With the season on pause at the moment and the holiday season quickly approaching, what better time to roll out a holiday wishlist?
At the top of many of our lists is the resumption of the season and a return to a somewhat normal routine, including fans in the stands.
As for the Leafs specifically, when the games are played and the team is healthy, there is very little to complain about. Tied for third in the league in points percentage, the Leafs are also top 10 in goals for per game, goals against per game, power-play efficiency, and penalty kill percentage. Auston Matthews is once again in contention for the Rocket Richard Trophy, while Jack Campbell is enjoying a Vezina Trophy-worthy season so far.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect, and there is always room for some improvement. Without further ado, here are some holiday wishlist items to consider.
Happy holidays, everyone!
Return to form for Jake Muzzin
Justin Holl has received the majority of criticism, but there is no doubt that Muzzin is not exactly off to a banner start to his season. He’s on pace for the lowest points per game and shot shares of his career, he’s been burned a number of times off the rush, and he hasn’t been particularly steady overall from game to game.
The Leafs have switched up his partners (and again, Justin Holl has struggled, too, so this isn’t all on Muzzin by any means). They have reduced his role at times, giving the tough matchups to the Rielly – Brodie pairing. Even with Holl’s struggles, when Muzzin is in form, he is able to largely battle through it — he is that good.
Turning 33 in February and is approaching 700 games, it’s fair to wonder how much gas Muzzin has left in the tank (he is under contract for the following two seasons as well). We are not exactly in full-blown panic mode yet, but an uptick in his play would be a very welcome development.
A proper goalie platoon
The Leafs signed Petr Mrazek to platoon with Jack Campbell given the uncertainty around Campbell’s ability to be a full-fledged starter for the first time in his career at the age of 29 with a lengthy injury rap sheet.
The good news is that Campbell has been fantastic so far, making it largely a moot point.
The bad news is that it has also been a moot point on account of the fact that Mrazek has hardly been healthy, appearing in only three games. While his numbers might suggest he’s struggling, I think he’s actually looked sharp in his showings but has been a little unlucky to this point.
That said, with the uncertainty surrounding Covid, Campbell’s ability to manage a full starter’s workload (23 games so far is not even remotely close to playing 60+), and a schedule that could become even more condensed due to these postponements, the Leafs will need Mrazek to stay healthy and get back on track, if for no other reason than to rest Campbell. Mrazek has to be available — and confidence-inspiring when he plays — in order to achieve that.
One more defenseman
I’d like to say a scoring forward instead, but the Leafs have good forward depth when healthy, and their second pairing is struggling — it’s a bigger need at the moment. There’s not much to say here other than the obvious: The Brodie – Rielly pairing has been really good, and the Muzzin – Holl pairing has struggled.
I like the young defensemen in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, but I don’t think either is ready for a full-time role as top-four defensemen in what will hopefully be a lengthy playoff run. That’s just the reality of the situation at this point.
Some draft capital
I think this will be more of an offseason thing knowing the Leafs are rightly going for it this season. The only way this would play out during this season is if they simply need to shed cap space and/or flip assets (i.e. trade a player for a pick, flip a pick plus more for a different player).
The Leafs drafted just three times last year, and they have only three picks for the upcoming draft. It’s not sustainable in a cap world where the Leafs are paying a number of players high-end salaries. They’ll need to backfill with cheap ELCs.
– We haven’t exactly had a long enough look at the Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Ondrej Kase line (not even 30 minutes at 5v5) to really make much of their stats (50 CF%, one goal for, zero against, 45 xGF%). That said, from what we’ve so far, for a line that was hastily thrown together, they do a good job forechecking and have been able to generate some decent looks. With some extended time together, they have the tools to form a formidable line — Bunting and Kase are both pretty good finishers, and Matthews is obviously elite.
– I have particularly liked John Tavares – William Nylander as a combo this season compared to previous ones, so I wanted to take a look to see if there was anything that stood out in the numbers. The answer? Not really.
You could argue it’s their most complete season across the board, but they were very good last season as well. I think the biggest thing to note is that Alex Kerfoot, currently on pace for a career year, has been effective alongside them. His speed has been noticeable, and it gives Nylander a freewheeling running mate.
Interestingly, Nylander and Tavares have an on-ice shooting percentage together that is about one percent lower than last season so far. There is potentially more to give still.
– I am not sure if this is a scorekeeper thing or what, but I thought it was interesting that the Leafs led the league in giveaways last season, and they do again this season. Part of it might be the noise (or rink bias) in the real-time stats; Justin Bourne showed some Sports LogIQ data earlier this season suggesting they lead the league in offensive-zone turnovers but turn the puck over less than the rest of the league in the neutral zone; i.e., a byproduct of the quantity of offensive-zone puck-possession time they generate could be that they also turn it over at that end of the rink more frequently than the other teams.
Three seasons ago, the Leafs were sixth in the NHL in the giveaways stat. Conversely, Tampa Bay has committed the fewest giveaways this season, the fewest last season, and the second-fewest the season before that. I don’t think it’s anything too alarming and the usual caveats about real-time stats apply, but it’s something worth monitoring.
– Puck management is going to be critical in this division. Florida is first in 5v5 corsi, Boston is fourth, and the Leafs are seventh. Of course, Tampa Bay — who has generally played without Nikita Kucherov this season and apparently can turn it on whenever they want — is still in their division and will qualify for the playoffs.
– Not every game is perfect over the course of an 82-game season, and the Leafs got sloppy against the Hawks, making that game way more difficult than it should have been. In the next game against the Oilers, with a multi-goal lead, they knuckled down and ended up coasting to a 5-1 win. That is a nice correction following a game the coaching staff surely wasn’t happy about.
