As the Maple Leafs head into a four-game western road trip, I thought this would be a good time for an extended notes edition of Leafs Notebook.
They aren’t exactly coming off a great week of high-caliber hockey, and they head to the road to see how they’ll carry their game away from Scotiabank – the Leafs are actually second in the league in home wins so far.
While the season is far from over, the clear divide between the top four teams in the Atlantic and the bottom four is already stark, leaving much of the rest of the season to jockey for position between Toronto, Boston, Florida, and Tampa Bay. The race to the playoffs might not be particularly exciting unless something goes horribly wrong for any of the above teams, but it’ll be worth the wait to see those four teams battle each other to emerge from the Atlantic into the final four.
– With the Leafs shuffling forward lines around due to injuries and suspension, there were two notable matchups this week against high-powered offensive players. The Leafs split the matchups between the Auston Matthews and John Tavares lines, with David Kampf barely receiving any time: Steven Stamkos played 6:55 vs. Matthews and 6:40 vs. Tavares at 5v5, but only 2:57 vs. Kampf. Patrick Kane played 7:25 against Tavares (and over eight minutes against Kerfoot!), 6:25 against Matthews, and 3:03 against Kampf (Matthews also played more against Toews than Kampf did).
Kampf is performing well as a faceoff specialist who is taking defensive zone starts away from Matthews and Tavares, but generally speaking, it’s still the top two centers doing the heavy lifting across all facets of the game.
– It must be pretty cool for David Kampf to score two big goals against his former team – one to tie it late in their first meeting, the second to win it late – following a season where he scored one goal in 56 games and surely heard about it/had it weigh on him. He’s not here for offense, but Kampf has eight points in 29 games (a modest 23-point pace if you round up) after putting up 12 points in 56 games last season. He barely shoots (only 35 SOG so far this season), but it should be noted he is shooting a career-high 11.4 percent, way above his 6.9 percent career average.
– I don’t want to pile on a guy who is having a tough go of it right now, but you can really see Justin Holl’s confidence is shot when a simple 2v2 turns into confusion around who is covering who. As the defenseman, he has to take control and dictate who is doing what between him and Kampf. Instead, they both played the pass and Toews enjoyed a relatively easy path to walk in and score.
Later in that game, Holl didn’t trust his defense partner to win a race, or at minimum, close the gap to prevent a mini breakaway. By skating over and not winning the race, he left open the highest-danger scoring chance possible. He’s playing poorly, and he’s wearing it at this point. Perhaps the holiday break will help him reset.
– For all the talk of struggles among defensemen, Morgan Rielly is now tied for fifth among all defensemen with 24 points, particularly off the back of a three-point night against Minnesota followed up by a four-point night against Columbus. He’s averaging 24:04 per night as others have struggled. That would be the second-highest season average of his career as far as ice time. Amid all of that, he’s actually shooting below his career average.
I particularly liked Rielly’s assist against Columbus coming off a point shot that Tavares tipped on the power play – if teams are going to sag off him on the power play, he has to keep them honest, and he shot that puck perfectly for the tip. That kind of shot (which was about knee high and in the middle of the ice/net) is beyond simple for a player such as John Tavares to tip.
– Speaking of high-percentage plays that work well, the William Nylander goal against Chicago where he gained the zone before softly chipping the puck below the goal line for John Tavares to retrieve the kind of dump and chase play that is easy to recover. It’s really tight for defenders as there is little time for them to turn when you have already entered the zone. When you dump and chase from around center, they have plenty of time and space to communicate, turn around, and make a play.
– Jake Muzzin has always been a sneaky good offensive defenseman, but this season that has not been the case. He’s on pace for the lowest shot per game rate of his career as well as his second-lowest point per game total of his career (and the lowest was in his first full season). He’s never really been known for his offense, but part of what has made him so good over the years is that he actually did produce at a good rate offensively.
