Toronto Maple Leafs vs. San Jose Sharks
Photo: AP

Toronto’s puck luck continues to turn around

Last night’s game was one where Toronto didn’t completely dominate the run of play. The shots and scoring chances were more or less even, but thanks to a few goals in tight and some stellar goaltending from 23-year-old Joseph Woll, the Leafs were able to win this game handily by a final score of 4-1.

It’s nice to see the pucks go in for some of Toronto’s players who have been generating good looks all year, which is a topic we’ll dive into in more detail shortly. It’s also nice to be done with these 10:30pm start times, which I think we can all agree are awful for us pampered east coast folk.

The major takeaways from tonight’s game for me were:

  1. PP1 looks incredible compared to last year
  2. William Nylander continues to dominate play
  3. Toronto’s 5v5 Sh% is on its way back up

I’d include something in there about Woll, but goaltenders are such a confusing breed I’m not quite sure what to do with a three-game sample at the NHL level. Nonetheless, it’s time to get on with our analysis here.

It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!

5 Stars

William Nylander (RW, #88) — I have a bone to pick. The puck isn’t just “following Nylander around” when he’s dominating opponents at even strength. Nylander is the one carrying it up the ice, breaking down the defense and generating shot volume at an elite rate. He’s been doing it all season, so I tend to get frustrated when analysts attribute his success to puck-luck.

Ranking fifth in the NHL in shots, second in scoring chances, and first among Leaf forwards in 5v5 impact isn’t luck. It’s skill, and Nylander has plenty of it.

Joseph Woll (G, #36)The first goal is one he’ll want back, but otherwise Woll was perfect in this game. On the broadcast, they mentioned how confident the Leafs looked defensively in front of him, which is a big factor when it comes to preventing goals as a team.

When you don’t trust your goaltender, you take yourself out of position in attempt to prevent shots from the outside, opening up seams through the middle for cross-ice passes and backdoor tap-ins. That hasn’t been happening lately with Woll in net. The defense trusts him to handle the initial shot while taking away the dangerous passes and clearing the rebounds.

We’re only three games into his NHL career, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see Woll come in and help alleviate some of the burden after Petr Mrazek went down with an injury early in the season. With more starts like these, we might never see Michael Hutchinson again.

4 Stars

Regression to the mean — All season, Auston Matthews and Wayne Simmonds have been generating chances in tight at an elite rate, but the pucks haven’t been going in. This is something you can measure, whether it’s by using a stat like expected goals at or just basic “scoring chances” at Natural Stat Trick. Per 60 minutes, these two have been near the top of the league all season.

Now the actual goals are finally starting to come.

Matthews scored on another rebound opportunity in tight, while Simmonds converted on a deflection from just outside the crease. We know that players who consistently generate shots from these locations will end up scoring eventually.

The Sh% regression appears to be on its way for these two. Now if only Nick Ritchie could get in on the fun.

John Tavares (C, #91) — This might be the best PP1 sequences we’ve seen from Toronto in the last few years.

Tavares is the one who ends up getting the goal after a few hard whacks from in tight, but I wanted to use this opportunity to break down just how much better Toronto’s power play looks this year and why.

We’re seeing a lot more movement from all five skaters, in that there’s more interchanging of roles in the 1-3-1 power play formation. Marner starts off on the right wall but often works his way down to the goal line, where he’s quite dangerous as a passer. Later in the sequence, he rolls back up high to the top of the right circle so he can thread the cross-seam pass to Matthews.

There isn’t really a set “spot” for each player to stand, but rather an overall shape they want to create (your typical 1-3-1 formation) and have their skilled players roam around and swap spots as needed. It’s a nightmare for opposing penalty killers to track down where everyone is in real time, which adds an element of unpredictability that we haven’t really seen from Toronto’s first power-play unit in some time.

Getting back to Tavares, he complements the “Big Three” so well by working his way to some of the dirty areas. Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are all phenomenal at creating space along the perimeter with their skill, but at some point, you need to penetrate the middle. That’s where Tavares comes in, fighting for body position in the slot and picking up some of the garbage goals that Sheldon Keefe has been dying to see this team generate.

The Sandin-Liljegren Pair — It’s worth noting that they’ve been sheltered this year at even strength, but every NHL team has a third pairing they protect. What every NHL team doesn’t have is a third pairing who spends two-thirds of their time with puck possession rather than defending in their own end.

If you ever zero in on Rasmus Sandin, it’s very clear that he’s a below-average defender in his own zone without the puck. It’s also very clear that he’s a magician with his passing. With a player like him, you’re betting that the positives he brings to the table via his puck-moving are going to outweigh the negatives in his own end defending the cycle. So far, the results have been well in his favour.

Watching his shifts with Toronto’s top talent has been my favourite part of doing these report cards this year. When Sandin starts buzzing around the offensive zone alongside a Matthews or Nylander, it’s pretty fun watching the way he’s able to spread the ice with his passing. Last night, there was an extended shift where the Sandin-Liljegren pair spend an entire shift in the offensive zone zipping the puck around before Matthews finally deposited a rebound goal.

That came off the initial shot from Timothy Liljegren, who’s looked great this season. He’s certainly benefited from playing alongside a gifted passer in Sandin, but we also need to give Liljegren credit for his strong play lately. This is the most confident I’ve ever seen him look with the puck and it’s resulted in the Sandin-Liljegren pair leading the NHL in play-driving numbers this season at 5v5.

You don’t need to be an analytics guru to know that 67% is a good number.

3 Stars

David Kampf (C, #64) — The fact that he’s even playing is a great sign after the nasty collision to his head in Toronto’s last game. This wasn’t Kampf’s most impactful game as a defensive specialist, but I’d like to think we can grade him on a curve considering the circumstances.

