You couldn’t find a single Leafs observer that would’ve argued the loss of Zach Hyman wouldn’t negatively impact the team.
He’s one of the best forecheckers in the league, played to a roughly 30-goal pace over each of the past two seasons, is an excellent penalty killer, and he’s even capable of carrying his own line. For the Leafs, a big plus was that he could slot alongside their elite players seamlessly, do the dirty work (so to speak), and contribute offensively.
With little in the way of cap space, the Leafs were never going to replace him, nor did anyone expect them to.
They kept the rest of the core together and backfilled the roster reasonably well all things considered – players like Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and David Kampf have played as well as could be expected so far, although Nick Ritchie has struggled out of the gate.
Really, the crux of the issue is that the team is still operating their business as if they have an elite top line even though they don’t so far. With Hyman alongside Matthews and Marner, they were able to play against top lines and consistently win the matchup – they scored 21 goals at 5v5 as a line and only gave up eight, they controlled 52 percent of the shot share, and they owned 63 percent of expected goals last season. They did all of that with a 49.52 percent offensive-zone faceoff percentage (not including neutral-zone faceoffs).
With Nick Ritchie there, it’s a bit of a different story. They have started over 73 percent of their non-neutral zone faceoffs in the offensive zone, which has, in part, led to a 59.65 percent of the shot share and roughly 60 percent of the expected goals, although they have not scored a goal as a line and have been on the ice for two against.
All of this is to say: The Leafs went from having a top line that they could confidently put out in any situation every single night to a line that likely needs to be protected a little bit, one the coach is feeding offensive-zone starts.
What does that lead to? Games against the Rangers where the forward Artemi Panarin played against the most was Ondrej Kase (albeit, Matthews was second with six seconds less), as basically Kase, Matthews, Marner, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot were all over six minutes head-to-head against him.
Or there was the game against San Jose, where Matthews and Marner did see the most time on ice against Logan Couture, but the entire Tavares line saw more time against Couture than Nick Ritchie, who struggled that night. Sure, Ritchie will have some good games at some point, but there is nothing to suggest you can trust him night-in and night-out the way you could trust Hyman. The alternatives for the top-line left wing are Alex Kerfoot, Michael Bunting, Ilya Mikheyev (when he returns and maybe if you squint), and William Nylander, which would more or less neuter their depth.
And yet the team is still stacking their top six and keeping together their top pairs as if it’s business as usual so far. Matthews and Marner have seen their total time on ice drop slightly, but it’s still over 21 minutes each, while the notable change has been William Nylander and John Tavares each averaging over 19 minutes.
It’s not as lopsided as it was last season so far (Hyman averaged over 19, followed by Tavares who averaged over 18 minutes, while Nylander was over 16 minutes), but the divide from the top to the bottom is notable. After the proverbial big four, the next highest time on ice per game is Kampf, who is the only other forward on the team averaging 15 minutes per game, which just speaks to their complete lack of options.
When things go south, Sheldon Keefe moves Nylander up to play alongside Matthews and Marner to try to score. But he is starting games with four lines that can essentially be described as follows:
- Ritchie – Matthews – Marner -> can’t be trusted to consistently handle the tough assignments and isn’t scoring enough
- Bunting – Tavares – Nylander -> can’t be trusted to consistently handle the tough assignments and isn’t scoring enough
- Kerfoot – Kampf – Kase -> a checking line
- Engvall – Spezza – Simmonds -> a sheltered fourth line that is doing their job, mainly because of Spezza
Now, if that top line could simply be categorized as elite all-around as they were with Hyman, suddenly this makes a ton of sense. But they don’t have Hyman anymore.
Their margins are super thin right now when they stack their lines, and when their big guns are in a slump like they are right now, the results are ugly. Even last season, they struggled at times when Tavares and Nylander struggled together. Now, they don’t even have the consistency of the top line to compensate.
Part of the problem at the moment is that the team’s stars are not elevating any of the reasonable NHL depth players on the roster. Their coach was quick to call out Matthews and Marner when Ritchie’s struggles were mentioned – they haven’t elevated Ritchie in any capacity. Anything Bunting has contributed has really been his own doing because he goes hard to the net. Ondrej Kase has been buried alongside David Kampf in a checking role. Jason Spezza has carried a line without any help from the stars.
