Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, Michael Bunting
Photo: Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

“It is not a good game for us, but it is a good result”

Sheldon Keefe put it well in his post-game press conference.

The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets by a final score of 5-4, although it was certainly closer than it probably should’ve been. The Leafs controlled the run of play in the first period, getting out to an early 3-0 lead.

They let Columbus back in the game in the second period, followed it up with a pair of quick goals towards the end of the frame, then completely took their foot off the gas in the third. That last part is what frustrated Keefe so much. We share a common dislike for when teams are rewarded for bad habits.

There are some positives to take out of this game, including a four-assist night from Morgan Rielly, the monkey finally getting off of Nick Ritchie’s back, and the best Muzzin-Holl game defensively in a long time from what I’ve been observing. We’ll obviously dive into some of the negatives as well, but let’s start with the strongest performers from Tuesday night.

It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!

5 Stars

Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — Nights like these help explain why you accept all the risks that come with Rielly’s game. He got beat behind for multiple odd-man rushes against, but he also made a few brilliant plays offensively that led directly to goals.

Whenever a player has a standout performance on the scoresheet, I like to go through each individual play they made to earn those points, so here’s a quick breakdown of Rielly’s four assists:

  1. Pass to Auston Matthews on the left wall of PP1
  2. Stretch pass up the ice to Michael Bunting
  3. Point shot for a John Tavares deflection power-play goal
  4. Pass off a center-ice faceoff win to get Matthews in behind his defender

The first one wasn’t anything special, but Rielly broke down the defense on each of the other three. He also had a few chances at grabbing a fifth point: hitting the post on a seeing-eye shot, firing a one-timer off of an Ondrej Kase behind-the-net feed, and threading a pass to get Kyle Clifford in behind for a partial breakaway (Clifford hit the crossbar).

As regular readers of mine know full well, Rielly can drive me crazy sometimes with how much he gives up off the rush, but it’s hard to complain when he more than makes up for it with his elite offensive play. Last night’s game puts him on pace for 67 points across 82 games — and that’s without going on a shooting percentage bender.

The Muzzin-Holl Pair — Toronto’s “shutdown pair” has been their biggest cause for concern this season, which is why it was so nice to see them defending the rush at a high level on Tuesday night. Columbus isn’t exactly Colorado or Tampa Bay when they’re attacking in transition, but you still need to do the little things right in the neutral zone to prevent NHL-calibre forwards from gaining the zone.

I thought Jake Muzzin did an excellent job with that, keeping his man in front of him off the rush, tightening the gap at Toronto’s blue line to force dump-ins, and closing out his man hard along the boards. That’s productive physicality, using his body to prevent a rush chance and help his team regain puck possession.

It’s worth noting that Justin Holl was also much better in this game at defending in transition, although it was his passing that really stood out. He’s struggled all year with moving the puck effectively up the ice. Tonight, he was confidently jumping up into the play and completing the next pass.

In fact, Holl was completing difficult passes through the teeth of the defense. I am always bringing up “slot passes” — they’re an excellent predictor of future offense. Holl completed two slot passes on Tuesday night, one to Kyle Clifford off the rush and another to Matthews after activating down the right wall on the cycle.

More of that, please.

Auston Matthews (C, #34)I was blown away by Matthews’ ability to carry his linemates with his playmaking. Columbus was noticeably overcommitting to him in their own end at 5v5 — and why wouldn’t you with Michael Bunting and Wayne Simmonds as the other shot threats. It reminded me of an NBA team with no spacing, clogging up the lanes, and daring the non-shooters to fire away from distance — just watch this year’s Lakers if you want to see what I’m talking about (actually, don’t do that; it’s a terrible idea).

When Columbus would double-team Matthews, he was able to zip east-west passes in the offensive zone to an open Simmonds. He even made a drop pass to Simmonds after receiving the puck in the slot, making that extra pass to open up plenty of space. Matthews ended up getting the puck back for a backdoor tip, but the puck bounced over his stick.

