely will provide in 2021-22 as well — but he needs seriously pick up his offensive game. Even league average would be a big improvement from what we’ve seen lately.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — Oh boy.
Let’s avoid all the contract talk and dive right into tonight’s performance. Offensively, we expect Marner to be creative with the puck, dynamic even. He was none of those things against San Jose. He looked hesitant for the majority of the game, making quick passes just to get rid of the puck rather than to get a teammate in open space.
I’ll give him credit for covering as the F3 when Rielly is caught deep in the play offensively. That’s something Marner did well all of last year and is a necessary trait if you want to have success alongside #44. What I can’t give him credit for is gaining the zone efficiently on the power play or going into puck battles as F1 on the forecheck.
Frankly, I don’t blame Leafs fans for getting frustrated with Marner on nights like these. The criticisms you’ll hear often have very little to do with the game you just watched, but there are fair concerns to be raised about the player through five games.
Nik Ritchie (LW, #20) — Can somebody explain to me what the hell this is?
Nick Ritchie forecheck pic.twitter.com/0f50OC9bEq
— spooky leafs fandom, back from the dead (@mostlyleafies) October 22, 2021
It’s just one forecheck, but somehow the 235-pound power forward manages to avoid the puck and the defender on this play. It’s truly impressive, for all the wrong reasons.
The shift after, he cross-checked an opponent who didn’t have the puck. I immediately wrote down in my notes, “What does it say to the other guys on the team when Ritchie gets to play with Matthews-Marner?”
I’m glad that Keefe & Co. had similar thoughts, benching Ritchie for the final six minutes of the first period and the final eight minutes of the second period. When he did play, it was in the bottom six alongside Spezza and Simmonds.
Michael Hutchinson (G, #36) — I’m at the point where I feel bad for this poor guy. No one expects him to come in and play well, including management. They spent a third-round pick on a goaltender they barely even used just to make sure they’d never have to start Michael Hutchinson in a playoff game.
Since Twitter loves to break down goalies one goal at a time, let’s give the people what they want.
- 1st Goal: Gives up a rebound off the draw and can’t locate it
- 2nd Goal: Gets beat clean from outside the dot
- 3rd Goal: Erik Karlsson scores from the blueline through a partial screen
- 4th Goal: One-timer from the slot off a pass from behind the net
You can give up one of those, maybe two, but allowing four essentially loses the game for your team. It’s unfortunate because Hutchinson actually made some big saves later in the night. The problem is it came after allowing four goals.
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 55% of the scoring chances and expected goals tonight. Hutchinson controlled 0% of his rebounds.
Tweets of the Night
every game william nylander and nick ritchie play this season makes this funnier and funnier pic.twitter.com/QV3sb54O3Q
— rahef 🍂✨ (@rahef_issa) October 22, 2021
Remember those days?
Those numbers didn’t really align with my eye test (I felt TOR was quite a bit better than SJ that period), so I investigated.
0.25 of SJ’s xG – which is 39% of their xG from tonight – came from this shot, where Eklund essentially jams the puck into Hutchinson’s pad
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) October 22, 2021
This was actually a great thread by Josh Simpson that got my gears turning. I’m always intrigued when an individual shot seems way off in the public xG. That doesn’t invalidate the metric — there are bound to be anomalies throughout an 82-game season — but I am fascinated at the “jamming rebounds into the goalie’s pad” aspect of things here.
Guys like Brady Tkachuk and Rookie Zach Hyman generate these chances over and over again without scoring, inflating their expected goals. What’s really interesting is that Brendan Gallagher used to have a similar problem but eventually started converting on more of them, as did Hyman.
Will we see a similar trend with Tkachuk? To be continued.
Like I'm not trying to pile on. Things won't stay this bad. But that whole negotiation was about how Marner thought he was a tier above guys like Aho, Rantanen, Point, etc. Absurd from the outset.
— Ryan (@ryanfancey) October 22, 2021
For anyone wondering why so many Leafs are frustrated with Marner these days, this tends to be the sentiment I’m seeing online. You can agree with it, disagree with it, call it idiotic, but I can guarantee you there’s a large portion of this fanbase who feels the exact same way as Ryan does.
Well, friends. This is my last day at TSN.
I'm so grateful for these last five years.
Covering the #Leafs literally changed my life. I've worked with the most incredible people. Shared stories with the most passionate of fanbases. It was a dream.
Thank you all for having me.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 22, 2021
I wanted to end tonight’s report cards with a sendoff to Kristen Shilton. I’ve always respected her for asking the hard questions. When Mike Babcock came to town and everyone in the media scrums was terrified to dare question the coaching guru, Shilton found a way to bring up the topic everyone cared about without coming across as disrespectful.
Her presence will certainly be missed in this market and I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does next. She’s a good egg.