This was a big week for the Maple Leafs, who picked up a few wins and lowered some of the pitchforks their fans were sharpening in the process.
Basically, all of their top players are bound to regress to the mean at some point – the Leafs don’t have a single player clicking at a point per game, and it has been many years since we could say that at the end of a Leafs season.
Pretty well all of their underlying numbers point to a hot streak coming at some point – low shooting percentage, generating plenty of chances and shots on goal, and almost nobody producing in line with their career averages. But they have to grind through games while they are waiting for their luck to come around.
This kind of adversity is good for them in that it’s going to serve as a good reality check (it probably already has). Since the Phil Kessel era, the Leafs have often thrived on hot starts to the season only to fall off a cliff when the league tightens up down the stretch and into the playoffs. Perhaps this is the year that they get it out of their system early.
As we sort through whether this start was a bump in the road or a deeper sign of trouble, here is an extended notes edition of the Leafs Notebook.
– Alex Kerfoot paired a season-high three shots on net with a goal in the game against Detroit, which is particularly notable because he only has nine shots on goal over the entire season. When playing alongside good players who can carry the puck, Kerfoot does well using his speed to dart into the slot for scoring opportunities. If he’s going to play on the Tavares-Marner line, he is going to need to shoot more and also use his speed to forecheck and create turnovers. His two highest ice-time totals of the season came this past week.
– I think a lot of people noticed when Jake Muzzin got beat by Kirby Dach for a goal against where he was basically caught lunging, but there was a play the game before against Carolina where he was the last man back and stepped up in the neutral zone, leading to an easy chip play for a Vincent Trocheck breakaway. Trocheck didn’t score so it didn’t get the same attention, but it was such a puzzling decision — it carried so much risk and basically no reward (since the forwards had to tag out of the zone or else it would have been offside). He seemed to steady his game a bit after getting paired up with Brodie on Saturday – he played a season-high 24:24 and scored a nice goal.
– I was surprised to see Ondrej Kase log under 10 minutes against Chicago – he even assisted on the game-tying goal with a nice forecheck. In the next game against Detroit, he logged his second-highest time on ice of the season (14:06) and put five shots on goal, although he was held pointless.
Kase has kind of been buried on a defensive line so far. Kampf is tied for the league lead in defensive zone faceoffs taken (with Jay Beagle). Kase has a 20-goal season in the league and played over that pace in the following season before injuries began derailing his career. He has more to give offensively, but so far, the checking line has done its job fairly well. At this point, it’s really just sacrificing his production for the greater good of the team.
– Here’s the benefit of that checking line: John Tavares has taken the third-most offensive zone faceoffs in the league. The whole point of the checking line is to set the table for the scorers, and while the Tavares hasn’t fully taken off yet, it’s going to pay off if the Saturday game was any indication.
– It was, quite obviously, Mitch Marner’s best game of the season so far against Detroit on Saturday, and it almost felt criminal that he had only one point. As everyone knows, he wasn’t about to post a 15-point season. He’s going to explode at some point, and he was dancing around the ice all night against Detroit in a way that we haven’t really seen this season.
– I was curious to monitor how the shorthanded time on ice would shake out with Justin Holl sitting out as a healthy scratch on Saturday (he actually leads the team in shorthanded time on ice per game, averaging 3:06 there). It broke down accordingly: 2:51 for Jake Muzzin, 1:30 for TJ Brodie, 1:21 for Timothy Liljegren, 39 seconds each for Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott, and none for Rasmus Sandin.
By all indications, the coaching staff really likes Liljegren on the penalty kill. Establishing yourself in a specific role is how you stay in the lineup. Saturday night was probably Liljegren’s best game as a pro, and the “kid” third pairing did not look or play like a kid pairing. We’ll see how they hold up moving forward against better teams.
– I mentioned last week that John Tavares was generating a ton of shots on goal and it was only a matter of time for him to break out – he had a big breakout game of sorts against Detroit (along with Marner). Auston Matthews appears on the cusp as well – he has only two points in six games to start his season, but he has put 25 shots on goal. He missed training camp and preseason, and it’s taking a little time for him to get his legs underneath him. It’s only a matter of time until he takes off.
– It’s a little thing but a big thing: David Kampf started the game for shift one against his old team in Chicago. This was something Keefe was fond of doing when he took over the team, but there were several times where he went away from that over the past season and change.
– No goals for Nick Ritchie yet, but he finally picked up his first point as a Leaf and looks much more comfortable operating at the slower pace that Spezza and Simmonds play the game at. Against Carolina, he put a season-high five shots on goal (including that goalmouth scramble where he probably should have scored). I kind of like the idea of pairing Ritchie and Simmonds together so they can feed off of each other’s physicality.
– It’s unfortunate to lose both Adam Brooks and Mike Amadio to waiver claims. While it’s clear the Leafs have some depth issues within their top-12 forward group (meaning, they don’t exactly have a bunch of difference makers outside of their top four), they did have a lot of NHL players at their disposal. It’s notable that Amadio and Brooks both can play center, so the Leafs now lose out on those options. However, it does pave an easier path for Kirill Semyonov. The current roster has Matthews, Tavares, Kampf, Spezza, and Engvall capable of playing center.
