Life is pretty good in Leafs land right now.
After winning 16 of their last 20, the team now sits in the top ten in the league in points percentage. They rank fifth in the league in expected goal percentage (xGF%) at five-on-five, both of their special teams units are performing well, and Jack Campbell is the NHL leader in save percentage. All of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander have gotten off to strong starts.
The Leafs are set at right wing, where Wayne Simmonds looks like a different player from last season, and all three of Marner, Nylander, and Ondrej Kase (if healthy) are locks for the playoff lineup.
They’re pretty much set at center, too — David Kampf looks like a solid defensive player, and any of Jason Spezza, Alex Kerfoot, or Pierre Engvall can fill the fourth-line spot when needed.
While you can always nitpick, the goaltending will also be set if Petr Mrazek can get healthy.
In short, there aren’t many glaring holes on this roster.
At the very least, the Leafs look like a surefire playoff team. Whether or not they’ll be the favourite in their first-round playoff series is an entirely different question knowing the rosters in the Eastern Conference could look quite different after the trade deadline. On the bright side, their trade deadline additions can’t pan out any worse than last year.
This article will examine some interesting stats about this Leafs team so far and consider the question, “Which opinions have changed since the start of the season?” I’ll also examine some potential targets ahead of the trade deadline.
Encouraging Early-Season Results
At five-on-five, the Leafs currently sit 11th in the NHL in goals per minute. They’re actually third in terms of expected goals per minute, but sit 21st in shooting percentage. They’re fifth in expected goal percentage (xGF%), third in save percentage, and their special teams are above average as a whole. They’re essentially pretty good at just about everything.
Jack Campbell is off to an incredible start. He probably won’t finish the season with a .940 save percentage, but he certainly looks like a high-end starter at the moment, which was no guarantee at the start of the year. Obviously, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why a good five-on-five team with good special teams and a red-hot goaltender continues to win games, but it’s nice to bank points this early in the season.
Given Mrazek’s injury troubles, it’s remarkable that this team is among the league leaders in save percentage. However, it’s worth noting that the team’s save percentage is bound to fall (at least a little bit) at some point, and the team probably won’t look quite as impressive when that happens. An improvement to the team’s shooting percentage could help offset this, but I think we need to be realistic in terms of goaltending expectations. The Leafs are behind teams like Edmonton, Carolina, and Florida in terms of points percentage. There is still some room for improvement.
The five-on-five scoring should continue to improve, but there are legitimate questions regarding this team’s shooting talent. While Auston Matthews is an elite shooter, this team isn’t exactly filled with “snipers.” Players like David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, Mitch Marner, and Ilya Mikheyev won’t remind anyone of Alex Ovechkin. Since five-on-five offense has been an issue in back-to-back playoff series, improving the offense should be a clear priority. It won’t be difficult to upgrade on Nick Ritchie in this respect.
Michael Bunting currently ranks second on the Leafs in five-on-five points with 16 while also drawing approximately one million penalties. While I don’t think that he’ll score at a 58-point pace forever, he certainly looks like a fine option in the top six, making his $950k cap hit through next season a complete steal.
Alex Kerfoot sits just behind Bunting in five-on-five points with 14, and while his on-ice shooting percentage is bound to regress, he’s proven that he can be successful with Tavares and Nylander. Perhaps one of Kerfoot or Bunting will struggle down the stretch, but the team should have at least one quality top-six option on the left side.
As always, an injury or two could change everything. Kerfoot would likely shift to center if one of Matthews, Tavares, or Kampf were out long term, and they likely won’t want Bunting and Ritchie as two of their top-six wingers come playoff time. Salary cap implications aside, this team would sure look good if they had Zach Hyman back. Even if Bunting keeps up his current production, it makes sense to add another high-end winger knowing this team’s forward depth hasn’t quite been the same after trading Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson.
What’s Changed Since the Start of the Season?
We can use the famous Dennis Green quote, “They are who they thought they were!” to describe most Leafs players this season. I can’t say that my opinion of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, or Nylander has changed whatsoever. The Rielly-Brodie pairing has been as advertised. Pierre Engvall looks like Pierre Engvall, and despite his strong start, Alex Kerfoot doesn’t look much different to me.
The number one storyline of the season — and it’s not particularly close — has been the play of Jack Campbell. While he played well last season, he was still relatively unproven, and you never truly know what you’re getting unless you have Andrei Vasilevskiy or Connor Hellebuyck. At the most important position in hockey, Campbell could not be off to a better start. I expected him to be a quality starter, but he’s been an absolute star.
Ondrej Kase, who has appeared in 24 of 27 games, has been fantastic. The major question with him was always his health, but as of right now, he looks like one of the bargains of the offseason.
Speaking of bargains, Michael Bunting has also raised his stock even though I entered the season with reasonably high expectations of him. You can put David Kampf in this category as well; he’s good at his role, even if he is a little bit on the boring side.
Wayne Simmonds looks like a completely different player from last year, currently sitting fifth on the team in five-on-five points per minute. The Sandin-Liljegren pairing has also exceeded expectations by dominating the five-on-five expected goal share and giving the Leafs a strong competitive advantage. You can also put both special teams in the positive category; while the potential was always there, there was always a chance that they continued their struggles from last season.
In terms of negatives, Nick Ritchie clearly hasn’t lived up to his $2.5 million annual price tag. The Muzzin-Holl pairing hasn’t performed as well as last season, while Petr Mrazek has barely been able to play. Ultimately, it’s tough to be overly critical of this Leafs team at the moment, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t a top-five team in points percentage even with fantastic goaltending. They aren’t last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning right now, leaving some room for improvement.
