With American Thanksgiving now in the rearview mirror, the first official checkpoint of the NHL has come and gone.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, who has been tracking the Thanksgiving cutoff point for years, points out that in the salary cap era, 77% of the teams in playoff positioning at American Thanksgiving have qualified for the postseason.
Now, I don’t think there was ever too much doubt whether the Leafs were going to make the playoffs this season, and if there was any after their slow start, this winning streak firmly puts them in a position to not only make the playoffs but compete for the President’s Trophy.
What this really allows us to do is take stock of the overall division and begin painting a picture of the playoff path that will await the Leafs. Here are some key performance indicators (for all the business folks!) for each team so far:
|Team||Goals per game||Goals against per game||PP%||PK%||CF%|
|Save percentage (5v5)||PDO (5v5)|
- It immediately stands out that the Leafs have the best goals against per game in the division as well as 5v5 save percentage. It pretty much goes without saying, but if they are receiving Vezina caliber goaltending – and if the season ended today, Jack Campbell would be my vote for Vezina – the Leafs are going to be very good.
- Their goals per game is trending up after an offensive outburst on the west coast, but it’s still a bit surprising to see their goals per game so low. For reference, last season, the Leafs scored 3.32 goals per game. If the goaltending does inevitably dip, you’d like to assume the scoring ticks up to mitigate that.
- While I’d generally say their goals against numbers are achieved on the back of Campbell, it is funny to look at that number and consider that the Muzzin – Holl pairing really hasn’t played that well so far.
- The Panthers, who do have a better points percentage than the Leafs, will be interesting to track because their PDO is a little high and they are third in goals per game in the league. That said, they are also dominating play at 5v5. On one hand, you can picture them regressing, but if they are that dominant of a team at 5v5, they are always going to be a problem. In one of the biggest shams in scheduling history: the Leafs don’t play them for the first time until March 27. That is honestly embarrassing for the league to have two division foes wait pretty well the entire season to play each other.
- Most concerning to me is the Panthers and Bruins have been better at controlling 5v5 play, and while the Lightning are a shade below the Leafs there, they also don’t have Nikita Kucherov, and we saw how that played out last postseason. All of that is to say: We know playoff hockey is primarily 5v5 hockey, and if the Leafs aren’t gangbusters offensively and Campbell drops even ever so slightly below Vezina caliber, well…
- In general, I’m not sure how we make sense of Tampa Bay when they are just going to walk a top-five player in the league back into their lineup at some point, and he will likely instantly be elite just like in the last playoff. How do you judge them until then?
- The Bruins are 30th in 5v5 save percentage — uncharted waters for them, really. They are controlling play at 5v5, have an elite top line, an elite number one defenseman, and some good depth. If they sort out goaltending, they are still a problem.
- I don’t think the other four teams are really worth discussing. The Sabres are showing some slight progress as an organization (which really isn’t saying much), and the Habs should be slightly better than they have been to date, but they are still a bad team on the whole. Most of the bottom four are already a lost cause for this season. Arguably, it’s already a lost cause for next season, too.
The top four teams in the Atlantic Division are all basically excellent clubs, and the playoff path is going to be a battle no matter who the Leafs play.
Hey, if it easy, it wouldn’t be so fun.
– The John Tavares deflection pass to send William Nylander on a breakaway (which he of course scored on) was ridiculously gorgeous. I would have been remiss if I didn’t take a second to underscore it. Through 22 games played, Tavares has 22 points and 10 goals. Just another season of the Leafs captain chugging along at a point per game so far.
– He didn’t really do anything in his Leafs debut, but I thought Kyle Clifford’s skating looked good and he moved around well out there. After the game, Keefe noted he led the team in hits despite playing very little, and while that isn’t much to hang the hat on, it’s saying something that he still has the speed to get in on the forecheck and be disruptive. He isn’t going to move the needle much, but he can take shifts in the league and provide some energy on occasion.
– Against the Ducks, I noticed that the Leafs tried a few stretch plays that would otherwise be icings – one in particular where TJ Brodie was going for a long bank pass that would have bounced off the wall for a mini breakaway had John Gibson not read it well and cut it off. We haven’t seen the Leafs do too much of that as a team, but I wonder if that’s something they are going to start incorporating into their game a little bit more.
– I know points don’t mean much for a defenseman, but if you have played 17 games as Justin Holl has and averaged 20:23 in TOI per game with a grand total of zero points, it is pretty shocking. Not even a garbage secondary assist or something! You can’t play that much on a nightly basis and have zero points to show for it over nearly a quarter of the season. He is certainly not jumping into the rush and using his skating the way he did last season. Last season, he was legitimately productive given his role with 20 points in 55 games.
– Kudos to Alex Kerfoot for some good finishes when 1v1 with a goalie against the Kings and Sharks. Those were two legitimately good finishes where he was able to get something on his shots – which is not something he was doing regularly last season. He is on pace for a career-high 46 points at the moment.
“It is a daily discussion that we are going through. Right now, there is Holl, Dermott, Liljegren, and even Sandin is a little bit involved in that mix of guys who may have to come out from time to time. Sometimes, it is just managing their minutes and their rest, as we have discussed specifically with Sandin and Liljegren, who are two younger guys who haven’t played a lot of hockey at this level and last season didn’t play much hockey. Both guys have already played as much or more than they played last season, and they have had some history with some injuries. We have to be smart with that, too.”