He also connected on a seam pass to William Nylander on the power play, which I can’t believe Columbus’ penalty kill allowed. That’s their bread and butter. Oh yeah, Matthews also did the Matthews thing by scoring a comical goal off the draw.

Nik Ritchie (LW, #20) — He finally did it! As frustrating as this season has been for Nick Ritchie, all the evidence indicates he’s been severely snakebitten as a goal scorer. He’s actually been generating more quality chances from the slot than he did last season — the pucks just haven’t been going in.

There are still definitely some things he can do better to impact play at 5v5 — his on-ice impacts in shot and expected goal differential are still the lowest on the team after 27 games — but his ability to get good looks at the net as a shooter continues to be strong. He led the team with five chances from the slot last night.

Anyone else ready for the heater he’s about to go on?

4 Stars

Michael Bunting (LW, #58) — We all marvel at his energy and POS-element he brings to the table, but I’d like to compliment Bunting for some of the skilled plays he’s been able to make with the puck lately. When you’re playing alongside star talent, you need to complete the next pass; otherwise, you’re punting away valuable possessions from Matthews.

A no-look, between-the-legs pass off the rush for a Matthews tap-in certainly checks that box. That brings Bunting to 19 points in 27 games, which is definitely a byproduct of playing alongside one of the best offensive players in the world, but it also speaks to Bunting’s ability to at least keep up with Matthews off the rush.

Ondrej Kase (RW, #25) — “Behind-the-net passes” are another buzzword I love using, again, because we have years of research proving it increases your chances of scoring. Kase connected on a few of those plays tonight, the aforementioned one to Rielly and also the feed out front to Ritchie to break the curse off of a great puck recovery on the forecheck.

He’s done a great job transporting play for the third line this season, making smooth transitions out of his own end, through the neutral zone, and then across the blueline for the clean zone entry. I’m also a big fan of his play on the penalty kill, using his speed to disrupt opposing puck carriers.

Something to keep an eye on is that the Kampf line hasn’t been performing as well lately by the numbers, getting outshot and out-chanced over the past week or two. This isn’t only down to his zone starts. Kampf actually starts more shifts in the neutral zone than he does in the defensive zone, not to mention the fact that 63 percent of his shifts start on the fly.

We’ve also have zone-start adjusted stats for years now, which is why I’ve always found the Kampf usage dialogue a bit outdated. He provides value by taking on some tougher shifts than we’ve seen from Toronto’s other third lines in years past, but just remember that the vast majority of his shifts occur without DZ start.

3 Stars

Jack Campbell (G, #36) — What a weird game.

We saw a couple of video game saves from Jack Campbell, who athletically sprawled across his crease to take away a pair of goals. One of them was a desperation paddle save. The other looked like this.

This would’ve been an easy 5-star grade had it not been for the third period. In Campbell’s defense, the team in front of him didn’t give him much help at limiting chances against, but there were still a few squeakers I’m sure he’ll want back.

Tavares-Nylander — Both players produced in this game, but they also got shelled at 5v5. When you hear “process” and good habits, we’re talking about all the little plays that tilt the ice in your favour, pushing play towards the right side of center ice and staying there. These two didn’t accomplish that on Tuesday night, getting severely outshot and outchanced at 5v5.

Now, we should give John Tavares credit for his tipping prowess. His hand-eye allows him to create a scoring chance out of nothing just by standing in the slot. It’s also important to point out that William Nylander beat an NHL goalie clean (again) from the right flank on the power play.

Pierre Engvall (C, #47) — I’m willing to die out here on Pierre Engvall island. I know he didn’t have the most dominant game last night, but he drove play up the ice by transporting the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone with his speed.

It’s not a coincidence that the Kampf-Kase duo has performed much better with Engvall than they have with Ritchie.

