Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Photo: Associated Press
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As the Maple Leafs have rounded into form, there has been one outstanding caveat preventing anyone from suggesting they are completely clicking on all cylinders.

It should be noted that even without it, they are still winning tons of games and have positioned themselves to take a run at the President’s Trophy. But the one piece of the team that has been legitimately concerning? It’s the Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl pairing.

Last season, they were rock solid for the Leafs, capably handling tough assignments nightly. Here’s a look at last year’s 5v5 numbers compared to this season so far:

 Minutes togetherCF%Goals for %xGF%PDO
2020-2021800:0449.6159.4957.371.032
2021-2022307:3047.7848.3951.971.011

*stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

Their numbers are down across the board, which is obvious to anyone who has seen them play even just one minute last season compared to this season. They both often appear a step behind, or are just missing on a pass — a little off in a number of areas.

Now that we’ve hit the quarter point of the season, it’s concerning enough that we can’t sit here and suggest Muzzin, in particular, is simply a veteran off to a slow start. A veteran start slowly should look more like what John Tavares did to start this season — a slow start for a few weeks, but he has been awesome ever since.

Holl is even more confounding. He looks at least a step slower and his ability to facilitate clean breakouts has really taken a step back.

Two things of note stand out with Holl: The first is that he was hit by some sort of serious illness during training camp that caused him to miss time. This hasn’t been reported on enough, and anyone who has ever been seriously sick can tell you it can take months to get back to feeling right (let alone recovering while trying to also compete in the NHL). Holl doesn’t look right physically.

Since his stretch of healthy scratches, he has flashed good games/moments mixed with bad performances — an improvement over his start, which was simply a run of consistently bad games. That is a glass-half-full look, but if you believe we haven’t see him at full health just yet, it is worth sticking it out to see if he’ll get back to the kind of form where he was a legitimately solid defenseman.

Another factor that has been under-discussed: The Leafs’ shift at forward has impacted who they are playing with up front. Last season, the forwards Muzzin and Holl played with the most were Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews followed by John Tavares and Zach Hyman. This season, it’s a bit of a step down — it’s William Nylander, Tavares, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot.

Those are not bad players, but it’s certainly not led by two elite players, and the drop off from Tavares and Hyman to Kampf and Kerfoot is… stark. The Leafs have a bit more of a true shutdown line this season, and if you’re saddled with them as a defense pair, you are naturally in more of a position to have the ice tilted against you.

Last season, Muzzin, Holl, Marner and Matthews were on the ice for 225 minutes together at 5v5 and posted a 52 CF% while combining for 12 goals for and 4 against. This season, they have 52 minutes together with Kampf and Ondrej Kase, have posted a 46.7 CF%, and have been outscored by one.

With this tweak to the Leafs’ forward usage, it has also shifted Muzzin and Holl’s usage a bit (also related: Zach Bogosian did take some defensive zone shifts away from them, but the third pairing is now sheltered even more):

This season:

All of this is to say: Let’s acknowledge that there was an issue with Holl before the season even began. Let’s also acknowledge a shift in their linemates (the Hyman – Matthews – Marner was, for all intents and purposes, elite last season; they no longer have that benefit). Finally, let’s acknowledge that their usage has also shifted slightly.

The adjustment has not been smooth. Is it enough to say scrap the pairing completely? Not yet, in my opinion, but it is something worth monitoring and there could be difficult questions lingering as we head towards the trade deadline.

In an ideal world, it sorts itself out and the Leafs are legitimately seven deep on defense, allowing them to focus their attention (and assets) on upgrades at forward.

Notes


Mitch Marner, Sheldon Keefe
Photo: Nathan Denette/CP

–  I thought Sheldon Keefe showed some real change as a coach against Minnesota. Down 3-0 without Mitch Marner, he was trying to run the John TavaresAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander to no avail. In the past, we have seen him ride with a loaded-up line and stick with it no matter what. It wasn’t working this time, and he switched it up completely: Ondrej Kase received a look with Matthews, followed by Jason Spezza, and he was sprinkling in some time with Nylander and Matthews together.

The Leafs ended up coming back and tying the game before losing in the shootout. Most importantly, they showed some real fight and adaptability in a tough situation. I am not sure the forward lines would have been handled like that in the past few seasons.

–  William Nylander was robbed in that game by Cam Talbot, but the net drive where he lowered his shoulder was great to see. In the third period, he fought off Nick Bjugstad (who is 6’5) by lowering his shoulder and using his strength to create a scoring chance.

Nylander has always been good at holding the puck on the perimeter, but the way he’s using his strength (and he’s really bulked up since entering the league) to get to the net while maintaining puck possession is a real evolution in his game over the years. It will serve him well in the playoffs. He’s on pace for a career year while shooting a hair below his career-average shooting percentage so far.

– One added benefit of David Kampf is the Leafs’ top four faceoff takers are all over 50%, but it’s not Kampf leading the team in faceoffs taken; it’s actually John Tavares. Tavares is winning over 58% of his faceoffs so far, which would be a career-high. Auston Matthews is second in faceoffs taken – in part, it’s a result of how much he plays in general – but Kampf has taken more defensive faceoffs than Tavares and Matthews combined.

–  With Kampf in the penalty box against the Wild on a 5v3, it was Alex Kerfoot who killed the penalty along with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl for the entire time. I thought, of the three players, Holl did a particularly good job of staying active and closing lanes.

Holl’s speed compared to Muzzin’s is still noticeable; he’s much quicker closing gaps and passing lanes. That said, Muzzin was consistently barking orders at Kerfoot and Holl throughout that kill, providing direction. Ultimately, if a team doesn’t score on nearly a full two minutes of 5v3, it’s mostly the fault of the power play over anything the penalty kill really did.

