After a slow start to the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally hitting their stride, currently on a three-game winning streak and 8-2 in their last 10.
The win against the Flyers, in particular, was a “business-like” victory in which they showed up to start the game, the team was sharp, the game never really felt in question, and the Leafs picked up a well-earned two points in regulation.
Their star players, who were generally off to slow starts, are all seeing their numbers climb back to the expectation level. William Nylander and John Tavares are at a point per game, Auston Matthews is one point back of hitting that mark, and Mitch Marner is two back. Morgan Rielly is leading the defense with 10 points through 15 games so far.
Despite the sluggish start, the Lefas are second in the division and ninth in the league in points percentage. Their goal differential is now back in the positive.
With all of that in mind, here are some extended notes as the Leafs climb their way back to the top of the league.
– Quite the start for new assistant coach Dean Chynoweth. The penalty kill looks great, ranking fifth so far this season in efficiency. They are second in corsi percentage behind Chynoweth’s old team, the Hurricanes. They are eighth in expected goals against and are one of the better teams in terms of limiting overall chances against.
One thing I’ve noticed that the Leafs are doing a lot more of on the PK: Gaining the offensive zone with their skilled players, and instead of just chipping it in deep, they pass it all the way back to their own defensemen, who are usually standing around their blue line, in order to kill time. Their save percentage on the penalty kill is 15th – firmly average.
– For all the talk of using more skilled players on the penalty kill, the Leafs don’t have a shorthanded goal this season (one of 14th teams not to, in fairness). Even last season, they were tied for 16th in shorthanded goals.
– I was surprised to see this while looking up penalty-killing stats: The Leafs have spent the eighth-most time in the league killing penalties. Michael Bunting leads the team with 12 penalty minutes, while Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Rielly are the only regulars on the team that have yet to take a penalty.
– The other interesting element at play for Chynoweth: The defense started slowly with a number of veterans not looking like themselves. He has done well to navigate their struggles and try out some new pairings (which is something that did not happen at all last season). That is a tough spot to be in: hired to run a team and pretty well all its top players get off to slow starts (through no real fault of his own).
– TJ Brodie had a shift against the Flyers where he looked to go up the wall on the breakout, nothing was there, he made a head fake, and then ripped a pass up to a forward on the far wall. Later that shift, after the Flyers chipped it out, Brodie went to retrieve and circle behind his net, but he was pressured. He stopped up and ripped up a pass to the center outlet in the middle of the ice for another easy breakout.
In the final minute against Calgary, with Flames applying some pressure, Brodie had the puck and nowhere to go. He protected the puck by pinning it against the wall, withstood the hit, then kicked it to his stick in order to pass it to Rielly on the other side for a clean breakout.
That’s Brodie’s game at its best: making plays using his skating and moving the puck up ice cleanly under pressure.
– I have never seen a player who loves diving, turning away from a puck carrier, and swinging his stick below his legs to defend a 2v1 more than Brodie. Eventually, someone is going to figure out, cut in after the dive, and score, but it has worked so many times now that he could get burned a number of times and it’d still be worth it.
– The Leafs won so it didn’t get a ton of attention, but I can’t believe Rasmus Sandin changed on the backcheck of a 3v2 rush in overtime after he missed the 2v1. Calgary had a clear attempt in the high slot and Campbell completely bailed him out. He has to dig deep there and get back.
– Credit where it is due: 10 points in 16 games for Alex Kerfoot so far, all at even strength. That’s a 51-point pace without basically any power-play time. At that price and production, should he sustain it (and he does have a career-high PDO right now, so it’s probably going to regress), he is obviously worth the money. Let’s see where he settles in from a production standpoint as the season goes on.
He has adequately moved to center at times, and his speed complements Nylander well. He has also been good on the penalty kill. This is coming off a good showing in the playoffs. It is promising all around; he’s one of the depth players the Leafs need production from.
– I think if it wasn’t for an injury to John Tavares, Nick Ritchie was playing his way to a healthy scratch. Instead, the injury provided an opportunity for him to move up the lineup, and I thought he responded really well with some desperation and purpose to his game. Against the Flyers, he put seven shots on net and made a nice play to set up a goal. In the first period in the next game against the Flames, he saved what looked to be a sure goal for Andrew Mangiapane with a good backcheck.
Against the Sabres, Ritchie was robbed a couple of times in tight. He’s obviously snake bitten at the moment, but I thought it was a good week, all things considered, for a player who has been struggling.
– On a defensive-zone draw coming off a commercial with 49 seconds left in the first period, Keefe put out William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner. I thought it was interesting that he wasn’t just using them for offense but to close the period in that situation. Nylander went on a partial breakaway before Matthews drew a power play.
– I have talked a lot about finding more opportunities for Ondrej Kase, and obviously, the game against Buffalo was his biggest one yet with his placement on the wing next to Auston Matthews. He scored, but what was more notable was the fake drop pass move he made, essentially using Matthews as a decoy. Beyond the Leafs’ other three top forwards and maybe Jason Spezza, I am not sure how many other forwards on this team would actually use Auston Matthews as a decoy to make space for themselves.
Kase only has five points in 16 games, but four of them are goals, which is a 21-goal pace over a full season, while primarily playing alongside David Kampf in a defensive shutdown role.
“I feel very good. I have good emotion. It’s my first game. I have [a] dream, higher now. Thank you, my family, my wife. All [of the] time, [she] help me. The guys and team and everyone tell me ‘Come on Semmy’ and support me. It’s nice, very good.”
