The Toronto Maple Leafs are 8-2-0 in their last 10 and continue to march along, led by Jack Campbell in net.
American Thanksgiving is now upon us – the first true checkpoint in the season – and the team has solidly positioned themselves in the standings. Next week, we’ll be taking stock of the entire division, so keep an eye out for that.
In the meantime, the Leafs are about to embark on a west coast trip. So far, they’ve played 13 games at home and only seven on the road, so this will help even out those numbers. Given the past season, I am not going to take a west coast trip for granted, even if the game times are frustrating.
– Michael Bunting’s ability to draw penalties has been well documented at this point. Against the Islanders, there was a play in the first period where he snapped his head back in an attempt to really sell a high-sticking call. It feels like at some point he’s going to start receiving the Nazem Kadri treatment from referees (i.e. they just stop calling infractions against him, even when they are legitimate penalties).
– It’s not necessarily for a lack of chances – he has 43 shots on goal through 20 games as well as a number of posts – but since the first game of the season, Pierre Engvall has yet to score and has only mustered four points total. That’s a 16-point pace for a player averaging over 13 minutes per game, including a semi-regular shift on the second power-play unit. I like what he brings, but that’s a lot for a guy producing so little.
– Now that the season has been underway for quite some time, it’s a little more interesting and telling to look at the ice-time allocation. Mitch Marner is playing over a minute less per game than last season, while Matthews is just under a minute less. William Nylander is up nearly two and a half minutes per game! John Tavares is up about half a minute.
They’ve really evened it up relative to last season, even if it is — understandably — still skewed towards Marner/Matthews. Without Zach Hyman, no other forward on the team outside of the big four is averaging over 15 minutes per night. They have three averaging over 14 – David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, and Michael Bunting — last season, the Leafs only had two in that category, and one is the yet-to-play-but-still-on-the-team Ilya Mikheyev.
Depth wise, the Leafs are actually in good standing. When it comes to top-of-the-lineup options that can actually score, the limitations beyond the top four are readily apparent.
– On defense, Morgan Rielly is playing nearly a minute more per game while the rest of the top four has taken a haircut – in part due to their play, but it’s also a nod to how good Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have played so far.
In just over 120 minutes together at 5v5, they’ve controlled just about 60% of the shot share and nearly 67% of expected goals, although they have actually been on for three goals for and three goals against so far. It should be noted that their minutes have been sheltered, but I think they have been unlucky more than a rookie pairing that is prone to big mistakes.
– The Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie pairing, by the way, is big on the plus side of shot share and expected goals, and they have been on for eight goals for and five against so far this season. The Muzzin – Holl pairing is sub 50% for shot share (49.64, to be fair) and have been on for eight goals for but 13 against at 5v5. Their expected goals is actually 56.14% but I would hardly shrug it off and chalk it up to bad luck. They have struggled for extended periods of time. Just when it looks like they are rounding the corner, they seem to take a step back.
– On the Kase goal against the Islanders, it started with the forecheck by Nick Ritchie. I am not sure he wins that race at the start of the season, but he appears to be moving a bit better now. We’re really squinting for optimism here — he only has three assists in 20 games while playing a boatload of time in the top six alongside elite centers — but at some point, he’s bound to break out.
In one of the pregame interviews last week, Keefe mentioned Ritchie’s track record as a reason for moving him back up the lineup. I think the Leafs are really waiting for things to even out; he should eventually go on a bit of a goal-scoring run.
– Can’t say enough good things about Ondrej Kase, by the way – he has come exactly as advertised when healthy. He’s a really good player. At the same time, when he is going sliding into the net with a minute left while the Leafs have a 3-0 lead against the Islanders, you can see how he puts himself into vulnerable positions that lead to injuries.
– At the risk of jinxing it, should be noted how healthy the Leafs have been through a quarter of the season. They have sat out Kase for sporadic practices, but he has played every game so far – a pleasant surprise. Other than Mikheyev, they’ve been healthy across the board. The sports science department comes up when things go south, so let’s take a moment to appreciate the good health with the group rolling for an extended period of time.
“He’s stopping everything. He’s like a starting pitcher. Just leave him alone and let him do his thing.”
– Morgan Rielly on Jack Campbell
It is stunning how consistently great Jack Campbell has been as a Leaf. I posed it as a question on Twitter during the week: Has he had any truly bad games since arriving in Toronto? There were a few responses, namely Game 7 or possibly the 7-1 shellacking against Pittsburgh this season (he was in for five of them), but I honestly can’t think of one truly bad game where he was at or near the top of the list of blame-worthy culprits after a loss.
“You can only control, really, what you actually can control. That, for me, is going out there and trying to be the best player I can be, bring the energy, bring the joy. Obviously, there are times when you can get frustrated. But that’s something that I think (Greg and I) have really tried to talk about is just don’t let it influence you at all. Just stay in that moment, stay in that job and embrace it.”
– Mitch Marner on working on the mental side of the game after a tough playoffs
It’s nice to hear that Mitch Marner is actually working to address this — and it sounds great right now as the Leafs are on a heater — but we can’t possibly forget what he looked like in the playoffs earlier this calendar year (especially his apparent breakdown in the penalty box), or even how he started this regular season.