– Kind of quietly, Nick Ritchie has four points in his last five games. He still hasn’t scored, and that’s going to be the headline on him until he does, but he’s starting to create plays and be more involved offensively. Against the Wild late in the third, he found Rielly for a beautiful cross-ice play that looked like it was going to give the Leafs a lead. He only has 39 shots on goal through 26 games, though, and he has a great shot. For reference, last season, Ritchie was over two shots per game, totaling 121 in 56 games.

Quotes


Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

“I do dream of the day when we’re able to look back on these past playoff runs, smile and say, ‘You know what, I think that was important in the grand scheme of things to go through those losses.’ And we’ll only be able to do that if we do end up accomplishing our goal of being a great team for a long time. If we never get there, then we’ll look back and we’ll say what a missed opportunity we had. But I choose to think the other way. I choose to think positively. We’re going to learn from these mistakes and these letdowns and we’re going to get stronger.”

– Morgan Rielly

No matter what you think of Morgan Rielly the player (defensive warts and all), it’s hard not to love and root for Rielly the person. He has been through most of the lows here (lucky for him, not the Boston collapse), and when the team was really poor, he and Nazem Kadri were often the only real reason for hope until Brendan Shanahan took over.

It would be quite the story for Rielly to finally go on a run in Toronto. He is two games away from 600 in his career, and 10 games away from tying Wendel Clark for games played in a Leafs jersey.

“I don’t think it was an 8-3 game, to be honest. We were playing a team that faced some adversity before the game with their goaltending and I thought we capitalized on that. I think that makes the game feel a lot different than it was.

It’s a tough game, I can imagine, on their side — pucks are going in like that. I like a lot of things about our game here today, but I don’t leave the rink feeling like we dominated or anything like that.”

– Sheldon Keefe

I thought this was a good take on the game. Many suggested the Leafs made a true statement against a rival contender. It was nice to see them smell blood in the water with the backup goalie, pounce, and suck the life right out of the game. They were ready to go from puck drop and deserve complete credit for that. I am just not sure I’d say they crushed an elite team in a true best vs. best scenario.

“Management felt they wanted to go back. There was a mutual understanding of the expectations on a daily basis with giving us more freedom and felt the standards we needed to be at weren’t quite at the level”

– John Tavares

On the podcast, I went on record stating I didn’t like this rule when they allowed it, and I stand by it. The reason was pretty simple: They didn’t earn a privilege like this. That said, sometimes coaches almost purposely give a team a carrot only to yank it back to prove a point. While I’m not entirely that’s what happened here, I am happy they took it away on the basis of the team not meeting their end of the bargain. If you want nice things, you have to earn them.

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I am entirely happy to see the Leafs essentially declare they were tired of this rather than attempting the comeback in a nothing game in December. They should be standing up for themselves, and some of the shenanigans in that game should not be taken lying down. There are times to take the power plays (when they actually call them) and focus on the scoreboard, but the Jets game wasn’t one of those times.

After the west coast trip where he played once and saw just 8:35 of ice time, Kirill Semyonov decided to head home. It’s a shame and a case of poor timing. With Spezza’s (probable) suspension, there was a clear path to dressing for multiple games in hopes of gaining some real traction.

It’s nice that players want to come over to play for Toronto from Europe/Russia, but they generally have to understand that it’s going to take some time for them to get a real crack at it, and it will likely depend on the injury situations. That’s just the reality of the deal here.

It’s hard to stomach that this tragedy occurred a year ago now. Always thinking of Cormac and the Kerin family.

5 Things I Think I’d Do


Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

1.  I think this is exactly why you don’t trade a defenseman just yet – Rasmus Sandin may end up only missing two or three weeks, but if you traded Justin Holl (for example), now what? Alex Biega? You always need seven NHL defensemen. Come playoff time, you generally need at least eight. You can add to this group at some point if you’d like, but any cap-related trades can wait until the offseason. They are trying to win right now.

2.  I think I quite liked the Michael BuntingAuston MatthewsJason Spezza unit. It isn’t something I’d ever really start games with or anything along those lines, but on the whole, I thought they were able to move the puck and create some offense. We have rarely seen Spezza promoted to play with either of Matthews or Tavares, but it was not surprising to see it look good (he’s still a really good player!). It’s the type of combination you keep in your back pocket for a rainy day.

3.  With Jason Spezza suspended and Mitch Marner out for a few weeks, I think I’d be inclined to promote Josh Ho-Sang and see what he can do. The alternative is Joey Anderson, and I just don’t think much of his game. He certainly isn’t a scoring option, and if you roll with him, you probably need to promote Nick Ritchie to the top six, which he doesn’t particularly deserve.

Ho-Sang gives you a shot in the arm, and you can pair him with the always-dependable Tavares, giving Matthews-Nylander another look along the way. That keeps the third line intact with Ritchie on the LW, and a fourth line of Clifford – Engvall – Simmonds.

4.  With Rasmus Sandin out, I think I’d give the first crack at the second power-play unit QB role to Jake Muzzin. He is second on the defense in points to Morgan Rielly, he has generally been productive at 5v5, he has experience running a power play to some success, and he has a bomb. If nothing else, it’s more puck touches for him. It could be a way to help build confidence during a season in which he has really not looked like himself.

5.  As much as the Leafs – Jets game turned into a circus, I think it should be noted that they really struggled through much of the second and third, and they now face several injuries in their lineup. In saying that, the Leafs really need to dial back in on their structure and team defense this week. That is what I would be stressing if I was Sheldon Keefe.

The neutral zone was wide open. They were giving up odd-man rushes with regularity. Their high forward was non-existent for long stretches. When missing key players, a team needs to double down on its core identity (and for the Leafs, as we’ve said repeatedly, it’s a great team defense with a high-end goalie so far this season). It’s time to get back to it.