He did his usual things on the ice, applying solid pressure to opposing puck carriers, completing high-percentage passes on the defensive side of center ice, and not doing a whole lot offensively. Welcome to The David Kampf Experience.

Nick Ritchie (LW, #20) — The Nick Ritchie Experience is apparently never scoring a goal, ever. I still find it bizarre that the Leafs are only scoring on 2.4% of their shots when Ritchie is on the ice at 5v5 this season. That’s a mind-numbingly low number that is going to regress closer to Ritchie’s career average of 7.2%.

Keefe knows that, which is why he hasn’t been as hard on his player as the rest of the fan base. I get it; you want to help pick up your guy when he’s going through a career-low stretch offensively. To help accomplish that, Keefe makes mention of the little passes Ritchie makes to help keep play going, like this one for example:

It’s an underrated part of Ritchie’s game. When he’s playing his best hockey, he’s actually a pretty good passer, especially below the goal line in the offensive zone. Offensively, I think the goals are going to come, but it’s the connective tissue passes like these that are going to help Ritchie earn a longer rope with the coaching staff.

Michael Bunting (LW, #58) — Usually I have a lot to say about Bunting, but this felt like a pretty standard game from him. He was providing the hustle you’d expect to see from him on the forecheck, but more importantly to me, he was connecting on more passes like the Ritchie one we showed above.

The ability to complete the “next pass” alongside star talent is such an important attribute. Bunting appears to be coming along in that department, which makes me wonder if by game 82 he’s an even better complement to Toronto’s best forwards.

Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — When he gets a chance to load up and accelerate to top speed in transition, he’s one of Toronto’s most effective players at gaining the zone and making skilled plays off the rush.

Sometimes these opportunities don’t present themselves, but this is still my favourite version of Spezza; the guy who transports the puck from DZ to OZ and makes a play.

The Top 4 D — This might feel like cheating in that I’m grouping Toronto’s top-four minute munchers together because I don’t have too many major takeaways from their performance last night. It wasn’t a bad game for Jake Muzzin, which is a step in the right direction. He did have a few hard closeouts when defending the rush that really stood out, preventing the clean zone entry with his physicality.

The puck-moving duties on that shutdown pair tend to be more Justin Holl‘s responsibility, and I thought he looked “fine” in that department. There were a few great passes and a few iffy turnovers, but in the aggregate, I’d say he did alright. His best moment of the night was a rush where he activated into the play and drove the net hard. The puck didn’t go in, but it was nice to see him force his way into some high-value ice.

Toronto’s “other” top pair, Rielly-Brodie, also had some ups and downs. Collectively, they got a bit outshot, but were pretty much break even in the scoring chances department, unlike Muzzin-Holl, who got a bit beat up in that department.

If we’re breaking down players individually, Morgan Rielly had a few moments where he was leading the rush or jumping up into a 4v3 to help give Toronto numbers in transition. As always, though, that playstyle tends to lead to more odd-man rushes coming back the other way, where Rielly was able to recover on a few chances but not all of them. He definitely needed Woll to bail him out once or twice.

Last but not least, TJ Brodie was steady and for the most part unnoticeable. When you’re playing alongside a hyper-aggressive fourth forward in Rielly, going unnoticed isn’t a bad thing. That’s essentially Brodie’s job; to keep opposing forwards in front of him and clean up some of those odd-man situations. He did a solid job of that last night.

2 Stars

Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — On the power play, I loved the way Marner moved around the offensive zone to make himself a legitimate threat as a passer, especially when he gets himself below the goal line. At 5v5, I didn’t think it was his best game, although he did have a few good long stretches in the offensive zone making creative passes to open teammates.

He picked up an assist at 5v4, but my grades tend to reflect more of your 5v5 play and Marner fell a bit short of expectations last night, in my opinion.

Alex Kerfoot (LW, #15) — It was really The William Nylander Show on the second line tonight, featuring John Tavares. Kerfoot was more of a background dancer in this one, making a few nice little shifty plays in the neutral zone but otherwise not accomplishing much offensively.

Pierre Engvall (LW, #47) — Much like everyone else, my “eye test” probably isn’t that great. I saw Pierre Engvall transition the puck up the ice from DZ to OZ and thought he did a pretty good job driving play.

His line got brutally outshot and out-chanced at 5v5.

Sometimes that’s out of your control in a one-game sample, but I never love rewarding players who get filled in at even strength. When you look at his on-ice results throughout Engvall’s career, he’s always performed better in a checking role alongside Ilya Mikheyev. When you have Engvall playing on more of a scoring line alongside Spezza in the bottom six, it tends to feel like less than the sum of their parts.

Kirill Semyonov (C, #94) — I think sometimes we forget how difficult it is to come into a game cold and perform well, especially when you’re playing than 10 minutes on a fourth line. Semyonov didn’t look great in last night’s game. His timing looked off on a few passes, turning the puck over in a few less-than-ideal spots.

I’m still a fan of the player we’ve seen contribute on the penalty kill and make some nifty plays at 5v5 since coming over from Russia, but this just wasn’t his night.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.


Well, this is a weird one. The shots and scoring chances were actually pretty close last night, even after adjusting for score effects. At 5v5, the Leafs controlled 51% of the shots, while the Sharks controlled 51% of the scoring chances and expected goals.

You can’t dominate them all, I guess.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single-game performance. You can read more about it here.

Tweets of the Night

Let me start with a nerdy one. When you take your actual goals and subtract them by your expected goals, in theory, it should add up to zero. Some teams are unluckier than others, though.

The Leafs are still the unluckiest team in the league at converting on their scoring opportunities despite their 15-6-1 record. I think this team just might be #ActuallyGood.

Again, the Leafs are looking like one of the top teams in the NHL right now — and there’s still more Sh% regression coming.

Final Grade: B-