It’s November. He was going to get hot at some point, and nobody really questioned if he was going to throw up 80+ points during the season. Just like with a lot of things with this team, we won’t really know until playoffs roll around.
In the meantime, this is a much better response than when he concluded last season by noting he wasn’t going to change a thing.
“When we look at games like last night or games like the one against Philadelphia, it is really the model of what we want to have in terms of controlling play, reducing chances against, and being patient for our opportunities on offense to extend the lead. That is really the model of what we want.”
– Sheldon Keefe after a really tidy win on the road against the Flyers
First off, I loved that game. It was a professional, solid win where they took care of business and it hardly ever felt in doubt. Secondly, I thought this was a really interesting comment from Sheldon Keefe as at times I’ve wondered what the team’s identity really is.
As much as we think of this team as an offensive juggernaut with skill, they are really focused on defense, and they have actively traded away good depth forwards to ensure they have a strong top four on defense. In the offseason, we saw them protect Justin Holl over legitimate top-nine forwards.
The Leafs are currently 27th in goals per game (I think that will shoot way up at some point) and they are third in goals against per game (although it should be noted Campbell has been fantastic so far). We don’t really think of them as a defensive team, but to this point, that’s really what they are.
Tweets of the Week
here is the full shot of the leafs all hugging woll, as a treat pic.twitter.com/eezADKbbmV
— mitch marney (@marnylandersen) November 22, 2021
This was really cool. I thought the Leafs did a really good job of playing well in front of him and limiting chances in a hostile environment. Once Anthony Beauvillier missed the breakaway and the Leafs promptly scored the insurance marker afterward, the game never really felt in doubt.
With Dion Phaneuf’s retirement, figured I would re-share this part of a column I wrote about his time in Ottawa a couple of years ago.
Dion was really a class act when he was in our city. pic.twitter.com/3u4ScGMjqu
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) November 16, 2021
I know Dion Phaneuf is a lightning rod in this market, but I was super happy to see him get his day in the limelight. To some degree, it’s still bothersome how the organization shunned Phil Kessel when he returned to Toronto for the first time. Phaneuf captained this team through a tough time, and he generally stood up and was accountable to any failures.
For all intents and purposes, Dion appeared to be a stand-up person behind the scenes. He played over a thousand games in the league, which is nothing to sneeze at. Congrats on a solid career.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper with the truest definition of Philadelphia sports fans: "Fans love their team and hate their team all the same time. And they hate us, the visiting team, I guess it's just not necessarily us."
I mean … spot on.
— Adam Kimelman (@NHLAdamK) November 18, 2021
I laughed when I saw this and had to share it — it pretty well describes Leafs fans, too.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I really like the Kyle Clifford acquisition for what it is: a no-risk depth move for a veteran who can take some shifts, insert some energy, and not be a liability. I know he got squeezed out of a surprisingly deep St. Louis Blues roster, but I don’t think he’s completely washed out. He and Wayne Simmonds have some real potential to create a physical line, and he gives the Leafs another option if other depth forwards are hurt or are underperforming.
The question I have: Can you really have Jason Spezza center that type of line? It isn’t exactly setting him up for success as a skilled player — playing alongside two linemates who can’t really create or finish.
2. This will fluctuate throughout the season but if you asked me right now who the Leafs’ seventh defenseman is, I think I’d say it’s Travis Dermott. We have talked about this for years, but it’s difficult to be a regular when you aren’t on special teams unless you are very, very good at 5v5 (and if you’re strictly on the third pairing, that’s hard to do). Timothy Liljegren is carving out a penalty-killing role. Rasmus Sandin is pretty firmly the second power-play unit quarterback. This can easily change, but right now, it seems to be where things stand.
3. I think it’s important to take stock of team needs throughout the season, not just at the deadline. If you were to ask me right now, it’s clear the Leafs need a legitimate top-six winger. Nick Ritchie hasn’t been it. I like Michael Bunting, but ideally, he plays lower in the lineup. Pierre Engvall certainly isn’t the answer, and Ilya Mikheyev won’t be, either.
As much as I think the Leafs need a 3C — and that would be a fine addition, too — I think they actually don’t have enough depth from a skill/game-breaker standpoint. I know sounds crazy to say given the collection of top end forwards on the team, but they are 26th in goals per game.
4. In the meantime, I think Keefe is doing a really good job of essentially rotating Michael Bunting and Nick Ritchie throughout the forward lines. One game Ritchie is in on line one and Bunting is on line four, the next it is switched, or at times, one is on the third line while the other is on the second. They aren’t full-time top six wingers, but I think this dangle the carrot/crack the whip approach is a good way to get the most out of both of them. I’d keep rolling ahead with this approach.
5. When we hear about depth players the Leafs are making available (again, to reiterate, I wouldn’t trade a defenseman just yet), I think the Leafs’ lack of draft picks is a really under-discussed topic. They have first, second, and seventh-round picks for the upcoming draft. They drafted three times last offseason – in the second, fifth, and sixth rounds. This isn’t sustainable. The front office is going to have to get really creative at some point.