You could argue last season that the top line was so good that the Leafs didn’t have to split up their top players across three lines. It’s tougher to make that argument this season. At some point, should this continue, they will need to spread out their top players across three lines and ask them to elevate their depth players.
Is Auston Matthews capable of producing great results if his wingers are, say, Bunting and Kase? Yes, and that would then mean you can spread out the likes of Tavares, Marner, and Nylander on the second and third lines. Suddenly, the Leafs become a matchup problem.
But are teams worried about a top line with Ritchie on it while their top players line up against a Kampf, Kerfoot and Kase checking line, along with a power play clicking under 16 percent?
In each of the past two playoffs, one of the biggest frustrations with the current coaching staff has been their inability to adjust as the series progresses and becomes tighter. At the moment, it still feels similar, only this time the lack of adjustment is to losing Hyman and the elite top line that went with it.
Players are struggling, no real adjustments have been made yet, and when things go south, the only move is to stack the top line further with Nylander. The solution is always to stack the top line and little else.
A team with legitimate aspirations of making noise in the playoffs almost certainly won’t have David Kampf averaging the fifth most ice time among forwards. That’s currently where they stand, even as their top guys aren’t producing (Nylander aside, it should be noted).
This is not the same Leafs team as last season. They are no longer in an extremely forgiving division. It’s one thing to run back the core and give it another kick at the can, but this is running it back and essentially doing the same thing with a forward group that is not as heavy at the top as it once was.
– This is not the hot start from John Tavares that we’re accustomed to (he had five points in his first two games last season, three in two the season before, and 10 in his first five games as a Leaf the year before that), but he is leading the team in shots goal, averaging four per game so far. He’s also winning over 61 percent of his faceoffs so far – his first three seasons as a Leaf are his three best seasons ever in the faceoff dot. I think he’s going to be fine overall, even if he does look a step behind to start.
– That’s now back-to-back games under 13 minutes for Alex Kerfoot. Through six games, he has two points (they both came in one game) and five shots on net. His two most common linemates have been Bunting and Nylander. They went out of their way to keep him on the team this summer, and he makes $3.5 million this season and next – he is the fifth-highest paid forward on the team. He is not getting any power-play time so far (averaging three seconds there per game). For a team that is super cash strapped, it is an interesting use of their cap money to have their fifth-highest paid forward to be a checking forward that isn’t a stud defensively and can’t produce much offensively.
– One good early sign is the Leafs’ penalty kill. It’s tied for seventh in penalty killing percentage at 85.7%, and they are 12th best in expected goals. They are arguably missing their best penalty-killing forward, too, in Ilya Mikheyev.
– Another good early sign: The Leafs are third in team corsi at 5v5 and top 10 in both scoring chance percentage as well as expected goals percentage. They have the fifth-lowest PDO in the league, too. There are a lot of signs that they will rebound and be fine on the whole, but there are also a lot of signs that it’s still a fragile group that shrinks when the lights are the brightest. Both sides of the ledger have to be acknowledged.
– It obviously did not work out, but I appreciated the thinking behind starting Michael Hutchinson in the first game of the back-to-back. Babcock used to put his backups in a position to fail, and at least Keefe can say he tried. They were at home playing a tired team while rested. It’s on Hutchinson. All you can do is give him an opportunity by putting him in a position to succeed.
– I thought it was extremely disappointing to see the Leafs’ effort in the third period against Pittsburgh. At least try to win the period and show a little something to build off of heading into the next game. Instead, they were outscored 2-0 and outshot 12-3 in the period. It was littered with individuals trying to make plays on their own since they knew the game was over, resulting in turnover after turnover.
– I also thought it was very telling that Sheldon Keefe was too afraid to ream out his team when called a timeout down 3-1 against Pittsburgh. They are a fragile group. Down two with over half the game to go, they were easily capable of digging in and winning that game against a roster that was objectively worse than theirs. But they showed little pushback.
Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I thought our effort level and our execution level really dropped off once the game started to get out of reach there. It’s a funny game. You feel like you’re playing pretty well, and all of a sudden, it goes in continuously.
– Sheldon Keefe after the loss to Pittsburgh
“Inexcusable (after last night); myself, everyone. We let them take over and we had no fight. We were outworked. We have to go back to the drawing board. The mood ain’t great (in the room), but it’s a test for us.”