“We need to get results. We had some games earlier in the season where we played really well and didn’t get results. Those don’t feel very good. To get results is good for sure, but as we see with the way the third period goes — with them continuing to get back in the game and continue to push — it was not nearly good enough.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the win against Detroit
I thought this was a great way to describe the win. To be honest, it describes most of the season so far. That is not a win they should be particularly happy about — and they need to play better on the whole — but a win is a win, and points are points.
“We’re going to hold each other accountable. We all love each other, but sometimes we got to yell at one another and hash some things out so that’s perfectly fine with all of us. You say what you need to say and you move on and keep playing.”
– Auston Matthews after the broadcast caught him yelling down the bench against Chicago
I really don’t think this is a big deal or a problem in any capacity whatsoever. If anything, it’s actually nice to see some fire and passion on the bench.
“Yeah, time to wake up, stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Nobody’s going to get us out of this. It’s only the guys in the locker room. We’re not playing to where we can play. That was just what was being said — that we needed to up the battle. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this. So, start.”
– William Nylander on what was said in the first intermission against Chicago after going down 2-0
The feeling-sorry-for-ourselves part was what stood out while the team was slumping. It’s extremely counterproductive and pointless. It was good to see them finally put that aside and play some hockey.
Tweets of the Week
Has to be the strength of the group of 5 players, a little like Pens Stanley Cup run. I thought 37/38 were solid tonight. Biggest concern is the vets right now.
— Mike Johnson (@mike_p_johnson) October 31, 2021
While the six defensemen on the Leafs seem to grab all the attention when talking about the team defense, the point about the forwards is duly noted and is probably deserving of more conversation on the whole. The forwards have to commit more, and it has been a problem for years – stemming back to when Mike Babcock was the coach. Even though Kyle Dubas has done well to add actual top-four defensemen, this team is still clearly built on its forward group and the forwards have to do a lot more to help out, including tracking back better, winning more battles along the walls to get pucks out, and finding their man to cover in the defensive zone.
Morgan Rielly, signed to an 8x$7.5M extension by TOR, is a pure offensive defenceman. One of the top puck-movers in the game and elite in transition, but undeniably gives back quite a bit in his own end. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/mMM9AZtU67
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 29, 2021
I wrote some quick thoughts on the Morgan Rielly extension when it happened, but really, this is the crux of the issue I have with it: Is an offensive defenseman really that difficult to replace? I get that he plays a ton, and more than most I appreciate how he steps up in the playoffs, but I’d only shell out big money on defense for a player the Leafs could actually use to play against opponent’s top players night in and night out.
That’s not what the Leafs do with Rielly, and for good reason. For a team that is already in cap trouble, this doesn’t really seem like a good use of their remaining money. Short of young players coming up on cheap ELCs and playing very well and/or trading out of some of their other big contracts (which obviously isn’t the plan right now), how does this team improve moving forward?
this sportsnet edit of auston matthews slowly losing his mind at justin holl is a true work of art pic.twitter.com/rXnm1yBpTQ
— mitch marney (@marnylandersen) October 28, 2021
This was actually a different incident than the one Auston Matthews was addressing above in his quote, but what stood out to me is him calling out how slow the Leafs are playing. We’ve mentioned this a few times on the podcast — they regroup so much, they are so methodical now with how they move the puck up ice, and it’s to their detriment at times. They rarely play fast, hampering their ability to generate quick-strike offense.
All of their skill off the rush is effectively neutered when they play so slow and regroup, which allows them to keep possession of the puck but also allows the defense to set up in the neutral zone. Creating foot races and being a little more strategic with puck placement on dump-ins would go a long way; they should be putting a player like Nylander in a situation where he can win a race and use his stick-lift pickpocket at least a few times per game.
Watching Matthews go offside because of how slow the team is playing is just not good hockey.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would give the current defense pairings at least another game – against a much better opponent in Vegas – to see how they fare. It’s really difficult to judge them on just one game against a mediocre Detroit team that played the night before and was missing one of their best players. I still think Justin Holl is going to play an important role on this team, but it makes sense to me to reward players for playing well with more opportunity and put some pressure on Holl to simply play better. So far, he has really struggled.
2. I like the dynamics in the top six at the moment – Alex Kerfoot’s best use has consistently been on John Tavares’ wing adding some speed to that line. Michael Bunting does well to complement good players and perform some of the grunt work (going to the net, winning battles, etc.). I also think Auston Matthews and William Nylander just bring a different look together because they are both such good shooters.
3. I still think it’s obvious that they should split up the power-play units. The top unit looks really lost, and there’s a reasonable argument to be made at this point that Jason Spezza is the best power-play player on the entire team. It makes sense to stir up some internal competition and make it a contest between the units by splitting up the top four.
Whoever produces more will play more. It’s crazy to keep doing basically the same things over and over, and while I understand wanting to work out of the problem, it crosses the line into the nonsensical territory at some point.
4. I think the Leafs did well to pick up a few wins – even if they weren’t exactly wins you’d hang your hat on – just to quiet the noise around the team. The emotion after the win against a very bad Chicago team was notable. It looked like a huge sigh of relief for them.
This week, they will play Vegas – Tampa Bay – Boston, and that is going to tell us a lot about this team and how they stack up against some of the league’s best.
5. I think I’d be giving Petr Mrazek one of those starts, too. Probably the middle game against Tampa Bay. I don’t think Detroit’s four goals were really on him, and he’s a good goalie who needs playing time.