– The player that clocked the most ice time against Connor McDavid at 5v5 in that game? Michael Bunting. The defenseman who clocked the most ice time at 5v5 against McDavid in that game? Timothy Liljegren. Jake Muzzin played under seven minutes against McDavid in that game and won the shot share 11 to one. McDavid was held pointless on the night. That was an all-around impressive showing. It was really led by Auston Matthews, who the coaching staff tapped to go head to against McDavid. He more than delivered.
“Whenever you are playing with a different D partner or you’re playing with different linemates, it takes a little bit of time. The more you work at things, the more you talk and you become comfortable with each other just as people off the ice as you get comfortable talking about things and expressing your opinions on plays that happen in the course of the game, I think that helps. And that takes time. T.J. and I have tried to work at it. I think we want to be really good for one another and, as a pairing, help our team. So, we’re gonna continue to keep building.”
– Morgan Rielly on his partnership with TJ Brodie
It’s pretty safe to say at this point that TJ Brodie is the best partner Morgan Rielly’s had while in Toronto, and it can’t be overstated how big of a difference it makes. It’s a notable lesson for the Leafs’ other young blueliners — notably Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren — in terms of how it helps a defenseman be the best version of themselves.
The Brodie-Rielly pairing has been really good this season. With the struggles of the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing, they have taken on more responsibility/tough matchups so far and have done well in that role.
“He was having a big camp for us. We were looking to find ways to expand his role this season. He was taking advantage of every opportunity we were giving him through camp and preseason. We were excited about what the season is going to bring for him.
This has been a big setback for him, obviously. He has worked hard to get himself ready to go. It is going to take him some time to get back to game level and what we have come to expect from him, but he is an important piece of our team.
He does a lot of things for us. We are going to give him an opportunity on the power play as well when he gets up and running here. With no Marner and no Spezza, it is good timing for that. Whether it is back tomorrow or back on the weekend, we think his return is imminent. The guys are happy to get him back in the mix.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the return of Ilya Mikheyev
It’s interesting to note that the Leafs coaching staff planned on putting Ilya Mikheyev on the power play. The first unit is generally set in stone when healthy. The second unit, when healthy, should have Jason Spezza, Rasmus Sandin, and Michael Bunting involved. That leaves, by my count, Ondrej Kase, Ilya Mikheyev, Nick Ritchie, and Pierre Engvall battling for two spots.
Power play potential aside, I thought Ilya Mikheyev had a pretty good debut. His presence in terms of his speed and forechecking was noticeable.
“The conduct at issue was a serious, but isolated, aberration from Mr. Spezza’s consistent style of play over nearly two decades.”
– Gary Bettman on reducing Spezza’s suspension from six games to four
Ultimately, what’s most upsetting is not the suspension in a vacuum — it’s when we compare the six-game suspension against other suspensions (or lack thereof) across the league. Before the games were paused, we saw a player stretchered off after he got steamrolled without even touching the puck. That incident received the same punishment as Jason Spezza’s. There’s just no rhyme or reason to anything the DoPS does.
Tweets of the Week
The Leafs becoming a powerhouse team and leading the league only to get locked down by a global pandemic is the most Leafs thing ever.
— Father Leaf (@FansFormer) December 20, 2021
I know that there are much bigger issues in the world, but looking at it through a strictly Leafs-focused lens, it is unfortunate they have to go on break while playing such good hockey, with all sorts of players moving around the lineup and succeeding in the process. Hopefully, the league is able to get back on track schedule-wise and the team doesn’t miss a beat.
Just learned that if he’s healthy, Mitch Marner can play #Leafs next game despite being on LTIR and missing only 6 games … The 4 missed because of COVID count towards the 10/24 requirement of LTIR … Apparently it was the case last year, too. I just didn’t encounter it.
— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) December 21, 2021
It’s good to know this is how the rule works. It’s not that I want to see the team play without their best, but I did enjoy seeing different players receive looks up the lineup, forcing the team to adjust to different scenarios in the meantime. That type of thing will pay off for them in the long run.
First Leafs player to score 20 goals in his team's first 30 games in back-to-back seasons since Lorne Carr in 1942-43 & 1943-44
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) December 15, 2021
You really have to sit back in awe of Auston Matthews sometimes. Provided he can stay healthy and spends the majority of his career in Toronto, he has a chance to be at the top of the leaderboard in Toronto across a number of categories.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If Mitch Marner does miss any additional time, I’d keep running out the Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Ondrej Kase line to collect more data on them as they settle in as a unit. Options are always nice, and it is the kind of line I could see together at certain points/situations later in the season or come playoff time. If nothing else, it’s always nice to be aware of your options.
2. I think the ultimate spot for Ilya Mikheyev — once the team is fully healthy — is quite clearly next to David Kampf and Ondrej Kase on a pure checking line. The main question is whether they can chip in enough offensively to stay together in the playoffs. You can’t have a third line that is completely incapable of scoring, but as long as Kase is there, I find that hard to picture.
3. On the penalty kill, I think I’d pair Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev to go alongside Alex Kerfoot – Mitch Marner and David Kampf – Ondrej Kase to give the Leafs three legitimate pairings. There is a lot of speed to burn there, which plays well to the Leafs’ aggressive style.
4. Barring any sort of move, that would leave five players vying for a fourth-line spot – Jason Spezza, Nick Ritchie, Pierre Engvall, Wayne Simmonds, and Kyle Clifford. It’s a good depth problem to have. Spezza is obviously safe, but depending on the matchup and how they’re playing, you can make at least somewhat of an argument for any of the others to dress.
5. Finally, I want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. It has been another trying year, and just when things finally started trending toward something resembling normalcy, the past few weeks hit like a ton of bricks. It is frustrating on many levels. I hope you’re all able to make the holidays meaningful in some capacity. I am not sure if there will be a column next week given there won’t be any games to discuss.