– Jake Muzzin after the loss to Pittsburgh
The staff and players involved with the team are clearly aware there is an effort issue with this group. That is the most disheartening thing of all.
“We’d like to learn from this one.”
– Auston Matthews after the loss to San Jose
There are always lessons to be had throughout a season, but I really struggle to see the lesson from this one for this core. It’s a tired team that had to travel, and the Leafs had them at home. There’s nothing to learn here. They have to execute and play better. Their core is still relatively young overall, but they’ve been in the league long enough that you’d like to think they wouldn’t have to learn from this one.
Tweets of the Week
Fourth season in a row where the Leafs have employed Hutchinson.
League isn't full of incredible third goalies, but the lack of creativity and organizational development at the position is a failing.
— JD Bunkis (@JDBunkis) October 22, 2021
James Reimer is really the last goalie of note the organization has been able to develop. They haven’t been able to bring along anyone in their pipeline since, and it hurts. At some point, you have to try someone else beyond Michael Hutchinson because watching the same thing year-after-year just really hurts the credibility of the organization’s decision-makers. How many times can this movie be replayed?
It’s not game 5 it’s year 6
— Noah Banks (@Noah_Banx) October 23, 2021
I think this is the main thing people are really struggling to understand the most – fans are not *just* upset about the start to this season. They are upset about five-straight round one losses (fair or not) and now the start to this season. They are going to wear that all year. They are going to have to fight through this scrutiny. So far, it just feels like more of the same. At some point, MLSE is going to step in because this anger is starting to turn into apathy, and that will certainly garner their attention.
Team Goals Scored Above Expected – October 23
As much as one hates to make everything about the Leafs… it's kinda hard not to make this one about the Leafs pic.twitter.com/I8bCBTzBP3
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 23, 2021
I know people don’t want to hear it – and I absolutely get it if you don’t – but the Leafs’ top players are going to explode at some point. They aren’t going to stay cold forever. Mitch Marner is not about to have a 14-point season. Auston Matthews is not scoring zero goals this year. John Tavares is not putting up only 41 points. No matter what you think about these players, it simply isn’t going to happen. At some point, this will course correct, and the Leafs will go on a heater. I just hope when it happens, all the fundamental issues at play are not glossed over.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I’m just going to continue to say this until I’m blue in the face: Put William Nylander at center with Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza on his wings, spread out the big four, put John Tavares – Mitch Marner together (with Nick Ritchie), and have Auston Matthews carry Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase, who are two decent players and because that’s what you expect your superstar to do. He will be fine. He doesn’t need a star winger at his hip. Plus, Kase and Bunting are good players. That leaves David Kampf on a fourth-line checking unit flanked by Pierre Engvall and Wayne Simmonds.
2. I think I get managing Ondrej Kase’s minutes because he’s been unable to stay healthy for pretty well his whole career, but at some point, you just have to play him and take it from there. He simply can’t be the 10th forward on the team in average time on ice per game. He’s too good for that. They clearly do not have nine forwards better than him. I’m not even sure they have five forwards better than him.
3. I think the Leafs coaching staff really needs to consider splitting up the top four. Jake Muzzin has really struggled so far, and he’s their most important defenseman at 5v5 because he can capably play against top players. I would pair him up with TJ Brodie and give them the tough assignments. Those two are unquestionably their two best options to handle tough minutes. I think a Morgan Rielly – Justin Holl pairing would be solid (enough) as a second pairing.
4. I think the power play has to be split into two balanced units. It looks lost and confused and the way they have it configured. They are not utilizing the talent of their top players. Put Jason Spezza and Mitch Marner on the half-walls for one unit, and Auston Matthews and William Nylander on the half-wall on the other. Morgan Rielly QBs one, and Rasmus Sandin QBs the other. You have bumper/net-front options to sort through among John Tavares, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, and Wayne Simmonds. It has hit the point of needing notable change just to breathe some fresh air into it. They are stale, lack confidence, and appear defeated at times.
5. I think this week will be very interesting, especially since they play a good Carolina team to start followed by a bad but desperate Chicago club. If he isn’t already, Kyle Dubas has to consider holding a presser or round of radio interviews just to quiet down some of the chatter and provide some leadership/direction. The fanbase is – rightfully so – extremely upset. He can’t just stay quiet if this continues.