– Sheldon Keefe on sitting out a defenseman
This is telling quote as to how they view the defense group and the decisions they are making around who plays. It does stand out that they have Justin Holl in the mix to be regularly healthy scratched and Rasmus Sandin is ahead of them in that order – you might say that’s obvious based on their play, but the reality is that Holl plays in the top four when he dresses, and Sandin generally does not. At the same time, I get why he views it like this. Sandin has been great and has far more upside. If Timothy Liljegren is in, he can handle the penalty-killing duties that Holl takes on.
“I signed here [with Toronto] because I knew he was here. I had tough season last year and I needed someone. I had a good friend here.”
– Ondrej Kase on his relationship with David Kampf and signing with Toronto
No idea if Kyle Dubas knew this before he signed David Kampf, but you absolutely take this deal 10 times out of 10. Kampf is a legitimately good bottom-six forward and defensive center. Kase can play anywhere in the lineup in pretty well any role and make something happen. So far, this has worked out really well.
“I’m proud of playing that long … There is no trick. I enjoy what I’m doing and it’s not work for me … You have good days and bad, but I don’t think I’ve ever been sick of the process. I enjoy the challenge.”
– Jason Spezza on hitting the 1,200 games played mark in the NHL
First off, a huge congratulations to Jason Spezza for reaching an incredible milestone. He has been awesome as a Leaf and has really settled into his role on and off the ice. Even at center, Spezza has been able to hang in there and do an admirable job, although in an ideal world, he appears best suited to play on the wing, to my eye — he doesn’t have to worry about defensive responsibilities and can just focus on producing offensively. He was really offensive at the start of the season when players like Mike Amadio were his center, and that has tapered off a bit since the switch (power-play role notwithstanding, obviously).
Tweets of the Week
It’s baked in and justified that no one is going to give the Maple Leafs a break until they actually win a playoff series. Fair.
But it could have easily gone the other way so far this season. They look like a juggernaut right now. That’s not nothing.
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) November 29, 2021
This should be deleted, even if it’s currently true.
The @MapleLeafs, with their six straight road victory, earned their 11th win in the month of November – the most in any calendar month in franchise history.#NHLStats: https://t.co/3nXcGz3Zq9 https://t.co/8yPwdLyihc
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) November 27, 2021
After an opening month where a lot of things went wrong for the Leafs, they followed it up with a month where pretty well everything went right. At this point, I’m mainly curious to see where things settle for them.
Okay they need to keep mic'ing Auston Matthews up
His reaction to the Spezza goal was awesome pic.twitter.com/wiFbF4Bors
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 25, 2021
I know Auston Matthews had a bunch of highlight moments while mic’d up, but I appreciate that the first thing he did after the goal was shout out Nick Ritchie for the screen – and he did it during the intermission broadcast, too. That is not always an appreciated job, and it’s not always fun standing there while someone winds up for a slapshot. It has to be nice to hear the team’s best player give you credit on the bench, especially for a player who has struggled to produce so far.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I wouldn’t really change much about the team at the moment, and the reasons for that are pretty obvious, but I committed to writing five of these every single week. We’re nitpicking at this point. They have won 14 of 16. Both special team units look good. The goaltending has been incredible. I wouldn’t change much other than swapping around the Ritchies and Buntings of the world, or giving a defenseman on the outs a game. What can you really say when the team is playing like this?
2. One guy I would like to get a further look at should Ondrej Kase remain out is Kirill Semyonov. I don’t think he has a ton of upside, but I think he can be an adequate bottom-six forward who can play some center, and it’s nice to have depth players like that when injuries occur. I’d be making a point of getting him into a game or two even if it means healthy scratching a player like Pierre Engvall for a game to make it happen.
3. At some point, I think I would give Timothy Liljegren more of an extended look alongside Jake Muzzin. If nothing else, it is just to collect some data on what it looks like. It has flashed some moments, and like we’ve said, Holl hasn’t exactly been a world beater. I like having Holl as a fallback option, but I’d be exploring alternatives — even if it just starts as a shift here and there and evolves into more.
4. If he’s good to go – and all indications are he will be soon – I think I’d start Petr Mrazek against the Jets on Sunday, which is the second half of a back-to-back. Joseph Woll has been a nice story, but they have to use this as an opportunity to take a look at him and say you need to be better in the AHL as the full-time starter. Goalies generally aren’t mediocre in the AHL and then come up to the NHL and are actually just consistently good. He needs to focus on dominating in that league.
5. If it wasn’t at all obvious, I think it should be noted that Alex Kerfoot is a left winger. We’ve said this a few times since he has been acquired. He’s really not a center. He isn’t a play driver capable of carrying his own line, either, even if it is a third line. However, if you put him on the wing with good players and let him use his speed, he can be a solid complementary player. If he adds in good penalty killing and challenges for 20 goals while using his speed to forecheck, he’s worth the money. He’s a nice backup plan at center, but it’s not a full-time role for him. And there’s nothing wrong with that.