– Interesting to see the Leafs try to create a role for Kyle Clifford as a penalty killer. He played 1:01 on the penalty kill against Chicago and :23 seconds there against Tampa. His physicality is a welcome addition, and he has shown he’s still fast enough to get in on the forecheck, create turnovers, and havoc in front of the net. He even made a nice play to pick up an assist against the Blackhawks when he cycled the puck low to Pierre Engvall before he came out and scored. The Leafs clearly like having him around and appear to want to create a role for him beyond just strictly fourth-line shifts. At the very least, he’s getting an opportunity to try.
– With Kyle Clifford in the organization, as well as Rich Clune and probably even Wayne Simmonds, it made sense for the Leafs to trade away Kurtis Gabriel for a depth defenseman for the Marlies as the Leafs call up players to fill in for the injured Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott.
– The Leafs must not think Josh Ho-Sang would pass through waivers — hence not signing him to a deal to play in the NHL as there’s clear opportunity to have him up — but if it’s just for a few weeks, only to potentially lose him on waivers, is it worth it?
“It was the same story that it has been here: Too many chances against, too many freebies, and too many guys in behind us. Same issues that were hurting us when we weren’t winning games early in the season. The fact that we won tonight is a good thing; we obviously got a fortunate bounce there, but we won the game on special teams and goaltending and got outplayed pretty badly at 5v5.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the game against the Chicago Blackhawks
After the game against Tampa Bay, Keefe also made some comments about the team’s defensive play and the chances they have been giving up. It was particularly disappointing, given the emphasis placed on it, that Toews started the game by basically walking right in and scoring. You can choose to shrug it off at your own risk, but in corsi at 5v5, the Leafs are third in their division (7th league-wide, with Tampa being fourth at 15th), and at 5v5 in fenwick, they are also third in their division (but drop to 10th league-wide, and Tampa is currently 11th).
Florida and Boston have been elite 5v5 teams so far in terms of controlling play. These are the teams they will have to play in the first two rounds. We’re now in December. It’s valid for the coaching staff to be harping on this at every opportunity.
“I can’t blame Jake or anything like that. We both have to be better in some ways. This is professional sports, and some nights are gonna be like this. Obviously, it’s disappointing and never feels good. It’s disappointing because we know the recipe.”
– Justin Holl after he and partner Jake Muzzin struggled against Tampa Bay
Justin Holl is obviously really struggling. Against Tampa Bay, it was particularly notable as Timothy Liljegren ended up playing more than him. It was only 13 seconds more — I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill — but ice time always talks, and those things add up.
Against Chicago, Holl was back to playing over 20 minutes — his ice-time dip was short lived — but there appears to be a bit of a shift nearing should he not turn his game around at some point. Jake Muzzin is much more firmly in his position pretty well no matter what happens (because they don’t have a feasible alternative), but he is also still struggling relative to the high expectations for him as a player. While Holl seems to be getting all the attention, it’s really Muzzin that has to be the focus. They need him no matter what.
“When you’re not giving up too much, you’re giving yourself a chance to win. We did a pretty good job of defending, and it’s basically how we have to survive here with some of our top offensive guys out.”
– Jon Cooper after the Lightning beat the Leafs
I really appreciate when teams are missing key players and change their games to suit their roster. Tampa is a great example. They understand their roster isn’t what it can be and are trying to adjust accordingly. The Leafs, missing Mitch Marner, Jason Spezza, Rasmus Sandin, and Travis Dermott, haven’t particularly appeared to change much – and I’m not sure it’s because the coaching staff isn’t stressing playing tighter defensively (see above).
Tweets of the Week
If you’re wondering how the Leafs feel about the Leafs’ showing here tonight, I present Kyle Dubas when the team scores to go up 5-4 with 1:20 to go. pic.twitter.com/9idNuN8RkC
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) December 12, 2021
This somewhat builds on those Keefe and Cooper quotes above. If there is one thing I really took from the Amazon Prime series, it’s that Keefe and the staff were really stressing areas of concern almost immediately at the beginning of the season (he specifically noted 5v5 goals).