If I was Kyle Dubas, I would look to upgrade on Ritchie at the deadline. Depending on how he performs over the next month or so, they may consider upgrading on Holl as well. Given how well this Leafs team has played, they’ve earned the right for their GM to make some key additions for the playoff run.
Potential Deadline Additions
Nick Foligno still hasn’t scored a goal since he was traded to the Leafs, so they can’t possibly do any worse this time around. Let’s hope they stop focusing on leadership and “killer instinct” and start focusing on good players who can legitimately move the dial.
Let’s focus on the bottom 10-12 teams in points percentage as this year’s sellers. Ottawa, Arizona, Montreal, Vancouver, New York (Islanders), Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Buffalo sit at the bottom of the standings right now, while teams like Detroit, Los Angeles, San Jose, Columbus, and Nashville could end up as sellers as well. Additionally, the majority of available players will hit free agency either this offseason or next.
I wouldn’t mind taking the Tampa Bay Lightning approach of acquiring controllable players on great contracts. The Bolts landed Blake Coleman for a season and a half at a $1.8 million cap hit, while Barclay Goodrow made just $925k. As we learned with Jake Muzzin, adding a solid contributor for two playoff runs is better than one.
Brandon Hagel, who reminds me a lot of Michael Bunting, is currently playing on Chicago’s top line. He carries a reasonable $1.5 million cap hit through 2023-24 and will be a restricted free agent when his deal expires. While it won’t be easy to pry a 23-year old on a bargain contract out of Chicago, it might be smarter to put a good package together for him rather than a pure rental.
I’m the president of the Tomas Hertl fan club — he’s a legitimate difference maker. I prefer him to Timo Meier, who is currently lighting up the scoresheet but would be awfully expensive to acquire due to the extra year on his contract. I’d also call about Kevin Fiala in Minnesota, but he’s not a lock to be moved, especially for futures. Jared McCann is worth a thought, but like Fiala, he’s probably getting a big raise this offseason.
Anthony Beauvillier, signed for a $4.15 million cap hit through 2023-24, would be a great fit on this Leafs team if the Islanders decided to listen to offers. Tyler Toffoli is also signed through 2023-24 on a cap hit just $100k higher than Beauvillier’s. Toffoli, currently playing on the left side for the Habs, has scored an impressive 28 goals in just 52 games last season. If the Habs commit to a full rebuild, I’d take him in a heartbeat.
Vancouver could potentially listen to offers for Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser, but they’ll cost a fortune. Of the three, Miller makes the most sense as a left-side player who generates plenty of offense. I’d take him on my team any day, but he’s scored around a point-per-game rate in Vancouver, so he might price himself out of Toronto’s consideration. The Leafs gave up a first-round pick, Sean Durzi, and Carl Grundstrom for 1.5 seasons of Jake Muzzin. Would they give up a significant package that includes a protected first for J.T. Miller if they retained some salary?
Upgrading the defense could prove to be difficult. The team needs more out of the Muzzin-Holl pairing; if they don’t start playing better hockey, it might be worth giving Liljegren a shot with Muzzin. It’s tough to find a right-shot defenseman who can match up against top competition, and I’d like to keep Brodie with Rielly.
Colin Miller (Buffalo), Justin Braun (Philadelphia), Ilya Lyubushkin (Arizona) could be worth exploring, but someone like Josh Manson (Anaheim) might end up being too pricey if he’s even moved at all. Giving up a first-round pick for a rental defenseman doesn’t sound too appetizing.
- I still can’t believe Joe Thornton was on the top power-play unit in last year’s playoffs. What on earth was the Leafs’ coaching staff thinking? Having a shooting threat in the middle of the 1-3-1 set-up has been a key difference-maker this season, making the powerplay far less predictable. Let’s hope that there are far fewer questionable coaching decisions in this year’s playoffs.
- Josh Ho-Sang plays on the right and his skill set doesn’t translate over to the left side very well. He plays in an organization that already has Marner, Nylander, Kase, Simmonds, and Spezza on the right-side, so he does not have a clear long-term role at the NHL level. Kerfoot, Mikheyev, Engvall, Robertson, and Steeves can all play the right side as well, so he has his work cut out for him.
I would have called him up (and signed him to a NHL contract) with Marner and Spezza out — I’m not too concerned about losing him on waivers — but Alex Steeves was deserving as well. I don’t think that Ho-Sang would even be claimed on waivers, but if he did, it would be nice to see him get an NHL opportunity elsewhere. With Ho-Sang currently on a one-year AHL contract, I’m all but certain that the Leafs wouldn’t stand in his way if he was given an NHL opportunity elsewhere. If there’s another injury before Spezza returns, I’d call him up over Joey Anderson.
- The Matthew Knies hype train is going to completely take off during this year’s World Juniors. He’s 6’3″ with wicked hands, a hard shot, and a great work ethic. I watched him dangle the puck through Owen Power and Luke Hughes last weekend. He’s already a top player at the NCAA level. His speed and playmaking are fine rather than great, so I don’t see a future superstar in the making, but he looks like he’s going to have a long career at the NHL level. The team’s amateur scouting of late has been terrific, in my opinion.
- Alex Steeves played just 12 games with the Marlies before earning a shot with the Leafs. Future college free agents will likely take note. Maybe this helps the Leafs sign one of the better free agents available. I haven’t watched every upcoming college free agent, but I’d love to give Michigan’s Nick Blakenburg a shot with the Marlies.
- In a vacuum, Jason Spezza probably deserved a six-game suspension, but curiously, it feels like he’s the only player in ages who received a long enough suspension. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety seemingly bends over backward to protect dirty players like Tom Wilson. There is no consistency, and the Leafs are right to have questions. Brad Meier is definitely the Angel Hernandez of NHL officials. We better not see him officiating a Leafs playoff game anytime soon.