  • Engvall-Kampf-Kase: 53% of the shots, 56% of the scoring chances at 5v5
  • Ritchie-Kampf-Kase: 47% of the shots, 46% of the scoring chances at 5v5

Let’s all put a bit more respect on Pierre Engvall’s name. Sure, he drives us all crazy, but he’s also been driving play quite well this season. That really matters.

Kristians Rubins (LD, #56) — All things considered, this was a solid debut from Rubins. He didn’t play very much, ending the game with 13:40 of ice time, but he was able to keep up with NHL speed in transition and was able to complete the basic passes necessary to move play up the ice.

It was nice to see a Rubins-Liljegren get a look as the PK2 pairing, giving Rielly-Brodie a chance to rest. The two rookies seemed to handle themselves well at 4v5, communicating switches well and not allowing anything through the seam. As a side note, it would be nice for the Leafs to find a way to get Rielly off of PK2, saving more of his energy for darting up the ice offensively at 5v5 and 5v4.

Alex Steeves (C, #46) — After lighting it up in college and putting up a point per game in the AHL after 12 games with the Marlies, it was cool to see Alex Steeves get an opportunity in the show. He was making some skilled plays in the neutral zone to evade checkers, which is how he drew a penalty.

In the offensive zone, he was clearly looking for his shot, but he had trouble getting it off clean. There is a lot less time and space available against NHL defenses.

Here was another good demonstration of the speed of the NHL game on a fast transition play leading to a goal against. His effort to get back on the 5-3 CBJ goal with Timothy Liljegren caught up the ice was there, but he got beat down the ice by a faster player in Zach Werenski.

2 Stars

Timothy Liljegren (RD, #37) — If you watch that clip above again, you’ll notice Liljegren pinches without F3 support. That’s a big no-no and it leads directly to a goal against. The rest of Liljegren’s game was solid with respect to defending the rush, but we still have to mention the bad read that led to a goal against.

Alex Kerfoot (LW, #15)He was under 30% in shot attempt share in this game, and as solid as his production’s been (with an elevated shooting percentage), it’s worth keeping an eye on the fact that the Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander trio has actually been under water at 5v5 in over 100 minutes together. At 48 CF% and 46 xGF%, it’s not where you want it to be, especially by comparison — they were at 58 CF% and 62 xGF% in 94 minutes together last year.

Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — I love Simmonds as much as you do, which is why it pains me to point out the number of times plays were dying on his stick off the rush. When you compare him to someone like Bunting, it’s night and day. You have to give credit to Simmonds for getting himself to the crease and generating chances at an elite level this season, but he’s obviously not a long-term fit alongside star talent, which was noticeable at times last 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.

The shots were even at 5v5 and Toronto actually got out-chanced at 5v5, only controlling 48% of the chances from the slot.

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.

Point production aside, there are much more negatives in the Shot and Chance columns than you’d like to see against a weaker team like Columbus.

Tweets of the Night

Honestly, I just wanted to mention this tweet because I think “build-up” is a great way to describe the process that leads to a goal.

We tend not to think about the two or three passes before the puck goes in, but they’re extremely important to advancing play up the ice and creating a quality scoring chance.

I haven’t tweeted much over the last year or so, but decided to join some of the officiating discourse on Hockey Twitter. I’ve had a lot of good conversations with some smart folks over DMs and can conclude:

a) Penalty drawing has proven to be a repeatable skill, separate from other skills in hockey

b) That probably shouldn’t be the case

When you compare the NBA’s top players in free throw attempts versus the NHL leaders in penalties drawn, one league is clearly doing a better job at enforcing the rules when their star players are impeded by illegal defense.

Image from

Image from

Is it really too much to ask a league to reward the league’s best players for beating their defender in 1v1 situations and drawing illegal contact? Or should we be rewarding the Blake Lizottes of the world?

I’m on Dom’s side of this argument. It’s an interesting thread if you get the chance to check it out.

Final Grade: C+