Of course, Keefe held the meeting with the team leaders to note his concerns about their play when they stumble a bit later on in the season (to which Joe Thornton notably shrugged and pointed out that they are still in first).
I’d imagine when they have that type of conversation at some point during this season, they’ll go back and remind them that this kind of thing happened last season and they lost to a team that did enter the series controlling play at 5v5 better than we did (of course, that’s not the only reason they lost, but it made it tighter than many thought it would).
Petr Mrazek has surrendered at least three goals in all three of his Maple Leafs starts.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) December 12, 2021
I feel for Petr Mrazek. It has been a tough start to his Leafs career, and a lot of it hasn’t been particularly his fault. The Leafs did not play well against Chicago, although there were a few goals you’d probably want Mrazek to have. Of course, he’s been injured (which has been a problem throughout much of his career), but even the games before he got hurt, I thought he played well in both and was left out to dry. You can see the talent and why he has been a good goalie in the league. Hopefully, he’s able to stay healthy and get some confidence going.
Presented without comment:
8 PP goals in 4 games without Marner
— JD Bunkis (@JDBunkis) December 10, 2021
We’ll have a better evaluation of this when we look at the results once Mitch Marner returns (which should be weeks from now, so it’ll be a reasonable in-season sample), but it’s undeniable that the extra shooter is doing wonders for the spacing.
Marner has generally been moved off of his half-wall spot this season due to his inability to shoot, and while there are good moments when he rovers around, it can also be a bit confusing/lack purpose — it’s actually him moving around to get himself involved more than anything. When the Leafs are able to line up a bunch of shooters and have them zip the puck around until one of them has a clear lane (which is what they are doing), it appears a lot more dangerous so far.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. Even though Ondrej Kase only has two power-play points so far, I think he’s pretty clearly one of their 10 best power-play player options and should remain on the second unit in some capacity once the Leafs are healthy again. He is only really seeing time because of injuries – and it was something we called for before – but the one benefit of injuries is it gives other players an opportunity to show they can provide more.
Kase is doing well on the power play, if anything just his ability to retrieve the puck and go to the dirty areas. What an important player he has become – a main role on the penalty kill, the best player on their checking line, and now contributing to the power play.
2. I don’t think it’ll happen, but with four games this week, I would strongly consider giving Petr Mrazek two of the starts. There’s value in resting Jack Campbell, as his career-high for games played in an NHL season is 31 and he’s already at 22, plus there’s value in getting Mrazek going and having a second legitimate option to turn to if need be. They aren’t paying Mrazek to provide Joseph Woll, play-only-when-we-need-you duty.
3. I know it’s not popular, but I think I’d still largely be keeping Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl together as I wrote about last week. A few games aren’t going to wildly swing my opinion on it. They are veterans going through a tough time right now, but what it boils down to for me: they take on tough matchups, and I don’t think they both suddenly forgot how to play hockey. They can round into form. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give a guy like Timothy Liljegren the odd look depending on the situation, but I’d still largely return to this pairing for the time being.
4. That said, last month in this space, I wrote my priority heading into the trade deadline would be to add a top-six left winger, primarily for Auston Matthews (which I still think is important, for the record), but that is quickly changing to a top-four defenseman who can push Holl down. They need another defenseman they can rely on nightly. This would cost a lot, but again, it’s a go-for-it year. If the Leafs are healthy at forward, with enough depth to move players around and change up the looks they are throwing at teams. On defense, they don’t have nearly the same flexibility (see above).
5. With Ilya Mikheyev slated to return shortly, I would plan to start him on the fourth line and have him work his way up the lineup rather than starting him right away on the third line (which is where I’m guessing he’ll end up). As long as players are missing and Ondrej Kase is playing up the lineup, when Mikheyev does round into shape, I’d try him on the right wing with Nick Ritchie and David Kampf. That would reunite the Kyle Clifford – Pierre Engvall – Wayne Simmonds line, which I kind of liked as a fourth line unit that can bring some energy and forechecking.