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

With the Maple Leafs season on a COVID-induced pause heading into the holiday break, Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Today to discuss his impressions on the first 30 games, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl’s disappointing start, Ondrej Kase’s fit on the Auston Matthews line, and Morgan Rielly’s outstanding start to the season.

Overall impressions on the 2021-22 Maple Leafs at the holiday break:

It is really hard to poke holes in them right now. You have to try hard to be super critical of them at this point. They’re a top 10 team in goals for, top five in goals against, their power play is number two in the league, and their penalty kill is also top 10. They score at five-on-five. They have depth. Their star players are good.

At the same time, the playoffs will hang over their head until they show they can get through it. The tough thing for them is that the top teams in the division are all really good. Tampa, Florida, and Boston are all elite five-on-five hockey teams. That is what the playoffs usually come down to.

The Leafs are right there with them, but Florida has controlled play better than anybody at five-on-five, and Boston is nipping at their heels and have really been sunk by poor goaltending. Tampa is a little bit behind the Leafs, but it is Tampa, and they have been playing without Kucherov and Point for an extended period of time now. You can’t really count them out.

As good as they look, those are two of the three teams they’re going to have to go through to get to the Eastern Conference Final. It does feel a little bit different — they are do seem a little bit more complete, in part because Ondrej Kase has been a bit of a revelation staying healthy so far.

To be honest, with Kase’s sketchy injury history, if God forbid something happens and it rears its ugly head again, suddenly their depth starts to take a little bit of a hit. I think he is a really critical piece to giving them that added depth and extra oomph throughout their lineup.

On Ondrej Kase’s success on the Matthews line in Marner’s absence:

He played with Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, so it is not completely unheard of for him. I don’t think they’ll do it, but to be honest, there is a world where they could easily keep the Bunting – Matthews – Kase line, reunite Marner and Tavares — who we know are really good together — and keep Kerfoot and Nylander together. They could really have three scary lines to throw at times that will make them really difficult to handle.

I don’t think that is the direction they want their lineup configuration to go, but it is nice that they have the option if they really want it. I would love to see it get maybe five or 10 games just to see how it messes up teams trying to match up against them.

When you end up playing Boston or Tampa and they have a stacked top line — whether it is Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Marchand, or Point, Kucherov, and Palat or Killorn — you need firepower to go up against them. You can’t just throw out Matthews with Bunting and Kase. They are going to have to stack up the line eventually to go up against them.

On Michael Bunting’s performance grade for his season so far:

Relative to anything you can reasonably expect, it would have to be an A. He has been great. He has produced at a top-six rate. He has fit in comfortably beside top players. He doesn’t look out of place at all. He keeps the play moving forward.

He adds a little bit of an extra dimension in terms of drawing penalties.

I am curious to see how that long that lasts for given what we have seen with Kadri here where it started off hot, he was able to draw them, and it gets talked about so much because of the coverage of this team that it eventually stops.

He brings some bite. He is the first one in on a scrum, which is kind of nice to see from this team for once. Is he a high-end top-six forward? No, but he is making under a million and he has produced at a top-six forward rate. You can’t complain about that.

On Justin Holl’s struggles in 2021-22:

I don’t think it has been nearly discussed enough how he had a mystery illness during training camp, missed time, and lost a bunch of weight. Those things are hard to come back from no matter who you are. His skating just doesn’t look right; he doesn’t look fast. He doesn’t look comfortable with the puck.

In an ideal world, you stick with him and hope he gets back on track. He was legitimately solid last season. I don’t completely buy that he was just made by Jake Muzzin and was just riding shotgun. He was a good player last year. I don’t think that was a complete accident or fluke. He does have something to offer.

I think the coaching staff is in the same boat where they would like to wait it out and hope that he rediscovers his confidence and form a little bit. ButLiljegren is playing well, and Holl is not. Eventually, they are going to have to sit there and go, “We have no choice until he plays his way back into it, unfortunately.”

I feel for the guy. He is getting a lot of heat at the moment. I am sure he knows he is struggling. You can see it is weighing on him at this point. He is doing things that are completely illogical — just head-scratching and confusing — and his reads aren’t there.

I think they have to try to build him back up — whether that it is putting him on the bottom pairing and letting him get his confidence back up, or just saying they’re going to ride with him until he figures this out and gets better.

I would just be trying to build him back up. As we saw pretty quickly before this Covid pause for the Leafs, you always need defensemen. Pretty quickly, Sandin was out and Dermott was out. I would be hesitant to get rid of Holl. If you are planning on going on a long playoff run, you always need defensemen.

On Jake Muzzin’s struggles in 2021-22:

All of the attention has been on Holl, and there seems to be the prevalent thought that when Muzzin is not playing with Holl, he has been fine, but he does look like he is declining. He is not necessarily moving around the greatest out there. He has always been a sneaky good offensive player, but it hasn’t been to the same level so far.

We can talk about Holl all we want, but Muzzin is a really important player for this team. Any sort of decline from him is significantly worse than anything Justin Holl will or won’t do for this team. It is just a fact. Muzzin is their main shutdown guy.

The saving grace so far is that Morgan Rielly has honestly had an unbelievable first half to the season so far. He looks so good. It is actually shocking his complete his game has been, which Sheldon Keefe has mentioned a few times now. All around the ice and in all situations, he has been fantastic, so it has sort of mitigated it.

If Rielly is the most important defenseman, Muzzin is number two, and he doesn’t look right at all. The hope is that the playoffs get a little bit more clutch-and-grab, a little bit slower, and a little bit more in his wheelhouse in terms of the style of game. Right now, I think he is more concerning than anything Justin Holl is doing.

On Morgan Rielly’s big 2021-22 season so far after signing his extension:

It reminds me of when JVR was in the final year of his contract in Toronto. Leading up to the deadline, there was all of this, “Will they keep him or sell him?” They ended up keeping him. Even though he left in the offseason, with the weight off of his shoulders of not being traded at the deadline, he went on a heater the rest of the season. He was clicking at close to a goal-per-game for an extended time. He looked happier and in a better place mentally.

For Rielly, there is that comfort of knowing it’s his team, he is here, and he is a critical component who is looked in. Good for him. Across the league, you sometimes see guys playing on long contracts maybe take their foot off the pedal. He is just getting better.

He had the 20-goal season, but the way he has been playing this season, I would argue it is the best first half to the season he has had in his career.