– Kirill Semyonov on his NHL debut
I thought Kirill Semyonov looked like a player who can play in the league. I don’t think he’s ready to be a full-time center yet, but he’s serviceable and appears capable of taking shifts so far. Both of the Leafs’ players making NHL debuts this week went out of their way to note how comfortable the rest of the team made them — how they were encouraged and supported by the core of the team. That’s nice to hear.
“I thought that line — [David] Kämpf, [Pierre] Engvall, [Alexander] Kerfoot — was our best by a mile. Aside from that, I didn’t like much about it. When you work and compete like we did tonight, the lines just don’t have a chance.”
– Sheldon Keefe assessing the new lines against the Sabres
I am absolutely here for Keefe holding his top players to a high standard and calling them out for a less-than-dominant performance, which is the expectation. He even benched William Nylander in the game (he had his second-lowest ice time of the season, a night after a very good game). Mitch Marner played 18:19 on the night – he only played less than that twice all last season, and in both those games, the Leafs held huge leads (although one was the 5-1 blown lead vs. Ottawa… Marner had four points that night).
I think we’re seeing a bit more accountability this season, and it’s a good message from the coach: “I liked this one line because they worked hard,” instead of just looking at the scoring chance chart and calling it a day (the Tavares line out-chanced the Sabres in their minutes).
“Wherever I am in the lineup, I’m coming in and I’m playing my game. It doesn’t bother me if I’m on the fourth, third, second or first line. I’m coming in and I’m playing my game, and nothing changes from my mindset.”
– Michael Bunting on moving to the fourth line against the Sabres
It would be wild if a player who hasn’t even played a full season in the league had any other thoughts, but Michael Bunting was engaged. When Keefe benched Nylander late in the game, it was Bunting that moved up to play with Matthews and Kase for a few shifts. He did some great work, including hemming the puck in the Sabres zone the shift before the Rielly winner.
Tweets of the Week
Johnny Toronto's 100th as a Maple Leaf 🍁#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/FSjOY1rUo1
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 14, 2021
100th as a Maple Leaf in 216 games, and 213 points total. You can’t ask for much more than that. John Tavares has definitely come as advertised. Like many on the team, after a slow start, he has found his game. He is up to 15 points in 15 games (eight goals).
I, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, could not be more excited to watch them face the Buffalo Sabres on Hockey Night in Canada. Especially since Aaron Dell, who was a briefly a Leaf and got claimed off waivers before playing a single game, will be starting for Buffalo. Can’t wait, truly
— Аlex Hobson (@AHobsonMedia) November 13, 2021
It just felt so Leafy once the Sabres tied the game, and yet it was the Leafs that came away with two points in regulation on a goal with 11 seconds left. If you have been a Leaf fan for over a decade, you will have a great appreciation for how much the Lindy Ruff Sabres, in particular, used to dunk on the Leafs. I don’t even remotely care that the Sabres have been so bad for so long. Anytime the Leafs beat the Sabres in Buffalo, it’s a good time. The fact that it was heartbreaking and the Sabres got robbed of at least a point at home makes it all the sweeter.
Some clips of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin moving the puck up the ice really well against the Flyers.#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/1M5Gt2HNtP
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) November 12, 2021
I am really impressed with this Rasmus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren pairing so far. They’re benefitting from time together with the Marlies (which is part of the point in having a development program/team!), but what stands out the most: They are both very comfortable making plays with the puck, and they try to do it as much as possible instead of panicking and throwing it away.
It has generally looked good so far. I am curious to see how it develops as the season progresses because the game does change and involves more pucks off the glass – some may recall a few really unfortunate Sandin turnovers in the playoffs where he was trying to make plays.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I’d largely let the defense settle in now and try to keep the veteran pairings together (Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl). The Muzzin – Brodie pairing was as advertised and quite steady. That is something to keep in mind moving forward, even if it’s just to close out a period.
2. I think I really liked the look Keefe threw out against Calgary down a goal, loading up a John Tavares – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line and then circling back with a William Nylander – Alex Kerfoot – Ondrej Kase line. When trailing, that is a nice back-to-back set of line combinations to throw out. I’d keep doing it depending on how the game is flowing/how the lines are looking. Where it gets dicey: What follows next? You’d have to think Jason Spezza and Michael Bunting would be in there. Beyond that, it’s probably whoever is going on a given night.
3. We haven’t really talked about him much, but I think it should be noted that Wayne Simmonds has gotten off to an excellent start to the season, creating scoring chances, driving the net, forechecking, and adding some bite to the roster. Coming into the season, it was fair to question whether he was in their top 12 forward group, but right now, there doesn’t appear to be any question that he is deserving. Last season, he was on a real roll early on, went down hurt, and it was tough for him to get back into a groove from there. That has been a problem for him for a few seasons now, so the Leafs resting him for a night on Saturday is a welcome sight.
4. I think the upcoming doubleheader this weekend is a great time to give Jason Spezza a night off just to manage his minutes. I’d rather him play fewer games in totals but receive more ice time in the games he’s dressed in as opposed to playing every night at around 11 minutes a game.
5. I think this is worth repeating: I can’t imagine less of a “problem” than carrying seven legitimate NHL defensemen on the NHL roster in November. A team needs depth, and the Leafs actually have it. There is no storyline or controversy to even debate here. You simply keep all seven and rotate in and out depending on who is going until there is an injury.
The emergence of Timothy Liljegren so far this season is the biggest story and a big positive for the team in my estimation. It’s giving the Leafs options, and it’s going to be up to the coaching staff to figure out who should play more minutes — and with which partner — as the season progress. It’s an excellent problem to have.